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Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911)

Wilhelm Dilthey (November 19, 1833 – October 1, 1911) was a German historian, psychologist, sociologist, student of hermeneutics, and philosopher.

Dilthey could be considered an empiricist, in contrast to the idealism prevalent in Germany at the time, but his account of what constitutes the empirical and experiential differs from British empiricism and positivism in its central epistemological and ontological assumptions, which are drawn from German literary and philosophical traditions.


Dilthey was inspired in part by the works of Friedrich Schleiermacher on hermeneutics, which he helped revive. Both figures are linked to German Romanticism. The school of Romantic hermeneutics stressed that historically embedded interpreters — a "living" rather than a Cartesian or "theoretical" subject — use 'understanding' and 'interpretation', which combine individual-psychological and social-historical description and analysis, to gain a greater knowledge of texts and authors in their contexts.

The process of interpretive inquiry established by Schleiermacher involved what Dilthey called "the Hermeneutic circle," which is the recurring movement between the implicit and the explicit, the particular and the whole. The "general hermeneutics" that Schleiermacher proposed was a combination of the hermeneutics used to interpret Sacred Scriptures (e.g. the Pauline epistles) and the hermeneutics used by Classicists (e.g. Plato's philosophy). Dilthey saw its relevance for the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) in contrast with the natural sciences.

Along with Nietzsche, Simmel and Bergson, Dilthey's work influenced early twentieth-century "Lebensphilosophie" and "Existenzphilosophie."

Dilthey informed the early Martin Heidegger's approach to hermeneutics in his early lecture courses, in which he developed a "hermeneutics of factical life", and in Being and Time. Heidegger grew increasingly more critical of Dilthey, arguing for a more radical 'temporalization' of the possibilities of interpretation and human existence.

In Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method), Hans Georg Gadamer, influenced by Heidegger, criticised Dilthey's approach to hermeneutics as both overly aesthetic and subjective as well as method-oriented and "positivistic." According to Gadamer, Dilthey's hermeneutics is insufficiently concerned with the ontological event of truth and inadequately consider the implications of how the interpreter and her interpretations are not outside of tradition but occupy a particular position within it, i.e., have a temporal horizon.

Jürgen Habermas was also influenced by Dilthey, most notably in the 'Positivismusstreit' of the early 1960's and his early work Knowledge and Human Interests (1968).


Dilthey was very interested in what we would call sociology today, although he strongly objected to being labelled a sociologist because the sociology of his day was mainly that of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. He objected to their evolutionist assumptions about the necessary changes that all societal formations must go through, as well as their narrowly natural-scientific methodology. Also, the word tended (and tends) to be used as a kind of umbrella term; since the term sociology covered so much it had little analytical clarity. Comte's idea of Positivism was, according to Dilthey, one-sided and misleading. He did, however, have good things to say about his colleague Georg Simmel's versions of sociology. (Simmel was a colleague at the University of Berlin and Dilthey admired his work even though many academics were opposed to Simmel altogether, in part owing to anti-Semitism and in part because Simmel did not conform to the academic formalities of the day in some of his published work.)

J. I. Hans Bakker has argued that Dilthey should be considered one of the classical sociological theorists because of his important role in discussing Verstehen and his influence on interpretive sociology generally.

Distinction between natural science and "human" science[]

A life-long concern was to establish a proper theoretical and methodological foundation for the 'human sciences' (e.g. history, law, literary criticism), distinct from, but equally 'scientific' as, the 'natural sciences' (e.g. physics, chemistry). He suggested that all human experience divides naturally into two parts: that of the surrounding natural world, in which "objective necessity" rules, and that of inner experience, characterized by "sovereignty of the will, responsibility for actions, a capacity to subject everything to thinking and to resist everything within the fortress of freedom of his/her own person".[1]

Dilthey strongly rejected using a model formed exclusively from the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften), and instead proposed developing a separate model for the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). His argument centered around the idea that in the natural sciences we seek to explain phenomena in terms of cause and effect, or the general and the particular; in contrast, in the human sciences, we seek to understand in terms of the relations of the part and the whole. In the social sciences we may also combine the two approaches, a point stressed by German sociologist Max Weber. His principles, a general theory of understanding or comprehension (Verstehen) could, he asserted, be applied to all manner of interpretation ranging from ancient texts to art work, religious works, and even law. His interpretation of different theories of aesthetics in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries was preliminary to his speculations concerning the form aesthetic theory would take in the twentieth century.

Dilthey defended his use of the term "spiritual science" by pointing out that any other term (e.g. "social science" and "cultural sciences") is equally one-sided, but that the human spirit is the central phenomenon from which all others are perceived and to which all are related.[2] For Dilthey, "spirit" is not an abstract or disembodied entity but needs to be understood in the context of the concrete social-historical life of individuals.


Dilthey developed a typology of the three basic Weltanschauungen, or World-Views, which he considered to be "typical" (comparable to Max Weber's notion of "ideal types") and conflicting ways of conceiving of man's relation to Nature. In Naturalism, represented by Epicureans of all times and places, man sees himself as determined by nature; in the Idealism of Freedom, represented by Schiller and Kant, man is conscious of his separation from nature by his free will; in Objective idealism, represented by Hegel, Spinoza, and Giordano Bruno, man is conscious of his harmony with nature. This approach influenced Karl Jaspers' Psychology of Worldviews as well as Rudolf Steiner.[3]


Dilthey's ideas should be examined in terms of his similarities and differences with Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert, members of the Baden School of Neo-Kantianism. Dilthey was not a Neo-Kantian, but had a profound knowledge of Immanuel Kant's philosophy, which deeply influenced his thinking. But whereas Neo-Kantianism was primarily interested in epistemology on the basis of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Dilthey took Kant's Critique of Judgment as his point of departure. An important debate between Dilthey and the Neo-Kantians concerned the "human" as opposed to "cultural" sciences, with the Neo-Kantians arguing for the exclusion of psychology from the cultural sciences and Dilthey for its inclusion as a human science.

Further reading[]

  • Rudolf A. Makkreel, Dilthey: Philosopher of the Human Studies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
  • Jos de Mul, The Tragedy of Finitude: Dilthey's Hermeneutics of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

Wilhelm Dilthey: Selected Works are being published by Princeton University Press under the editorship of the noted Dilthey scholars Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi. Published volumes include:

  • Volume I: Introduction to the Human Sciences
  • Volume III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences
  • Volume IV: Hermeneutics and the Study of History
  • Volume V: Poetry and Experience


  1. Dilthey, Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften, ISBN 3-534-05594-2, p.6
  2. ibid.
  3. Rudolf Steiner, Philosophy of Freedom

See also[]

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