Tentative Steps into History
From Vico to Dilthey
The Question of Modern Historical Consciousness
The relationship between metaphysics and history had been at issue even before the waning of metaphysics came to seem fundamental to our cultural situation. Depending on the criterion or frame of reference, the advent of a "genuinely historical approach" or of "modern historical consciousness" can plausibly be found at various moments in our tradition, starting with the beginnings of the Renaissance. Certainly it had long been recognized that things human—institutions, laws, customs, even languages—change over time. Thus, among other things, the effort necessary to avoid anachronism if understanding across time was to be possible. Moreover, different institutions might be appropriate to different circumstances. But, as Reinhart Koselleck has shown, until the eighteenth century "history" was conceived as the container of a finite range of possibilities, manifesting or exemplifying something suprahistorical. Only during the eighteenth century did it become possible to conceive history in the singular—as encompassing all the particular histories of this and that. Thus history came to suggest, for the first time, a kind of totality. Then the French Revolution indicated that this history could be the scene—perhaps was inevitably the scene—of genuine novelty.
Hans Blumenberg has outlined a historical sequence of concepts of reality that includes an analogous break at about the same time, when reality came to seem "the result of an actualization" and open to "a future that might contain elements which could shatter previous consistency and so render previous 'realities' unreal." Now our sense of what the world could entail included novelty, surprise, as never before. This new sense of reality as open to the future in itself proved a stimulus to human activity.
Gradually, and relatively recently, then, it became possible in the Western tradition to conceive the world as fundamentally historical in some sense. This new historical consciousness achieved articulation as a sequence of thinkers reacted against the intellectual mainstream, reformulated with the twin Galilean and Cartesian revolutions. Though now emphasizing epistemology, that mainstream was still wound around foundationalist metaphysics. The reaction encompassed, most notably, Giambattista Vico against René Descartes, G. W. F. Hegel against Immanuel Kant, German romanticism, with its concern for historically differentiated national cultures, against Enlightenment universalism, and Wilhelm Dilthey, with his concern for the autonomy of the human studies, against the imperialism of the natural sciences. By the end of the nineteenth century, these thinkers had produced many of the categories through which we think about history even today. Still, their efforts hardly added up to a consistent countertradition. Moreover, though Vico, Hegel, and Dilthey embraced history in pioneering ways, each continued to rely on something metaphysical and suprahistorical. Thus the tensions and ambiguities in the thought of each, and thus the possibility of a more radical step.
Individuality and Completeness in Vico and Hegel
Vico showed, as Michael Mooney has put it, that if we are "to know what man is," we must grasp him "genetically, as a being in time." But this insight can lead in several directions, and Vico's legacy has proven particularly complex. Some place Vico in the tradition of rhetoric, of sensus communis , of practical wisdom, a tradition that had developed from Aristotelian phronesis to Renaissance civic humanism but that by Vico's time apparently had to be refurbished in light of the claims of the newly dominant Cartesians. Others view Vico as a protohistoricist who showed that reason is not universal, that cultures are disparate individualities, that there are discrete ways of organizing worlds, none correct in some absolute sense. Poetic wisdom has an integrity of its own,
affording access to a realm of truth foreclosed to conceptual thinking. Thus Vico could serve the romantic insistence on the autonomy—and even superiority—of art in the face of universalizing rational philosophy and the developing cult of science. Still, Vico himself embedded his understanding of poetry in a wider science of the human world, based on the different ways human beings use language. In developing this conception, however, he offered elements for a deeper kind of historicism, accenting not the discreteness of "individualities" but the radical immanence of the whole human world, which simply grows on itself.
Vico agreed with contractualists like Thomas Hobbes and Hugo Grotius that we must start from the beginning, imagining the situation of human origins and thinking the human situation through from there. In this sense, he was not seeking simply to continue an earlier tradition of practical wisdom, common sense, and rhetoric. But Vico remained sufficiently within the protohistoricist tradition of Italian Renaissance philology to deplore the anachronism that he found characteristic of his own age, with its geometric turn of mind and corresponding deemphasis on the significance of historical difference. Explicitly in opposition to the ascendant Cartesians, he insisted on the need to avoid presentist conceits, especially the assumption that present concepts already embody whatever there is.
For Vico, then, it was axiomatic that the founding act of humanity could not have been a rational social contract by people who think as we do, for we think as we do only because of all the experience we have had. The emerging or happening of the human world could only have begun with the simplest, most concrete things conceivable. At the beginning of history was an act of imagination occasioned by the thunderclap that, Vico suggested, led the feral prehumans to look up in astonishment and to see, in the living, roaring sky, a god speaking to them. Thus began the specifically human process of imagining a particular world. Vico sought to conceive the first humans as utterly immanent, able to respond to novel experience, to represent to themselves what was happening, only in terms of what they already "knew," on the basis of absolutely nothing but what they had experienced so far. At the beginning, they did not even have "the seat of their pants" to go by, only their own bodies; they could only imagine "metaphorically," in light of their limited bodily experience. Vico sought to envision what it must have been like for those who had to imagine what was
happening in this way—and to think through what it means that human culture began in such a way.
Vico's myth of human origins, though fanciful in one sense, offered a brilliant way of conceiving the starting point naturalistically, with no appeal to some transcendent sphere. At the origins, the first humans were, to be sure, in contact with something "given"—with their own bodies, or with the thunder, so that we may still ask, what is thunder really ? But Vico made that contact as empty as possible. The founding moment rests on metaphor, and things move contingently, by means of new metaphors, from there; all "parallel" or mimetic representation between humanity and some external "reality" is lost at the outset. Thus it is futile to conceive the human situation in terms of the familiar subject-object dualism of the modern philosophical tradition. Even the term "metaphor" is misleading, insofar as it connotes an independent reality that language either represents indirectly or misrepresents. The gap between language and reality collapses.
In the same way, there is no privileged, transcendent human subject. Human beings land running, already in motion, already caught up in creating a human world, most fundamentally by means of inherently creative language. From the start, that human world can only grow on itself by responding to itself, because there is nothing else.
Vico's myth of origins, then, enables us to grasp the world as "always already" a set of imaginative representations based on preceding experience. As far back as we can conceive, even at the beginning, there is only creative, imaginative language, so that anything we could characterize as humanity is always already caught up in a linguistically constructed world, and there is nothing outside this language. The growing human world of imaginative language is thus self-contained; it is reality itself.
It follows that we today are still doing what human beings have done from the beginning, coming to terms with new experience by imagining in terms of what we have experienced so far. The only difference is that by now a considerably more complex world has resulted, and our repertoire—our language—is correspondingly larger as a result. And that repertoire will continue to grow as we respond to the novel world that has resulted from the aggregate of human response so far. The coming to be of the human world is a single continuing event happening through the creativity of human beings in language.
Although for Vico the conceptual thinking characteristic of the "age of men" differs from the earlier poetic thinking, imagination remains fundamental because the "poverty of language" characterizes not just the human situation at
the founding moment. Rather, language is forever "poor"—inadequate fully to encompass and fix the world—not least because, through every new act of knowing-imagining, the world outgrows the language that has resulted so far.
Although knowledge would thus seem finite and provisional, it was crucial for Vico that we can claim genuinely to know. With his axiom of verumfactum , Vico meshed knowing with making; we can know what we have made. Thus while we humans may measure and describe the natural world, only God can know it, because it was He who made it. However, we can know the human world, the world resulting from history, precisely because we have made it. Yet a fundamental tension marked Vico's conception, for though he had bracketed God, and though his account of knowing suggested that knowledge is endlessly finite, practical, and provisional, he aspired to a divine kind of knowledge, which entailed a definitive grasp of the eternal and completed.
It was crucial, to be sure, that the level of the necessary and eternal could not be apprehended directly, through the mere exercise of reason; thus Vico's assault on the rational universalism of the contractualist and the natural law traditions. Cultures develop historically as discrete individualities, so we could hope to know a finished whole only through historical inquiry. But for Vico, it was possible to discern suprahistorical structures or patterns—an "ideal eternal history"—at work in the particular phenomena of the human world. This suprahistorical dimension was the focus of Vico's new science, which specified the necessary cycle of human cultural approaches and corresponding institutions.
Although that cycle might be conceived as providential, Vico's orientation generally remained radically immanentist. What we come to know, through his new science, is not so much the will of God as "what man is." So such knowing amounts simply to mind grasping its own nature. Underlying the disparate phenomena of history were a priori forms of the imagination, characterizable in terms of the rhetorical tropes and manifesting the deep structure of mind itself. By studying the progression of particular manifestations in history, we can have access to that structure. This notion of mind knowing itself points toward modern structuralism, and thus, for example, Terence Hawkes began his survey of the structuralist tradition precisely with Vico. And thus Hayden White embraced Vico as he too sought to delineate a progression of cultural strategies characterizable by the rhetorical tropes.
With a slight shift in the weighting of the elements, however, Vico's thinking leads to something very different—a kind of totalizing historicism. From this perspective, the focus of interest is not on the a priori forms of the mind's imagining but on what the mind has imagined so far, the particular world that has resulted, and that is resulting still, from its particular acts of imagination. The actual course of our historical experience does not simply reveal structures of mind that are already in place but actually determines what mind can do, can be, as it proceeds.
Even insofar as we think in terms of a priori forms making possible whatever happens, it is possible to make the historical content—what has already resulted from imagination, and the basis for further imagination—so rich that the forms become relatively empty. Rather than on mind, we focus on the actual course of history because further imagining rests more interestingly on what has been imagined so far than it does on the ongoing forms of the mind's capacity to imagine. Moreover, while we ourselves can imagine as suprahistorical the mind's capacity to imagine in characteristic, classifiable ways, our conception of what those ways involves will be historically specific—part of the history being generated by our ongoing imagining—because they will reflect what has in fact been imagined by human beings in each of those ways.
As we saw above, growth by means of imagination continues even with the coming of rational thought in Vico's "age of men." Thus, as Donald Verene has emphasized, Vico's notion of ideal eternal history is itself an act of fantasia —in our terms, a historically specific imagining of the whole in light of experience so far, including experience of the human conceptual tools thereby elaborated. This suggests that, on every level, verum-factum is a matter of knowing endlessly provisional particulars and not the relatively empty suprahistorical forms—the ideal eternal history, the cycle of structuring tropes.
From this perspective, knowing never transcends the human world but occurs entirely within it. Now understood as historically specific and provisional, knowing cannot satisfy metaphysical demands for certainty, but it is adequate to our needs, serving the ongoing making-happening of the world. We come to know the world in some particular way as we respond imaginatively to what the world has become so far, and our way of knowing it contributes to its growth, its becoming something different.
On one level, this weak, Vichian form of knowledge revives the tradition of Aristotelian phronesis, which similarly specified a provisional, practical wisdom based on human experience so far. But if we follow the more radical of the directions Vico opens up, his thinking points even beyond phronesis. History is not simply the mundane embodiment of eternal principles of effective practical conduct, understood as provisional only in their application, only because circumstances change. Rather, what had been taken to be suprahistorical
principles appears ever more empty as it comes to seem that the world grows, is ever new, on every level.
We have seen that Vico, in his quest for a new science of the human world, sought to discern suprahistorical structuring principles in the particulars of history. For Hegel, in contrast, the mundane facts and events of history are significant not as instances of suprahistorical types or as members of some class that science apprehends and classifies. Rather, each is unique, unrepeatable, and each plays an irreplaceable part in a unique process, helping make the world the particular way it is. There is no scope for transcending, through a generalizing science, this particular process to some higher, truer level.
Sympathetic students of Hegel like George Dennis O'Brien and Robert C. Solomon have accented this "individualizing" dimension in opposition to essentialist philosophy, to Enlightenment universalism, and to the culture of science. But it is equally crucial that for Hegel, the individualities of history form a totality; history is a single, unified, and all-encompassing process. Moreover, that process is meaningful, significant. For Hegel, the fact that there is history, with its variability and difference, is not a mundane imperfection but is essential to what the world is and necessary for its purpose to be achieved. But this was to posit a kind of metaphysical frame, so Hegel's way of positing the world as a single history entailed a still-metaphysical dimension that Vico sometimes seemed poised to do without. Vico's conception was potentially more open-ended.
Hegel competed with Johann Gottlieb Fichte within German idealism for the terrain beyond Kant, whose epistemology, leaving an unknowable noumenon, seemed incomplete and inadequate. Hegel's solution posited history as the arena in which what there is—spirit—comes to full self-understanding, thus achieving the complete knowledge that Kant had seemed to preclude. At the same time, Hegel's experience of the era of the French Revolution, which he greeted with fervent expectation, brought home the reality of change and the possibility of genuine significance on the historical level. Perhaps the Revolution portended the redemption glimpsed in the Christian tradition, a state of fulfillment that, we only now come to realize, was to be achieved not simply at the end of time but actually through the historical process.
As Hegel saw it, history results from the self-externalization of spirit, which makes itself radically immanent precisely to achieve self-knowledge, to become fully conscious of itself as spirit, or freedom. Indeed, time is generated
only because spirit must externalize itself in order to have the experiences necessary to come to know itself. But this means that for Hegel the historical process has a particular content and direction, given a priori. It is the process of coming to self-knowledge, which we achieve only with the completeness at the end of the process. At that moment spirit grasps not only its own essence but also the meaning of all that has meaning in what has happened. We understand the rational necessity of the process whereby we came to this understanding. So whereas for Hegel, in contrast to Vico, mind cannot grasp its own nature in some direct, immediate way through scientific detachment, we do achieve complete, genuine, even Godlike knowledge through the totality of the historical process.
To be sure, Hegel is open to a variety of interpretations regarding the nature of both the process and its end. Some accent the necessity, others the contingency, of the individual moments, the relationship among them, and their chronological sequence. The completeness to be attained may be conceived as relatively full and restrictive—as for those who emphasize the achievement of a particular set of political institutions—or as relatively empty and open-ended.
Sympathetic recent observers, such as O'Brien, Solomon, and even Rorty, tend to portray the Hegelian process and telos in the latter light as they play up Hegel's open-ended "historicism." Adapting Gertrude Stein, Solomon envisions us proclaiming, when we get to the end of Hegel's process, that "there's no there, there." Completeness is nothing but full awareness of the endless open-endedness of history, and thus of human freedom. In the same vein, David Hoy notes that Hegel has room for such a radically open-ended conception insofar as "thought changes itself in the course of trying to understand both itself and the world."
But Hegel admits only a relatively restricted measure of openness; such readings tend to jump the gun. It has become tempting to read him in this contemporary way only because of the ongoing inflation of history that has accompanied the waning of metaphysics. Even if, with Solomon, we understand the dialectical mechanism to be looser and the chronological order, the actual deployment in time, to be more contingent than has generally been assumed, a given set of experiences remains necessary for the spirit to know itself, to achieve full self-consciousness. And even if we understand the telos as a completely empty sort of self-knowledge, there is still an end given at the beginning, stemming from the suprahistorical necessities of spirit, and there remains
something privileged about whatever furthers movement toward that end. Because the world spirit in Hegel's conception is already, on some level, here, complete, there is an a priori frame for what happens, can happen, or can be meaningful in history.
So even as each embraced history in unprecedented ways, Vico and Hegel kept history in bounds because each operated in terms of an image of "divine" completeness. On some level, the world is complete, and suprahistorical principles on that level govern history. Completeness is required for real knowing, as opposed to the merely provisional knowledge of historical particulars that we can achieve prior to the completion of the process. In the final analysis, then, neither Vico nor Hegel offered the scope for novelty and creativity, or the scope for a radically historical approach to the world, that each, in certain of his formulations, seemed to invite.
But in inflating history as they did, they invited a new set of questions. How do we conceive the world as historical if, with the waning of metaphysics, we can no longer conceive of a frame or goal? How do we characterize a world in which contingency and endless incompleteness mix with the individuality of things? In a world with this consistency, what is the place of human being?
Historicism and Historiography after Hegel
Before those questions intruded, the first historicism emerged, adding to the cultural mix. As part of the romantic reaction against the rationalist universalism of the Enlightenment, historicism held that discrete national cultures and institutions, as the products of history, have their own integrity and value and thus are not to be judged according to some allegedly rational, suprahistorical standard. But historicism gathered force also in reaction against Hegel, who came to seem the archetype of a priori schematism, a speculative philosopher of history whose aims stood diametrically opposed to those of practicing historians. Whereas Hegel had embraced the individuality of things from one perspective, he had seemed too quick to subordinate the particular events of history to an a priori, teleological process.
Hegel had in fact reproached Barthold Niebuhr, the great pioneering historian of ancient Rome, for merely collecting facts without seeking the level of meaning, the level on which those facts make sense to us. But recent students of Hegel have shown that Hegel, as a historian, was considerably more subtle than the stereotype suggested. Indeed, he sometimes had good reason for charging that it was not he himself but his critics among the historians who were
guilty of anachronism. Still, it is undeniable that Hegel approached history in terms of an a priori conception of what counted; past moments were worthy of attention only insofar as they had contributed to a particular, privileged process. Those that had no place in that process were of no general interest, were even meaningless.
Reacting against Hegel, individualizing historicists denied that the significance of the particulars of history depended on their place in some privileged process and sought more genuinely to approach the past on its own terms. Ranke, especially, offered imperatives that became articles of faith for practicing historians. Rather than conceive each generation as simply a stepping-stone to the next, he insisted that "every epoch is immediate to God, and its worth is not at all based on what derives from it but rests in its own existence, in its own self. . . . [E]very epoch must be seen as something valid in itself and appears highly worthy of consideration." This was to suggest that all manifestations of the human have value, are inherently of interest. And against the notion that the historian judges the past and offers practical principles to instruct the present, Ranke claimed to be seeking simply to get at the past "wie es eigentlich gewesen," as it actually happened.
Virtually from the outset, however, such accents led to new uncertainties about selection and significance and about the uses of historical inquiry and the status of historical knowledge. Whatever its excesses, Hegel's approach had specified a principle of coherence and unity, as well as the kinds of historical questions that could most fruitfully be asked. But if each individual culture is in touch with God in its own way, if all manifestations of the human are significant, how do we decide what to study? By the later nineteenth century, a particular culture of history had crystallized as the array of new questions found answers that variously invoked God, science, progress, and the nation-state. But those answers were contingent and delimited, and they entailed a crucial tension between past and process as the focus of historical inquiry.
In the context of national self-assertion and nation-state building, the individuality that came to seem most pertinently at issue for history was the nation, people, or state and the development of what seemed progressive political institutions. This set of concerns afforded plausible and indeed appropriate criteria of selection, helping to give historiography an important but still delimited
cultural niche as national and generally political history. To be sure, this emphasis on national history led beyond the pluralism of Johann Gottfried von Herder and Ranke to various more chauvinistic forms of nationalist historiography by the later nineteenth century. For Heinrich von Treitschke in Germany or Whiggish historians like Thomas Macaulay and George Macaulay Trevelyan in England, history focused on the historian's own national tradition, tracing its triumphant march to its present political institutions. In this generally Whiggish guise, history tended to become a celebratory myth, helping to cement a national community.
But the Whig tradition was eventually discredited, losing out to the serene imperatives of Ranke, at least in the self-understanding of the historical profession. Practicing historians have continued to subscribe to the principles that informed Butterfield's classic critique of the Whig tradition in 1931. And this was to reaffirm the notion that the genuine historian seeks "to understand the past for the sake of the past," not for the sake of the present. As proof against Whiggish excess, this imperative made sense, but it masked an array of questions about past, process, and the present uses of historical understanding.
The reaction against Hegel also raised questions about method and the status of historical knowledge. It is a commonplace that the decline of German idealism by the middle of the nineteenth century meant abandoning the effort to understand human experience or the meaning of things in some total, unified way. Particular empirical researches replaced Hegelian "speculation." Nineteenth-century historicism tended to converge with positivism in accenting value-free detachment and painstaking empirical research to get at the past "as it actually happened." By the later nineteenth century, most practicing historians insisted on the scientific nature of their enterprise, which held to strict rules of evidence and inference and rigorous criteria of causation, explanation, and generalization.
But to seek acceptance within the culture of science entailed risks for historians, especially as the new social sciences began flexing their muscles by the beginning of the twentieth century. The generalizing social sciences could not do without historical data, and they might provide generalizations useful to the historian, but they threatened the disciplinary autonomy of history at the same time. The historian might simply become the sociologist's research assistant, providing the raw material, the individual cases, that the real scientist then turns into genuine knowledge.
At the same time, however, there was reason to doubt that historiography was enough like the scientific enterprise to make any synthesis of historicism
and positivism possible. Some, especially in Germany and Italy, sought to start with what distinguished history and science and to explore the significance of the generally romantic countertradition for the questions facing historiography.
Insofar as it took freedom, purpose, and meaning to distinguish the human sphere, historicism stood opposed to the generally positivistic approach, with its deterministic implications and its attempt to subsume particulars under general laws. But to distance history from science, the assumed paradigm of knowledge and truth, raised questions about whether historical inquiry could claim to yield a truth of its own, and if so, how—on the basis of what method. Moreover, the recognition that historians are themselves historically specific and never entirely disinterested became increasingly intrusive. Alexis de Tocqueville bumped up against the riddles surrounding his own historicity as he tackled the problem of the French Revolution in the 1850s. However, he managed to sidestep the most troubling questions as he concluded that, happily enough, his was precisely the time—just far enough removed from the events themselves—to tease out the truth of the French Revolution.
Some took a further step and claimed not only that the historian is necessarily "interested" but that the historian's active involvement is essential in bringing the past to life. Johann Gustav Droysen, writing in 1868, noted that the facts do not "speak for themselves, alone, exclusively, 'objectively.' Without the narrator to make them speak, they would be dumb. It is not objectivity that is the historian's best glory. His justness consists in seeking to understand." Insofar as historians are themselves historically specific, yet play this sort of active role, the study of history was in some sense part of the history being studied. Historians necessarily approach the past in terms of prior knowledge of some whole or framework, but then, presumably, gain from that inquiry some new knowledge that changes their understanding of the whole and thus the prior knowledge they bring to bear at the next moment. From this perspective, the relationship between present and past, historical inquiry and history itself, was far more complex than the positivist image of dispassionate discovery and representation could explain. This sense could seem exciting, even liberating, insofar as it invited a more creative role for the historian, but it was also disturbing. Precisely insofar as it was distinctive, historical knowledge seemed merely relative and thus subject to skepticism.
But a deeper relativism also lurked as the Hegelian framework fell away, leaving uncertainty about how the individualities of history meshed with wholeness, totality, or overarching meaning. Ranke posited a link to God, but
this was conservatively to invoke a transcendent sphere that, for others, did not hold. To those who found Ranke no more convincing than Hegel, science seemed to offer the most promising alternative. Historians, like other scientists, were busily discovering given facts that would eventually add up to a finished picture, which might entail one of the various developmentalist patterns that positivists from Auguste Comte to Herbert Spencer proposed. If, however, history could not follow the lead of science, those individualities seemed to stand naked, disembodied, "just one damned thing after another."
Dilthey and the Unfinished Revolution
By the last years of the nineteenth century, concern with history had introduced an array of difficult questions about individuality and totality, purpose and focus, method and the status of historical knowledge. Dilthey sought mightily to address the outstanding issues and to find a rigorous, convincing way of combining the broadly historicist ideas that had resulted from the nineteenth-century encounter with history.
Dilthey took it as axiomatic that the stuff of the human studies was distinctive and thus could not be apprehended through the methods of the natural sciences. However, the human studies had an approach of their own, and historians, though they had to apprehend disparate individualities across a temporal chasm, did come up with something worthy of the term "knowledge." In one sense, historical understanding was but an instance of understanding in general, which always entails surmounting some degree of difference, yet which goes on all the time, requiring no esoteric insight or method. But Dilthey's determination to face up to the distinctive historicity of the human world meant he could not leave it at that.
Descartes's quest for an indubitable, suprahistorical starting point initiated the modern turn in philosophy; Kant offered a kind of completion by specifying the transcendent categories making knowledge possible. Explicitly in opposition to this whole tradition, Dilthey held that even the presuppositions of our thinking, even the most fundamental concepts and rules, are historical products.
And while he hoped to specify, in a Kantian way, the categories involved in understanding the human world, he recognized that any such specification would be incomplete, because the categories could change, or new ones could emerge, with new experience in history. So rather than appeal to a starting point free of historically specific presuppositions, we must recognize that human beings—and human knowing—are embedded in history. From the dominant perspective, of course, to admit this embeddedness seemed to undermine the possibility of genuine knowledge altogether, but Dilthey sought to turn the tables.
In opposition to Kant and his own neo-Kantian contemporaries, Dilthey held that it is not some participation in transcendental reason that makes understanding possible but the fact that the human inquirer is part of the human world to be understood. In other words, understanding is possible not because we stand above history, but because we do not. Understanding takes place essentially because mind can understand what mind has created, a notion that Dilthey seems to have taken over directly from Vico. To combine embeddedness with a claim to knowledge was to recognize the hermeneutic "circularity" involved in all understanding. The process of understanding moves back and forth, between idea and context, or between myself and the other I seek to understand. As Dilthey saw it, then, hermeneutics was no longer, as for Friedrich Schleiermacher, an approach to the understanding of texts, especially texts that might be misinterpreted, but an approach to the whole human world. And that approach was necessary not simply because the human world was involved with understanding, interpretation, and meaning, but because it was fundamentally historical, and thus never finished or complete, and because any knower was embedded in history, and thus finite. In conceiving historical understanding as itself historically situated, Dilthey invited a sense of the human world as endlessly growing, on every level, growing precisely as we understand it anew from our present vantage point.
So there can be knowledge of the human world, but for Dilthey, it is never simply a copy but always a construction, a reinterpretation, by a historically specific inquirer with a particular angle of vision. Thus, though historical understanding was ordinary and unproblematic in one sense, the relativistic implications of historicity gave deeper point to the ongoing questions about the status of historical knowledge, its cultural value vis-à-vis scientific knowledge. A concern to head off skepticism affected Dilthey's priorities, leading him to focus on method and to conceive the object of historical inquiry in a particular way.
Even if the point was not to make the human studies more scientific, Dilthey
found it essential to specify the method whereby inquiry in the human studies could be sufficiently objective to yield genuine knowledge. Properly understood, hermeneutics was itself the method of the autonomous human-historical studies. By specifying the correct form of hermeneutic interaction between the inquirer and the object of study, Dilthey hoped to show how understanding in the human studies could be objective—even subject to testing and verification. Max Weber would pick up on this side of Dilthey, seeking a more rigorous, social scientific way of meshing the understanding that Dilthey posited with causal explanation. But even Dilthey, for all his emphasis on the distinctiveness of the human studies, respected science in its sphere and hoped that dialogue between the scientific and hermeneutic approaches could reunify the culture.
Moreover, Dilthey's preoccupation with relativism led him to insist that it was possible in principle to distinguish instances of the human that had been historically conditioned from those that, stemming from a common human nature, could be universally valid in some sense. On the basis of evidence from historical experience itself, it would be possible to develop a cautiously systematic anthropology. And, in important measure, that was the fundamental purpose of historical inquiry.
Dilthey assumed, more generally, that on some level there is still a solid, stable, suprahistorical reality, which remains our ultimate interest. We cannot get at it directly, both because it only manifests itself historically and because we inquirers are historically specific and finite, but we might glimpse this still-metaphysical realm precisely by examining the diverse instances of history. In "The Dream," a lecture on his seventieth birthday in 1903, Dilthey spoke of the anxiety he had come to feel as he recognized that we can only approach human being in different, even conflicting ways, each one-sided, yet each with a measure of validity: "To contemplate all the aspects in their totality is denied to us. We see the pure light of truth only in various broken rays." Dilthey assumed that there is "a single truth," but it is hidden from us, above all by the differentiation that the fact of history itself entails. But the historical consciousness that seemed to shatter any unified conception of the world proves Janus-faced; it "saves the unity of man's soul" at the same time. By looking through our historically specific worldviews, we may still "glimpse into a final harmony."
History, then, was more important than ever as a basis for human self-understanding and orientation in the world. In crucial respects, in fact, it was more important than philosophy or science, for "man does not discover what he is through speculation about himself or through psychological experiments but
through history." In the same way, "what man is and what he strives for he only discovers in the development of his nature through the millennia; it is never spelled out in universally valid concepts, only in vital experiences which spring from the depths of his whole being." In positing essences and a suprahistorical order, Dilthey wanted to be reassuring. There are still stable foundations, he was saying—but they seemed suspiciously like quicksand. As H. P. Rickman has put it, "We know there are firm foundations, but we never can be absolutely sure that we are standing on them. . . . While retaining the ideal of objective truth [we] must accept its elusiveness and live with the difficulty of disentangling the core of truth from the temporal guise imposed by the fact that the human nature on which [we] rely is itself historically moulded."
So even as Dilthey embraced the insights about individuality and historicity that had resulted from the nineteenth-century confrontation with history, he was preoccupied with the need to head off, or at least to balance, what seemed their threateningly relativistic implications. Thus he ended up emphasizing method, the scope for systematic inquiry, and the possibility of glimpsing some whole or universal.
One recent authority, citing Dilthey's accent on the scope for the theoretical, systematic, and general, concludes that Dilthey "might properly be considered as one of the first architects of the program 'historical science beyond historicism.'" To others, however, Dilthey was simply giving in to historicism. Still others have found some of Dilthey's preoccupations unnecessary and have accented the incompleteness of his embrace of the historical. Critique of Dilthey was pivotal to, most notably, Gadamer as he sought to accept historicity and to recast hermeneutics in a more radical way.
As a result of the uncertainties surrounding Dilthey's position, especially the growing preoccupation with relativism, historicism seemed to be in crisis by the early twentieth century. As usually conceived, the "crisis of historicism" culminated after World War I in Ernst Troeltsch's noble but rather tortured efforts and Friedrich Meinecke's nostalgia for the serenity of Ranke. With these thinkers, the ambiguous tradition of historicism seemed to have reached a culmination of sorts. But to many, it seemed a dead end.
In their different ways, the major pioneers from Vico to Dilthey had departed from the long-standing metaphysical assumption that there can be direct access to a realm where things are what they are, a realm transcending the capricious change and differentiation of history. It came to seem that to apprehend "what man is," or any comparable suprahistorical structure of reality, we cannot climb directly beyond the chaotic particulars of history by relying on rational deduction, natural law, some invariable standard or procedure, or the scientific analysis of mind or brain. Rather, we must focus on history, because those suprahistorical essences are not simply given at any one time, in any particular instance. Perhaps something along those lines will ultimately be revealed completely in history, as for Hegel, or perhaps we mundane, finite creatures can aspire only to glimpses of what there really is. In either case, only study of history, the particular manifestations in time, affords access to the permanent, suprahistorical grounding or generator that had always been at issue in the metaphysical tradition.
But Vico, Hegel, and Dilthey all assumed that such a stable, suprahistorical realm still exists—and remains the ultimate focus of interest. As a result, there were tensions in the thinking of each, and even taken together they left an array of questions about the relationships between the universal and the historical, between individuality and totality, and between past and present.
At first, severing history from the totalizing of Hegel had seemed liberating because it invited treating individual cultural phenomena as worthy in themselves and not merely as instruments in an overarching world-historical process. But was that to leave a mere sequence of disembodied individualities, with no link to anything universal? Rather than liberating, the historical treatment might prove critical and corrosive, exposing as merely historical what had seemed suprahistorical and metaphysically grounded. History seemed to dissolve the world, cutting the culture off from the universal, by disembedding the particular instance from the totality in which it had seemed to have a meaningful place. This was a tendency, even as the culture tried various ways of linking the particulars of history to something higher—the universal laws of science, the universal God of Ranke, or the universal progressive process crucial to the array of developmentalists from Hegel to Comte and Spencer. By the end of the nineteenth century, there sometimes seemed no refuge from this critical historizing impulse; the internal criticism of positivism suggested that even the scientific world-picture was but a human construct, elaborated over time, and thus but another merely relative cultural individuality or historical product.
Because the first broadly historicist revolution, from Vico to Dilthey, was
central to the waning of metaphysics, it has often been assumed that with it we made the break from metaphysics into history, developing what, in simpler times, we called "modern historical consciousness." But because this revolution remained under the shadow of the old metaphysics, there remained the possibility of a second step, a deeper embrace of history, eluding even that shadow. Although in retrospect we can see openings for this more radical step along the way from Vico to Dilthey, enough of the old framework survived to make it unnecessary, even inconceivable, for the thinkers we have discussed. However, tensions remained even as their efforts reached a provisional culmination in Dilthey's thinking. At about the same time, other thinkers took precisely this second step, seeking to overcome, or sidestep, those tensions.