Dilthey on Hermeneutics and the Understanding of Others


This is the last of a set of seven course notes written in 1998 for a seven week introduction to the thought of Wilhelm Dilthey. It first concludes the examination of Dilthey’s Ideas concerning a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology, then examines Dilthey’s essay “The Understanding of Other Persons and their Life-Expressions,” written in 1910.

These notes are not completely worked-out. Nor have I been able to write anything on § 6 of Dilthey’s essay, which is on the topic specifically of interpretation (Auslegung) in contrast to understanding (Verstehen). This is unfortunate because it is a crucial to understanding both earlier Romantic hermeneutics (Schleiermacher) and later so-called philosophical hermeneutics (Heidegger and Gadamer).

Dilthey on Schleiermacher on Understanding (Verstehen) and Interpretation (Auslegung)

I ended the previous set of notes with an account of how Dilthey sees the development of hermeneutics up to, but not including Friedrich Daniel Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Dilthey describes the conception of hermeneutics prior to Schleiermacher thus: prior to the work of Schleiermacher

hermeneutics had at best been an edifice of rules, the parts of which—the individual rules—were held together by the aim of a universally valid interpretation. It had separated the functions which work together in the process of interpretation to provide grammatical, historical, aesthetic and rhetorical and factual exegesis. Against the background of many centuries of philological virtuosity it had brought to explicit consciousness the rules according to which these different exegetical functions must be realised. (S.327; p.256; translation modified)

In other words, hermeneutics prior to Schleiermacher was a matter of codifying in explicit rules the various perspectives from which one can understand a broken text: one can understand its grammar, its historical background, its aesthetic properties and rhetorical devices, its factual claims and the various things the author sought to achieve with it. It is clear that such an ad hoc codification in explicit rules of otherwise intuitive, unarticulated skills and techniques does not give any philosophical account of what it is to understand a text. It thus cannot give any account of what is involved in achieving understanding in a non-capricious, universally valid way. Now according to Dilthey, Schleiermacher was the first to appreciate the need for such an account. Dilthey says that

Schleiermacher went back behind these rules to the analysis of understanding, that is, to knowledge of the very act of understanding itself, and from this knowledge he derived the possibility of universally valid exegesis, its aids, limits and rules. But he could analyse understanding qua process of reshaping and reconstructing only in its vital relation to the process of literary production itself. In the vital intuition of the creative process in which a vital, powerful literary work arises he saw the conditions for the knowledge of another process, that, namely, which understands the whole of a work on the basis of its written signs and then, on the basis of this understanding of the work, understands the intention and mentality of the author. (S.327; p.256; translation modified)

In other words, Schleiermacher thought that in order to explicate what is involved in understanding a text, one had to appreciate what is involved in the creative process in and through which a literary work arises.

Now according to Dilthey this idea that the key to an account of understanding lay in an account of the creative process of literary production had precedents in accounts of interpretation from the Greeks on, in particular, in the tradition of classical rhetoric. But this tradition had construed literary production in the categories of either logic or rhetoric, that is to say, in terms of such notions as logical coherence and order on the one hand, and style, figures of speech and intended effect (Machen). (S.327; p.256) Schleiermacher, however, construed the process of literary production in terms of quite new, psychological and historical categories. He thus cashed the sense in which the work was a literary product in terms of quite new concepts. (S.327; p.256) According to Dilthey, Schleiermacher

assumes the existence of a unitary and creatively active capacity which, unconscious of how it takes effect and shapes things, receives and elaborates the initial inspiration to production of a literary work. In this process, receptivity and self-initiating, spontaneous formation are inseparable. (S.328; pp.256-257, translation modified)

In other words, in the process of inspired literary creation, we find an openness to stimulation and inspiration from outside combined with a uniquely creative, spontaneous ability to transform what is thus received into a unique literary product. The result of this process bears the stamp of the individual who has produced it. “Individuality [of the author] pervades the work right to the fingertips and individual words.” (S.328; p.257, translation modified) As thus pervaded and penetrated by the unique individuality of the author, the work speaks to the insatiable need which we all have to supplement and thereby realise our own individuality through insight (Anschauung) into the individuality of others. “Understanding and interpretation are therefore constantly alive and active in life itself …” (S.328; p.257); they are not activities one engages in merely occasionally and sporadically. Indeed, in the systematic, explicit interpretation of living works and the unity given them in the author’s mind, understanding and interpretation attain merely their completion and perfection. (S.328; p.257) “This was the new conception [of hermeneutics—C.B.C.] in the special form it assumed in Schleiermacher.” (S.328; p.257)

So on Schleiermacher’s conception, understanding and interpretation are taken to be things we are doing, or trying to do, all the time. This is because we are driven by a desire to comprehend and realise ourselves as individuals, and the understanding of the individuality of others aids us in this. This drive explains the interest literature, art and indeed history holds for us. For by understanding the individuality of literary, artistic and historical products we enhance our own. As for the process of understanding itself, this consists at least in part in seeing how and why what is up for interpretation—the literary, artistic or even, by extension, the historical product—has assumed the individual, unique shape it has. That is to say, understanding consists in seeing how and why the author’s (or actor’s) times and personality have stamped themselves upon the work in a uniquely individual way. Although the matter is hardly clear, it does seem that on this picture the individuality comprehended in interpretation is in the first instance that of the work itself and the particular process of creation that has brought it about. The author’s or actor’s own individuality is only understood secondarily. After all, I do not read Shakespeare in order to understand what makes Shakespeare the individual he or possibly even she is. For indeed no one can say with any confidence even who Shakespeare is, much less what he was like as an individual.

What is crucial about this conception of understanding is that it determines a certain picture of what genuine, objective understanding consists in, and thus provides a foundation for justifiying whatever explicit hermeneutical rules of interpretation one might abstract from actual hermeneutical practice. This in particular is what Dilthey admires in Schleiermacher. It is why Dilthey says that “… in Schleiermacher’s intellect philological virtuosity was combined for the first time with a philosophic capacity of genius.” (S.329; p.258) Schleiermacher does what he does because he sees for a need to found the various hermeneutical rules thus far abstracted from hermeneutical practice, and this insight into the need for such a philosophical grounding is matched by his own philosophical ability. Furthermore, the way in which Schleiermacher carries this task out, namely, by an analysis of what is involved in the process of understanding carried out by the interpreting subject, betrays his schooling in Kant’s transcendental philosophy, “… which was the first to provide adequate means for stating the problem of hermeneutics in general terms and solving it.” (S.329; p.258)

Dilthey regards the following two claims made by Schleiermacher as crucial for subsequent developments, both from the perspective of hermeneutic theory and practice itself and, via the analysis of understanding which it offers, for Dilthey’s own task of founding the Geisteswissenschaften. Firstly, Schleiermacher maintains that the explicit interpretation of written texts is but the systematic, methodologically controlled elaboration of that process of understanding which encompasses life in its entirety and relates to every kind of speech and writing. It is not hard to see that only if understanding is taken in this breadth, as something we do all the time, rather than only occasionally, when we deal with broken texts, can the analysis of understanding yield a genuine basis for justifying the explicit rules for interpreting broken texts which past writers have formulated in an ad hoc, intuitive way. For if understanding were not taken in this breadth, if by understanding one meant simply that process which goes on when and only when a broken text is (successfully) understood, then the analysis of it would surely in no way differ from what past writers had done when attempting to formulate explicit rules and methods for dealing non-capriciously and non-subjectively with such texts. An analysis of understanding could only genuinely provide a basis for justifying the explicit rules previously formulated for dealing with problematic texts if it firstly made explicit what happens in the normal, unproblematic case and then, on this basis, demonstrated the various rules previously formulated to be effective means of compensating for, of overcoming, those divergences from the normal case which make interpreting a particular text problematic.1 But unproblematic understanding of meaning is everyday understanding of meaning. So in order to justify explicit rules for dealing with problematic texts, one must assume that the interpretation of such texts is an explicit form of what goes all the time, whenever people understand each other’s speech, writing and acts, and then one must analyse this everyday, unproblematic kind of understanding. The analysis of such unproblematic understanding is the basis for validly deriving the rules of explicit textual interpretation. (S.329; S.258)

At the same time, Dilthey and Schleiermacher insist that the analysis of such unproblematic understanding “… can only be done in the analysis of literary production.” (S.329; p.258) They seem to think this because they believe that “(t)he system of rules which determines the means and limits of interpretation can only be based on the relation between understanding and creation.” (S.329; p.258) In other words, they both tacitly assume that understanding as it is everywhere, in all unproblematic cases, is best exemplified in, hence best analysed in the shape of, the understanding of literary works, where the person understanding gains insight into how and why the text is as it is through understanding how and why the author shaped it as he or she did.

Secondly, Schleiermacher maintains that the possibility of universally valid interpretation can be derived from (an analysis of) the nature of understanding. Common to both author and his or her interpreter is a universal human nature. This common nature is the basis upon which both have formed and cultivated themselves and “… this makes common speech and understanding among men possible.” (S.329; p.258) All human beings, thinks Schleiermacher, have the same basic nature, however much this has been transformed and transfigured by their particular socio-cultural-historical locations. Divergent psychological, social and/or historical developments produce structures and relations which constitute quantitative rather than qualitative differences between individuals. “All individual differences are, in the last resort, conditioned not by qualitative differences between people but by differences of degree in their psychological processes. By placing his own living nature (Lebendigkeit) in a historical situation, so to speak by way of testing things out for himself (probierend), the interpreter can from this position emphasise momentarily and strengthen some psychological process, while allowing others to fade into the background. In this way, the interpreter is able to bring about a replication (Nachbildung2) of alien life in himself.” (S.329; p.258, translation modified)

Both these two claims deserve some comment, but I can only discuss the second here. In articulating this second thesis, Dilthey is drawing attention to Schleiermacher’s conviction that because understanding is a matter of insight into the creative process in which what is to be understood arises, it must involve placing oneself in the historical situation of the author of the text or, mutatis mutandis, the performer of the historical action. (Dilthey in fact uses here the verb ‘versetzen’, to place or transfer.) The point of this exercise is to gain a position from which one can see the creative process whereby what is to be understood arises. The question is, however, just what it means for an interpreter thus to place him- or herself in the historical situation of the literary author or historical actor. Is it to adopt the author’s or actor’s own perspective on their historical situation, so that to undertake this exericse is basically to see the author’s or actor’s world through this latter’s eyes? If so, then Dilthey is saying of Schleiermacher that he saw understanding as a matter of emphatically placing oneself in the position of the other (Sich-einfühlen3). Moreover, since Dilthey’s overall tone is here quite approving, we must also assume that Dilthey himself is endorsing such a doctrine of understanding as empathy.

But in fact Dilthey cannot be saying this. That is, he cannot be attributing to Schleiermacher the view that to understand is a matter of emphatically feeling oneself into the shoes of the literary author or, mutatis mutandis, the historical actor. The interpreter’s placing him- or herself in the historical situation or setting of the author or actor cannot be simply identical with the author’s or actor’s own perspective on this situation. For as Dilthey points out a page later Schleiermacher thinks that “(t)he final goal of the hermeneutic procedure is to understand the author better than he understood himself.” (S.331; pp.259-260) Schleiermacher derives this conception of the final goal of hermeneutics quite explicitly from Kant’s smug remark, made about Plato, that sometimes we can understand an author better than he himself.4 At the same time, Schleiermacher gives it a substantial footing in hermeneutical theory: as we have seen, according to Schleiermacher understanding a text requires understanding the creative process whereby this text was produced. But to say this is not at all to say that what one ultimately comes to understand is something that was always already available to the author or actor. In fact, Schleiermacher believed it to be characteristic of the creative process that the literary author, hence mutatis mutandis the historical actor, should not themselves have any true appreciation of it. The inspired literary genius, or the historical actor caught up in the passions of the times, is typically is unconscious of the creative process which culminates in the literary text or historical deed.5 Dilthey gestures towards this aspect of Schleiermacher’s hermeneutics when he says, quite rightly, that Schleiermacher’s conception of the goal of hermeneutics as understanding the author better than he himself “… is the necessary consequence of the doctrine of unconscious creation.” (S.331; p.260, translation modified)

So the interpreter’s act of placing themselves in the author’s or actor’s historical situation cannot be an act of placing themselves in the shoes of the author or actor. For if it were, then the creative process would remain as hidden from the interpreter as it is from the author or actor. When Dilthey speaks on Schleiermacher’s behalf of thus placing oneself back into the situation of author or actor in order to replicate alien life, he does not mean that the interpreter must literally replicate the author’s or actor’s own perspective on things. Rather, he means that the interpreter should acquire his or her own perspective within this historical world. (How correct this is as an interpretation of Schleiermacher is not relevant here.)

The idea is thus not at all that the interpreter should assume the position of the author or actor, but rather of someone who is privy to the world in which the author’s text, the actor’s act, has its intelligibility. The position would thus appear to be vaguely similar to that recommended by Peter Winch, who insists that in order to make sense of an alien culture, one must enter into its world, i.e., acquire an understanding of all those different criteria for distinguishing being right from merely seeming to be right which constitute the culture’s values, world-views, linguistic rules and norms. Just as for Winch gaining access to this world is not a matter of relinquishing one’s own outsider perspective in favour of some particular insider’s, but rather of acquiring one’s very own insider’s or participant’s perspective, so, too, Dilthey and Schleiermacher are not at all talking about understanding as a process of making oneself like the author or actor, but of making oneself familiar with the criteria of assessment and evaluation which define the identity of the author’s work or the actor’s act.

Of course, this exercise is only possible if author or actor on the one side and interpreter on the other have sufficiently much in common to make the interpreter’s acquisition of an insider’s or participant’s perspective possible. This is precisely why Dilthey and Schleiermacher talk of a common human nature and why even Winch must tacitly assume such such transcultural and transhistorical identity. It is also why both Dilthey and Schleiermacher are prepared to allow only quantitative differences across cultures and epochs. This is why Dilthey, both here in this essay and earlier in Chapter Nine of the Ideas, insisted that

(i)ndividualities are not distinguished from one another by the presence of qualitative determinations or by certain modes of connection in one which would not be in the others. There does not exist in an individuality a kind of sensation, or a class of affects, or a structural nexus which would not be in another. There are no persons—except in cases where one has to do precisely with an abnormal defect—who would see only a certain selection of colors or more of them than others, who could in no way connect feelings of pleasure to certain sensations of color or combinations of sounds, or who would be incapable of feeling anger or pity, or are incapable of defending themselves against attack. The uniformity of human nature is manifested in the fact that the same qualitative determinations and forms of connection appear with all men (where no abnormal defects exist). But the quantitative relationships in which they are presented are very different from one another; these differences are combined into ever new combinations on which depend, then, *first of all*, the differences of individualities. (Ideas, S.229)

Now in one way, there is surely, pace much popular philosophical thinking, nothing wrong with this assumption of transcultural and transhistorical identity.6 It is, for example, in some sense, true that all humans feel anger and pity in some shape or form. Similarly, all or most humans desire to preserve their lives and know (or can rapidly learn) that tigers are dangerous, etc. The question is, however, whether such obvious and undeniable transcultural and transhistorical identity permits interpretation in a sense strong enough to satisfy Schleiermacher.

For it is no doubt true that because, and only because, all humans have a certain basic desires, emotions and beliefs in common, they are able to move into new cultures and worlds in the sense of acquiring the various skills and local knowledge one needs in order to be able to participate in a different culture and in particular, in order to be able to understand members of that culture. So the assumption of a common human nature is certainly strong enough to allow the interpreter to enter into the author’s or actor’s world in order to see from within that world the meaning of the text or act.

But such accessibility of meaning is not enough at least for Schleiermacher. He wants interpreters coming from outside not merely to be able to enter the world and there understand the text or act; he wants interpreters to be able to take their understanding back out with them when they leave and return to their own worlds. It is not enough that the texts and life of a different culture should be learnable by an arbitrary interpreter coming from outside. For while this would mean that the meaning of any arbitrary text in any arbitrary culture or epoch was in principle accessible to an outsider, this access might be achievable only through learning to see things as the natives do. And to acknowledge any such process of learning as necessary is tantamount to admitting that one’s own culture and background does not contain the resources for accessing what the natives can access. Accessing this meaning thus requires genuinely switching cultures and backgrounds.

Now when Schleiermacher talks of an interpreter’s coming to understand a broken text from a foreign world, he does not envisage such understanding as possibly having to occur only on the basis of such arational initiation into this foreign world. He does not want to allow that in some cases at least meaning might be accessible only via such an arational, “either you get it or you don’t” process of switching cultural perspective. Although he does not put in in these terms, what he wants is in effect that all texts of an alien form of life should be translatable into the interpreter’s own culture. For he is concerned to show how hermeneutics can achieve universal validity. So for Schleiermacher it is critical that universally valid judgements about meaning should be possible in hermeneutics. He believes that such disciplines as philology and history “… depend for their certainty on the possibility of giving general validity to the understanding of the unique.” (S.317; p.247) So unless one can show how universally valid judgements about meaning are possible, these disciplines will turn out to rest on a unfounded and possibly even false assumption.

A judgement is universally valid7 just in case there are rational, controllable means by correctly employing which any rational subject can come to assent to this judgement. Thus, no matter what the socio-cultural-historical starting point might be, if a judgement is objectively valid, then any subject or group of subjects can, provided only that they are rational, move by rationally motivated steps from this starting point to a position where they accept this judgement as true. No religious conversions, no gestalt switches in world-view, no paradigm shifts and no ‘arational’ processes of learning to see in certain ways are in principle necessary; they are at best heuristic, labour- and time-saving devices one could in principle do without. With regard to judgements about the meaning of texts and actions, this means that there must be so to speak an independently navigable route leading from each socio-cultural-historical location to one and the same judgement about the text’s or action’s meaning. Any interpreter or group of interpreters can, by in all respects rationally motivated means, traverse a route which begins in their own socio-cultural-historical location and arrives at the same understanding as any other interpreter or group thereof.

It is clear that this strong demand that hermeneutical judgements possess universal validity effectively undermines the sense in which differences in socio-cultural-historical location could decisively determine irremedial and incommensurable differences in interpretation. At least Schleiermacher does indeed take what I last week described as the second position in my list of ways in which socio-cultural-historical location might be construed as not undermining the objectivity of meaning, hence as not casting us adrift in a fatuous play of hermeneutic difference. But does Dilthey?

Most of the time, he does. Dilthey is, after all, not even primarily making an expository claim about Schleiermacher when he says that such disciplines as philology and history “… depend for their certainty on the possibility of giving general validity to the understanding of the unique.” (S.317; p.247) So Gadamer is right to say that Dilthey retains much of Schleiermacher. Indeed, if, as Gadamer maintains, the ideal of universally valid judgements in hermeneutics is indeed spurious, then he rightly accuses Dilthey of retaining too much of Schleiermacher. He also rightly sees that what motivates this retention of so much Schleiermacherian doctrine is the desire that hermeneutics and the human studies generally attain the status of sciences, i.e., of activities capable of producing by means of the appropriate methodological discipline universally valid judgements. For there can be no doubt that Dilthey wants to demonstrate how the study of human affairs can achieve universal validity.

Understanding Other Persons and Their Life-Expressions

Dilthey’s essay “The Understanding of Other Persons and Their Life-Expressions” (Das Verstehen anderer Personen und Ihre Lebensäußerungen8) has six sections and some appendices to various topics raised in the essay; these appendices have been compiled from various sketches and notes drafted by Dilthey.

§ 1. Expressions of Life—i.e., what they are, their kinds, etc.

§ 2. The Elementary Forms of Understanding

§ 3. Objective Spirit and Elementary Understanding

§ 4. The Higher Forms of Understanding

§ 5. Projecting, Re-Creating, Re-Experiencing

§ 6. Exegesis or Interpretation (Die Auslegung oder Interpretation)

Dilthey begins by claiming that understanding and interpreting (Deuten) constitute the method which realises the human studies, i.e., Geisteswissenschaften. All the various cognitive sub-goals pursued and procedures followed by the student of human affairs unite themselves in this defining overall goal of understanding. And understanding, says Dilthey, opens up a world. (S.205) It seems, then, that the ultimate goal of any human study is to open up a world, and knowledge of a world is understanding. (This of course means that explanation does not open up a world, and does not constitute cognition of a world. Clearly, Dilthey is using the term ‘world’ is a sense other than when we speak of physics giving us knowledge of the natural world.)

According to Dilthey, the understanding of other persons and their life-expressions—the various actions and products in they and their life are expressed—builds itself up on the basis of the lived experiencing of oneself, in other words, the direct understanding one has of oneself in one’s interactions with the world. (S.205) This understanding of oneself is direct because or in the sense that it is not accomplished through understanding the various expressions of oneself in which it is manifest. Obviously, if it is the basis for understanding of others and their life-expressions, it cannot itself be accomplished in the same way, namely, through understanding (in the very sense) one’s own life-expressions.

Dilthey at once makes clear that the claim that one’s understanding of oneself is basic is not to understood as a reductive or genetic claim: “… we are not concerned with logical construction or psychological dissection (Zergliederung) ….” (S.205; translation modified.) That is, we are not concerned to show either the logical or genetic priority of the understanding of oneself as opposed to the understanding of others through their life-expressions. Rather, we are concerned to analyse what is involved in the act of understanding other persons and in particular, how our own experiencing and understanding of our own selves is implicated in this understanding of others. Furthermore, we are undertaking such analysis “… for epistemological purposes. We want to ascertain what our understanding of others contributes to historical knowledge.” (S.205; translation modified.) In other words, we are undertaking this analysis in order to comprehend how disciplines such as history may claim to be ‘scientific’ (in their own, distinctively non-natural scientific way).

§ 1 The Forms of Life-expression

There are, claims Dilthey, three forms of life expression and thus three subspecies of understanding:

Cognitive forms of life-expression and, correlated with these, the understanding of judgements.

Practical forms of life-expression and, correlated with these, the understanding of actions

Emotive forms of life-expression and, correlated with these, the understanding of feelings and emotions

Dilthey writes, “How different things are with an expression of lived experience (Erlebnisausdruck)! A special relation exists between it, the life from which it arises and the understanding which it effects. For such an expression can contain more of the psychical nexus than any introspection can reveal. It draws life out of depths which consciousness cannot illuminate.”9 (S.206; translation modified) So a life-expression is a publicly available, outwardly ascertainable entity, whether object, action, event or state of affairs, which exists in a special, particularly intimate relation to a lived experience which causes. This special relation enables someone who would understand the psychical or experiential life of another person rationally to appeal to the life-expressions of this other person as an evidential base for the claims he or she makes about the psychical life of the other.

Crucially, this special relation of a life-expression to the lived experience which causes it—the relation which constitutes something as a life-expression—gives epistemic access to more than is available to the person whose life-expression it is through introspection of self. For example, it is essential to expressions of feeling to draw upon depths which consciousness does not illuminate. This means, therefore, that whatever cognitive perspective and procedure gets at these depths is not that of immediate introspective awareness or more mediated and sustained analysis of self. Rather, in order to access the depths of life-expression, the perspective of another on one’s own is needed.

Moreover, a life-expression, as an expression of lived experience, may be taken as a basis for understanding only with reservations. In other words, life-expressions are only ceteris paribus good reasons for claims to understand the psychical life they express. The reason for this ceteris paribus or defeasible character of life-expressions as bases for understanding is that such expressions, while not capable of truth or falsity, can be sincere or insincere. (S.206) In the first instance, Dilthey raises the possibility of insincerity with regard to practical life-expressions. In other words, he is thinking of dissemblance, dishonesty and disingenuity in action. But in art, too, he finds an analogue to practical sincerity and insincerity even though art is not essentially bound up with realising practical interests or practical aims. (When art is bound up with such practical interests or aims, as when arts seeks to educate or edify, it is often bad precisely because it is tendentious.)

Note an important implication of this: Dilthey seems to be committed to the position that a certain form of human behaviour can be an expression of life, an expression of certain beliefs, desires and/or emotions, even though the person engaging in this behaviour does not actually have the beliefs, desires and/or emotions at issue. So from the outset Dilthey is understanding human behaviour to be intrinsically meaningful in the sense that from the outset it is apprehended, indeed perceived, as caused by certain beliefs, desires and/or emotions. The task confronted by anyone who would understand this behaviour thus becomes that of working out whether, in the particular case, the beliefs, desires and/or emotions to which the behaviour, in virtue of its very nature, inherently points as driving it, are in fact present and not merely feigned. When I see someone smiling and conclude that they are happy, I do not do so by perceiving ‘neutral’ behaviour, mere bodily movements, such as a certain physical movement of the mouth, then inferring, on the basis of the general principle that when persons make such physical movements of the mouth, they are probably being caused to do so by happiness, that this person is happy. Rather, from the outset I perceive the person as smiling in the sense of engaging in behaviour which is typically caused by, and of course known by the person to be typically caused, by happiness. On this basis, I determine whether it makes sense to regard this particular person as smiling in the sense indicated because he or she actually is happy. More accurately, I do not determine anything such as this at all but rather move directly to assume that what typically or as a rule applies also applies here and now—unless something in the particular situation gives me reason to think otherwise. I could, of course, be mistaken. But I will learn of my mistake and correct it when I see the person displaying further behaviour inconsistent with his or her having actually been happy. We shall see below that Dilthey does indeed subscribe to the thesis that human behaviour is not merely purposive, i.e., caused by certain actual beliefs, desires and/or emotions, but is also intrinsically meaningful in the sense that it is part of the very identity of the behaviour to intimate certain beliefs, desires and/or emotions as its possible causes.

§ 2 The Elementary Forms of Understanding

Understanding arises initially in the interests of practical life. (S.207) Understanding, or so Dilthey implies, is necessary because people stand in various social and other kinds of relation with one another. “They must make themselves understandable to each other. One must know what the other is up to.” (S.207) So it is in order to understand what intentions and aims others are following that the elementary forms of understanding first appear. The interpretation of any simple expression of life is said by Dilthey to be an elementary form of understanding. All elementary forms of understanding take the form of what Dilthey calls an analogical inference (Schluß der Analogie) which is enabled by some kind of regular connection between the life-expression itself and what is expressed by this life-expression. As we have seen, there are various forms of life-expression—signs, actions, gestures, etc.—and in each case understanding exploits this regular connection. An uttered sentence expresses a proposition (Aussage). A facial gesture expresses joy or pain. And actions express certain kinds of goal.

But just what is involved in such understanding, i.e, in such recognition of the propositions, emotional states or goals? This depends very much on what Dilthey means be the regular connection of which he speaks between life-expression and what is expressed. Characteristically, of course, Dilthey does not make this clear. In order to get at least some kind of clarity about this, we need to consider two things that Dilthey says in this section.

Firstly, Dilthey appears here to be gesturing here towards an important thesis already intimated, namely, the intrinsic meaningfulness of action and, by extension, of life-expressions generally. Just before the end of the first paragraph of the section Dilthey says,

The elementary acts out of which complex actions are composed, such as the lifting of an object, the striking of something with a hammer, the cutting of wood with a saw, indicate for us the presence of certain goals.” (S.207; translation modified)10

So according to Dilthey these individual acts themselves indicate or even denote (bezeichnen) the presence of certain goals. How is this to be understood precisely? That the acts point to these goals whether or not the actor actually intends to bring about these goals? This would mean that, say, my hammering a nail into a bit of wood points to the goal of making some useful item or artefact out of wood even if I am not in fact intending to making anything at all, but, say, practising hammering, engaging in some bizarre ritual, working off anger, being destructive or perhaps even in a drug-crazed state such that I have no idea at all of what I am doing. Does Dilthey mean this? It is not easy to tell from what he says here.

Let us assume, however, that he does mean this. What might this entail? If the act points of itself, hence quite independently of the actor’s actual intentions, to some larger goal underlying the complex action of which the act is at least potentially a part, then Dilthey must believe that acts come not as atoms, but as essentially parts of wholes, wholes which are the overall actions and activities in which the acts ‘typically’ occur. As it is used here, the word ‘typically’ does not mean anything statistical, e.g., ‘usually’, ‘mostly’, etc., although no doubt what the word does mean here entails such statistical consequences. Rather, as it is used here, the word ‘typically’ refers to how these acts are first encountered, i.e., how they are first identified and understood: they are first encountered and understood for what they are as parts of the relevant overall activity. Thus, hammering (as we understand it) is first11 encountered, is first livingly experienced and understood, as part of an act of making something useful out of wood rather than, say, as part of some religious ritual. And it seems clear enough that there to be any kind of hammering (as we understand it) at all, for whatever purpose, it must mostly12 be done as part of the activity of making something useful out of wood rather than as part of a religious ceremony. (This is the kernel of truth in the claims frequently made that hammering and the activity of which it is typically a part, namely, carpenting, is a social practice. 13)

Now if this is indeed how Dilthey wishes to understand the sense in which individual acts express goals, then in effect he is saying that acts have, independently of the actor’s actual intentions, their own intrinsic meaning and significance. They point to certain overall activities in which they typically play a part. And it is by appeal to this their own intrinsic meaning that we understand them in concrete cases. For example, we see someone wielding a hammer in the usual way. To see this is to see something which indicates that the person in question, the actor, is making something useful out of wood, i.e., is carpenting. But to see this is not to see that the actor is carpenting. It is rather to see the typical sense or point of what the actor is doing, but not thus far to see that the actor is in fact pursuing this typical point or purpose. This act of recognition or understanding consists in recognising that it makes sense for the actor to be intending this typical goal in this particular context. There will of course be a default assumption operating here, namely, that because the actor is, or is presumed to be, a normal, rational person, if nothing speaks against the actor’s actually intending this goal in this particular context, then this fact itself positively speaks for the actor’s having this intention. Of course, the absence of evidence to the contrary is not an infallible reason for thinking that the actor’s actual intentions are in line with the goals and intentions so to speak ‘foreshadowed’ or ‘anticipated’ in the act itself. The actor may, after all, be trying to deceive the person trying to understand the act. Then again, the person trying to understand the act may not have enough information at his or her disposal, either about the context or about the actor. (Perhaps this person does not appreciate that the actor is just taking part in an elaborate, open-air play, hence is an actor in the thespian sense.)

It is clear that with a few modifications this idea that acts are in themselves meaningful can be extended to all life-expressions. It is very easy to do this for linguistic entities, i.e., words and sentences: it is prima facie self-evident that when uttered words and sentences have their very own meaning independently of whatever actual intentions the speaker has in uttering these words and sentences. Say I utter the sentence, “The rain in Spain falls gently on the plain.” It is clear that this sentence and the words it contains express a certain meaning whatever intention I had in uttering it. This meaning is, of course, that in Spain rain tends to fall gently on plains. Now it is certainly possible that I am uttering this sentence with the intention of expressing this meaning and making the corresponding assertion about how it rains in Spain. More likely, however, I am not trying to assert anything at all, but simply trying to learn how to speak English with an accent like Prince Charles. So my sentence expresses a meaning, a proposition without there being any actual intention on my part that it do so.14

The ease with which this idea of intrinsic meaningfulness can be extended to uttered words and sentences is perhaps not surprising since presumably the linguistic case, in particular, the text, is the initial source and inspiration for the idea. In other words, the idea has in fact been taken from the linguistic case and extended to acts rather than vice versa. It is not quite so easy, however, to extend the idea to so-called expressions of lived experience (Erlebnisausdrücke). Even so, the extension still remains possible and plausible. When I see someone writhing about in pain, do I see mere bodily movement, from which I then infer the presence of various unpleasant sensations in his or her body, which sensations are causing the person thus to writhe around? Surely not; to describe the person’s behaviour as writhing is already to imply that it is unpleasant and pain-ful, i.e., full of pain. What then, do I see? We have to be careful here because we do not want to rule out the possibility of fooling others by rolling around as if in pain. So we cannot simply say that what I see is someone writhing around in that full, genuine sense of the word which implies that the person writhing really is in pain. What we must say is that what I see is behaviour I take to be an actual writhing around in pain on the basis of being ‘typically’ a writhing around in pain, that is, the kind of behaviour people ‘typically’ display when they are genuinely in pain. (Once again, the word ‘typically’ has the non-statistical sense indicated above, even though it similarly has the above-mentioned statistical consequences in virtue of having this non-statistical sense.) We see here a perfectly plausible sense in which even expressions of lived experience can have an intrinsic meaning independently of the intentions of the person making them. But not only is this plausible; it is highly anti-Cartesian. For the Cartesian cannot endorse this idea that the expressions of lived experience have intrinsic meaning in this sense.

§ 3 Objective Spirit and Elementary Understanding

Having said on S.207 that “(u)nderstanding first arises in the interests of practical life” (cf. Heidegger!), Dilthey now introduces a central notion from his later thinking, namely, that of objective spirit. He defines this as “the various forms in which the common context ,[Gemeinsamkeit,] that exists is objectified in the world of the senses. Its domain extends from the style of life and the forms of economic interaction to the system [Zusammenhang] of ends which society has formed: to morality, law, the state, religion, art, science, and philosophy.” (S.208; note that for Dilthey art, religion and philosophy are parts of objective spirit, which they were not for Hegel. For Hegel they were parts of absolute spirit.)

It seems that Dilthey introduces this notion of objective spirit here because it forms the necessary complement and presupposition—the “medium” (S.208)—of that first kind of understanding, namely, that which arises in the interests of practical life. What Dilthey means by this is intimated by the following passage: “A sentence,” for example,

… is intelligible by virtue of the common context which exists, within a linguistic community, through the meaning of the word and the grammatical forms as well as the sense of the syntactical arrangement. The established order of behavior within a definite cultural sphere makes it possible for greeting and gestures of respect to signify, through their nuances [their context-specificity and individuality!—C.B.C.] a definite rational [geistige] posture towards other people, and to be so understood.” (S.209, translation modified; the translator mistakenly translates ‘geistige’ as human.)

It is worth elaborating a little on what Dilthey means by an established order of behaviour within a definite cultural sphere. Clearly, he does not mean by cultural sphere just one cultural institution or social practice, whether contemporary art or Australian rules football since greeting and gestures of respect are practised across innumerable institutions and social practices. Indeed, he does not mean simply the public sphere since greeting and displays of respect are to be found in such non-public domains as the family. Rather, he means the organised totality of social existence, precisely den objektiven Geist (objective spirit) as Hegel understood it. For Hegel der objektive Geist15 was the organised totality of institutions, social practices and much more. In particular, it was a totality of abstractly public legal behaviour (das abstrakte Recht), of abstractly individual moral behaviour (die Moralität) and of their ontologically, hence existentially prior unity—those patterns of behaviour which constitute concretely public and concretely individual ethical life (die Sittlichkeit). And ethical life was itself a totality comprising affectively-driven private and intimate life (die Familie); abstractly rational because privately motivated economic life (die bürgerliche Gesellschaft); and the unifying life of the political, which Hegel regarded as concretely rational because driven by a genuinely public, collective interest in securing justice and happiness for all (der Staat). Dilthey means the same thing, at least in general terms. (Obviously, he could accept Hegel’s general idea without agreeing on the precise structural details.)

§ 4 The Higher Forms of Understanding

Whereas the elementary forms were the understanding of particular utterances, acts and expressions (gestures, etc.), the higher forms are in the first instance the understanding of a whole person, their character, personality, etc. “Fassen wir die angegebenen Formen der höheren Verstehens zusammen, so ist ihr gemeinsamer Charakter, daß sie aus gegebenen Äußerungen in einem Schluß der Induktion den Zusammenhang eines Ganzen zum Verständnis bringen.” (S.212) For indeed the point of understanding particular utterances, acts, gestures and all other life-expressions is ultimately understanding of the whole individual responsible for them. In this sense, understanding is, claims directedness, always directed towards individuals. (S.212) Understanding of the individual is the actual accomplishment of the Geisteswissenschaften.

What Dilthey means here is hardly clear and there is a way of taking what he claims which is clearly false—if one were to maintain that the point of understanding an particular utterance, acts, gesture, piece of music, painting, novel, etc. is to understand the creator of this utterance, acts, gesture, piece of music, painting, novel, etc., in his or her possible unique individuality. This is false; as a thinker like Gadamer would point out, works of art have a meaning of their own and it is this we seek to understand when we understand them as the works of art they are. If I investigate a symphony, painting or novel for clues as to the nature, the psychology, of its creator, I am not appreciating it as a work of art but as biographical and psychological evidence. It is possible, however, to interpret Dilthey’s claim that understanding of a life-expression is directed towards understanding the individual who created it which avoids this false interpretation: understanding of an life-expression is directed towards understanding the individual in the sense that a crucial part of understanding its meaning lies in seeing how its production makes sense in the light of who and what its creator is while who and what its creator becomes itself accessible through penetrating into the meaning of the life-expression. There is thus a movement back and forth, from life-expression to the creator of it, in which both sides illuminate one another (and in which the character of the life-expression as biographical and psychological evidence plays a crucial role).

Finally, we should note a claim Dilthey makes on S.213: We need, he says, to understand that aspect of understanding which cannot be represented in logical formulae or rules. (S.213) This is important because it suggests that according to Dilthey there is ultimately something ‘unruly’, something spontaneous and creative, about understanding. It is, of course, possible to lay down general guidelines as to how one sets about understanding. But these guidelines have an essentially ceteris paribus character, much like the rules one can formulate for activities like gardening. As a rule, one should prune one’s roses in early spring, before their primaveral spurt of growth. But at least in places like Canberra, afflicted as they often can be by severe frosts in early spring, one cannot apply this rule mechanically. One must exercise judgement, i.e., what Kant calls Urteilskraft, literally the power of judgement. So this rule is merely a rule of thumb, not a decision procedure one could implement on a computer.

Evidently, Dilthey is thinking of understanding as similarly not governed by decision procedures but merely by rules of thumb. In other words, understanding is essentially non-algorithmic, hence non-computational (at least on the standard conception of what it is to be computational). This, however, throws up the question of how, indeed whether, Dilthey can really regard understanding as a rational process if it is so ‘unruly’. In fact, it is only a truncated conception of rationality which leads one to think that because understanding is not governed by strict rules, i.e., by algorithmic decision-procedures, is ‘irrational’ or at least ‘arational’. For clearly there are many activities of which only distinctively self-conscious, reason-wielding creatures like human beings are capable which are non-algorithmic, hence dependent on judgement. One such activity is natural scientic inquiry itself: the truly great advances in science are never the result of rule-following but occur spontaneously and creatively in the sense that there is no rule-governed path from the facts constitutive of the context in which they occur to these advances themselves. That, however, these advances are indeed advances can be established—admittedly, only retrospectively, by looking back, from the future, at the context in which they arose and observing how these advances best addressed and resolved decisive questions and crucial problems which define the context in which they arose. The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend famously pointed out16 how true this is of Galileo: his claim to have proved the existence of the moons of Jupiter was regarded, rightly at the time, as highly dubious and contestable because the telescope he used was very primitive and unreliable, and in particular, no one had any well-worked out account of how it worked, an account which would explain why telescopes were in principle effective devices for observing the heavens (and indicating how one could improve Galileo’s telescope). The theory of optics required for this was only developed almost a century later; if one had required of Galileo’s observations and the theories he built upon them that they be thoroughly justifiable and rationalisable before one accepts and works with them, i.e., in Galileo’s own context of inquiry and theorisation, one would have nipped the promise of Galileo’s observations and theories in the bud. So, too, with understanding: only from the perspective of the future which understanding helps to bring about can one see the correctness or incorrectness of understanding.

§ 5 Transposing, Modelling-after, Reliving17

Here Dilthey describes the specific anatomy and articulation of the process of understanding. The task of understanding is to determine the meaning of the parts by determining their contribution to the meaning of the whole while simultaneously determining the meaning of the whole by determining the role and significance of the individual parts. One necessary aspect of this is what Dilthey calls Hineinversetzen, the interpreter’s transposing of self into a position in which the whole to be understood is experienceable. Even in regard to the example Dilthey here discusses, namely, the understanding of a poem, it becomes clear that this transposing is not a transposing into the position of the author. It is rather a transposing into the kind of life situation which the individual words and component phrases, possibly even the title, of the poem signal as what the poem is in some sense about. This becomes particularly clear where Dilthey says,

Even in specifying simply the external situation, the poem works to create favourable conditions for the words of the poet to call up the appropriate mood. Here also the relationship mentioned above asserts itself, namely, that expressions of lived experience contain more than lies in the consciousness of the poet or artist, and thus also evoke more [in the interpreter—C.B.C.]. (S.214; p.132; translation substantially corrected)

The Schleiermacherian ring of the last sentence indicates that Schleiermacher, too, does not regard this transposing of self as a matter of placing oneself into the position of the author.

This transposing of self into the general life situation, itself enabled, of course, by the interpreter’s own independent experience and knowledge of such situations, provides the basis for what Dilthey calls “… the highest form in which, in understanding, the totality of psychic life takes effect.” (S.214; p.132, translation modified) This is Nachbilden or Nacherleben, i.e., modelling-after or reliving. The translator unfortunately renders the German Nachbilden with the English neologism ‘re-creation’, which falsely suggests that according to Dilthey the interpreter literally re-makes or re-produces the author’s product. But this is not so. In everyday German the verb nachbilden means to copy, imitate, replicate or reproduce (not re-produce!). This indicates that the process of Nachbildung Dilthey has in mind does not simply obliterate the distinction between the interpreter and the author—as if in order to understand the interpreter, having transposed him- or herself, has now to repeat exactly the same process of creation the author went through in the original production of the work. This is clearly absurd: how could understanding of a work consist in or even be facilitated by literally copying the process whereby it was created? In any case, if Nachbildung were understood in this way, then neither Dilthey nor Schleiermacher could maintain, as they in fact do, that the process of understanding can result in interpreters understanding authors (and, mutatis mutandis, actors) better than these latter themselves. Furthermore, a few lines later, Dilthey explicitly denies that Nachbildung is repetition in any literal sense:

The lyric poem thus renders possible, in the sequence of its verses, the re-experiencing of a nexus of lived experience—not of the real nexus which inspired the poet, but rather of that which, on the basis of this real nexus, the poet attributes to an ideal person. The sequence of scenes in a play renders it possible to re-live fragments from the course of life of the persons who appear. The narrative of the novelist or historian, which traces out a historical course of events, effects in us a re-living. The triumph of re-living is that the fragments of a course of events are completed in such a way that we believe ourselves to have a continuity before us. (S.214-215; p.133, translation modified)

So it seems that the accomplishment of Nachbilden or Nacherleben—Dilthey appears to use these words as if they were co-extensive, hence mutually entailing—is that, having transposed him- or herself into the life-situation which the text addresses, the interpreter is able so to speak to use the text or historical events as a guide to both fashioning and experiencing some continuous identity as he or she works through the sequential order of the text or events.

How might this accomplishment of Nachbilden and Nacherleben, of replicating and reliving, be characterised more closely? On S.215 (p.133) Dilthey makes quite clear that notions of empathy (Mitfühlen and Einfühlung) must be distinguished from what he means by modelling-after and reliving. Such notions of empathy are purely psychological ones; while empathy towards what one is trying to understand may facilitate modelling-after and reliving, it is a fundamentally psychological notion which must not be confused with these latter concepts. On S.215-216 Dilthey gives a rather nice illustration of what Nachbilden and Nacherleben amount to. He points out that in contemporary culture and life the opportunities to live and experience a life permeated by religion and religiosity are narrowly circumscribed.

When however I go through the letters and writings of Luther, the reports by his contemporaries, the documents of religious conferences and councils as well as his official correspondence, I then experience a religious process of such eruptive power and of such energy … that it lies beyond anything that a present-day man could possibly experience.18 I can however re-experience it. I place myself [ich versetze mich—C.B.C. ] in the circumstances: everything in them strains toward such an extraordinary development of the religious emotional life. In the cloisters, I see a technique for interaction with the invisible world, which permanently directs the gaze of monkish souls beyond worldly things; theological controversies here become questions of inner existence [Existenz]. I see how what is developed in the cloister spreads throughout the lay-world by innumberable channels—pulpets (sic.), confessionals, lectorates, writings; I now perceive how the councils and religious movements have spread everywhere the doctrine of the invisible church and universal priesthood, how this relates to the liberation of the personality in worldly life and what was attained in the solitude of the cell, in struggles the intensity of which we have already seen, is maintained over against the Church. Christianity as a power which structures life itself within the family, within professional and political relations—that is a new force, which joins up with the spirit of the times [Geist der Zeit—C.B.C.] in the cities and everywhere higher work is carried out, as in Hans Sachs, in Dürer. Luther goes forth at the head of this movement; we thus experience his development against the background of a context which reaches from the universally human to the religious sphere and then on, via this sphere’s historical characteristic, to Luther’s own individuality. And so this process opens up to us a religious world, in him and in his compatriots of the early days of the Reformation …. (S.215-216; pp.134-135, translation modified)

If it is not clear already, it will be clear by the latest from this passage that Sich-Hineinversetzen, i.e., transposing of self, is not a transposing into the position of Luther himself, but into Luther’s world. Furthermore, this transposition is aided by, but not identical with, any empathising with Luther and his world. (In fact, once one appreciates that transposing is a transposing into another world, another historical or cultural milieu, rather than into another person, it becomes clear that transposing itself could not be any process of empathising, since, strictly speaking, one can only empathise with people, not with epochs or cultures.)

Note, however, that the picture of Luther’s times which Dilthey sees as resulting from the process of Sich-Hineinversetzen plus Nachbilden and Nacherleben is itself rather glowing. A stand on the worth and value of Luther and the Reformation underlies this picture, and this stand is an affirmative one. The picture Dilthey paints betrays his own Protestantist allegiances. (Recall that he is the son of a Reformed Church, i.e., Calvinist minister and that he originally intended to follow in his father’s footsteps.) The question is, of course, whether the idealisation which is evident here, in this particular example, is inherent to this process of transposing oneself into, and reliving the world of the other. In other words, must one relive the world of the other positively? If so, then Dilthey’s ‘method’ is inherently ideological in that it must remain chronically blind to the darker sides which numerous historical phenomena possess.

Now on the face of it, there is no compelling reason for thinking that it should be more difficult to transpose oneself into, and thereby relive, the world of the SS than to transpose oneself into, and relive, the world of Luther. So there is no obvious reason for describing Dilthey’s conception of historical understanding and its ‘method’ as ideological because of an inherent tendency to paint things in a positive light. At the same time, it is surely only because Dilthey himself tends to think of the process as inherently ‘upbeat’ about the phenomena it deals with that he can end section 5 with a glowing characterisation of what Nachbilden and Nacherleben can accomplish. On S.215, before he begins to speak of Luther, Dilthey enthuses about how artistic and historical understanding opens up for an individual “… a broad realm of possibilities which are not available with the determination of his actual life.” (S.215; p.134) Clearly, Dilthey must mean by ‘possibility’ something more than those behaviours, properties or relations a given entity can engage in, acquire or enter into in virtue of its identity or essence. After all, in one sense anything, even a stone, has a broad realm of possibilities: it can fall on my head, be thrown through a window, be used as a paperweight, etc. But all these are possibilities in the decidedly uninteresting sense of things the stone can do or be simply in virtue of being a stone. In other words, they are possibilities merely in the sense of things available to the individual stone in virtue of its being an instance of the kind ‘stone’—as Plato might say, in virtue of its participating in the form of stonehood. But Dilthey means a notion of the possible which is not a function of identity or essence; he is talking about things an individual human being can be and do which are not mere potentialities of its actual identity as, e.g., a late modern European, a member of the working class, etc., or even as a human being. Rather, they are potentialities or possibilities of this particular concrete individual in this particular situation whose character as such possibilities only becomes evident from the perspective of that future condition which the actualisation of these possibilities helps to bring about. And the character of this future condition as intelligible as having been caused by this individual in this situation is the only way one can ascertain that they were indeed possibilities of the individual in its situation.

Now precisely because he understands possibility in this way Dilthey, having enthused about how the dual process of Nachbilden and Nacherleben opens up the world of Luther, can go on to say that this process

widens our horizons to include possibilities for human life which can be made accessible only in this way. Thus the man who is determined from within can experience many other existences in his imagination. Strange beauties of the world and regions of life which he can never attain appear before him who is limited by circumstance. Speaking most generally: Man, bound and determined through the reality of life, is transposed into freedom not only through art—what has often been said—but also through the understanding of the historical. And this effect of history, which its modern denigrators have not seen, is broadened and deepened in the further levels of historical consciousness. (S.215-216; pp.134-135, translation modified)

Note, however, how glowing this is. It appears as if Dilthey were describing a process which could only open our eyes to possibilities of human life which are positive. This intimates a serious problem: No doubt the reliving of the world of the SS widens one’s horizons and opens up new possibilities of human existence. No doubt it allows one to experience many other existences in one’s imagination. Still, one would be hard put to describe the process of reliving the world of the SS as transposing one into freedom. Any suggestion, therefore, that the historical consciousness in which the exercise of Nachbilden and Nacherleben both consists and culminates is essentially liberating must therefore be just as spurious as the original Romantic idea that art and the understanding of art is essentially liberating (as opposed to, say, narcissistic and self-indulgent). In fact, the situation is worse for historical consciousness. While it is false to maintain that artistic consciousness is essentially liberating, it is trivially true to say that it discloses strange beauties of the world. Yet as the example of reliving the world of the SS shows, the same cannot be said of historical consciousness.

But as we have already intimated, Dilthey gives us no compelling reason for thinking that it should be more difficult to transpose oneself into, and thereby relive, the world of the SS than to transpose oneself into, and relive, the world of Luther. So the upbeat conclusions Dilthey draws about the liberating potential of historical consciousness really do not follow from what he takes such consciousness to be and involve. Historical does not necessarily paint things positively; it is thus not for this reason inherently ideological. At the same time, there is a more subtle sense in which historical understanding as Dilthey conceives it might be inherently ideological. The historian transposes himself into, and relives, American society during the Second World War, thereby experiencing the mighty struggle for democracy against fascist tyranny. To do this, however, is not to see that this same period is just as much a world in which big business is crushing small business at an unprecedented rate,19 laying thereby the basis for the postwar imperialism of multinational corporations. Perhaps indeed wartime American society in its character as the birthplace of the postwar neo-imperialism of multinational corporations is not something one can get at by adopting the insider’s perspective since much of what makes this society such a birthplace is invisible to anyone on the inside. This could well be true even if the insider’s perspective chosen by the historian were that of someone who came out a loser rather than a winner in this historical development. For although this development, like all historical developments, creates winners and losers, the mere fact that one is a winner or loser does not determine whether one has won or lost unjustly. How could this be determined in a truly ‘objective’, ‘scientific’ way, as opposed to being a judgement based on the historian’s own ethical views and commitments? Does it even make sense to want to determine this objectively and scientifically, as if it were a further proper task of the historical in his or her capacity as a historian (as opposed to an ethically competent and caring human being)?

These difficult questions cannot be taken up here. In any case, there is another issue one can raise with regard to the adequacy of Dilthey’s conception of historical understanding and its ‘method’. Unlike the issue of whether historians should or should not be ethically evaluative in the way they proceed as historians, this issue is clearly recognisable as a defect in Dilthey’s account. There is indeed a sense in which Dilthey’s conception of historical understanding and its ‘method’ is essentially or inherently ideological in that it blinds one, or at least does not account for how one can see, certain aspects of historical reality which clearly belong to the subject-matter of the historian. These are those phenomena which have to do with causal relations and tendencies not visible to, or controllable by, individual actors or groups of actors in the historical process. I take it that the development during World War II of post-war neo-imperialism is precisely such a tendency; it was not a massive conspiracy of bankers and industrialists. Evidently, such causal relations and tendencies are aspects of historical reality which historians, precisely in their capacity as historians, should seek to know. (Moreover, they are clearly relevant for the ethical evaluation of historical reality and historical processes.) Yet Dilthey gives no account of epistemic access to them which shows this access to be objective and rationally guided.

Perhaps Dilthey would simply acknowledge this. Perhaps he would say that his conception of historical understanding and its ‘method’ is indeed limited and in need of supplementation by cognitive ‘methods’ of another kind. Presumably, these supplementary procedures will be of the explanative kind, so in history as in psychology, one cannot do without the identification and explanation of hidden causal processes in a manner at least akin to what goes on in natural science, e.g., in terrestrial geology and natural history. This idea of understanding as limited and in need of supplementation by explanative procedures is something both Karl-Otto Apel and Jürgen Habermas have made much of. At the same time, it is clear from our reading of the Ideas that this idea is already implicit in Dilthey’s conception of psychology as both descriptive and explanative. So it is presumably this alternative which Dilthey would, in clear-headed moments, adopt.


  1. “Zugleich aber verfährt jede Kunst nach Regeln. Diese lehren Schwierigkeiten überwinden.” (“The Development of Hermeneutics,” GS, Bd. V, S.317-337, S.320; p.249) It is, incidentally, clear that the only kind of rule which could be defined by the function of overcoming difficulties are rules of thumb, i.e., Faustregeln. As we shall see below, Dilthey does not think of the rule one can formulate for understanding as strict rules, i.e., algorithmic decision procedures

  2. Nicht Wiederholung!

  3. See S.326 (p.256), where Dilthey does use the verb ‘Sich-einfühlen’ in order to speak of Herder’s congenial empathetic insight into the spirit of an age and a people.

  4. See Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, B 370.

  5. “Auch hier macht sich das schon erwähnte Verhältnis geltend, nach welchem Ausdrücke des Erlebens mehr enthalten, als im Bewußtsein des Dichters oder Künstlers liegt, and darum auch mehr zurückrufen.” (“The Understanding of Other Persons and their Life-expressions”, GS, Bd. VII, S.205-227, S.214; p.132)

  6. Relativism and historicism are such common ways of thinking these days that many people are or would be simply dumb-founded by the blatant denial of (what they assume to be) self-evidently true doctrines.

  7. Note that to describe a judgement as objectively valid is not to describe it as true. A judgement may certainly be true without being objectively valid; perhaps Goldbach’s conjecture is true but unprovable, in which case it would not be objectively valid. Conversely, many would maintain that a judgement can be objectively valid without being true.

  8. The German original, which was written in 1910, is to be found in GS, Bd. VII, S.205-227.

  9. “Ganz anders der Erlebnisausdruck! Eine besondere Beziehung besteht zwischen ihm, dem Leben, aus dem er hervorgeht, und dem Verstehen, das er erwirkt. Der Ausdruck kann nämlich mehr vom seelischen Zusammenhang enthalten, als jede Introspektion gewahren kann. Er hebt es aus Tiefen, die das Bewußtsein nicht erhellt. Es liegt aber zugleich in der Natur des Erlebnisausdrucks, daß die Beziehung zwischen ihm und dem Geistigen, das in ihm ausgedrückt wird, nur sehr vorbehaltlich dem Verstehen zugrunde gelegt werden darf.” (S.206)

  10. “Die elementaren Akte, aus denen sich zusammenhangende Handlungen zusammensetzen, wie das Aufheben eines Gegenstandes, das Niederfallenlassen eines Hammers, das Schneiden von Holz durch eine Säge, bezeichnen für uns die Anwesenheit gewisser Zwecke.” (S.207) Note what Dilthey says in the next two sentences: “In diesem elementaren Verstehen findet sonach ein Rückgang auf den ganzen Lebenszusammenhang, welcher das dauernde Subjekt von Lebenäußerungen bildet, nicht statt. Wir wissen auch nichts von einem Schluß, in dem es entstünde.” (S.207) In other words, in this original, everyday understanding one is not led back to the ‘subject’ itself in its individuality, and thus not back to the subject at all; this must be presupposed! Will only a more ‘authentic’ kind of understanding allow this? Note, too, that Dilthey here identifies the persisting subject with the psychic nexus, surely pace Gadamer.

  11. Zunächst in Heidegger’s sense!

  12. Zumeist in Heidegger’s sense! We thus encounter, or livingly experience, hammering ‘zunächst und zumeist’ as part of the activity of carpenting.

  13. Amongst those who see in the notion of social practice a powerful explanatory or analytic tool there is a quite surprising complacency about just what is meant by a social practice—as if the explanatory power and clarity of the notion were self-evident. This is surely not true.

  14. Of course I do know it to express this meaning. Perhaps at least knowing it to express this meaning is a necessary condition of its doing so. Does this same sentence, when uttered by a parrot, still express this meaning? Perhaps not—although the issue here looks very much like an uninteresting verbal one.

  15. Hegel’s best and most extensive discussion of objective spirit is to be found in his Philosophy of Right, of which there are now several translations.

  16. In his book Against Method: Outline of an Anarchist Theory of Knowledge, London: New Left Books, 1975.

  17. In the translation this heading is “Projecting, Re-Creating, Re-Experiencing”—see p.132. The original German heading is “Hineinversetzen, Nachbilden, Nacherleben.”

  18. Note the contradiction in which Dilthey, through sheer carelessness, embroils himself: I, a present-day man, am said to experience something that a present-day man cannot experience. Dilthey should have said that I get a feeling for something that I, as a present-day man, cannot genuinely experience.

  19. As I recall, David Noble, in his book The Forces of Production—A Social History of Industrial Automation (New York: Knopf, 1984), shows how during and as a result of the war effort a massive process of agglomeratisation took place, thereby creating the enormous disparity between big and small business which has characterised Western economies ever since.