Wilhelm Dilthey (/ˈdɪlt/; German: [ˈvɪlhɛlm ˈdɪltaɪ];[6] 19 November 1833 – 1 October 1911) was a German historian, psychologist, sociologist, and hermeneutic philosopher, who held Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Chair in Philosophy at the University of Berlin. As a polymathic philosopher, working in a modern research university, Dilthey's research interests revolved around questions of scientific methodology, historical evidence and history's status as a science.

Wilhelm Dilthey
Dilthey, c. 1855
Born(1833-11-19)19 November 1833
Died1 October 1911(1911-10-01) (aged 77)
EducationHeidelberg University
University of Berlin
(PhD, January 1864; Dr. phil. hab., June 1864)
Era19th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolContinental philosophy
Epistemological hermeneutics[1]
InstitutionsUniversity of Berlin (1865–66; 1882–1911)
University of Basel (1867)
University of Kiel (1868–1870)
University of Breslau (1870–1882)
Academic advisorsFranz Bopp[4]
August Boeckh[4]
Jacob Grimm[4]
Theodor Mommsen[4]
Leopold von Ranke[4]
Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg[4]
Doctoral studentsMax Dessoir, Leo Baeck, Georg Misch, Eduard Spranger
Main interests
Verstehen, literary theory, literary criticism, intellectual history, human sciences, hermeneutic circle, Geistesgeschichte, facticity
Notable ideas
General hermeneutics,
distinction between explanatory and descriptive sciences,
distinction between explanatory and descriptive psychology,[5]
typology of the three basic Weltanschauungen

Dilthey has often been considered an empiricist,[7] 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 born in 1833 as the son of a Reformed pastor in the village of Biebrich in the Duchy of Nassau, now in Hesse, Germany. As a young man he followed family traditions by studying theology at Heidelberg University, where his teachers included the young Kuno Fischer. He then moved to the University of Berlin and was taught by, amongst others, Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg and August Böckh, both former pupils of Friedrich Schleiermacher. In January 1864,[8] he received his doctorate from Berlin with a thesis in Latin on Schleiermacher's ethics, and in June of the same year[8] he also earned his habilitation with a thesis on moral consciousness. He became a Privatdozent at Berlin in 1865.

In 1859, he edited Schleiermacher's letters and soon after he was also commissioned to write a biography—the first volume of which was eventually published in 1870. In 1867 he took up a professorship at the University of Basel, but later—in 1882—he returned to Berlin where he held the prestigious chair in philosophy at the university.

In 1874, he married Katherine Puttmann, and the couple had one son and two daughters.

He died in 1911.[5]





Dilthey took some of his inspiration from the works of Friedrich Schleiermacher on hermeneutics, which he helped revive. Both figures are linked to German Romanticism.[9] Schleiermacher was strongly influenced by German Romanticism which led him to place more emphasis on human emotion and the imagination. Dilthey, in his turn, as the author of a vast monograph on Schleiermacher, responds to the questions raised by Droysen and Ranke about the philosophical legitimation of the human sciences. He argues that 'scientific explanation of nature' (erklären) must be completed with a theory of how the world is given to human beings through symbolically mediated practices. To provide such a theory is the aim of the philosophy of the humanities—a field of study to which Dilthey dedicated his entire academic career.

The school of Romantic hermeneutics stressed that historically embedded interpreters—a "living" rather than a Cartesian dualism or "theoretical" subject—use 'understanding' and 'interpretation' (Verstehen), which combine individual-psychological and social-historical description and analysis, to gain a greater knowledge of texts and authors in their contexts. However, Dilthey remains distinct from other German Romantics and life philosophers through his emphasis on “historicality.” Dilthey understood man as a historical being. However, history is not described in terms of an object of the past, but “a series of world views.”[10] Man cannot understand himself through reflection or introspection, but only through what “history can tell him…never in objective concepts but always only in the living experience which springs up out of the depths of his own being.”[10] Dilthey wants to emphasize the “intrinsic temporality of all understanding,” that man's understanding is dependent on past worldviews, interpretations, and a shared world.[11]

The process of interpretive inquiry established by Schleiermacher involved what Dilthey called the hermeneutic circle—the recurring movement between the implicit and the explicit, the particular and the whole. Schleiermacher saw the approaches to interpreting sacred scriptures (for example, the Pauline epistles) and Classical texts (e.g. Plato's philosophy) as more specific forms of what he proposed as "general hermeneutics" (allgemeine Hermeneutik). Schleiermacher approached hermeneutics as the “art of understanding” and recognized both the importance of language, and the thoughts of an author, to interpreting a text.[12]

Dilthey saw understanding as the key for the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) in contrast with the natural sciences. The natural sciences observe and explain nature, but the humanities understand human expressions of life.[13] So long as a science is “accessible to us through a procedure based on the systematic relation between life, expression, and understanding” Dilthey considered it a part of the human sciences.[14][15]

Along with Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Simmel and Henri Bergson, Dilthey's work influenced early twentieth-century Lebensphilosophie and Existenzphilosophie. Dilthey's students included Bernhard Groethuysen, Hans Lipps, Herman Nohl, Theodor Litt, Eduard Spranger, Georg Misch and Erich Rothacker. Dilthey's philosophy also influenced the religious philosopher Martin Buber.[16][17]

Dilthey's works 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 (1927).[18] But Heidegger grew increasingly critical of Dilthey, arguing for a more radical "temporalization" of the possibilities of interpretation and human existence.

In Wahrheit und Methode (Truth and Method, 1960), 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 considers the implications of how the interpreter and the interpreter's interpretations are not outside of tradition but occupy a particular position within it, i.e., have a temporal horizon.



Dilthey was interested in psychology. In his work Ideas Concerning a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology (Ideen über eine beschreibende und zergliedernde Psychologie, 1894),[19] he introduced a distinction between explanatory psychology (erklärende Psychologie; also explanative psychology) and descriptive psychology (beschreibende Psychologie; also analytic psychology, zergliedernde Psychologie): in his terminology, explanatory psychology is the study of psychological phenomena from a third-person point of view, which involves their subordination to a system of causality, while descriptive psychology is a discipline that attempts to explicate how different mental processes converge in the "structural nexus of consciousness."[5]

The distinction is based on the more general distinction between explanatory/explanative sciences (erklärende Wissenschaften), on the one hand, and interpretive sciences (beschreibende Wissenschaften or verstehende Wissenschaften, that is, the sciences which are based on the Verstehen method), on the other—see below.

In his later work (Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften, 1910), he used the alternative term structural psychology (Strukturpsychologie) for descriptive psychology.[20]



Dilthey was also interested in what some would call sociology in the 21st century, although he strongly objected to being labelled as such, as the sociology of his time was mainly that of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. He objected to their dialectical/evolutionist assumptions about the necessary changes that all societal formations must go through, as well as their narrowly natural-scientific methodology. Comte's idea of positivism was, according to Dilthey, one-sided and misleading. Dilthey did however have good things to say about the neo-Kantian sociology of Georg Simmel, with whom he was a colleague at the University of Berlin.[21] Simmel himself was later an associate of Max Weber, the primary founder of sociological antipositivism. J. I. Hans Bakker has argued that Dilthey should be considered one of the classical sociological theorists due to his own influence in the foundation of nonpositivist verstehende sociology and the Verstehen method[citation needed].

Distinction between natural sciences and human sciences


A lifelong 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".[22]

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 (verstehen) 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.

Both the natural and human sciences originate in the context or "nexus" of life (Lebenszusammenhang), a concept which influenced the phenomenological account of the lifeworld (Lebenswelt), but are differentiated in how they relate to their life-context. Whereas the natural sciences abstract away from it, it becomes the primary object of inquiry in the human sciences.[23]

Dilthey defended his use of the term Geisteswissenschaft (literally, "science of the mind" or "spiritual knowledge") by pointing out that other terms such as "social science" and "cultural sciences" are equally one-sided and that the human mind or spirit is the central phenomenon from which all others are derived and analyzable.[22] For Dilthey, like Hegel, Geist ("mind" or "spirit") has a cultural rather than a social meaning. It is not an abstract intellectual principle or disembodied behavioral experience but refers to the individual's life in its concrete cultural-historical context.[citation needed]



In 1911, 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 humanity's relation to Nature.[24]

This approach influenced Karl Jaspers' Psychology of Worldviews as well as Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom.

Comparison with the Neo-Kantians


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.

Editorial work


In 1859, Dilthey was asked to complete the editing of Schleiermacher's letters.[5]

Dilthey also inaugurated the academy edition (the Akademie-Ausgabe abbreviated as AA or Ak) of Kant's writings (Gesammelte Schriften, Königlich-Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin, 1902–38) in 1895,[25] and served as its first editor.

In 1906 he published Die Jugendgeschichte Hegels on the earlier Hegel's political and theological thought.[26] Subsequently, Dilthey's student Herman Nohl analyzed the related fragments and published a volume on the Dilthey's history of German Idealism.[27][28]


  • The Essence of Philosophy (1907, originally published in German as 'Das Wesen der Philosophie')

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 (1989)
  • Volume II: Understanding the Human World: Selected Works of Wilhelm Dilthey (2010)
  • Volume III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (2002)
  • Volume IV: Hermeneutics and the Study of History (1996)
  • Volume V: Poetry and Experience (1986)
  • Volume VI: Ethical and World-View Philosophy (2019)

Wilhelm Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften are currently published by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht:

  • Volume 1: Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften
  • Volume 2: Weltanschauung und Analyse des Menschen seit Renaissance und Reformation
  • Volume 3: Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Geistes
  • Volume 4: Die Jugendgeschichte Hegels und andere Abhandlungen zur Geschichte des Deutschen Idealismus
  • Volume 5: Die geistige Welt
  • Volume 6: Die geistige Welt
  • Volume 7: Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften
  • Volume 8: Weltanschauungslehre
  • Volume 9: Pädagogik
  • Volume 10: System der Ethik
  • Volume 11: Vom Aufgang des geschichtlichen Bewußtseins
  • Volume 12: Zur preußischen Geschichte
  • Volume 13: Leben Schleiermachers. Erster Band
  • Volume 14: Leben Schleiermachers. Zweiter Band
  • Volume 15: Zur Geistesgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts
  • Volume 16: Zur Geistesgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts
  • Volume 17: Zur Geistesgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts
  • Volume 18: Die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, der Gesellschaft und der Geschichte
  • Volume 19: Grundlegung der Wissenschaften vom Menschen, der Gesellschaft und der Geschichte
  • Volume 20: Logik und System der philosophischen Wissenschaften
  • Volume 21: Psychologie als Erfahrungswissenschaft
  • Volume 22: Psychologie als Erfahrungswissenschaft
  • Volume 23: Allgemeine Geschichte der Philosophie
  • Volume 24: Logik und Wert
  • Volume 25: Dichter als Seher der Menschheit
  • Volume 26: Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung

See also



  1. ^ Jack Martin, Jeff Sugarman, Kathleen L. Slaney (eds.), The Wiley Handbook of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology: Methods, Approaches, and New Directions for Social Sciences, Wiley Blackwell, p. 56.
  2. ^ Peter Koslowski (ed.), The Discovery of Historicity in German Idealism and Historism, Springer, 2006, p. 4.
  3. ^ Scott Campbell, Paul W. Bruno (eds.), The Science, Politics, and Ontology of Life-Philosophy, Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 8.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Wilhelm Dilthey, Selected Works, Volume IV: Hermeneutics and the Study of History, Princeton University Press, 2010, p. 28.
  5. ^ a b c d Makkreel, Rudolf, "Wilhelm Dilthey", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
  6. ^ Krech, Eva-Maria; Stock, Eberhard; Hirschfeld, Ursula; Anders, Lutz Christian (2009). Deutsches Aussprachewörterbuch [German Pronunciation Dictionary] (in German). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 446, 1055. ISBN 978-3-11-018202-6.
  7. ^ Hans Peter Rickman, Wilhelm Dilthey, Pioneer of the Human Studies, University of California Press, 1979, p. 53.
  8. ^ a b Iris Därmann, Fremde Monde der Vernunft: die ethnologische Provokation der Philosophie, Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2005, p. 285.
  9. ^ Ramberg, Bjørn and Gjesdal, Kristin, "Hermeneutics," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  10. ^ a b Palmer, Richard (1969). Hermeneutics. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. p. 117.
  11. ^ Palmer, Richard (1969). Hermeneutics. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. pp. 117–118.
  12. ^ Schleiermacher, Friedrich D. E. “The Hermeneutics: Outline of the 1819 Lectures,” New Literary History, Vol. 10, No. 1, Literary Hermeneutics (Autumn, 1978), 1–2.
  13. ^ Palmer, Richard (1969). Hermeneutics. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. p. 105.
  14. ^ Palmer, Richard (1969). Hermeneutics. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. p. 107.
  15. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 September 2020. Retrieved 29 January 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^ Martin Buber at http://dibb.de.
  17. ^ "Martin Buber (1878—1965)." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 20 October 2015.
  18. ^ Scharff, Robert C. (January 1997). "Heidegger's "Appropriation" of Dilthey before Being and Time". Journal of the History of Philosophy. 35 (1). Johns Hopkins University Press: 105–128. doi:10.1353/hph.1997.0021. S2CID 96473379. Retrieved 19 September 2020. In a word, I think the record shows that the Dilthey appropriation taught the young Heidegger how to philosophize. [127]
  19. ^ Full text online on gleichsatz.de.
  20. ^ W. Dilthey, The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, Princeton University Press, 2002, pp. 16–7 and 38–9; Rudolf A. Makkreel, Dilthey: Philosopher of the Human Studies, Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 290.
  21. ^ See Addenda to Vol. I of the Gesammelte Schriften in Dilthey, Introduction to the Human Sciences trans. Ramon J. Betanoz, 'Appendix: Supplementary Material from the Manuscripts', 1988, pp. 3314–.
  22. ^ a b W. Dilthey, Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften, 1972, p. 6.
  23. ^ Jacob Owensby, "Dilthey's Conception of the Life-Nexus", Journal of the History of Philosophy, 25 (4) (1987) pp. 557-572.
  24. ^ W. Dilthey, Die Typen der Weltanschauung und ihre Ausbildung in den Metaphysischen Systemen, Berlin: Reichl, 1911.
  25. ^ Immanuel Kant, Notes and Fragments, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. xvi.
  26. ^ Dilthey, Wilhelm (1963). Die Jugendgeschichte Hegels und andere Abhandlungen zur Geschichte des deutschen Idealismus (in German). Stuttgart; Göttingen: B. G. Teubner Verlaggeweselschaf; Vandenoeck & Ruprecht. p. 600. Retrieved 18 June 2021 – via digitale-sammlungen.de. {{cite book}}: |website= ignored (help); External link in |via= (help)
  27. ^ "Wilhelm Dilthey". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2008.
  28. ^ Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Nohl, Dr. Herman (1907). Hegels theologische Jugendschriften (in German). Tubinghen: Verlag S. C. B. Mor (Paul Giebed). p. 426. Archived from the original on 18 June 2021 – via Internet Archive.

Further reading

  • Hodges, H. A., William Dilthey (London: Routledge, 2013).
  • Lessing, Hans-Ulrich, Rudolf A. Makkreel and Riccardo Pozzo, eds., Recent Contributions to Dilthey's Philosophy of the Human Sciences (Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 2011).
  • Makkreel, Rudolf A., Dilthey: Philosopher of the Human Studies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
  • de Mul, Jos, The Tragedy of Finitude: Dilthey's Hermeneutics of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).
  • Nelson, Eric S. (ed.), Interpreting Dilthey: Critical Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).