Wilhelm Dilthey and the structure and source of the sciences

George Harvey Leiner, Purdue University


The purpose of this dissertation is to demonstrate that much of the significance of Wilhelm Dilthey's thought has been misunderstood by contemporary commentators. The misunderstanding has not so much to do with outright error, but with a failure to appreciate the breadth and subtlety of Dilthey's thought. The focus of the misunderstanding is Dilthey's view of the relationship between the natural and the human sciences. The prevailing account is that Dilthey established a closed border between these two areas. This is not surprising, given the tenor of much of Dilthey's work. Following the slogan of "Nature we explain, the life of the soul we understand," many have been misled. They are of the conviction that in Dilthey's view the two groups of sciences spring from separate sources, that their conceptual strategies are fundamentally different, and that the types of objectivity which each can offer are utterly dissimilar. The job of this dissertation is to show that these views are not supported by the preponderance of Dilthey's work. It cannot be denied that there are elements of Dilthey's work which lead to the belief that there are unbridgeable differences between the human and natural sciences, but the most important elements of his work recognize that they are close siblings. They share a common structural pattern of categorial thought. These patterns have a common source. It is from the lower levels of lived experience that they both have arisen, and back to which they can finally be traced. However, there remains in Dilthey's thought an unresolved tension. Although Dilthey was drawn strongly to the kind of objectivity made possible by categorial thought, his recognition of the cardinal significance of lived experience made it apparent that all of mankind's experience is meaningful, even that which does not possess categorial structure. He thus inaugurates within the heart of his own work a tension between his methodological concerns and an ontological hermeneutics. Despite this, the importance of Dilthey for 20th-century Continental philosophy is further enhanced, as few have recognized the subtle interplay between the structure and source of the sciences.




Schrag, Purdue University.

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