I've seen both words used for "science". I'd like to clarify the differences. I'm guessing Naturwissenschaft means "Natural science" like Physics, Biology, etc, while Wissenschaft means "general science", including social sciences like "Political science". Is that true or is there no real difference?

(I did actually look for the definitions but the English blogs felt unclear and my German isn't good enough to read pure German dictionaries and dictionaries. I just wanted to make sure I've got the differences right.)

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    Your guess is true. Have you tried looking it up in a dictionary?
    – RalfFriedl
    Jul 19, 2019 at 5:43
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    @BjörnFriedrich "It cannot be other than" is a very strong claim. Did you never stumble across a so-called "false friend" such as handy and Handy, to just name one?
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Jul 19, 2019 at 8:34
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    @BjörnFriedrich My argument is that one cannot infer a translation from English to German merely based on the similarity of the words. I would just like to encourage you to change your perspective into someone who does not know the answer yet. This is the perspective we should take into account when answering questions: I don't know whether the OP was unsure, whether thought this might be false friends. My point is that they could have been.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Jul 19, 2019 at 9:50
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    To put it more directly: the existence of false friends proves that actually, it can be other than... So your claim is plainly wrong.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Jul 19, 2019 at 9:51
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    I did try looking it up but got some vague answers and my German's not quite enough to read entire German blogs explaining the words Jul 19, 2019 at 13:27

2 Answers 2


In German, the (general) sciences are typically coarsely subdivided into

  • Naturwissenschaften
  • Geisteswissenschaften
  • Sozialwissenschaften

Thanks to this classification, where Wissenschaften appears as a stem in all three hyponyms, people are usually aware that Wissenschaften is a hypernym (umbrella term) and that it is not restricted to the Naturwissenschaften. There is also no indication of such a restriction in dictionaries (see, e.g., DWDS, Wiktionary, Duden.de).

This may be different in English, where the stem sciences only appears in natural sciences (and social sciences), but not in humanities. The missing stem may be a reason why people do not think of humanities as a hyponym of sciences. But to discuss in depth the English terms would be out of scope at German Stackexchange.


If you look at the dictionary meanings of the terms, you're correct: "Wissenschaft" means science in general, "Naturwissenschaft" means natural science. But often the more general term "Wissenschaft" is used to refer only to "hard science", meaning natural science.

This can probably be best understood if you look at the idea of the two cultures, that the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow brought up in 1959. According to that idea, the intellectual life of the western societies was generally split into two cultures - the (natural) sciences on one hand, the humanities on the other hand. Snow described that dichotomy as a major hindrance to solving many problems.

For a long time, many people sort of looked down on humanities and didn't consider them "real sciences". After all, could social sciences, political sciences and so forth really prove their hypothesises like physics or chemistry could? Natural sciences were "hard science", verifiable, dependable. That "artsy stuff" that the people over at the humanities building were doing was mostly a matter of opinion and belief, maybe true, maybe not, wasn't it?

Over the decades, the gap got smaller. People learned that the insight in natural sciences has limits as well, and that the humanities has its own tool box of methods to underpin its claims. But, especially in media coverage, "Wissenschaft" is still used to refer to natural science only in many cases. As anecdotal evidence, I checked the first ten articles found on Google News for the search term "Wissenschaft" earlier today. Eight of them covered topics from natural science, but used more general terms like "Wissenschaft", "Wissenschaftler", "wissenschaftliche Studie" only. The remaining two were about the recent decisions in the Exzellenzinitiative which universities get additional money, that to my knowledge includes humanities as well.

(Because this question has been reopended again, I reworked my comments above into an answer.)

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    Alles, was Sie hier anführen, mag für science(s) in angelsächsischen Kulturkreisen richtig sein. Das Problem ist nur: Hier sind wir bei german Stackexchange, und für den deutschen Begriff Wissenschaft(en) ist das Beschriebene leider nicht korrekt. Im Englischen wird zwischen natural sciences und humanities unterschieden; der Begriff sciences steckt nur im ersten Begriff. Im Deutschen ist das anders: Dort wird klassischerweise zwischen Naturwissenschaften, Geisteswissenschaften und Sozialwissenschaften unterschieden ... Jul 22, 2019 at 12:09
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    ... Allein schon aufgrund dieser Einteilung wird der Begriff Wissenschaften allgemein als Oberbegriff verstanden. Ich kenne tatsächlich niemanden, der unter dem Begriff Wissenschaften nur die Naturwissenschaften subsumieren würde. Ich habe auch Ihre "anecdortal evidence" geprüft: von den 9 Google-Hits für Wissenschaft sind es nur 2(!), und nicht 8, die sich allein mit Naturwissenschaften beschäftigen, und davon ist eine, nämlich scinexx, die die angelsächsische Perspektive schon im Namen trägt. Jul 22, 2019 at 12:27
  • @BjörnFriedrich Wir müssen hier unterscheiden zwischen der "offiziellen", sozusagen der Wörterbuchdefinition der Begriffe und wie sie im Alltag verwendet werden. Und im Alltag wird "Wissenschaft" deutlich überwiegend als Naturwissenschaft verstanden und verwendet, wie ich es beschrieben habe. Jul 22, 2019 at 12:40
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    Das stimmt für den deutschen Begriff Wissenschaft einfach nicht. Übrigens verzeichnen Wörterbücher vor allem Begriffe, die im Alltag verwendet werden. Jul 22, 2019 at 12:42
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    @HenningKockerbeck: Wie häufig etwas verwendet wird, ist eine Frage der Quantität, nicht der Qualität. Daher kann man aus der Häufigkeit, bei der Sie recht haben mögen, nichts über die Qualität herleiten. Wenn Leute über Schwerkraft reden greifen sie vielleicht häufiger zum Begriff Wissenschaft, als wenn sie über den Faust oder die alten Griechen reden. Das gibt aber die Bedeutung des Begriffs dann nicht vor. Die Deutschen reden auch häufiger über Hauskatzen als Großkatzen; dennoch ist der Oberbegriff Katze für beide gleich richtig. Jul 22, 2019 at 13:02

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