- Wilhelm Dilthey, Selected Works, Volume IV: Hermeneutics and the Study of History ed. by Rudolf A. Makkreel, Frithjof Rodi
Contemporary hermeneutics has been dominated by the work of Heidegger and Gadamer. Their phenomenological approach to the human world has exerted such a powerful influence in recent years that one can hardly enter a discussion about the philosophical meaning of hermeneutics that is not already framed in the terms of their discourse. At the same time, there is less familiarity with the origins and sources of the hermeneutic method or with the thought of Wilhelm Dilthey. The editors of Dilthey’s Selected Works, Rudolf Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi, have set about trying to rectify this situation. They have sought to provide a richer context for the study of hermeneutics by bringing out a six-volume collection of writings from one of the major hermeneutical philosophers in the Western tradition. The publication of Volume Four in this series helps to accomplish this task by offering new translations of important Dilthey texts covering both the history and genesis of hermeneutics and a genealogical account of Dilthey’s own hermeneutical approach to history. Only one short essay in this volume, “The Rise of Hermeneutics” (1900), has been published before, and even this older translation has been revised and supplemented by material from the Nachlass. But what is the significance of this material and how does it help to achieve a fuller understanding of hermeneutics and its history?
The selections in Volume Four cover the period from 1860 to 1903 with a heavy emphasis on the period from 1860 to 1868 (over two-thirds of the book focuses on Dilthey’s 1860 Preisschrift on “Schleiermacher’s Hermeneutical System in Relation to Earlier Protestant Hermeneutics,” notes from his 1867–68 lectures “On Understanding and Hermeneutics,” and three reviews from 1862 on historical literature from Buckle, Burckhardt, and F.C. Schlosser). The remaining essays from 1900–1903 provide a sense of Dilthey’s later reflections on hermeneutics and on the meaning of the eighteenth century for historiography and as a philosophical approach to history. The editors of this collection have chosen these texts carefully; the selections in Volume Four are organized around a specific theme. By culling significant early texts about hermeneutics and history and juxtaposing them with a number of later texts on the same topics, they hope to show the genesis of Dilthey’s own path of thought. What emerges from an attentive reading of these sources—especially when carried out within the context of the editors’ own principle of selection—is a highly persuasive view of Dilthey and his work. In the texts themselves we see Dilthey moving from his earlier role as the chronicler and historian of Protestant thought (who conceives of hermeneutics as an ancillary method of textual exegesis) to his later position as the philosopher of the historical world (who views hermeneutics as the epistemological method for the grounding of the human sciences). What we see here is a developmental account of Dilthey’s thought path: from the traditional scholar who conceives of hermeneutics as a method for interpreting texts to the philosopher who understands it as the fundamental science for interpreting historical life. This shift within Dilthey’s work from a hermeneutics of textuality to a hermeneutics of historicity marks an important turning point in the history of the hermeneutical [End Page 641] tradition, a turning point that helped to form the basis of all later philosophical hermeneutics.
The five essays from Part Two—“Interpretations of History”—offer a smattering of Dilthey’s own writings on historiography, the theory of history, and the role of the eighteenth-century German tradition in forging an historicist understanding of “human affairs” (373) whose “organic nexus” and “inner purposiveness as a whole” opened up a radically new conception of historical being. Most contemporary continental philosophers will get lost in the textured details of Dilthey’s analyses because what passes for “philosophy” in our epoch pales by comparison with the rich...