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Jos de Mul. Das Schauspiel des Lebens. Dilthey and the historical biography. In: Revue Internationale de Philosophie, (2003), no.2, 99-116.

Das Schauspiel des Lebens. Wilhelm Dilthey and historical biography

"Uber den wissenschaftlichen Charakter der Biographie sind die Ansichten der Historiker geteilt." [1]

These words, written by Wilhelm Dilthey about a hundred years ago, are just as true today as they were then. As in Dilthey's time, many historians still deny that the historical biography is scientific in nature, because of its narrative and literary character. It isn't without irony that authors of literary fiction, conversely, often doubt the literary character of historical biographies because they are not entirely a work of imagination. One might say that historical biography is situated in a no-man's land between art and science.

In order to understand the discussion concerning the status of the historical biography, we have to view it within the broader context of the debate on the status of historiography. This debate has accompanied modern historiography from its birth in the early nineteenth century. Before then the question concerning the relationship between the artistic and scientific dimension of historiography virtually played no role. The reason for this was that before the nineteenth century these two dimensions could barely be distinguished. The word 'novel' not only referred to Active stories, but also to the kind of stories we nowadays call historical narratives. However, under the influence of rationalism and empiricism, literature and historiography gradually became different autonomous genres. The emergence of the modern discipline of historiography was at least partly motivated by the presupposition that knowledge only deserves this title when it is rationally and empirically tested and attains a certain level of certainty.[2] These requirements were inspired by the impressive success the natural sciences and the new technologies connected with them had had since Newton. Based on the discovery of causal relationships in nature, these sciences were not only able to explain natural phenomena, but to predict and to control them, as well. As a result, the objectivity of the natural sciences increasingly began to function as an ideal for all sciences. After the middle of the nineteenth century, the ideal of a 'unified science' became an integral part of the repertoire of (neo)positivist scientists and philosophers.

The practical realization of a scientific genre of historiography, based on a critical study of sources, was, in many respects, the achievement of Ranke, his 'historische Ideenlehre' aimed at describing the past "wie es eigentlich gewesen".[3]  Ranke strongly opposed the speculative historiography of Fichte and especially Hegel, which "die ganze Historie construiert".[4], and approved important aspects of the positivist program as it was defended in his time by Comte, Mill and Buckle. In his attempt to establish a scientific historiography he strongly rejected the literary dimension of historiography. Without exaggeration it can be stated that this anti-literary sentiment has been a persistent element in the debate about the scientific status of historiography up to the present day. After the Second World War, the change of focus from political events to historical-economical developments played an important role. This became evident in the Annales tradition, in which the formerly dominant historiography of events was forced to accept a humble position between the analysis of geographical structures and economic trends. Gradually the quantitative methods of the social sciences acquired a central position within historiography. Perhaps the culmination of this development has been the development of cliometrics since the 1950s. In the sixties and seventies the scientification of historiography continued. In 1973, one of its most vehement defenders in the Netherlands provocatively stated the neo-positivists' elan as follows : "The historian without hesitation can put aside presenting his readers narrative historiography, a literary stylized story. Instead of paying homage to Clio the historian should present a scientific textbook, that — according to the demands of social-empirical research — is supported by charts, maps, computations, tableaus and diagrams'.[5]

However, after Ranke another tradition emerged, one which strongly opposed the (neo)positivist ideal and defended with fervor the literary character of historiography. One of the initiators of this tradition was Droysen. He rejected the positivist conception of historiography as defended by Buckle[6], because it overlooked the fact that historiography and other human sciences {Geisteswissenschaften[7] do not, like the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften), aim at causal explanation Erklärung, but at an understanding (Verstehen) of the singularity of historical events as being the result of free and teleological acts of individuals. Although Droysen followed Ranke in this respect, he criticized Ranke because of his sterile conception of objectivity, which seemed to establish source-criticism as the goal of historiography. Droysen distinguished between historical research {Forschung) and the narrative account(Darstellung) of the sources, in which the historian gives meaning to meaningless historical facts on the basis of his personal point of view. In his inaugural lecture in 1905, the Dutch historian Huizinga expressed a similar view : "In order to start the analysis there already has to be a synthesis in the mind of the historian. Before he can start his digging and chopping, he has to have a concept of an ordered nexus. Whatever historiography does with regard to the past, it can never simply be an act of taking snapshots, as it were, — it always involves an act of imagination".[8]  This imagination especially comes to the fore in the narration, which gives meaning to the empirical facts.

After the boom of neo-positivist and neo-Marxist conceptions of historiography in the sixties and seventies, which, notwithstanding many (ideological) differences, share their focus on socio-economical structures, in the last decades of the twentieth century, as part of a more general narrative trend, the role of narration in historiography received renewed attention. In the Anglo-Saxon world, Hayden White's radical defense of narrative history in Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, in 1973, was the starting point of a narrative (re)turn in historiography. According to White, this turn is a fundamental one : "To raise the question of the nature of narrative is to invite reflection on the very nature of culture and, possibly, even on the nature of humanity itself".[9] In the last couple of decades many historians and philosophers, such as David Carr[10] , have contributed to this reflection. Though the authors mentioned differ on many points, they share the Droysean idea that a historical narrative is not a simple reproduction of the past, but, as Ankersmit formulates it in Narrative Logic, a proposal for a 'seeing as', a proposal for looking at the past in a specific way.[12]

Wilhelm Dilthey and the historical biography

In the last decades the fierce debates about the foundations of historiography that divided the community of historians for more than a century have fallen silent and the former 'fundamentalists' in both camps seem to have accepted — more or less willingly — a (postmodern) pluralism with regard to its foundations. However, the question of the status of historiography, and consequently of the historical biography, remains topical. After all, even when we accept the multiparadigmatic condition of historiography, historians cannot refrain from reflection on their presuppositions. In this respect the work of Wilhelm Dilthey remains worth studying. Though historiography since Dilthey has undergone important changes, his subtle and nuanced analysis of the foundation of this discipline remains remarkably topical, especially in the light of the recent narrative (re)turn in the human sciences. This is especially true of his analysis of the historical biography. The reason for this is without doubt connected to the fact that Dilthey, unlike many other philosophers of history, was himself an active and innovative historian and biographer all his life. His most important work in the field of biography is his biography of Friedrich Schleiermacher (GS XIII/1 and XIII/2), but besides this monumental work he also wrote several shorter biographies, for example, those of Leibniz, Bruno, Frederick the Great, Lessing, Goethe, Hegel and H61derlin.[13] The first volume of Leben Schleiermachers, published in 1870, can be conceived as a milestone in the development of the intellectual biography. It was the tragedy of Dilthey's life that after the publication of the first volume of the biography — he was thirty-seven at the time — he did not succeed in finishing the planned second volume of this lifework. Laziness was certainly not the reason; when he died forty-one years later he left many manuscripts that together fill two lengthy volumes of the collected works (GS XIV/1 and XIV/2). Dilthey's second lifework, which grew out of his work on the Schleiermacher biography, a philosophical foundation of the human sciences which he originally intended to publish under the title Kritik der historischen Vernunft,underwent the same fate. During his life he only published the first volume under the title Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften. Versuch einer Grundlegung fur das Studium der Gesellschaft und der Geschichte (1883; GS 1). The unfinished character of these two lifeworks — as well of some other ambitious projects, such as theJugendgeschichte Hegels — earned him the nickname of 'Mann der ersten Bande' in Berlin. However, in the case of the Kritik der historischen Vernunft, Dilthey published several preparatory articles for the intended second volume, as well as writing an impressive number of sections and drafts, that have only been published in the last couple of decades.[14]

This is not the place to reconstruct Dilthey's planned Kritik der historischen Vernunft as a whole.[15] I will restrict myself here to the conception of the historical biography Dilthey developed within this context, and more especially to the specific status this genre occupies, according to Dilthey, between art and science.

The historical dimension of th historical biography 

According to Dilthey, the historical biography holds a central position, not only within historiography, but within the human studies as a whole. There are several reasons for this. In the Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften (1883) he emphasizes that the biography deals with the most fundamental fact of the "geschichtlich-gesellschaftliche Wirklichkeit" (GS I, 4). "Die Biographie stellt ... die fundamentale geschichtliche Tatsache rein, ganz, in ihrer Wirklichkeit dar" (GS I, 34). Moreover, Dilthey points to the fact that the historical biography is in a reciprocal relationship to general anthropology ('Anthropologie' or 'Realpsychologie'), which must provide the human sciences with a stable philosophical foundation. For this reason, in the Ideen iiber eine beschreibende und zergliedernde Psychologie (1894/5) Dilthey calls the historical biography "die am meisten philosophische Form der Historie. Der Mensch als die Urtatsache aller Geschichte bildet ihren Gegenstand. Indem sie das Singulare beschreibt, spiegelt sich doch in demselben das allgemeine Gesetz der Entwicklung" (GS V, 225). In his inaugural address to the Berlin Academy of Sciences (1887) Dilthey, referring to the life of Schleiermacher, repeated the aforementioned reasons for the key position of the biography within the human sciences, and added a few more : "Das bedeutende Individuum ist nicht nur der Grundkorper der Geschichte, sondern in gewissem Verstande die grofite Realitat derselben. Ja, wahrend alle Natur nur Erscheinung und Gewand eines UnerfaBbaren ist, erfahren wir hier allein Wirklichkeit in vollem Sinn, von innen gesehen : nicht gesehen, sondern erlebt. Ich wollte nun erforschen, wie ganz zerstreute Elemente der Kultur in der Werkstatt eines solchen bedeutenden Einzelgeistes zu einem Ganzen gebildet werden, das in das Leben zuruckwirkt" (GS V, 10-11, ital. JdM). This quotation makes clear that Dilthey's focus on the individual does not mean a psychologistic neglect of the socio-historical reality in which he lives (GS 1,4). On the contrary : the individual is at the very crossroads (Kreuzungspunkt) of social and cultural forces that act upon him and on which he, conversely, exerts his influence (GS I, 51,17; GS VII, 246,250). In giving a narrative account of a singular life, the biography reflects socio-historical reality as a whole. Evidently, not every individual is part of cultural (sub)systems to the same extent. For this reason, the more cultural (sub)systems the portrayed person is involved in, the better the insight into socio-historical reality his biography provides us with. However, every single biography enlarges our insight into "der unendlichen Moglichkeiten unseres Daseins" (GS VII, 247), and shows human life "in seiner geheimnisvolle Verbindung von Zufall, Schicksal und Charakter" (GS VII, 74).

In order to understand Dilthey's appreciation of the historical biography we have to place it against the background of his position within the methodological debate in his time. Though Dilthey shared his longing for objective knowledge with positivist historians such as Buckle, he rejected the transfer of the methods of the natural sciences to the human sciences. Like Droysen, he held that the natural and human sciences differ essentially from each other : "Die Natur erklaren wir, das Seelenleben verstehen wir" (GS V, 144). Although at first Dilthey — like other Neo-Kantians such as Rickert.[16] — seemed to take the object as the criterion in distinguishing the natural and human sciences (cf. GS I, 4), in Die Einleitung he made clear that this is not the case. For Dilthey, natural and human sciences are not primarily concerned with different elements of reality, but are based on different ways of experiencing the same reality (GS I, 16). He takes the distinction between inner and outer experience as the criterion for the demarcation of the natural and human sciences. Outer experience {aujiere Erfahrung) is the process by which, through collaboration of the senses and discursive understanding, an image of reality, subject to laws outside ourselves, is created (GS I, 15-17, cf. GS V, 243). In the lived experience (innere Erfahrung or Erlebnis) we experience — without the co-operation of the senses — an independent world of mind, characterized by a sovereignty of the will and a responsibility for actions. Within this experience lies every value and every purpose in life (GS I, 6). However, the human sciences do not restrict themselves to inner experience. The reason for this is that an important part of lived experiences find their expression in the socio-historical world that is given in outer experience. Human sciences are distinguished from the natural sciences because theycombine inner and outer experience (GS I, 9).[17] 

Because of their sole dependence on outer reality, the natural sciences are characterized by an atomic conception of reality. The isolated facts are connected by the intellect (Verstand) with the help of general laws. These laws enable us to explain, predict and control natural phenomena. According to Dilthey, the human sciences do not aim primarily at giving causal explanations, but use the expressions (Ausdriicke) of inner experience (texts, images, sounds, gestures, acts, institutions) that are given in outer experience in order to understand (Verstehen) them from within. In this respect the human sciences are an extension of everyday life, as the process of understanding "erstreckt sich uber das ganze Leben" (GS V, 329). Although we have a certain access to our lived experience through introspection, Dilthey points to "die engen Grenzen einer solchen introspektive Methode" (GS VII, 86). Not only is it difficult to grasp the constantly changing "FluB des Lebens" (GS VII, 280) and all the implicit connections of an inner experience but, moreover, introspection is restricted to pure subjective experiences and has no access to the expressions of the lived experiences. For this reason even in understanding ourselves we are already dependent on the understanding and interpretation of our expressions. In the case of the autobiography we give a narrative account of our own life, thus making explicit a number of the many various implicit relationships between the different aspects of our life. In this narrative self-reflection we try to grasp the meaning (Bedeutung) of our life (GS VII, 247).

In the case of the biography the availability of expressions of the person to be portrayed is even more crucial. The biography aims at an analogical recreation ('Nachbildung') and re-experiencing ('Nacherleben') of the lived experiences (GS V, 277) of the person portrayed, and a deeper understanding of them, by explicating the implicit — partly unintended — relationships they have with the total nexus of life(Zusammenhang des Lebens) and the socio-historical world of which the individual is a part (GS VII, 118; 246-8). Here again the biographical narrative aims at making explicit the various relationships within the lived experiences of the historical actor and between the actor and his words and thus interpreting the meaning of his life. Because the interpreter explicates relationships that were often only implicit in the lived experience of the historical actor, he is in a position to understand this experience better than the actor understood himself (GS VII, 217; GS V, 331,335; vgl. GS XIV/2,707-8). Re-experiencing and understanding is possible, because the biographer and his subject share various life characteristics (such as birth, mortality, and fundamental drives and desires). At the same time interpretation is necessary because as individuals they also differ in many respects.[18]  The process of the understanding of unique historical expressions is characterized by the hermeneutic circle of part and whole (GS V, 330; VII, 243). On the one hand, this circle has a formal character. We can only understand an individual expression and an individual life against the background of the context in which it appears. For that reason, a historical biography is only possible as 'Zeitgeschichte' (GS VII, 250). Conversely, the economic, social, political, pedagogical, religious and artistic cultural systems that constitute the historical context, can only be understood from the perspective of the lived experience of a historical actor. After all, only in the process of understanding the historical actor we can re-experience a particular nexus of life from within : "Die Biographie stellt so die fundamentale geschichtliche Tatsache rein, ganz, in ihrer Wirklichkeit dar. Und nur die Historiker, der sozusagen von diesen Lebenseinheiten aus die Geschichte aufbaut, wird die Wirklichkeit eines geschichtlichens Ganzen erfassen, im Gegensatz zu den toten Abstraktionen, die zumeist aus den Archiven entnommen werden" (GS I, 34).

Dilthey's own Leben Schleiermachers is a good illustration of what a biography can accomplish. Of course the life of Schleiermacher is the main subject of the biography, but it accomplishes much more than this. In his chronological path through Schleiermacher's life Dilthey continually moved back and forth between this life and the contexts he was dealing with — the Protestant milieu in which Schleiermacher had grown up, the development of Berlin, that city's university and salon culture, the organization of health care, in which field Schleiermacher, as a minister, had worked, the artistic and philosophical movements of his time, and so forth. With Schleiermacher's life as the axis, as it were, Dilthey created an animated, richly patterned picture of the time in which he had lived and which had largely made him what he had been. The thoroughness with which Dilthey treated the various contexts is striking. For example, when Kant — with whose body of ideas Schleiermacher critically associated himself — was discussed, Dilthey devoted thirty-five pages to an analysis of his work (GS XIII/1,94v.). He also used a wide variety of sources; not only Schleiermacher's published work, but also newspapers, letters, poems, demographic and economic data, and so forth. The excentric and concentric movement of the biography leads to both an increasingly far-reaching breadth and an increasingly greater depth to the understanding of Schleiermacher's life and work in the Berlin of around 1800.

The hermeneutic circle also has an ontological dimension. The historian himself is not situated against his object as a pure (Cartesian) subject of knowledge, but he is no less part of a particular nexus of life and therefore has a specific horizon of experience. Discussing "das typische Sehen and Darstellen" that is shared by the artistic and scientific recreation of individual life (GS V, 279), Dilthey emphasizes "dafi die Dastellung der Individuation immer subjektiv, und zwar personlich, national und in geschichtlicher Abfolge bedingt ist" (GS V, 283, cf. 281). Though historical experience never stops broadening our horizon (GS V, 276), it can never lead us beyond the finiteness of our life and provide us with complete, that is trans-historical, understanding.[19] 

As both the formal and ontological context can be expanded without end in all directions (GS VII, 250), the process of understanding itself is also endless : "Theoretisch trifft man hier auf die Grenzen aller Auslegung, sie vollzieht ihre Aufgabe immer nur bis zu einem bestimmten Grade : so bleibt alles Verstehen immer nur relativ und kann nie vollendet werden" (GS V, 330). Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Dilthey was not able to finish Leben Schleiermachers. However, in this respect he remained faithful to Scheiermacher's hermeneutics, which so strongly influenced his own conception of the task of the human sciences. According to Schleiermacher the understanding of something which is singular (such as the life of an individual) can never be completed. The individuality of the other can never be grasped fully; the non-understanding of the other which urges the process of interpretation can never be completely overcome.[20]  Quoting Goethe, Dilthey admits that in the end 'Individuum est ineffabile' (GS I, 29; GS XIII/1,1).

The aesthetic and practical dimension of historical understanding

Dilthey not only points to the fact that historical understanding can never be completed, but he also argues that understanding can never accomplish the kind of objectivity that characterizes knowledge in the natural sciences. Like Droysen, Dilthey emphasizes the creative, aesthetic dimension of historical understanding : "Immer wird in dieser kiinstlerischen Darstellung eine grofie Aufgabe der Geschichtschreibungbestehen, welche durch die Generalisationswut einiger neueren englischen und franzosischen Forscher nicht entwertet werden kann" (GS I, 90-1). In his attempt to give a philosophical justification for this creative dimension, Dilthey critically develops Kant's view that our phenomenal world is a synthesis of receptive intuition and productive mind : "Wir begreifen die Welt in den Formen und Begriffen, welche in unserem eigenen Wesen gegeben sind" (GS XVIII, 197; vgl. GS V, 74,88 en GS XIX 156-7).[21]  However, he criticizes Kant because of his one-sided emphasis of the intellectual dimension of the human mind : "In den Adern des erkennenden Subjekts, das Locke, Hume und Kant konstruierten, rinnt nicht wirkliches Blut, sondern der verdunnte Saft von Vernunft als bloBer Denktatigkeit. Mich fuhrte aber historische wie psychologische Beschaftigung mit dem ganzen Menschen dahin, diesen, in der - Mannigfaltigkeit seiner Krafte, dies wollend fuhlend vorstellende Wesen auch der Erklarung der Erkenntnis und ihrer Begriffe (wie AuBenwelt, Zeit, Substanz, Ursache) zugrunde zu legen" (GS I, xviii). According to Dilthey, the phenomenal world in which we live is as much a product of our will and feelings : "Der menschliche Geist ist eine aus eigener Tiefe heraus einheitlich gestaltende Macht uber den Stoff des Wirklichen, welche im Denken denselben konstruiert, im asthetischen Vermogen inn beseelt und im Handeln ihm die Form des Ideals und der Freiheit aufpragt".[22] When we try to understand this living, historical reality, then a pure intellectual construction will inevitably be deficient. Though the explanation of inanimate nature may be a pure intellectual activity, the understanding of the socio-historical reality can only take place through co-operation of all the cognitive faculties. As already stated, understanding a historical actor is a process of re-experiencing a nexus of life in all of its cognitive dimensions. For this reason historical understanding is a "lebendiger, kunstlerischer ProzeB" (GS V, 175). Understanding a specific nexus is an "Explikation, die zugleich Schaffen ist" (GS VII, 232).

The aesthetic component of historical understanding should not be understood as arbitrary subjectivity. After all, aesthetic inspiration is not a subjective feeling, but constitutive for socio-historical reality. Especially in the portrayal (Darstellung) of individual life, the artist is an essential source of inspiration for the biographer : "Kein wissenschaftlicher Kopf kann je erschopfen, und kein Fortschritt der Wissenschaft kann erreichen, was der Kunstler uber den Inhalt des Lebens zu sagen hat. Die Kunst ist das Organ des Lebensverstandnisses" (GS V, 273-4). However, this does not mean that Dilthey wished to equate the writing of history with artistic creation. Unlike the artistic creation — the historical novel being an important exception in this context — historical recreation depends on a critical use of sources. Like every scientist, the historian aims for objectivity. But objectivity in the human sciences is not the same as objectivity in the natural sciences (GS VII, 71). Objective truths in the human sciences are not timeless and universal truths, as their truth value partly depends on the horizon of experience (that is : the particular values held by the scholar and his audience). Objectivity in the human sciences refers to interpretations that are based on fixed expressions, so that these interpretations can be tested intersubjectively (GS V, 319). This kind of objectivity is more akin to the objectivity of artworks than to the objectivity of the natural sciences. Although there is wide freedom in interpretation — which is not a disadvantage, but one of the very driving forces in, and of, history — this freedom is not unlimited. Interpretations can, and must be, justified with reference to the fixed expressions and their contexts. This means that the biographer's interpretation of an individual life is always open to discussion and re-interpretation. But such a discussion can never be settled by a critical testing of the sources alone. Aesthetic criteria play a no less crucial role in our evaluation of the picture that a historian sketches of a life.

Other than the aesthetic dimension, historical understanding also has a practical dimension (GS I, 26-7). In this respect, too, Dilthey criticizes the type of objectivity Ranke advocated. Like Nietzsche, Dilthey was of the opinion that historical understanding should not be a disinterested pleasure in contemplating the past, but instead should aim at a "Steigerung des Lebens". If we want to understand the strong emphasis on the practical dimension of historiography, we have to regard it in the context of the crisis in European culture that Dilthey recognized. In modern European culture the natural sciences play a dominant role. They have provided modern man with knowledge and helped him to obtain technological domination of the earth. However, the price that is paid for this is rather high : "Diese Gegenwart steht dem groflen Ratsel des Ursprungs der Dinge, des Werte unseres Daseins, des letzten Wertes unseres Handels nicht kluger gegeniiber als ein Grieche in den ionischen oder italischen Kolonien oder ein Araber zur Zeit des Ibn Roschd. Gerade heute, umgeben vom rapiden Fortschritt der Wissenschaften, finden wir uns diesen Fragen gegeniiber ratloser als in irgendeiner fruheren Zeit" (GS VIII, 193). Since the collapse of the traditional religious and metaphysical worldview — summarized by Nietzsche in his thesis "God is dead", modern man lacks a transcendent normative framework to guide his actions.
For Dilthey a return to the traditional world-view was not an option.

If we look for guidelines for our actions, we can no longer appeal to transcendental values, but we have to find them in life itself (GS X, 16). According to Dilthey, the elucidation and creation of these immanent values is one of the most important tasks for the human sciences and the arts. "DaB die Religion den Halt metaphysischer Schlusse auf das Dasein Gottes und der Seele verloren hat, ist fur eine grofie Anzahl gegenwartiger Menschen nur noch in der Kunst und der Dichtung eine ideale Auffassung von der Bedeutung des Lebens vorhanden" (GS VI, 237). And with regard to historiography, he states : "Indem wir ein Vergangenes miterleben, durch die Kunst geschichtlicher Vergegenwartigung, werden wir belehrt, wie durch das Schauspiel des Lebens selber; ja unser Wesen erweitert sich, und psychische Kafte, die machtiger sind als unsere eigenen, steigern unser Dasein" (GS I, 91). That this was also so for Dilthey himself is shown by these words, which he wrote shortly before his death : "Die groBen Dichter, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe lehrten mich, die Welt ... zu verstehen und ein Ideal des Lebens auf diesem Boden zu bilden" (GS V, 4).

Whereas the historical biography portrays the factual life of individuals, the novel explores the possibilities of human life with the help of imaginative variation.[23] Together, they present an immense number of life stories : "Liest man die Werke der Dichter oder die Biographien der Geschichtsschreiber, so blickt man in eine unermeBliche Mannigfaltigkeit von Entwicklungsgeschichten" (GS XIX, 316). The understanding of other (real or imaginary) persons opens new opportunities in one's own life : "Das Verstehen offnet ihm nun ein weites Reich von Moglichkeiten, die in der Determination seines wirklichen Lebens nicht vorhanden sind" (GS VII, 215). Although biography and novel are complementary in the fact that they respectively portray real and imaginary lives, they both present human life in its uniqueness, contingency and radical finitude (GS VII, 244; GS VIII, 79). However, in doing so they also give expression to the dark side of life, "dem Gefuhl der Gebrechlichkeit, der Macht des dunklen Triebes, des Leidens an den Dunkelheiten und den Illusionen, der Endlichkeit in allem was Leben ist" (GS VII, 150). Both biography and novel attempt to impress an aesthetic order on the chaos of human Dasein, but they do not aspire to take away the fundamental unfathomability ('Unergrundlichkeit') of life.[24]

According to Dilthey, historical consciousness has disproved the idea of a rational order in the world. Teaching us to cope with the contingency, heterogeneity and finiteness of human existence, and offering us some comfort in instances where we do not succeed in fulfilling this task, is one of the most important merits of biographies and novels : "Die Dichtung gibt den Erfahrungen des Lebens und Herzen inmitten seiner Bitternisse, die Wurde der Person inmitten ihrer Bedingtheit dar" (GS VI, 238).

Postmodern biographies

With his emphasis on the contingent, heterogeneous and finite character of the historical biography and the novel, Dilthey's conception of history differs profoundly from the conception that characterizes approaches in historiography, which aim at the discovery of causal laws and/or a general teleology in history. Although Dilthey does not wish to exclude explanation from the human sciences as such, he regards the idealist, Marxist and positivist belief in causal laws and general teleology to be a secularized version of the religious and metaphysical belief in the intelligible character of the world (GS I, 100).

In the introduction I observed that the general climate for narrative genres within historiography is much better at the moment than it was some decades ago. In light of the postmodern refusal of 'grand narratives'.[25]  Dilthey's view on biography becomes even more topical. After all, the historical biography is a genre that produces an abundance of "small narratives" that excel in contingency and heterogeneity. There are some interesting connections to be explored between Dilthey's hermeneutics and present theories about the role of narration in life. For example, Dilthey's interpretation of the relationship between lived experience, expression and understanding foreshadows Paul Ricoeur's views on the threefold mimesis and narrative identity inTemps et recit and Soi-meme comme un autre.[26]  And Ricoeur's 'narrative correction' of Heidegger's description of Dasein's temporality could also have found its inspiration in Dilthey's hermeneutics of the historical biography.[27] For these reasons, Dilthey definitely is more than an outdated forerunner of philosophical hermeneutics. His narrative hermeneutics can be a fruitful source of inspiration for our present reflections on the narrative dimension of our life.

In some respects its presuppositions even seem to be more adequate than Ricoeur's hermeneutics. Whereas Ricoeur, in his Hegelian aspiration towards mediation, one-sidedly emphasizes concordance, Dilthey has more of an eye for the discordant aspects of human life. And whereas Ricoeur seems to regard Aristotelian plot to be the only model for achieving concordance, Dilthey is, as we have seen, more sensible to the immeasurable heterogeneity of life stories (GS XIX, 316). Of course, this does not mean that Dilthey's views on biography can be applied seamlessly to our present, postmodern culture. Attempts to grasp the totality of the socio-historical reality are even more problematic in our differentiated and fragmented culture than they were in Dilthey's time. Moreover, the present should also take into consideration the developments narrative expressions have undergone in the twentieth century. Here we should not only think of the further deconstruction of (Aristotelian) linear plot in the twentieth century novel (Musil, Woolfe, Joyce), but also of the emergence of multiple and internarrative identities[28], multilinear hyperfiction (Michael Joyce, Moulthrop) and hypermedia such as the World Wide Web.[29]  Moreover, these new unstable media also force us to rethink the role of the objectivity of expression.

These tasks call for a "Fortgang iiber Dilthey". However, this task remains faithful to Dilthey in so far as his historical consciousness keeps reminding us of the fact that the relationship between lived experience, expression and understanding is not a stable structure, but a dynamic, historical structure.[30] In his Entstehung der Hermeneutik(1900), Dilthey describes the development of hermeneutics from the dawn of the culture of writing to the completion of the book culture in the nineteenth century. Being a completion it inevitably also points to the Verwesung of this particular epoch of hermeneutics. One of the most important tasks for the human sciences at the dawn of the twentieth-first century is to develop a hermeneutics of hypermedia. For this task Dilthey's hermeneutics cannot supply the answers, but it can certainly provide us with the inspiration.


[ (1)]W. DILTHEY, Gesammelte Schriften, Stuttgart/Gdttingen : B.G. Teubner, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1914f, Volume VII, 246. In the following I will refer to this edition of Dilthey's work as GS followed by volume number and pages. 
[ (2)]This characteristic of modern science has been analyzed rather penetratingly by HEIDEGGER in Die Zeit des Weltbildes (1938). The emphasis on objectivity, that characterizes modern science, is according to Heidegger the result of a fundamental change in the conception of truth : "Diese Vergegenstandlichung des Seienden vollzieht sich in einen Vor-stellen, das darauf zielt, jegliches Seiende so vor sich zu bringen, daB der rechnende Mensch des Seienden sicher und d.h. gewiB sein kann. Zur Wissenschaft als Forschung kommt es erst dann, und nur dann, wenn die Wahrheit zur Gewifiheit des Vorstellen sich gewandelt hat". Martin HEIDEGGEN. "Die Zeit des Weltbildes". InHolzwege. Gesamtausgabe, Band 5, Frankfurt an Main : Klostermann, 1977,87. 
[ (3)]L. RANKE, Samtliche Werke (54 vols.). Leipzig : Duncker und Humblot, 1868-1890, XXXIII, vii. 
[ (4)]L. RANKE, "Idee der Universalhistorie", in : Historische Zeitschrift 178 (1954), 290-308,291. 
[ (5)]K. BERTELS, Geschiedenis tussen structuur en evenement. Amsterdam, 1973. The classical formulation of the neo-positivist conception of history is the covering law model of Popper and Hempel. See : C.G. HEMPEL, "The function of general laws in history", in : P. GARDINER (red.),Theories of History, 344-365. New York : Free Press & Collier Macmillan, 1959. 
[ (6)]See Droysen's review of Thomas Buckle's History of Civilisation in England (1962) in : J.G. DROYSEN, Historik, Vorlesungen iiber die Enzyklopadie und Methodologie der Geschichte (Hrsg. R. Hiibner), Miinchen : Oldenbourg, 1977,386-405. 
[ (7)]The word Geisteswissenschaften (in plural) was probably introduced into the German language by Droysen in the preface to the second volume of his book Geschichte des Hellenismus (1843). However, Droysen did not continue to use the term (cf. R. A. MAKKREEL, Dilthey, Philosopher of the Human Studies, Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1992,36). The singularGeisteswissenschaft was already popular in the Idealist movement at the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, in this tradition it did not refer to the empirical study of history, but to the aprioristic 'Philosophic des Geistes' that Ranke and Droysen reacted against. 
[ (8)]J. HUIZINGA, Het Aesthetisch Bestanddeel van Geschiedkundige Voorstellingen [The Aesthetic Component of Historical Representations], Haarlem : Tjeenk Willink, 1905. 
[ (9)]H. WHITE, "The Value of narrativity in the representation of reality". In W. J. T. MITCHELL (Ed.), On Narrative. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1980,1. 
[ (10)]CARR, David, Time, Narrative, and History, Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy,Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1986. 
[ (11)]P. RICOEUR, Temps etrecit, 3. Vols. Paris : Editions du Seuil, 1983-5. 
[ (12)]F.R. ANKERSMIT, Narrative logic : A Semantic Analysis of the Historian's Language, The Hauge/Boston : Hingham, MA : Martinus Nijhoff Philosophy Library, 1983. 
[ (13)]GS II-IV; DILTHEY, Wilhelm, Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung. Lessing. Goethe. Novalis. Holderlin,Leipzig/Berlin : Teubner, 1905. 
[ (14)]A substantial part of the unpublished studies and drafts was published in 1977 and 1982 in GS XVIII and XIX. For an elucidating construction of the Kritik der historischen Ver nunft on the basis of this material see : H.-U. LESSING, Die Idee einer Kritik der historischen Vernunft. Wilhelm Diltheys erkenntnistheoretisch-logisch-methodologische Grundlegung der Geisteswissenschaften, Miinchen 1984. The publication of these and later volumes GS XX (1990), GS XXI (1997) and GS XXIII (2000), as well of the first four volumes of the Selected Works (eds. R.A. Makkreel and F. Rodi, 1985-2002) has strongly contributed to the renewed interest in Dilthey's work. See also the Dilthey-Jahrbuch fur Philosophic und Geschichte der Geisteswissenschaften, which first appeared in 1983. 
[ (15)]For a more comprehensive reconstruction of the Kritik der historischen Vernunft see my forthcoming The Tragedy ofFinitude. Dilthey's Hermeneutics of Life, New Haven : Yale University Press, 2003. 
[ (16)]In Kulturwissenschaft undNaturwissenschaft (1899) Rickert uses two criteria : the material criterion distinguishes natural and cultural sciences according to their object (nature vs culture); the formal criterion distinguishes natural and cultural sciences according to their method (generalizing vs individualizing). H. RICKERT, Kulturwissenschaft und Naturwissenschaft, Tiibingen : J.C.B. Mohr, 5192l, 18. 
[ (17)]Moreover, according to Dilthey, the demarcation of the natural sciences and human studies is a relative one (GS I, 18). In this context it is also instructive to compare the review Dilthey wrote in 1862 of Buckle's controversial History of Civilization (a paradignatic example of positivist historiography) with the one Droysen wrote in the same year in the Historische Zeitschrift.Whereas Droysen boldly rejects the attempt to search for causal laws in the study of human history as such, Dilthey only criticizes the dogmatic character of Buckle's search for causal laws (GS XVI, 100-06). 
[ (18)]"Die Auslegung ware unmoglich, wenn die Lebensaufierungen ganzlich fremd waren. Sie ware unnotig, wenn in ihnen nichts fremd ware. Zwischen diesen beiden auBersten Gegensatzen liegt sie also" (GS VII, 225). 
[ (19)]In this regard, Dilthey's position is more in accordance with the philosophical hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer then their critique of Dilthey suggests. Cf. J. DE MUL, "Dilthey's narrative model of human development. Necessary reconsiderations of the philosophical hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer", in : Man and World, 24, (1991), 409-426. 
[ (20)]F. SCHLEIERMACHER, Hermeneutik, ed. H. Kimmerle, Heidelberg : Carl Winter, 1959,108. 
[ (21)]See J. DE MUL, "Die Fortgang iiber Kant. Dilthey and the Transformation of Transcendental Philosophy", in : Das Dilthey-Jahrbuch fur die Geisteswissenschaften, 10, (1996), 80-103. 
[ (22)]W. DILTHEY, Von deutscher Dichtung und Musik. Aus den Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Geistes, Stuttgart 21957,322. 
[ (23)]Cf. M. KUNDERA, The art of the novel. New York : Harper Perennial, 2000. 
[ (24)]See Jos DE MUL, Romantic desire in (postmodern art and philosophy. Albany : 5UNY, 1999. 
[ (25)]J.-F. LYOTARD, La condition postmoderne - rapport sur le savoir, (red.). Paris : Les Editions de Minuit, 1979. 
[ (26)]Ricoeur explicitly refers to Dilthey's notion of the Zusammenhang des Lebens when he develops his notion of 'narrative identity'. Cf. P. RictEUR, Temps et recit III : Le temps raconte, Paris 1985 : Editions du Seuil, 201; P. RICCEUR, Soi-meme comme un autre. Paris : L'Ordre philosophique, 1990,139,168. 
[ (27)]CF. K. J. VANHOOZER (1991). "Philosophical antecedents to Ricoeur's Time and Narrative". In D. WOOD (Ed.), On Paul Ricceur. Narrative and Interpretation, London/New fork : Routledge, pp. 34-54. 
[ (28)]S. TURKLE, Life on the Screen : Identity in the Age of Internet, New York : Simon ind Schuster, 1995; A.K. Maan, Internarrative Identity, Lanham : University Press of merica, 1999. 
[ (29)]See for example G.P. LANDOW (ed), Hyper/Text/Theory, Baltimore/ London : John Hopkins University Press, 1994; and J. dE MUL (2000), « The work of art in the era of digital reproduction ». In B.-N Oh, Art, Life and Culture, Seoul : National University Press, 59-80. 
[ (30)]In the context of his anthropology, Dilthey's emphasizes the necessity of a genetic approach, not only with regard to the individual, but also with regard to mankind : "Diese [genetische Forschung] umfaBt, wie dieses Ganze in dem gegenwartigen Individuum sich entwickelt hat und wie es in dem Menschengeschlecht allmahlich entstand" (GS XIX, 45).


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