A Brief Sketch of Wilhelm Dilthey

March 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

Understanding the meaning of history requires both an inner articulation of the temporal structures of our own experience and the interpretation of the external objectifications of others. Dilthey’s reflections on history and hermeneutics influenced thinkers in the twentieth century, especially Ortega, Heidegger, Gadamer and Ricoeur.

Dilthey’s essay “The Rise of Hermeneutics” (19..) makes a connecting link between philosophy and history.

“the inner experience through which I obtain reflexive awareness of my own condition can never by itself bring me to a consciousness of my own individuality. I experience the latter only through a comparison of myself with others”

These others are accessible only from the outside. It is the task of understanding to compare/confer “an inside” to what is first given as “a complex of external sensory signs”. So rather than lived experience giving us an understanding of ourselves, it is our objectifications that is the means by which we understand ourselves. This is approaching the inside from the outside.

“The process of understanding, insofar as it is determined by common conditions and epistemological means, must everywhere have the same characteristics” (Dilthey 1996, 237). To the extent that rules can guide the understanding of the objectifications of life it constitutes interpretation. Hermeneutics is the theory of interpretation that relates to all human objectifications—that is, not only speech and writing, but also visual artistic expressions, more casual physical gestures as well as observable actions or deeds.

The interpretation of history must deal with all manifestations of life. Dilthey categories three classes of life-manifestation:

1) concepts, judgements and larger thought formations (to communicate states of affairs not states of mind) (theoretical)

2) actions (not meant to communicate anything yet reveal something about intentions of the actor) (practical)

3) expressions of lived experience (range from simple exclamations and gestures to personal self descriptions to reflections of works of art – again disclose more about the individual uttering them) (disclosive)

From the Stanford Encyclopedia:

In using words we do not represent them as words but fulfill their meaning by representing their objects. There is a triadic structural relation between the intuitive content of a linguistic expression, an act that gives it meaning and the object that embodies that meaning as what is expressed. But whereas Husserl’s phenomenology focused in the conceptual structures of objective apprehension, Dilthey gives equal attention to the structures of what he calls “objective having” In objective apprehension we progress from attitude to objects, in objective having we regress from objects to attitude. This regressive structure is characteristic of our lived experiences of feeling and tends to “lose itself in the depth of the subject”

Dilthey’s category of Wirkung or productivity is at the root of Gadamer’s theory of effective history (Wirkungsgeschichte).

As in the essay “The Rise of Hermeneutics,” understanding is said to involve a process of referring back from outer sensory phenomena to a reality that is inner. But now in The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences Dilthey recognizes that this inner reality need not be psychological in nature. He uses the example of how the statutes of a state express the common will of a community. The inner content of the laws on the books is a legal meaning formation. The expressions we read in law books articulate an inner relation among legal imperatives. What is expressed in these laws is not the mental states of individual legislators, but a general way of regulating human relations. Dilthey makes the same claim for individual poetic creations. What is expressed in a drama is “not the inner processes in the poet; it is rather a nexus created in them but separable from them. The nexus of a drama consists in a distinctive relation of material, poetic mood, motif, plot, and means of presentation”

Gadamer parts with this through his conception of (influenced by Heideggeer) phronesis:

being-in-the-world over and against theoretical apprehension
a mode of insight into our own concrete situation (self-knowledge)

Understanding and interpretation is a practically oriented mode of insight which:
has a rationality irreducible to rules
cannot be directly taught
is always oriented to the case at hand


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