Wilhelm Dilthey was born in 1833 near Wiesbaden, and thus lived through the period of Bismarck’s creation of a unified German Empire by ‘blood and iron’. These turbulent events, however, scarcely perturbed his career, which was wholly that of academic and scholar. For almost forty years he was to hold, successively, four university chairs of philosophy, the first as early as 1866, and culminating (from 1882 to 1905) in that of Berlin. Crucial to Dilthey’s philosophical achievement, however, is the fact that he was not a philosopher only, but was equally interested, and distinguished, in the fields of cultural history and biography. Small wonder, then, that Dilthey is famous as the philosopher of the ‘Geisteswissenschaften’—the ‘sciences of mind’ or (as the term is often translated), the human sciences, or the human studies.
Indeed, the human mind and its products are the beginning and end, the alpha and omega, of Dilthey’s philosophy; so much so that it is hardly possible, from his perspective, to draw a definite line between philosophy and psychology. Dilthey’s philosophy is above all an epistemology, or theory of knowledge, and human knowledge arises in the human mind. Dilthey’s viewpoint here can be interestingly compared with that of Hume. ‘It is evident’ wrote Hume in the Introduction to his great Treatise, ‘that all sciences have a relation, greater or less, to human nature [and] are in some measure dependent on the science of MAN; since they lie under the cognisance of men, and are judged of by their powers and faculties’. With this proposition Dilthey was in full agreement, but thereafter the two philosophers sharply part company. Hume, starting from the premiss that all knowledge is a judgement of the human mind, and deducing therefrom the need to understand the operations of the human mind, ended up, somewhat