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  • Interpreting Dilthey: Critical Essays ed. by Eric S. Nelson
  • Taylor Carman
Eric S. Nelson, editor. Interpreting Dilthey: Critical Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. x + 287. Cloth, $99.99.

Since his death in 1911, Wilhelm Dilthey has, for many, loomed large as an important yet perennially underappreciated figure in German philosophy. As Jean Grondin says in his contribution to this volume, Dilthey's reputation was at once enhanced and compromised by the attention Heidegger paid him in the 1920s—enhanced by his indebtedness to Dilthey's account of the historicality (Geschichtlichkeit) of human existence; compromised by the trenchant criticism he deducted from that debt, charging Dilthey with uncritical reliance on notions of subjectivity and expression of "inner experience" on one side, and of the validity and objectivity of scientific knowledge on the other. In a similar spirit, Gadamer criticized Dilthey for aestheticizing culture and relinquishing the truth claims inherent in language and historical existence.

The essays in this book plead in a variety of ways, and with varying success, that Dilthey has not fully emerged from the shadow of his ambivalent reception to claim his rightful place in the history of European philosophy. Rudolf Makkreel rightly says that Dilthey is routinely misread as having insisted on a categorical distinction between understanding and explanation (as if causal explanation plays no part in the human sciences), and as being a Weltanschauung relativist, whereas in fact it was the conflict among worldviews that he sought to assuage by viewing them through the lens of a kind of objective idealism. Makkreel defends in particular Dilthey's quasi-Kantian account of the immanent purposiveness of sociohistorical life. In his essay, Jos de Mul adds that Dilthey posited a third category of functional, teleological explanation proper to biology, midway between the natural and the human sciences.

Michael Forster's essay is easily the most provocative, bluntly delivering "the bad news" along with the good. The bad news is, he says, that "Dilthey's interpretation of Schleiermacher's hermeneutics is … deeply unsatisfactory" (62). Moreover, "Dilthey's own hermeneutics, insofar as he has one" (67), inherits many of the shortcomings he (wrongly) ascribed to Schleiermacher's, stressing interiority and individuality over against sociohistorical context. The good news is that Dilthey improved upon Schleiermacher's [End Page 525] narrow focus on language by including in the purview of hermeneutics the entirety of what Hegel called "objective spirit." Dilthey's most important contributions, Forster says, were (1) his conviction, contra Schleiermacher, that interpretation can be a science, not just an art; (2) that the human sciences have their own distinctive methods; and (3) that those sciences are indeed genuine sciences, in the business of "discovering facts" (73). Of those, it seems to me, (1) and (3) are less plausible than (2), and perhaps not surprisingly, Forster's arguments in support of them are weak. For example, interpretation is "an extremely difficult task and needs to employ rigorous methods in order to achieve success—just like natural science!" (74). And just like carpentry, one might add. Further, interpretation relies on drawing comparisons and reasoning inductively, as does natural science (76). But again, so do architecture and journalism. As for the scientificity of the human sciences, "Dilthey's position is … that the umbrella of science is broad enough to cover a diversity of methods" (75). But what makes the umbrella the size that it is, or should be? Broad consensus that the empirical sciences deserve the name 'science' only goes back a few hundred years; Locke, adhering to ancient usage, reserved the term for domains of inquiry that could yield certain rather than merely probable results. (The English word 'scientist' was not coined until 1834, by William Whewell.) We can, of course, stretch the umbrella of 'science' as broadly as we like, just as we can the word 'fact.' The problem with this ecumenical path is that it opens onto a slippery slope: if literary criticism and jurisprudence are sciences, why not the writing of travel guides and memoirs?

Frederick Beiser observes that Dilthey was aware of and responded to the antihistoricism of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, though he misunderstood them in crucial ways. His reply to their skepticism...


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