A Sociology of Hermeneutics: A Socially Interpreted Theory of Historical Knowledge

I’ve recently completed a course in Modern & Postmodern Philosophy. I greatly enjoyed taking class. It was a wonderful opportunity to delve deeper into subjects and thinkers that I’ve been studying on my own for quite some time. It also gave me a chance to actively engage with other students seeking to probe these ideas further. Below you’ll find a short essay I wrote on Wilhelm Dilthey, (you can also read more about this thought here) I thinker had hadn’t had any previous exposure to but, got a lot out of reading further into his work. Enjoy!

Wilhelm Dilthey’s primary focus was to usher in the return of a renewed approach of Kantian rigor, which he felt was missing from the philosophic inquiry of his time. This was a means of countering what Dilthey saw as an insustainability in Hegelian thought (West, 2010, p. 86). Dilthey began this project by making a clear distinction between the natural sciences and the human sciences. It is, perhaps, this maneuver in itself for which Dilthey has become most well known for. Rudolf Makkreel (2012) explains that, for Dilthey, “the primary task of the natural sciences is to arrive at law-based explanations” and “the core task of the human sciences is the understanding of human and historical life.” Here, Dilthey is not found in utter opposition to Hegel but, is rather amicable in some ways. In fact, Dilthey “admired Hegel’s recognition of the historical dimension of philosophical thought” however, as Rudolf Makkreel (2012) explains, Dilthey “rejected the speculative and metaphysical ways [Hegel] developed this relation” (sec. 1.1). It seems then, that because Dilthey distinguishes the “law-based explanations” of the natural sciences, as expressed by Kant’s scientific reason, and the “understanding of human and historical life” within the human sciences, an area thoroughly opened by Hegel, Dilthey seeks something of a synthesis of Kant and Hegel (West, 2010, p. 86). In this way, as Makkreel continues, “Dilthey’s aim was to expand Kant’s primarily cognitive Critique of Pure Reason into a Critique of Historical Reason that can do justice to the full scope of lived experience.” Dilthey’s, then, is a rather holistic approach that seeks to combinatively appropriate the experiential understanding of lived historical life along with the explanatory governing laws through the means of a methodologically rigorous hermeneutics of interpretation and understanding (West, 2010, p. 86).

In this regard, Rudolf Makkreel (2012) suggests that “Understanding the meaning of history requires both an inner articulation of the temporal structures of our own experience and the interpretation of the external objectifications of others.” That is, this inquiry requires both subjectivity and objectivity, the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’, ‘within’ and ‘without’. Dilthey (1996) himself explains, “the inner experience through which I obtain reflexive awareness of my own condition can never by itself bring me to a consciousness of my own individuality. I experience the latter only through a comparison of myself with others” (p. 236). It seems that ‘self-understanding’ is not something the self can attain itself but, rather is achieved only via the other, that is, the self can only garner a proper understanding of itself from the conferring gaze of the other. Put otherwise, the subject must become an object and for Dilthey this is not achieved through introspection but through history, whose ‘inner’ meaning is interpretively or hermeneutically found from ‘without’ (Makkreel, 2012, sec. 1.1).
This seems to form what Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (2011) have called “The Social Construction of Reality,” in which ‘reality’ is shown to be socially constructed and a “sociology of knowledge must analyze the processes in which this occurs” (p. 1). Perhaps, then, Dilthey’s hermeneutics could be considered the forerunner of this kind of a sociological ‘interpretation’ of reality and a sociological epistemology.
Berger, P., & Luckmann, T. (2011). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com
Dilthey, W. (1996). Selected works, volume IV: Hermeneutics and the study of history (R. Makkreel & F. Rodi, Eds.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Makkreel, R. (2012). Wilhelm Dilthey. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition). Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dilthey/
West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy: An introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

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