The history of philosophy and the puzzles of life. Windelband and Dilthey on the ahistorical core of philosophical thinking

In Martin Kusch, Katherina Kinzel, Johannes Steizinger & Niels Jacob Wildschut (eds.), The Emergence of Relativism: German Thought from the Enlightenment to National Socialism. London: Routledge. pp. 26-42 (2019)
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The professionalization of the study of history in the Nineteenth Century made possible a new way of thinking about the history of philosophy: the thought emerged that philosophy itself might be relative to time, historical culture, and nationality. The simultaneous demise of speculative metaphysics scattered philosophers’ confidence that the historical variance of philosophical systems could be viewed in terms of the teleological self-realization of reason. Towards the late Nineteenth Century, philosophers began to explicitly address the worry that all philosophical systems might have only relative validity. This paper compares two key figures in late-nineteenth-century debates concerning historical relativism: Wilhelm Windelband and Wilhelm Dilthey. Beneath the deep disagreements between these two authors, it reveals their common concern to immunize philosophy from the threat of historical relativism. The paper traces how both philosophers sought to fend off relativism by defending the idea of an ahistorical and permanent stratum of philosophical thinking. And it argues that although they succeeded in blocking historical versions of relativism, they did so at the cost of incurring a relativism vis-à-vis philosophical systems. This relativism turned out to be rooted not in the historicity of philosophy but in the timeless essence of philosophical reasoning itself.
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