Rickert, Heinrich (1863–1936)

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Heinrich Rickert, the German neo-Kantian philosopher, was born in Danzig and received his degree in 1888 from the University of Strasbourg. In 1891 he began lecturing at Freiburg, succeeding Alois Riehl as professor in 1894. In 1916 he went to Heidelberg as successor to Wilhelm Windelband.

Rickert belonged to the southwestern school of neo-Kantianism. His main efforts were devoted to a study of the logical and epistemological foundations of the natural sciences and to the historical disciplines in the hope of arriving at a "unity of reality and values." He departed from Wilhelm Dilthey in his criticism of Dilthey's subjective approach to the understanding of historical reality and in his attempt to find a set of more objective criteria; his departure from Windelband consisted in rejecting Windelband's separation of natural and historical disciplines and offering instead a theory that considered all reality to be historical.

Philosophy and Natural Science

In his early work, particularly in Der Gegenstand der Erkenntnis (Freiburg, 1892), Rickert raised the question of the relationship between philosophy and the natural sciences. He denied the universal validity of the method of the natural sciences and attempted to establish the primacy of practical reason as the foundation of his epistemology. He believed that only the Kantian critical method is adequate for explaining the epistemological presuppositions and limitations of the various sciences. While phenomenology may provide a method for describing the contents of consciousness, it fails to account for their intelligibility and relationship to objective reality. Hegelianism, on the other hand, in identifying the real with the rational, leaves out of account or distorts the pluralistic character of reality. Only critical philosophy yields knowledge that is both universal and necessary; it alone can explain the pluralistic, dynamic, and yet rational character of society and history. In view of the lack of philosophical attention to the historical disciplines and because the then prominent philosophical problems of Weltanschauung seemed to hinge most directly on distinguishing scientific thinking from historical thinking, Rickert devoted himself thereafter primarily to the problem of historical conceptualization (Begriffsbildung ).

Individualizing and Generalizing Thought

On the basis of Windelband's distinction between nomothetic (universal) and ideographic (particular) judgments, Rickert developed his logic of the historical disciplines. At both the scientific and the prescientific stages of conceptualization, he claimed, there are two ways of grasping reality: individualizing and generalizing. Individualizing thought is proper to historical thinking. Instead of fabricating a copy of a historical phenomenon in its complex totality, it establishes the essential relationships that bind the phenomenon to its environment and traces the various stages of its development. Philosophy studies the concept of development, while the objects of historical study are unique developments. Generalizing thought, therefore, is proper to the natural sciences but is inapplicable to history. "Reality," Rickert claimed, "becomes nature if we consider it in regard to what is general; it becomes history if we consider it in regard to the particular or individual" (Kulturwissenschaft und Naturwissenschaft, 5th ed., p. 63).

Historical method for Rickert is highly selective, and in the selection of data, value judgments are operative from the very outset. This being the case, the determination of value criteria (Wertbegriffe ) becomes the primary concern of historical understanding. Generalizing thought is logically free of values (wertfrei ) because it constructs universally valid concepts. The particular objects to which they apply are interchangeable, and each object, abstracted from all its other relationships, functions only to illustrate the general law. Although in generalizing thought a selective process is at work to determine the common character of a group of particulars, it is the common character, expressed in a formula, that is essential. The aim of generalizing thought is precisely to free its objects from relations of value (Wertverbindungen ).


Although history is a science of values, this does not mean that the historian may organize his inquiry arbitrarily; in that case history would be mere propaganda. In order for history to be objective, its values (state, law, art, religion) must be universal. The universality of historical values must be established epistemologically, and the relevance of the various social phenomena with respect to these values must be demonstrated empirically. Because history is written by, about, and for civilized men, social activity must be its subject matter. Since social activity can be grasped only by individualizing thought in terms of its significance for universal values, the historian's criterion must be culture, because social activity and value most nearly converge in culture. Culture is most directly concerned with the realization of universal values: "Culture is the common affair in the life of the nations; it is the possession with respect to the values of which the individuals sustain their significance in the recognition of all peoples, and the cultural values which adhere to this possession are therefore those which guide historical representation and conceptual formation in the selection of what is most essential" (Die Grenzen der naturwissenschaftlichen Begriffsbildung, 2nd ed., p. 509). Thus, believing that his method made of history a logically valid discipline that deals with objective reality, Rickert called the historical sciences Kulturwissenschaft (cultural science) in preference to Dilthey's term, Geisteswissenschaft (science of the mind or spirit).

Universal History

Far from being a contradiction, universal history is not only possible but is the logical outcome of the search for the value principles (Wertprinzipien ) according to which the historical process as a whole may be viewed. "The system of values provides the possibility of systematization, and the relationship [of history] to the system of values permits of individualizing treatment" ("Geschichts-philosophie," p. 400). But precisely because the evaluation of the whole of history is involved, the system of value principles must be purely formal. "We would need something timeless in order to extract an objective sense from the temporal course of history" (ibid., p. 418). Like Immanuel Kant, Rickert proposed three stages in the development of civilization: dogmatism, skepticism, and criticism, the last of which was the achievement of German idealistic philosophy. While this periodization cannot be verified empirically, it is an example of the critical approach to the question of the unity of historical development. Although it is purely theoretical, it nonetheless gives an axiological grounding to the results of empirical research. In the last analysis, the problem of universal history is to introduce a method whereby the real and the ideal may be theoretically synthesized.


The principal criticism brought against Rickert is that the introduction of a transcendental system of values is unhistorical and leads to the reification of existing values (Wertabsolutierung ). In isolating universality by viewing it as a distinct realm of thought rather than as a function of all thought, Rickert actually confirmed the positivism and cultural relativism he had sought to overcome. In radically separating the universal from the particular, he was compelled to regard historical data as being identical with those of science, a series of discrete facts that differ only in the relationships in which they are observed. Nevertheless, the fruitfulness of Rickert's theory is borne out by his influence on such contemporaries as Ernst Troeltsch, Friedrich Meinecke, and Max Weber.

See also Dilthey, Wilhelm; Geisteswissenschaften; Hegelianism; Historicism; Meinecke, Friedrich; Neo-Kantianism; Phenomenology; Philosophy of History; Riehl, Alois; Troeltsch, Ernst; Weber, Max; Windelband, Wilhelm.


works by rickert

Die Grenzen der naturwissenschaftlichen Begriffsbildung. Tübingen: Mohr, 18961902; 2nd ed., Tübingen, 1913.

Kulturwissenschaft und Naturwissenschaft. Tübingen, 1899; 5th ed., Tübingen, 1921.

Die Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie. Leipzig: Duncker and Humblot, 1905; 3rd ed., Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1924.

"Geschichtsphilosophie." In Die Philosophie im Beginn des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts, Festschrift für Kuno Fischer, edited by Wilhelm Windelband. Heidelberg, 1907.

Kant als Philosoph der modernen Kultur. Tübingen: Mohr, 1924.

works on rickert

Becher, E. Geisteswissenschaften und Naturwissenschaften. Munich: Duncker and Humblot, 1921.

Cohen, M. R. "The Insurgence against Reason." Journal of Philosophy 22 (1925): 120123.

Collingwood, R. G., A. E. Taylor, and F. C. S. Schiller. "Are History and Science Different Kinds of Knowledge?" Mind 31 (1922): 426466.

Faust, A. Heinrich Rickert und seine Stellung innerhalb der deutschen Philosophie der Gegenwart. Tübingen: Mohr, 1927.

Federici, F. La filosofia dei valori de Heinrich Rickert. Florence, 1933.

Gurvitch, Georges. "La théorie des valeurs de Heinrich Rickert." Revue Philosophique 124 (1937): 8085.

Troeltsch, Ernst. "Über den Begriff einer historischen Dialektik. Windelband-Rickert und Hegel." Historische Zeitschrift 119 (1919): 373426.

Robert Anchor (1967)