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Universality, Particularity, and Potentiality: The Sources of Human Divergence as Arise from Wilhelm Dilthey’s Writings


This study examines the sources of human divergence as arise from Wilhelm Dilthey’s writings. While Dilthey assigns a central role to the human subject, he never synthesizes his major ideas on subjectivity into a unified theory of subjective uniqueness. I will show that such a theory can be derived from his writings through the combination of three ideas that appear in them. These ideas are: (1) the thesis that human understanding is possible because of psychological content that is shared by both the creator and the interpreter; (2) the belief that this shared content is the only content that exists within human beings, meaning that there is no unique psychological content; and (3) the perception of this inner universal content as an accumulation of life-possibilities. When joined together, these ideas create an inspiring theory of human divergence, according to which the uniqueness of an individual is determined through partial realization of universal possibilities.

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  1. All English translations of Dilthey’s words are taken from the “Selected Works” series, edited by Rudolf Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi (hereafter “sw” followed by the volume number). All references to Dilthey’s original German texts have been taken from the “Gesammelte Schriften” series, edited by Bernard Groethuysen, Georg Misch, Helmut Johach, and Fritjof Rodi (hereafter “gs” followed by the volume number).

  2. Some interpreters criticize this theory of quantitative differences as irrelevant to Dilthey's whole enterprise, thus further emphasizing the ambiguous nature of Dilthey's conception of individuality (see Landgrebe 1928; Makkreel 1975: 139, 249; Ermarth 1978: 286; De Mul 2004: 179–182). One of the outcomes of this study will be to show how this often rejected theory can be integrated back into the whole of Dilthey's thought.

  3. Ermarth acknowledges that human nature as presented in Dilthey’s theory is meant to enable mutual understanding, but claims this is done in a clumsy way (Ermarth 1978: 285f.). Rickman also identifies this assumption in Dilthey’s writings, but claims that Dilthey conceived this shared human nature as limited and as not universal (Rickman 1979: 131f.). Gadamer points to this supposition in Dilthey (1960/2004: 226) and claims it is mistaken (1960/2004: 228). Others that identify the existence of this supposition in Dilthey’s writings are Bultmann (1957: 111); Tuttle (1969: 37); Rubinoff (1980: 101), and Schmidt (1983: 12–14).

  4. In a declaration similar to Vico’s, Dilthey asserts, “[e]verything given in the human sciences has been produced and thus is historical; it is understood and thus contains something common … Human spirit can only understand what it has created” (gs7: 148/sw3: 170). In other words, the human reality is intelligible because it is a human creation, and thus, is built upon commonal content. On the similarity of Dilthey and Vico concerning this assertion, see Ermarth (1978: 250); Hughes (1959: 198); Rickman (1969: 452; 1979: 132); Rubinoff (1980: 101), and Tuttle (1976: 246).

  5. This concept of Äußerungen will return 40 years later in Dilthey’s late writings as Lebensäußerungen.

  6. T. K. Seung distinguishes between an imaginational transition from one culture to another, which he calls “imaginative existential mode,” and a real, physical transition into an alien culture, which he calls “factual existential mode” (1982: 208f.). According to Seung, the reliance on imaginative experiencing in historical life characterizes the traditional hermeneutics of Schleiermacher and Dilthey. Seung makes these distinctions without mentioning Dilthey’s idea of possibilities, but I would like to point the appropriateness of his interpretation to this distinction between the two kinds of fulfillment of human possibilities found in Dilthey’s writings.

  7. This may possibly reveal the motivation behind Dilthey's extensive biographical writing. His investigations into the lives of figures like Schleiermacher, the ‘young Hegel,’ Leibniz, Frederick the Great, and others, present the magnitude of human possibilities through various eras and personalities.

  8. Landgrebe similarly describes this example as allowing the subject to understand his or her own possibilities through the life of another (1928: 328). A surprisingly opposed interpretation of this example is proposed by Plantinga (1992: 23).

  9. De Mul identifies human finitude as the basic presupposition of the Diltheyian project (2004: 367–370), and therefore grants an important role to the human need to transcend it (2004: 369–372; see also Bulhof 1980: 156, 178, 183). Although recognizing the role of understanding in transcending human finitude, De Mul emphasizes one’s inability to achieve this transcendence (2004: 362: 370f.). In a similar way, Makkreel asserts that the understanding of possibilities that an individual cannot actually fulfill in his or her life does not create a sense of freedom but accentuates the delimitation of existence (1975: 256). In contrast, I offer to concentrate on Dilthey’s belief in the understanding’s ability to transcend human finitude through what I call “imaginative fulfillment” of human possibilities, which enables one to achieve such transcendence without fulfilling these possibilities furthermore in actual life.

  10. In the terms of Erlebnis-Ausdruck-Verstehen: lived experience can be viewed as a fulfillment of a possibility-of-becoming-experience. An expression is another kind of a fulfillment of such a possibility—it is an imaginative fulfillment of a possibility of experience. Understanding artistic expression relies on re-experiencing a possibility. The reader is capable of such re-experiencing, because this possibility is universal—it is shared by the creator, and any of his potential readers.

  11. Perhaps this view on possibilities can serve as a possible explanation for Nelson’s interpretation of Dilthey, which presents both art and history as illuminating the particular in its universality and vice versa (2007).

  12. This rejection appears in 1910-1911 (see gs7: 206, 250, 279/sw3: 227, 269, 198).


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The author wishes to thank the anonymous readers for their efforts and for their useful notes.

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Correspondence to Amnon Marom.

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Marom, A. Universality, Particularity, and Potentiality: The Sources of Human Divergence as Arise from Wilhelm Dilthey’s Writings. Hum Stud 37, 1–13 (2014).

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  • Dilthey, Wilhelm
  • Hermeneutics
  • Individuality