Dilthey on Historicity and Hermeneutics


This is the sixth of a set of seven course notes written in 1998 for a seven week introduction to the thought of Wilhelm Dilthey. It first briefly examines Dilthey’s remarks, in Chapter Eight and Nine of his Ideas concerning a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology, on the diachronic or developmental dimensional of psychical life. An account is then given of Dilthey’s essay “On the Rise of Hermeneutics,” written in 1900.

The Diachronic or Developmental Dimension of Psychical Life—Historicity

In this sixth set of notes I want to discuss the final chapters of the Ideas, in particular, a number of points raised in Chapter Eight, entitled “The Development of Psychic Life”, and Chapter Nine, entitled “Study of the Differences of Psychic Life: The Individual”. I will ignore Chapter Seven, entitled “The Structure of Psychic Life”, for it is mostly very repetitive. I will just draw your attention instead to the summary Dilthey gives on S.211-213 of the basic characteristics of psychic life and the psychic nexus. Some of the things that I will discuss from Chapters Eight and Nine concern amongst other things one of the criticisms made of Dilthey by Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), author of Truth and Method and Heidegger’s most famous pupil. This criticism is that Dilthey retains a residual allegiance to the atomism characteristic of the early modern Cartesian tradition and thus can only conceive any developmental process as the ‘synthesising’ activity of some metaphysically conceived ‘subject’ which operates upon initially given experiences or events, thereby generating the radically new forms of unity which constitute different stages of personal or historical development. Thus, Gadamer thinks that Dilthey must conceive the individual self as having a metaphysical, non-empirical side to it which, in a non-empirically ascertainable way, synthesises Erlebnisse (lived experiences) into the various stages of personal identity as the individual evolves towards full psychological maturity and personality. Similarly, thinks Gadamer, Dilthey, despite his attempts to escape the Hegelian tradition, finds himself talking as if human deeds and activities were underpinned by something akin to Hegel’s spirit (Geist), which operates upon them to generate radically novel forms of historical order as it evolves towards its own end-state.1

Chapter Eight, which extends from S.213 to S.226, is devoted to an elaboration of the concept of development. As we have seen, Dilthey regards the unique kind of development of which human psychological, social, cultural and historical individuals are capable as being determined by the structural characteristic of such entities as teleological. They are essential characterised by an intrinsic purposiveness, namely, self-maintenance and differentiation, and this determines that they do not just change, but positively develop. Given their teleological nature, such entities interact with their environment in the sense that they respond and adapt to the problems and challenges which this environment presents. Their interaction with the environment thus tends to generate modes of existence which are radically new and emergent: each new mode is not a mere causal result of, but a creative response to, what has gone before.

Now because psychological, social, cultural and historical development has this emergent character, this tendency to spawn novelty, we cannot cognise the development of such phenomena prospectively or anticipatingly; cognition of such phenomena and their development cannot consist in identifying within them the signs of the future they are tending towards, but rather in identifying the traces of the past as responses to which they have evolved. It is for this reason that Dilthey insists that in studying the development of any human psychological individual, or any social, cultural or historical individual, the point of departure must be the fully developed mode of existence. What such an individual ultimately becomes is what it truly is. Speaking of the development of the human psychological individual, Dilthey says that

the point of departure of every study bearing on his development is this apprehension and analysis of the nexus in the already developed man. Here alone is a reality given in the inner experience of the psychologist with the bright light of day, whereas we can obtain only uncertain glances into the dawning of the first stages of development by means of observing and experimenting with children. (S.213)

On the other hand, however, it is essential to understanding the fully developed individual, whether psychological, social or historical, that one grasp how it has come about. What the fully developed individual is includes how it has become; the path it has traversed in order to become what it is is a part of its very identiy. So insight into the end result, the final stage, includes insight into the process of development; result and development are mutually conditioning. Once again with regard to the psychological individual, i.e., a particular human being, Dilthey says,

we must first of all have acquired a certain understanding of the summit of individual development in order to be able to determine its stages; on the other hand, the individual adult psychic life receives a more vivid illumination from the knowledge of these earlier stages. (S.214)

On the face of it, of course, there is odd about all this. If in order to understand what has resulted from a certain process, one must understand the process, then surely one gets into a vicious circle if one also insists that in order to understand the process, one must understand the result. Dilthey does not explain how this circle is to be avoided; this is something we will have to come back to.

In the meantime, let us note how Dilthey characterises the development of human psychological individuals, and indeed all those individuals that are nexi, more closely: once again, as if to reject any suggestion that what pushes development forwards has any kind of external origin, whether in the blind will of Schopenhauer, or in Hegel’s notion of Reason-with-a-capital-R, or in any blind play of individual desires (in the case of the human psychological nexus) or individual actions and deeds (in the case of the larger social and historical nexi). Our cognitions and volitions, and in particular, our drives and emotions, impart to our existence its character as a process of continual self-adjusting, self-revising adaptation to the given conditions of life, i.e., to the environment. (S.214) And this character as such a self-regulating process is sufficient, thinks Dilthey, to give it its unity, its persistence as one and the same self across time, and in particular, its goal-directed character as self-sustaining and self-differentiating. As Dilthey puts it, “(t)hus are formed the unity, constancy and goal-directed character which constitute the concept of development.” (S.214; translation modified) The idea here seems to be precisely what has already been hinted at above: once one rejects the traditional idea of the ‘self’ as a bearer (Kant) or bundle (Hume) of psychological states and experiences caused by various environmental inputs and causing behaviour in reaction to these inputs, once one conceives the self as a process of context-sensitively adapting to the demands of the environment in the light of its psychological experiences and overall goals, one has not need to postulate any underlying telos in order to account for the genuinely developmental character of psychological, social and historical processes. For one can see the emergent novelties of overall organisation and structure which the notion of development implicates as solutions and responses to the challenges and problems of the environment. In other words, one does not need to postulate any external underlying telos because one has chosen to see the interaction between the human individual, or indeed, between a society, culture or tradition, and the environment not as something to be described in terms of cause-and-effect, but in terms of problem-and-solution. One has chosen to see this interaction not from the perspective of a law-governed causal mechanism, but from the perspective of a future-threatening or challenging context to which the system responds with a future-preserving adaptation. One sees the individual acting in its environment as an essentially teleologically structured, future-directed process. Correlatively, one sees the environment itself as a genuine context of and for this individual’s action; one sees it not as a jumble of diverse physical facts, but as structured according to relevance and irrelevance for the individual’s activity.

This way of putting things intimates how for Dilthey the relation between the psychological subject and its world is much more intimate than for the early modern tradition from Descartes to Kant. Just as the subject of psychological experience is a teleologically structured process, so, too, the world to which this subject relates via its experiences is teleologically structured—structured according to what in it is and is not relevant for what the subject is doing. The world presented to the subject in its experiences is a genuine context for this subject, something which in its very structure implies the subject and its activity.2 It is essentially a correlate of the self. (S.201) Thus, in Chapter Seven Dilthey speaks of “… the correlationship of the self and the objective world.” (S.200) Indeed, he describes this correlation as the only thing that is permanent in the incessant flow psychological states and experiences. (S.200) This correlation is the form of our conscious life. (S.200) So the self is not an entity separate from the flux of psychic life, something in which diverse psychological states and experiences inhere. Rather, it is the form of this flux itself, its unity and identity—what Dilthey calls its Selbigkeit, i.e., sameness of self—lie precisely in its character as a process of self-maintenance and self-regulation in response to the environment. Dilthey thinks that only if the self is conceived in this way can one make sense of the idea that the self develops and evolves radically new forms of existence, as the individual moves from childhood to adulthood to senescence. If one conceives of the self in traditional, early modern ways, either as thing-like bearer of properties, or as a mere bundle, one will never account for this capacity for emergent novelty. Or rather, one can only account for this capacity by conceiving the development of a human psychological individual as a mere causal process steered by some external telos—the ‘final cause’ of human psychological development.

Of course, something similar can be extended to the other kinds of genuinely developmental entity, i.e., to the other kinds of nexi. In particular, the general idea can be extended to the historical process itself. In order to account for its developmental character, we do not have to see history as a process in which some external telos is working itself out. Once one appreciates that the historical process is itself essential a process of adapting appropriately to a problematic context in the light of one’s goals and priorities, one does not need to see the novel forms of organisation and socio-cultural structure which emerge in history as the result of Divine Providence, some metaphysical notion of will or Hegelian spirit. Nor indeed does one have to take the radical step of denying that there is any emergent novelty in history or psychology at all. This radical step is basically taken by natural scientifically oriented explanative psychology, which attempts to account for psychic life in terms of certain unambiguously characterised psychic elements, e.g., experiences, representations, simple ideas or impressions, sensory input and so on. Dilthey rightly sees that a collection of such unambiguously characterised psychic elements cannot deal adequately with the phenomenon of genuine development, i.e., change which is not a mere re-ordering of pre-existing parts. (S.222)

The Rise of Hermeneutics (1900)

I want now to look at Dilthey’s essay “The Rise of Hermeneutics”, written in 1900. As we shall see, this does not so much conflict as complete some of the things we have seen Dilthey to maintain in the Ideas. In fact, we find in this important and surprisingly readable, understandable essay both important clues as to where Dilthey takes his notion of the psychological nexus from and, relatedly, further substantial hints that at least with regard to the charge of a residual Cartesian atomism Gadamer attacks something of a strawman.

The essay itself is quite short, extending from S.317 to S.331 of Vol. V of the Gesammelte Schriften. It consists of an introduction followed by five short sections in which Dilthey briefly sketches and then sums up the development of hermeneutics, understood as the disciplined attempt to make sense of broken texts, that is to say, texts which are in one sense or other incomplete and thus not readily accessible and transparent to us. Perhaps they are incomplete, perhaps the socio-cultural, traditional setting in which they arose has long past, perhaps they are, like the Rosetta stone, in some indecipherable language. At no point does Dilthey dispute that the disciplined attempt to make sense of broken texts is the attempt to determine the objective meaning of such texts, i.e., that one and the same meaning the text has for all time and across all epochs. This means that hermeneutics is only possible for any given interpreting subject if this subject’s socio-cultural-historical location presents no obstacle to grasping this objective meaning. Roughly speaking, there are four ways in which one might conceive a subject’s socio-cultural-historical locatedness as presenting no obstacle to grasping this meaning. The first three concern what it is to be at a socio-cultural-historical location:

I. One might assume that socio-cultural-historical location simply is no bar to understanding, that is to say, has no impact one way or the other on the understanding of meaning, even of texts stemming from other societies, cultures and epochs.

I take it that this is a very naive view; it represents a very unhistorical attitude to socio-cultural-historical location. A more sophisticated version of this view would be the following:

II. While socio-cultural-historical location does contain a certain potential to generate misunderstanding, this can be neutralised by following various methodological strictures which enable one to identify how one’s own socio-cultural historical perspective is influencing one, hence to overcome this perspective and access the meaning of the text, even when it stems from another society, culture or epoch.

While this position admits that potential socio-cultural-historical location can have a decisive influence on what one takes to be the meaning of a text, it does not regard such location as a constitutive part of one’s own identity as a thinking, feeling and willing subject. So the influence of one’s own socio-cultural-historical location is a contingent, overcomable one—if only one have the right means or methods of overcoming it. It is arguable that this position, for all its greater sophistication, no more acknowledges the genuinely historical character of human existence than the first. A first attempt at a view which saves objectivity of meaning while still taking the historical character of human existence seriously would be the following:

III. One might assume, or preferably attempt to show by philosophical argument, that a certain particular location is a or even the privileged one, i.e., a socio-cultural-historical location unlike others in that from its perspective the interpreting subject has access to the meaning of all texts, irrespective of these texts’ origins.

Notoriously, Hegel adopted a position along these lines. More precisely, he claimed to show by philosophical means that modernity was unique in that it and it alone was able to understand the meaning of history and of the texts which past epochs had produced. Obviously, this position entails the rather radical view that the authors of texts do not themselves necessarily understand the true meaning of their texts; this will be the case if they do not live in the right socio-historical-cultural circumstances. In other words, Hegel radicalises to the utmost Kant’s rather smug observation about Plato, namely, that sometimes we can understand an author better than he himself.3

It is of course commonplace these days to object to this kind of view on the grounds that it is arrogant and condescending or, to use the contemporary jargon, that it does not respect the other in its otherness. But this is by no means the most powerful objection against this view. For one might respond as follows to this view: for the sake of the argument let us concede that there is meaning in the sense of the true meaning, a meaning which is accessible only to the denizens of a certain privileged socio-cultural-historical world. If a given interpreter of the text does not inhabit this privileged world, then, even if this person should be the text’s author, one must nonetheless concede that he or she cannot access the ‘true’ meaning of the text. Even so, even granting all this, it still remains true that such historically ill-situated interpreters can have their own views about the meaning of text. Certainly, it still remains true that the author of the text has his or her own views about meaning. Given this, however, it is possible to specifiy a quite ordinary, everyday sense of meaning which shows all this talk of ‘true’ meaning to be not so much condescending as redundant. For surely there is meaning in the sense of what, in the considered opinion of the author and the text’s various interpreters, the text says. All talk of ‘true’ meaning does not at all rule out meaning in the sense of what authors and interpreters agree to be what the text says. And surely, this notion of meaning does all the work we could want the concept to do. So talk of ‘true’ meaning is at best otiose.

At this point a very great potential for confusion arises. Having got rid of the idea of some ‘true’ meaning to which only a privileged interpreter has access, one could go on to claim that the idea of meaning in the sense of what, all things considered, interpreters take the text to say simply is what interpretations take it to say. In other words, one could tacitly construe talk of meaning as what, all things considered, interpreters take the text to say, that is, as defining the notion of meaning. Once one has taken this fateful step, one has tacitly construed the meaning of the text as a construct of potentially fleeting, variable agreements between finite numbers of interpreters. Thus, meaning itself is fleeting, variable and dependent on the particular situation and identity of interpreters.

But the above rejection of the idea of a ‘true’ meaning to which only certain privileged interpreters have access does not force one to take local and fleeting agreement about meaning as defining meaning. (Indeed, given that the word ‘meaning’ must unavoidably occur in this account of meaning, one had perhaps better not, on pain of vicious circularity, take it as a definition.) One could instead say that what, all things considered, interpreters take the text to say is not a definition, but a criterion for assessing claims to have understood the text, to have accessed its meaning. That is, one could say that the everyday notion of the meaning of a text includes within it the idea that considered agreement on the part of authors and interpreters generally, however fleeting and finite, is a criterion of meaning in the sense of a yardstick for assessing interpretations. If this is how one conceives things, then one is not committed to a view of textual meaning as something which inherently shifts and is destabilised from one group or epoch of interpreters to the next. At the same time, one has not necessarily fallen back into the position of naively and unhistorically saying there is one meaning which is there, open and available to all. For nothing has been said thus far to suggest that from one group or epoch of interpreters to the next there will not be significant difference between interpreters and their interpretations. More, of course, needs to be said in order to explain why this fact of significant difference does not undermine completely the idea of a text’s having one and the same meaning across different groups of interpreters and different historical epochs. Nonetheless, one has at least shown that to reject the Hegelian position is not automatically to embrace that conventionalist view of meaning so popular today.4 Just how one might deal with the fact of significant historical difference, thereby avoiding both the Hegelian position and the radically conventionalist one, is intimated by the third way of construing socio-cultural-historical locatedness as no obstacle to grasping objective meaning. Whereas the previous three ways have concerned what it is to be at a socio-cultural-historical location, this third way tackles the notion of meaning itself. That is, it attempts to reconceive meaning itself so as to render socio-cultural-historical locatedness no obstacle to the idea of objective meaning:

IV. One might assume that texts have an objective meaning which is ‘inexhaustible’, so that while different socio-cultural-historical locations determine different interpretations of the text, each interpretation captures a different aspect of the same objective meaning.

It is evident that this view represents an explicit attempt to reconceive meaning so as to accommodate differences in interpretation determined by different socio-cultural-historical locations. This contrasts with the previous three views, which did not waste much time on the notion of meaning, trying instead to conceive the notion of socio-cultural-historical location in ways which allow access to meaning. Within this fourth position one can distinguish two ways in which talk of capturing different aspects of one and the same meaning from different socio-cultural-historical perspectives might be understood. One might construe meaning as analogous to a cake with infinitely many distinct slices: each differently located interpreter takes a different slice of the cake. Alternatively, one might construe meaning as analogous to a piano sonata: just as each different pianist will interpret the one sonata differently, realising in accordance with his or her own personality, so, too, each differently located interpreter will interpret the one text differently, realising its meaning in accordance with his or her own particular times. It is fairly clear that the second is the better way of conceiving things. The first way of viewing things leaves quite unexplained why one should speak of different takes on one and the same meaning at all. What is the unity which makes us want to speak of different slices of the one cake? Furthermore, unlike the second, the first way can give no sense to the idea that one and the same meaning guides and constrains interpretation across different interpreters and epochs. Yet without this one cannot sensibly speak of this. Evidently, the two weaknesses of the first way of looking at things are interconnected: the cake analogy fails to give unity because it fails to indicate how meaning might guide interpretation, and vice versa.

Now which of these four positions is Dilthey’s? It is clear enough that Dilthey adopts neither the first nor the third position. Dilthey lived at a time when a genuine sense of the shaping role of society, culture and history had well and truly emerged. So for Dilthey, unlike many thinkers in the eighteenth century, the first position is not a serious option. At the same time, Dilthey also rejects all speculative conceptions of history, and in particular, Hegel’s conception, which exempts some one socio-cultural-historical standpoint—that of the present—from the shaping influence of society, culture and history. For Dilthey, there is no such thing as true meaning to which only a certain privileged group or epoch of interpreters has access while the others remain either completely ignorant of, or at best confused about, what texts, indeed even their own texts, really mean. He would agree with the argument given above that the idea of ‘true’ meaning at best involves an equivocation between meaning in a perfectly ordinary sense and meaning in some more metaphysical sense. He would agree that at worst this idea is a redundant notion that does no real work.

But which of the other two positions does he adopt? Does he think that while one’s socio-cultural-historical location does inavoidably stamp the way one thinks and interprets, access to meaning is not imperilled by this because there are things one can do to overcome the potential for misunderstanding inherent in one’s location? Or does he think that while one’s socio-cultural-historical location does inavoidably stamp the way one thinks and interprets, access to meaning is not imperilled by this since one’s historical location is not necessarily a potential for misunderstanding which needs to be overcome? Before we can provide any kind of answer, however vague and indefinite, to these questions, we must understand something of what Dilthey says in his essay. In this regard, the third and fourth sections (3: S.323-326; pp.253-255 and 4: S.326-331; pp.256-259) are particularly relevant.

In the third section Dilthey is principally concerned with the rise of hermeneutics out of Protestant bible exegesis. The Protestant Reformers all attacked the traditional Catholic conception of the relation of the individual to God and the nature of the Bible. According to the Catholic tradition the ways and intentions of God are not obvious; in particular, one cannot simply read them off from the Holy Scriptures. Skilled experts in biblical exegesis, Christian dogma and the like were necessary in order to make sense of a text which was by no means transparent. So the Church hierarchy and its ongoing effort to make sense of the Bible was seen as a necessary component in any correct understanding of God. The individual could not just open up the Bible and see what God wanted; he or she had to rely on the results of many centuries of interpretation and exegesis of God’s Word.

The Protestant Reformers overthrew this. Just as they asserted that the individual could and should have a direct and immediate relation to God, without the help of the Church and the institutions of priesthood, so, too, they asserted that if the individual wanted to know what God wanted, he or she had only to consult the Bible: sola scriptura, i.e., only the scripture. It did not take long, however, for it to become quite clear to all concerned that the individual could not just open up the Bible and read off what God wanted. Different individuals found themselves reading the Word of God in all sorts of different, often mutually inconsistent ways. Thus, by the end of the sixteenth century there was widespread recognition within the Protestant camp that the Bible was not an open, unproblematic text and that consequently some account was needed of how one could determine with some degree of objectivity and repeatability what broken, incomplete, obscure texts like the Bible were saying.

Thus, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century a number of writers, mostly Protestant, attempted to articulate various rules and procedures of interpretation by applying which anyone would be able to come to recognise the true meaning of a broken or incomplete text. The formulation of such rules and of course their concrete application to specific texts was subsequently called by Friedrich Daniel Schleiermacher (1768-1834) hermeneutics, from Hermes, the Greek god whose job it was to communicate between the other gods and mortals. (One can see in this choice of name the theological, sacral origins of hermeneutics.) As an example of a writer in this period Dilthey mentions (S.324; p.253) a writer called Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520-1575), who in 1567 wrote an organon for biblical exegesis which the Lutheran Church called der Goldene Schlüssel, i.e., the Golden Key.5 (Dilthey refers to it with the Latin for ‘key’, clavis—see S.324; p.253.) Two things are interesting about Flacius. Firstly, he shows a first appreciation of what has come to be called the hermeneutic circle. Dilthey quotes the following passage from Flacius:

Everywhere else too the individual parts of a whole become comprehensible through their relation to the whole and the other parts. (quoted by Dilthey on S.325; p.254.)

It is clear that since the goal of understanding is to understand the meaning of the whole, then one gets into something of a circle—the hermeneutic circle—if one insists, as Flacius does here, that the parts must be understood “… through their relation to the whole and the other parts.”

Secondly, however, Flacius says that the interpretation of biblical texts has a very important means of help. This is “… the context of vital Christian religious experience.” (S.325; p.254) These words are in fact Dilthey’s and in German they read “der in der lebendigen christlichen Religiosität gegebene Schriftzusammenhang.” Note this: the word ‘Zusammenhang’, or ‘nexus’ appears here. This indicates where Dilthey ultimately takes his notion of nexus from: the text. The model and inspiration underlying Dilthey’s idea of psychological, social, cultural and historical nexi is from the outset the text and the way individual parts of it only have meaning in their relation to the whole. When Dilthey speaks of human psychological and social, cultural and historical individuals as teleologically structured wholes in which the whole shapes the identity of the parts, in the back of his mind is the notion of the organic unity of the text: on the one hand, a text is articulated into a differentiated structure in accordance with a purpose, namely, the purpose for which it was written. Thus, in order to understand the meaning of a text and how it hangs together, one must understand the text’s purpose, i.e., the intention with which it was written, and thus also the larger context into which this intention sensibly fits. At the same time, one can only understand this intention and larger context by understanding the individual parts and how they fit together as a coherent attempt to realise this intention.

At any rate, in the eighteenth century the idea of hermeneutics was pushed beyond its previous restriction to the interpretation of specific kinds of text, in particular, sacred texts. Dilthey speaks of a disciple of Christian Wolff, one Georg Friedrich Meier (1718-1777), who in 1757 attempted to develop a set of rules and procedures for attaining access to the objective meaning of any text whatsoever. Dilthey writes that Meier

conceived the idea of his discipline in the broadest terms possible: this discipline was to draft the rules which can be seen in operation in any interpretation of signs. (S.326; p.255; translation modified)

Dilthey might also have mentioned another writer, namely, Johann Martin Chladensius, who in Leipzig in 1742 published his Einleitung zur Auslegung vernünftiger Reden und Schriften (Introduction to the Interpretation of Reasonable Speeches and Writings). A significant feature of this work was that it expressly distinguished, and developed rules and principles for, the interpretation of historical reports and books.

Now while this more general conception of hermeneutics broke the chains that had tied the task of formulating rules and procedures of interpretation to specific kinds of text, e.g., biblical or classical texts, it still retained the essential characteristics of the earlier, more specific organa. All writers up to the beginning of the nineteenth century understood hermeneutics as followed: hermeneutics identified and applied those rules and procedures which allowed one to render intelligible in a disciplined, systematic way obscure, unintelligible texts and their parts. Crucially, one of the procedures or techniques recommended for dealing with obscure texts or parts thereof was that of determining in an independent way the purpose or intention with which the author had written the text and thus also the context in which this intention made sense. It is obvious that such access to the author’s intention and context could not take place via understanding the problematic part of the text itself, since it was precisely in order to be able to understand this problematic part that one recurred the author’s intention and context. So in this we have the beginnings of historically oriented textual criticism, which is indeed the origin of modern historiography itself.

Now it is not hard to see that this eighteenth century conception of hermeneutics makes certain very crucial and interrelated assumptions about the interpretation of texts and indeed the understanding of any text or utterance:

  1. Hermeneutics is a special discipline, a method or canon which only becomes operative when understanding does not occur immediately and effortlessly—perhaps because the text or parts thereof are obscure, perhaps because the text is incomplete or has some of its parts missing;

  2. In the normal case, however, we do not need hermeneutics. For in such cases, e.g., the understanding of everyday texts and utterances, understanding just comes naturally. It is an implicit and unproblematic affair, something which is achieved for the most part correctly and without any special effort. In particular, it is achieved without the aid of any special techniques and rules designed to prevent us from getting things wrong, i.e., designed to block misunderstanding. Given this conception of understanding, it is obvious that hermeneutics is only relevant in cases of breakdown;

  3. At the same time, as much as it is sometimes necessary to appeal to the author’s intention and historical context in order to identify the sense of a text, or the sense of obscure passages in the test, such appeal is always a heuristic device for identifying this sense. In eighteenth century conceptions of understanding and interpretation there is no suggestion that the author’s own opinion and intention with regard to the sense of the text is the final authority as to what this sense is.6

The third point is particularly important because it indicates that eighteenth century conceptions of understanding and interpretation are indeterminate as to whether the meaning of a text is simply identical with its character as an expression of the author’s intention,7 or whether meaning is something distinct from the author’s intention, even though working out what the author intends the text to accomplish is so to speak a route to this meaning.

With the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, we reach Schleiermacher. It will be clear from the end of section 4 that Dilthey has an extremely high opinion of Schleiermacher’s accomplishment. Dilthey describes the conception of hermeneutics prior to Schleiermacher thus: prior to his work

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. Now 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’s achievement as Dilthey sees it is that he attempts to unify and ground the diverse sets of rules for interpreting broken texts which previous writers had extracted more or less in ad hoc fashion from actual hermeneutical practice. Schleiermacher thought that this unification and grounding could be achieved by, as Dilthey puts it, going back behind the diverse rules to an analysis of the act of understanding itself. In this way, says Dilthey, Schleiermacher believed he could show that and how universally valid judgements about objective meaning are possible in hermeneutics. If he can show this in the way he envisages, then Schleiermacher will have in effect done for hermeneutics what Kant had done for natural science. And if the method of the human studies is precisely that of understanding, as Dilthey believes, then if Schleiermacher’s account of understanding is adequate, then he will have in effect given Dilthey the means to ground the human studies in Kantian fashion.


  1. According to Gadamer, his residual allegiance to a Cartesian atomism of human experience and events betrays that Dilthey has not escapted the tradition of Romantic, Schleiermacherian hermeneutics. This charge of residual allegiance to a Cartesian atomism characteristic of Romantic hermeneutics motivates another of Gadamer’s criticisms. He sees it as explaining why Dilthey, like the historical school before him, can only explain the essential historicity of human existence by tacit appeal to precisely that Hegelian idea of an underlying telos which he and the historical school were all concerned to overcome. According to Gadamer, only Heidegger is able to give an account of the essential historicity of human existence which does not imply that history is a process of realising some underlying telos which is distinct from the individual goals and aims of historical actors yet realised, so to speak behind their backs, in their various deeds and activities. Heidegger manages this because he conceives human activity and subjectivity as from the ground up a process of understanding and interpretation which generates radically new experiences and events, and is thus historical. On his account, there is no need to posit any metaphysical self or spirit in order to account for the emergence of novelty. Similarly, Gadamer also sees this residual allegiance as explaining why Dilthey thinks that just as much in the human studies as in the natural sciences one needs a method which will enable one to strip off the various prejudices one has as a result of one’s specific historical situatedness in order to gain an ahistorical, ‘objective’ perspective on the entities one is investigating.

  2. Not for nothing does Heidegger intimate that in his concept of life Dilthey vaguely grasped what he, Heidegger, calls being-in-the-world—see Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie, § 15 c.), S.247. Dilthey comes closest to working out “… the idea of anatural conception of the world’.”—see Sein und Zeit, § 11, H 52.

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

  4. Such postmodernist views are popular because of a persistent tendency to confuse ‘ontological’ and ‘epistemic’ issues: one assumes that if meaning is one and the same across epochs, if it is in this ontological sense fixed and immutable, then it has to be fixed and immutable in the epistemic sense of being something grasped once and for all by someone at some time. Under this assumption, the fact of significant difference across different groups and epochs of interpreters becomes positive proof that there is not such thing as one and the same meaning across different groups and epochs; meaning becomes a fleeting, shifting and unstable construct of the individual groups and epochs. There is, however, no reason to assume that the fallibility of interpretations entails that there is no one meaning, anymore than the fallibility of ordinary empirical claims about the world entails that there is no one world.

  5. Flacius’ own title was Über den Erkenntnisgrund der Heiligen Schrift (De Ratione Cognoscendi Sacras Literas).

  6. Of course, this is not to say that they positively denied any claim of the author to such final authority.

  7. And thus simply evidence for this intention—cf. Grice and his famous article “Meaning,” in Philosophical Review, Vol. 66, No. 3 (1957), pp.377-388!