Dilthey on the Concept of Psychology—II


This is the third of a set of seven course notes written in 1998 for a seven week introduction to the thought of Wilhelm Dilthey. It deals with Chapters Three and Four of his Ideas concerning a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology

Dilthey’s Ideas concerning a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology—Chapters Three and Four

Chapter Three

In Chapter III Dilthey continues his characterisation of explanative psychology and gives a more detailed account of its recent history. As we have seen, explanative psychology proceeds by

  1. identifying a certain finite number of elements of psychological phenomena which are “… unambiguously determinate …” (S.159) in the sense that they are defined by their lawlike ways of interacting with other such elements; and then

  2. synthesising these elements (or rather, their representations in psychological theory) in a model of complex psychological phenomena and processes such as cognition.

The mark of success in such explanative modelling will of course be that the model generated reproduces the psychological phenomena or process to be explained. Because explanative psychology proceeds in this ‘synthetic’ way, Dilthey often describes it as ‘constructive’—see, e.g., S.158.

Much of what Dilthey says here simply repeats what he has already said. Of interest here is the fact that he speaks of the rationalist philosophers Descartes, Leibniz and Spinoza as representatives of “… the constructive spirit …” (S.158) of 17th century natural science which leads to explanative psychology. This is in keeping with what was said in the previous set of notes, namely, that the roots of natural scientifically oriented explanative psychology lie in rationalist philosophy and psychology. Another thing worthy of note is Dilthey’s comment that Leibniz was the first to speak of the influencing of consciousness by the acquired psychological nexus. (S.158)

Dilthey does, however, add a few interesting historical details which expand on his previous account of explanative psychology. In particular, he draws attention to developments within early 19th century explanative psychology which one might well interpret as showing how the holistic character of the psychological forces itself upon explanative psychology. Thus, Dilthey speaks of how John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) had to assume “… a psychological chemistry …; when simple ideas or feelings combine, they can produce a condition which from the point of view of inner perception quite different is from the factors which have brought it about.” (S.160) In other words, Mill admits into the realm of the psychological complex phenomena which are not simply the resultants of the things that make them up, but rather emergent. He finds that he cannot construe various complex psychological phenomena simply as sums of the simpler entities which allegedly make them up. That is, he finds that complex phenomena have properties and behaviours which are emergent upon, and not simply functions of, the properties and behaviours of the parts of such complex phenomena. So he simply desclares that somehow or other these simple parts are sufficient for the whole of which they are parts. Dilthey sarcastically remarks that such postulation of psychological chemistry in order to account for such emergent properties makes the task of the explanative psychologist exceptionally easy. For it permits the psychologist to retain his account of the causal disposition and laws of the components of psychological phenomena while filling up the gap between this account and the complex psychological condition to be explained by the magic of psychological chemistry. (S.160-161) As Dilthey points out, such psychological chemistry postulated in order to fill up the gaps between the simple elements of one’s theory and the complex phenomena to be explained reduces the already minimal plausibility of such constructive theory to zero. (S.161)

Dilthey also makes a few historical remarks about the work of the early English psychologist Herbert Spencer. What is of interest here is that Dilthey speaks of how Spencer, by engaging in the study of the nervous system, comparative anatomical and physiological investigation of the animal kingdom and by using notions from evolutionary theory, attempted to found psychology in biology. (S.161) Spencer really attempts to carry out in experimental practice the idea of psycho-physical correlation. Specifically, he sets out to demonstrate the parallelism between psychological processes on the one hand and neurophysiological processes on the other: the former are seen as identical to the other, as so to speak the neurophysiological processes as seen from the inside. Note here Dilthey’s remark that by thus attempting to correlate in a systematic way the psychological and the physical, Spencer introduced anew “… deductively determine explanatory elements …, just as this had been done before by Wolff, Herbart and Lotze.” (S.161) Once again we see Dilthey’s emphasis on the rationalist roots of the idea of a powerful, all-explanatory theory and model of the psychological which maps the latter without remainder onto the physiological and physical. Of interest also is the way Spencer deliberately chooses to concentrate on one aspect of psychology, namely, the psychology of cognition, declaring that the explanation of emotional states and conditions is not at present available to us. This exclusive concentration on cognition is still characteristic of natural scientifically oriented psychology today.

According to Dilthey Spencer also transfers from the external organic world the notion of organic differentiation and development into inner psychological realm studied by explanative psychology. (S.162) Interestingly, he uses this idea to explain the origin of the a priori, by which Dilthey appears to mean precisely such fundamental beliefs as our belief in the causal regularity of the world. Perhaps Dilthey is attributing to Spencer some kind of evolutionary explanation of why we have these beliefs—see the remarks on evolutionary epistemology in the latter part of my previous set of notes. Of course, as noted at the end of these notes, the explanation of why we have these beliefs is not at all the justification of them as true. Dilthey seems to regard this as important feature of Spencer’s approach. Certainly, he points out how this idea brings Spencer closer than the Mills to a recognition of the holism of the psychological upon which Dilthey himself insists. As he puts it, “(i)t is evident that Spencer’s explanatory psychology more nearly approaches, in many points, the living reality of the psychic nexus than did the school of the Mills.” (S.162)

At the same time, the idea that psychological processes are identical with physiological processes means that Spencer’s psychology is committed to a refined form of materialism. Spencer, in order to integrate the psychological fully into the physical, thereby permitting the full extension of natural scientific methods to the psychological, had interpreted the general idea of pyscho-physical parallelism as psycho-physical identity.1 In this way, he conceived the relationship between the psychological and the physical in terms of what is known today as identity theory, which is indeed a form of materialism. Dilthey says that because of this materialist character, Spencer’s psychology presents a danger for such students of human affairs as the jurist and the historian of literature. The subsequent history of the human studies has shown, says Dilthey, how this veiled materialism as articulated by Spencer has had a destructive effect on such things as political economy, criminal law, doctrines of sovereignty and the like. Dilthey does not explain just what this allegedly destructive effect is. But he does go on to point out, rightly enough, that Spencer’s attempt to realise experimentally the idea of pyscho-physical parallelism was very influential, spreading irresistibly through France and Germany. (S.162) Naturally, it tended to go hand in hand with a commitment to materialism. Materialism is, says Dilthey, essentially explanative psychology. “Every theory which depnds on the system of physical processes and merely incorporates psychic facts into that system, is a materialism.” (S.162)

Dilthey traces the development of these first attempts at an experimental and fundamentally materialist explanative psychology further. The details are not relevant for us. The principle thing to note is the way in at the end of this development, when the work of people like Herbart, Fechner, Helmholtz and others had culminated in the establishment by Wilhelm Wundt of a fully independent, experimentally and natural scientifically oriented explanative psychology, complete indeed with its own institutes and journals, Wundt himself felt obliged to abandon the underlying commitment to a straightforward psycho-physical parallelism which had thus far guided the development of psychology. Wundt said, “When I approached psychological problems for the first time, I shared the general prejudice which lay in wait for the physiologist, according to which sensory perceptions result purely and simply from the physiological properties of our sense organs. I first learned to grasp in the products of vision that act of creative synthesis which gradually led me to acquire a psychological understanding of the development of the higher functions of imagination and understanding, for which the older psychology had provided no help whatever.” For this reason, Wundt had come to believe that the principle of psycho-physical parallelism “… can be applied only to elementary psychic processes, which are alone accompanied by well-determined parallel process of motion, that it can be applied neither to the products of mental life of any complexity, due to the elaboration of sensory data by the mind, nor to the general intellectual powers from which these products result.” (S.167—quoted by Dilthey from Menschen- und Tierseele, S.487, cf. psychische Kausalilät und Prinzip des psychischen Parallelismus, esp. S.38 ff.) Evidently, Dilthey thinks that the fact that at the end of several decades of work a leading advocate of explanative psychology should say this indicates that there is something wrong with the underlying assumptions of the approach, in particular, the assumption that psychology can effectively model itself on natural science.

Chapter 4: Descriptive and Analytic Psychology (S.168-190)

In the fourth chapter, Dilthey outlines in some detail what he understands by descriptive and analytic as opposed to explanative psychology. He says that we have already seen the concept of such a psychology to have been implicit in the very nature of our psychological experiences. That is, we have already seen in broad outline how the nature of the entities studied by psychology determine that the psychological of them be at least in part and in the first instance descriptive. We have also seen that the peculiarities of the domain of entities studied by psychology are not exclusive to this domain alone, but rather are shared by the domains studied by the other human studies. The objects studied by the other humans studies also are essentially embedded in appropriate kinds of ‘Zusammenhang’, i.e., nexus. This is precisely because the realms of society, culture, history and tradition are all the products of psychological beings; if humans did not think, will, act and feel, then obviously there would not be such higher-order ‘Zusammenhänge’ as these. For this reason psychology, when done properly, has a foundational status for the other human studies. It is of course thus far not at all clear just how psychology could play any kind of foundational role for the other human studies. Just what this role is is something we will come to. For the moment, let us note that according to Dilthey explanative psychology could not play any such role. This, thinks Dilthey, is confirmed by the historical considerations of the preceding chapter. (S.168)

As far as psychology itself is concerned, Dilthey reiterates the point made previously about the essentially holistic character of the psychological, which determines that the ‘constructive’ or ‘synthetic’ method of natural science is not appropriate for it. Dilthey’s hostility to such an approach comes out when he says that in the process of psychological life one can distinguish various elements, but cannot make such life by combining them. (S.169) The fact that according to Dilthey one can distinguish, but not separate, the elements of psychological life puts Dilthey’s at times misleading remarks about description, analysis and synthesis in perspective. Some of the things Dilthey says here suggest that whereas explanative psychology and natural science in general analyse their phenomena into simpler parts and then synthesise these parts in an explanatory model of the whole, Dilthey sees descriptive psychology as resting content with the first step, the step of analysis. This, however, cannot be right. It is not at all as if descriptive psychology simply does half of what explanative psychology does; the kind of analysis in question here is not at all the break-down of complex phenomena into real parts. So it would be better to speak not of analysis, but rather of something like explication.

The question is, however, what such explication involves and what it yields precisely. What is the exact sense in which Dilthey is here talking about a descriptive procedure of explication as an essential component of psychological method, a procedure which stands in contrast to all explanative procedures? (S.169) With this, Dilthey comes to characterise more closely the kind of cognitive approach and procedure which the peculiar nature of the entities studied by psychology imposes upon this discipline in both its descriptive and its explanative modes. As he puts it, “(w)e have indicated at the beginning of this study that the general methods of the science of man assume a particular character in their different domains; more particularly, that the special nature of our experience of psychic phenomena confers certain particularities to our knowledge of their nexus; and that the general methods thereby receive particular features in this or that domain. Now, the latter makes itself felt here, in the methodological operations of description and analysis, of explanation and hypothesis.” (S.169)

First of all, Dilthey returns to a point made earlier, namely, his claim that in our experience of natural objects, of objects considered as external and merely physical, we do not directly experience causal connection, but merely constant conjunction and succession. He contrasts this with how psychological life is given to us. Here we continually experience connection and nexus in ourselves, whereas in experience of external, natural objects we must impute connectedness and unity to sense impressions. (S.170) This much is nothing new; however, on S.172, we find Dilthey elaborating this theme of holism in a certain direction: firstly, we are told that in any individual lived experience (Erlebnis) the processes of one’s whole mind and self are implicated. Somehow the very nature and identity of the whole psyché is involved in the identity of any individual experience. Dilthey then says that this fact “… already determines the nature of our understanding [Verstehen] of ourselves and others.” (S.173) In other words, the fact that the identity of individual experiences is bound up with the whole psychological totality in which they occur determines just what it is to understand both our own selves and others.

What Dilthey is saying here is hardly clear. Before turning to interpret these claims directly, we need to note the significance of Dilthey’s reference in the above quote to understanding not merely our own selves but also others. The fact that he makes this reference indicates, I think, clear that while Dilthey’s talk of inner perception, etc., does insinuate an exclusive concern with awareness and understanding of our own psychological states, this is not really accurate: even when Dilthey is genuinely talking about awareness and understanding of our own psychological states, experiences and selves, he also thinks that what he is saying in such contexts applies also to our awareness and understanding of the psychological states of others. This is a not unimportant point, for Dilthey’s somewhat traditional talk of inner perception can lead one to think that he is talking about purely first-person introspection of one’s own psychological states, and thus saying nothing of relevance for our understanding of others. In fact, Dilthey’s persistent references to our own ability to introspect, to describe how things are in our own case, is motivated by a concern to characterise the distinctive cognitive approach that is implicated in the identification and understanding of psychological states, whosesoever they may be. Nor indeed is his concern simply with characterising how we understand both our own selves and the selves of others. He is concerned with this and more, namely, with identifying how we understand the various works, actions and institutions which make up society, culture and history, for according to Dilthey, the fact that all these works, actions and institutions presuppose the psychology and psychological states of the people implicated in them is relevant for theoretical cognition of them in the appropriate human study.

So when Dilthey casually remarks that “(i)n understanding we proceed from the coherent whole which is livingly given to us in order to make the particular intelligible to us …” (S.172), he is not at all talking solely about understanding our own individual psychological nexus; he is also talking about understanding that of other people. Indeed, he is not talking exclusively about understanding anyone’s psychological nexus, but rather about understanding any kind of nexus at all. The nexus in question might be one’s own psychological nexus, i.e., one’s own total personality which underpins the possibly unique ways in which one experiences, responds to, and acts in, the world. (To engage in a disciplined study of one’s own self and how one has come to be who one is is to engage in autobiography.) Then again, while the nexus under investigation might indeed be psychological, it might not be one’s own, but that of another person. (To engage in the disciplined study of another’s self is of course to engage in biography.) But the nexus need not be psychological at all; it could be, e.g., the social nexus which constitute a society, considered synchronically and thus sociologically, or the historical nexus of a society, now considered diachronically and thus historically. The fact that Dilthey is talking in this general way about nexi as such explains why he can suddenly begin talking about understanding a single sentence, a particular gesture or a particular action (see S.172). Clearly, none of these entities is a psychological phenomenon at all, much less a phenomenon in one’s own psychological nexus.2

So bearing this generality in mind, let us attempt to spell out more deeply how Dilthey conceives the way in which “(t)he processes of the whole pysché operate together …” (S.172) in any single lived experience (Erlebnis), i.e., how the entire psychological nexus of an individual is implicated in any such experience had by this individual. On S.172-173 Dilthey speaks of a further peculiarity of inner experience:

The individual psychic occurrences going on within us, the associations of the psychic facts which we inwardly perceive are presented to us with a different consciousness of their value for the whole nexus of our life. What is essential therefore stands out from the unessential within the inner apprehension itself. The psychological abstraction which singles out the nexus of life has for its performance, in the immediate consciousness of the value of the individual functions for the whole, a clue which the knowledge of nature does not possess. (S.172-173)

This passage obviously requires some extensive interpretation. What could Dilthey possibly mean by psychological experiences and states being given to us with varying values for the whole nexus of life? What in our psychological life could stand out as essential from what is inessential? In what sense could certain psychological states and experiences be essential while others are inessential?

Presumably, some desires are more essential than others in the sense that having them is more essential to being a living, psychological creature than others. For example, the desire to preserve one’s life, hence to acquire the means for preserving life is presumably an essential one, whereas a desire for chocolate or fish and chips is not. The belief that the world is a causally orderly place is presumably more essential in the sense that one could not behave intelligently and context-sensitively unless one had this belief. So this belief, like the desire for self-maintenance and preservation, is essential to being an intelligent behaving, psychological creature. Presumably, too, then, certain perceptions are more essential than others. For example, in some sense I see all sorts of things in this room: the people sitting in front of me, the lectern, the clock on the wall, etc. But at any one time not of all the things are see are particularly relevant. When lecturing I notice the people and the clock more than the desks, but when sweeping the floor I notice the desks rather than the clock and the blackboard. So it seems that my perceptions are essentially structured into relevant and irrelevant, giving what I am currently doing. In this sense, one can speak of my perceptions as dividing up into essential and inessential—whereby this division changes according to what I am currently doing.

If this is right, then what Dilthey is saying here is at least the following: our beliefs, desires and perceptions are not just an aggregate, but come structured according to their ‘value’. In the case of persisting psychological states like beliefs and desires, their value is their importance as constitutive elements of what one is. In the case of occasional or occurrent experiences like perceptions their value is their relevance as this is determined by one’s current activity. As we have seen, when lecturing my perceptions of people and the clock on the wall are the relevant kinds of perception, not whatever perceptions I may in fact have of irrelevant things like the fly crawling along the lectern’s edge or the curious hat worn by one of the people in the class. When lecturing I need to keep my eye on the time and the people, not on the flies and hats.

So in general the psychological totality in which psychological states and experiences are embedded structures these individual psychological phenomena according to the contribution each makes to the overall identity and character of this totality, or, in the case of occasional experiences like perceptions, the contribution each makes to sustaining and promoting the current phase of activity in which this totality—in effect the psychological individual—finds itself engaged. If this is how Dilthey is to be understand here, then we can fairly easily see how he regards the whole psychological nexus as shaping the individual psychological states and experiences. More accurately, it allows us to see so to speak the logical conduits or lines of influence along which it can exert a causal influence on individual states and experiences. For the suggestion is this: psychological states and experiences have an intrinsic weighting and structure which is determined by the various long and short term goals in whose pursuit the whole process of the individual’s life consists. In other words, in each individual’s case they are structured by the overall priorities of the individual and the specific subsidiary goals which these priorities determine. Psychological states and experience are thus embedded in such a teleologically structured whole; they do not constitute it.

With this, it becomes a little clearer that Dilthey is quite anti-Cartesian in his approach to psychological phenomena and the total self which they constitute. For if psychological states and experiences are essentially structured according to the way they define selfhood or their relevance for self, then for one and the same reason two interconnected corollaries of Descartes’ conception of mind and experience must be wrong.

Firstly, the conception of human personhood implicit in Descartes must be wrong. Descartes protests in his Sixth Meditation that he does not regard the mind as standing to the body as a pilot does to his ship. But these protestations notwithstanding, it is hard not to construe him as conceiving things in this way. For Descartes sees the human person as a mind enclosed in a certain kind of body, which body is caused by this mind to make mere bodily movements in space and time in accordance with the various goals the mind would like to have realised.

Secondly, the view of how we recognise the psychological states and experiences of others which this conception of the human person implies must also be wrong. It follows from Descartes’ conception of the human person that we identify the psychological states, experiences and intentions of others by first recognising mere bodily movement and then making hypotheses as the unobservable psychological states and experiences which caused it. To regard our knowledge of the psychological life of others in this way is to construe it on the model of symptom and hidden cause: the doctor observes certain spots on the skin and, because he or she knows that often such spots are caused by the unobservable, hidden measles virus, concludes that the patient has measles. Similarly, we see smoke on the horizon and, because we know that smoke is often caused by fire, conclude that a bush fire has broken out.

If, however, as Dilthey believes, the whole psychological nexus shapes one’s psychological states and experiences in the manner outlined, then this kind of model is completely inappropriate in the case of our recognition of other people’s psychological states and experiences. We could not possibly see just mere bodily movement, that is, the movement of body parts described in completely neutral, physical terms, e.g., “Now the person is moving their upper right appendages outwards, opening five slender, elongated body parts attached to this appendage, then enclosing in these five elongated body parts something which consists of a brown, hard, 30 cm long wooden cylinder at one end of which there is curiously shaped, heavy, presumably metallic fixture.” No, we see a person stretching out their arm in order to grasp in their hand a hammer. And this is to see in this behaviour and in this body itself a certain possible intentional life: the person is setting out to hammer something together with the hammer they are grasping. Of course, this may not be right; perhaps the person is really picking up the hammer to club someone to death or to use as a paperweight. However this may be, the central point still remains: we do not see mere bodily movement, but meaningfully, intentionally structured, purposive bodily movement.

Of course, if this is how we recognise the psychological states and experiences of others, then the others cannot be minds enclosed in bodies as pilots are enclosed in their ships or, to update Descartes’ metaphor, aeroplanes. There must indeed be an internal relation between the mind, with all its psychological states and experiences, and the body: the body is not an instrument contingently associated with the mind, as if the only difference between one’s body and the tools one wields with this body were that the body is always with one, whereas tools one can leave lying around. One’s body is essentially something in which one’s psychological life is expressed. When one looks at a person, one sees hands, feets, face in the sense that a hand is something that wields various tools for various ends, a foot something that is implicated in walking and a face something that smiles or frowns. By hand, foot and face we do not mean what the empiricists thought: in the first instance something around 8 cm wide by12 cm long, fleshy, flexible, with five shorter appendages jutting from it at various angles, and only in the second instance something people grasp and wield things with. The empiricists seriously thought that we classified things according to the various bundles of sensory property these things had, and then only later discovered the various functional, teleological and subject-relative properties which these things also bore. But if Dilthey is right, then the character of a hand as a hand could never be given to us in experience in this derivative way, i.e., first recognition of the blobby appendage and then attribution to this blobby thing of some functional role and value. Not the completely unfunctional, completely non-teleological properties of weight, colour, ‘feel’, smell, etc., are the first things we experience on the basis of which we then assign functional, teleological and subject-relative properties, rather these latter are given to us just as fundamentally and originally as the kinds of property and relation favoured by early modern philosophers.3 In this spirit, on S.171-172 Dilthey says that we see things directly in their relevance for us. For example, I see the truck careering dangerously towards me. Evidently, the adverb ‘dangerously’ intimates the relevance of the truck’s direction of motion for me. Nor do I just perceive the objective fact of the truck’s careering dangerously towards me, with the indifference of Mersault in Camus’ novel The Stranger; the dangerous character of the truck’s direction of motion affects me, I feel fear. In consequence, my perceptual experience does not just inform me about what to do should I feel motivated; it also supplies the necessary motivation.

Note that what distinguishes one psychological experience or state from another is at least in part the content of this experience or state. What makes my perceiving the tree in the garden different from my perceiving the cat on the mat? In part the fact that the one is a perceiving of a different state of affairs, namely, of the tree standing in the garden as opposed to the cat lying on the mat.4 So what individuates different perceptions one from another is their content. So if the different perceptions of which we can become aware in inner apprehension or, as Dilthey sometimes calls it, inner perception or apperception, are presented to us with different consciousnesses of their value for the whole of our life, this must be due to their having different contents with such different values.


  1. One does not need to be a materialist to endorse the idea of a psycho-physical parallelism; for example, people who believe that the mental is real but epiphenomal are not materialist but they do believe in parallelism. Materialism is in fact just one way of spelling out the idea of psycho-physical parallelism, one which has the very great advantage of being able to say why such parallelism exists: this parallelism or correlation exists because the mental and the physical are one and the same.

  2. Note that the generality of Diltheys talk about nexi is perfectly consistent with his insistence that understanding the nature of our own access to our own psychological states and conditions is an essential part of articulating both what theoretical cognition amounts to in all kinds of human study and how it is possible.

  3. This is something Heidegger also maintains.

  4. Of course, while the fact that an experience A has a different content from experience B is sufficient for A’s being different from B, it is not necessary. My desire that the cat lie on the mat and my perceiving it to do so are two different psychological states even though they have the same content.