A Profile of Wilhelm Dilthey

Dilthey200Marc Hight in The Philosopher's Magazine:

Despite being hailed by the famed Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset as “the most important thinker of the second half of the nineteenth century,” Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) remains an obscure figure to the Anglo-American world. This while notables like Heidegger and Husserl openly recognise their debt to the breadth and depth of Dilthey’s thought.

Dilthey is best known for his defence of the distinction between the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) and the natural sciences; a distinction his positivist-minded contemporaries were intent on denying. Yet this defence is best understood as a part of his lifelong goal to provide a secure foundation for the human sciences. These include disciplines like history, psychology, economics and sociology. Dilthey asked what history and psychology and the other human sciences require in order to be done at all. That is, what is required to understand humanity? The individual human sciences are portrayed by Dilthey as inter-related and to some degree inseparable parts of a distinctive way of knowing.

Both a professional philosopher and a practising historian (he acquired some fame for his intellectual biography of Schleiermacher), Dilthey believed that historical reflection was essential to understanding humanity. He also believed that philosophy only has value when serving a practical end. Humans are constantly wrestling with pain, irrational upsets, and questions about meaning in the world. We all have what Dilthey calls a “metaphysical impulse” to find a coherent picture of reality (a Weltanschauung or world view) which addresses these concerns. Religion is one response to this impulse. When the response is governed by critical reflection, we call it “philosophy”. Philosophy thus serves an important role: to produce rules for action and empower those who use it by increasing self-awareness. Various religions and philosophies generate world views which seek to account for the world as we experience it.