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Dilthey: Selected Writings

Rebecca Hansen reviews a book of selected translations from Wilhelm Dilthey.

October 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey’s death. While Dilthey (1833-1911) has not enjoyed the same following in Anglo-Saxon scholarship as other German philosophers (Kant, Husserl, and Heidegger, to name a few), he was an important thinker in his time, and remains a central figure in philosophy of life and philosophy of culture. Dilthey’s lack of recognition in English-speaking countries could be attributed to two causes:

(1) Historically, Dilthey is situated right before Husserl and Heidegger, whose rise to fame quickly overshadowed Dilthey’s philosophical contributions; and

(2) In terms of accessibility, the great majority of Dilthey’s writings were not available in English.

However, the second reason is quickly being remedied as interest in Dilthey grows. Currently, there are five volumes of translations published by Princeton (Dilthey Selected Works) with more on the way; and Cambridge has reissued Professor H.P. Rickman’s collection of translations, Dilthey: Selected Writings.

Rickman’s Selected Writings were originally published in 1976, when available translations of Dilthey’s works were confined to short and sparse passages. In his introduction to the first edition, Rickman described his translations as an effort to bring Dilthey to a larger audience – not simply philosophers, but also students of literature, history, psychology and sociology. Over three and a half decades later, Rickman’s book carries the hope of introducing Dilthey to a new generation of readers.

Rickman has hand-picked passages that contain some of Dilthey’s most compelling ideas, including the significance of the human sciences, and the hermeneutic circle. ‘The human sciences’ refer to what we would call the humanities and social sciences – studies that describe and explicate human life. Dilthey took up the human sciences because he believed that philosophy should not theorize separately from other disciplines which have insight into the vast complexity of human experience. Moreover, Dilthey emphasized the need to develop the methodology of the human sciences so that their domain is not subsumed by the natural sciences and it can develop its own models of explanation. In Dilthey’s time, anthropology, sociology and psychology were not fully developed fields with their own well-defined methodologies, so the models of explanation in the human sciences were often too simplistic or reductive. For Dilthey, the richness of everyday life, the depth of poetic beauty, and the incomprehensibility and inevitability of death, form paths of inquiry that cannot be mastered by the principles of the natural sciences or understood in terms of physical causation. The underlying topic of the human sciences, human life, introduces a unique mode of inquiry because we directly experience it and yet do not immediately understand it. Kant revolutionized philosophy by asserting that the mind is actively involved in creating its perception of reality. This makes the world knowable, since it is a product of the mind. Dilthey carried this powerful idea further, by relating the mind and the world in terms of life, not in terms of Kantian logical categories and principles. For example, Dilthey asserts that we write history because we are historical – we live in time, we experience development throughout our lives, and thus we understand the world in terms of time and development, ie, in terms of history. This insight is taken up explicitly in Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), when Heidegger defines our existence (Dasein) in terms of historicity, or our experience of time. For Dilthey, this insight indicates that the human sciences begin with lived experience and must discover their principles within that experience. In this sense, the human sciences are circular, discovering the principles of experience in and in terms of experience; or, as Dilthey says, we have a double relation to them. This double relation forms what Dilthey calls a ‘hermeneutic circle’.

The hermeneutic circle is an approach to understanding that moves between parts and their greater whole. Dilthey adopts this concept from Schleiermacher’s theory of interpretation. According to Schleiermacher (1768-1834), when we read we cannot understand part of a book unless we have a general notion of what the entire book is about. We have to begin with some sense of the whole. Yet the whole is a structure made of parts, each of which has its own significance, as well as its meaning in relation to the other parts. The act of reading thus requires a constant movement between parts and the whole in order to arrive at an understanding of the book.

When applied to human understanding in general, the hermeneutic circle means that we do not simply acquire knowledge, but rather that knowledge is always a process of looking at concrete details in light of larger ideas, and then re-contextualizing those larger ideas based upon an understanding of those details. In other words, knowledge is never complete: it is a constant process of re-interpretation.

Importantly, this process of re-interpretation must continually reference life and specific experiences. For Dilthey, knowledge and life are interwoven, and must be pursued together. It is perhaps this perspective that makes Dilthey’s philosophy so appealing and his writing so engaging. Dilthey’s philosophical writings are never bare-boned logical expositions, because he integrated the insights of history, literature, psychology and sociology in his approach. He draws together socio-historical details, insights from poets, biographical information, and psychological descriptions of lived experience. Moreover, these details do not serve as mere illustrations of his theory: history, poetry, and lived experience provide the vital ground and meaning of Dilthey’s philosophy. Dilthey was concerned with the concrete, as opposed to abstract theory – that is, what can be known through experience and is meaningful to the individual. Dilthey also thought that personal, biographical information is vital in understanding a great thinker. He took delight in language and its ability to express human feeling, which we see in his references to poetry and literature throughout his writings. He found history fascinating, and always presented the ideas of philosophers within their historical and cultural context. These qualities make Dilthey’s philosophy accessible, meaningful and enlightening to a variety of readers, even those who are not familiar with the theories, people or events he addresses.

Rickman’s Selected Writings provides an excellent introduction to Dilthey. Rickman provides a brief survey of Dilthey for those who are unfamiliar with his work. He includes passages on a variety of topics and methods that Dilthey explored, and thus grants this thinker the broad scope he deserves. Rickman also provides helpful commentary which connects the various themes and underlines the coherence of Dilthey’s thought as a whole. In addition, Rickman orients the reader by providing a general introduction with a summary of key concepts, as well as section introductions to give information about the excerpts: why they were selected, and the significance of each selection for Dilthey’s philosophical project. Rickman unravels the ideas and explains them in clear, relatable terms. As a whole, the book is very approachable.

© R.L. Hansen 2011

Rebecca Hansen is at Emory University in Atlanta doing a PhD on Heidegger & Dilthey.

Dilthey: Selected Writings, ed. Prof Hans Peter Rickman, Cambridge University Press, reprint 2011.

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