Wilhelm Dilthey


Neo-Kantian Historicist, Romanticist


Website by B. D. Robbins
“ ‘To Be Alive When Something Happens’: Retrieving Dilthey's Erlebnis”
Dilthey, “Preface,” from Introduction to the Human Sciences
J. I. Bakker “Wilhelm Dilthey: Classical Sociological Theorist,” Quarterly Journal of Ideology 22 (1999)
Philosophy Research Base


“The knife of historical relativism...which has cut to pieces all metaphysics and religion must also bring about healing. Only we need to be thorough. We have to make philosophy itself an object of philosophical concern.”

“The human being knows itself only in history, never through introspection; indeed, we all seek it in history. Or, to put it more generally, we seek what is human in it, such as religion, and so on. We want to know what it is. If there were a science of human beings it would be anthropology that aims at understanding the totality of experience through structural context. The individual always realizes only one of the possibilities in its development, which could always have taken a different turning whenever it has to make an important decision. The human being is only given to us at all in terms of its realized possibilities.”

“The emancipation of the particular sciences began at the end of the Middle Ages. However, the sciences of society and of history retained their old subservient relation to metaphysics for a long time—well into the eighteenth century. In addition, the increasing power of the knowledge of nature subjugated them in a new manner, and no less oppressively. It was the Historical School—taking that term in its broadest sense—that first brought about the emancipation of historical consciousness and historical scholarship. The French system of social thought developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its ideas of natural law and natural religion, and its abstract theories of the state and of political economy, manifested their political consequences in the Revolution when the armies of that revolution occupied and destroyed the ramshackle, thousand-year-old edifice of the Holy Roman Empire. At the same time, the view developed in Germany that historical growth is the source of all spiritual facts—a view which proved the falsity of that whole French system of social thought. This insight was shared by Winckelmann and Herder, the Romantic school, Niebuhr, Jakob Grimm, Savigny, and Boeckh. It was strengthened by the reaction against the Revolution. In England, it was promoted by Burke, in France by Guizot, and de Tocqueville. In all the conflicts of European society, it challenged eighteenth-century ideas about law, government, and religion. The Historical School was characterized by a purely empirical mode of observation, sympathetic immersion in the details of the historical process, a universal approach to history aiming to determine the value of a particular state of affairs solely from the context of its development. This school considered spiritual life as historical through and through and approached social theory historically, seeking the explanations and rules of contemporary life in the study of the past. New ideas flowed from it through countless channels into all the particular disciplines.” (“Introduction,” Hermeneutics and the Study of History).


Select Bibliography

  • Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften, GS 1, Vol. 1, 1883; (Vol. 2 was never completed); ET: Introduction to Human Sciences. (the earliest of Dilthey's systematic works)
  • Die Einbildungskraft des Dichters: Bausteine für eine Poetik, 1887; ET: The Imaginative Power of the Power: Building Blocks for a Theory of Poetry. (major systematic treatise on literature).
  • “Ideen über eine beschreibende und zergliedernde Pscyhologie,” In GS, V, 139-237 : ET: Ideas Concerning a Descriptive and Analytical Psychology. (a cognitive, structural psychology which is key to Dilthey's pschological period)
  • “Die Entstehung der Hermeneutik,” Festschrift: Philosophische Abhandlungen, Christoph Sigwart zu seinen 70. Geburtstag 28 März 1900. Tübingen 1900, 185-202; repr. in GS V, 317-38; ET: “The Rise of Hermeneutics,” In Wilhelm Dilthey, Hermeneutics and the Study of History. Trans. Fredric R. Jameson, Rudolf A. Makkreel; Ed. Rudolf A. Makkreel, Frithjof Rodi. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996, 229-58.
  • “Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften,” GS 7, 79-188; ET: The Construction of the Historical World in the Geisteswissenschaften. (most important work of Dilthey's final years.)
  • “Plan der Fortzsetzung zum Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften,” In GS 7, 191-291; ET: Plan for a Continuation of the Historical World in the Geisteswissenschaften. (Unfinished notes, unpublished by Dilthey, that demonstrate where he was heading in his final years.)

    GS = Gesammelte Schriften

English Translations

  • Introduction to the Human Sciences : An Attempt to Lay a Foundation for the Study of Society and History. Trans. by Ramon J. Betanzos.
  • Selected Works, Volume IV: Hermeneutics and the Study of History. Edited by Rudolf A. Makkreel, Frithjof Rodi. Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • Selected Works, Volume V: Poetry and Experience.
    Edited by Frithjof Rodi, Rudolf A. Makreel.
  • Introduction to the Human Sciences : Selected Works of William Dilthey. Edited by Rudolf A. Makkreel, with Frithjof Rodi (Contributor).
  • W. Dilthey: Selected Writings. Edited and Trans. by H. P. Rickman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
  • Wilhelm Dilthey: Hermeneutics and the Study of History, Ed. Rudolf A. Makkreel, Frithjof Rodi. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Secondary Bibliography

  • Bambach, Charles R. Heidegger, Dilthey, and the Crisis of Historicism : History and Metphysics in Heidegger, Dilthey, and the Neo-Kantians. Cornell University Press 1995.
  • Makkreel, Rudolf A. Dilthey: Philosopher of the Human Studies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Reprint edition 1992.
  • Owensby, Jacob. Dilthey and the Narrative of History. Cornell University Press 1994.
  • Rickman, H. P. Dilthey Today: A Critical Appraisal of the Contemporary Relevance of His Work (Contributions in Philosophy). New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
  • Tuttle, Howard N. The Dawn of Historical Reason: The Historicality of Human Existence in the Thought of Dilthey, Heidegger and Ortega Y Gasset. Peter Lang Publishing, 1994.

Dilthey was a Kantian philosopher who made important contributions to a methodology of historical study. He objected to the influence of the natural sciences in the humanities, developing instead a philosophy of history emphasizing historical contingency and changeability.

Dilthey was the son of a Reformed Church theologian. After he completed grammar school in Wiesbaden, he studied theology, first at Heidelberg, then at Berlin, where he soon transferred to philosophy. He taught for a time at secondary schools in Berlin but soon abandoned this to dedicate himself to writing.