The Doctors of Soul: Wilhelm Dilthey

The Doctors of Soul: Wilhelm Dilthey

Wilhelm Dilthey, circa 1855

Wilhelm Dilthey has earned a place among the Doctors of Soul, primarily, for his work in hermeneutics, and the humanities. Dilthey was a German philosopher, historian, and psychologist. In 1833, two years after the death of Hegel, Dilthey was born in Biebrich, Hesse, which is a borough of Weisbaden. His father was a Reformed Church theologian, his mother the daughter of an orchestral conductor. Dilthey studied theology in Heidelberg and Berlin, but then transferred his attention to philosophy, taking his doctorate from Berlin in 1864. He taught at Basel, Kiel, and Breslau from 1866-1882. With the passing of R.H. Lotze In 1882, he would be elevated to the Chair of Philosophy at Berlin, once held by Hegel. Dilthey would hold it until his death in 1911.
Dilthey’s entire career was based on a belief that self-knowledge is paramount in human endeavor. His interests encompassed all facets of human learning and experience. He sought to facilitate the discipline of self-knowledge so that humanity could derive the maximum benefit from it. Dilthey’s concentration was in the fields of philosophy, psychology, sociology, and history, especially the history of ideas. Dilthey’s work influenced most of the important thinkers of the twentieth century, such as Freud, Jung, Heidegger, Habermas, and many others. Still, Dilthey is relatively unknown and underestimated in America.

Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, called Dilthey “the most important thinker of the second half of the nineteenth century” (qtd. in Rickman 1). Gasset must have had a very good reason to say this, what with the level of thinkers to emerge from that fertile period. What we are looking into, however, is what Dilthey contributed to the resurrection of the idea of soul in Western thinking, and to how he influenced the soon-to-come depth psychology of Freud, Jung, and Hillman.

According to James Hillman, Wilhelm Dilthey was the first to “importantly” draw a distinction between the attempt to know via understanding and to know via explanation, as the scientific tradition is wont to do (Hillman 15). He saw our culture as losing the ability of imagination that leads to true understanding. In Dilthey’s day, imagination was being replaced with scientific objectivity. Instead of attempting to really understand the world, including its inhabitants, the scientific method wanted only to offer explanations. It is a testament to the power of soul that this attitude has not fully encompassed us today. We are still talking about soul. An example of the lack of imagination today would be the attempt to explain depression (I prefer the word, “melancholia”) by pointing to certain chemical reactions in the brain. Instead of trying to really understand why a person is depressed, science offers only chemical explanations (and chemical “remedies”).

Achetypal thought stresses personifying. The idea of personifying is one of the foundational stones of archetypal psychology because it utilizes imagination in an attempt to really understand the patient. James Hillman writes,

…personifying is not a lesser, primitive mode of apprehending but a finer one. It presents in psychological theory the attempt to integrate heart into method and to return abstract thoughts and dead matter to their human shapes (Hillman 15).

Dilthey was attempting to do the same. He used personifying to try and understand human psyches. The secret of the ‘person’, he wrote, attracts for its own sake ever newer and deeper efforts to understand” (qtd. in Hillman 16). Hillman says,

…Dilthey was a precursor of archetypal psychology.  He was moving in the direction of the mythopoeic, recognizing its role for psychological understanding, his basic concern. But first he had to struggle with psychology in its positivistic definition. This struggle led him to recognize that psychology, upon which he wanted to base all human studies that employ the method of understanding, stands closer to art, to poetry, biography, and narrative than it does to experimental science” (Hillman 234n).

Another area where Dilthey made significant contributions is hermeneutics. This may be his most important work. When Dilthey was  a student at the University of Berlin, he was taught by two professors who had been students of  Friedrich Schleiermacher.  He edited the letters of Schleiermacher and wrote a biography of him. Schleiermacher is famous, partly, for his work in hermeneutics. Dilthey was greatly inspired by Schleiermacher’s work. Being very influenced by German Romanticism, Dilthey placed more importance on human emotion and imagination than the explanations of reductionist scientific systems. He applied his theory of hermeneutics to human studies, or humanities. According to Wikipedia

The school of Romantic hermeneutics stressed that historically embedded interpreters — a “living” rather than a Cartesian dualism or “theoretical” subject — use ‘understanding’ and ‘interpretation’ (verstehen), which combine individual-psychological and social-historical description and analysis, to gain a greater knowledge of texts and authors in their contexts.

Dilthey saw that the method of hermeneutics used by Schleiermacher and others was perfect for human studies, or Geisteswissenschaften.

Henry Corbin credits both Dilthey and  Schleiermacher with being instrumental in inspiring Martin Heidegger’s hermeneutic work. From Heidegger, Corbin gained much inspiration for his melding of Western mysticism and Islamic theology. Tom Cheetham writes,

The significance of Heidegger’s monumental Being and Time for Corbin is not so much that it caused a revolution in his outlook, but rather that it provided a crystallization of themes and issues which were already gathering in his thinking through his study of both Western philosophy and Islamic thought. Like Corbin, Heidegger had been deeply engaged in the study of medieval philosophy and theology and wrote his first major academic treatise on Duns Scotus. As Corbin points out, this provides a significant link between Heidegger’s intellectual background and his own, in particular since the Medieval concept of grammatica speculativa which is fundamental to Luther’s thought had a profound impact on Corbin…But without question Heidegger’s work was, in Corbin’s own words, of “decisive” importance (Cheetham 2).

So, we see that Wilhelm Dilthey was very important in his contributions to depth psychology, particularly Hillman’s archetypal psychology, and Corbin’s unique spirituality and philosophy. 

Works Cited

Cheetham, Tom. The World Turned Inside Out. Woodstock: Spring, 2003.

Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: Harper, 1975

Rickman, H.P. Wilhelm Dilthey: Pioneer of the Human Studies. Los Angeles: University of California, 1979.

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