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Dilthey, Wilhelm (1833–1911)


The German philosopher and historian Wilhelm Dilthey was born in Biebrich on the Rhine, the son of the preacher to the Duke of Nassau. He studied theology and philosophy in Heidelberg and Berlin and combined both of these interests in his early work on the ethical and hermeneutical writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Dilthey's first major publication, a volume on the life of Schleiermacher, appeared in 1870 while he was teaching in Kiel. In 1871, Dilthey received a professorship in Breslau (now Wrocklaw, Poland). It was around this time that he met Count Yorck of Wartenburg, and their friendship produced an intellectual correspondence about the nature of life and the meaning of history that has inspired thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. In 1882, Dilthey was called back to Berlin to fill the chair that George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had once held. The University of Berlin and the Prussian Academy would be the locus of his world for almost thirty years, until his death in 1911. This is the period in which he published most of his writings about the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften ), a covering term for both the humanities and social sciences. These writings consider how the human sciences contribute to the understanding of life and history.

Critique of Historical Reason

Dilthey saw his overall project as a Critique of Historical Reason examining the conditions that make possible the respective cognitive results of the natural and the human sciences. Although influenced by both Immanuel Kant and Hegel, he rejected the transcendental and formal limits of the former and the metaphysical absolutes of the latter. His task was to translate the insights of idealism into a more open empirical approach to what it means to experience reality.

Although the natural sciences are about nature and the human sciences about history, this does not justify hypostatizing history as a spiritual domain separate from nature. The spiritual life of human beings is conditionedbut not determined bynatural processes. Even when human beings set themselves free purposes, the realization of these purposes requires that the laws of nature be obeyed. In Book 1 of his Introduction to the Human Sciences (1883), Dilthey grants the human sciences a relative cognitive independence from the natural sciences. Yet he assigns the human sciences a greater reflective scope in that they express more aspects of human experience. They not only ascertain what isas do the natural sciencesbut also make value judgments, establish goals, and prescribe rules.

For the human sciences, theory is always framed by practical considerations instigated by historical life. Therefore, philosophical reflection about their conditions of possibility makes it necessary to regress behind the logical and epistemological foundations of the natural sciences to establish the more encompassing life-nexus of all human experience. This reflective turn initiated in Book 2 of the Introduction to the Human Sciences and worked out in the posthumously published drafts for Book 4, shows the human sciences to have an important advantage over the natural sciences in that they preserve some of the intuitive access to the reality of experience as it is lived. The natural sciences merely construct a phenomenal or ideal world that abstracts from the overall nexus of life so that human beings stand as impartial intellectual observers of this abstractly represented nature.

By contrast, the world that is formed by the human sciences is the historical-social reality in which human beings participate. It is a fuller world that is accessible not merely as conceptually mediated cognition (Erkenntnis ), but also as immediate knowledge (Wissen ) found in lived experience. Conceptual cognition is representational and objectifying. Lived experience provides a prerepresentational self-presence that involves a direct knowing. Any state of consciousness is implicitly present to itself in what Dilthey calls "reflexive awareness" (Innewerden ). This does not require an explicit consciousness of being conscioussuch an act of self-consciousness would be more than reflexive, namely, reflective. At the basic level of reflexive awareness there is not yet a self as an object of reflection.

According to Dilthey, there is no self underlying consciousness. Instead, the self arises out of consciousness as the correlate of the world. Within the nexus of consciousness as a function of life, reflection can differentiate between facts of inner perception and facts of outer perception, thereby producing a distinction between self and world. This world is not a product of an inference, but is felt primarily through resistance to the practical impulses of the will. Rather than grounding the objectivity of the world on a transcendental "I think," Dilthey claims that its reality is given in the reflexive awareness of the relation between efficacy and resistance involved in willing. Through this expanded reflexive awareness, the life-nexus in which the self participates discloses things and other selves that can resist its will. These modes of reflexive awareness are as basic to Dilthey's theory of hermeneutical understanding (Verstehen ) as the transcendental and empirical ego were to Kant's theory of intellectual understanding (Verstand ). Whereas Kant sought an explanative mode of understanding for natural phenomena by deriving them from the most general laws of scientific cognition, Dilthey seeks to understand the meaning of things in terms of their own inherent context. Hermeneutical understanding provides a kind of situated understanding that receives its bearings from the reflexive awareness of lived or prescientific experience.

Description and Structural Understanding

In 1894, Dilthey published another important work, the Ideas for a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology (Dilthey 1977). Here he works out the implications of his philosophical views about lived experience for psychology as a human science. Hitherto, psychology had been treated as a kind of natural science that synthetically constructs mental phenomena from atomistic elements such as sense-data by using hypothetical laws of association. This assumes that psychic life comes in discrete states that must be connected. Dilthey argues, however, that psychic life presents itself as a continuum in which states are already connected. It is the task of psychology to attempt to describe this general nexus of psychic life and to analyze specific states on its basis.

Dilthey's descriptive and analytic psychology has three main parts. The first delineates the general structural systems of consciousness that can be differentiated at the levels of cognition, feeling, and volition. The cognitive system relates the acts of perception, imagination, and memory on the basis of which we conceptually represent the world. The felt and instinctual aspects of consciousness can be related to form a distinct structural system whereby we coordinate the value of things. A volitional structural system functions to link and rank the purposes we set. A cross-sectional analysis of any lived experience will manifest aspects of each of these three functional structures. Indeed, the structural systems manifest a degree of interdependence belying the traditional hierarchical assumption that the cognitive level is fundamental and that feeling and willing merely respond to what has been perceived. Thus we do not perceive impressions of sense unless there is a felt interest in them and the will is stirred enough to attend to them.

The second main part of psychology as a human science traces the development of psychic life. It examines how psychic structures are defined and articulated over time. Here Dilthey stresses the importance of treating each phase in the teleological development of a psychic life-course as having its own inherent worth. Every phase has its immanent purposiveness and is to be treated as a kind of epoch. Although an epochal phase may contribute to its successor, it should never be treated as a mere means. The values of childhood, for example, should never be sacrificed for the goals of adulthood.

The third, concluding part of Dilthey's descriptive and analytic psychology integrates these structural and developmental approaches by showing how an acquired psychic nexus is gradually produced and informs future experiences. The acquired psychic nexus becomes the individualized framework according to which each self tends to specify its own experiences. It provides a historicized apperceptive mass that influences what will be perceived. It is like an implicit worldview that can regulate further experiences and actions.

Dilthey initially formulated his conception of the acquired psychic nexus as part of an effort to understand artistic creativity. In his 1887 essay "The Imagination of the Poet: Elements for a Poetics" (Dilthey 1985), Dilthey argues that what distinguishes artists from other human beings is the capacity to articulate their acquired psychic nexus in typical ways. In ordinary life, our experience and behavior reflect contingent local conditions as well as our acquired psychic nexus. Playwrights and novelists can establish fictional contexts that limit the extent to which characters will be distracted by local contingencies. By more adequately reflecting the acquired psychic nexus of their creators, the actions of fictional characters can also address more general aspects of life. The literary imagination produces typical situations and characters that help focus the meaning of human existence. Individuals manifest creativity when the perspective that informs their acquired psychic nexus becomes more than regulative, but constitutively typical.

The self-givenness of reflexive awareness and the self-presence of lived experience provide an implicit kind of understanding of life that psychological description and literary expression can make explicit. The inherent connectedness of consciousness renders it unnecessary to introduce hypothetical explanative links into the foundation of psychology. On this basis, Dilthey claims that the natural sciences are mainly about causal explanation and the human sciences about description and structural understanding. But this contrast is not absolute. Sometimes natural sciences must be content with description and interpretation, and sometimes human sciences cannot rely on general descriptions to account for significant details and must appeal to hypotheses. The difference is that the natural sciences tend to begin with explanative hypotheses, whereas the human sciences may end up with explanative hypotheses.


Unlike the natural sciences, the human sciences do not abstract from ordinary life, but analyze it. Analysis is compatible with understanding because, unlike abstraction, it need not isolate things from their overall context. The hermeneutical task of analysis is to enable us to recognize the whole in its parts and the parts in the whole. There is always this circularity in coordinating parts and wholes when reading a text. Hermeneutics as a human science reflects on what it means to apply the art of exegesis from texts to the experience of life in general.

The essay "The Rise of Hermeneutics," published in 1900 (Dilthey 1996), represents an important phase in Dilthey's development. Here he begins to sketch out a position that would define his final work. While he does not abandon the project of describing and analyzing lived experience, he came to view description and analysis as limited in their ability to capture the full meaning of life. The inner connectedness of our own experiences may provide a kind of self-understoodness or self-evidentness (Selbstverständlichkeit ), but we do not achieve real self-understanding (Selbstverständnis ) until we have manifested ourselves objectively. To truly understand ourselves is to be able to see ourselves as others see us.

One of the most revealing ways in which we manifest ourselves is through linguistic expression and communication. But Dilthey defines hermeneutics as the theory of interpreting all human manifestations, including actions that are not intended to communicate. The range of objectifications needing interpretation is broad. It includes impersonal theoretical judgments, abstract mathematical formulas, concrete poetic expressions of lived experience, personal correspondence, journal entries, works of art, historical monuments and archives, and political deeds and their aftereffects. They are important because only that which is publicly accessible and has been objectified in a common medium can produce determinate meaning.

The work that best articulates this hermeneutical approach to the human sciences is The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (1910). This most mature formulation of Dilthey's Critique of Historical Reason revisits many of the themes of the Introduction to the Human Sciences. The human sciences form the historical world, not by producing it, but by giving it a multifaceted discursive shape. Determinate meaning will never be found by confronting the course of history monolithically. The human sciences can give a cognitive form to various strands of history that we knowingly participate in. They allow use to analyze the overall stream of history and direct it, as it were, into a variety of structural systems in which selected currents can be examined for specific interacting forces.

Some of these historical structures had already been identified in the Introduction to the Human Sciences as cultural and social organizational systems. Cultural systems were conceived as purposive systems that bring individuals together to achieve certain voluntary goals. These purposive systems are not limited to the goals of high culturethe sciences, the arts, and religionfor they also include economic and social cooperation. Dilthey distinguished these cultural systems from institutional structures which make up the external organization of society. Institutions such as families, tribes, and nation-states are also interactive, but not primarily voluntary. We do not choose our parental family but are born into it. One of the advances of The Formation of the Historical World is that all these historical structures are no longer subsumed under the concept of "purposive system." Dilthey introduces the covering term "productive system" (Wirkungszusammenhang ) to capture the ways in which the forces of historical life can become structurally organized. The efficacy of history is to be understood in terms of productivity before any causal or teleological account is given. The carriers of history, whether they be individuals, cultures, institutions, or communities, can all be considered as productive systems capable of exerting influence, and in some cases, realizing purposes. Each productive system of history should be approached as being centered in itself.

Individuals too are productive systems when they appropriate new impressions into their acquired psychic nexus: They cognize the present on the basis of past evaluations and future goals. The productivity of the psychic nexus lies in the ways the cognitive, evaluative, and volitional aspects of experience interact. As productive systems, individuals are centered in themselves, but far from self-sufficient. They are also dependent on other more inclusive productive systems. In the Introduction to the Human Sciences, Dilthey was unwilling to conceive these larger systems as subjects or carriers of history. In The Formation of the Historical World he qualifies his opposition to transpersonal subjects by treating them as logical rather than real subjectsthey are now considered co-carriers of history. Although individuals cooperate in terms of cultural systems and other encompassing productive systems, they never engage more than a part of themselves to any of such systems and therefore cannot be defined by them. Yet the engagement can become so intensive that an individual can put his or her stamp on its mode of productivity. As a consequence, more than the agreed-upon functions of a cultural system will be achieved. For instance, in relation to the classical conventions established by Joseph Haydn (17321809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (17561791), a composer such as Ludwig van Beethoven (17701827) charts a new course. As a consequence, more than the expected purposes of the system will be achieved. In addition to accommodating new purposes, productive systems provide a meaning framework for expressing a variety of human values.

Dilthey states that he is not offering a philosophy of history that would establish a final purpose of human history. This is because he does not find any justification for the belief that there is a law of overall historical development. Yet there is good reason to think that there can be lawlike development within specific productive systems. Dilthey's theory of history is meant to provide the critical tools to articulate history into the productive systems that can provide an orderly understanding of history. Today, Dilthey's approach would be considered a philosophy of history of the critical rather than of the more traditional speculative kind.

The Categories of the Human Sciences

Whereas Kant's Critique of Pure Reason defined the categories or fundamental concepts of the natural sciences, Dilthey set out to explicate the categories of the human sciences. He distinguishes between formal and real categories. Formal categories relate to all experience, whether it be prescientific or scientific. They arise from elementary operations of thought such as comparing, differentiating, and relating that bring out what is inherent in experience. The formal categories of unity and plurality, identity and difference are shared by the natural and human sciences.

Real categories organize the content of experience more concretely. The natural and human sciences both organize their subject matter in terms of formal part-whole relations and locate them in space and time. In temporal location we can see a transition from the formal to the real. For the natural sciences, time is an infinite form that unfolds uniformly. For the human sciences, time is a finite structure that projects the future based on what is remembered from the past. The time of the human sciences is a lived reality and can be articulated in ways that allow us to understand historical development and the productive force of cultural systems.

Causality is a real category of the natural sciences. While Dilthey does not rule out its applicability to the events that are recounted in human history, he makes it clear that for the understanding of history, the Aristotelian categories "of agency and suffering, of action and reaction" are more appropriate (Dilthey 2002, p. 219). They express how human beings experience the productive force of the historical world and allow them to conceive purposiveness as an agency that stems from within and causality as a force coming from without.

Among the real categories that are distinctive for the human sciences, the three most important are value, purpose, and meaning. From the perspective of value, life is judged as a multiplicity of prized moments that can be juxtaposed. From the perspective of purpose, everything in a life-course tends to be subordinated to some future moment. According to Dilthey, the category of meaning can overcome the juxtaposition and subordination of value and purpose. Meaning articulates the connectedness of life on the basis of the relation between past and present. It is the main category of historical thought and is assigned to memory.

We resort to memory when we orient our experience to the past. On the private level, Dilthey had articulated meaning in terms of the workings of the acquired psychic nexus. At the public level, Dilthey now explicates meaning in terms of Hegel's concept of "objective spirit." Objective spirit stands for what the spirit of the past has left behind in the present and has preserved in objective form. It is the most basic framework for orienting us to the past. Objective spirit is the tradition-based sphere of commonality in which we grow up. The language we inherit, the conventions adopted, and the customs learned are all aspects of objective spirit that shape our childhood experiences. "Everything in which spirit has objectified itself contains something that is common to the I and the Thou. Every square planted with trees, every room in which chairs are arranged, is understandable to us from childhood because human tendencies to set goals, produce order and define values in common have assigned [them] a place" (Dilthey 2002, p. 229).

Objective spirit represents the initial framework of reference for elementary understanding, not unlike the way a dictionary serves as our first resource when a word in a sentence is not understood. Objective spirit is the common historical medium by which we orient elementary understanding. But when problems arise in understanding that a common reference cannot resolve, we must resort to what Dilthey calls "higher understanding." Higher understanding attempts to account for cases when the normal convergence between an expression and the meaning it expresses is lacking. Instead of merely appealing to objective spirit as the common background for locating meaning, higher understanding can consider more specialized contexts to determine meaning. Thus, if an unclear sentence is uttered by an economist we can consult professional handbooks. Similarly, social circumstances, industrial conditions, and market forces can be considered when some economic claim is not fully intelligible.

Although higher understanding often concentrates on more restricted productive systems as focal contexts, it will at the same time seek to extract more general results. The universality aimed at by higher understanding may be in the form of an inductive generalization or it may be that of a larger context. Thus the attempt to understand a line of poetry in relation to the poem as a whole is also an act of higher understanding. Here again the attempt is to move from common meaning to universal significance. The important breakthrough for Dilthey is that he no longer requires the understanding of human products to be related back to the psyches of their producers. Although the possibility of referring a work of art to its creator is not ruled out, it is far from being the primary source of its understanding. Indeed, a great work of art can take on a life of its own and can become itself a productive nexus generating an ever deeper meaning over time, as Gadamer has also argued.

Historical understanding, however, requires the move from universality back to individuality. It is appropriate for higher understanding to turn into what Dilthey calls a "re-experiencing," where individual contributions to the productivity of life do count. To re-experience meaning is not to reproduce the state of mind of an author, but to understand an author better than he understood himself. This is achieved by the contextualizing and structural explication of life-situations made possible by the human sciences.

Reflection on Life

It is never enough to consider an individual life by itself. As Dilthey writes: "The limit of biography lies in the fact that general movements find their point of transition in individuals" (Dilthey 2002, p. 269). Drawing on his own struggles to complete a second volume of the life of Schleiermacher, Dilthey concludes that a biographer cannot fulfill his task without also having broached universal questions about life and history. Notwithstanding the problematic status of biography, Dilthey considers autobiography an especially instructive mode of history because here "the work of historical narrative is already half done by life itself" (Dilthey 2002, p. 222). The narrative produced is never a simple copy of an actual life-course, but a retrospective judgment that depends on the way an individual reflects on his or her life. Here history is not just a human science but has reflective philosophical import.

In the later writings Dilthey often speaks of anthropological reflection as crucial for obtaining a unity of perspective on life. The sciences are radically pluralistic and cannot provide a comprehensive outlook or worldview (Weltanschauung ). A worldview is not merely a cognitive picture of the world. It goes deeper in expressing a specific stance (Stellung ) toward concrete life-concerns (Lebensbezüge ) as well as to life as a whole. An individual's stance toward life can develop into a reflective worldview on the basis of certain more general moods (Stimmungen ). These moods are more than states of mind; they orient us to the world in ways that anticipate what Heidegger says about moods as modes of attunement in Being and Time.

Worldviews have been articulated in literary, religious, and philosophical works. Philosophers have conceptualized worldviews metaphysically. Dilthey analyzes three main types of such metaphysical formulations: naturalism, the idealism of freedom, and objective idealism. Naturalism as found in Democritus, Thomas Hobbes, and others reduces everything to what can be cognized and is pluralistic in structure; the idealism of freedom as found in Plato, Kant, and others insists on the irreducibility of the will and is dualistic; objective idealism as found in Heraclitus, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Hegel affirms reality as the embodiment of a harmonious set of values and is monistic. The three types of metaphysical worldviews are incommensurable in that each is reductive in some way. No metaphysical formulation can have more than relative success. But this conclusion does not make Dilthey a relativist, for he rejects all metaphysics as speculative. Metaphysical systems attempt to arrive at universal determinations that transcend experience. All that is humanly possible is to probe reality on the basis of life-experience and to seek a more limited reflective universality.

The influence of Dilthey's thought and writings is manifold. Husserl considered Dilthey's Ideas for a Descriptive and Analytic Psychology (Dilthey 1977) a genial anticipation of his own phenomenological psychology and credits a meeting with Dilthey as leading to his interest in questions concerning understanding in the human sciences. Heidegger's lecture courses from 1919 through 1925 are filled with declarations of Dilthey's importance for understanding history and make extensive use of such Diltheyan terms as "life-nexus" and "life-concern." Max Weber applies Dilthey's distinction between explanation and understanding to sociology and extends Dilthey's reflections on typicality to his theory of ideal types. Herbert Marcuse's early work on Hegel is indebted to Dilthey's highly original approach to Hegel in his Jugendgeschichte Hegels. Georg Lukács's Marxist counterpart to this is Der junge Hegel.

Dilthey's work continues to play a significant role in the development of hermeneutics. While critical of the Schleiermacher-Dilthey tradition, Gadamer's hermeneutics represents an extension of Dilthey's effort to relate interpretation to the productivity and efficacy (Wirkung ) of history. In France, the underlying influence of Dilthey's views on understanding and objective spirit can be seen in the writings of Raymond Aron, Jean-Paul Sartre, Lucien Goldmann, and Paul Ricoeur. In Spain, Ortega y Gasset had called Dilthey the most important philosopher of the second half of the nineteenth century, with the result that Dilthey was widely translated into Spanish before any other language. Now extensive translations into English, French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian are also becoming available.

See also Gadamer, Hans-Georg; Hermeneutics; Philosophy of History.


works by dilthey

Briefwechsel zwischen Wilhelm Dilthey und dem Grafen Paul Yorck von Wartenburg, 18771897. Halle (Saale), Germany: M. Niemeyer, 1922. Famous correspondence about the nature of life and history.

Descriptive Psychology and Historical Understanding. Translated by Richard M. Zaner and Kenneth L. Heiges, with an introduction by Rudolf A. Makkreel. The Hague: Martinus Nijhof, 1977.

Dilthey's Philosophy of Existence. Translated by William Kluback and Martin Weinbaum. New York: Bookman Associates, 1957. Mainly about the theory of worldviews.

Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung: Lessing, Goethe, Novalis, Hölderlin. Leipzig, Germany: Teubner, 1922. Influential literary essays, two of which are translated in Poetry and Experience.

Essence of Philosophy. Translated by Steven A. Emery and William T. Emery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954.

Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Karlfried Gründer and Frithjof Rodi. 24 vols. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 19142004.

Selected Works, edited by Rudolf A. Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi. Vol. 1, Introduction to the Human Sciences (1989). Vol. 3, The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences (2002). Vol. 4, Hermeneutics and the Study of History (1996). Vol. 5, Poetry and Experience (1985). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

works on dilthey

de Mul, Jos. The Tragedy of Finitude: Dilthey's Hermeneutics of Life. Translated by Tony Burrett. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. A reconstruction of Dilthey's ontology of life, highlighting the interpretive character of human existence, contingency, and narrativity.

Ermarth, Michael. Wilhelm Dilthey: The Critique of Historical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978. A comprehensive account of Dilthey's thought with a good historical background.

Makkreel, Rudolf A. Dilthey: Philosopher of the Human Studies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975, 1992. A developmental examination of Dilthey's philosophy that focuses on its relation to Kant's first and third Critiques and highlights the role of reflection and judgment in historical understanding.

Makkreel, Rudolf A., and John D. Scanlon, eds. Dilthey and Phenomenology. Washington, DC: Center for Advanced Research in Phenomenology and University Press of America, 1987. Exploration of Dilthey's relation to phenomenology by ten international scholars.

Owensby, Jacob. Dilthey and the Narrative of History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994. A topical study focusing on Books 46 of the Introduction to the Human Sciences.

Revue Internationale de Philosophie 57 (4) (2003). Issue featuring a collection of essays edited by Rudolf Makkreel, including essays by Jean Grondin, Hans Ineichen, Matthias Jung, Makkreel, Sylvie Mesure, Jos de Mul, Tom Rockmore, and Frithjof Rodi.

Rodi, Frithjof, ed. Dilthey-Jahrbuch für Philosophie und Geschichte der Geisteswissenschaften. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 19832000. Many volumes have special themes such as the relation between Dilthey and the early Heidegger.

Rodi, Frithjof, and Hans-Ulrich Lessing, eds. Materialien zur Philosophie Wilhelm Diltheys. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984. A collection of classical essays on Dilthey by such thinkers as Scheler, Landgrebe, Bollnow, Plessner, Marcuse, Misch, Habermas, and Gadamer.

Rodi, Frithjof. Das strukturierte Ganze: Studien zum Werk von Wilhelm Dilthey. Göttingen, Germany: Hubert & Co., 2003. A series of essays stressing the structured nature of life and experience, and the importance of articulation and expression for Dilthey.

Rudolf A. Makkreel (2005)

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