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Geisteswissenschaften, a term commonly used in German to denote disciplines referred to as "the humanities" in English, emerged in the course of a nineteenth-centry discussion about the proper designation for those disciplines whose topics and methodologies were different from those of the newly predominant natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften ) such as physics, biology, and chemistry. A compound word, its second component"the word Wissenschaften " or "sciences"indicates that these disciplines are indeed legitimate sciences, but sciences of a different kind than the natural sciences. The assumption underlying the discussion out of which the term emerged is that there are valid scientific methods for studying topics such as literature, art, and history, but that the objects of these disciplines and their appropriate methods were significantly different from the objects and quantitative methods appropriate of modern natural science. Originally conceived as one side of a binary opposition between the realms of "nature" and those things that could not be subsumed under that heading, it uses the term "Geist " to provide a positive description of the general domain that is the proper field of study for those disciplines.

Many scholars have noted that the plural form of the term was used in 1849 in J. Schiel's German translation of John Stuart Mill's Logic as a translation for Mill's phrase "the moral sciences" and count that as the origin of the term Geisteswissenschaften. However, earlier uses of similar terms have been documented (see, e.g., Diemer) and the term Geist as a central term for historical and cultural manifestations of human mentality had become common in German romantic philosophy (Herder and Hamann), and German Idealism (especially Hegel) well before 1850.

The clearest formulation of the notion of Geisteswissenschaften as a group of disciplines united by a common method was presented by Wilhelm Dilthey in his Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften (1883). In this work, he identifies the common topic of these sciences as historical social reality that cannot be captured through the natural sciences. They find their ultimate basis in the structures of human experience, which is essentially historically and contextually situated. Hence the Geisteswissenschaften seek to do more than merely to explain, instead they seek to understand the expressions of human experience by situating them into broader personal, social, and historical contexts that provide insight into their "sense." For Dilthey, then, the fundamental disciplines for all of these others were anthropology and psychology, with psychology understood as a descriptive science aimed at understanding the structures of human experience.

During the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries these fields included not only what would traditionally fall under the concept of the humanities in English, such as philosophy, history, philology, and the histories of art and music, but also traditional faculties such as law and theology whose methodologies were not consistent with those of the natural sciences. It also came to include areas that were just beginning to emerge as special disciplines such as political science and sociology, which at the time were paradigms of the Geisteswissenschaften. Hence in the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the term Geisteswissenschaften was in competition with the term "Kulturwissenschaften " or "cultural sciences" as another way of capturing the difference between all of the fields that were distinct from natural sciences, a term that was championed above all by members of the Southwest German school of Neokantianism such as Wilhelm Windelband (1915) and Heinrich Rickert (1986) for all of the areas Dilthey called Geisteswissenschaften. They stressed the unique and specific nature of the objects that these (idiographic) sciences seek to understand as opposed to the general laws that were the object of the (nomothetic) natural sciences.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Dilthey's preferred terminology predominated, but toward the end of the twentieth century, the social sciences have come to be generally grouped together under the heading of "Sozialwissenschaften " or "Gesellschaftswissenschaften," two different German words for "social sciences," as they have increasingly adopted the quantitative methodologies associated with the natural sciences. From the outset, questions about the status of psychology as a scientific discipline have played a pivotal role in the discussion of the nature and limits of the Geisteswissenschaften. At the end of the twentieth century, however, it too was increasingly grouped together with social sciences based on shared quantitative research methods; the notion of the Geisteswissenschaften became closer once again to what in English would be called the humanities. Law, economics, and the social sciences are becoming less commonly subsumed under the heading of the Geisteswissenschaften and an increasing number of departments concentrating on history, literature, art, and related fields often choose to refer to themselves as Kulturwissenschaften instead of as Geisteswissenschaften as they combine methodologies from both the humanities and the social sciences into their studies.

See also Dilthey, Wilhelm; Hamann, Johann Georg; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Historicism; Idealism; Mill, John Stuart; Neo-Kantianism; Rickert, Heinrich; Windelband, Wilhelm.


Diemer, Alfons. "Geisteswissenschaften." In Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, edited by Joachim Ritter. Vol. 3, 211215. Basel/Stuttgart, Germany: Schwabe Verlag, 1974.

Dilthey, Wilhelm. Der Aufbau der geschichtlichen Welt in den Geisteswissenschaften. Gesammelte Schriften 7. Stuttgart, Germany: Teubner, 1927.

Dilthey, Wilhelm. Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften. Gesammelte Schriften 1. Stuttgart, Germany: Teubner, 1922.

Hoffmeister, Johannes. "Geisteswissenschaften." In Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe. Hamburg: Meiner, 1955.

Rickert, Heinrich. The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science: A Logical Introduction to the Historical Sciences. Edited and translated by Guy Oakes. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Rothacker, Erich. Einleitung in die Geisteswissenschaften. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr, 1920.

Rothacker, Erich. Logik und Systematik der Geisteswissenschaften. München/Berlin: Oldenbourg, 1927.

Von Bollnow, Otto Friedrich. Studien zur Hermeneutik. Bd. 1, Zur Philosophie der Geisteswissenschaften. Freiburg: Alber, 1982.

Windelband, Wilhelm. Geschichte und Naturwissenschaft. Rede zum Antritt des Rektorats der Kaiser-Wilhelms-Universität Straßburg, gehalten am 1. Mai 1894. In Praeludien. Aufsätze und Reden zur Philosophie und ihrer Geschichte. Bd. 2, 136160. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr, 1915.

Thomas Nenon (2005)

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