The outer expression of an inner life

In his Journals, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) wrote:

It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.

The implication of this is that the person with the life to live has a point-of-view that is incommensurable with the point-of-view of, not just of the philosophers, but of theorists in any discipline. I see this as one aspect of the participant observer duality.

Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) was one of the first philosophers to think about this and the distinction between the natural sciences and what is usually called the human studies that it implies. This distinction is clearer in the original German, where it is the difference between Naturwissenschaften, intellectual disciplines concerned with natural entities and events, and Geisteswissenschaften, intellectual disciplines concerned with cultural entities and events; not only sociology, economics and political science but also history and archaeology, the study of religion, psychology and the theory and criticism of the arts.

Dilthey proposed that these disciplines were structured according to a specific conceptual framework distinct from the Kantian framework that applied to the natural sciences. In the natural sciences the framework was built out from, among others things, the conceptual categories of time and space and causality. In the human studies, on the other hand, the framework was constructed from five conceptual categories: parts and wholes, means and ends, value; power; and, finally, inner and outer. It is this last category that is I think the most innovative and important.

The category of parts and wholes is the question of composition. The underlying idea here is that complexity is not analysable. Dilthey had in mind the difficulties of interpretation, where a whole, such as a text, could only be understand in terms of the words and phrases from which it was composed but at the same time the meaning of the words and phrases could only be understand in terms of the text as a whole, setting up what Dilthey called a hermeneutic circle. It isn’t possible to understand a poem as the sum of the meaning of the images it contains while the images gain their meaning from being components of the poem. At a larger scale, the same issue is present with understanding an intellectual discipline, an artistic heritage, a social tradition and, indeed, a culture as a whole.

It’s arguable that this idea that complexity isn’t analysable applies also to the natural science. However, the science of complex systems wasn’t developed until a century later and this was perhaps a reasonable distinction in the 19th century.

The next three categories are also aspects of the participants point-of-view. The category of means and ends is the idea of instrumentality; the category of value is the idea that outcomes matter to the participants; and the category of power is the idea that participants in a course of action are not passive but initiate, and understand themselves to be able to initiate, a sequence of events.

The final category of inner and outer expands the framework beyond the participants in the events to also include the observer’s perspective. We don’t understand natural events as the outward expression of an inner life. Instead we explain them, as outsiders, as the outcome of regularities in the way systems behave under a given set of constraints. If you remove the plug, the water in a tank will drain away, without the need to project an inner life on the water, the tank or any other component of the system.

On the other hand, in the human studies, we do understand cultural entities and events as the outward expression of an inner life.

At this point the meaning of the concepts inner and outer and the justification for using them becomes clear. They designate the relationship which exists in the understanding between the outer phenomena of life and what produces them and is expressed in them. The relationship between inner and outer exists only for understanding, just as the relationship between phenomena and that by which they are explained exists only for scientific cognition.

Wilhelm Dilthey: The Construction of the Historical World in the Human Studies

There are a couple of points to think about here. These distinctions are not just different ways of knowing but also different ways of being. Although the Kantian paradigm tends to focus on the way in which the observer frames the experience, the distinction is meant to identify a difference in the way that different kinds of systems evolve. Cultural entities have a different way of being from natural entities.

The second point is that although this framework is cognizant of the inner life of the participants, it is still the view from outside, and in that sense continuous with the natural sciences. It would be a later development in philosophy that led to the articulation of the view from inside in the shape of phenomenology and existentialism, a line of thinking that was influenced by Dilthey and, among many others, his near contemporary Franz Brentano (1838-1917).

This suggests also that there is an important piece missing from Dilthey’s conceptual framework. This is what we might call the issue of reflection and recursion. There is an additional dimension to complexity: the inner life of the participant which the outside observer seeks to understand will be informed by the conceptual framework that the observer is deploying because the theory is part of the cultural framework with which the participant is working. The theorist is to that extent looking in the mirror. The theorist is outside the particular course of action but at the same time inside the cultural framework within which the course of action evolves and which typically the observer and the participants share.