Teleology as a method of historical cognition H.Rickert’s philosophy


The research is carried out within the framework of the Scientific Research Project of SPSU (23.38.328.2015).


The paper is devoted to the explication of the inner mechanism of the teleological method in its relation to values as the principle of historical cognition as it is presented in H.Rickert’s philosophy. The problem of the principles and methods of historical cognition is extremely important for contemporary philosophy as its crucial points concern not only basic grounds of historical cognition itself but also the very being of Mankind. One can see that nowadays among historians and philosophers there is not common and firm understanding of what the essence of historical cognition is and what methods it must be guided by. There is a variety of conceptions and viewpoints on this problem. It has led to the fact that different types of history has appeared. Now we cannot speak about history, but we have to speak about histories or even historical strategies and practices of historical cognition. However, the situation becomes complicated when we realize that the problem does not only belong to the sphere of pure science but it also deals with our own self-consciousness and self-understanding. It becomes clear when history is used in politics. Here it serves as an instrument of manipulation and a force of forming an ideology. Using history, political and military propaganda gives simple and unequivocal worldview. Thus, propaganda replaces methodological perplexity and philosophical disappointment caused by postmodern intellectual ferment.

Keywords: historical cognition; teleology; philosophy; Neo-kantianism; historical method; German philosophy


It is well known that in the course of its development European science has advanced to the full elimination of teleology from the cognition. The presence of teleology in scientific studies of the past has been considered as a theological and metaphysical prejudices which have to be rejected by modern progressive knowledge. Any possible reference to purposes in nature or history has been treated to be a misconception of the scientific subject, as purposes are totally alien to the matter (both in nature and history). The world the scientists cognize is devoid of purposes because they are peculiar to intelligent beings, i.e., humans, while the world itself is only subjected to universal and necessary laws independent from voluntary actions of any wishing beings. The scientists of the past were compelled to introduce certain teleological principles into their research in order to understand the reality because their knowledge about nature and history was incomplete and their methodology was poor and undeveloped. But it is believed now that present-day level of the science affords us to avoid the unnecessary teleological prejudices which are considered to hinder the right scientific research only.

However productive for natural science this approach is, it can seriously be questioned whether this view based on rough positivistic philosophy is quite applicable to the historical studies and is sufficient for understanding the very world. This conception of the scientific methodology seems to be relied on that old and already discredited positivism which shaped the course of the scientific knowledge in the 19th century, and nobody thinks it to be relevant to contemporary sciences and to cognition itself. In the light of these grounded doubts, one can observe that at one and the same time with the rise of positivistic methodology European philosophy suggested strong and coherent theory which contests the abovementioned approach; Southwestern or Baden school of Neo-Kantianism elaborated the philosophy challenging all essential tenets of positivistic and naturalistic worldview. The most significant and hitherto unnoticed fact is that in the sphere of methodology of historicafl cognition H.Rickert proposed the doctrine undermining the idea that teleology can be avoided by the historians. This Rickert’s idea needs to be considered as it remarkably changes the understanding of the essence of both teleology and historical cognition.

The twofold aim Heinrich Rickert sets himself in his main work The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science is both to delimit naturalistic point of view pretending to universal methodological meaning for cognition and to identify the essence of historical sciences themselves; the first task implies the second one, as only after defining the limits of natural science we can find place for history. Natural sciences, as Rickert puts it, suggest that their methods are universal and any scientific research can only prove its scientificity with the reference to the natural science. The approach is in the idea that scientificity is universal for all types of research, and it coincides with natural science. The only way to form historical investigation is to apply the approach common to all sciences and elaborated by naturalists in details to the specific subject of historical research.There is no difference in history and natural science except in their subjects; both history and natural science have common principles. For H.Rickert this was the result of extrapolation of the naturalistic worldview on all manifestations of life. It is well known that he considered this point of view to be fallacious and opposed it. The core of his argument lies in his theory of concept formation. He had found new type of concepts and based historical sciences on them. He characterized this type of concept formation as teleological. He wrote: “«<…> [699]we can characterize it (the unity of the historical individual – V.K.) <…> <…> as the teleological unity and in-dividuals as teleological individuals. But as historical concept formation always have to be fixed to this teleological formation of individuals, we shall also call its principle teleological and shall distinguish historical concept formation from natural science one as teleological concept formation” 1.

Thus, he found the essence of historical sciences in the position extremely rebutted by all scientists and scholars of that age. As it is obvious that after the failure of the great systematic philosophy of German idealism and subsequent expansion of positivism strengthened with the success of natural sciences any version of teleology could only be seen as unscientific, metaphysical and mystical. A research exploring the empirical data and stating the facts of experience could only satisfy the demands of the new philosophical approach.And as teleology was not immanent to empirical reality it should be excluded from the tools of the science, as the majority of scientists thought. However, H.Rickert found that history could not elude teleology in its research.The aim of this paper is to show how according to Rickert teleology belongs to the historical concept formation and how it forms the essence of history as a strict science. Also, I would like to stress the meaning of this idea for present-day discussion on the methods of historical sciences in the wide context.


H.Rickert starts with explaining how the problem of concept formation belongs to the historical sciences. In his opinion, when speaking about natural science, it is not seriously questionable what to form the concept means. The task here consists in the finding common features in the given multitude of objects. The concepts of natural sciences fix general characteristics of things and reveal laws of nature. That is why their method is generalization. But Rickert is convinced that there is a wide group of sciences oriented to the understanding of individual things. “They want to give account of reality that is never general but is always individual from the point of view of its individuality; and as we speak about the latter, the concept of natural science appears to be feeble because its meaning is based on the very fact that it excludes everything individual as unimportant” 2. Rickert differentiates historical source and historical fact and states that they do not coincide with each other. Historical sciences cannot take the empirical facts in the same sense as natural sciences. He writes that history “must always deduce to them (i.e., the facts – V.K.) from the saved traces <…> and that is why it does not have the factual material as the immeasurable multitude but the material given by the sources” 3. The main point is that considering the sources we always know more than we have, even in the case of lack of the sources. The historian always deals with the vast and chaotic material which he tries to put in order. He has to simplify the reality given to his consciousness and he needs the principle for this operation, as history “cannot be limited to the story about “how this really was” but its task is always to discern necessary from unnecessary” 4. And we must have a principle guiding our mental activity in this field. The result of this reasonable activity in history is the historical fact, i.e., in contrast to natural science the historical fact is not what historian finds as a given datum but what he himself creates. Thus, the reason of historian is understood here as an active force forming the intelligible reality from chaotic and multiple matter. This means that reason does not slavishly follow the experience but creates the world we live in, on the one hand, on the basis of complex and diverse data, and on the other hand, with the guidance of the definite intellectual principle.

The task[700] of the Rickert’s research is to explicate this principle and the process of historical cognition.

Actually, forming our historical concepts, we select necessary features of the given material and put them into a single intellectual unit – this is the essence of cognition in concepts itself; this selection means simplification of the empirical reality, and this operation needs the principle, or the premise. This can be said about both natural sciences and historical ones. However, the difference between two types of sciences can be observed in the essence of this principle and in the result of its employment by the researcher. As I have already mentioned above, H.Rickert claims that the sense of historic concept formation lies in individuality and natural science ends where individuality begins. The paradoxical point consists here in the fact that what we see as individual is not identical to what individual really is, i.e., this individual is always “immeasurable manifold”, and the problem of historical cognition lies in the task to grasp this individual multiplicity without generalizing it, as generalization is the method of natural science. This is the way we cognize the individual.

Rickert tries and find this principle – the principle governing the operation of combining the elements of historical concepts, which at the same time implies their individual content; in the sphere of history combination of elements of the concepts is not based on what is general to them. Rickert scrutinizes the notion of individual and explicates that this word contains two senses: uniqueness, on the one hand, and “In a more specific and etymological sense, a historical individual is what «should not be divided» (Rickert 1986, 85)” 5. Rickert insists that in the case of historical cognition uniqueness serves as a basis for the unity of multiplicity. With the help of the famous example of Koh-I-Noor he shows that uniqueness forms the basis for unity of the individual when one consider the object in its relation to some value. «The diamond should not be divided into parts and this fact should be relevant to all bodies which are in-dividuals: the above-mentioned type of unity can only appear due to the fact that their uniqueness is related to a value” 6. (H.Rickert also differentiates two types of individual: individual being as a representation of the general law, this view on individual is inherent to the natural sciences, and individual the uniqueness of which is the basis for their integrity, unity. It is obvious that historical individual only concerns the latter). No doubt, if we speak about history as a strict science we should only take into account generally acknowledged values, which are obligatory for everybody. Historical consideration of things is the result of the man’s wishes to deal with reality because he only assesses things when he wishes something from them, i.e., when he is interested in them. But this can be treated as the initial impulse to historical thinking, i.e., comprehending things as individuals, while the point of history as a science is to obtain the standpoint based on universal values. The first attitude to things is only inhere to everyday thinking, but the aim of science is to be founded on the absolute ground. Universal values form this ground and principle of individualizing concept formation of historical sciences.


What is crucial in this consideration is that Rickert sees the essence of the process of the concept formation in teleology. At the same time he keeps himself away from some well-known teleological conceptions of history, which he links with two types of historical teleology: metaphysic and rationalistic. Metaphysical teleology implies that there is an aim preceding the current events as their cause. In Rickert’s opinion, in this case, we see that causal relation between cause and effect is simply overturned, i.e. [701]cause and effect changed their places. Rickert maintains: “<…> in teleological understanding of causality the succession of cause and effect turns over, i.e., in one case cause entails the effect in some way, while in another case final goal possesses the ability to attract that by means of what it must be obtained” 7. This fact means that final purpose itself is not presented empirically and, thus, cannot be observed by experiential sciences. This purpose is only thought by a historian, whilst empirical facts have nothing to do with it. This purpose is usually put into the future as a sense of historical development. This idea of purpose governs the historical cognition in selecting the elements for concept formation. It leads to the well-ordered and understandable picture of history, but the shortcoming of the understanding of history based on such approach is that it usually contradicts the historical material and sources, moreover is cannot deal with any new historical data. The result is that historical theory is speculative and normally even distorts history. The reason is that the final purpose of history as a governing principle of the cognition cannot be perceived in the experience, but it is the result of philosophers’ speculations. This is the type of history suggested by German classical idealism. Rickert decidedly rejects it as well as another type of teleology which he calls rationalistic. The latter means that all historical events should be explained by the aims set by people. The point of this teleology is that to understand history means to find what use people could make of historical phenomena and events which they take part in. The example of such approach can be found in the popular liberal political philosophy explanation of the origin of the state: the so-called social contract. It reads that people made an agreement to provide each other safety and established authorities which have to defend their rights. Here, the purpose people allegedly had forms the historical explanation of the state and civil society, but nobody can prove it by historical sources and the admission of this purpose leaves to be no more than the theoretical assumption of metaphysicians. This variant of teleology does not correlate with historical data and material, that is why it should be dismissed.

H.Rickert suggests completely another variant of teleology compatible with modern understanding of science that strives to eliminate extrinsic metaphysical presuppositions and to rely on empirical data. His approach combines the intellectual essence of any teleology and the requirement to base scientific inferences on empirical data. In Rickert’s view, the teleological character of history is determined with the relating to the generally acknowledged values. He argues: “<…> teleological character of history is not determined with the purposes that are met in the experience but only with the points of view relating to the values, which are born in mind in the process of historical concept formation <…>” 8. This means, on Rickert, that historians even do not realize the teleological nature of their cognition. Teleological sense of historical cognition consists in the fact that in building a historical concept scientists select the features which they understand necessary for it. The selected elements are arranged in a specific order, hence they have their own meaning and position in the whole concept. These position and meaning are regulated by the values as general principles of cognition; they (principles) underpin the integrity of elements in a single unit. The systematic integrity of the multiplicity of elements in a single unit implies the teleological nexus between them. This is the way the historical facts are created: in the process of selecting the necessary features under the definite principles so as to form a teleological unity of elements. What one has in the result is the intellectual entity arranged in the certain teleological order by our rationality. And it should be noted that according to Rickert, our intellect never possesses it before the real process of [702]cognition, as it is something to be achieved at the end. We are guided by certain principle of finding the necessary features of the concept and at the same time, we do not know what we shall have before the end of the cognitive work.

However, one should bear in mind that this teleological way of thinking is only inherent to the methodological side of cognition, i.e., it only concerns the manner we act when we build the historical facts. H.Rickert’s point is that history merely means the method. That is why teleology is only about methodology. Hence, the teleological perspective underlies the individualizing method of historical sciences and historical cognition itself when it is employed in natural sciences. This leads to the understanding that teleology is latently inherent to the very cognition and is unavoidable; the truth is that it does not concern any metaphysical principle of comprehending the secret plan of history being thus beyond the reach of empirical science, but deals with the intellectual process of concept formation.


These Rickert’s ideas open the brilliant perspective for the understanding the process of human cognition. It helps us find the position to form pure concepts, i.e., disinterested and objective, because if one forms his point of view on the basis of absolute values, he has as a result many-sided, impartial and universal for everybody picture of some situation, historical event or a problem. This method is a real key to objectivity and truth.It especially relevant to historical sciences having the potential for being used to ground an ideology. It is well known that historical sciences are often used as means of totalitarian ideology and political manipulation, which can be seen as a great threat to human liberty. Rickert’s approach also has a great significance to the very science: it reveals the horizon of universal and united science that eludes the today polyphony of historical strategies and paradigms. Thus, it can lead to universal and integral scientific picture of reality, which the man extremely lacks nowadays.

And speaking about H.Rickert’s doctrine specifically, one can notice that the realization of the significance of teleology for modern science and even its rehabilitation seems to be one of the Rickert’s essential achievements. If his general view on historical science is admitted, one cannot reject the role of teleological thinking in cognition. The issue is that teleology is even peculiar to historical cognition, forming its essence. This concerns methodological perspective of teleology.

  • [1] Riсkert H. Granitsyi estestvennonauchnogo obrazovaniya ponyatiy. Logicheskoe vvedenie v istoricheskie nauki. Russia, 1997, p. 299.
  • [2] Rickert H. Nauki o prirode i nauki o kulture. Russia, 1998. p. 74.
  • [3] Riсkert H. Granitsyi estestvennonauchnogo obrazovaniya ponyatiy. Logicheskoe vvedenie v istoricheskie nauki. Russia, 1997, p. 268.
  • [4] Idem, pp. 270-271.
  • [5] Staiti, Andrea, "Heinrich Rickert", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
  • [6] Riсkert H. Granitsyi estestvennonauchnogo obrazovaniya ponyatiy. Logicheskoe vvedenie v istoricheskie nauki. Russia, 1997, p. 286.
  • [7] Idem, p. 300. 11. Section Philosophy
  • [8] Idem, p. 302.

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