The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (review)
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Journal of the History of Philosophy 42.1 (2004) 113-115

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Wilhelm Dilthey. The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences . Edited with an Introduction by Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. Pp xiii + 399. Cloth $55.00.

The first complete English translation of Wilhelm Dilthey's (1833-1911) most important mature work—a seminal work for hermeneutics, phenomenology, critical theory, and the philosophy of history and the human sciences—is to be greatly welcomed. This excellent translation conveys the subtlety and richness of Dilthey's German. Its innovative translations of key terms will provide renewed stimulus to interpreting Dilthey's works.

This edition includes Dilthey's investigation of the structures of consciousness in his three preliminary "Studies toward the Foundation of the Human Sciences," his exploration [End Page 113] of the import of the productive systems of historical life for knowledge in The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, and his final and perhaps best formulation of hermeneutics in "The Understanding of Other Persons and Their Manifestations of Life."

Although Carnap and others utilized the word Aufbau in the sense of epistemic "construction," Makkreel and Rodi clarify how Dilthey used it in the sense of "formation." The formation of the historical world refers to its articulation in the human sciences which themselves theoretically reflect this historical world (GSW3: 1). They also argue that Dilthey's theory of the human sciences is not merely an epistemology (Erkenntnistheorie), but a theory of knowledge (Theorie des Wissens) that relates knowing to its context. Whereas epistemology seeks to establish the foundations of conceptual cognition (Erkenntnis), Dilthey places the epistemology of the human sciences within a larger context of the knowledge (Wissen) embodied in social practices and historical forms of life. Knowledge encompasses not only the conceptual cognition of reality, but also the values and purposes established about it.

Dilthey accordingly situated the human sciences, which are determined by their respective object and how the object is given (SW3: 38), in relation to a pretheoretical life-nexus and its forms of elementary or ordinary understanding. These are tied up with the temporality, historicity, and structures of social life; with an epochal "objective spirit." Objective spirit indicates the ways in which the past has been objectified and continues to shape contemporary practices and it is analyzed in the human sciences as cultural systems and the external organization of society. A significant characteristic of the Formation is the development of the notion of "productive system or nexus." This new translation of Wirkungszusammenhang suggests a historical efficacy or productivity prior to any analysis of it as either causal or teleological (SW3: 4).

The human sciences include the study of dynamic interconnected systems that articulate the intersection of meaning, value, purpose, and force. Dilthey interpreted these temporally, such that meaning primarily concerns how humans are determined by their past, value is based on their present feeling of life, and purpose is projective striving into the future in the face of productive forces (Kräfte) which cannot always be predicted or controlled.

For Dilthey, understanding (verstehen) is intrinsically interpretive. Humans can cognize themselves and others only indirectly (SW3: 108), since we are conscious and reflective beings who are bound to the facticity of our bodies and world. Given that we know ourselves and others primarily through actions, life-expressions, and their effects—rather than through introspection or intuition—and that everyday understanding can face breakdowns and what seems distant or strange, elementary understanding leads to higher forms of understanding and interpretation; i.e., hermeneutics. Dilthey's project of a critique of historical reason proceeds from the context of life in all of its complexity and concreteness to the conceptual cognition of the sciences and, finally, to reflective awareness (Besinnung). This reflection is made possible by the prereflective reflexivity (Innesein or Innewerden) of the human subject and, with its double meaning of "sense" (Sinn) as meaning and bodily awareness, constitutes the basic movement of Dilthey's thought.

Understanding provides more than scientific access to...