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Structure and Change in Wilhelm Dilthey's Philosophy of History Author(s): Ilse N. Bulhof Reviewed work(s): Source: History and Theory, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Feb., 1976), pp. 21-32 Published by: Blackwell Publishing for Wesleyan University Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2504874 . Accessed: 11/04/2012 16:32
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1961-) (henceforth cited as GS). of historical significance. or an event. Dilthey developed the method of intuitive understanding applicable to historical phenomena such as a work of art. his view of culture. As a result of his conception of life. in the coherence making the happenings of the past a true history instead of a mere succession of events. namely his conception of the structuredness of human life and history. P." Life could never remain in the place where it found itself.STRUCTURE AND CHANGE IN WILHELM DILTHEY'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY ILSE N. Printed in volume VII of Wilhelm Dilthey. According to Dilthey. 1961). In this essay attention will be drawn to some other aspects of Dilthey's thought. Pattern and Meaning in History (London. such as "The Structure of the Historical World in the Human Studies" (1910).1 In the following pages I shall focus on the Introduction and his later. In the Introduction to the Human Studies (1883). Dilthey viewed human history as the outer manifestation of a restless movement of an underlying force which he called "life. Dilthey's basis for considering these questions was his interest in the total course of history and. Most of his thoughts on this latter topic are contained in essays written at the end of his life. 8 vols. lesser-known studies. The Introduction to the Human Studies (Einleitung in die Geistswissenschaften) had not been translatedeither. Gesammelte Schriften. These essays have not been translated into English. . except for some fragments collected and translated by H. But this method could not contribute much to the insight into the structure of history sought by Dilthey. the life creating history was a spontaneous and self-generating creativity not subject to the mechanical laws of nature. the study of the overall structure of history had until that time been the concern of the philosophers of history. being alive. Wilhelm Dilthey is known for his defense of the autonomy of history against a methodology of the natural sciences by advocating the method of intuitive understanding. Rickman. it had to move on continuously to embody itself in new forms. an historical person. (Stuttgart and G6ttingen. more specifically. BULHOF To historians. and of social change. Dilthey had to elaborate an appropriate method by which to investigate the structure of human history. The immanent structures they had found made history intelligible either by being providen1. To Dilthey.

by ideas regulating history. and sets of discrete activities. VII. succeeding each other in time. life happens in structures: "We perceive coherence because of the unity of our consciousness. could form a whole or structure. 4. But Dilthey called the explanations of history on the basis of such metaphysical a priori positions "mere suppositions. but it is clear that the existence of coherence would not result from the mere fact that the unity of consciousness is presented with a variety of experiences. Ibid.4 Consciousness is by definition a presence. Dilthey tried first to understand the interconnectedness among events in the course of the life of an individual person. of experiences which have an inner relationship to each other.22 ILSE N. The foremost characteristic of consciousness is self-awareness. Dilthey attempted to find historical coherence in empirical study of the structures that kept the fabric of the historical and social world together by investigating how a series of events. but of an experiencing of structures. 3. 91ff. I. and consciousness is not a thing but an activity. 200."2 He stressed that the structure of history was too "immensely complicated" to be contained in any single formula. Every discrete experience is related to a self. 195. BULHOF tial plans. GS. GS. and the objects experienced by 2. or by supplying formulas explaining the law of historical development. because what he [in hindsight] experiences as valuable in his life were goals which he had realized after he had projected his life in a certain direction" [Dilthey used the word Lebensplan]. This is a precondition of all our perceptions. it is structurally connected with the other parts to form a totality. of which it is a part. Human life. performed by various individuals at the same time. Dilthey stressed that what is given in consciousness are totalities or structures rather than particulars. is lived consciously. . he felt." Dilthey explained the structuredness of human life on the basis of man's anticipation of the future in projecting his life toward a goal: "The same person who investigates the coherence of his life in his personal history has already formed a coherence of his life."3 The coherence of life is not the result of our conscious perception of it. it is inherent in life itself. Past and future are related in a series that is transformed by consciousness into a totality: "The course of life consists of parts.. Having rejected'the search for a nonexistent metaphysical principle informing history. In all conscious phenomena we find structures. Only because life itself is a structural coherence (Strukturzusammenhang) in which the experience exists in a relationship which can be experienced is the coherence of life given to us. The activity of individual consciousness consists not of step-by-step logical thinking.

. GS.WILHELM DILTHEY'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 23 consciousness are perceived in their presence to it. the smallest structural unit. phenomena are considered from the perspective of consciousness.8 Dilthey called them "ideal unities."7 of history. too. 283. 9. 8. the elements that exist in the present will be stressed. he believed. and is accordingly lived or experienced. in structures. N. Wilhelnm Dilthey's Philosophy of Historical Under- standing. Ibid. I. See also ibid. Dilthey defined them as social entities in which goal. GS. and religious organizations as well as nations and periods. as Dilthey tended to do. The human person is. Ibid. his consciousness exists as this experienced unity of past and present experiences. the "Urzelle. these structures have a teleological character. 249. while past and future elements tend to be ignored." Examples of such structural systems were scientific. Dilthey used the unified life of a person as the model for the coherence of history. 246. Empirical observation shows that each individual is part of larger structures (Zusammenhange) which he called "structural systems. Where form and structure are stressed. happens. 6."6 The unity of life does not exist for a person's consciousness. H. A Critical Analysis (Leiden."5 The totality of a person's life is not the sum of the discrete experiences or moments in which life was lived in time. When. but as a synchronic structure "centered around a middle to which everything exterior is related as to an interior. Having been created to serve a purpose..9 Dilthey emphasized that such structures were not imposed afterward on history by the observer: they were part of history itself.. 1966) has pointed out the importance of the notion of systems in Dilthey's historical thought. but rather "a unity constructed on the basis of the interrelationships existing among all parts. Tuttle. so communities. function. Consequently. Dilthey pointed out that similar structures exist in the collective life of society. and historiography is the reflection 5. Ibid. 134ff." and he characterized them as the "ideal" or "logical" subjects of history. have a "life history" (Lebensgeschichte). The relationships connecting the objects of experience have as a result a synchronical or structural character.. 7. 140. . they belong to the realm of consciousness rather than to that of nature. linear temporal developments tend to be seen as irrelevant. and structure are united to form a whole. 49-65. Just as personal life. he did not view the self as constituted as a diachronic series ordered from the last member onward. After having asserted the structural unity of the life of a single person. collective or historical life. This explains why Dilthey conceived of a self as a structure or form dependent on a "planning present" or a "consciousness of values" connecting its past and future with its living present. VII. economic. Because cultural structures are created by man to fulfill a need.

. The conception of the structural unity of a period led Dilthey to a conception of culture similar to that used in twentieth-century cultural anthropology. for instance. They are based on a consensus of its participants and result in a patterned way of life. Because of his studies of the relationships connecting the different aspects of a period.. and the impulses that emerge in this way are similar to each other. Ibid. strives for similar goods. 264. the individual human person. because this attitude is expressed in the institutions and other social structures of the time. 13. however creative." The common attitude toward life shapes the mental or cultural unity of the period. while excluding others. Historical periods as he saw them are cultures as later understood in cultural anthropology: functionally integrated wholes."12Consequently. Dilthey had come to see history as a system of interlocking cultural structures instead of a succession of events. each is "concentrated in itself" having "its center in itself. shapes its sociological unity as well. 11. the various epochs have their unity of reference (Massstab) concerning their way of operations in a common entity [in themselves]. life with consciousness. the "Geist der Zeit. 177. 209. thus creating a "horizon" for its members that could not be transcended. evidence inner affinity. 12. Idem. their own type of emotions. feelings.13 In the English-speaking world. The ways of feeling. the life of the soul. and." The people of the Middle Ages or Antiquity. As an historian. BULHOF on their "course of life."'0 An historical epoch was likewise a structurally unified whole comparable to the course of the life of an individual. The various structures of the society are organized along the same lines. . and finds itself bound by similar rules. The relationships in perception. . Dilthey indicated also that the participants were mostly unconscious of the way in which their behavior was regulated and determined by the interlocking cultural systems of a period. had their own way of perceiving the world. Dilthey had a keen eye for the limiting effects of the existing structural system of a period on the development of its individual participants.24 ILSE N. . He explained that a given period prescribed certain thoughts. Having identified history with life. evidencing similarities. and their own characteristic goals. oriented toward the achievement of a goal or the realization of a value. Dilthey can be considered as a precursor of functionalism in cultural anthropology. As each period has its own horizon. Franz Boas was one of the first cultural anthropologists to use the 10. and goals for its members. the will chooses [in one period] similar goals. and consciousness with the experience of structures. Ibid. is never completely free: he cannot escape the climate of opinion." In Dilthey's words: ". Ibid. Consequently. for example..

values. It is interesting to note in this respect that Ruth Benedict refers to Dilthey's conception of cultures as integrated wholes in her book Patterns of Cuiltutre (New York. Dilthey paid much attention to how the historical climate of a period could actually shape human behavior. are committed to enduring material: manuscripts. 15. Dilthey wrote that in evaluating particular phenomena the historian first had to establish what the person had done and then judge how his actions were related to the historical context. 1968). Stocking. W. Essays in the History of Anthropology (New York and London. however. states. facial expressions. cultural systems also were seen as norms which enable the historian to evaluate the actions of the actors of the past. Such a judgment was possible because the culture or the total historical context of the period (das Ganze der Epoche oder des Zeitalters) furnished the standard by which to evaluate the appropriateness. propriety. and institutions over a certain span of time. Human life. books. He perceived such expressions 14. GS. into which each person is born. is not only conscious and experienced life. 231). and ways of thinking the similarity of a common entity that reigns over the epoch. who could have read the Introduction to the Human Studies while still in Germany and who had attended Dilthey's lectures at the University of Berlin. interpersonal cultural world. Idem. scientific institutions. was influenced by Dilthey's conception of cultural systems. the historian should analyze the cultural systems of the past "to discover in the concrete goals. the culture-concept not only served to shield the past from present-minded judgments. Jr. Culture. His answer was that history can condition human behavior because man lives in an objectively existing. . and others. G. or creativity of a specific action. 203. Some expressions . 155. 1953). works of art.17 Because he was interested in the diachronical coherence of history. 203).vanish after having been performed.14 It seems possible that Boas. He mentions. but also expressed life. and Evolution. Race. that the term "cultures" was regularly used only by his students (p."'6 In Dilthey's approach to history. evaluating whether they fitted in the context of the time or whether they showed signs of transcending the actual situation and pointing toward the future. churches.15 Dilthey's insight into the structural relationships connecting the various aspects of social life caused him to define the task of the historian in an interesting way: instead of reporting events. 47. that Boas' use of the term culture was not consistent (p. and words . prematurity. Other expressions. 17.. however. VII. he felt.such as gestures.WILHELM DILTHEY'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 25 word culture in the plural. 16. values.

. Ibid. ordering. 21." that is to say. Ibid."20 Individuals become historically conditioned in their actions and thinking because they are born into an objectively existing culture that outlasts the lifetimes of the individuals of which it is composed."21 To become acculturated and socialized means to learn to comprehend the signs of one's culture: "A child grows up in an order and is surrounded by the family customs which are shared with others. . culture ."22 Dilthey conceived of man's cultural environment as language. In everyday life people have to understand each other's behavior and intentions. The objects in which human life and mind had embodied themselves formed together what Dilthey called "the external realm of the mind". .as "the manifold forms in which the commonality existing between individuals has objectified itself in the world of senses. . The individual person learns the language of culture 18. BULHOF of human life as having an "objective.18 In such phenomena. man understands immediately that the cultural manifestations surrounding him are not merely things the way natural objects are things.26 ILSE N. but also such cultural expressions as the arrangement of trees in a park or of chairs in a room. Before he learns to speak. 20. every room with chairs is understandable to us. 80. and the education given by the mother is understood in connection with these customs. Every square planted with trees. as we would say. and evaluating which we have in common (ein Gemeinsames) have given every square and every chair in a room its place. 146. he called the life that embodied or externalized itself in this way the "objective mind. a cultural system does more than give a structure to social life. 19. but signs that are a form of language: "Everything in which the mind has objectified itself has something that is common to the I and the you. he [the child] is already submerged in a shared environment (Gemeinsamkeiten). Idem. 208.. But to Dilthey.. such as facial expressions and forms of greeting. GS. 22. Ibid. interpersonal. Its separate elements are like words. VII. human life had "objectified" or "externalized" itself. because the human planning. Because every human being has the capacity to experience life consciously and to express himself. It also serves as the medium that makes communication possible between the members of a community.. and enduring existence in material objects and social structures that can be perceived by others. In this way the individual orients himself in the world of the objective mind. 209.or."19Dilthey defined the objective mind . they have to be able to interpret the various expressions (Lebensausserungen) of other people. a visible.

24. The result will be "a compromise between the old state of affairs and the confusion brought in from outside. after each upheaval. The self-image of a nation may be conceived as a regulative device that decides which events at a certain moment of the nation's existence are considered to be impossible and are. by an objective judgment. LeviStrauss writes that demographic evolution can shatter the social structure but that "if the structural orientation survives the shock it has. It may be interesting to quote Levi-Strauss on the influence of myths and rites on social systems. Thomas Kuhn's paradigms. several means of reestablishing a system. an historically significant event is neither momentous in itself. for that reason. Dilthey's conception of culture had implications for the problem of historical significance. to those phenomena of history that had influenced later events. Significance was commonly attributed.WILHELM DILTHEY'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 27 but is unaware of its underlying rules23. but that had nevertheless enormous consequence in later history. The culture of a period determines what will be accepted as historically significant and what will be forgotten. to mention vet another proponent of this type of thinking. 66-74. ignored. Viewed from this perspective. for example." Levi-Strauss mentions as a possible example of such . suggests that myths and rites can counteract "objectively" important events and cause them to be eventually dropped from memory and robbed of historical influence. The Savage Mind (Chicago. nor is its significance a matter of an historical interpretation made through hindsight.2' It seems equally possible that myths and rites can fulfill 23. Idem. such as the invention of the plow or the introduction of a new type of fireplace in the Middle Ages. Dilthey added to this theory of objective historical significance the notion that an event had first to be subjectively experienced as significant by the community before it could have an objective effect on later history. "so as to maintain new structural solutions along approximately the same lines as the previous structure.an anticipation of the structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss. Claude Levi-Strauss. While agreeing that some events were more significant than others." The structural orientation will continue through the myths and rites. the number of historically significant events was of course relatively small. which may not be identical with the earlier one but is at least formally of the same type. function in this way in the history of science. This view of historical significance is an extreme form of idealism as it accepts as real and meaningful only what has been consciously accepted as such by the actors of the past themselves. Claude Levi-Strauss. One can think of many things that went almost unnoticed in their time. As most events do not effect later history. Nevertheless the hypothesis of an analogy between the psychic structure of an individual and the collective mind of a culture has something to recommend it." as if the structure were a motor with a feedback device. 1970).

How could the transition from one period to the other be conceptualized? Could the course of history be completely irrational and haphazard? Dilthey did not think so. Hayden V. as a result. White (Detroit.28 ILSE N. the life of history followed no simple rules of reason in its movement: the progression of life was spontaneous and free. Dilthey stressed that no law prescribes a developmental pattern of mental growth. always in the process of changing. From History to Sociology. 68-69). his cultural systems were. In order to understand social change. The Transition in German His- torical Thought. Because of his interest in social structures. 71. See Carlo Antoni. have often been described by humanistic historians as series of mere contingencies among which the nonpredictable responses of man to his situation occupy an important a structural adjustment of the historical process the legends of the Osage Indians (pp.such as that of Oswald Spengler. "the discipline working under the sovereign aegis of time." American Historical Review 63 (1957). Leonard Krieger. 25. the classic example is the reception in the New World of the Spaniards. who were seen by the Indians as gods whose coming had been prophesied. the structures he discerned and the periods he analyzed were to him always part of the ongoing stream of life. climax. BULHOF the opposite function and confer meaning on an event that considered "objectively" would not be that important. "The Horizons of History. who was equally interested in discovering patterns of historical development . change. What distinguishes history from the other social sciences is its concern for process. 27. transl. Nor is human freedom compatible with teleological notions of an inborn character: Dilthey stated that "all theories about a progressive development in stages should be rejected. Dilthey took again as a model the psyche of a person. and decline like those governing the human body and other natural objects. indeed. 244. 1959). This made it difficult for Dilthey to account for the diachronic coherence of history. as stated before. Historical developments. . following predetermined patterns. Biological developments are closed systems."27 What distinguishes Dilthey's view of individual and historical development from others' .25 but he remained nevertheless primarily an historian.was the fact that Dilthey saw the development of an individual person or of an historical phenomenon as a process of interaction between external and internal elements. Man is free to stop his psychological development early or to continue to grow till death. and time: history is."26 In spite of the fact that Dilthey was struck by the structuredness of cultural phenomena of the past. 26. GS. VII. And. on the other hand. Dilthey occupies an important place in the transformation of history into a social science.

the core of his personality or self. however.WILHELM DILTHEY'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 29 place. Idem. A young individual might change his opinion frequently. and."29 To Dilthey. To illustrate his conception of the relationship between freedom and necessity in human life.. The external events influencing this self have an effective result (Wirkungswert) on it. a determination by what has already passed but still a self-containment of various possibilities. 28. By the continuous acquisition of new experiences. by the possibilities offered by external circumstances or history. the psychological development of an individual acquires a more or less steady direction.. 29. but as he becomes older he will increasingly stand by opinions and value-judgments that are part of the way in which his self had become organized in the course of time. first. to the man who asserts himself vis-A-vis the world. by the internal structure of the person's own developing self. we relate the course of influences and reactions to something that forms itself (sich gestaltet) and thus develops itself as something formed from the inside. But once discernible. what I call an 'acquired soulstructure' (Seelenzusamnmenhang) is built on the foundation of previous experiences. Dilthey pointed to the example of instrumental music. 231. . a progression of psychic activity itself. Ibid."30 To sum up: Dilthey conceived of a self as a psychological structure provided with a potential for development. firmly rooted in his inner-oriented interiority. 237. As an adult his steady character traits express his outlook on life. Such music had "a direction. 30. Dilthey described the formation of a character as the formation of a "soul-structure" that both endures and changes during the course of a person's life: "[A person's] life and the course of life are a structure. second. the self was a psychic structure that has come about as the result of the interplay between an increasingly internally realized personal pattern and its environment. The result of this process is the duration and continuity of the structure in the midst of changes. Dilthey steered a middle course between these extremes. First."28 This structure receives influences from the outside. an activity that reaches out toward its realization. Thus after a certain point in time. limited. but that direction does not stem from an inborn character: initially. I shall analyze his view of individual development. Dilthey explained that the acquired character-structurelimits a person's freedom of development. the characterstructure remains an important factor in the self's further development. but it is at the same time increasingly determined by the developing soul-structure: "as we pursue the line of memories from the little figure of childhood. Ibid. living in the moment. it was formed by circumstances. a process of explication which at the same time is a creation.

Dilthey suggested that historical events should be explained by indicating how they were part of a pattern of diachronic structural change. .33 as he wrote in connection with revolutions. Thus he wrote. Ibid. With his model Dilthey described historical change in a way that avoided the Scylla of historical naturalism and the Charybdis of historical accidentalism. 168. but as the result of the changing patterns of its logical subjects. as we have seen. 33. Such systems are."31 Historical phenomena. History is the continuous transformation of its interlocking cultural structures. instead of as discrete entities adding up to historical sequences.30 ILSE N.. for instance. The structure of an historical phenomenon shapes to a certain extent its future. for as such they help to realize together with other parts the values and goals of the totality. 32.LIbid. they should also be seen as moments of diachronic patterns of development. not mental constructs fabricated by philosophers but empirically verifiable constituents of social life. 270. BULHOF Dilthey conceived of historical change in terms similar to those of the development of a self. Dilthey had hoped that his structural approach to the history of a period could explain also the coherence of universal history: "although in the concrete course of history no law of development can be found. or as members of "systems of changes" (Veriinderungssystemen).32 Thus the cultural structure of a period not only delimits future developments. Although the exact direction of an historical development of a structure could not be predicted. Idem. that the structure of a given historical phenomenon precluded some changes while making others probable. its changes are not an altogether arbitrary development. its analysis into separate structures opens the eye for the succession of stages. Consistent with his model of the development of a self. but operates retrospectively as well. Dilthey stated furthermore that the changes in historical phenomena occur at each moment in the direction of one of a finite set of possibilities. history does not come about as the result of the actions of individuals.. the cultural systems of history. 34. Ibid."34Further31. in other words. "Historical events become meaningful when seen as part of a structure. One of the interesting aspects of Dilthey's "structuralism"is the fact that in his approach to history the category of events occupies an important place.. It also circumscribes the extent to which past events can influence the situation of the present: the cultural structure of a period assimilates previous events. 169. Dilthey believed actions of individuals and historical events should be viewed as articulations of changing cultural patterns. Seen thus. should be understood not only as a function of the synchronic structural context.

because mankind does not function in history as a logical subject. VII. 38. the problem of the seeming antagonism between process and structure has not yet been satisfactorily resolved in historiography. He continued to believe in the ontic reality of mankind and its life in history. 36. Idem. The variety of forms of philosophies and of human life in general were. 39. Berkhofer in A Behavioral Approach to Historical Analysis (New York. Robert R. GS. and that consequently the traditional normative concept of a "typical" man was untenable. To solve this problem."38 Concerned particularly with the confusing variety of philosophical systems. determined by their nature. 131. of which each change is possible only on the basis of the previous one. 37. Idem. is necessarily linked with the recognition of the relativity of every historical form of life. however. Dilthey wrote that the theory of evolution explained that no such system could claim absolute validity."35 The series of changes was not only continuous and irreversible."36 It was. while a progression toward increasing differentiation and structuredness takes place. he felt. but also progressive..WILHELM DILTHEY'S PHILOSOPHY OF HISTORY 31 more. however. Historical life will. the succession of historical structures follows the order of time. Idem. And the hypothesis of a super-soul or a collective consciousness of mankind does not make sense. as it were. nor tend to any goal."39The fact that Dilthey used the model of Darwinian evolution to indicate the nature of the development of human history expresses his view that life does not follow a specific direction. .37 The Darwinian model also illustrated the relative value of historical forms: "the theory of evolution . GS. it fails when applied to universal history. . reconciled both the requirements of a unitary history and the necessity of allowing each period its intrinsic validity. Dilthey suggested the Darwinian model of evolutionary biology.40 Dilthey's approach has nevertheless much to offer to the contemporary historian. "connected with ongoing life: it is one of its most important and instructive creations. never come to an end. VIII. Whatever the merits of Dilthey's model of historical change. in Dilthey's words. 77ff. elevated. "for they go through a series of changes. 40. universal history. Dilthey. Idem. This model. difficult to harmonize the self-centeredness of periods with the notion of coherent. comp. also ibid. 197. for the successive historical entities evidence an increasing movement toward more complex forms: "these successive situations presuppose each other so that on the lower level a higher one is. After all. . however. never acknowledged this. 1969) points out that structurally-oriented historians still do not know 35.

but that historical significance is a function of the cultural system in which the events studied occurred. a structural approach is aptly combined with concern for contingent events.32 ILSE N. nor a matter of objective observation. He makes it clear that the significance of an historical event is neither a matter of subjective evaluation made through hindsight by the historian. Dilthey would also seem to provide a resolution for the dispute between historical objectivists and subjectivists in the area of historical knowledge. In Dilthey's model of historical change. BULHOF how to approach historical change. University of Texas at Austin . on the other hand.

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