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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: January 2010

1 - Revisiting Dilthey on Schleiermacher and biography


In his monumental yet never completed (or translated) biography, Life of Schleiermacher (1870), Wilhelm Dilthey maintained that, unlike Kant, Schleiermacher's significance can only be grasped through his biography. In the foreword to the first edition of that famous book we read: “The philosophy of Kant can be wholly understood without a closer engagement with his person and his life; Schleiermacher's significance, his worldview and his works require a biographical portrayal for their thorough understanding.” With these words, which stand without further comment, Dilthey champions a distinctive approach to Schleiermacher. In contrast with Kant, knowledge of Schleiermacher's life is apparently needed for us to grasp what Dilthey sees as his significance, his worldview, and his works. It seems that study of works alone will not yield full significance or worldview in the case of Schleiermacher, though for reasons unstated by Dilthey, this does not hold for Kant.

Dilthey's claim about how Schleiermacher must be studied is eye-catching as well as methodologically puzzling. It raises a host of further questions. Dilthey appears to sponsor a historicist agenda that tilts Schleiermacher studies strongly, if not overwhelming, towards the discipline of history. A turn away from theology and philosophy seems to be suggested, despite Schleiermacher's long pedigree in these fields as his major areas of achievement. To fulfill Dilthey's mandate would require a scholar to attain mastery of the social and cultural history of Prussia in addition to Schleiermacher's texts. Perhaps that might be manageable, if we recognize that our knowledge is always incomplete.