Many students of the humanities are familiar with the great German philosophers like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Arthur Schopenhauer; however, few are familiar with German philosopher, Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) who had a profound impact on the study of human sciences and influenced many philosophers that followed him. For Dilthey, a true polymath well-versed in history, psychology, sociology, aesthetics, hermeneutics, and philosophy, the human sciences encompassed both the social sciences and the humanities. Dilthey developed the term Geisteswisseenschaft (meaning “science of the mind” or “spiritual knowledge”) to describe the study of individual’s life in its actual cultural-historical context. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy elaborates on Dilthey’s contribution to philosophy: “Whereas the main task of the natural sciences as Dilthey found them was to arrive at law-based causal explanations, he projected the core task of the human sciences to be that of providing an understanding of the organizational structures and dynamic forces of human and historical life. It will be shown that this distinction is not so sharp as to rule out causal explanations in particular human sciences such as psychology, political theory, and economics; it mostly delimits the scope of explanations in these fields.”
Beginning in the late 1980s, Dilthey scholars Rudolf Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi began editing and publishing Wilhelm Dilthey: Selected Works in six volumes for Princeton University Press. Sadly, these books are not as accessible as they should be: they are extremely expensive and not available in digital format. The second volume titled Understanding the Human World (2010) reveals Dilthey’s tremendous erudition and insight as he explores the seminal work of William Shakespeare, who created some of literature’s most enduring heroes. In this excerpt, Dilthey explores the relation between Shakespeare’s tragic hero and the world:
“By living among these new ideas, Shakespeare used relations between the spirit of Renaissance and Protestantism to generate a feeling of life and the world that exceeded both. Regardless of how long or short life is, to live by activating the energies lying in us, to take pleasure in our essence, to do justice to the tasks springing from it, to live fully in the beauty and the happiness lying in our vicinity while prudently observing the rights and the standards dealt us by our circumstances, that is the new rule of life that he expresses more powerfully than anyone before him, and not in abstract thoughts but in the images of human existence itself.
Hence it follows that for him tragic conflicts takes place in persons themselves. Such a conflict has its roots in the soul itself. In a character whose powerfuleness we can easily imagine as exuding magnificence there is a structural incongruity so that he nonetheless falls victim to a pathological process. Because of this inadequacy, a passion emerges from this powerful psychic structure of the hero. It is suddenly elicited from the depths by conditions of life that stand in no relations to what is otherwise happening and propels the hero toward his destruction like a dream coming totally from within, a flamed that hardly needs external nourishment. If this passion violates or detroys the rights and existence of others, then, and only then, does the consciousness of it exhibit itself in pangs of conscience as punishment. For Shakespeare it is no punishment, but rather almost a beautiful fate, that death makes early claims on those who are most powerful, beautiful, and pure. Schiller expresses the same feeling at a higher stage of European development.
For Shakespeare the tragic does not lie in conflicts with the powers of the world, but within the structure of the soul, in a disproportion located there. Hence, this immense intellect must fully concentrate on grasping and understanding a person as distinctive. This person is not formed by circumstances and does not develop. Circumstances do not seem to in any way constrain the person’s impetuous course.”
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For further reading: Understanding the Human World (2010)
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