Geistesgeschichte School

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Geistesgeschichte School


(the “history of mind” school), a school of literary criticism in Germany in the late 19th century, which arose as a reaction against positivist (including cultural-historical and historical-philological) methods.

The Geistesgeschichte school strived for a synthesis of the spiritual-historical and psychological interpretations of literature. Its founder Wilhelm Dilthey, the head of the historicist branch of the “philosophy of life,” wrote that “the unity of time and nation that we call the historical mind first arises because of the power and authority of genius. At this point it is possible to connect the historical and the psychical” (quoted in “O printsipakh metodologii literaturovedeniia,” Filosofskie nauki, 1967, no. 3, p. 109). The fusion of the historical and the psychical takes place in “lived experience” (the unity of reason, will, and feeling) of the artist. Lived experience, objectified by means of poetic form, becomes a complete spiritual reality (with the organic interdependence of content, material, form, and subject) and, moreover, becomes a truth that is clearly revealed for the first time not only to the spectator but to the creative artist himself as well.

A work of art is the most adequate representation of life, even in comparison with the humanities—“the sciences of the mind.” It comprehends both the characteristics of the epoch and, most of all, the unique spiritual and mental integrity of the individual, both the objective mind that is open to “understanding” (das Verstehen) and the inexplicable “last riddle” of life. The interpretation of an artistic work, or its understanding as Dilthey would say, is possible only with the aid of “empathy” and “intuition”; but even the understanding which is expressed by means of descriptive psychology or philosophical concepts, never exhausts the entire meaning of a work of art, which also contains an irrational element. Just as some schools affirmed the inherent worth of the spiritual world of the personality, the Geistesgeschichte school affirmed the inherent worth and integrity of each cultural-historical period (the principle of the equality of epochs).

This school, which adopted a number of the aesthetic ideas of romanticism, flourished in the first third of this century. Some of its principal works are Dilthey’s Experience and Poetry (1906); R. Unger’s Philosophical Problems of the New Literary Criticism (1908); F. Gundolf s Goethe (1916); and works by E. Spranger, F. Strich, E. Ermatinger, and H. A. Korff; and in Hungary, D. Sekfiu, T. Tineman, and A. Serb. Unger traces the literary fate of philosophical ideas, such as freedom and necessity, spirit and nature, and love and death. Gundolf, who inclines to Bergsonism, sees poetry not as a response to reality but as a higher form of reality that develops according to spiritually immanent laws. The “experience” and “creativity” of the poet are not isolated, as Dilthey suggested, but form a whole. We must reconstruct our image of the poet solely on the basis of his artistic creations, but in so far as we do not fully apprehend the artistic world, we should in equal measure interpret the sum of our research (“the image of the poet”) as both objective truth and myth.

Insisting on the primacy of lived experience in art and its connection with the world view of the epoch (the objective mind), the Geistesgeschichte school neglected social and class motives. Developing the principle of “historicism,” especially its application to the change of artistic styles and forms, it avoided explaining the regularity of the historical process and tended to irrationalism and skepticism. As a school, it died out in the 1930’s, but contemporary literary criticism in the West, including existentialist literary criticism, often makes use of its principles, which are maintained by the journal Deutsches Vierteljahrschrift fur Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte (published in Stuttgart since 1923).


Zhirmunskii, V. M. “Noveishie techeniia istoriko-literaturnoi mysli v Germanii.” InPoetika, issue 2. Leningrad, 1927.
Khorvat, B. “O printsipakh metodologii literaturovedeniia v ïstorii dukha’.” Filosofskie nauki, 1967, no. 3.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.