Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften

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Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften German words used to denote respectively the human (or social) sciences and the natural sciences. For some three decades prior to the outbreak of the First World War, German academic life was dominated by a number of related disputes about methodology (the so-called Methodenstreit), the most general (and probably the most important) of which dealt with the relationship between the natural and the cultural (or historical) sciences. The philosopher Wilhelm Windelband, arguing from the premiss that reality is indivisible, proposed an a priori logical distinction between natural and social sciences on the basis of their methods. Natural sciences, according to Windelband, use a ‘nomothetic’ or generalizing method, since they seek to discover law-like and general relationships and properties, whereas social or cultural sciences employ an ideographic or individualizing procedure, since they are interested in the non-recurring events in reality and the particular or unique aspects of any phenomenon. Wilhelm Dilthey, on the other hand, contrasted Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften in terms of their subject-matter, this criterion following logically from the alternative premiss that reality can be divided into autonomous sectors—a fundamental distinction being that between the realms of ‘nature’ and of ‘human spirit’—with each sector being the prerogative of a separate category of sciences.

The most interesting contribution to this debate, from the point of view of sociology, is probably that of Heinrich Rickert (1863–1936), the neo-Kantian professor of philosophy at Freiberg and then Heidelberg, a contemporary and friend of Max Weber. Rickert's theory of concept formation in the sciences (as described in Die Grenzen der naturwissenschaftlichen Begriffsbildung: Eine logische Einleitung in die historischen Wissenschaften, 1902, and Science and History: A Critique of Positivist Epistemology, 1898–1902) was a strong influence on Weber's methodological writings and substantive analyses (notably, for example, the ideal-typical methodology employed in the essays on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism). The sociological significance of the Methodenstreit is explained in Werner J. Cahnman , ‘Max Weber and the Methodological Controversy in the Social Sciences’, in Cahnman (Boskoff) and and Alvin Boskoff ( eds.) , Sociology and History (1964)
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