Introduction to the Human Sciences
Wilhelm Christian Ludwig Dilthey (1833-1911) was the son of a Reformed Church theologian. After he
finished grammar school in Wiesbaden, he began to study theology at Heidelberg,
but soon transferred to Berlin to study philosophy. He taught for a time at
secondary schools in Berlin but was forced to abandon this due to ill health.
Continued indifferent health prompted him to dedicate himself fully to study, research, and writing.
In 1864, with an essay on the ethics of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Dilthey entered university
teaching. In 1866 he was called to Basel; in 1882, after brief tours in Kiel and Breslau,
he returned to Berlin as professor of theology, a post he held until 1905.
He became recognised as a philosopher and historian who made important contributions to a methodology
of the humanities
and other human sciences. Dilthey published little during his lifetime, but since his death
14 volumes of collected writings have appeared. These include profound essays in intellectual
history and original work on the philosophy of the mind.
Dilthey argued convincingly for historical interpretation in all inquiries into man and his culture.
Human life and creativity cannot be understood abstractly but only as part of a historical process.
The historian must sympathetically enter into the alien cultures he seeks to understand.
Erlebnis is a common German word which has the normal connotation of event, occurrence, adventure,
experience; something memorable which happens to someone. It became a term of art for Wilhelm Dilthey who
hoped to enter so fully into the spirit of the time and place he was studying that an erlebnis,
(as a vivid personal life experience), would provide the basis for a richly and sympathetically
interpretative "hermeneutic" understanding. Hermeneutics being associated with the discovery of hidden
meaning traditionally in written texts but, by extension, also in social action and existence as a whole.
Dilthey's Introduction to the Human Sciences (1883) contains a Preface that laments the then
state of the Historical Studies and points the way, as Dilthey sees it, to a remedy:-
".....study and evaluation of historical phenomena remain unconnected with the analysis of
facts of consciousness; consequently, it has no grounding in the only knowledge which is ultimately
secure; it has, in short, no philosophical foundation. Lacking a healthy relationship to epistemology
and psychology, this school has not attained an explanatory method.....
.....In light of this state of the human sciences I have undertaken to provide a philosophical
foundation for the principle of the Historical School and for those modes of research into
society currently dominated by that school.....
.....Only inner experience, in facts of consciousness, have I found a firm anchor for my thinking, and I
trust that my reader will be convinced by my proof of this. All science is experiential; but all
experience must be related back to and derives its its validity from the conditions and context of
consciousness in which it arises, i.e., the totality of our nature....."