Dilthey, Wilhelm: Patterns and Meaning in History

[From Rolf Sältzer (ed.) German Essays on History, translator unknown; New York 1991, Continuum, The German Library,vol.49]

The Problem of History

We are, first of all, historical beings and, after that, contemplators of history; only because we are the one do we become the other … Ι am involved in the interactions of society because its various systems intersect in my life. These systems have sprung from the same human nature as Ι experience in myself and understand in others. The language in which Ι think and my concepts originated ίπ the course of time. Thus, to impenetrable depths within myself Ι am a historical being. The fact that the investigator of history is the same as the one who makes it is the first condition that makes scientific history possible; here we have the first significant element for the solution of the epistemological problem of history.

Τhe Approach to World History

Throughout history living, active, creative, and responsive soul is present at all times and places. Every first-class document is an expression of such a soul. That these documents are so scarce for a certain period results from the selection that history, in the form of memory, makes from the piles of what is written. It allows all that has nο meaning to fall to dust, ashes, and rags.

The Historical Concept

Μαn knows himself οnly in history, never through introspection; indeed, we all seek him in history. Or, to put it more generally, we seek what is human in it, such as religion, and so οn. We want to know what it is. If there were a science of man it would be anthropology that aims at understanding the totality of experience through the structural context. The individual always realizes only one of the possibilities in his development, which could always have taken a different turning whenever he had to make an important decision. Man is only given to us at all in terms of his realized possibilities. Ιn the cultural systems, too, we seek an anthropologically determined structure in which an “x” realizes himself. We call this human nature but this is only a word for a conceptual system constituted by an intellectual method.1 The possibilities of man are not exhausted by this either.

The horizon widens. Even if the historian has a limited subject in front of him a thousand threads lead οn and οn into the infinity of all the memories of mankind. Historiography begins retracing its steps from the present with the description of what is still alive in the memory of the present generation. It is still recollection in the proper sense. Or, annals, added to year by year, record what has just happened. As history advances vision extends beyond one’s οwn country and more and more of the past enters into the shadow world of memory. Expressions of it all have remained after life itself has passed away; direct expressions in which souls expressed what they were and also accounts of deeds, circumstances of individuals, communities, and states. And the historian stands in the midst of the ruins, of the remnants of things past, the expressions of minds in deeds, words, sounds, and pictures, of souls who have long ceased to be. Ηοw is he to conjure them up? Αll his work of recalling them is interpretation of the remnants that remain. Imagine a person who had no memory of his οwn past but only thought and acted through what the past had wrought in him, without being conscious of any of its parts. This would be the state ot nations, communities, of mankind itself if it were not possible to supplement the remnants, to interpret the expressions, to lift the accounts of deeds from isolation back into the context in which they originated. All this is interpretation, a hermeneutic art.

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