Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) was a German philosopher, pedagogue, and psychologist who is known mainly for his work on the foundation of the humanities and his philosophical theory of understanding (hermeneutics). Dilthey contrasts the notion of time of physical objects to the inner experience of time in human beings. He furthermore rejects Immanuel Kant’s idea of time as a condition of perception and opts for a realistic interpretation of time.
Dilthey was born in Biebrich, Germany. After studying theology, philosophy, classical philology, and history both in Heidelberg and in Berlin, he became a professor of philosophy in Basel (1867). He then taught in Kiel (1868-1871), in Breslau (Wroclaw; 1871-1882) and in Berlin (1883-1911). The main aim of Dilthey’s philosophical works is to develop a systematic and historical foundation for the emerging Geisteswissenschaften (humanities). Following Kant, who presented in his Critique of Pure Reason a philosophical foundation for the empirical sciences, Dilthey aims at a project that he calls a Critique of Historical Reason. Whereas Kant takes the abstract rational subject as his starting point, Dilthey starts with the real, living, historically determined individual. Thus the categories of Erlebnis, Ausdruck, Verstehen (experience, expression, understanding) are the key categories of his work in the field of psychology and hermeneutics.
Dilthey analyzes and rejects Kant’s highly influential philosophical understanding of time. Kant has argued that time is not an empirical object; that is, time is not a real thing within the world. It is rather (together with space) the form by which we structure our experience of the world. Time and space make experience possible; the world as such beyond our experience is completely unknown to us. Dilthey, however, argues in favor of a realistic interpretation of time. For him space and time possess a reality outside the subject and as real features of empirical objects. Time is therefore a real absolute condition of the existence of all objects that we find within the world.
Dilthey analyzes the notion of time not only in the context of physical objects but also as the inner experience of living persons. In opposition to the natural sciences, Dilthey emphasizes the subjective experience of time that cannot be measured with the help of the methods of the natural sciences. He distinguishes between objective time and time as related to the life of the individual. Dilthey considers the concept of a regular, mathematical objective time in natural science merely as a formal abstraction. He situates his understanding of time in the context of an analysis of the categories of human life: Our own inward experience is deeply linked to our temporal being that is structured in past, present, and future. Dilthey especially emphasizes the role of the past, which we experience in our memories and which we try to interpret as a part of our biography. The human concept of time therefore relates time to the idea of a unity of a life (Lebensverlauf), in which the different moments of our experience relate to each other and can be judged as “meaningful.” By extension, Dilthey argues that the same objective time is not the same for different persons: “A year is not the same for a youth as for an old man.”
See also Bergson, Henri; Kant, Immanuel; Time, Objective Flux of; Time, Relativity of; Time, Subjective Flow of
Dilthey, W. (1985-2002). Selected works (R. A.
Makkreel & F. Rodi, Eds.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Owensby, J. (1994). Dilthey and the narrative of history. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Rickman, H. P. (1979). Wilhelm Dilthey: Pioneer of the human studies. Berkeley: University of California Press.