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From Impressioni sm to Kandinsky




Wilhelm Dilthey

Modern art theory's dependence on psychology, the "science of

the soul," brought about one of the major trends in art criticism of the modern age. As we have seen, in earlier periods, when people tried to un derstand artistic creation and to judge works of art, they turned for en lightenment to the great cultural traditions and invoked the inherited models rather than concentrate on the description and analysis of what goes on in the artist's sow and mind. The orientation toward the psycho logical aspects of art also resulted in a certain shift in the subject matter of art theory. The increasing concern of twentieth-century criticism with the artist's personality, and with the spontaneity of the creative process, was one of the consequences of building art theory on psychological founda tions. A dominant representative of this trend was Wllhelm Dilthey (1833-1911). He was not primarily concerned with art theory, and the vi sual arts played only a marginal part in his rich intellectual world. Dilthey, one of the great humanistic scholars of the late nineteenth century, was reo markable for the scope of his profound learning even in his age, and for his analytical power. Best known for his studies of Weltanschauung (world view), or Historisches Bewusstsein (historical consciousness), he was also concerned with literature and historical aesthetics. His contributions to "Poetics" had a formative effect on a great deal of art theory and criticism. In our comments we will concentrate on this aspect of his thoughts. Erlebnis and uben, "emotional experience" and "life," were key concepts in Dilthey's general philosophy, especially in his aesthetics. It has been said, not without some justification, that in this doctrine he became the speaker of the irrational trend in later nineteenth-century thought,' the movement in modem Europe that turned against the Enlightenment and its legacy. In a sophisticated way he also turned against Hegelian philosophy, although he was the biographer and interpreter of the young HegeLl Hegel, we recall, made Geist (Spirit or Reason) the ruler of the universe and the content of


Wilhelm Dilthey


history. Dilthey assumed that science can grasp only a limited aspect of his torica1 and cultural reality. There is a gap between what science can observe and analyze and what he called Lebel1sgestaltul1g (life formation), a kind of totality of human life and culture. The sciences can grasp only the causal connection between things and events. What Dilthey termed the "signifi cance of life" remained beyond the reach of the sciences.' In the modern world. in which religion has lost its hold, many contemporary people find in art and in poetry, not in science. an "authentic interpretation of life it self." Dilthey's philosophy of art centered on the artist's creative faculty. The artist's creative power is his imagination (Phal1tasie). The artist's imagina tion always puzzled spectators and critics; in aesthetics it is a subject as old as any reflection on art. Time and again people asked, what is the mysteri ous power that enables the artist to produce something that did not exist before he made it?' Yet in theories of the visual arts, the imagination was never the single, or even the central, subject of systematic contemplation. This was what Dilthey did. "The imagination of the poet ... is the central point of all history of literature" (ED. p. 136).' And "The imagination in its position towards the world of experiences forms the necessary point of de parture" (ED, p. 145). Dilthey knew. of course, that the work of art is shaped by factors beyond the domain of personal experience. As a historian of ideas and of religious beliefs, he did not have to be reminded of their impact on the thought and imagery of a period or an individual. He nevertheless chose to concentrate on the individual artist's power because he saw in the artist's imagination the specific. unique character of poetry and art. Imagination. the artist's creative power, is a primary. fundamental fac ulty of human nature; in some individuals it is stronger and more intense than in others. Something of the artist's creative faculty may thus be found in all of us. Though the imagination may seem altogether spontaneous. taking what it creates from its own hidden depths. it does in fact draw on accumulated impressions from the outside world. It was in this context (ED, pp. 145 ff.) that Dilthey spoke of "memory images" (Eril1nerul1gs b;1Je,). The images accumulated in our memory. however. are not raw percep tions, untouched building blocks from which our imagination deliberately chooses what it wants. A continuous interaction goes on in our minds be tween memory and the creative imagination. Even what we seem to re member with perfect clarity and distinctness is not exactly the original im

pression we received in the past. ''As little as a new spring can make visible to us the old leaves on the trees, so little are the impressions of yesterday re vived today... ." Our minds continuously build an inner world in which only such outside impressions are received as we need (ED, pp. 148-149). The imagination, then, builds a "second world."This is a universal world and, to some degree, it is given to everyone. Thus the world the imagination creates reveals itself involuntarily in the dream, "the oldest of all poets" (ED, p. 153).' The role fantasy plays in hallucinations and in some forms and conditions of madness also shows that imagination is not limited to the artist. Dilthey was among the fi rst modern thinkers who drew seriously upon psychiatry to show the relation between poetry and madness (espe cially in a lecture, given in 1886, on "Poetic Imagination and Madness," reprinted in GS, VI, pp. 90-102). The possible relevance of psychiatry to the study of art is the assumption that the creative imagination, seemingly only the artist's prerogative, is in fact a universal trait. The view that the creative imagination is given, if in varying degrees, to all human beings, raises with particular clarity two questions that are cru cial to any theory of art. First, how is the mental image transferred to the material object and thus crystallized in the work of art-the poem, the pic ture, the piece of music? How is it transformed from a fl eeting appearance in the mind to a definitely shaped "thing" in the external world? This, of course, is a difficult question in the theory of any art, but it seems particu larly pertinent to the student of the visual arts, the arts consisting of actual material objects. The other question is: how do we-reader, spectator, lis tener-experience the work of art, understand it, and make it our own? How do we grasp the record of the experience of another individual, that of the artist? Dilthey's answer to the first question- how is the passage from mind to work accomplished?- poses more problems than it solves. Art, he believed, is essentially expression. And expression is by its very nature altogether spontaneous. "Expression springs from the soul immediately, without re flection" (GS, 7, pp. 328 f. '. Dilthey often returned to the self-acting, spon taneous nature of expression. Not only does expression take place without preconceived meditation or refl ection, but it reaches into layers of our minds and beings into which consciousness never penetrates. Sometimes his formulations adumbrate something that seems close to the modern concept of the subconscious. "Expression may contain more of psychic connection than any introspection will yield. It draws from depths that consciousness does not illumine" (GS, 7, p. 206).

Wilhelm Dilthey


Spontaneity of expression, Dilthey believed, need not, and perhaps can Dot, be derived from any other cause. In his view. the spontaneous nature of expression is a prima ry datum, and therefore cannot rest on any foun datiOD outside itself. The spontaneous nature of artistic expression is a matter for descri ptive psychology. Even if we accept that expression is a primary reality not to be derived from anything else. the question still arises what does it express? Dilthey's main answer to this question has a common label, Erlebnis, experience. Yet the concept of Erlebnis, crucial as it is in Dilthey's aesthetics, is not defined with sufficient clarity; it scintillates in many lights. Though an Erlebnis is usually the experience of a particular event or individual. it is not necessar ily limited to such specific condition. An Erlebnis can also be detennined "by moods that arise from within. independently of the outside world. or by a cluster of ideas, be it historical or philosophical." Such an "emotional process (Gefiihlsverlauf) is always the starting point of the poem and the contents expressed in it" (ED. p. 377). The work of art blends the internal and the external." Erlebnis that fonns the nuclear meaning of all poetry, always contains a condition of mood as an inner core and an image or image-context. a place, a situation, or a per son as an internal core; in the undissolved unity of the two there is the liv ing force of poetry" (GS. 6. p. 128). So far we have briefly considered the meaning of Erfebnis as the artist's experience and its role in the creation of a work of art. But as we have said above. Erlebnis is also the core notion of Dilthey's doctrine of how we per ceive works of art It suggests, if only vaguely, the break with attitudes pre vailing in nineteenth-century aesthetics, a break of far-reaching conse quences for our own time. In the course of the nineteenth century it was the attitude that origi nated with Kant that dominated aesthetic thought. The key concept in Kantian reflection on aesthetic experience was distance. or. as he himself called it, "disinterestedness." Aesthetic experience exists only when there is -disinterested pleasure.'" If J am interested in any way in the use, value, or application, of the object or contents of the artistic representation. my ex perience cannot be "aesthetic." The same is true for the observation of art. Experiencing a work of art while being detached from it, from what it says and what is often called its "message." was thus crucial for the Kantian phi losophy of aesthetics. It was precisely this basic principle of complete detachment that Dilthey's aesthetic doctrine sought to undermine (with or without explicit

intention). Erlebnis as the core component of the aesthetic experience of a work of art meant, first of all, emotional involvement, participation in feel ing, reliving what was represented. It thus necessarily canceled the specta tor's distance from what he saw in the work of art. Though Ditthey was deeply concerned with the response of the audience, the reader, and the spectator, to the work of art, as far as I know he nowhere presented an ex plicit discussion of the Kantian requirement of "disinterestedness.'" His main doctrine, however, implicitly (and occasionally even explicitly) ques tioned disinterestedness as an essential feature of aesthetic experience. So what happens when we read a poem or look at a painting? Here we should emphasize two points. The first is that Dilthey's theory of the Erlebnis as a model of understanding the work of art reveals that his whole conception was, in fact. opposed to the doctrine of detachment as the core of aesthetic experience. Finding oneself in the work one is looking at means that the distance between the two, the spectator and the work being seen, is practically annulled. It replaces the spectator's emotional reo straint in looking at something that is not depicted. To repeat: Dilthey did not intend to negate the Kantian theory of aesthetics, but the actual effect of his thought led in this direction. The second point, more closely related to our specific concerns, is more problematic, but it is of great significance. Ditthey's theory of art marked a profound shift in thought on art. He replaced the old thesis that art is an imitation of nature,' a thesis that had dominated aesthetic reflection for centuries, by a new definition. Notwithstanding his traditional erudition Dilthey presented, at least in the discussion of how poems and works of art in general, emerge, ideas and concepts that had little to do with the depic tion of outside reality. The problem of perception, so important in the im pressionist trend of the same time, is not even mentioned in his writings. The striving toward "pure seeing,n common to a great deal of aesthetic re flection in the late nineteenth century, had no room whatsoever in Dilthey's philosophy. Pure seeing is directed toward something outside ourselves as human beings formed by culture. Dilthey did not even try to get out from what may perhaps be called the inner human world into the surrounding physical reality. Summarizing the direction of his thought rather freely, we should emphasize that in his philosophy art was a thor oughly human affair. The only basis for art was the world of the imagina tion that was built up in our minds or souls. A final point should be made here. For a long time it was common wis dom that art aims at illusion. Whatever the changes of style that occurred in

Wilhelm Dilthey


the course of centuries in actual art, it was a matter of faith to assume that

art conjures up an imaginary, illusionary world. Dilthey, however, believed

that "what is experienced [in our psychic life I enters completely into the ex pression [of art]" (ED, p. 179 ff.).ln a culture that encourages one to sup press one's emotions, the work of art, far from being an illusion, is the em bodiment of full truth. "In human society filled with lies Ithe artist's work) is always true" (GS, 5, p. 320). In a formulation that has a modern ring to it he said that in art "we enter a realm in which deception ends" (GS, 7, p. 207).


1. Georg Lukacs, Die ZersWrung der Vernunft (Berlin, 1953), writing from a Marxist point of view. 2. Wilhelm Oilthey, Die Jugendgeschichte Hegels und andere Abhandlungen zur Gtschichte des deutschen Idealismus, in Gesammelte Schriften, IV (Leipzig and Berlin, 1926). Gombrich believes that Dilthey remained, at least in the way he posed some problems, under Hegel's spell. See E. H. Gombrich, "In Search of Cultural History," reprinted in his Ideals and Idols: Essays on Values in History and inArt (Ox ford, 1979), pp. 43-44. Whether or not Dilthey remained faithful to Hegel in the posing of certain problems, he definitely did not see Reason (in any form ) as the main content of history. 3. Gesammelte Schriften, V, pp. xix- xxi (the Introduction by Georg Misch). For thisaspect,see the chapter on Dilthey in Rene Wellek,A HistoryofModern Criticism, 1750-1950, vol. 4, The Later Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1965), pp. 320--35. 4. Among modern investigations of the answers given to this question, see par ticularly Erwin Panofsky, Idea: A Concept in Art Theory (New York, 1968; original German edition: Leipzig, 1924). 5. Page references will be given in parentheses in the text. Gesammelte Schriften are quoted as GS. Wilhelm Oilthey, Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung: Lessing, Goethe, N/Mllis, Holderlin (Leipzig, 1906) is referred to as ED. followed by page number. 6. Dilthey came back to the designation of the dream as a kind of artist. See GS, 6, p. 179, where it reads: "Oer Traum. dieser verborgene Poet in uns." 7. The literature is enormous. For a brief summary of the problem, as I under stand it, see Barasch, Modern Theories ofArt, 1, pp. 24 ff. 8. Nor was he always consistent in this respect. In his old age he seems to have had second thoughts concerning the matter of disinterestedness. See Wellek,A His Wry ofModern Criticism, especially pp. 322 ff. 9. In addition to Karol Sauerland. Diltheys Erlebnisbegriff: Entsrehung, Glanzzeit und Verkiimmerung eines literar-historischen Begriffs (Berlin, 1972). pp. 117 ff., see also Kurt Miiller-Vollmer. Towards a Phenomenowgical Theory of Literature: A Study ofWilhelm Pilthey's Poetik (The Hague, 1963).