Hermeneutics and the Study of History

By Wilhelm Dilthey; Rudolf A. Makkreel et al. | Go to book overview
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Because Wilhelm Dilthey began to thematize the problem of hermeneutics rather late in his philosophical career, it may be surprising to some that he had already completed an extensive manuscript on the history of hermeneutics in 1860 when he was only twenty-seven. This three-part manuscript, entitled Schleiermacher's Hermeneutical System in Relation to Earlier Protestant Hermeneutics,constitutes Dilthey's so-called Preisschrift or prize-essay on hermeneutics and has been translated as the opening work of this volume.

Given this background and the fact that Dilthey today counts as one of the classical representatives of hermeneutics, it is paradoxical that in many of his main works the word “hermeneutics” does not occur at all or appears only rarely. In the Introduction to the Human Sciences the word is found in only two almost peripheral passages (see SW 1, pp. 431, 454). Also such important later works as the “Ideas for a Descriptive and Analytical Psychology” and “The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences, which are now considered part of the basic writings for a hermeneutical theory of the human sciences and which greatly influenced Martin Heidegger, hardly use the term. These works have much to say about the nature of understanding, but little about the art of interpretation.

Because Dilthey published only one small part of his Preisschrift, and that not until 1892 as part of a more general essay on “Das natürliche System der Geisteswissenschaften im 17. Jahrhundert” (GS II, 90–245), his first real publication on hermeneutics was the “Rise of Hermeneutics” (1900). His most systematic hermeneutical essay was one of his last: “The Understanding of Other Persons and Their Life-Expressions” (1910). This is part of the “Plan for the Continuation of the Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences” and therefore belongs in SW 3.

Dilthey's early Preisschrift on hermeneutics shows him to have an extraordinary familiarity with the history of hermeneutics, which was probably unmatched in his time. Then why his reticence in referring to it in his published writings? Part of the answer seems to be that at the end of the nineteenth century hermeneutics was considered a tool of theology, legal studies, and philology. Dilthey himself was still a student of theology when he wrote the Preisschrift, and the theological context of hermeneutical problems is


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