Commitment and
Historical Understanding:
A Critique of Dilthey

by Theodore Plantinga

What has faith to do with history? As we reflect on this question in the light of Wilhelm Dilthey's philosophical achievement, we should note first of all that it was not his own question. Dilthey did concern himself with both religion and history, but, for reasons that will emerge in this essay, the question of faith and history did not become a theme in his mature thought.

This question is normally raised within a Christian setting, or perhaps a Judaistic framework. Dilthey, despite his Christian background, did not consider himself a Christian thinker [NOTE 1] Along with many of his contemporaries, he believed that the Christian faith, which he respected deeply as part of the Western cultural heritage, had been superseded. Faith, for him, was something to be studied in history; it had nothing to do with how one ought to approach history.

Even though Dilthey wished to place considerable distance between himself and Christianity, the Christian philosopher reflecting on the theme of faith and history can benefit from Dilthey's thinking on history and on our knowledge of other persons. When I chose to focus on Dilthey in my doctoral research some years ago, it was against the background of interests in both philosophy of history and philosophy of religion. In philosophy of history the question that concerned me was the nature of and conditions for historical knowledge. In philosophy of religion I was interested especially in the relevance of religious and/or ethical commitments to the various aspects of life. As a Calvinist I wanted to explore the meaning of the notion that religion is total, all-embracing. What might this notion mean for historical knowledge? The question of faith and history therefore had a specific focus for me.

There were two elements or aspects of Dilthey's approach to historical knowledge and to religiosity that seemed potentially helpful to me. First of all, his notion of the historical conditionedness of all thought, action and experience seemed to parallel the Calvinist understanding of all life as religiously directed and inspired. Could Dilthey's historical conditionedness provide a clue to the theoretical elaboration of the notion that all human activities are inescapably religious?

Looming large in the background, of course, was Schleiermacher's conception of religion as rooted in feeling, which is the way of thinking that underlies the liberal Protestant conception of religion as a province of culture. It is no secret that Dilthey was deeply influenced by Schleiermacher's thinking, also in his conception of religion. This would seem to indicate that religion was for him a limited sphere of activity, whereas the historical stream in which all thought and action is immersed is all-embracing. In that case the parallel to Calvinism's notion of religion as all-embracing might turn out to be history rather than what Dilthey called religion.

The second element in Dilthey's thought that appeared fruitful for the development of a Calvinistic understanding of historical knowledge was his fundamental openness to religion in its various forms and manifestations. Dilthey was not a typically secular, anti-clerical thinker whose prejudices prevented him from obtaining a proper view of religion and its place in human life -- or was he? This is a question I shall also attempt to answer in this essay.

Various recent philosophers have addressed themselves to the question whether there is a connection between knowledge and some form of commitment. I join them in maintaining that in certain cases, at least, there is, but I would immediately add that such a thesis must be carefully stated and qualified.

To begin with, some sort of distinction seems necessary between simple factual knowledge and a higher, more complex type of knowledge which we might call insight. I do not mean to assert a clear qualitative difference between these two such that a dividing line could be drawn to separate them neatly. It may well be that in some cases we might not be sure whether a given specimen of knowledge represented factual knowledge or insight.

In any event, the thesis I wish to advance here is that genuine, full-orbed insight presupposes commitment. It might be suggested that all insight represents true knowledge, but I wish to use the term here in such away that we can distinguish between true and false (or misleading) insight. My thesis would then mean that insight achieved apart from commitment will turn out to be false -- at least in the limited sense of inadequate. Naturally, I am here presupposing a mild version of the Hegelian link between truth and completeness. In accepting the possibility of factual knowledge that does not qualify as insight, I am asserting that lower-level, partial knowledge of states of affairs needs to be distinguished from a higher-level knowledge of states of affairs, and also that in the case of the latter there is the possibility of a relative or provisional completeness that is not available to us when we are considering separate facts.

Insight conceived of in such a manner is essentially what Dilthey meant by "understanding" -- at least in one of the meanings he gave to this term. [NOTE 2] Charles Taylor has linked these two terms by speaking of "insightful understanding," [NOTE 3] but I prefer to stick with the shorter term -- insight. Part of what we mean by historical knowledge is what I am here calling insight. And my thesis is that the insight or historical understanding that can give us genuine guidance presupposes commitment.

The thesis I am proposing is inspired by Dilthey to some extent, but it is not directly his own. The notion of commitment plays a more limited role for Dilthey. Part of the reason for this is that Dilthey, like Hegel, is ultimately a pantheist and therefore conceives of knowledge as a self-discovery. Hence he liked to speak of a "rediscovery of the I in the thou." [NOTE 4] Since the usual distance between knower and known is not present for Dilthey, commitment in a strong sense is not necessary as a way to breach the barrier. Dilthey's version of commitment has more of an aesthetic than an ethical character. This accounts in part for the detachment that has sometimes been spoken of as characteristic of Dilthey's approach to historical understanding. [NOTE 5]

Within the framework of Dilthey's thought, what I have referred to as commitment can better be called sympathy. In Dilthey's philosophical successors sympathy takes on an existential depth that entitles us to speak instead of commitment. I think here especially of Martin Buber, whose ties to Dilthey are not as widely recognized as they should be, [NOTE 6] and of Max Scheler, who studied under Dilthey in Berlin. [NOTE 7] Modern philosophies of dialogue and love as the road to knowledge of others owe much to Buber and Scheler, and through them to Dilthey. To know the other, according to such thinkers, one must first commit oneself to him.

Those who are familiar with the continuing discussion of faith and reason will catch an echo of an ancient theme here. Although there have been thinkers who maintained that God can be known by any human being who carefully surveys the world around him and draws the conclusions that are rationally warranted, there have also been philosophers and theologians who maintained that knowledge of God presupposes commitment in the sense of faith or an acceptance of revelation. Unless you believe, you cannot understand. And since faith is possible only in response to God's revelation, it appears that God can be known only if he reveals himself. (This parallels the thesis that persons cannot be significantly known against their will, that is, if they choose not to reveal themselves.)

This position, which represents one of the two major positions on faith and reason, is often referred to by means of Anselm's phrase "faith seeking understanding." Its first major spokesman was Augustine, who liked to quote Isaiah 7:9 in support of such a conception of the relation between faith and reason [NOTE 8] and talked about a cleansing of the mind as necessary for the apprehension of truth. [NOTE 9] Spiritual preparation is needed.

This way of thinking, which seems to leave no room for neutrality or detachment, regards childlike faith as focusing on the same object (i.e. God and his goodness and faithfulness to the world he has made) as that on which highly developed Christian philosophical and theological insight focuses. And insight never leaves faith behind; in other words, faith is not a ladder that can be kicked aside when we have reached the heights of knowledge.

Although there are passages in Augustine's writings which are not easily reconciled with such an approach to faith and reason, this Augustinian view, if I may speak of it as such, has become the backbone of the Calvinistic outlook that traces its ancestry to Augustine's theology of predestination and grace. Calvin's talk of man's darkened intellect [NOTE 10] and incapacity to know God apart from revelation and faith (i.e. apart from a commitment to God) is part of this pattern. But if we cannot know God apart from faith and commitment, can we truly be said to know the world and history? In other words, could it be that historical knowledge requires not just a commitment to God but also some sort of commitment to the object of our inquiry -- or perhaps an ultimately religious attitude or stance toward it? It is significant that Herman Bavinck, who had occasion to reflect on the philosophical developments since the time of Calvin, including the positivist challenge to the Calvinist thesis that all of life (including the activity of the knower and the scientist) is religiously inspired and directed, rejected "Voraussetzungslosigkeit" (presuppositionlessness) in historical study. Bavinck argued: "... in history we encounter all sorts of phenomena -- religious, ethical and aesthetic in character -- which from our side simply cannot be perceived and recognized if there is no spiritual affinity ...." [NOTE 11]

It seems to me that this suggestion that some sort of "spiritual affinity" is needed could well have been followed up fruitfully by Bavinck and other thinkers, but the fact of the matter is that Calvinistic philosophy has remained relatively undeveloped in the area of theory of knowledge, in part because so much attention has been focused on ontological analysis, e.g. Dooyeweerd's theory of the modal aspects and their interrelations.

In their reflection on faith and science, Christian scholars have been greatly influenced by the other major position on faith and reason, the position of Thomas Aquinas, which we might characterize as "faith supplements reason." This position differs markedly from the Calvinist position in that it allows for a limited autonomy of theoretical thought, thereby limiting the question of commitment as a condition for insight or significant knowledge to the domain of faith or grace or sacred theology. The outlook of Aquinas recognizes that the mind of natural man cannot unaided tell us everything we need to know and are able to know about God and his relation to the world, but it can certainly tell us a good deal. Aquinas used this framework on faith and reason to make room in his philosophical-theological synthesis for the thinking of Aristotle. Bernard Ramm observes: "The philosophy of Aristotle as Thomas incorporates it into Christian thought becomes the basis of common ground for argumentation with the heathen. Natural reason is common to pagan and Christian alike and forms the court of appeal in religious debate." [NOTE 12]

It is not my purpose here to explore the details of this synthesis which allows a limited autonomy to the mind of the natural man. I only wish to contrast it with the Augustinian-Calvinistic tradition which denies such autonomy as it asserts that genuine insight (in matters both historical and theological) depends on a commitment, that is, on faith and subservience to God's revelation.

My main theme in this essay is that a Christian theory of knowledge can benefit from an encounter with Dilthey. It can learn from him especially in that he does not regard thought as taking place in a timeless, unsituated sphere but relates it directly to contingent, non-rational factors on which it depends and by which it is conditioned. All thought is the thinking of human beings who form part of the historical process. In other words, the thoroughgoing historicality of thought, action and experience is a Diltheyan theme on which Christians would do well to reflect.

Certain elements of a "sociology of knowledge" are indeed to be found in Dilthey. [NOTE 13] And I would maintain that something comparable or parallel is needed in a Christian theory of knowledge if religion is to be regarded as the all-embracing setting for our thought and action. To refuse to admit this is in effect to opt for the autonomy of theoretical thought. This is something Christianity cannot do, although it does want to hold out for the integrity of theoretical thought.

To clarify this point we must bear in mind that dependence does not mean determination. To say that theoretical thought is dependent on non-rational factors and even conditioned by them is not yet to say that it is determined and therefore unfree. Human life is certainly dependent on the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere, but this does not mean that my thought and action are determined by oxygen or could be predicted from a study of oxygen. In short, much of what is called "sociology of knowledge" is an overstatement of a potentially fruitful thesis about thought and experience.

Within a Christian setting, the "sociology of knowledge" theme could better be developed in a different direction. The Bible speaks of "eyes to see" and "ears to hear" and indicates that many people who have eyes and ears simply do not see and hear. This represents a corollary of the thesis that insight presupposes commitment. Unbelief or the lack of the right sort of commitment can make it impossible for a person to see or hear, or perhaps to entertain certain ideas and possibilities. One's historical situatedness, to use Diltheyan language -- or one's religious situatedness and direction, to move on to a Calvinistic framework -- often have a blinding or limiting effect on thought and experience, just as "ressentiment" functions as an obstacle to knowledge in Max Scheler's thought. And what is true of full-fledged unbelief may be true to a lesser extent of sin in the life of a believer .

To make this assertion is to recognize a systematic distortion of thought and experience. Does such a recognition conflict with the earlier thesis about the integrity of theoretical thought? Not necessarily. The statement about the integrity of thought must be understood as expressing a norm rather than a fact. In other words, theoretical thought is capable of rising above the constricting and limiting factor of sin and unbelief, and it should always strive to do so. I would not want to say, on the basis of a survey of the scholarship presently underway, that it invariably or even usually succeeds in doing so. No scholar or thinker is exempt from the limitations and distortions which sin and unbelief are able to drag into his work.

By this point we are moving across deep waters. On the Christian understanding of religion, the notion of some sort of contact between man and the transcendent may not be excluded. When we speak of faith and unbelief, the word mystery often comes to our lips. How does the Spirit of God work repentance and regeneration in the human heart? It would seem that science is able to say very little -- if anything at all -- about such matters.

This is in effect to admit that the study of religion must always remain problematic. Sociology may clarify social interaction between human beings to some extent, but is there a science that "explains" the intercourse between man and God? And if theology is to be recognized as a science, is it in the business of "explaining" at all?

Dilthey was apparently sensitive to such considerations. It is probably no accident that his major treatment of religion was entitled "The Problem of Religion." I believe it is also significant that this essay was never completed and was only published posthumously as part of his collected works. [NOTE 14] Dilthey wrote the essay at the same time that he was working toward a new edition of his monumental biography of Schleiermacher. Could it be that he began to sense inadequacies in Schleiermacher's account of religion?

It is striking that in this essay he makes some sharply critical remarks about the Enlightenment historians and their treatment of religion. Dilthey was not much given to criticism, and he was not generally inclined to be as hard on the Enlightenment as thinkers a few generations before him had been. [NOTE 15] Yet he complained that the Enlightenment was too abstract and rationalistic in its approach to religion:

Some sort of experience of unity with God always lies at the foundation of the universal religions which have sprung from the depths of the creative religious person. Insofar as the Enlightenment excluded exactly this aspect and combated it, it had to show itself incapable of investigating the religions. The Enlightenment destroyed a great deal that can never be re-established in the soul of the person who has absorbed the results of the sciences. For this work of dissolution it created the methods of criticism and interpretation which have become the foundation for the study of the religions. Only by means of these methods can we penetrate the mists of legend to get at historical reality. ... But the Enlightenment was not able to grasp the meaning of the religions and the sweep of their development. [NOTE 16]

Dilthey's critique is mixed with words of praise, but it is telling criticism all the same. The question that naturally arises is: What about Dilthey himself? Was he able to penetrate the depths? Or did his method, too, somehow close his eyes to the very heart of religious experience?

There is indeed a difficulty here, a difficulty that can be illustrated by means of Dilthey's attitude toward Martin Luther. Dilthey was convinced that the Reformation-era religiosity of Luther had been superseded and was no longer an experiential possibility. Yet this did not lead him to relegate Luther's religiosity to the realm of the "dead and gone." Historical understanding opened up a more fruitful possibility:

... 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. [NOTE 17]
What Dilthey is proposing here is a historical approach to religiosity, an approach which has the effect of aestheticizing it. Hence Rudolf Bultmann's complaint: "It seems to me indeed that Dilthey looks at history principally from an aesthetic standpoint as at a spectacle which the historian enjoys in perceiving all the different possibilities of the human being as his own." [NOTE 18] In aestheticizing religiosity, he failed to grasp its depth dimension, its anchoring in the transcendent to which it is a response. Therefore Dilthey's profound appreciation of Luther is at the same time a reduction of Luther's religiosity.

To spell out what this means we must make a further distinction with regard to what I have called commitment. In his hermeneutical or interpretive approach to the texts through which Luther comes to life for him, Dilthey carefully keeps explication and application separate. (On this point some later theorists of hermeneutics were to take issue with him.) To know or understand Luther's religiosity is not yet to join Luther in his religious stance: an "aesthetic" detachment is maintained. [NOTE 19] As far as Dilthey is concerned, one does not have to be a Lutheran to understand Lutherans, or a Christian to achieve genuine insight into Christian experience.

As we saw earlier, Dilthey does recognize that sympathy opens the way to understanding and to knowledge of other persons. Some later thinkers prefer to speak here of love, and I have spoken above of commitment. In the Luther case it would seem that some sort of commitment to Luther (to use my term) is presupposed by Dilthey as making understanding or insight possible. However, when Dilthey approaches Luther in his religiosity, his commitment to Luther as a person does not include a commitment to Luther's God, even though Luther's commitment to a transcendent God (not an immanent God of pantheism) was essential to his religious experience. Luther, in other words, would not have recognized Schleiermacher's account of religious experience as adequate to understanding his own (i.e. Luther's) spiritual struggles.

Why does Dilthey linger here? Why can't he go all the way in his commitment to Luther? The ultimate reason is of course spiritual, but I believe we must also interpret this refusal on his part as a lingering commitment to the autonomy of theoretical thought, which tries to be open to every form of experience but balks at the prospect of submission to any transcendent authority and therefore must refuse to accompany Luther on his spiritual journey in search of the God of the Bible. Significant in this regard is Dilthey's famous affirmation in the face of the dangers of relativism: "Not the relativity of every worldview is the final word of the spirit that has gone through them all but the sovereignty of the spirit over against any one of them ...." [NOTE 20] Dilthey simply excluded the possibility of the absoluteness of any faith: "The historical consciousness of the finitude of every historical phenomenon, of every human or social condition, of the relativity of every kind of faith, is the final step in the liberation of man." [NOTE 21]

This lingering sovereignty and autonomy of theoretical thought and of the human spirit must not be understood as a species of rationalism, for Dilthey was no rationalist. Neither must it be thought to exclude non-rational factors from the life of the mind, for Dilthey's position is not unlike what Ortega y Gasset has called "vital reason." [NOTE 22] The fundamental point is that theoretical thought and the human spirit are autonomous and independent in relation to the Origin of all things, and therefore refuse to bow to heteronomous norms which are transcendent in origin. Even the religiosity of Luther must ultimately be approached and understood in terms of the wondrous creative spirit of man!

Why is faith and history such a problem -- and even an embarrassment -- for the historian? Simply because the historian may not ignore the religious depth dimension in the life of the historical agent. To do so in a treatment of Martin Luther, as we have seen, is to abandon any pretense of neutrality; it is to impose on Luther's life, thought and actions an interpretive framework which Luther himself would vigorously reject. I do not mean to suggest that a historian is never justified in imposing a "better-understanding" in place of some historical agent's "self-understanding." My point is rather that any attempt to establish a "better-understanding" must take into account the Christian claim that human life is lived in response to and interaction with the transcendent.

To formulate this point in more explicitly Christian terms, I would say that the historian must somehow take the Word of God into account as it shapes and influences and directs the historical agent, even when he does not realize it. By the Word of God I do not mean a set of theological propositions presented to some human beings for their consideration and not to others; I mean the very condition for human life (the creation order) and the directing force that compels man to choose daily between the pathway that leads to life and the pathway that leads to death.

I am aware that such an approach is not popular among historians. It would be easier in many respects if the religious dimension could be dealt with in purely immanent terms, that is to say, if religion could be regarded as a province of culture. This was clearly Dilthey's preference as Schleiermacher's heir, but he may have sensed the inadequacy and ultimate arbitrariness of such an approach.

It may well be that an acceptance of the approach I am suggesting would leave history looking less "scientific" than it now appears to be. In other words, disputes in history as a discipline might be harder than ever to settle, for religious differences between historians would loom large. Historians might have to engage in less "explanation" and more "description," confessing that theoretical knowledge runs into limitations wherever the Word of God and the transcendent realm call for a response from the human heart. There is always something mysterious about sin and unbelief. Faith and obedience make sense in the final analysis, but sin and unbelief do not.

There remains one important theme to be discussed. If the religious depth dimension must be taken into account when dealing with the historical agent, it surely may not be ignored when we turn to the historical knower, i.e. the historian. Our scholarly activities also stand within the all-embracing framework of the Word of God as the condition for human life. Thus the question of commitment comes up not just on the side of the historical object or agent but also on the side of the historical subject or knower.

Sticking with the Luther example, we could say first of all that the historian may not be neutral with regard to Luther as a person but must be willing to make some sort of commitment to him, as Dilthey well realized. The historian must then go beyond Dilthey in recognizing Luther's God (and perhaps also the spiritual forces arrayed against Luther) as genuine for Luther and not merely projections or figments of his imagination. In other words, neutrality may not be maintained with regard to the nature of Luther's struggle. Finally, the historian must see that the same God for whose favor Luther strove also confronts him in his work as historian, commanding obedience to his Word and promising blessing. In other words, the historian must recognize that his own work is subject to the same Word of God to which the historical agent he is studying is subject, regardless of whether the historical agent is willing to recognize this. (Luther would recognize it, but Hitler, to take another prominent German as an example, would not.)

It might appear that much of what I have said in this essay has the effect of making historical knowledge and insight appear uncertain and dependent on factors over which the historian can have little control. But this is not the last word as far as I am concerned, for I am convinced that the subjection of both the historical knower and the historical agent to the Word of God as the all-embracing condition for life, thought and action is a hermeneutical key that can not only serve a valuable heuristic purpose but can also make some measure of objectivity and intersubjective agreement and historical truth possible.

To elaborate on this conclusion would take me far beyond Dilthey and the bounds of this essay. Essentially the task is to develop a Christian theory of the relation between commitment and knowledge, a theory which could then be applied to the question of historical knowledge. Clearly this enterprise will require the cooperative efforts number of thinkers if there is to be genuine progress.


In this essay I am presupposing the interpretation of Dilthey's thought which I have set forth in Historical Understanding in the Thought of Wilhelm Dilthey (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 1980). On Dilthey's stance toward Christianity, see 20, 23.

See Historical Understanding, 119-121.

See "Interpretation and the Sciences of Man," Review of Metaphysics, 25 (September, 1971): 46-48. Taylor's article has been reprinted in Understanding and Social Inquiry, ed. Fred R. Dallmayr and Thomas A. McCarthy (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977) 101-131.

Plan der Fortsetzung zum Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften, in Gesammelte Schriften (Stuttgart: B.G. Teubner Verlagsgesellschaft; and Tubingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), 7 (1968): 191, ed. Bernard Groethuysen.

See Historical Understanding, 97, 133, 145.

See Maurice F. Friedman, Martin Buber: The Life of Dialogue (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), 34, 40, 48. On a little known personal link between Dilthey and Buber, see H.P. Rickman, Wilhelm Dilthey: Pioneer of the Human Studies (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1979), 41.

See J.H. Nota, Max Scheler: De man en zijn werk (Baarn: Het Wereldvenster, 1979), 14-15.

Augustine read this text as: "Unless you believe, you shall not understand" (see Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible [San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979], 22). This understanding of the text is not accepted in modern translations. The Revised Standard Version reads as follows: "If you will not believe, surely you will not be established." Augustine was apparently attaching a valid Biblical insight to a text that did not express it.

See On Christian Doctrine, trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr. (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), 1:10, 12-13.

See Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battle (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), Book II, Chapter 2, especially Sections 12, 18 and 19.

"Het wezen des Christendoms " in Verzamelde opstellen op het gebied van godsdienst en wetenschap (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1921), 26.

Varieties of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1961), 95.

See Historical Understanding, 135-136.

See Gesammelte Schriften, 6 (1958): 288-305, ed. Georg Misch.

See Historical Understanding, 21.

"Das Problem der Religion," 292.

Plan der Fortsetzung, 215-216.

History and Eschatology (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), 125.

See Historical Understanding, 107.

Das Wesen der Philosophie, in Gesammelte Schriften, 5 (1964): 406, ed. Georg Misch.

Plan der Fortsetzung, 290.

On the parallels between Dilthey and Ortega, see Historical Understanding, 70ff, and Ortega's essay on Dilthey, entitled "A Chapter from the History of Ideas -- Wilhelm Dilthey and the Idea of Life," trans. Helene Weyl, in Concord and Liberty (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963), 129-182.

Originally published in Fides et Historia: Journal of the Conference on Faith and History, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Spring-Summer 1982), pp. 29-36. Posted here with permission.