Dilthey’s Account of Descriptive or Analytic Psychology—II


This is the fifth of a set of seven course notes written in 1998 for a seven week introduction to the thought of Wilhelm Dilthey. According to Dilthey descriptive or analytic psychology studies three different kinds of nexus (Zusammenhang), the cognitive, the affective and the volitive. Since the study of these presupposes awareness of our inner states, in Chapter Six of his Ideas concerning a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology Dilthey introduces the notion of what he (very misleadingly) calls inner perception.

The View from Inside—the Participant’s Perspective—as the ‘Method’ of Descriptive or Analytic Psychology

An Important Preliminary Remark about the Translation

On p. 197 the phrase “spiritual states of affairs” is used to translate Dilthey’s “geistige Tatsachen”. This is completely misleading since the English word ‘spiritual’ has a primarily religious meaning which is completely absent in the German word ‘geistige’. Dilthey is using the word in a somewhat specialist, technical sense which derives from Hegel’s use of the word ‘Geist’ to denote the active principle or tendency inherent in all reality towards maximally rational self-organisation, a tendency which is most fully developed and successful in socio-historical-cultural phenomena, i.e., in society and its history. So the phrase “geistige Tatsachen” is more appropriately translated as “socio-cultural-historical facts”. Dilthey basically means what Anscombe and Searle mean by so-called “institutional facts” (although Dilthey’s notion also includes everyday psychological facts). So one might profitably look up what Searle says about institutional facts in his book Speech Acts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Searle’s distinction between brute and institutional facts goes back to Anscombe and her article “On Brute Facts”, Analysis, Vol. 18, No. 3 (1958), pp.69-72.

Dilthey’s Misleading Notion of Inner Perception and Its Significance

Bearing this absolutely crucial correction of the translation in mind, let us now turn to examine how Dilthey characterises the task and ‘method’ of descriptive and analytic psychology, the discipline which constitutes the basis for all Geisteswissenschaften (S.193), which provides a critical perspective on the terminology and concepts of explanative psychology (S.176) and which exhibits the structural interconnection of developed psychical life—the very movement of the soul itself. Fulfilling this latter task is, says Dilthey, to exhibit the three basic laws of psychical life, namely, 1) the synchronic, holistic character in which individual elements have a place assigned to them in terms of their function and value for the whole, which 2) determines the diachronic developmental character in virtue of which pyschic life and indeed any kind of nexus continually brings forth new, emergent properties; and defines the sense in which 3) any nexus is a whole standing in causal interaction with its parts—see S.176-180.

Now Dilthey seems to suggest that once one has this basic idea of the architecture and form of pyschic life (and indeed of any nexus), descriptive and analytic psychology must apply it in the analysis of the three great nexi (or more accurately, sub-nexi) which are bound into the total structure of psychic life. (S.180) There are three such sub-nexi: cognition or intelligence (S.180), our drives and instincts (S.185), or as this realm has often also been called, our affectivity, and finally, volition or will. (S.188) In Chapter Six, Dilthey says that fulfilling this complex, multi-layered task of analysis presupposes in the first instance “… that we can perceive inner states.” (S.197) Evidently, Dilthey means our own inner states, i.e., the capacity we human beings possess to become aware of our psychological states and experiences for what they are, and in particular, as our own, in acts of first-personal ascription of psychological states and experiences.

With this we come to Dilthey’s very important, but also very confused and confusing doctrine of inner perception (innere Wahrnehmung). Crucially, Dilthey seems precisely not to appeal to this doctrine because he speaks of descriptive psychology as the foundation of the Geisteswissenschaften, whereby descriptive psychology involves by definition appeal to inner perception. Rather, things appear to be precisely the other way around: Dilthey speaks of descriptive psychology as the foundation of the Geisteswissenschaften because (what he misleadingly calls) inner perception is essentially implicated in all Geisteswissenschaften. In other words, it is because he regards the notion of inner perception as the key to understanding what is distinctive about the Geisteswissenschaften that he thinks the grounding of these disciplines must lie in psychology—not explanative psychology, of course, but descriptive psychology. Dilthey is a practitioner of such human studies as history, biography and the study of culture. On the basis of his own practical experience he feels convinced that these studies involve a distinctive mode of cognition which is not that of the natural sciences. What, however, is this distinctive kind of cognition?

Now this distinctive mode of cognition must have something to do with the obvious fact that what distinguishes historical events and cultural artefacts from natural events and objects is that the former are the products of entities with psychological states. But what exactly? According to Dilthey, the distinctive way in which we proceed when engaged in some human study is somehow a specific form or development of what had traditionally been called ‘inner perception’ (innere Wahrnehmung): our immediate awareness of our own selves and of how things are psychologically with us. This resort to the highly traditional and Cartesian-sounding terminology of inner perception is most unfortunate. For it obscures the fact that Dilthey, however unclearly and inchoately, actually has some highly un-Cartesian attitudes towards so-called inner perception.

These anti-Cartesian attitudes come out in particular when he speaks (S.199) of all historical accomplishments and cultural artefacts as the products or objectivations of psychic life. In particular, everything turns on what he means when he says that historical and cultural entities are psychic life which has so to speak become objective (“… gleichsam gegenständlich gewordenes psychisches Leben …”) We will come back to this, not the least because it reflects the tension between what Dilthey wants to say and the inappropriate, Cartesian vocabulary he is using to say it. In the meantime, let us note that it is presumably because Dilthey remains residually unclear and very imprecise about just what distinguishes the entities studied by the human studies as in some sense non-natural, and thus in need of non-natural scientific mode of cognition, that he talks so much about ‘inner perception’ and psychology as providing the model of how we cognise such entities.

Having claimed that inner perception is needed in order to accomplish the tasks of descriptive psychology, Dilthey sets out to say more about it. (S.197) In defending the idea that in inner perception we do achieve useful knowledge of how things are with us, Dilthey makes a quite important distinction. He says that inner perception does provide real knowledge and that those who have disputed this have only done so because they have confused inner perception with outer perception. Outer or, as the translator calls it, external perception presupposes “… the distinction of the perceiving subject from its object.” (S.197) Inner perception, on the other hand, is “… in the first instance nothing other than the inner consciousness of a state or process.” (S.197; translation corrected)

The point and distinction Dilthey is making here goes back to the German Idealist philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814).1 You can, however, glean the gist of it from three very useful contemporary articles: John Perry’s “The Problem of The Essential Indexical”,2 G.E.M. Anscombe’s “The First Person”3 and Roderick M. Chisholm’s “The Indirect Reflexive”.4 Consider these two propositions:

A. S believes that patient 375 has cancer

B. S believes that he has cancer

It is easy to see that these two propositions are not at all equivalent. We can see this as follows: imagine that S is a burglar who has broken into a doctor’s surgery. The doctor is very concerned about confidentiality and thus does not record patients’ names with their medical files, but rather refers to his patients by number. S reads the file for patient 375 and sees positive results for a cancer test. He thus comes to believe that patient 375 has cancer, so proposition A is true. But this obviously does not mean that proposition B is true. Indeed, proposition B will still not necessarily be true even if S is by chance patient 375, i.e., even if S has stumbled on his own medical record. For even if S is patient 375, S may not know that he is patient 375. Propositions A and B are indeed not equivalent.

Now the description ‘patient 375’ was arbitrarily chosen; it would not matter if instead of this description proposition A had contained some other, e.g., “the world’s greatest burglar”, “the man who was caught on security cameras while holding up the ANU Credit Union”. Whatever description one chooses, one will never produce a proposition A which is equivalent to proposition B, at least not if falling under this description does not entail that one knows oneself to fall under it. This chronic lack of equivalence between proposition B and all propositions which contain a description where proposition B has the pronoun ‘he’ means that the pronoun ‘he’ and the demonstrative character of the proposition which this pronoun brings with it is ineliminable. You cannot ever replace the pronoun ‘he’ in proposition B with some description, however true it is of S, and produce a proposition equivalent to B. So the pronoun ‘he’ is never equivalent to any description, however true it may be of S.

We must now ask what it means from S’s point of view for proposition B to be true. It is not hard to see that from S’s perspective, the truth of B amounts to this: S believes, “I have cancer.” So the point made in the last paragraph about the ineliminability and irreducibility of the third person pronoun ‘he’ becomes in this paragraph a point about the ineliminability and irreducibility of the first person pronoun ‘I’: this, too, is never equivalent to any description. No matter how many properties and relations may be uniquely true of me, e.g., ‘the only Australian to arrive in Germany on March, 18th., 1980, and then stay in Germany for ten years’, ‘the only English speaker to have written a Master thesis on Grice under the supervision of Karl-Otto Apel’, etc., none of them either individually or jointly are equivalent to the pronoun ‘I’ whenever this pronoun is used by me.

This difference between all such descriptions and the pronoun ‘I’ is the first thing Dilthey is getting at when he distinguishes inner and outer perception. The former is always a first person awareness, i.e., awareness of how things are with me, and thus an awareness which always involves the first person: I am aware that I have a headache, I am aware that I am lecturing in room G 51, and so on. (Of course, one could always express this awareness from the perspective of another person, e.g., Bruin is aware that he has a headache, Bruin is aware that he is lecturing in room G 51.) This essentially first person kind of awareness is to be contrasted with what Dilthey means by outer or external awareness. This is an awareness of how things are with the thing or person that is F. Thus, I may be aware that the person who last lectured in room G 51 has a headache—for I can see the empty aspro foil lying on the lecturn. Or again, I may be aware that the person who last lectured in this room is inconsiderate—because I can see the dirty blackboard this person has left behind them. Let us call this first thing Dilthey is getting at the distinction between knowledge of self and knowledge of something distinct from self. The latter label is appropriate since one uses descriptions like “the person who last lectured in room G 51” to refer to individuals whom one at least presumes to be other than oneself. Admittedly, this presumption could be wrong. It is, for example, conceivable, if somewhat peculiar, that the person who last lectured in the room should have been me myself. Perhaps I have got over my headache and forgotten all about it and the lecture I previously gave in room G 51. (Perry gives a very good example of this sort of thing.) Nonetheless, because such cases are atypical, we shall still speak of knowledge of something distinct from self.

Now by external or outer perception Dilthey means precisely perceptual knowledge of something which one at least presumes to be distinct from oneself and thus identifies by means of some description. This is why he says that “(e)very external perception rests on the distinction between the perceiving subject and its object.” (S.197—translation corrected) Inner perception, on the other hand, is first-person perceptual knowledge of one’s very own self, and as such involves no descriptive identification of oneself at all; one identifies what one has knowledge of, namely, oneself, in an irreducibly demonstrative, first-person way. Thus, the knowledge I have of myself when I am directly aware of being hung over is inner perception in this sense, whereas my seeing that or how the gang of yobs who have crashed the party are trashing the house is external or outer perception.

Now Dilthey points out that inner perception as thus defined is ambiguous. On the one hand, one could mean that feeling or experience which I have when I am sad, or hung over. Clearly, to be sad, to be hung over, to have a headache and the like are all states which involve the experience of being sad, of being hung over or of having a headache. In this first sense, inner perception is quite literally what Dilthey would call an Erlebnis. On other hand, “(i)f one takes the expression ‘perception’ in the more precise and restricted sense of attentive perceptual focus …” (S.197), one could mean that more explicit awareness one has when one attends to one’s state and its experiential character. Dilthey calls any kind of attentive, explicit perception observation (Beobachtung), so this more restricted sense of inner perception can be called inner observation, or observation of one’s own states. These two senses of inner perception are clearly interrelated; it is only possible to have direct and immediate explicit awareness of oneself as sad or as hung over, to be, as Dilthey puts it, attentively focussed on such states, because one has the corresponding experience. And while it is always possible that one should be sad or hung over, yet so busy or preoccupied as not to be focussed on, or attending to, this state, it seems essential to having the experience that one should be able to focus one’s attention on it and become explicitly aware of it.5 Dilthey in fact insists that there is no qualitative difference between these two senses of inner perception: “… the experiential awareness (Innewerden) of inner processes or states is distinguished from observation of the same only by a heightened degree of consciousness attained through exercise of the will.” (S.197; my translation6)

Dilthey deals briefly with those who think that there can be no such thing as inner observation (as opposed to experiential awareness) of one’s own psychological states and processes. Such people—Dilthey does not mention whom he has in mind—apparently believe that explicit, attentive awareness and examination of one’s own states and processes is impossible. Against this claim, Dilthey insists that “I can … direct my attention to a pain of which I am experientially aware, and therefore observe it.” (S.198; translation modified) Dilthey points out that the possibility of much experimental psychology rests upon the ability thus to observe inner states and processes, e.g., psycho-physical investigations into the correlations between physical states of affairs like the reflectance angles of light on surfaces and perceptions of colour. In all these, the psychologist relies upon the ability of his or her test subjects to attend to and observe how they experience things as coloured. Dilthey argues that those who think this to be impossible do so only because they carry over “… into the attentive grasping of inner states what occurs in the observation of external objects.” (S.198) That is, they fail to see the difference between perception of something (presumed to be) distinct from oneself and thus identified descriptively (external or outer perception) and perception of one’s own self (inner perception). It is certainly impossible to observe one’s inner states and processes if the only kind of explicit, attentive awareness of things is outer perception. For outer perception is by definition perception of something (presumed to be) distinct from one’s self; it is trivially true that attentive awareness in this sense can never be an awareness of self. But there is no reason to restrict the notion of attentive awareness to the descriptive kind of awareness which constitutes outer perception.

Nonetheless, Dilthey says there is a sense in which inner observation,i.e., explicit, attending to one’s inner states and processes, is restricted by the nature of psychological phenomena. The act of attending to the inner, unlike attending to the outer, always involves an element of will; one chooses to reflect on, or attend to, how things are with oneself. This means, or so Dilthey seems to think, that in attending to one’s inner life one changes it in a certain subtle way. The willed character of one’s attending destroys the immediacy of what is attended to; one is no longer responding to it as one does when one simply has the experience without any deliberate reflection on it. In short, inner observation of a lived experience robs the same of its essentially lived, affective character qua Erlebnis. To reflect on lived experience is to suspend its disposing, motive force. Thus Dilthey denies that we can “… observe the free play of our representations and experiences (Vorstellungen) ….” (S.198; translation modified) That is, we cannot observe in action the free play and interaction of our experiential life upon our behaviour and moods because the very attempt to do so stifles its impact upon us. Nonetheless, says Dilthey, we can know this impact, this capacity to affect us in certain ways, namely, through recollection (Erinnerung). (S.198) Perhaps Dilthey means that while we cannot, by consciously attending to our inner states, catch them so to speak in action—the very act of attending suspends their impact upon us—, by attending to such inner states as pain or sadness, one recalls how such states have affected one in the past, and thus are likely to affect one in the future.

So according to Dilthey inner observation does have certain limits set for it by the nature of what it observes. But not merely does it have these limits. In the next paragraph (S.198) he mentions some further difficulties: the entities one is aware of in inner perception are neither constant nor unchanging, but in permanent flux; “… what is psychic is always a process.” (S.198) Nor are they ‘sharable’ or ‘public’ entities to which all persons have equal access; only I have direct access to my own psychological states and experiences. I take it that this is what Dilthey is getting at when he says that “… perception refers to a single individual.” (S.198) Furthermore, they are not quantifiable or measurable. At the same time, inner perception does have the advantage that “… in becoming aware of our own states, we grasp them as they are, without the mediation of our external senses.” (S.198) I take it that Dilthey means by this the familiar point that, barring cases of self-deception, if one is aware of oneself as being in such and such an inner state or having such and such an experience, then one actually is in this state or has this experience. Barring cases of self-deception, to be aware of oneself as having a headache is to actually have a headache.

There is nothing particularly novel about these latter claims. In one shape or form they have been the stock in trade of philosophers from Descartes on. It is, however, important to note that while what Dilthey says about inner perception is in many places fairly standard, this is presumably precisely because Dilthey’s interest in inner perception is not quite as traditional. It is not as if Dilthey is interested in this because he thinks that one’s own knowledge of how things are with oneself will provide a secure and indubitable basis for the human studies, or for that matter anything else. Dilthey is interested in inner perception because he believes that understanding the life of an individual human being and indeed larger social, cultural and historical processes as well requires one to recognise in social, cultural and historical phenomena the various reasons, beliefs, desires and emotions which move the individuals caught up in these phenomena. The ability to recognise the various motives, beliefs, desires and emotions of another individual, or of the actors in some social, cultural or historical process, intimately involves, however, one’s ability to recognise and understand one’s own motives, beliefs, desires and emotions. This latter ability involves in turn one’s intuitive acquaintance with, and awareness of, one’s own psychological states and experiences. It is because we know what it is like in our own case to have various desires, ambitions and emotions that we can see the desires, ambitions and emotions implicated in social, cultural and historical phenomena. This first-person perspective is essential to our understanding what it is to have such psychological states and experiences. Thus, Dilthey is not interested in inner perception because it enables us to find out interesting, important or recondite truths about ourselves, but rather because being able to recognise and understand one’s own psychological states and experiences, so to speak ‘from inside’, is constitutive of our understanding what it is to have such psychological states and experiences. Rather, he is interested in inner perception from the perspective of its role in our possession of, and ability to apply, the psychological concepts used by the biographer in the investigation of specific individuals, the sociologist in the investigation of social and cultural events, and the historian in the investigation of historical events.

Appreciating this point makes it a little clearer, I think, both why Dilthey draws attention to the above deficits of inner perception and why he then immediately goes on to say that there are particular means of overcoming these deficits. (S.198) You will recall that the deficits of inner perception are that its objects, psychological phenomena, are in continual flux and thus hard to pin down, they are essentially private and they are not quantifiable. At the bottom of S.198, however, Dilthey suggests that we overcome these shortcomings when “… we supplement inner perception by the apprehension of other persons.” (S.198; translation modified) If Dilthey were interested in inner perception for the truths about our own selves which it generated, this claim would be unintelligible. What role could our ability to understand other persons playing in our ascertaining through inner perception our various psychological states and experiences?

If, however, Dilthey is interested in inner perception not from the perspective of the knowledge of self which it brings, but rather from the perspective of the role it plays in our possession of, and ability to apply and understand, psychological concepts in the first place, then this reference to our apprehension of other persons becomes more intelligible. Dilthey is suggesting that what gives stability and coherence to our ability to recognise our own psychological states and experiences is our ability to recognise the psychological states of others. He is also suggesting that what makes meaningful any claim I may make via inner perception about my own psychic life is the fact that I apply to myself a concept which I am able equally well to apply to others. When I say, “I have a splitting headache,” I am using concepts which I understand and am able to apply with just the same meaning to individuals other than myself. In short, while the entities in my own pyschic life are private, their characters, identities and features are not and cannot be. You cannot tell whether I have a headache in the way I can, and vice versa. Nonetheless, it is, suggests Dilthey essential to my being able to recognise my headache for what it is that it be the kind of thing you could have also, and that I take to have this public, sharable identity. Finally, Dilthey is suggesting that it is the essentially public character of our psychological concepts which allows us to assign some kind of degree to our own psychological states; what enables to me to say that my headache is worse than the feeling of nausea I am also suffering as a result of over-indulging in alcohol is that the relevant psychological concepts are public ones which I can apply just as well to other people.

Of course, the way I apply psychological concepts to other people is very different from the way I apply them in my own case. I am intimately acquainted with my headache in a way you are not; when I judge that I have a headache, I do so on the basis of direct and immediate experience of the headache. When, however, I judge that you have a headache, I do not do so in this direct way. Perhaps you have told me that you have a headache. Or perhaps I have observed you display all the symptoms of having a headache, e.g., moaning and groaning, taking aspirin in large quantities, etc. But whatever my basis may be for making this judgement, according to Dilthey, what I do when I make this judgement is to extrapolate in a certain sense from my own case. Judging that another has a headache, or indeed any other psychological state or experience, entails judging that this person has a psychological state or experience which is like some kind of psychological state or experience which I can recall having had. This is what Dilthey is getting at when he says that the apprehension of other persons and their psychic life occurs by means of a process “… which is equivalent to a conclusion from analogy.” (S.198) Note that in speaking thus, Dilthey is describing what is involved in the application of psychological concepts. He is most definitely not making any genetic claim about how one comes to possess psychological concepts. For this reason, his talk of analogy, as much as it bears a superficial resemblance with empiricist accounts of how we acquire psychological concepts, and indeed the concept of an other person, is not just a rerun of hackneyed and indeed ultimately incoherent empiricist ideas. What Dilthey says here leaves all genetic questions completely untouched.

Because the process of applying a psychological concept to another is in part a matter of construing the other has having or experiencing something similar to what one has oneself had or experienced, it follows that to apply psychological concepts is to assimilate that to which the concept is applied to oneself. This creates a quite considerable difficulty: in many cases in which we ordinarily apply psychological concepts, such assimilation cannot seriously be undertaken. When we apply psychological concepts to animals, e.g., dogs, we certainly do not want to be understood as saying that the animal has just the same kind of psychic life as we do. Dogs certainly do suffer pain, they do experience joy, fear, distress and possibly sadness. No doubt they can also have headaches, although ascertaining that they do in any normal way is presumably not possible. But they presumably cannot have these kinds of psychological state or experience in the same fine-grained way as we do. Can a dog have a splitting as opposed to a throbbing headache? Can a dog genuinely mourn the death of his master? But if the application of psychological concepts is already difficult in the case of the higher mammals, it is even more difficult in the case of other kinds of animal. The inner life of ants and bees is so different from ours that it is “… completely alien to us.” (S.199) In general, the application of psychological concepts to other beings is a matter of judging them to be more or less like ourselves. We accomplish such acts of judgement “… only by carrying over our own psychic life into the other.” We are absolutely incapable of recognising “… that which, in an other mental life, does not differ merely quantitatively from our own inner life, or is distinguished by the absence of something present in our own inner life ….” (S.199; translation modified)

But not merely does our ability to recognise the psychological states and experiences of others supplement our ability to recognise our own. According to Dilthey, a very important supplement is what he calls “(t)he use of the objective products of psychic life ….” (S.199) By the products of pyschic life Dilthey means all the intentional products of human will and action, whether these be artefacts like hammers, works of art like paintings or even historical events like revolutions and acts of parliament. In these, says Dilthey, psychic life has become objective: “… the products of acting forces of psychic nature, stable formations built up out of psychic elements according to the laws which govern such elements.” (S.200; translation modified) Once again, the point here is to indicate a necessary presupposition of being able to recognise one’s own psychological states and experiences in inner perception. We have seen how according to Dilthey the concepts we apply in inner perception have to be public ones which one is able to apply to entities other than oneself. The only psychic life, the only psychological states and experiences, which I could recognise to be mine are ones which others could in principle have and which I could recognise others to have. Now Dilthey wants to suggest that in order to be able to ascribe psychological states and experiences to oneself in inner perception, one must be able to recognise or understand the objectivations of psychic life in material form. That is, in order to be able to recognise one’s own psychological states and experiences, one must be able to see things as the products of some cognising, willing and feeling being. In other words, one must be able to see things tools and equipment or works of art, just as one must be able to recognise certain kinds of event as the intentional acts of such a psychological being.

It is important to realise that this claim is radically anti-Cartesian. On the picture first sketched by Descartes and endorsed by most modern philosophers up to and including Kant, a tool like a hammer is basically a physical object with a function tacked onto it. Similarly, a work of art is basically a physical object produced for the sake of realising various artistic intentions. Analogously, an intentional action is basically a physical event which has as its cause an intention to bring about this physical event;7 what makes murder out of the bodily movement of thrusting a knife into someone’s body, thereby killing them, is the intention thus to thrust the knife into the other person, thereby killing them. Finally, a word is construed as something physical which is a conventionally appointed device for indicating the presence of certain kinds of intention, e.g., to communicate or whatever; what makes the word something meaningful, and not just a mere physical object is nothing more or less than its character as a device for revealing such intentions.

Note that the common thread running through these characterisations of an artefact, a work of art and an action is that they are all basically physical entities with a psychological component added on. So on this account, what makes an entity or event something intentional, something social, cultural or historical is that in addition to the merely physical side of the phenomenon there is a psychological layer as well. In effect, the very character of an entity as no mere physical thing or process, but something intentional, social, cultural or historical, is defined in terms of this combination of the physical and the psychological. Often advocates of this view speak of the psychological as ‘ensouling’ or ‘giving meaning’ to the merely physical.

This Cartesian conception of tools, art works, acts, words and indeed a whole lot more is basically reductionist: it claims that we can analyse what it is to be something intentional, social, historical or meaningful in terms of some appropriate combination of the physical and the psychological. But this conception also has certain epistemic commitments. It is committed to a picture of what it is to recognise something as a tool, a work of art, an action or a word. Because it takes the physical and psychological as basic components out of which the tool, art work, intentional action or word is made, the Cartesian conception must maintain that the objects of our perception are entities in their capacities as purely physical things or processes; we recognise that these entities are tools, art works, intentional actions or words by interpreting the physical things or processes we see as the causal results of the appropriate psychological phenomena, i.e., the intention of the person who made the tool or produced the art work, the intention of the person making the bodily movements or the convention which associates a certain kind of intention with a certain physical mark or sound pattern. We see mere physical things or events, and then make an interpretation as to the psychology underlying the physical things or events. In no sense, then, do we strictly see things as hammers, works of art, intentional actions or words. Rather, we see, say, something that has a hard, metallic object at one end of a 12” thinnish, brown piece of wood, which metallic object is hooked on one side and furnished with a flat nose on the other. And then we infer on the basis of past experience with hammers that this thing there is something made with these various properties in order to serve as an instrument for driving thinnish bits of metal into wood. Similarly, we see a person plunging a knife into another and then infer that, since the person making these bodily movement was not insane, possessed by demons or in some other way out of control, he or she intends to make these movements, hence is murdering the other person.

The reason why the objects of perception must be conceived of in this way is simple enough: if the functional, aesthetic, intentional and linguistic characters of entities are analysable in terms of the physical and psychological, then to recognise something as, say, a hammer, i.e., something with a certain function, must be to see a certain kind of compound of the physical and the psychological. But since in general the psychological life of others can only be recognised through their works, words and deeds, I cannot see the intention with which the hammer was made directly; I can only see as something which is manifest in the object there in front of me. But on the Cartesian analysis, the only thing left for the thing there in front of me to be is something purely physical: the hammer in its identity as something x which has various sensible properties of the kind illustrated above.

Now it is not hard to see that if this is how one conceives things, then one cannot insist, as Dilthey does, that recognition of one’s own psychic life presupposes the ability to recognise entities as objectivations of psychic life, in particular, the psychic life of others. For to recognise things as such objectivations is to recognise them as having functional, aesthetic, intentional or linguistic identities over and above their identity as mere physical things. But we have just seen that on the traditional early modern picture deriving from Descartes, recognition of such functional, aesthetic, intentional or linguistic identities consists in seeing entities in their purely physical identity and then inferring to the psychological life which has brought these physical things into existence, or which is conventionally expressed in them. So one has to be able to identify the psychology of others prior to, and thus independently of, identifying entities as having such and such a functional role, aesthetic significance, intentional character or linguistic meaning. On this picture, in order to see things as having such identities, one must be able independently to identify entities as physical and as results or expressions of the psychological life of others.

But given this, it now follows that one also cannot maintain, as Dilthey does, that recognition of one’s own psychological life presupposes the ability to recognise the psychological life of others. For if the entities one sees are merely things and events in their purely physical capacity, how can one get behind them to the mind behind? The only conceivable answer is to assume that one knows from one’s own case that when one performs certain bodily movements, this is because one has certain psychological states and experiences which are causing one thus to behave. Thus, when one sees something out there making bodily movements roughly similar to one’s own in roughly similar circumstances, one is in a position to hypothesise that what is causing that thing out there to move in this way it is is precisely the same kind of thing that causes oneself to move in this way: a certain, roughly similar psychological life. This is the only possible account of how an individual can come to recognise the psychological life of others on the Cartesian picture, i.e., how he or she can acquire the concepts of an other person. But it is evident that this story assumes from the outset that one can recognise one’s own psychological states and experiences perfectly well, that in one’s own case one can establish correlations between inner psychic life and outer bodily movement. It assumes this ability in order then to explain the acquisition of the ability to recognise the psychological states and experiences of others.

So we see that the Cartesian picture is committed to denying both the suggestion that our ability to know our own psychology goes hand in hand with our ability to recognise the psychology of others; and the suggestion that our ability to know our our psychology goes hand in hand with our ability to understand what Dilthey calls the objectivations of psychic life, i.e., such things as functional, aesthetic, intentional and linguistic identities. Where Dilthey wants to correlate these abilities, the tradition has given a foundational significance to the ability to recognise how things are in one’s own case.

Summary of the Distinction between Inner and Outer Perception

I. If a perception is inner, then it involves demonstrative first-person reference to self;8

II. If a perception is outer or external, then it involves descriptive reference to something (presumed to be) other than self;

As we have seen, there can be weird cases where one is wrong in this presumption—cf. S the burglar who comes to believe that patient 375 has cancer without appreciating that he is patient 375. (In this case, S either positively believes, wrongly, of course, that patient 375 is not identical with him, S; or he simply lacks the relevant belief, namely, that patient 375 is identical with him, S.)

It is this distinction between demonstrative, first-person reference to self (qua self) and descriptive reference to something (presumed to be) other than self which Dilthey is getting at when he speaks of outer perception as involving a distinction between subject and object whereas inner perception does not. This is an important distinction which has a fairly long history, going back at least to Fichte (1762-1814).

III. If a perception is inner, then it involves direct and immediate ascription of some predicate to something and this ascription presupposes no identification of the object of perception as thus and so;

Thus, when I inwardly perceive that I have a headache, I do not do so criterially, i.e., by establishing that certain facts obtain, which facts are evidence for its being the case that I have a headache. Of course, this much is true also of perception of external things: when I see such and such a tree as green, I also do not do so on the basis of any criteria: my perception is equally direct and non-inferential. But in the case of inner perception my ascription is direct or immediate in an additional sense: unlike perception of outer things, I do not identify anything as the object of perception, my perception is not directed at the ‘object’ in virtue of any description9 which would enable another to determine what I am perceiving as thus and so. Rather, I am directly and immediately aware of myself as, e.g., having a headache. There are two things to note about such direct, non-identifying ascription of predicates and properties:

a) Where a predicate is ascribed directly and immediately, it is ascribed via demonstrative, first-person reference to self. I can only directly and immediately ascribe things to myself (qua my very own self);

b) Predicates which can be ascribed directly and immediately are not necessarily psychological predicates. For example, I know directly and immediately that I am currently talking and walking around. (But I do not know directly and immediately that I am currently talking and walking around in Room G 52, since I only know that I am in Room G 52 criterially, i.e., on the basis of various pieces of evidence: I remember the route I took to where I currently am, and recall it as the route that leads to Room G52, something which I of course know because when I first looked for this room, I looked for the room number on the door.

IV. If a perception is inner, then mostly Dilthey talks of it as involving the ascription of a psychological predicate to oneself;

Mostly Dilthey speaks of inner perception as the application of a psychological predicate to oneself (whereby the reference here to self is of course demonstrative and first-person). Understood this way, my direct and immediate awareness of myself as now talking and walking around is not a case of inner perception whereas my direct and immediate awareness of myself as incredibly tired is such a case.

V. The direct and immediate ascription of psychological predicates to self is incorrigible: for any such psychological predicate F, if I believe that I am F, then, in the absence of self-deception, I am F.

The qualification “in the absence of self-deception” is necessary because we must allow for the kind of case in which, for various reasons, I convince myself—persuade myself, so to speak, into the belief—that I am tired whereas I am really seeking excuses to put off the work I have to do. Such cases of self-deception are, I presume, something like Sartrean bad faith.

Incorrigibility in this sense contrasts with the corrigibility of other predicates. Thus, the predicate “x has cancer” is decidely corrigible: it is not the case (thank God!) that if I believe that I have cancer, then, provided only that I am honest with myself, I do have cancer.

A good question is—and this touches upon the issue of whether Dilthey really needs to regard inner perception as exclusively a matter of ascribing psychological predicates to self (which is mostly how he speaks)—is whether all incorrigible predicates must be psychological. Is it not plausible to suggest that my awareness of self as now talking and walking around is just as incorrigible as my awareness that I am now tired? William James (1842-1910) reports a famous psychological experiment where a blind-folded man had his arm completely anaesthetised and strapped to the arm of the chair in which he was sitting. The man was then told to raise his arm, after which he was asked whether he had raised his arm. He said that he had, even though his arm had not at all been raised; it seems that the man tried to raise his aim, experienced effort in so doing, but received no sensory input telling him that he could not raise his arm. So he assumed he had in fact raised his arm. One might take this experiment as showing that direct and immediate bodily knowledge of self, as opposed to direct and immediate psychological knowledge of self, is not incorrigible. But is this right? For this is an extremely artificial, engineered arrangement in which the man is systematically deprived of normal sensory knowledge. Surely, in the normal case, where my sensory repertoire is fully operational, for all strictly bodily predicates F, if I believe that I am F, then, barring self-deception and impedance of the kind present in James’ experiment, I am F. To put things crudely, the mere sensuous feeling of satisfying such and such a bodily predicate is both a sufficient cause of and, in the absence of reasons to the contrary, a reason for believing that one satisfies the predicate.10


  1. See Dieter Henrich, “Fichte’s Original Insight,” trans. David R. Lachertman, in Contemporary German Philosophy, edited by Darrel E. Christensen et al., University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982, pp.15-53. See also Robert Pippin, “Fichte’s Contribution”, in The Philosophical Forum, Vol. 19, 1987-88, pp.74-96.

  2. In Noûs, Vol. 13 (1979), pp.3-21.

  3. In Mind and Language, edited by Samuel Guttenplan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, pp.45-65.

  4. In Intention and Intentionality, edited by Cora Diamond and Jenny Teichman, Brighton: Harvester Press, Ltd., 1979, pp.39-53 (also Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

  5. There are problems with this latter claim since if it is true, then either dogs and cats do not have feelings of sadness, headaches, etc., or they are able to think to themselves, “I am sad”, “I have a headache.” Neither of these two options are particularly palatable, the one because it attributes too little, the other because it attributes too much, to dogs and cats. So perhaps we should say simply (and no doubt tautologously) that it seems essential to having such experiences in the way humans do that one should be able to focus one’s attention on the experience and become explicitly aware of it.

  6. Zaner’s translation is also bad at this point: he confuses the distinction Dilthey has just made between experiential awareness and inner observation by rendering Innewerden (to become experientially aware) as ‘inner observation’.

  7. For a modern version of this thoroughly Cartesian picture, see Searle, John R., Intentionality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, especially Ch.3.

  8. I now think that characterising inner perception as essentially first-personal is incorrect; it is, in fact, essentially anaphorical, that is, such as to require for its perspicuous characterisation anaphoric use of a third-person pronoun—See my paper “The Problem of Essential Anaphora,” available at http://cbchristensen.net/papers/2016/02/25/the-problem-of-essential-anaphora.html. (Note added 13.03.16)

  9. Which will have to contain at least some demonstrative elements.

  10. Of course, one might want to say that the same applies even to external perception of ordinary objects out in the world—the only difference being that what counts as a reason to the contrary will be different. Note added 13.03.16.