There has long been a bit of jousting between the human and natural sciences over who is more rigorous or which method is better capable of providing us with facts about the world. For certain types of empiricists, this jockeying for epistemological status and justification has tended to skew in favor of the natural sciences. And given the premium some cultures place on prediction, control, and the power that comes with laying hold of causal laws, the natural sciences have enjoyed abundant prestige over the past two centuries.
In hopes of garnering a similar reputation, some in the human sciences have made significant efforts to modify their methods to more closely resemble those used in the natural sciences. But can we study human experience in the same way we tend to examine the natural world? Just as there are reliable causal laws that can be generalized across the globe, are there moral or social laws that dictate the dynamics of human history?
In the nineteenth century, the German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey attempted to make a clear distinction between the methods and questions used by the natural sciences and those employed by the human sciences. Whereas the natural sciences are looking for generalizable laws or supposed regularities about the physical world, he proposes that the human sciences ought to focus on understanding and interpreting lived experience.
Lived experience contrasts with abstract or theoretical representations of experience, which are more like idealized forms of what it means to be human, largely divorced from the flesh and blood of history. Lived experience, on the other hand, requires that we interpret and continually reinterpret what it means to be human from a given point in history based on what individuals communicate about what it feels like to be them. This is sometimes also applied to questions pertaining to racial identity, gender dynamics, economic background, and the various ways in which people experience life differently from one another.
Jeffrey Howard speaks with Henriikka Hannula, a doctoral candidate at the University of Vienna, in Austria. Originally from Finland, her research focuses on late-nineteenth-century German philosophy, specifically that of Wilhelm Dilthey. She explains the central role the concepts of historicism, lived experience, and hermeneutics play in Dilthey’s philosophy. In what could also be considered a rallying cry for the human sciences, Hannula argues for a rigorous and systematic approach to studying culture and society that is informed by the work of Wilhelm Dilthey.
Now, what reasons do we have to think human experiences and the natural world should be studied differently? Why might it be more productive to study the human condition at the nexus of lived experience rather than through an abstract or detached framework? If gaining a meaningful understanding of culture requires that we continually have to reinterpret human interactions and events, then how can we ever arrive at any certain knowledge in the human sciences?
Theory and Practice in Wilhelm Dilthey’s Historiography by Henriikka Hannula (2018)
Wilhelm Dilthey as an Introduction by Matthias Jung (1996)
Truth and Method by Hans-Georg Gadamer (1960)
The Cambridge Companion to Hermeneutics edited by Michael N. Forster and Kristin Gjesdal (2019)
The German Historicist Tradition by Frederick C. Beiser (2011)
Schleiermacher’s Hermeneutical System in Relation to Earlier Protestant Hermeneutics by Wilhelm Dilthey (1860)
Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920 by James T. Kloppenberg (1986)
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (1902)
“So You Think There Are Laws in Nature?” by Eleni Angelou (2021)
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