Monday, 19 February 2018

Wilhelm Dilthey's final reading of Hegel

The following notes are from an article by Marie-Jeanne Konigson-Montain, «Dilthey lecteur de Hegel» [Dilthey reader of Hegel], in the collection Autour de Hegel, hommage à Bernard Bourgeois (2000) on the influence of Hegel on changes in Dilthey's last writings that gave a greater role in mental life to a reason informed by historical knowledge.

Introduction (Stephen Cowley)

The following discussion analyzes the movement in Dilthey's fundamental ideas from the subjective mix of neo-Kantianism and appeal to our natural understanding of lived experience in probably his best-known book, Introduction to the Humanities (1883) to the more objective neo-Hegelian standpoint of his final writings, which were characterized by an endorsement of the idea of final cause and a restriction of the formerly determinant role of "visions of the world" (Weltanschauungen).

There is a religious component to the final cause issue, but how far Dilthey really moved is questionable. My view is that Dilthey’s early approach disarmed Western culture and the Western churches by preaching an agnosticism drawn from Feuerbach (through Rudolf Haym) and neo-Kantianism. This tradition renders its conclusions and/or suppositions in a purely subjective mode that does not convey real conviction or a direct grasp of reality, but only the thoughts of historical agents about reality.

The title of Marie-Jeanne Konigson-Montain (MJKM)'s article echoes two chapters of Sylvie Mesure’s Dilthey et la fondation des sciences historiques (1990) on “Dilthey reader of Auguste Comte” and “Dilthey reader of John Stuart Mill”. As well as contributing to sociology, Comte advocated a "religion of Humanity" that looked to science for its doctrinal content and Humanity for an object of reverence. Religion was also a central theme for another French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, author of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). Mesure presents Dilthey as a critic of thinkers in the observation-based French sociological tradition and notes that his work was introduced into France by Raymond Aron in the 1930s. She is editor of the French edition of Dilthey's works. Arguably though, from a wider perspective, Dilthey shared much of the subjective attitude to religion of the French thinkers, only modifying this significantly in his last years.

I use the traditional term “Humanities” to translate Geisteswissenschaften. Page references are to the collection Autour de Hegel (Eds. Dagognet & Osmo, Paris: Vrin, 2000); "GS" stands for the volumes of Dilthey's Gesammelte Schriften [Collected Works]. I add in my own thoughts in square brackets.

Dilthey as reader of Hegel

Wilhelm Dilthey's rediscovery of Hegel’s early manuscripts was a major step for Hegel studies, but it was also important for Dilthey’s own thought. Dilthey shared Hegel’s concerns for history and system, but not his “taste for metaphysics” (Dilthey’s expression). This mixture of nearness and distance is found in Dilthey’s last great work, Construction of the Historical World in the Humanities (1910), but also in the last decade of his life more generally.  In the last decade or so of his life, he reflected on the nature of philosophy in such works as View of my System as a Whole (1896), The Essence of Philosophy (1907) and the Foreword to The World of the Mind (1911). In the last, he argued that, after the collapse of Hegelianism, the natural sciences became dominant. He wrote:
“When the spirit of these sciences transforms itself into philosophy, as with the Encyclopaedists, Comte and in Germany with the naturalists who take themselves to be philosophers, it tries to conceive mind as the product of nature – and it mutilates it.” (256)
Beyond the twilight of metaphysics, Dilthey sought to study the mind through history and to satisfy the philosophical wish to understand reality. He wishes to “understand life”. He says: “thought cannot retrace its steps further back than life.” (257, see Critique of Historical Reason). Thus history for him replaces the “kingdom of shadows” of metaphysics. [Lukács also quotes this remark in Destruction of Reason, using it as evidence of “irrationalism”. However, as Dilthey also equates “life” with “experience” his case is weak. The term is vague, but an appeal to experience does not subvert reason. The problem for reason is rather the ambiguity of the term “metaphysics”. It can have either the Aristotelian realist meaning of dealing with general features of experience broader than the individual sciences, or the Kantian agnostic sense of dealing with objects altogether beyond experience: God, freedom and immortality being the main alleged examples. – SC]

It is important that in Dilthey's last writings a new point of view emerges that is distinct from that of his first writings. At first, he sought to free the humanities from both natural science and metaphysics. He saw philosophical systems as but fleeting expressions of a period of human life. [Dilthey derived this partly from Haym’s view of the history of philosophical systems. – SC] In the last stage, philosophy and historical consciousness can be reconciled when philosophy reflects on itself. This view is expressed in The Essence of Philosophy (1907) and Types of World View (1911). He argues that the transcendental method of Hegelianism inspires this last stage. It also influences The Construction of the Historical World in the Humanities (1910). Dilthey’s concept of “understanding” shifts. Philosophy plays a larger role in his thought. The significance of Hegel increases after his work on History of Hegel’s Youth (1906). Let us consider three texts to make this point in relation to Dilthey's reading of Hegel.

Introduction to the Humanities (1883)

This work, according to its dedication, aims at a “critique of historical reason” and seeks “the foundation of the humanities” (Preface). [The Kantian reference of the title is clear then. As noted, this is the most famous of Dilthey's works in English. – SC] The following passages remained famous:
“It is not by accepting the hypothesis of a rigid a priori of our faculty of cognition that we will reply to the questions that we have put to philosophy, but in starting solely from the history of the development that finds its source in the totality of our being.”
“In the veins of the knowing subject such as Locke, Hume and Kant constructed him, no true blood flows, but a thin sap of reason conceived as the sole activity of thought.” (258, GS I, XV, XVIII)
Transcendental constructions are an atemporal abstraction. But a philosophy of history to is to be rejected. Dilthey wrote: “The time for a metaphysical foundation of the sciences of mind is definitively past.” (258, GS I, XIX) Dilthey’s argument culminates in Introduction 2.4.4 “Final considerations on what is impossible, for knowledge, in the metaphysical attitude.” Here he cites Hegel, who thought the world had a logical structure. But metaphysics cannot surmount “the relativity of the field of experience from which its concepts are drawn”, nor “the limited subjectivity of the psychic life that underlies every metaphysical synthesis of basic scientific concepts.” (259; GS I, 403). Thus metaphysics is only concerned with shadows. [Hegel also uses this image. – SC] Dilthey writes:
“Metaphysics, this Queen of a kingdom of shadows is here as everywhere concerned only with the spectres of ancient truths of which certain forbid it to think at all, while others require it to think in such or such a manner.” (259; GS I, 405) 
He is guided alike by Hegelian reason, Schopenhauer’s will and Leibniz’s morality. These transformed the world into a mirror in which he saw himself. He wrote: “The transformation of the world into knowing subject [...] marks, so to say, the euthanasia of metaphysics.” (Ibid) Dilthey thought that an “inner feeling for historical reality” was missing in Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill, but not in the German philosophers. He said that “There is a kernel of truth hidden behind the hope of a philosophy of history.” (280) The idea of a critique of historical reason has reference to Hegel. In this, he may have been influenced by Haym, in particular see the hopes for a “philosophy of the future” in the conclusion of Haym’s book. This projected philosophy of the future will not be another metaphysics, but will include:
  • a theory of science 
  • a critique of historical reason 
  • a critical study of man, the whole man.
French scholar of neo-Kantianism Henri Dussort says that it is: “an astonishing program that proposes to reconcile without eclecticism (but that is the whole difficulty) the two major tendencies of Kantianism and Hegelianism, hitherto held as irreducible enemies by their own partisans. The project will be taken up, in almost the same terms, 30 years later by Dilthey, and by Cassirer 30 years later still, in his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms.” (281) [My feeling was that Haym was overstepping rational limits and in effect taking credit for a figment of his own imagination as though it were something real in order to avoid the incoherence of his own actual accomplishments as a critic of Hegel. –SC] We turn now to the Dilthey's main book on Hegel, some key sections of which we have already discussed on this blog.

The History of Hegel’s Youth (1906)

In a review of an early edition of Hegel’s Letters (1887), Dilthey wrote: “The period of struggle with Hegel is over; the time has come for historical knowledge of him. Only such historical study will allow us to separate what in him is destined to pass and what will remain.” (261, cited by Nohl in GS IV, V) This presages the title of Croce’s famous book. Dilthey wrote in History of Hegel’s Youth: “Different works, and first of all the History of the Humanities and the Life of Schleiermacher, have always led me back to Hegel.” (261-62; GS IV, 3) Dilthey was responsible, through his Hegel book, for the periodization of Hegel’s early development, though the distinctions were not hard and fast. The French scholar Robert Legros wrote on this:
“Generally speaking, the researches of Hegel studies [Hegelforschung] on the chronology and genuineness of the manuscripts of the young Hegel, it seems to us, lead to an understanding of the development of his thought as more winding, less linear and less reducible to influences or to a system than had to appear to the great interpreters of the first half of this [20th] century. More precisely, they impel us to introduce shading to the simple and seductive schema of a moralizing, rationalist, Kantian Hegel, inheritor of the spirit of the Enlightenment attached to the ideals of the [French] revolution in Tübingen and Berne, developing towards a certain romanticism allied to a mystical view of life in Frankfurt and becoming at last, though progressively, original in Jena, where reason and no longer life – but a reason now opposed to the intellect – becomes the underlying reality.” (262; from Introduction to Lukács’ Le jeune Hegel [The Young Hegel], French, 1981, 18)
There are two parts of Dilthey’s book dealing with Stuttgart, Tübingen and Berne and with Frankfurt and later material respectively. The later material is the Systemfragment (1800), new preface to the Positivity essay and the political writings. Three elements of his analysis are significant for Dilthey’s late works. Together they give a more living, philosophical and historical view of the humanities.

Firstly then he applies his idea of a generation. This was already found in On the Study of the Human, Social and Political Sciences (1875) and Introduction to the Humanities (1883). To this way of looking at things, Schlegel, Schleiermacher, von Humboldt, Hegel, Fries, Tieck, Schelling, etc. comprise a generation. They share:
  • intellectual achievements 
  • a common life and cultural conditions.
In his Life of Schleiermacher, Dilthey made much use of this notion, without hiding its difficulties. A chronological study of a great thinker, he says in it, lets us understand “how totally disparate elements of culture, provided by general circumstances, by social and moral conditions, by the influence of predecessors and contemporaries, are built in the workshop of the individual mind and made into an original whole that incorporates itself in its turn creatively into the life of the community.” (264; GS V) Kant is everywhere in Hegel’s early manuscripts. Even Jesus is a Kantian figure in Berne. The rejection of the imperative form in Frankfurt refers back to Kant. Greece is there as an ideal too though: the polis [city-state] is opposed to the decadence of Rome. This is a theme in the Tübingen fragment that Dilthey cites throughout his study. Still in respect of the idea of a generation, Dilthey acknowledges the influence of Schelling’s The Soul of the World, Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre (1794), particularly the paragraph on the “pragmatic history of the human spirit” and Goethe’s preference for intuition (or looking) over “abstract concepts” his critique of Kant’s moralism and taste for concreteness and wholeness.

Secondly, there is his response to Hegel’s “deep sense of history”. Dilthey sees this sense of history at work in the Berne writings on the advent of Christianity. It was a “living source of the historical view that led to the Phenomenology. Hegel rejected the idea that Christianity prevailed because it answered “all the questions of human reason in a satisfactory way”. (266) Rather, it coincided with the decline of Greek and Roman religion and the end of ancient freedom. [Hegel’s contemporary the Scottish philosopher James Mylne saw Stoicism in this light – SC] Hegel speaks of the “greatness” of Christianity, but also of its renunciation of intervention in public life. The times caused men to seek salvation in the heavens. Dilthey concludes:
“We have here the fundamental traits of that famous description of the unhappy consciousness that Hegel presented in the Phenomenology of Spirit as a determinate step in humanity’s development.” (266)
Thirdly, the “metaphysics of life” is also original to Hegel. It appears in Spirit of Christianity and its Fate as “still free from the chains of the system”. (266) “Objective idealism” rejects a morality and religion based on domination for one based on love. It holds that philosophy has “to think pure life”. In the Fragment of a System (1800), Dilthey sees the passage from the concept of life to that of spirit, which became central in the Jena period. Dilthey cites a key paragraph:
“One can call infinite life a spirit in opposition to the abstract plurality (that is dead), for spirit is the living union of the manifold in opposition to the latter as [a] shape of spirit, which completes the manifold that shelters in the concept of life, not by opposition to the manifold inasmuch as it is a pure and simple plurality, dead and separate from spirit; for then spirit would be the pure and simple unity that is called law and is purely and simply something not living, a thought. Spirit is a living law in unification with the manifold, which is then animated. (267; Premiers écrits, 371-72)
German scholar Hans-Georg Gadamer also said that Dilthey’s work on Hegel “opened a new period of Hegelian studies, less by its results than by its posing of problems.” (267; Truth and Method, French trans. 248)

The Construction of the Historical World in the Humanities (1910) 

This work from 1910 – the penultimate year of Dilthey’s life – illustrates the final form of Hegel’s influence on Dilthey. It contains numerous references to Hegel’s philosophy of spirit. Dilthey takes up the term “objective mind”, but adapts it to his own purposes. Hegel, he says: “constructed communities starting from the rational, universal will. Today we have to start from reality of life [...] Hegel constructs metaphysically, we analyze the given.” (288; GS VII, 104) Dilthey is arguing that we cannot understand objective mind (i.e. institutions and conventions) starting from reason alone. He wrote:
“In the degree to which objective spirit is thus detached from its exclusive foundation in universal reason expressing the essence of the mind of the world, i.e. detached from ideal construction, a new concept of it becomes possible: it comprehends equally well language, customs, all kinds of forms of life, manners of living, such as family, civil society, state and the law. And from now on this concept includes also what Hegel distinguished, as absolute spirit, from objective spirit: art, religion and philosophy, for it is precisely in them that the creative individual shows himself at the same time as representative of the community, and it is precisely in their vast extent that spirit renders itself objective and it is in them that it is known.” (268)
Gadamer points out the difference between Dilthey and Hegel: for Dilthey the self knowledge of mind is won by historical consciousness, not by the speculative concept. Yet historical consciousness in this matter takes on the characteristic of absolute spirit – perfect transparency with regard to itself.

Dilthey used the term “self-reflection” (Selbstbesinnung) in his Overall View of my System (1898). Here he said: “Knowledge cannot go further back than life.” (268) It presupposes a relation of thought to being. [James Mylne thought that reason was applied, but to the subject matter of experience. Hence the scope of reason is neither limited, nor stretched beyond experience a priori construction, but expressed in the form of comparative judgments. – SC] Dilthey says; “This circle characterizes all human thought.” Self-reflection is thus self-interpretation. It is as inexhaustible as life and thus an infinite task.

This critique of Hegel’s position may appear simply as a complication. Hegel thought he could surpass the limit of historical conditions of consciousness because history was set aside in absolute spirit. To admit historical relativity seems to exclude the possibility of objective knowledge. In his last writings, Dilthey appeals to hermeneutics to explain the intelligibility of history and the situation of historical consciousness that undertakes to express its meaning. Gadamer summarizes:
“Hermeneutics is more than a means for Dilthey in his foundation of the humanities. It is the universal element of historical consciousness, for which there is no other knowledge of the truth than that which consists of understanding expressions and the life in them. In history, everything is intelligible, for everything is text. “Like the letters of a word, life and history have a meaning.” It is thus that Dilthey in the last resort conceived the study of the historical past as a deciphering and not as a historical experiment.” (268, Truth & Method, French edition, 261) 
Dilthey maintains his critique of Hegel’s “metaphysical” position, but its content changes in his last writings. He objects less to a “metaphysics of history” than to the idea that of an absolute situated beyond history. On the whole, he becomes more sympathetic to Hegel.

In his Introduction to the Humanities (1883), Dilthey said that he wanted to anchor the objectivity of the knowledge of the Humanities. French scholar Jean Grondin commented: “It all happens as if [...] the Humanities [...] needed an Archimedean point to merit their continued existence under the title of respected science." (269) In his work on psychology, where this anchoring is to be sought, he doubts the idea, but does not abandon it. Gadamer says:
“The opposition to Hegel is reduced to one sole point, namely that spirit’s return to itself is effected in the philosophical concept according to Hegel, whereas for Dilthey the philosophical concept signifies not knowledge but expression.” (270)
Gadamer sees an unresolved tension in this. MJKM characterizes Heidegger and Gadamer as “hermeneutical philosophers of the 20th century” who tried to defend both Hegel and Dilthey against “philosophies of reflection”. They cannot pull Hegel’s thought off its hinges. Nor have neo-Kantian criticisms of Dilthey’s relativism stood in the way of his influence. Gadamer looked to Husserl, Dilthey and Heidegger for inspiration. Yet “contemporary philosophical reflection” cannot spare itself a glance backwards to the historical conditions of its own possibility. Gadamer says:
“The world of concepts in which philosophical activity unfurls itself has always been around. [...] That is why the integrity of thought requires taking account of this prior inclusion. A new and critical mode of consciousness must always accompany every responsible philosophical activity and make the habits of language and thought that form in the individual by his interaction with the world around him, appear before the tribunal of the historical tradition to which we jointly belong.” (271)
[My feeling is that in terms of pure metaphysics or natural theology, the fundamental question is that of vindicating the concept of purpose over a range of fields of inquiry from biology to history. Here Hegel and Aristotle have a good deal to teach us by their objectivity and willingness to grapple directly with ultimate questions of a religious nature. – SC]