Dilthey‘s distinction between Natural Sciences and Human Sciences

At the end of the 19. century the german philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey triggered a debate about the basic epistemological distinction between Natural Sciences and Human Sciences. This is, until today, a debate about methods. On the one hand, Dilthey hypothesises that the Natural Sciences like Physics or Chemistry explain processes in the nature. On the other hand, he argues that the Human Sciences like History or Philology seek to understand phenomena in the history or different cultures. Dilthey works out his explanation-understanding distinction in his „Ideas for a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology“ of 1894 (see Rudolf Makkreel‘s Article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dilthey/). Makkreel cites Dilthey‘s „Ideas“ as follows:  “We explain through purely intellectual processes, but we understand through the cooperation of all the powers of the mind activated by apprehension.”

Dilthey‘s distinction between two different types of sciences because of their different methodological approaches influences the selfunderstanding of sciences from the late 19. century to the present. The Social Sciences play a special role. One wing of social scientists is oriented on the so called „hard sciences“, the Natural Sciences with empirical data and experiments. The other wing of social scientists understand itself in the tradition of the „Geisteswissenschaften“, the human sciences.
We have seen in the last decade a lot of new theoretical approaches in the discipline of International Relations, a branch of the Social Sciences. And, beyond the old schools, there is a new debate between the positivists who are oriented to the methods of the Natural Sciences and the post-positivists. My hypothesis is that the distinction between positivist and post-positivist approaches is a renewing of Dilthey‘s distinction between explanation and understanding, a hypothesis to be discussed in a more detailed way.

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