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Hermeneutics As The Methodological Basis Of The Human Sciences

Most familiar with the thinking and life of Schleiermacher, of whom he was the biographer, Dilthey devoted his lifework to the challenge of a foundation of the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften). Whereas the exact sciences had already received, in the wake of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, a philosophical base and a methodology guaranteeing the validity of their knowledge, the human sciences still lacked such a foundation. Under the motto of a "critique of historical reason," Dilthey sought a logical, epistemological, and methodological foundation for the human sciences. Without such a foundation, their own scientific legitimacy could be called into question: is everything in the human sciences merely subjective, historically relative, and, as we tend to say, but with a touch of derision, a mere matter of interpretation? If these areas of our knowledge are to entertain any scientific credibility, Dilthey argued, they need to rest on a sound methodology.

In some of his later texts (most notably in his essay "The Rise of Hermeneutics," 1900), Dilthey sought such a methodical basis for the humanities in hermeneutics, the old discipline of text interpretation that could receive renewed actuality in light of this new challenge. Hermeneutics could serve as the bedrock of all human sciences and could thus be called upon to fulfill a need that arises out of the emergence of historical conscience and threatens the validity of historical knowledge. Even if it remains largely programmatic in his later texts, the idea that hermeneutics could serve as a universal foundation of the human sciences bestowed upon hermeneutics a philosophical relevance and visibility that it never really enjoyed before Dilthey. Up to this day, important thinkers such as Emilio Betti and E. D. Hirsch look to hermeneutics to deliver a methodical foundation for the truth claim of the humanities, the literary, and the juridical disciplines. According to them, a hermeneutics that would relinquish this task would miss the point about what hermeneutics is all about.

Life articulates itself, Dilthey says, in manifold forms of expression (Ausdruck) that our understanding seeks to penetrate by recreating the inner life experience (Erlebnis) out of which they sprang. Dilthey's far-reaching intuition is that interpretation and understanding are not processes that occur simply in the human sciences but that they are constitutive of our quest for orientation. The notion that historical life is as such hermeneutical and interpretatory to the core was buttressed by Friedrich Nietzsche's contemporaneous reflections on the interpretatory nature of our world-experience. "There are no facts, only interpretations," wrote Nietzsche in Fragment 481 of The Will to Power. This first glimpse of the potential universality of the "hermeneutic universe" appeared to call into question Dilthey's dream of a methodical foundation of the human sciences, but it raised a new hermeneutics task.

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