Dilthey, Wilhelm (1833–1911)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC020-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Wilhelm Dilthey saw his work as contributing to a ‘Critique of Historical Reason’ which would expand the scope of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason by examining the epistemological conditions of the human sciences as well as of the natural sciences. Both kinds of science take their departure from ordinary life and experience, but whereas the natural sciences seek to focus on the way things behave independently of human involvement, the human sciences take account of this very involvement. The natural sciences use external observation and measurement to construct an objective domain of nature that is abstracted from the fullness of lived experience. The human sciences (humanities and social sciences), by contrast, help to define what Dilthey calls the historical world. By making use of inner as well as outer experience, the human sciences preserve a more direct link with our original sense of life than do the natural sciences. Whereas the natural sciences seek explanations of nature, connecting the discrete representations of outer experience through hypothetical generalizations and causal laws, the human sciences aim at an understanding that articulates the fundamental structures of historical life given in lived experience. Finding lived experience to be inherently connected and meaningful, Dilthey opposed traditional atomistic and associationist psychologies and developed a descriptive psychology that has been recognized as anticipating phenomenology.

Dilthey first thought that this descriptive psychology could provide a neutral foundation for the other human sciences, but in his later hermeneutical writings he rejected the idea of a foundational discipline or method. Thus he ends by claiming that all the human sciences are interpretive and mutually dependent. Hermeneutically conceived, understanding is a process of interpreting the ‘objectifications of life’, the external expressions or manifestations of human thought and action. Interpersonal understanding is attained through these common objectifications and not, as is widely believed, through empathy. Moreover, to fully understand myself I must analyse the expressions of my life in the same way that I analyse the expressions of others.

Not every aspect of life can be captured within the respective limits of the natural and the human sciences. Dilthey’s philosophy of life also leaves room for a kind of anthropological reflection whereby we attempt to do justice to the ultimate riddles of life and death. Such reflection receives its fullest expression in worldviews, which are overall perspectives on life encompassing the way we perceive and conceive the world, evaluate it aesthetically and respond to it in action. Dilthey discerned many typical worldviews in art and religion, but in Western philosophy he distinguished three recurrent types: the worldviews of naturalism, the idealism of freedom and objective idealism.

    Citing this article:
    Makkreel, Rudolf A.. Dilthey, Wilhelm (1833–1911), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC020-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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