Dilthey’s Account of Descriptive or Analytic Psychology—I


This is the fourth of a set of seven course notes written in 1998 for a seven week introduction to the thought of Wilhelm Dilthey. It deals in more detail with the account Dilthey provides, in Chapters Three and Four of his Ideas concerning a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology, of descriptive or analytic psychology, as opposed to explanative psychology.

What is Descriptive or Analytic Psychology?

I ended the last set of notes with an account of what Dilthey seems to be saying on S.168-175 of the fourth chapter of the ‘Ideas’. In particular, I tried to make some sense of how Dilthey sees the overall psychological nexus as influencing and shaping the very identity of the psychological states and experiences which make it up. It seems that 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 the psychological individual finds itself engaged. If this is how Dilthey is to be understand here, then the overall psychological nexus can be understood to exert a causal influence on individual states and experiences in the sense that the overall priorities and aims towards which this totality, qua psychological life-process of the individual, is directed structure or weight the individual psychological states and experiences according to their relevance for these priorities and aims, and the specific subsidiary goals which these aims and priorities determine.

I also pointed out how this means that Dilthey has a decidedly anti-Cartesian conception of how the human mind stands to its body and in particular, how we recognise and understand the psychology of other human individuals. On Dilthey’s picture, psychological states and experiences are not just causes of mere bodily movement; my mind does not stand to my body as a pilot does to the ship he is trying to steer into harbour. Nor do we recognise the psychological states and experiences of others by first observing mere bodily movements and then hypothesising as to the hidden psychological causes of these bodily movements. In some sense, the relation I have to my body and to my bodily movements is closer than this: my bodily movements have so to speak their intentional, purposeful character written into them. Similarly, we do not see mere movements of bodily parts, but actions, i.e., bodily movements permeated with purpose and intention.

Bearing these points in mind, let us pick up the threads of Dilthey’s discussion on S.175. Here he basically claims that if this is how the psychological nexus relates to the individual states and experiences making it up, then a kind of psychology becomes possible “which, beginning from the universally grasped nexus of psychic life, analyses the single members of this nexus, describes its component parts and connective functions, and examines them as thoroughly as it can but without trying to construct the whole causal system of psychic events.” (S.175) Such a psychology is what Dilthey means by descriptive or analytic psychology. In the rest of chapter 4 Dilthey spends some time outlining the general structure and shape of such a psychology, before turning in the following three chapters to indicate more precisely what it involves.

The Plan and Structure of a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology—General Part (S.176-180)

Dilthey’s discussion of the general shape of this psychology falls into two parts, what he calls a general part, followed by (from S.180 on) a distinguishing of the three great kinds of nexus to be found in the structure of pyschic life. The general part has in the first instance to describe psychological phenomena in order to create more adequate psychological terminology and to reach agreement about such terminology. (S.176) In second instance, however, such description must seek to throw the overall structural nexus of fully articulated psychic life into sharp relief. (S.176) The analysis of such psychic life aims at identifying the architectonic principles of organisation and structure which govern an individual’s psychology. It does not ask, at least not initially, about the individual components out of which such psychic life is built, nor about the process in and through which such life has developed. The point is rather to find “… the structural law through which the intelligence, emotive and instinctive life, and the volitions, are connected to the organized totality of psychic life.” (S.176) Dilthey goes on to say that this structural law expresses the particular psychic nexus of an individual. Crucially, Dilthey believes that we gain access to, i.e., find out about, this structural law via ‘inner experience’, for it is in inner experience that the nexus is given to us in the most penetrating way. (S.176)

As always, what Dilthey is saying here is obscure. But we need to bear in mind the points made earlier in the chapter about the way the overall totality of psychic life, which is a process of setting and pursuing specific goals in the light of overall priorities, ‘weights’ and thus structures individual elements in the whole. Certain beliefs and desires are more fundamental and essential than others, while perceptual experience comes essentially structured according to relevance for these specific goals and priorities. As we have seen, this means that the overall psychic totality or nexus structures itself and its component elements in an essentially teleological way; it is essential to the very identity and significance of any individual component psychological state or experience that it have a certain place, relevance and functional role within the whole. But this teleological structuredness imparts to the whole a certain causal efficacy vis-à-vis the individual component elements and the way they interact with one another. In other words, in virtue of structuring and weighting the individual elements in this teleological way, the whole is able to impact causally upon the parts. That my psychic life develops in a certain direction, that I form certain intentions to behave, experience certain emotions and feelings, or respond to my environment in certain ways and not others, is not just a function of the individual elements themselves, but of the whole, dynamic totality of such states and experiences which make me the individual I am. It seems that just this is what Dilthey is getting at when he says that the character of the nexus “… is … at once teleological and causal.” (S.176) Dilthey tells us here that in one of the following chapters he will specifically examine the character of the nexus. (S.176) He is talking here of Ch.7 in particular—see S.200-213.)

Now the structural law of which Dilthey speaks here is but the first of three basic laws of psychic life which it is the task of descriptive psychology in its general part to describe. As already indicated, the first of these laws, the structural law, is described more fully in Ch.7., so we must postpone more detailed discussion of it until then. In the meantime, let us note what Dilthey describes here (S.176) as the second of these laws. He writes,

From the teleological character of [the structural nexus—B.C.] results the second fundamental law of psychic life, a law which operates longitudinally as it were—that of development. (S.177)

This law of development thus builds upon or presupposes the structural law. It is described by Dilthey as running ‘longitudinally’, or rather ‘lengthwise’ (Längsrichtung), by which Dilthey appears to mean that it runs so to speak perpendicularly to the structural law. The structural law articulates the principle upon which psychic life is structured at any one moment of time whereas the law of development articulates the principle of its temporal evolution across intervals of time. In other words, the structural law is_ synchronic_ while the law of development is diachronic.

The diachronic law of development is that the acquired psychological nexus which constitutes an individual person, and indeed all the larger nexi of culture, society and tradition, have a developmental tendency. They are neither static nor merely self-sustaining, but rather have an inherent tendency to evolve qualitatively new forms for themselves. A mountain, while it is of course always caught up in natural processes and thus in this sense is always changing, does not develop or evolve new forms of itself. Nor indeed does a colony of ants, even though it is not static like a mountain, but rather a self-sustaining, self-regulating whole. Psychological, social, political and cultural nexi, on the other hand, do develop and evolve. Moreover, they do so on the basis of their particular structure and character—which is of course why Dilthey says that the law of development results from the first law, i.e., from the structural character of the nexus as teleological. Dilthey says,

If there existed no purposiveness whatever in the psychic structure and as regards the forces which animate it, and no value-system which would give it a determinate tendency, the course of life would not be development. (S.176)

Furthermore, it is because each nexus, and in particular, the psychological nexus, has this teleological and thus developmental character that one cannot construe the behaviour, properties and dispositions of the whole nexus as a function of the behaviour, properties and dispositions of the individual parts. The teleological, purposive and thus development character of any nexus makes it impossible “… to deduce the development of man … from the atomistic play of particular psychic forces in the system of the Herbartians or the materialists.” (S.176) In other words, the behaviour of a whole human individual is not simply the resultant of various psychological forces, drives and pressures so to speak colliding with one another in the way in which, say, the weather is a resultant of diverse metereological forces and conditions. Rather, qua psychological being, a whole human individual is a dynamic, future-directed process in the sense that the play of psychic forces, drives, states and experiences only takes place as structured by overall priorities and the specific goals which, from context to context, these priorities determine. A psychological being like a human is essentially on the way to doing and being such and such. Similarly, the behaviour of a whole society cannot be construed as the resultant of the individual actions of its individual members. Here, too, thinks Dilthey, we must acknowledge the essentially teleological character of the whole which shapes and structures the invidual actions of individual actors. This means that Dilthey rejects a typical methodological strategy of much early modern political and social philosophy, namely, so-called methodological individualism. This is precisely the view that the structure and evolution of a social whole can be understood as resulting from the interplay of all the individual actions of individual actors in the whole. A classic attempt to account for political order and indeed political disorder in such methodologically individualist terms is Hobbes’ Leviathan, which appeared in 1651. Hobbes’ theory of the nature and origin of political and social order is just one version of a particular kind of theory very popular in early modernity, namely, the theory of the social contract: social and political order arises out of pact or contract, real or hypothetical, in which individuals agree to surrender their individual power and preparedness to pursue and defend certain interests in return for some kind of sovereign, collective power which pursues these interests on their behalf. Evidently, Dilthey thinks that such atomistic contractarian theories are wide of the mark.

But just as we cannot construe either the psychological or the social nexus in this genuinely atomistic way, so, too, we cannot conceive them in any holistic way which denies the essentially purposive or teleological character of the whole. If it is impossible “… to deduce the development of man … from the atomistic play of particular psychic forces …” (S.176), so, too, it is equally impossible to deduce this development “… from the blind will advocated by Schopenhauer ….” (S.176) What exactly Dilthey means here is unclear. Indeed, on the face of it, what he is saying is straightforwardly contradictory: how can the ‘will’ which according to Schopenhauer underlies everything not be purposive and teleological?

In fact, for all their brevity and obscurity, what Dilthey is intimating with these cryptic remarks, and indeed in this whole paragraph (S.176-177), constitutes a fundamental feature of his thought. So we need to work why it is inappropriate to conceive of the development of nexi, whether psychological or social, as the motion of a mere blind will. Having said that neither atomism or individualism, nor a blindly holistic ‘will’ is an adequate theoretical strategy for understanding the structure and development of persons and their societies, Dilthey says,

With man, this development tends to establish a stable nexus of psychic life in harmony with its life conditions. All the processes of psychic life work together in us for the realization of such a nexus, striving, so to speak, to give a form [Gestalt] to our soul; for, the activity of distinction and dissociation brings out relationships and thus serves that of combination. The formulas of transcendental philosophy concerning the nature of our synthetic faculty are only abstract and inadequate expressions of the properties of our psychic life, which creatively bring about the evolution and form of this life. (S.177)

I take it that here Dilthey is saying simply that our psychological development is one towards a certain form, shape of character, which character is essentially relational and processual, a matter of relating to a certain social and cultural context. This essentially dynamic, self-regulating kind of identity is the form of our soul and the kind of unity which it represents is poorly articulated by such previous philosophies as Kant’s transcendental philosophy. For the kind of overall identity and character which the psychological nexus constitutes is something which is realised in, and itself contributes to, an essentially creative process of evolution and development.

If Dilthey means something like this, then perhaps he is getting at the idea that to conceive a person, or indeed some larger nexus, e.g., the social nexus, as somehow either the mere resultant of its components, or as the expression of some one underlying essence, e.g., Schopenhauer’s will, is to rule out from the outset the essentially creative character of human or social development. The psychological development whereby an individual becomes the person he or she is, with a unique and distinctive character, is a process in which essentially novel, emergent properties and features arise. This fact makes it futile to think one achieves much by seeing the development of a self, with a distinctive personality and style, as in any way rendered intelligible by the two characteristic cognitive or methodological strategies of previous philosophy. Because the development of a self is essentially the bringing forth of emergent novelty, one cannot conceive the process of development in the atomistic, reductionist manner of early modern methodological individualism. But precisely for the same reason, nothing is achieved by interpreting psychological development as manifesting and realising some one underlying essence. And it does not matter whether this underlying essence or first principle is construed in Schopenhauerian terms as a striving for self-manifestation and expression, in Nietzschean terms as will to power or in Hegelian terms as the essential purpose or telos of social and historical development. All such metaphysical conceptions abstract from human purposes, goals and strivings, attempting to construe them as expressions of some hidden essence. In so doing, they tacitly eradicate the creativity and spontaneity inherent in psychological and, we might, social and historical development, a creativity and spontaneity which derives precisely from the fact that such processes essentially involve and turn on the individual purposes and interpretations of the actors caught up in them. In short, by showing no real appreciation of the significance of the specific purposes and interpretations of the self caught up in psychological development, or indeed, of the individual actors caught up in social and historical development, such speculative metaphysics do not at all explicate, but in fact fail to see, the true nature of such developmental processes. The creativity and spontaneity of social and historical existence which arises from its teleological character eludes any interpretation of such existence as the manifestation and realisation of some underlying reality, whether this be Hegel’s ‘Absolute Idea’, Schopenhauer’s ‘will’ or even Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’. All such postulations are metaphysical in the bad sense of being empty speculation with no real cognitive content or value.

If this is how this passage is to be understood, then what it says certainly fits in with Dilthey’s overall view of things. In general, Dilthey dislikes both the reductionistic and mechanistic conceptions of early modern philosophers; and what he and so many others of his time saw as the windy speculations of idealist philosophers like Hegel and Schopenhauer. The former were so obsessed with the accomplishments of early modern science, in particular, physics, that they thought the cognitive approaches of, say, Newtonian mechanics could be applied everywhere. By the time of the so-called Enlightenment, which occured around the middle of the eighteenth century, many philosophers were so impressed by the success of early modern physics that they thought the extension of its to all domains would not only enable all sorts of new science to flourish, but would bring about human emancipation from nature, superstition and thereby political oppression.

Hegel and others were not so enthusiastic about this vision. Hegel thought that not science, but philosophy offered the theoretical perspective which came with true human emancipation. For Hegel, human emancipation could never be the result of a prospective decision on individuals’ part to bring utopia about. One could not sit down and rationally work out what the ideal human condition was and then set about realising. Hegel thought that this would lead, as it had in the French Revolution, to tyranny and murder. But he was not a reactionary who believed that the ideals of the French revolution, i.e., of modern, bourgeous society, were spurious. He thought that they were in fact real possibilities for us, that indeed history itself, by the very logic of its evolution, was bringing about their true realisation and in the process educating humankind as to what concrete shapes and forms their realisation required. It is not human beings who bring about a rational, just social order, but the very historical process itself, for this process is governed by reason, by an inherent tendency of societies and cultures to assume ever more differentiated, complicated and autonomy-guaranteeing forms. Human beings cannot look forward to utopia; revolutionary politics are fundamentally irrational and disastrous. But human beings can look back; they can look at their present and past historical circumstances and comprehend the essential tendency to rational order within it. Indeed, Hegel believes that this comprehension of the essential reasonableness of history is an essential part of history’s ultimately yielding the maximally rational, sophisticated form of social and cultural organisation. But this comprehension cannot be gained just be looking back at a heap of unorganised historical facts. In order to see the reason in history and social processes, one needs a certain guiding thought or pre-conception. Providing this guiding idea or pre-conception and grounding it is, thinks Hegel, philosophy’s essential task. In the realm of pure conceptual thinking, philosophy comes up with an abstract, non-empirical, a priori account of the principle of rational order and self-organisation which must be operative in anything that exists. It then turns to history and, guided by this idea, interprets the myriads of historical facts so as to show how this principle—Hegel calls it the ‘Absolute Idea’ has worked itself out in and through history. This kind of history is not empirical history. It does not just chronicle the comings and goings of dynasties, kings, queens and empires. It is rather philosophical or speculative history—this because it is guided by a philosophically grounded knowledge of what to look for in history; this knowledge enables one to sort out the relevant from the irrelevant facts of history and thereby discern the fundamental order in it.

Now Dilthey did not like either alternative. The Enlightenment thinkers were so obsessed with the atomistic, reductionist kind of explanation appropriate to early modern physics that they simply denied, or rather did not even see, the holistic character of all nexi, whether psychological or social. They were thus trying to comprehend phenomena using completely the wrong conceptual tools and methods. Hegel, on the other hand, while he was certainly very much aware of the holistic, relational character of individual human subjects, societies, cultures and traditions, believed that identifying and cognising such holistic forms of order required a fundamentally non-empirical, speculative metaphysics in order to see it in empirical reality.

According to Dilthey it is a grave error to think that if a discipline like history is to be a genuine theoretical enterprise, i.e., not just a mere chronicling of events, but rather something which identifies intelligible structure and order in the historical process, it must adopt one or the other of these two conceptions of theoretical practice and procedure. In order to conceive how a discipline like history might be a genuine form of ongoing theoretical inquiry, one need not and must not restrict oneself either to the natural scientifically oriented conception of analysising complex phenomena into their elements in order to synthesise or construct an explanatory model; or to the speculative metaphysical conception of identifying a priori some abstract pattern or structure which one then reads into the complex phenomena one wishes to make sense of. These two traditional alternatives are both inadequate as conceptions of how to do Geisteswissenschaft.

Indeed, strictly speaking, the reasons why Dilthey rejects the standpoint of speculative metaphysics à la Hegel are valid not just for this standpoint, but also touch upon a standpoint with which one might at first think Dilthey to have some affinity. Systems theoretic accounts of biological, social and nowadays even psychological phenomena claim to offer an alternative to the traditional natural scientific conception of comprehending a complex phenomenon by constructing a theoretical model which demonstrates the overall behaviour of the phenomenon to be a function of the properties, relations and dispositions of certain elements which make the phenomenon up. Systems theoretic approaches pride themselves on what they see as their anti-reductionistic character, claiming that we need to understand many phenomena as systems in which certain properties, relations and dispositions of the elements which make the system up do not divide up into dependent and independent, but are mutually determining. This interdependence means that certain properties of the system as a whole, e.g., certain rates of change of quantitatively variable properties of the system, occur as determining factors in the laws which articulate how the system changes, for example, over time. An example of such a system is the centrifugal steam governor invented by James Watt: the angle of the arms is a function of the engine speed, but this speed is in turn a function of the angle of the arms. In conseqence, the angle of the arms at any one time is determined not just by the engine speed at that time, but also by the current velocity at which the arms are moving.1 The nett effect of this relation of interdependence, of this coupling, is that arm angles and settle into a constant value, which is, of course, what one wants, at least as regards engine speed. Moreover, the whole system of engine and governor maintain their equilibrium even in the face of quite significant changes, e.g., as a result of increased work load placed on the engine, which causes speed to drop, the throttle to open up, more steam to enter the pistons and thus speed to go up again.

Such dynamic coupling of engine speed and arm angles makes the engine and its governor a self-regulating system which preserves itself in a certain optimal state in the face of all sorts of changes in the surrounding environment. Moreover, it does so in ways which do not require one to postulate any desire or intention on the part of the system to maintain itself in this optimal state. It is therefore tempting to think that the idea of dynamical systems with feedback mechanisms of this kind can provide a model for explaining the behaviour of biological organisms. Are these not entities which, like the engine and its steam governor, are able to maintain themselves in highly dynamic, diverse environments? Perhaps what we call the tendency or even desire of living things to preserve their lives is nothing more than the fact that living things are dynamical systems just like the engine and its governor. If so, then in their case one will no more have to postulate desires and intentions in any non-metaphorical sense than one has to in the case of the self-regulating steam engine. For some, this is an extremely attractive thought, not merely because it gets rid of allegedly problematic entities like desires and intentions, but also because it suggests how life itself may succumb to mathematical description and thereby physical explanation. For we possess well-developed, albeit often non-linear mathematical techniques for describing the behaviour of steam engine governors and the like.

I think, however, that Dilthey would not be as enthusiastic about the possibilities of the dynamical systems model, at least when it is applied to what he means when he talks about ‘life’. As already indicated, Dilthey does not mean anything solely biological by this. Life-with-a-capital-L is for Dilthey the life of a society, culture, institution or tradition. And life-with-a-small-l is the life process of that kind of entity which not merely has beliefs, desires and intentions, but can participate in social, cultural and historical Life. As applied to life in both these interrelated senses, Dilthey would regard the systems-theoretic approach as just as inadequate as the attempts of speculative metaphysics to interpret psychological and socio-historical reality in terms of some underlying essence or telos. It does not matter whether one regards psychological and socio-cultural development as the expression of the Absolute Idea, the Will to Power or, as in systems-theory as systems regulating themselves towards self-preservation. Even when one conceives of a system as having a tendency to self-preservation which is so sophisticaed that self-preservation involves self-differentiation (greater complexity) or increased autonomy vis-à-vis the operating environment, one still fails to capture the essentially creative, novelty-generating character of psychological and of social, cultural and historical development. One cannot grasp the true character of psychological and socio-cultural development in history by regarding these processes as just so many examples more of systems with an inbuilt tendency to self-preservation, differentiation and/or autonomy.

Nonetheless, this systems theoretic approach does seem, at least superficially, to be much more congenial to Dilthey’s position than either standard natural scientific conceptions or the metaphysical conceptions of what Dilthey calls “the German speculative school” (177)—by which he means precisely the school of German Idealism, in particular, Hegel. It is extremely plausible to think that systems theory, cybernetics and the like have their origins precisely in late nineteenth century philosophy of life, which in turn was influenced by Romanticism and the late eighteenth to early nineteenth celebration of the organic. Indeed, Rudolf Christian Eucken (1846-1926), who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1908 and whose thinking has affinities with systems theory, was a philosopher of life. The significant difference between Eucken and Dilthey seems to be that Eucken, at least as far as I can tell on the basis of very limited knowledge of his work, conceived life in a biological, hence potentially biologistic way (even though he was apparently opposed to naturalism).

It is interesting that those in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who celebrated the organic, often claiming that it somehow eluded the cognitive grasp of standard natural scientific approaches frequently did so on the basis of the way in which the organic differentiated itself into a complex, but nonetheless integrated whole in which the different parts served the overall systemic goal of self-preservation. This celebration of a processual unity in which diverse features and structures all play functional roles in maintaining the whole is something common to Romantic thinkers like Herder, the German idealistists Schelling and Hegel, Dilthey himself, vitalist thinkers like Eucken and last but not least, even systems theorists. Dilthey’s own allegiance to this idea comes out where he describes (S.177) Herbert Spencer as correctly articulating in his doctrine of differentiation and integration other characteristics of the kind of development appropriate to the various kinds of nexi.

The third basic law of psychic life which descriptive psychology in its general part must describe lies “… in the change of states of consciousness and in the influence of the acquired nexus of psychic life on every single act of consciousness.” (S.177)2 Once again, Dilthey comes back to the idea that what makes psychological and indeed other kinds of nexi resistant to traditional, natural scientifically oriented treatment is that in their case the whole exerts a causal conditioning influence on the parts. Once again, Dilthey says that the acquired psychological nexus is characterised by an inner, highly comprehensive relation “according to which the individual events of consciousness are produced or at least mutually conditioned at every moment by the acquired nexus of psychic life ….” (S.177) This conditioning relation is also said to be intimately connected with the first basic law, the structural law of psychic life. As we have been over this already, I do not wish to dwell on it—save to point out that Dilthey here says that insight into this relation “… analytically clarifies the spontaneity of psychic life.”(die freie Lebendigkeit des Seelenlebens) (S.177) In other words, to understand this relation is to understand what makes life life—whereby we must of course bear in mind that Dilthey has in mind not biological life, but psycho-social, cultural and historical life. Here we see that according to Dilthey, if we want to understand the tendency to generate the radically new which characterises social, cultural and historical existence, as well as the kind of psychological life which is capable of such existence, we need to understand this distinctive causal relation between whole and part. This essential creativity or capacity for novelty is to be traced back in part to the fact that we are sensuous creatures with a bundle of drives, instincts and feelings. (S.177) We must have such a sensuous, ‘animal’ side to us, for this animal side is what imparts to any new impression or experience a certain interest or value, as well as giving direction to, i.e., determining the ultimate goals of, our wills. (S.177)3 That is, in order to have such cognitive and volitive psychological states and experiences as perceptions, beliefs and desires, one must have arational likes and dislikes, a sensuous capacity to enjoy and to suffer. For only if one has such a sensuous side to oneself can certain of one’s perceptions and beliefs stand out as relevant or important, only if one has such side to oneself can there be ultimate goals, i.e., ends in themselves, and thus desires for these ends and for the means of reaching them. This indicates from another angle the anti-Cartesian picture of Dilthey’s view of psychological states and experiences: one can only have impressions and sense experience, hence empirical knowledge, if one has drives, instincts and feelings, what Heidegger was later to call one’s Befindlichkeit, i.e., affectivity or affective disposedness. This constrasts strongly with Descartes, who would appear committed to the view that there could be a sentient, empirically knowing subject without any such affective disposedness. Certainly, in his famous Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes states quite clearly that a subject can exist purely as thinking, i.e., without imagination, sense perception and even a body. If a subject can exist purely as thinking, then surely it can exist without any affective disposedness.

At any rate, Dilthey goes on to speak of how the conscious attention (Aufmerksamkeit) to things which arises from the interest assigned to impressions on the basis of our affective, ‘animal’ side assigns interest and value to impressions consists of processes which “… shape perception, form a recollection (Erinnerungsvorstellung), constitute a goal or ideal, all this in living, so to speak vibrating interconnection with the entire acquired pyschic life. Everything here is life.” (S.177—my translation)

Having outlined across S.176-180 the plan and structure of descriptive or analytic psychology in general, Dilthey goes on to provide an account of what he regards as the three principal nexi in psychic life. (S.180-190) There is

  1. the nexus of our perceptions, representations and beliefs, i.e., the cognitive nexus (S.181-185);

  2. The nexus of our drives and feelings, i.e., the affective nexus (S.185-188); and

  3. The nexus of our acts of will, i.e., the volitive nexus (S.188-190).

Evidently, what Dilthey means by the three psychological nexi are three classes or kinds of psychological state or experience, the cognitive (perceptual experiences, beliefs and mental judgements), the affective (sensations, feelings, sentiments, emotions, etc.) and the volitive (desires and intentions). What classes or kinds of psychological state or experience there are was discussed by a number of other authors, e.g., Brentano, in the mid- to late-19th. century, i.e., in the initial, founding stage of psychology as an independent, empirical science, with its own canon and tradition of research, institutionalised in universities and other research institutions. One crucial question in this regard was (and still is) how essential any of these basic classes or kinds were to the nature and structure of selfhood. Is a being possible, for example, which only had a cognitive nexus, i.e., only had cognitive psychological states and experiences? Or does having psychological states and experiences of the cognitive kind implicate having psychological states and experiences of the other kinds? In other words, is Descartes right or wrong to think that a purely thinking self is possible. Unfortunately, I have not got time to go into this further. I will try to expand on this at a later date.

The Relation between Explanative and Descriptive Psychology—Chapter Five

In this chapter, Dilthey sets out the relationship he sees between explanative and descriptive psychology. The first thing he claims is that the method of hypothesis constitutive of explanative psychology is always appropriate where, as he puts it, “… in those cases when experience no longer present to the psychologist a coherent nexus, when experience no longer permits him to compose and isolate it, when experience no longer allows him to arrive at this nexus as the rule that regulates the manifold of cases ….” (S.191) Dilthey seems to be saying that the method of hypothesis, which is the attempt to identify causal relations through repeated observation and experiment, is appropriate when one is dealing with phenomena which display a certain kind of unintelligibility. Some kinds of psychological behaviours are such that one can discern no sense or coherence in them, e.g., compulsive and other kinds of pathological behaviours, or again, the behaviours, hallucinatory experiences and traumas associated with epilepsy, schizophrenia and other kinds of neurological disorder. In these cases, experience offers us nothing which is intelligible in the manner of non-pathological, goal-directed action or everyday experience. That is, such behaviour does not fit into the coherent life-process in which each individual is manifest as the individual he or she is. They are as it were breaks or ruptures in the otherwise unified whole of psychic life. In such cases, the method of identifying hidden causes by natural scientific observation and experiment is more definitely in order. Indeed, Dilthey suggests that this method is the most important method for making progress in psychology (S.191)—by which he seems to mean that it is by this method that we discover ever more new and above all esoteric, non-obvious causal connections between psychological phenomena on the one hand, and non-psychological phenomena on the other.

What Dilthey is suggesting here is something that has reoccurred in the works of the contemporary German philosophers Karl-Otto Apel (1922- ) and Jürgen Habermas (1929- ). Both Apel and Habermas suggest that within the human studies there is most definitely a role for the methods of observation and experiment typical of natural science, namely, when an action, a text, a person or institution display patches of such incoherence that one must suspect them to be the result of blind, natural forces taking momentary hold of the otherwise intelligible flow of what Dilthey calls psychic life. Apel and Habermas like to appeal to the phenomenon of neurosis, where individuals display behaviour which is inexplicably irrational and dysfunctional in the context in which it occurs, e.g., compulsive hand-washing. Here, an explanatory hypothesis must be made as to the hidden causes of this behaviour, typically, repressed traumatic experiences had in childhood. Apel and Habermas like to transfer this idea to whole societies: phenomena such as racial or gender prejudice are seen as blind spots in the collective psyché which can only be undone by a critique of ideology akin to pyscho-analytic recovery of repressed experiences.

Now Dilthey points out that, at least in his time, no such hypothesis as to hidden causal connections between the psychological and the physical has really been effectively established. So no existing explanative psychology is currently able to claim that it provide the human studies with their underpinning. Indeed, thinks Dilthey, the attempt to underpin the human studies with explanative psychology as thus far practised has had detrimental effects on these disciplines. In a passage whose translation I have considerably corrected, Dilthey says,

The historical writings of Grote, Buckle, and Taine arose under the impression that the use of everyday, pre-theoretical experience [Lebenserfahrung] was insufficient for a deeper understanding of causal connection in historical phenomena: it seemed rather to these investigators that the great strides made in psychology, by which everyone had been captivated especially in France and England, would have to be applied to history. But their works prove precisely that the objectivity of the historian is best safeguarded when he relies upon his feeling for life than when he seeks to employ the one-sided theories of explanative psychology. (S.191)

In other words, under the influence of the extraordinary success of the traditional natural scientific method, in particular in psychology, many in France and Britain began to dream of the successful extension of these methods to the human studies. In particular, it was felt that one had to employ the methodological ideal of experience had under the controlled conditions and available to all, no matter what their particular everyday backgrounds, if one really wanted to come up with objectively valid judgements about causal relations between historical phenomena, judgements about which all practitioners of the discipline could reach agreement once and for all. One could not expect to achieve the necessary objectivity by relying on one’s everyday, commonsense judgement about how people behave and institutions operate. This kind of experience, everyday, pre-theoretical experience of one’s own life context and tradition, was necessarily parochial, with no guarantee of not being deceptive and distorted.

Dilthey says, however, that judged by their works, the historians who subscribed to this ideal would have been better served had they relied on their native, commonsense intuitions—what Dilthey at times means by ‘inner experience’.4 In other words, they have failed to get at the really important causal connections, they have produced no significant historical works, by pursuing this ideal of eschewing life-experience in favour of an experience achieved by methodically abstracting from their own historical situatedness and specificity.

Dilthey adduces another case in which this idea of utilising the results of explanative psychology in order to extend the methods and approach of natural science to the human studies has had a detrimental effect. This is criminal law. James Mill and his son John Stuart, as well as Spencer and Taine, have sought to construct a deterministic penal code founded on sometimes on psychology, sometimes on biology. Although the details vary from author to author, the general idea is that one can conceive of criminal law as a framework of punishments and deterrents established in order to ensure a fundamentally utilitarian goal such as overall happiness, peace and security. In no sense is the law conceived of as having some higher purpose, say, to guarantee appropriate retribution for evil, to secure God’s order on Earth, or even to secure a just and equitable social order. Rather, the law is conceived of as an instrument for securing certain ends which are determined by the psychology and biology of those who are subject to it, just as the particular punishments it puts in place in order to secure this end are similarly determined by the psychological and biological needs of those subject to the law, i.e., by what they like and dislike. So on this picture, the law is completely naturalistic: the subjects of law are assumed to be purely psychological and biological entities, whereby the words ‘psychological’ and ‘biological’ are understood as entailing that these entities are determined in their behaviour by the kinds of natural scientific law investigated by natural scientifically construed psychology and biology. That is, the subjects of law are conceived of as operating purely according to psychological and biological pushes and pulls. In no sense are they presupposed to be creatures which occasionally operate according to such everyday, pre-scientific, non-naturalistic notions as freedom of will, responsibility, sense of duty, considerations of fairness, etc. Insofar as these notions occur in jurisprudential contexts, they are either reducible to, and explicable in terms of, genuinely psychological, biological and naturalistic notions. Or they are mere residues and remnants of a pre-scientific notion of law which, like the notions of phlogiston, witch and tooth fairy, will in the course of scientific progress, eventually be eliminated.

In Dilthey’s opposition to this conception of law. we can really see why he regards as so pernicious the attempt to extend natural scientific methods and notions to the domains investigated by the human studies. This conception of the law despises as unscientific the traditional language of jurisprudence, which is founded in the commonsense, pre-scientific notions of everyday life. (S.192) In thus rejecting the notions of freedom, justice, responsibility and duty upon which traditional jurisprudential discourse is based, it denies the essential creative, spontaneous and productive capacity of social, cultural, historical and indeed psychological entities. For, says Dilthey, such everyday notions as freedom of choice are but expressions of our ineradicable consciousness of our spontaneity and sense of life (Lebendigkeit). (S.192) Our sense of being able to do otherwise than we actually end up doing is but our intuitive, pre-theoretical way of articulating he sense of spontaneity and life. All these is denied by such naturalising conceptions of law—naturalising because and in the sense that they attempt to conceive the realms investigated by the human studies as tractable to natural scientific methods, and thus regard entities in these domains as pushed and pulled about in deterministic fashion by the kind of forces which physics, biology and explanative psychology can accommodate.

Dilthey now seems to point out that this recognition of the essential creativity and spontaneity of behaviour characteristic of psychological, social and historical life is not incompatible with recognising that there are natural scientific causal connections between actions and various determining background conditions. Our consciousness of freedom, of being able to do otherwise, or indeed of actually having overcome a certain drive through an act of will motivated by duty, can of course be an illusion. Such consciousness may be simply wrong. To speak thus of our consciousness of freedom “… is only to express what is given in inner experience. The question concerning the objective regularities pertaining to the actions of men and the life of society, has nothing to do for the moment with this claim concerning what is given in inner experience.” (S.192) So there may indeed by objective causal regularities governing actions even though the actors think they are acting quite freely.5 Presumably, Dilthey thinks that precisely because there is alway this possibility of thinking wrongly that one is acting freely, there must be a role for explanative psychology. Explanative psychology is precisely what is needed in order to work out whether an action which perhaps even the actor quite sincerely claims to have been done freely, say, purely and simply from a sense of duty, has not really been done for other reasons, say, because the actor has succumbed to psychological feelings of envy, etc. Such cases of self-deception are not uncommon and here, there will be a role of explanative psychology in exposing such cases of ideologically distorted or self-deceiving action—action done in what Sartre calls ‘bad faith’.

Nonetheless, while there may indeed be many cases where we think we are acting freely, but are not in fact, Dilthey would appear to think that our consciousness of freedom is not always just pure illusion. He thinks, however, that this consciousness, characterised simply as the freedom to do otherwise in a particular situation, is inaccurate. Thus characterised, our freedom “… is only the intuitive, everyday way of articulating the living spontaneity (Lebendigkeit) and freedom in a spontaneity and freedom which relates to the whole nexus of my acting in which my character lies.” (S.192)6 Dilthey seems to be saying—I must confess that I am not really sure, but I am trying to make the best sense of this that I can—that to conceive our freedom simply as the capacity to resist the pressures of our drives, social conditioning, etc., in the name of something like duty, obligation, the moral law, etc., is to underdescribe the true character of freedom. It is in fact to make it seem something quite mysterious and miraculous, namely, an ability to intervene out of the blue in the causal process of nature in order so to speak to redirect these processes in another direction. It is in effect to conceive freedom as Kant sometimes describes it, namely, as the ability to initiate spontaneously new causal chains.

Dilthey seems to think that while freedom certainly is an ability to do things which one is not causally determined to do by the various forces operating on one from one’s psycho-biological constitution, one’s social and historical conditioning, etc., this purely negative characterisation can be filled out in a way which removes any sense that the exercise of this ability is a magical bolt from on high which intervenes in, and redirects, otherwise mechanistic causal processes. If we appreciate that what has psychological states and experiences, what exists in society, culture and history, is or has a psychological nexus which has a certain future-oriented, teleological structure, then one sees that such a psychological entity is, even in its capacity merely as striving to realise its various natural desires and drives, never just a mechanism responding mechanically to these desires and drives. Even when driven by non-moral motives, one’s behaviour is never just a causal resultant of various drives and desires held in the present, which are in turn a result of one’s past experience, social conditioning and inherent biological make-up. The way these factors from one’s present and past manifest themselve in, and shape, one’s actual behaviour is in part determined by what one sees the situation as demanding one to do, given what one is aiming to do. In other words, it is completely wrong, even in the case of non-moral actions, to see one’s past experiences, social conditioning, genetic make-up and the like as operating in an unmediated, direct way to determine the behaviour one engages in. Rather, these legacies of the past operate on one only insofar as they are necessary parts of that overall psychological nexus which is what a psychological being is. This nexus is essentially dynamic and teleological; it is that process of seeing in the light of one’s goals and priorities what the present situation requires one to do. So what comes first is the psychological nexus, with its spontaneous, free, future-directed character. Insofar as one’s past experiences, conditioning and genetic make-up manifest themselves in behaviour, they do so only as essential elements in this essentially non-determined process. So our freedom does not come from outside, it is not a capacity which has been miraculously tacked on to our psychological, social and biological processes from outside; our being the kind of entity which has acts in the light of the future, and not merely as a result of the past, is implied by our having had past experience, social conditioning and a biological make-up which conditions (but does not determine!) our behaviour. Such, says Dilthey, is the true content “… of Kant’s, Schelling’s and Schopenhauer’s theories of intelligible freedom.” (S.192) Finally, he concludes his account of the pernicious influence of the attempt to naturalise law by appeal to natural scientifically oriented explanative psychology and biology by saying that much the same pernicious effects could be seen in similar naturalising attempts in political economy,7 literary studies and aesthetics.


  1. See van Gelder, Tim “What might Cognition be, if not Computation?”, Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 91 (1996), pp.345-381, esp. pp.355-357.

  2. The English translation here is poor: the participle ‘enthalten’ (contained, implicit) is not translated and by “auf jeden einzelnen Akt des Bewußtseins” Dilthey actually means “on every individual act of consciousness.”

  3. Note that there is here a particularly bad mistake in the translation: the translator confuses dative and accusative to render the German “… teilt einem neuen Eindruck Interesse zu” as “… imparts a new impression to the interest”. Just the opposite is correct, namely, “… imparts interest to a new impression”!

  4. See, e.g., S.192, where Dilthey says, “To say this is only to express what is given in inner experience. The question concerning the objective regularities pertaining to the actions of men and the life of society, has nothing to do for the moment with this claim concerning what is given in inner experience.”

  5. At this point, we find another case of bad translation. The translator translates the German sentence “Freiheit als Anderskönnen ist nicht die notwendige wissenschaftliche Konsequenz des in der inneren Erfahrung enthaltenen” (S.192) as “Freedom, taken as the ability to act otherwise in a given situation, has nothing of the necessary scientific strictness arising from inner experience.” This should be translated as “Freedom, understood as the actual ability to do otherwise, is not the necessary scientific consequence of what is contained in inner experience.” This suggests that what Dilthey is saying is that actual freedom in the sense of really being able to do otherwise does not strictly follow from the fact that in inner experience we are conscious of ourselves as having such freedom.

  6. My translation.

  7. For an example of the way in which naturalising assumptions about human motivations can misrepresent these motivation, one might like to look at Frank, Robert H., Gilovich, Thomas, and Regan, Dennis T., “Does Studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation?,” in Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 7, No.2, 1993, pp.159-171.