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Reassessing Dilthey’s Social Ontology

Abstract

Following Gadamer, Dilthey’s philosophy of the social world is beset by an implicit subjectivism which puts into question the very possibility of shared understanding. This subjectivism is taken to lie behind Dilthey’s emphasis on empathy (or “re-experiencing”), which becomes a condition of our understanding of others and knowledge of the socio-historical world generally. I argue that Dilthey does not give primacy to subjectivity, particularly in his later works. Dilthey’s own notion of sociality, accounted for in terms of the common realm of “objective spirit,” is akin to Gadamer’s own anti-subjectivist account of the human sciences and understanding. Through objective spirit, Dilthey shows that understanding cannot be conceived in terms of an aggregation of individual mental acts but is instead an irreducibly social accomplishment.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    It is worth noting that many of the philosophers under consideration here (principally, Dilthey, Gadamer, and Heidegger) do not usually argue in the manner of providing discrete premises and conclusions, but instead motivate their views by making them intuitive via demonstration and suggestion. My argument will in large part mirror their stylings.

  2. 2.

    Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. J. Weinsheimer & D. Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 232.

  3. 3.

    Gadamer, Truth and Method, 250.

  4. 4.

    Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Stambaugh (New York, SUNY Press, 1996), 111.

  5. 5.

    Heidegger, Being and Time, 112.

  6. 6.

    Heidegger, Being and Time, 117.

  7. 7.

    Heidegger, Being and Time, 117–18. Note that Heidegger is not stating that we, as a matter of empirical fact, live with others. Being-with rather has an “existential” meaning, having to do with our mode of being: “[Being-with] does not intend to ascertain ontically that I am factically not objectively present alone … Being-with existentially determines Da-sein even when an other is not factically present and perceived. The being-alone of Da-sein, too, is being-with in the world. The other can be lacking only in and for a being-with.” (p. 113).

  8. 8.

    Heidegger, Being and Time, 117–18.

  9. 9.

    Harrison Hall, “The other minds problem in early Heidegger,” Human Studies 3, no. 1 (1980), 247–254.

  10. 10.

    John Arthos, "Who are we and who am I? Gadamer's communal ontology as palimpsest," Communication Studies 51, no. 1 (2000), 22.

  11. 11.

    Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Subjectivity and intersubjectivity, subject and person,” Continental Philosophy Review 33, no. 3 (2000), 286.

  12. 12.

    Note Gadamer’s approval of Wittgenstein in Truth and Method (p. xxxvi, 557). See also Chris Lawn’s Wittgenstein and Gadamer: Towards a Post-Analytic Philosophy of Language (London: Continuum, 2004).

  13. 13.

    Gadamer, Truth and Method, 446.

  14. 14.

    Gadamer, Truth and Method, 463.

  15. 15.

    Jos de Mul, The Tragedy of Finitude: Dilthey’s Hermeneutics of Life, trans. T. Burrett (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 315; Charles Bambach, “Hermeneutics and Historicity: Dilthey’s Critique of Historical Reason,” in Interpreting Dilthey: Critical Essays, ed. Eric Nelson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019) 100; James Reid, "Dilthey's epistemology of the geisteswissenschaften: Between lebensphilosophie and wissenschaftstheorie," Journal of the History of Philosophy 39, no. 3 (2001): 433.

  16. 16.

    Charles Bambach, Heidegger, Dilthey, and the Crisis of Historicism (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1995), 134.

  17. 17.

    Bambach, Crisis of Historicism, 130; James Reid, "Dilthey's epistemology,” 412–414; Michael Ermarth, Wilhelm Dilthey: The Critique of Historical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 284.

  18. 18.

    Wilhelm Dilthey, Wilhelm Dilthey: Selected Works, Volume III: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, ed. and trans. R. Makkreel & F. Rodi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 165.

  19. 19.

    Still, some read Dilthey along Kantian lines. See, e.g., Rudolph Makkreel, Dilthey: Philosopher of the Human Studies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).

  20. 20.

    Wilhelm Dilthey, Wilhelm Dilthey: Selected Works, Volume I: Introduction to the Human Studies, ed. and trans. R. Makkreel & F. Rodi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 50.

  21. 21.

    Reid, “Dilthey’s epistemology,” 422.

  22. 22.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 354.

  23. 23.

    Eric Nelson, “Interpreting Practice: Dilthey, Epistemology, and the Hermeneutics of Historical Life,” Idealistic Studies 38, no. 1 (2008): 110.

  24. 24.

    Bambach, Crisis of Historicism, 176.

  25. 25.

    Reid, “Dilthey’s epistemology,” 433.

  26. 26.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 168.

  27. 27.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 170.

  28. 28.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 168.

  29. 29.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 173.

  30. 30.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 213.

  31. 31.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 174.

  32. 32.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 278.

  33. 33.

    Mark Alznauer, "Rival Versions of Objective Spirit," Hegel Bulletin 37, no. 2 (2016): 209–231.

  34. 34.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 173.

  35. 35.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 172–73.

  36. 36.

    Eric Nelson, “Introduction: Wilhelm Dilthey in Context,” in Interpreting Dilthey: Critical Essays, ed. Eric Nelson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019): 4.

  37. 37.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 174.

  38. 38.

    Wilhelm Dilthey, Selected Writings, ed. and trans. H. Rickman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986): 91.

  39. 39.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 170.

  40. 40.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 229.

  41. 41.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 229.

  42. 42.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 162–163.

  43. 43.

    Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interest, trans. J. Shapiro (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987): 155.

  44. 44.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 176, 228.

  45. 45.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 176.

  46. 46.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 229.

  47. 47.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 170.

  48. 48.

    Jos de Mul, “Leben erfaßt hier Leben: Dilthey as a Philosopher of (the) Life (Sciences),” in Interpreting Dilthey: Critical Essays, ed. Eric Nelson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019): 41–60.

  49. 49.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 280.

  50. 50.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 280.

  51. 51.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 164. Even where Dilthey is at his most Cartesian in his early works, he attempts to situate subjectivity in a social context. E.g., with his “principle of phenomenality,” which states that “everything that is there for me stands under the most general condition of being a fact of my consciousness” (SW I, p. 8), he balances this with a second principle which states that such consciousness only ever arises in the mediated context of a world.

  52. 52.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 336.

  53. 53.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 226.

  54. 54.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 168–169.

  55. 55.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 168.

  56. 56.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 228.

  57. 57.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 230.

  58. 58.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 228.

  59. 59.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 234.

  60. 60.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 235.

  61. 61.

    Shaun Gallagher, “Dilthey and Empathy,” in Interpreting Dilthey: Critical Essays, ed. Eric Nelson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019): 145–158.

  62. 62.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 236.

  63. 63.

    Ermarth, The Critique of Historical Reason, 274.

  64. 64.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 227.

  65. 65.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 229.

  66. 66.

    Kathleen Lennon, “Re-enchanting the world: the role of imagination in perception,” in Philosophy 85, no. 3 (2010): 375–389.

  67. 67.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 230.

  68. 68.

    As cited in Ermarth, The Critique of Historical Reason.

  69. 69.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 242.

  70. 70.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 175.

  71. 71.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 228.

  72. 72.

    Dilthey, Selected Works III, 237.

  73. 73.

    Many thanks to Kristin Gjesdal and Espen Hammer for helping me cultivate this paper, along with anonymous reviewers both at Temple University and Axiomathes.

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Engleman, M. Reassessing Dilthey’s Social Ontology. Axiomathes (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10516-021-09606-y

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Keywords

  • Dilthey
  • Gadamer
  • Hermeneutics
  • Social ontology
  • Subjectivism