Dilthey's Philosophy
of the History of Philosophy

by Theodore Plantinga

The relation of philosophy to its own history has become an important subject of philosophical reflection during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Two questions or sets of questions dominate this debate. First, what is it that the historian of philosophy claims to study, and what assumptions must he make if a scientific study of philosophy's past is to be possible? Second, what is the significance of such study for philosophy itself? Does the study of philosophy's past represent a branch of historical science, or is it first and foremost a philosophical pursuit carried out by the philosophers themselves and of interest mainly to them?

Among the thinkers who have turned their attention to these matters is the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911). What Dilthey has to say is of interest not only because he was an important philosopher but also because he was a renowned historian. He possessed the personal experience in historical research and writing that would presumably entitle him to speak with authority and enable him to achieve some interesting insights into the relation between philosophy and its past.

In this essay I propose to discuss Dilthey's views on the history of philosophy, which, unfortunately, were never summed up in any single work. [NOTE 1] In the process I hope to clear up some misconceptions about his approach to the history of philosophy, for his views on this subject are often confused or identified with his views on cultural and intellectual history in general.[NOTE 2] In conclusion I shall offer some reasons for supposing that Dilthey's conception of the history of philosophy is to be preferred to a rival outlook whose chief exponent is Nicolai Hartmann (1882-1950).


One major reason why the study of the history of philosophy was so long neglected by the philosophers themselves is that this piece of territory had already been occupied by their enemies. Many of the earliest histories of philosophy represent the work of skeptics who hoped to warn others away from philosophy by showing that philosophers contradict one another on every conceivable topic. According to this standpoint, the history of philosophy is at best the history of opinion and at worst the history of untruth or even nonsense. To write a history of philosophy was simply to list the statements, opinions and doctrines of various philosophers. The reader would then have ample evidence to draw the desired conclusion.

The philosophers themselves, of course, were by no means oblivious to the disagreements and differences between them. Repeated attempts were made to base philosophy on an indubitable and undisputed foundation or to elevate it to a science, to use Hegel's famous phrase. And if philosophy could be made a science, there might be some hope of transforming the history of philosophy from the history of error and contradiction into the history of the truth. This occurred to Hegel (1770-1831), at least, and his treatment of the history of philosophy represents the first important consideration of the questions with which this essay deals. It established a framework for the discussion of these questions; virtually all subsequent debate refers explicitly or implicitly to the issues he raised and the theses he defended.

Hegel's lectures on the history of philosophy were preceded by a treatment of preliminary considerations, that is, by a philosophy of the history of philosophy. He began by disposing of the view that the history of philosophy is the history of the opinions or doctrines affirmed by various individuals. "What could be more useless and boring," he asked, "than to learn a series of mere opinions?" Philosophy, he declared, has nothing whatever to do with opinions: there is no such thing as a philosophical opinion, for an opinion is a merely contingent thought. The very term opinion (Meinung), he argued, can be derived from the possessive pronoun mine (mein). [NOTE 3] As something that is merely mine, then, an opinion can make no claim to universal validity. Therefore, if the history of philosophy is to be a science, it cannot rest content with the recitation of opinions or doctrines.

The object of the history of philosophy is not opinion but truth, for philosophy is the objective science of the truth and its necessity. The truth is one, and the goal of the history of philosophy is to know the truth. Hence the study of the history of philosophy is the study of philosophy itself, which means that the history of philosophy can serve as an introduction to philosophy, i.e. to the truth. The truth, moreover, is not the product of the thinking of any one individual; the philosophy of the present, Hegel writes, contains "... all that has been produced by the labor of millennia; it is the final result of all that has preceded it." [NOTE 4] Thus the unity of the truth and its unfolding in history must be taken into account by the historian of philosophy. What this means is that he should view the history of philosophy not first of all as the history of thinking but as the history of what has been thought. Although process and result can never be fully separated for Hegel, the emphasis definitely falls on the result. "Thus the history of philosophy is the history of thought" (Geschichte des Gedankens), and the historian of philosophy focuses on the "deeds of thinking reason." Although these deeds were performed in the past, that which was achieved by way of them is still with us. Hence the historian of philosophy is really concerned with something present. "Only the external, i.e. the men, their destinies, and so forth, belongs to the past," Hegel wrote, "but as far as what they have produced is concerned, it has endured." [NOTE 5]

The history of philosophy was of special importance to Hegel because the truth develops in a progressive manner throughout the ages. The apprehension of truth made possible by our standpoint in the present enables us to discern in the history of philosophy a pattern and order that previous philosophers were not able to see. This realization must govern our approach to the history of philosophy:

There is nothing arbitrary about the succession of philosophies; the order in which they appear is determined by necessity. ... Each moment grasps the totality of the Idea in a one-sided way, is aufgehoben because of this one-sidedness, and, with its claim to finality thus refuted, joins with its opposed determination, which it lacks, thereby becoming deeper and richer. This is the dialectic of these determinations. But this movement does not end in nothingness, for the aufgehoben determinations are rather of an affirmative nature themselves. It is in this sense that we must deal with the history of philosophy. [NOTE 6]

For Hegel, then, the history of philosophy is a unified science worthy of our attention because it traces and portrays the progressive unfolding of the truth.


Hegel also devoted considerable attention to the relation of philosophy to the other cultural and intellectual forms in which the Spirit manifests or expresses itself, but his remarks on this topic attracted less attention. Yet this relation was again emphasized particularly by Dilthey, despite the fact that his views on the history of philosophy represent a repudiation of Hegel's outlook. Dilthey, too, spoke of "the spirit" (Geist) and its expressions, but he meant the human spirit, the individual human mind that shapes the world of culture and history. Orthodox Hegelianism had collapsed not long after Hegel's death in 1831, and later thinkers who reflected on the relation between philosophy and its history abandoned Hegel's views or modified them considerably.

What strikes us first about Dilthey's work as a historian of thought is that he emphasized the personal element in philosophy, which Hegel had dismissed as secondary. Thus he took considerable interest in the lives of the philosophers he studied. The personal element, he pointed out, is important to understanding the relations between philosophy and the other cultural and intellectual manifestations of the human spirit, e.g. art, poetry and religion. Underlying such expressions of life and the spirit, he maintained, is a "worldview" (Weltanschauung), which forms the substance or content that a philosophical system and a work of art might have in common. The historian of culture and the intellectual world must therefore investigate worldviews as the background for understanding particular cultural expressions, including philosophical systems and ideas.

This kind of approach to cultural and intellectual history, which is known in Germany as "Geistesgeschichte," [NOTE 7] became popular and widespread during the early part of this century through Dilthey's influence. Dilthey himself led the way in his historical writings, for he insisted on understanding ideas in context, that is, in the light of their origin, their background, and the intentions of their authors. The writer of intellectual history, he declared, must concern himself (among other things) with the "... causal interrelations, with the origin of ideas in an earlier circle of thinkers or in the experience and contemplation of reality ...." [NOTE 8] In an essay on the significance of archives for the study of the history of philosophy, he wrote:

The philosophical systems have arisen out of culture as a whole and have in turn affected it. Hegel also recognized this. The task, now, is to gain knowledge of the causal interrelations and their links, i.e. the context within which this process occurs. This task Hegel did not set for himself. And its execution, i.e. placing philosophical thinkers inside the living context to which they belong, at once makes necessary a literary treatment which investigates the causal interrelations of this process on the basis of all available knowledge of the philosophers' collaborators, their opponents, and those who were influenced by them.

The philosophy of an age, he went on to explain, is the most complicated phenomenon in the historical world

... insofar as this philosophy is not only to be described outwardly but is to be understood as a living power. The analysis of this phenomenon must accordingly make use of all available aids and tools and must consult all the historical remains of the process. The greater a person's life's work is, the deeper the roots of his cultural (geistig) labors reach into the soil of the economic system, customs and law of his time, and the more varied and living is the exchange with the surrounding air and light in which it breathes and grows. [NOTE 9]

To understand philosophical ideas, then, it is often necessary to read letters, early unpublished writings and preliminary drafts of philosophical works. (Hence Dilthey argued that such materials should be preserved and made accessible in archives.) He himself demonstrated how illuminating such an approach can be by way of his book on Hegel, [NOTE 10] in which the young Hegel is presented on the basis of correspondence and early writings that had not been published. This book, in which Dilthey sketched the worldview of the young Hegel, stimulated a good deal of further research on Hegel. Eventually it led to the publication of Hegel's early writings, by Dilthey's student Herman Nohl, who thereby fulfilled a wish that Dilthey had expressed in the preface to his book on Hegel.

The considerations above might appear to warrant the conclusion that Dilthey -- unlike Hegel -- regarded the history of philosophy as the history of thinking and then proceeded to incorporate it into cultural and intellectual history in general. But such a conclusion would be premature. Before assuming that Dilthey reduced philosophy to worldviews or the opinions of individuals, we should take note of what he did not say. As we have seen, he emphasized that philosophical thinking lives and grows within a larger matrix of cultural, historical and social life. Yet he did not argue that philosophy is totally determined by these factors, or that we can deduce a thinker's philosophical ideas from a proper knowledge of the factors that form the background of his thought. In other words, Dilthey did not maintain that philosophy is some sort of epiphenomenon hovering above the surface of life, or that the relation between life and philosophy is that of material substructure and ideological superstructure.

Furthermore, although Dilthey emphasized that the historian of philosophy who struggles to understand past philosophical ideas is dependent on the same kind of material and historical evidence that the intellectual and cultural historian uses, he did not declare that the history of philosophy is simply a branch of intellectual history, or that to understand philosophical ideas is simply to trace their rise and development. Here the book on Hegel has been a source of confusion. It represents a piece of intellectual history, but it was not intended by Dilthey as history of philosophy in the strict sense. Nonetheless, it is relevant to the history of philosophy -- just as much of what is written in the realm of intellectual history casts light on the history of philosophy. Hence it is sometimes wrongly regarded as an example of history of philosophy a la Dilthey.

The important point to bear in mind in order to overcome this confusion is that Dilthey emphasized the importance of context to the process of understanding. Intellectual history, of course, must provide much of the context and background for understanding the philosophical ideas with which the historian of philosophy is concerned. Yet, although the latter may come to understand a difficult philosophical idea through the study of extra-philosophical factors that influenced the philosopher being examined, it is still the idea, which represents a philosophical meaning, that is the real object of interest for the historian of philosophy. In other words, neither the mental processes which the historian goes through in his efforts to understand a philosophical idea nor the mental processes which the philosopher goes through in thinking out and formulating the idea are to be equated with the meaning of the idea, for two people may arrive at an understanding of one and the same idea by entirely different routes, just as two travelers may move from point A to point B by entirely different routes.

The study of the cultural, intellectual and historical background is an aid to understanding a philosophical idea, then, but not a substitute for it. Some philosophical ideas, in fact, can be understood without such study. Dilthey expressed this confidence as early as 1870, in the foreword to his biography of Schleiermacher, which opens with the words: "We can understand the philosophy of Kant fully without concerning ourselves further with his personality and his life; Schleiermacher's meaning, his worldview, and his works require a biographical presentation if they are to be understood thoroughly." [NOTE 11] Kant knew how to separate the process of thought from its results, and he learned to present the latter without the former. Schleiermacher had not learned this lesson properly, which is why extracting the philosophical results is more difficult in his case. Thus Dilthey did not intend to deny the independence of philosophical ideas.

If the meaning of a philosophical idea is not clear to us from the text in which it is presented, we must look to the background of the idea, i.e. to its origin and development, for a clarification of what the philosopher in question was trying to say. However, this does not mean that we are to judge ideas in the light of their origin, for understanding and judgment are separate operations for Dilthey. Once we have understood an idea, there still remains the philosophical task of inquiring into the grounds for its validity. Dilthey knew better than to ask whether anything good can come out of Nazareth, for he realized that the truth, like gold, is where you find it, and that gold cannot be distinguished from fool's gold at a glance. In other words, he did not expect the truth to present itself to us armed with a pedigree.

Thus we see that Dilthey does leave room for history of philosophy as an independent discipline, even though he personally preferred to write intellectual history. He did not propose to turn the study of past philosophical ideas into the study of worldviews, opinions, or extra-philosophical factors that influence philosophical thought, and he believed that all philosophical ideas must ultimately be judged in relation to their claims to truth and validity -- and not in relation to their historical origin. [NOTE 12]


Beginning in the late nineteenth century, a reaction to the tendency to stress the connections between intellectual history and the history of philosophy set in. Philosophers of neo-Kantian background or conviction tried to limit the personal element in the history of philosophy and revive something of the Hegelian approach. In other words, the history of philosophy was to be the history of thought. More specifically, it was to be the history of the truth. This would be possible if the history of philosophy focused on philosophical problems and concepts.

The major philosophical problems, according to Wilhelm Windelband, represent "inescapable tasks for the human spirit" and give the history of philosophy the unity and continuity it needs in order to become scientific. [NOTE 13] Nicolai Hartmann, in an essay of 1909, spoke of systematic philosophical problems as "transcendental conditions" for the possibility of the history of philosophy [NOTE 14] The historian of philosophy, according to this outlook, focuses on systematic problems -- and not on the process of thinking or on the lives of philosophers. Because philosophical terms regularly undergo significant changes in meaning, the historian of philosophy must penetrate beyond the level of language to something more stable and abiding. Only someone who has struggled with the major philosophical problems himself is capable of this. Therefore the history of philosophy cannot be left to the historians. Like Hegel, Hartmann emphasized that it is a task to be assumed by the philosophers themselves.

But it is not enough, of course, to simply enumerate the philosophical questions which philosophers have faced throughout the ages. The answers they have given to these questions must also be dealt with. Hartmann recognized this, but he insisted that a mere "understanding" of philosophical ideas, statements and doctrines would not suffice. [NOTE 15] What is of primary importance is rather what the past philosopher whom we are studying has "seen" or come to know. In other words, the history of philosophy must become the history of insights:

Now the history of a science is in essence the history of insights and not of errors -- however much the latter may slip in everywhere -- at least, not of errors for their own sake. If philosophy, then, is more than mere opinion about everything under the sun, if it is science, then its real history must consist of a series of insights rather than a parade of doctrines and systems. Strictly speaking. what the latter represent -- insofar as there are no latent insights behind them -- is the non-philosophical element in philosophy. [NOTE 16]

Moreover, the insights which the historian of philosophy seeks to trace are often separable from the philosophical systems in which they originally emerged: Hegel's writings, for example, contain various insights about the nature and structure of the world of the spirit that survived the collapse of his system. [NOTE 17] Therefore we must ultimately make some sort of distinction between the "historical" and the "supra-historical" in the history of philosophy, [NOTE 18] for the history of philosophy is the history of the truth alone.

This is an appealing approach to philosophy's past, for it raises the prospect of a steady accumulation of insight and wisdom. However, it rests on a basic assumption that could conceivably be called into question, namely, the impersonal character of philosophical insight or of the result of philosophical thought. Dilthey certainly rejected this assumption, and it is on this fundamental level that his outlook on the history of philosophy parts company with that of Hartmann. Dilthey was convinced that "... insofar as a philosophical system really contains a discovery, something of genius, it includes an aspect that arises from the depth of the person and is not subject to analysis or calculation." [NOTE 19] For Dilthey, then, it is not a matter of "seeing" what some philosophical genius has "seen" before us. This would imply a greater distance between the thinker and the result of his thought than Dilthey was prepared to recognize.

To understand this claim on Dilthey's part, we must bear the problem of metaphysics in mind. Like numerous other thinkers of his time, Dilthey rejected the claim of metaphysics to scientific validity: metaphysics is impossible as a science. Yet he was convinced that metaphysics is by no means without value, and he refused to regard the history of metaphysics as a meaningless chapter in the history of the human spirit. The question then became: How can we extract what is valuable in the great metaphysical systems of the past? The answer is that we must seek to understand them as much as possible as expressions of profound experiences. And since experience is more than a passive reception of sensations, since it is a lived process to which the subject's entire history contributes, we must expect the cultural and intellectual expressions that arise out of human experience to share in the uniqueness and individuality of their authors. Dilthey declared: "The true metaphysicians have lived what they write." [NOTE 20] What the metaphysician has to tell us, therefore, is not something impersonal that we can "see" when he points it out; it is rather something that we must try to live through (nacherleben) for ourselves by transposing ourselves as much as possible into his situation and recapturing the sense of life and existence that results from his unique physical and spiritual position in the cosmos. What the history of metaphysics offers us is not a series of insights but a series of experiential possibilities through which not only our thought but our entire existence may be enriched and elevated. This is the spirit behind Dilthey's philosophy of the history of philosophy.

What applies to the history of metaphysics also applies to the history of art and the history of religion. Dilthey, who was not a Christian, insisted that the existence of man in the modern, post-Christian era could be elevated and enlarged in scope by incorporating something of the sense of life and its meaning that comes to expression in the faith of earlier ages. He illustrated this in an eloquent passage about Martin Luther, a man completely different from himself in character, temperament and outlook:

For me as for most people today, the possibility of experiencing (erleben) religious states of mind in my personal existence is sharply circumscribed. But when I go through the letters and writings of Luther, the accounts of his contemporaries, the records of the religious conferences and councils, and the reports of his official contacts, I encounter a religious phenomenon of such eruptive power, of such energy, in which the issue is one of life or death, that it lies beyond the experiential possibilities of a person of our time. But I can re-live (nacherleben) all of this .... And thereby this process opens up for us a religious world in Luther and in his contemporaries in the early Reformation that enlarges our horizon by including possibilities that are available to us only in this way. Thus man, who is determined from within, can experience many other existences in imagination. Although he is limited by his circumstances, foreign beauties of the world and regions of life that he could never reach himself are laid open to him. To put it in general terms, man, bound and determined by the reality of life, is made free not only by art -- which has often been pointed out -- but also by the understanding of things historical. [NOTE 21]

At this point we must be careful not to overlook the distinction between metaphysics, which is an illegitimate philosophical discipline, and the other branches of philosophy. When Dilthey maintains that we can inquire into the grounds supporting a philosophical idea after the idea has been understood, he does not mean to suggest that it makes sense to deal with metaphysics in this way. Because metaphysical systems purport to give us knowledge of that which transcends our experience, their claims can neither be validated nor refuted. Therefore we must either dismiss metaphysics entirely, which would be to ignore much of the history of philosophy, or devise some new approach to it. This is the dilemma underlying Dilthey's philosophy of the history of philosophy.

Dilthey's outlook differs from Hartmann's in another important respect as well. Hartmann draws a parallel between the history of philosophy and the history of science, as we saw in the quotation two pages back: if philosophy is to be a science, its history, like the history of the sciences, must consist of a series of insights. Dilthey, however, sees a fundamental difference between the history of philosophy and the history of science, namely, that there is steady progress only in the latter:

The progress of the sciences continues through all of history. This progress is steady, uninterrupted, irresistible, for what it depends on is that concepts can be handed on without loss from person to person and from age to age. In the entire realm of the understanding of expressions of life, such a transferability (Uebertragbarkeit) is to be found only here. [NOTE 22]

It is characteristic of philosophy -- and especially of metaphysics -- that the personal or individual element involved in the constitution of its ideas is ineradicable. This means that philosophical ideas cannot simply be handed on unchanged from one generation to the next, for they are often altered and reinterpreted in the process of being taken over by a new generation. Hence there is no steady, cumulative progress in the history of philosophy. The three basic types of philosophical systems distinguished by Dilthey (i.e. naturalism, idealism of freedom and objective idealism) march on through history side by side, neither destroying one another nor merging in a higher synthesis. Thinkers do borrow insights from one another, and they do build on the work of their predecessors to some extent, with the result that there is a certain amount of internal development within each of the three types, but the cumulative progress that we see in the history of science will always elude philosophy.


Both Hegel and Hartmann conceive of the history of philosophy essentially as the history of the truth. This is an attractive prospect, and therefore it is understandable that their views have drawn a fair amount of attention. Presumably such an outlook on the philosophy of the past could provide us with a framework or scheme for arranging and narrating the history of philosophy and could help us locate the fixed object which this discipline needs if it is to be scientific. Thus Windelband, whose position is similar to Hartmann's, maintained that the unifying factor in the history of philosophy is not what various philosophers have chosen to study nor the task they have set for themselves but what they have achieved together. [NOTE 23]

Dilthey, however, could not go along with such a unified conception of the history of philosophy, and his view of philosophy's past does not include or imply the same concrete directions for the historian of philosophy that are contained in the views of Hartmann and Windelband. Yet, there is a good deal to be said for Dilthey's position over against Hartmann's, as we shall see.

Important for Hartmann, as we saw earlier, is the parallel between the history of philosophy and the history of science. In the latter history, insights derived from various thinkers are combined to form an ever more encompassing knowledge of whatever it is that the particular science studies. Something of this sort could and should be possible in philosophy as well, according to Hartmann's view. But a strong case can be made against this thesis, for nothing of this sort has in fact been achieved in twentieth-century philosophy. Hartmann himself has made no serious effort to carry out such a program, despite the fact that he has written substantial books on a number of philosophical disciplines. The last major philosopher who claimed to sum up the truth as it had developed throughout the history of philosophy was Hegel. Today's philosophers feel free to reject large parts of the history of philosophy, and few of them have a thorough knowledge of philosophy's entire history. Of course they could conceivably be criticized for this, but they would be justified in replying that if Hartmann's conception of the history of philosophy is correct, someone would by now have found a way to combine the many separable insights to form a philosophical system that goes far beyond anything known to us at present in depth and comprehensiveness. In other words, once Hartmann has embarked on the path that Hegel took, it is only fair to expect him to follow it to its end.

Here the merits of the view of Dilthey, who points out the difference between the history of philosophy and the history of science, begin to become apparent, for his philosophy of the history of philosophy claims neither too much nor too little; that is to say, it explains why the history of philosophy is useful to some extent, but it also explains why it is not more useful. To take the latter point first, the usefulness of past philosophical systems and ideas is limited because a philosophical system, according to Dilthey, represents an organic unity that is by no means equivalent to the sum of its parts. The relation between part and whole is an important theme in Dilthey's writings; basic to his thinking is the view that the whole confers a meaning or significance on the part which the part simply does not have in isolation. What this means, among other things, is that a philosophical system simply cannot be resolved without loss into a series of philosophical ideas or "insights." Thus an approach to the history of philosophy that focuses on individual philosophical ideas at the expense of the systems and intellectual contexts within which these ideas were developed would fail to do justice to the philosophy of the past, to say the least. Nor do the individual ideas represent that which is of the greatest value in the history of philosophy. Underlying each philosophical or metaphysical system is a fundamental intuition, i.e. a unique point of view on the totality of reality and a deeply personal attitude toward it. "Each metaphysical system is representative only of the situation from which one soul has viewed the riddle of the world," writes Dilthey. [NOTE 24] The real meaning of a particular philosophical system is to be sought in this fundamental intuition, this position vis-a-vis the riddle of life.

Because the heart of each philosophy consists of some such personal intuition, there is something essentially finite or limited about philosophical thought. The philosophical system produced by the individual thinker is always bound to his standpoint within the cosmos, that is, to the range of his experience. Thus, to embrace enthusiastically what a particular thinker affirms is at the same time to embrace his limitations; it means excluding other fundamental intuitions that conflict with it. Unfortunately, there is no formula or method for combining these intuitions and summing up what has been achieved in the history of philosophy. Neither should the philosopher devote his attention exclusively to the history of philosophy, for the experience of his own generation as it comes to expression in art and literature, for example, also calls for recognition and philosophical exploration. Since philosophy, on Dilthey's view, is closely tied to experience, the value of past philosophical thought is limited by the incompleteness and inevitable one-sidedness of the experience of past philosophers. Therefore, we can make good use of the history of philosophy only if we remember that the experiential revelations it has in store for us are one-sided and incomplete.

On the other hand, once we realize the essential limitations of the history of philosophy and the fundamental difference between the history of philosophy and the history of science, we can use the philosophy of the past to combat the one-sidedness of our own experience and thinking. Because of the shortness of human life and the finitude of the human mind, certain sides of reality escape our attention unless they are disclosed to us by others whose experience includes elements and perspectives that ours does not. Because these limitations on the individual thinker are inevitable, the history of philosophy is necessary as a supplement and corrective to our own experience. If used properly, it will lead ultimately to a more balanced view of the world, for it opens up experiential possibilities outside the range of our own immediate experience, just as the study of Luther's career and writings exposes us to dimensions of religious feeling and awareness foreign to the world in which we live. The experience we gain at second hand through books is not as vivid as first-hand experience, and it does not make as deep an impression on us as it did on those who report the experiences to us, but Dilthey insisted that it is nevertheless of great value, just as accounts of travels to Africa can be of value and interest to those who have never had the opportunity of seeing Africa for themselves. [NOTE 25]


Up to this point, I have stressed the "pedagogical" value of the history of philosophy as Dilthey viewed it. Yet, this emphasis does not bring out the full flavor and impact of his approach to this discipline. Although Dilthey never equated philosophy with its own history, he did move a long way in the direction of the view that philosophy's past provides philosophy in the present with indispensable material for reflection.

To understand this side of Dilthey's thought properly, we must bear in mind that he insisted on speaking of philosophy as "philosophy of life" (Lebensphilosophie) and liked to describe his own thinking as a "philosophy of self-reflection or of life." [NOTE 26] Moreover, he identified the effort to understand "life" in terms of itself as the governing impulse in his philosophical thinking. [NOTE 27] If life is to be the focus of philosophical reflection, then, how do we get at it? Dilthey's answer to this question is that we encounter life in our self-awareness, in our experience of others, in art, and in other expressions of the human spirit -- including philosophy. The study of history has a central role to play in our effort to grasp life: "History is to teach us what life is," Dilthey explains. [NOTE 28] Thus, one of the best ways to get at life is to study the past: "Wherever life has slipped into the past and is understood, we have history." [NOTE 29] In our necessarily limited ways, we seek to grasp life's fullness as it comes to expression in culture and experience.

Such an outlook has definite implications for philosophy. Dilthey writes: "Philosophy, as a human historical fact, must become its own object." [NOTE 30] Philosophy can therefore be described as the spirit's "self-reflection." [NOTE 31] For Dilthey, then, the history of philosophy is not a topic with which the philosopher concerns himself only if he is also a professor called upon to lecture on the history of his own discipline; it is a vitally important part of the material with which he wrestles in his struggle to find the proper path to the truth.


In conclusion, we should note that neither Hegel nor Hartmann nor Dilthey has spoken the last word on the relation of philosophy to its own past. This complex subject demands further attention in our time. Yet, those who see some value in the philosophy of recent centuries, i.e. those who do not reject it in its totality as based on a fundamental mistake, would do well to give some attention to Dilthey's outlook on the history of philosophy. A survey of philosophy as it has developed in recent centuries would seem to support Dilthey's thesis that there is a fundamental difference between its history and the history of science -- or of natural science, at least. [NOTE 32] Philosophers simply do not proceed by inheriting concepts and ideas from their predecessors and then adding to them and refining them. The philosophical world is an arena of constant change, and philosophers are forced again and again to begin anew. The willingness to take this radical step, to call into question all received and accepted philosophical views, seems to be an essential ingredient of the philosophical attitude. If so, the philosopher must constantly be on the alert for ways to get beyond the confines of his own experience and the intellectual climate of his time. It is here, as Dilthey saw so clearly, that the philosophy of the past can be of great service, for it is an inexhaustible source of stimuli and thought-provoking questions. As an antidote to the provincialism of time, it deserves a place in the curriculum of every university and on the bookshelf of every thinker who hopes to become a philosopher.


Dilthey did write a handbook on the history of philosophy for the use of his students, but it includes no discussion of the philosophy of the history of philosophy. This handbook was later edited and published by H.G. Gadamer (Grundriss der allgemeinen Geschichte der Philosophie, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1949).

I shall draw on my own interpretation of Dilthey's thought, which differs from any in the existing secondary literature. For the arguments in favor of my interpretation and the key passages in Dilthey on which it is based, see my book Historical Understanding in the Thought of Wilhelm Dilthey (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1980). The topic for this book, which is based on my Ph.D. thesis, was suggested to me by Prof. Runner.

Einleitung in die Geschichte der Philosophie, ed. Johannes Hoffmeister (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1959), pp. 27, 86.

Ibid., pp. 27, 29, 55, 79, 120, 118.

Ibid., pp. 81-2, 91, 138.

Ibid., p. 146. 1 have used the characteristic Hegelian verb aufheben without translating it because no English verb combines the meanings which Hegel packs into this word. That which is "aufgehoben" is canceled, preserved, and raised to a higher level.

This term is not Dilthey's own, although he spoke of the "Geschichte der geistigen Bewegungen" and on a few occasions of the "Geschichte des Geistes." He did, of course, write the kind of history that later came to be called "Geistesgeschichte."

Introduction to his Leben Schleiermachers, reprinted in the Gesammelte Schriften (17 volumes, published by B. G. Teubner Verlagsgesellschaft of Stuttgart, and Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht of Goettingen), Vol. XIII-1, p. xliii.

"Archive der Literatur in ihrer Bedeutung fuer das studium der Geschichte der Philosophie," in Vol. IV, pp. 558, 561-2.

Die jugendgeschichte Hegels (1905), which has been reprinted in Vol. IV of the Gesammelte Schriften.

Vol.XIII-l, p.xxxiii.

Dilthey struggled against such misunderstandings to the very end of his life. In a letter of 1911 to Husserl, in which he responded to an attack upon him in Husserl's famous article "Philosophie als strenge Wissenschaft," he wrote that he agreed with Husserl's claim that "... historical conditionedness must be separated completely from validity; if the historical conditionedness of the sciences were to cancel their validity, then the idea of knowledge itself would lose its validity, and not even the statement that such an idea has no validity would remain. ... I likewise agree that any statement from the sphere of worldviews (e.g. a religious statement) can be investigated with regard to its validity just as well as a scientific statement" (see the Dilthey-Husserl correspondence published in Revista de Filosofia de la Universidad de Costa Rica, Vol. I, No. 2, July-December 1957, pp. 110, 112).

See Windelband's Lehrbuch der Geschichte der Philosophie, 15th edition, ed. Heinz Heimsoeth (Tuebingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1957), pp. 8-10 and the first edition foreword.

See "Zur Methode der Philosophiegeschichte," reprinted in his Kleinere Schriften, Vol. III (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1958), p. 14.

Hartmann's criticism of mere "understanding," in another essay on this topic, must he be read as an implicit criticism of Dilthey, for whom "understanding" is central to the work of the historian. His contrast between "verstehen" and "wiedererkennen" is likewise an allusion to Dilthey and his followers. Dilthey is mentioned by name in a footnote criticizing his book on Hegel. Hartmann, who was also the author of a book on Hegel, complains: "Die Jugendgeschichte Hegels has taught us a great deal about this thinker as a cultural (geistig) figure and a great deal about the history of his times; about that which Hegel 'came to know,' what his time and the world after him could learn from him, it has taught us little" (see "Der philosophische Gedanke und seine Geschichte," in Kleinere Schriften, Vol. II, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1957, pp. 8n, 11, 48).

Ibid., p.17; see also p. 5.

See ibid., pp. 41-2.

See ibid., p. 38.

"Die 3 Grundformen der Systeme in der ersten Haelfte des 19. Jahrhunderts," in Vol. IV, p. 352.

Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften, reprinted in Vol. I, p. 358.

"Plan der Fortzetzung zum Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften," in Vol. VII, pp. 215-16.

"Zusaetze" to Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften, in Vol. VII, p. 346. Dilthey also dealt with the "transferability" of the contents of expressions in his unfinished continuation of Aufbau (see Vol. VII, pp. 205ff). On the basis of what he says in that discussion, we could conclude that philosophical systems and ideas represent what he calls "expressions of experience" (Erlebnisausdruecke), while scientific concepts and ideas do not.

See Windelband, op. cit., p. 8.

Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften, p. 406.

The Africa example is Dilthey's own (see "Literaturhistorische Arbeiten ueber das klassische Zeitalter unserer Dichtung," in Vol. XI, p. 196).

See "Uebersicht meines Systems," in Vol. VIII, p. 178; see also Von Deutscher Dichtung und Musik (Leipzig and Berlin: B.G. Teubner, 1933), p. 411.

Preface to Vol. V of the Gesammelte Schriften, p. 4.

"Plan der Fortzetzung," in Vol. VII, p. 262.

Ibid., p. 255.

"Das geschichtliche Bewusstsein und die Weltanschauungen," in Vol. VIII, p. 13.

See Das Wesen der Philosophie, in Vol. V, pp. 358, 407.

One might argue that the history of the historical, cultural and social sciences is subject to the same fits and starts as the history of philosophy.

Originally published in Hearing and Doing: Philosophical Essays Dedicated to H. Evan Runner, ed. John Kraay and Anthony Tol (Toronto: Wedge Publishing Foundation, 1979), pp. 199-214.