Qualifying Exams - Philosophical Ethics

From BrothersBrothers



Discuss the practical-moral concerns that motivate Gadamer in Truth and Method. In particular, discuss how these interests caused Gadamer to radically depart from the earlier traditions in the field of hermeneutics.


  1. Gadamer begins his introduction to Truth and Method with a very simple statement of purpose: "These studies are concerned with the problem of hermeneutics."
  2. While in this statement Gadamer identifies the explicit topic of Truth and Method, he leaves much unsaid. For example, he indicates not only that he is interested in working in the field of hermeneutics, but that he is interested in the "problem of" hermeneutics. What problem does he have in mind?
  3. Going further, the title of the book indicates a focus on "truth" and "method." What is the relationship between these topics and the field of hermeneutics?
  4. In this lecture, I will explore the concerns that motivated Gadamer to address hermeneutics in his masterwork, Truth and Method.
  5. I will begin with some clarifying statements about the changing of scope of Gadamer's discussion. At times in Truth and Method he focuses on the rather particular situation of a reader interpreting a text or a person viewing a work of art. At other times he seems to speaking in the more general terms of phenomenology, of the "I" and the "thou". What does Gadamer's use of these different contexts tell us about his motivations and interests in this text?
  6. Behind the question of Gadamer's motivations is the question of his influences. As Gadamer would surely agree, the questions that occupy Gadamer's attention in Truth and Method are not arbitrary; they develop out of the intellectual tradition of which Gadamer is a part. Gadamer himself noted a continuity between his early development and that of nineteenth-century German philosophy, with its genealogical path starting with the German Idealists with Schleiermacher, and then continuing on to Dilthey, to Husserl, and finally to Gadamer's own teacher, Heidegger (Gadamer's autobiographical sketch, Philosophische Lehrjahre, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1977).
  7. Despite this genealogy among German thinkers, Gadamer can also claim a significant influence from Greek philosophers, "I have been formed more by the Platonic dialogues than by the great thinkers of German Idealism." (76:25)
  8. To be sure, in Truth and Method Gadamer engages with the questions and concerns of a wide range of thinkers. His texts often move across periods and nationalities, from figure to figure, as he engages a string of related concerns.
  9. For my purposes, the question of influences is most important because it can help clarify Gadamer's own work. By examining those thinkers with whom he engages, especially those against whom he takes a polemical position, I hope to help clarify his concerns.
  10. In this lecture I will clarify how Gadamer places himself into the intellectual tradition concerned with the topic of hermeneutics by exploring how he engages with the philosophical hermeneutics of two German thinkers, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey. In particular, I will attend to Gadamer's concern regarding historical consciousness, a concern whose origin he finds in Schleiermacher's work. I will then touch on Gadamer's engagement with Wilhelm Dilthey on the topic of methods in light of historical consciousness.
  11. We will find that Gadamer's focus here is highly revealing. His explicit aim in Truth and Method is to develop his own account of hermeneutics. But his account of his predecessors in the field of hermeneutics, Schleiermacher and Dilthey in particular, reveals that Truth and Method is not so much an evolutionary step in the field of hermeneutics, but rather a disavowal of much of the tradition of philosophical hermeneutics in German thinking.

The Contexts of Truth and Method

  1. To begin, it will be helpful to note how Gadamer moves in his discussion between a range of specific contexts and a more abstract context. Gadamer's interest in hermeneutics crosses into several areas of application, and his account depends on movement from the specific to the general and back.
  2. Let us consider, then, a table with two rows (Table 1). The two rows represent the two levels of specificity and generality that Gadamer uses to examine, develop, and apply hermeneutics in Truth and Method.
    • The first row represents Gadamer's engagement with others, including Schleiermacher, at the level of a specific field of application. Schleiermacher's work focused primarily on the reading of biblical scripture, so when Gadamer's is engaging with Schleiermacher his discussion frequently refers to a reader or interpreter. The person in this role is seeking to understand an element of his or her subject matter, such as an historical text. Gadamer's discussion addresses a number of these fields. For example, the greater part of the first chapter of Truth and Method is dedicated to examining how a viewer encounters a piece of visual art; Gadamer also refers frequently to the way a judge or legal scholar engages with a piece of law, such as a statute or case history (RitAoS 95, T&M 309 and following). It will be productive to think of each of these specific fields of interpretation as a type of practice. In this dimension of hermeneutics understanding is directed toward some specific purpose in an area of interest; the focus here is not on understanding in general.
    • It is in the the second row that we see Gadamer's movement to a more generic framing of hermeneutics. Here, hermeneutics is concerned with understanding in general, and therefore the discussion focuses on the encounter of an "I" with a "thou". In this context, the "I" is analogous to the reader in Schleiermacher's work, and the thou is analogous to either the historical text or its author. When Gadamer moves into this frame, he is drawing from a number of figures in the tradition of philosophical hermeneutics. Heidegger, in his work on phenomenological hermeneutics, often presented his discussion using the example of an abstract I and thou. Dilthey likewise used this framing language (Linge 541).
  3. We will see that Gadamer's discussion moves back and forth between these two contexts, between the general and the specific. It is important to note, however, that Gadamer does not intend only to move from one discipline, like textual hermeneutics, to the general, and then make specific suggestions for another field, such as interpretation of a work of art. Rather, Gadamer's movement from the general back to a practice is intended to illuminate how all practices that are oriented toward understanding (and we will later see that he means essentially all of human life) take place.
  4. In particular, Gadamer is interested in the set of practices called the Geisteswissenschaften. The Geisteswissenschaften are the scholarly areas of human studies that in the schema of continental Europe include such fields as literature, aesthetics, history, sociology, and many others. In the US and UK these fields would be divided into the Humanities and the Social Sciences; on the continent these are all included within the Geisteswissenschaften.
  5. Gadamer he develops many of his observations about interpretation and understanding in examples drawn from specific disciplines. He then moves to the general, in which he utilizes the observations he is able to make with respect to understanding in specific disciplines to draw more general conclusions about understanding and human ontology. He then directs his observations developed in the framing of this second row toward application in his examination of the Geisteswissenschaften.
  6. With this aim in mind, let us turn now to a few specific issues that Gadamer raises in his discussion of two previous figures in the intellectual history of hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey.


  1. In Truth and Method, Gadamer develops his own account of hermeneutics in large part in contrast to the romantic tradition in hermeneutics (Bontekoe 1). Gadamer takes Schleiermacher as the founder and spokesperson for this tradition, and addresses Schleiermacher's hermeneutics project in great detail.
  2. This account of Schleiermacher's hermeneutics is a crucial element of Truth and Method. This is true not only because Gadamer returns repeatedly during his constructive work to some of his key observations about Schleiermacher's hermeneutics. Gadamer's interpretation and critique of Schleiermacher has also arisen as a target for a number of Gadamer's own critics (Bontekoe).
  3. In order to explore the relationship between Schleiermacher's hermeneutics and Gadamer's own constructive project, I will begin by briefly reviewing the general thread of Schleiermacher's hermeneutics. I will then explore a specific critique Gadamer makes of this work, and the role this critique plays in Gadamer's own philosophical hermeneutics.
  1. On Schleiermacher's account, hermeneutics is an activity that seeks to reconstruct the intended meaning of the authors of texts.
  2. Schleiermacher proposes that such reconstruction can be pursued through a back-and-forth movement between two modes of interpretation.
    • The first focuses on the "grammar" of the text, including the diction and structure of the words, sentences, and paragraphs in a text, and the placement of the overall text in a specific genre. The consideration of these "grammatical" elements of a text should explicitly take account of the historical context in which the text was written. The interpretation of genre, for example, is a matter of situating the author's choice and use of genre within the author's historical setting.
    • The second mode of interpretation is oriented toward understanding the author's life circumstances within his or her historical context. Schleiermacher calls this the "technical" or "psychological" side of interpretation; Gadamer uses primarily the latter label.
  3. Schleiermacher acknowledges that interpreters are limited in their ability to attain complete understanding of both the grammatical dimension of a text and the psychological dimension of a text. Complete understanding of a text would require both. But understanding, albeit imperfect understanding, can be attained, on Schleiermacher's account, through an approach to interpretation that moves back and forth between these two modes. Schleiermacher proposes that insights attained through an examination of the grammatical side of a text can inform work on research on the psychological side, and vice versa.
  4. Gadamer attends closely to what Schleiermacher has in mind on the psychological side of interpretation. He considers this Schleiermacher's "most characteristic contribution" (T&M 186, See also RitAoS 130). While he considers Schleiermacher's account of grammatical interpretation to be "brilliant," he opts to "pass over" this portion of Schleiermacher's work (T&M 186).
  5. Gadamer's attention to psychological interpretation is directed primarily at Schleiermacher's claim that hermeneutics can allow an interpreter to understand what an author is saying better than the author him or herself. This is clearly a key issue for Gadamer; he claims that "this statement contains the whole problem of hermeneutics" (T&M 192, 71:11).
  6. Gadamer interprets Schleiermacher as saying that in "reconstructing" the process by which an author produced a text, the interpreter will bring to light many influences and activities of which the the author was not conscious. Referring to his earlier discussion of genius in the production of works of art, Gadamer notes that Schleiermacher's interpretation of the production of a text is based on the "aesthetics of genius," that much of what a genius puts into generating a work is unconscious. For Schleiermacher, the reader can bring those unconscious elements to light, and thus understand the text better than the author did.
  7. Why Gadamer considers this statement to contain the "whole problem" of hermeneutics is of great interest, even though a complete account of the importance of this statement is beyond the scope of this discussion.
  8. I can make a one observation here on why this claim so troubles Gadamer. Gadamer observes that understanding interpretation as involving the reconstruction of an author's perspective is to treat a text as a "purely expressive phenomenon" (T&M 196). In this way, Schleiermacher's account of hermeneutics disregards the content of texts; it ignores a text's subject matter. Instead, it seeks to understand why an author would have thought that what he was saying was true. For Gadamer, this point of view implicitly rejects the possibility that the text might have something "true" to say quite beyond why the author believed what he or she was claiming.
Historical Consciousness: Meaning vs. Truth
  1. Although much of Schleiermacher's work dealt with scriptural hermeneutics, since this was the source of his practical interest in hermeneutics, he was also quite interested in understanding as it takes place in the interaction with other humans (RitAoS 113, 48:1). The same is true for Gadamer. His interest in Schleiermacher's work is directed not only at his work on textual hermeneutics, but also on understanding in general.
  2. In order to explore Gadamer's concern, let us consider a second table with the same two rows as the first (Table 2).
  3. For this new table, we can add three columns. These columns represent the orientations that an "I" can take toward a "thou". Gadamer argues that there are three such orientations. The first two of these Gadamer calls the "self-regarding" ways of experiencing the thou.
    • The first column signifies one specific dimension of the human sciences. In this orientation, the I treats the thou as an object that can be understood under the rubric of human nature. In this account, neither the I nor the thou are historical figures, but rather the thou is an ahistorical object that can be known through universal, theoretical laws. The knowing subject regards him or herself as ahistorical as well, since neither the knowledge that is gained nor the methods that are utilized to gain it are regarded as historically situated. Gadamer regards this approach to the thou to be a "cliched version of scientific method" (T&M 359). Although Gadamer may find some value in this approach to a thou when the thou is an object in the natural sciences, there is no question that he rejects it in the human sciences. Gadamer emphatically argues that both the I and the thou are historical figures whose existence is determined by those elements of tradition that have formed them. While Gadamer generally rejects this stance, he also pays very little attention to it. We will see why when as we turn to the second column.
    • The second column represents an orientation in which the I regards the thou in its historical situatedness. In the 19th and 20th centuries, all the fields in the Geisteswissenschaften in one way or the other has come developed an orientation to its subject matter that focuses on its history. As David Linge has observed, each field in the Geisteswissenschaften "regards it an important part of its task to examine the ideas, problems, and texts with which it is concerned from the point of view of their historical origin and development and the various historical influences upon them" (Linge 537).
  4. This focus within the Geisteswissenschaften on the historical roots and influences on its subject matter is more than just a topical interest in history. The pervasiveness of an historical perspective within the human studies is the result of a movement toward what Gerhard Ebeling calls "the merely historical" (Linge 538). In the pre-modern era, history was seen as a series of events that carried a meaning. For example, history could be seen as the fulfillment of prophecy, or as the result of divine providence. The passage of historical time brought meaning to the events that comprised it.
  5. In the Enlightenment, history persisted in carrying meaning, as it reflected human progress toward greater knowledge or other humanistic ideals.
  6. The "merely historical" refers to the tendency in the 19th and 20th centuries to no longer view history as illegible or meaningful. History ceased to be viewed as "disclosive of anything of absolute or transcendent significance" (Linge 538). Historical events came to be seen as reflecting only the limited perspective of persons shaped by their history.
  7. Gadamer and other have called this orientation "historical consciousness", and finds Friedrich Schleiermacher to be an important early figure in the movement toward this orientation.
  8. Gadamer's engagement with historical consciousness makes it clear that he is deeply concerned about the implications of this mindset. In fact, Truth and Method, or at least its Part 2, can be read as an extended critique of this orientation toward the past.
  9. In particular, he concerned with the project of the Geisteswissenschaften when it aims to a subject matter that is regarded as historically situated, but views the methods that it views as outside that historicity. We will return to the topic of method in the next section, but for now it is important to note only that Gadamer perceives a profound contradiction in an orientation that treats a thou in its historical situation from the perspective of a knowing subject that regards itself as outside that history.
  10. Gadamer rejects historical consciousness for at least two related reasons.
  11. The first reason is that he believes that persons always encounter texts, works of art, and indeed all "thous", with a set of prejudices. He even formulates this more strongly: it is through our prejudices that we are able to engage with the other. Gadamer discusses this formulation in the context of literary hermeneutics: we start by "project[ing] a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges in the text" (T&M 267). This initial meaning only emerges because the reader brings with him or her a set of expectations that allow such a recognition. The process of understanding proceeds as we challenge our initial meaning against the evidence that arises in the text. When we encounter information that causes us to question our first impression, we revise our interpretation and move forward with the revised interpretation serving as our new prejudice (T&M 267).
  12. It is important to note that Gadamer wants to extend this account of the way prejudices are necessary for understanding into all occasions of understanding, into the general condition of the encounter of the I and the thou, and throughout human studies. He argues that prejudices are constitutive of our being. "The prejudices of the individual," he argues, "far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being" (T&M 276-277).
  13. Because prejudices are constitutive of our being, attempts to eliminate them completely from the way we encounter a text, a thou, or a tradition, as in this case in historical consciousness, are at best futile. At their worst, such attempts warp our understanding like a "distorted mirror" (T&M 276).
  14. This brings us to the second reason Gadamer rejects historical consciousness: because it prevents us from discovering truth in the other. A more in-depth discussion of truth will need to await a later lecture, but suffice it to say for now that when we acknowledge our relatedness with others, we no longer treat the other as an object of a knowing subject. Rather, we recognize the demands the other makes on us, and the background that we share in common. In this way, we encounter the thou as someone who has something to say to us, something that might cause us to revise our own perspective.
  15. Likewise, historical consciousness prevents us from discovering in our tradition those truth claims that both already constitute who we are, and challenge us to revise our present understanding.
  16. We can now see clearly one reason that Gadamer attends so closely to Schleiermacher's hermeneutics. In Schleiermacher's work in the context of interpreting biblical scriptures, he introduces an orientation toward the past that others, especially Wilhelm Dilthey, would later take up in the broader context of philosophical hermeneutics and the orientation of the Geisteswissenschaften.
  17. We will see in the third lecture in this series that Gadamer regards his own account of hermeneutics as a radical departure from that of Schleiermacher. We will see that he wants us to rethink the orientation of the I toward the thou. It is this third column, Gadamer's account of historically-effected consciousness, that provides a corrective to, and radical department from, the historical consciousness that took its direction from Schleiermacher.
  1. Let us now focus specifically on the issue of method, a matter that Gadamer sees as closely related to that of historical consciousness.
  2. Gadamer does not provide a formal definition of what he means when he refers to method, but it is clear that method for him is tightly bound to three related terms: science, certainty, and objectivity.
  3. For Gadamer, the development that defines the modern era is the co-emergence of science and method. Gadamer sees this pair of concepts emerge first through the work of Galileo, and notes that they later received a philosophically grounding through the work of Descartes (RitAoS 6, 43:2).
  4. Based on this provenance which Gadamer attributes to science and method, it is clear that he does not have in mind the scientific method of experimentation. He has something much more general in mind. His reference to Descartes is apt, given Descartes' extensive work on developing a method for discovering certain knowledge in his works Discourse on Method and Regulae (RitAoS 156, 50:4).
  5. However, Gadamer's interest is not directed primarily toward Descartes' specific method. Descartes' importance for Gadamer is rooted in the fact that he refined an orientation toward knowledge that demands certainty. The Cartesian heritage for the Enlightenment is the tendency to accept "nothing as certain that can in any way be doubted" (T&M 271)
  6. The only way to justify knowledge, then, is to utilize an appropriate method. Descartes pursued one such method in his work to devise a rational method to render concepts "clear and distinct" (Bernstein 117). Bacon and others elaborated a set of experimental methods. The common thread is that after Descartes, the certainty of knowledge is guaranteed by the use of a method that can render that knowledge objective, i.e. by a method that eliminates "every subjective presupposition" (RitAoS 99, 47:27).
  7. But in order to see the significance of this claim for Gadamer, we must frame Cartesian doubt with its direct corollary, what Gadamer calls the Enlightenment's "prejudice against prejudice" (T&M 270).
  8. He defines prejudice, at least in the period prior to the Enlightenment, as "a judgment that is rendered before all the elements that determine a situation have been finally examined" (T&M 270). In this way, prejudice can have a positive or negative connotation; there are prejudices that are legitimate or warranted. But from the point of view of the Enlightenment, the only judgments that are rationally warranted are those that have received justification through an appropriate method.
  9. Gadamer arguably does not reject the value of methodological justification for some types of knowledge (T&M 283). However, he has a number of concerns about the implications of the Enlightenment's focus on method. One such concern lies in its rejection of any knowledge that has been derived from some other source, such as the knowledge that is handed down in tradition. The Enlightenment does not accept that there may be "other kinds of certainty," and so such judgments are "unfounded" (T&M 271). Gadamer observes that "the methodological spirit of science permeates everywhere" (T&M xxix, 67:3), setting up a type of monopoly over truth claims.
  10. Nowhere has this monopoly caused more damage than in the fields of the Geisteswissenschaften.
  11. As I have indicated previously, Gadamer's interest in the Geisteswissenschaften is broad. In his writings he has discussed the role of method in the healing arts, philosophy, art, poetry, Scriptural exegesis, historical studies, and others. He is interested not only in those disciplines in human studies that have become social sciences, like history or sociology, but also those fields called "humanities" in the English-speaking world. He acknowledges that the tendency to focus on method to guarantee certain knowledge is especially strong in the German context. He observes that, "Nowhere else had [the human sciences] so consistently concealed the orienting, ideological determination of their interests behind the method-consciousness of their scientific procedure. In Germany, even humanities like literature have at times been reframed as sciences, as in the term Literaturwissenschaft, or literary science (RitAoS 131). But Gadamer finds this trend elsewhere, even in fields that are not regarded as explicitly "scientific".
  12. Although he is interested the implications of method in all of these fields, he discusses at length the growing influence of method in the field hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the field explicitly interested in the approaches interpreters take in order to gain understanding with respect to a subject matter. Just as Gadamer approaches hermeneutics from within specific practices and from the perspective of understanding in general, hermeneutics is an element of all of the Geisteswissenschaften, and a field of inquiry on its own. For this reason , Gadamer believes that certain developments in hermeneutics paved the way for method to come to dominate all of the Geisteswissenschaften.
  13. Let us turn now to Gadamer's account of that history.
  14. Gadamer traces the roots of method in hermeneutics to Schleiermacher. As I have noted, Schleiermacher developed a discipline centered on the back-and-forth movement between the grammatical and psychological sides of interpretation. However, he was explicit that no specific rules could stipulate exactly how this movement should take place to maximize understanding (Bontekoe 3, 81:4). Schleiermacher viewed his approach as a Kunstlehre des Verstehens, a teachable skill or technique for understanding (Grondin 37, 79:6 and RitAoS 129, 48:15). For Schleiermacher and for Gadamer, technique does not necessarily imply a method.
  15. But Gadamer sees Schleiermacher's introduction of the psychological side of interpretation as the point of entry for method into philosophical hermeneutics. Schleiermacher rejected a specific method, but he did point to the distinction between a laxer and more rigorous practice of hermeneutics (RitAoS 129-130). In order for a hermeneutic practice to be more rigorous, it should start with the assumption that when one encounters an other, a text or a person, misunderstanding is the default. The rigorous practice of hermeneutics must therefore aim to correct that misunderstanding. For Schleiermacher, hermeneutics is a Kunstlehre oriented toward avoiding misunderstanding. Although Schleiermacher rejected the goal of developing a method, he did demonstrate at least a nascent form of the Cartesian doubt.
  16. For Gadamer, this move would open the door for his successors to develop philosophical hermeneutics into a field oriented around method.
  17. It was Wilhelm Dilthey, Gadamer says, who took up Schleiermacher's account and developed it into a method for understanding. Dilthey was explicitly focused beyond specific methods to be used for interpreting texts or works of art, and intended to develop an epistemological basis for the Geisteswissenschaften through method on par with that of the natural sciences (T&M 198, 71:21).
  18. Dilthey, like Schleiermacher, saw human beings as historically-situated objects who could come to be understood through an examination of that historical situation. As Dilthey was well aware, however, this stance involves a problem. If we enter into an examination of historically-situated human existence from the orientation of Cartesian doubt, how can we justify this study from an epistemological basis that itself sits outside that history? In other words, how can the study of history achieve certainty if the perspective of the subject is itself historically situated? Gadamer calls this the "aporias of historicism"; it is an epistemological puzzle.
  19. The clue to Dilthey's solution to this puzzle can be found in his statement, "The first condition of possibility of a science of history is that I myself am a historical being" (Gesammelte Schriften, VII, 278, referenced by Gadamer at T&M 222).
  20. For Dilthey, the condition of being an "historical being" does not imply, as it does for Gadamer, that experience should primarily be viewed as shaped or conditioned by historical circumstances.
  21. Rather that history shaping lives, history is itself comprised of lives; history is the "the course of life in time" (Linge 540). Because of this, it is possible to understand history by understanding life, since "history is dependent on life and derives its content from it" (Linge 540).
  22. Let us consider what Dilthey means when he speaks of life. Gadamer and Dilthey agree that life involves the encounter of experience with an historical world. This encounter shapes that experience, and thus shapes life. For Gadamer, this encounter is subtle and infinitely variable. We are not aware of all of the ways that experience shapes us, and we are each shaped differently by the varying conditions that we encounter in the course of a changing history.
  23. For Dilthey, however, the overall structure of the encounter of experience with the world creates a type homogeneity in life. The human self is initially formed with a set of instincts and drives, and its immediate experience is that it encounters resistance from without. This sets up a reciprocity in which the intentionality of the self and the conditioning effect of the outside world enter into a "life-relation." Lived experience from the beginning involves this interaction that precedes conscious or conceptual thought (Linge 540-541).
  24. This structure is therefore not a conscious element in human experience, but rather it is the structure that makes conscious reflection possible.
  25. This "life-relation" produces a structure that causes individual lives to cohere into a unity, and that is common to all life. For Dilthey, it is both transcendent and immanent. It transcends the particular instances of life, since it is the common background for all life. Yet, it is immanent since it is present within the experience of particular lives.
  26. Because the structure of life makes conscious reflection possible, and is present in the lived experience of individuals, Dilthey perceives the conditions for the possibility of discovering that structure through reflection. To be sure, reflection is inadequate to discover the structure of life in toto. But in individual events of insight we can begin to discover fragments of that structure of lived experience.
  27. In this way, Dilthey's account of historical understanding takes on a part-whole structure. This interest in the relationship between the part and the whole can be found in other accounts of hermeneutics, including that of Schleiermacher (T&M 291). But in Dilthey this connection takes on a methodological significance. The structure of the individual human life can be elaborated through a methodological attention to those parts that can be discovered through reflection on experience. In turn, the life-structure of a community or a nation can be discovered from reflection on the individual human life. Even the structure of an historical epoch can be understood from the iteration of this method based on parts and the whole.
  28. Dilthey calls this method "to interpret life out of itself" (Linge 543). The significance of this label is clear. Individual lives and this history of particular nations and historical eras are historically formed, and thus represent unique or particular events. But these historical dimensions of a life, a nation, or an historical age can be understood without the influence of the historically-conditioned prejudices of the investigator. This is because the shared life-structure between the subject and the object allows the interpreter to conduct this examination from within the life that is being discovered.
  29. There is an affinity with Schleiermacher here, since the goal is to understand a life from within the perspective of that life. Dilthey even speaks of "reflective reconstruction". But for Dilthey, this knowledge is objective, since it eliminates the prejudices of the interpreter. This is possible because the interpreter can "transpose" him or herself into the situation of the other by drawing on the common structure of life that is shared between the I and the thou.
  30. Dilthey's method, then, depends on attaining historical understanding through the examination of the lives of historical individuals and, outward from there, their spatial and temporal context. Lives are understood primarily through the examination of texts, poems, and works of art. For Dilthey, as for Schleiermacher before and Gadamer after, the subject matter of hermeneutics is both understanding in general and understanding in specific fields of study.
  31. Gadamer saw Dilthey's Lebensphilosophie, or Life Philosophy, as a decisive and influential step. Dilthey's work led to a more widespread view from within the Geisteswissenschaften that knowing subjects can rise above their own historical situatedness to attain objectivity. This is not because the human sciences can be like the natural sciences, but quite the opposite. The human sciences are emphatically different from the natural sciences because the subject and the object both involve the human life-structure. Dilthey's innovation, then, was to develop a justification for a method that is uniquely suited to the Geisteswissenschaften.
Gadamer's Departure
  1. Let us return once again to the problems that motivated Schleiermacher and Dilthey to elaborate their accounts of hermeneutic understanding.
  2. Schleiermacher saw all encounters with a text as an occasion for misunderstanding, since he recognized that the historicity of the production of every text creates a barrier between interpreter and author. He believed no specific method is capable of guaranteeing that this misunderstanding is eliminated, but he clearly recognized that failing to recognize the potential for misunderstanding led to only lax attempts at interpretation. The problem of misunderstanding demands of the interpreter a rigorous approach to a text that accounts for both the language of the text and the historical situation of its author.
  3. Dilthey, on the other hand, sharpened this concern about misunderstanding. Like Schleiermacher, Dilthey recognized the historicity of all life, from the life of individual humans to the communities and nations they form. And for Dilthey, as well, this historicity poses a problem for understanding. Dilthey moves beyond Schleiermacher, though, in that he believes it is both possible and necessary to attain certain knowledge. He argues that the human sciences are fortunate in this respect, since the subject and the object share a life-relation that makes it possible to attain knowledge about those lives that can be justified on the basis of proper method.
  4. Gadamer clearly disagrees with Dilthey's solution to the problem of understanding. He argues that induction from historical experience to any specific conclusions or sets of rules is not a formal procedure. Anyone who philosophizes from experience to generalities or rules about life, will do so in way that is shaped by their own previous experience. As Gadamer says, such an approach "does not have the anonymity of a method" (T&M 241). It therefore does not allow the knowing subject to sit outside history in the way Dilthey believed it could.
  5. Superficially, Gadamer is much closer to Schleiermacher in his view of the approach that should be used to attain understanding. Both Gadamer and Schleiermacher disavow confidence in any specific method to bridge the gap of understanding between an interpreter and an historical object. In fact, some have argued that the hermeneutic theories of Gadamer and Schleiermacher are compatible (Bontekoe).
  6. This is too easy a solution, however. Gadamer's critique of Dilthey's method and relative agreement with Schleiermacher obscures a deeper separation between Schleiermacher and Dilthey on the one hand, and Gadamer on the other.
    • Consider inserting here a note on *Gadamer - Ontological Critique of Cartesianism*
  7. This separation lies in the diagnoses they accept of the problem of understanding. For both Schleiermacher and Dilthey, the aim of understanding is to discover what was intended by a person when they put forth an expression, whether it be a text, a work of art, or an utterance. On this account, the meaning of such an expression lies in the originator's intention. Both agree that this intention can be reconstructed if the interpreter approaches the problem properly. As a result, and this is key, the resulting reconstruction will have the same content and the same meaning to any interpreter, in any place and time, who approaches the problem properly.
  8. For Gadamer, the problem of understanding is radically different. No attempt by a person to attain understanding sits outside history. This is because all understanding is sought for particular explicit and implicit reasons. A person who seeks to understand is asking a question, and the question that is asked is just as historically shaped as the answer that is received.
  9. The meaning of an expression, then, is determined in part by the author. It is also determined by the reader, who finds a meaning that is shaped by his or her own historical perspective. The meaning encountered by readers, then, changes from reader to reader. Meaning even changes through the life of an individual reader.
  10. These observations will require further analysis over the next two lectures, but I bring them up now to highlight that Gadamer, Schleiermacher, and Dilthey all share an interest in how an I comes to understand a thou. The topic of understanding, therefore, links them within the tradition of hermeneutics. But in order to understand Gadamer's project, we should recognize that what he has in mind when he discuses "understanding" and "meaning" is radically different from Schleiermacher and Dilthey.
  11. Gadamer's concerns reach beyond the Cartesian perspective that is so determinative for Dilthey. In order to understand Gadamer's hermeneutic project, then, we will need to consider the non-Cartesian perspectives that Gadamer himself claims were more influential for him than the thinkers who proceeded him in the intellectual tradition in Germany. In our next lecture, we will turn to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and their influence on Gadamer's hermeneutics.


Discuss the influence of Aristotle's practical philosophy on Gadamer’s thought. Address in particular Gadamer's move to frame hermeneutics as a practice.


  1. The clue to Aristotle's influence on Gadamer is the idea that hermeneutics, the art of understanding, is in fact a practice.
  2. Aristotle addressed the practical philosophy of engaging in a practice in detail in the texts that record his teachings on ethics.
  3. This may perhaps introduce a point of confusion, since the assumption may be that discussing the idea of a practice in a text on ethics is that such a practice involves making moral decisions, and in particular decisions about moral "dilemmas".
  4. Although ethics is often treated as a topic relevant to particular practices, such as legal ethics or medical ethics, Aristotle had something quite different in mind. Aristotle's ethics refers to the everyday comportment of persons engaged in practices of all types. In fact, a significant portion of Aristotle's ethics addresses how the characteristics of different practices determine which motivations and behaviors are best suited to that practice.
  5. These comments are only intended as a brief introduction to the thrust of Aristotle's ethics; I will return later to a more detailed discussion about the ways different practice call for different approaches.
  6. For now, I only want to make clear that Aristotle's texts on ethics in fact deal primarily with the way persons engage in specific practices, and the decisions they make in their everyday work. This includes decisions that we would identify as moral, but also those that could be considered "professional" or even "technical" decisions. We will see, then, that Aristotle's ethics is in fact a "practical philosophy".
  7. In order to identify the relevance of Aristotle's ethics for Gadamer's hermeneutics, then, we will need to start with a more nuanced examination of what constitutes a practice. We will then need to explore the ways hermeneutics can be framed as a practice, and identify which of these Gadamer has in mind when he makes this claim. With this groundwork in place, we will be able to explore the implications of Gadamer's move to develop an account of understanding that takes it starting point in the practical philosophy of Aristotle.

What is a practice?

Definition of Practice
  1. Gadamer follows Joachim Ritter in defining practice as "the mode of behavior of that which is living in the broadest sense" (RitAoS 90).
  2. He clearly has something in mind that is different from the meaning of practice in more common use today to refer to the occupational activity of a professional, i.e. a "law practice" or "the practice of medicine." Practice refers to the orientation or character of being alive, which generally involves "doing something." But this "doing" is not directed autonomously with no influence from without. Rather, the action of being alive involves responding to the internal and external data that arise in concrete lived experience. Practice is what mediates "between activity and situatedness" (RitAoS 90).
  3. In this way, as Gadamer points out, practice can be used to refer to the activity of animal life as well as human life. Animals respond to the influences they encounter in their environment. In response to cold, they will seek shelter and warmth. When they experience internal cues as hunger, and they encounter potential food, they eat the food.
  4. Although animal behavior may in some cases take on extraordinarily complex forms, it is generally regarded as fixed in a way that is determined by nature. Such action is determined in response to a combination of reflexes, instincts, conditioning, and other forms of learning.
  5. For humans, some of these same influences are at work in behavior. But humans are also capable of free choice based on preferences or prior experiences. This is what Aristotle calls prohairesis. Humans are distinguished by this ability to consciously choose specific responses or actions in response to their "situatedness."
  6. The importance of a particular person's situatedness has at least two dimensions.
    • First, the encounters a person has with situations that call on them to make decisions are not entirely under their control. In other words, the choices a person must make and the alternatives from which he or she must choose are experienced as "posed" to them by their situation.
    • Second, the decision a person makes when placed in such a "posed" position is again conditioned, at least in part, by the features of his or her concrete situation. The relevant dimensions of a persons' situation are nearly endless, but they include at least his or her social context, past experiences, and a range of other factors.
  7. Prohairesis therefore refers to the capacity of humans to deliberate as a part of making decisions. This capacity is shaped by a person's concrete situation, but this term highlights that there is an element of conscious decision involved in the action of humans (NicoE III:3).
  8. This interaction between deliberation and the concrete conditions of a human life are highly relevant to Aristotle's account of practice. For him, all practice necessarily takes place in a social and political setting. For this 4th century BCE Athenian thinker, that setting is the polis, or city-state. It is within the polis that practice, in the sense of the action of lived life, is translated into specific practices oriented toward specific aims. Such practices include occupations, but they also include family and civic roles. Being a husband, a son, an adult, or a citizen are all practices that have meaning and direction only because they take place in a specific social and political environment (RitAoS 91).
  9. Aristotle argues that all of these more specific practices, and indeed even the more general practice of living a human life, receive their orientation from the aims toward which they are oriented, their telos. Sometimes the relevance of the aims of a practice are obvious: masons are masons because their practice is oriented toward building stonework. Other practices have more complex or abstract aims: being a husband in a marriage involves a number of aims, none of which are as easy as building a stone wall!
  10. To be clear, then, the telos of a practice is what defines a practice for what it is; a practice is defined by its aims. We will move closer to understanding the connection Gadamer posits between understanding and practical philosophy when we consider how different types of practices can be differentiated on the basis of their aims.
Techne vs Phronesis
  1. Aristotle's Definition of Techne
    • In Aristotle's schema, a techne is a practice that involves the use of a technical skill to craft some specific product (T&M 314, NicoE VI). Let us explore the defining elements of a techne in more detail.
    • A techne is a practice oriented toward the making of a product, what Aristotle calls an eidos (T&M 315). A defining feature of a techne is that there is no real deliberation about this goal. When a farrier is engaged in crafting horseshoes, the form that the horseshoes will take is determined by the use for which they are intended (T&M 317). While a farrier may attempt to innovate in order to develop a better horseshoe, and farriers may debate about the best design for horseshoes, the end itself is self-evident from within the perspective of the practice. That is to say, farriers know that their practice is defined by making and placing horseshoes, and they know that a good horseshoe is one that serves its intended purpose of protecting the hooves of horses without coming off or causing damage.
    • The means that are utilized within a techne are therefore determined by the eidos that should be produced. The techniques that are used to produce the eidos can easily be evaluated on the basis of their ability to produce an eidos that fulfills the purpose for which it was created. Although these skills are often taught, such as through apprenticeships, the mastery of a techne is based not on the reproduction of the teacher's technique, but upon the quality of the product. Craftsmen involved in techne will therefore reevaluate their approach on the basis of the product they produce. This process is a type of deliberation; for a techne, the ends are not deliberated upon, but the means are. But a person engaged in a techne need not engage in deliberation every time he or she works to produce an eidos. The connection between the intended outcome and the means that are used to produce it are direct enough that the relevant conditions do not change significantly from day to day (T&M 147).
    • The technical skill involved in the practice of a techne is clearly another defining feature. Gadamer speaks of this technical skill as a Kunstlehre. Such skills can be thought of as the application of knowledge, but it is important to note that this knowledge is not theoretical knowledge or knowledge that can be thought of as universal. Rather, a techne involves the application of know how. Through teaching (an element that is explicit in Gadamer's German term Kunstlehre), practice, and deliberation a person engaged in a techne acquires practical know-how that enables him or her to effectively produce an eidos. Although those of us living in the modern world might find it odd to refer to the "know how" that one possesses in the practice of a craft to be the same thing as "knowledge," for Aristotle practical knowledge is very much knowledge (IofG 171-172). I will return to this distinction later in this lecture.
  2. Phronesis
  3. Phronesis marks a separate dimension of practices in Aristotle's schema. Phronesis is often translated in English as "practical wisdom" or "practical rationality." But as with many terms used by Aristotle, the use of such translations can tend to obscure the meaning of the term, since its significance depends on the larger framework of Aristotle's thought.
  4. Within this schema, phronesis can be defined in contradistinction from a techne.
  5. Every practice, on Aristotle's account, has some telos. But for practices that involve phronesis, the approach that should be used to attain the telos is not self-evident. In a techne, the fact that technical skills can be refined on the basis of the quality of the eidos creates a direct link between mean and end. Practices that involve phronesis do not have this structure. The circumstances under which a practitioner seeks to attain his or her ends change significantly across different contexts. For this reason, the same technical skills will not lead to the predictable attainment of the telos from day to day. The methods that must be used in each circumstance vary. Practitioners must therefore reason practically in each situation in order to identify which means are most likely to lead to the telos that is sought. In short, there is no straightforward link between the ends that are sought and the appropriate means to attain them - imaginatively creating such links across times and places is the work of phronesis.
  6. Phronesis is therefore especially important within practices that involve working toward aims that are distal, both in time and in outcome, from the means that are adopted. Some practices are even oriented toward aims that are intended to be attained throughout the course of a whole life, or even the course of the life of a community.
  7. Despite this dimension of practices that are oriented toward aims that are distant, some interpret Aristotle as saying that the ends of all practices are fixed. That is, practitioners only deliberate about the means best suited to attaining ends, no matter how distant, but the ends themselves are taken as given within the practice (Bernstein 251, 85:1).
  8. But Gadamer adopts a more nuanced reading of Aristotle. Gadamer interprets Aristotle as saying that some practices, those involving moral dimensions in particular, necessarily involve deliberation with respect to the practice's ends as well as the appropriate means (T&M 321, Note 239 and Bernstein 147). This is because some practices are oriented toward aims that are not "particular things". In the case of moral action, the relevant telos is the "complete ethical rectitude of a lifetime" (Problem of Historical Consciousness 142, quoted in Bernstein 147). What this means concretely is not fixed; there is no "right" moral rectitude. In participating in the moral activity of human life, a person must discover and, more to the point, decide how that more general telos will take shape in concrete terms - not just in this situation, but in this life. It is only through this process that the more general telos can acquire its meaning. As Gadamer says, "the aim itself, the 'universal,' derives its determinacy by means of the singular" (RitAoS 81).
  9. We can see here another distinction between practices that involve phronesis and those that can be identified as techne. Not only do persons engaged in phronesis deliberate on the specific form the ends of practices will take, they are also in this process deliberating on who they will become. "Man becomes," Gadamer says, "what he is through what he does and how he behaves" (T&M 312). In other words, a person becomes a phronimos, a prudent or reasonable person, through the work of phronesis (Problem of Historical Consciousness 107).
  10. A final distinction that can be drawn between phronesis and techne involves the importance of relationships with other humans. To be sure, techne frequently involve other humans. For example, the eidos of a craftsman's work will undergo scrutiny by customers. But in this example the techne is still oriented toward the production of the eidos. A craftsperson may admit customer preferences as a relevant set of data into deliberations about how to produce the eidos. But this relation to other persons involves only a single dimension of another humans' life.
  11. Phronesis, on the other hand, is closely related to Aristotle's virtue of synesis, or "sympathetic understanding" (T&M 322). Gadamer uses the example of giving advice on moral matters. A persons who possesses the virtue of synesis gives advice on such matters from a position of solidarity. Like the person seeking advice, the person possessing synesis is committed to doing what is right, and is therefore willing to place him or herself into the concrete situation of the other (T&M 323). This phenomenon of relationality in moral deliberations extends beyond simply giving advice. Because certain types of actions, including those we label "moral", affect others and relate to the actions of others, phronesis necessarily involves deliberations that seek understanding of others and their concrete situations.

In what ways can hermeneutics be seen as a practice?

Geisteswissenschaften as Teche
  1. This discussion of synesis in Aristotle's practical philosophy begins to reveal some avenues for understanding hermeneutics as a practice in the way that Gadamer has proposed.
  2. Let us turn, then, to exploring what justification Gadamer provides for making this turn in his works on hermeneutics toward Aristotle's account of techne and phronesis.
  3. An obvious reason that Gadamer can be said to view hermeneutics as a practice is that one of his primary concerns is the work of scholarship that takes place in the human sciences, the Geisteswissenschaften. Although we will need to return to the self-understanding of those who work in the Geisteswissenschaften later, for now we can at least see the logic in framing the Geisteswissenschaften as a practice much like an other occupation. On this account, the work of studying humans and human history involves the application of various types of knowledge and know-how to an effort that is oriented toward a telos, namely, understanding.
  4. There are a number of fields within the human sciences that are explicitly oriented toward the problem of understanding. In religious studies, the aim of scriptural exegesis is to attain understanding with respect to biblical scriptures. The same hermeneutic orientation that originated with respect to biblical texts also now extends to understanding with respect to other historical texts. Similarly, the scholarly work on visual arts involves attention to hermeneutics in relation to the "reading" of artistic works. Gadamer addresses these explicitly hermeneutical fields in great detail in Truth and Method.
  5. But he is also intensely interested in the role that understanding plays in all fields in the human sciences, even those that do not explicitly attend to the problem of hermeneutics. The goal of these fields, he argues, is to attain understanding about human life and human history. In this way, he follows Schleiermacher and Dilthey in arguing for a universal status for hermeneutics, for framing the other tasks of the human sciences as challenges for understanding (T&M 293, Philosophical Apprenticeships 180).
  6. As you will recall from our first lecture in this series, though, Gadamer makes a significant departure from Dilthey, in particular, when it comes to his understanding of the way scholars working in the Geisteswissenschaften work toward understanding. It is here that we begin to see the profound implications of Gadamer's move to frame the Geisteswissenschaften as practices.
  7. Gadamer saw Dilthey as the figure who introduced a particular account of hermeneutics into the self-understanding of all of the human sciences. For Dilthey, the human sciences could attain understanding of historical objects through well-defined methodologies oriented toward placing those objects within their historical context. This methodological self-consciousness is therefore intended to allow the knower to sit outside his or her own historicity and therefore possess "objective" knowledge (Linge 546). This phenomenon is often referred to, by Gadamer and others, as the methodological "alienation" of the knower from his or her historical situation (Linge 546).
  8. There is a superficial similitude between the methodology of the Geisteswissenschaften after Dilthey and a techne. Schleiermacher even referred to his approach to hermeneutics as a Kunstlehre, using the German translation of the Greek word techne. Indeed, the technical skills that are built up within a techne resemble scientific methodologies in the way that they are practical techniques that can be taught. However, a techne and a method in the tradition of modern science are different in a number of ways.
  9. The central distinction centers on two concerns: the role of knowledge, and the conception of aims. Within a techne, the relevant knowledge that is involved is a kind of "know-how". Persons participating in a practice build up their practical knowledge in order to be able to effectively attain an end, the production of an eidos. Critically, the practical knowledge of the practitioner is refined through an assessment of the suitability of the eidos for the end it is intended. In fact, practical knowledge is built up exclusively through the teaching of an authority or the practical experience of the practitioner. And, the teaching of the authority was built on the same basis (EoH 121, T&M 280).
  10. The role of knowledge and aims are reversed in scientific methodology. The aim of an "objective methodology" is not a practical aim, but rather theoretical knowledge itself. This aim is attained through the use of the proper methods, and these methods justify the knowledge they are used to produce.
  11. To review, then, for techne, knowledge is attained through and for practical aims. For scientific methodologies, knowledge is itself the aim, and it requires justification by the use of the proper means. Application comes later if it comes at all; the practical implications of theoretical knowledge are seen as irrelevant to the methods themselves.
  12. On the account of "historical consciousness" in the tradition of Dilthey, understanding in the Geisteswissenschaften refers to objective knowledge about a human or expression of a human that sits within a specific historical context. This knowledge is justified by the methods that were used to attain it.
  13. Gadamer redefines understanding in the Geisteswissenschaften into the idiom of Aristotelian practices. We can see from the comparison of method and techne that this move already entails a significant, even radical, reframing of understanding. If the technique used to attain understanding is in fact a techne rather than an objective methodology, then the telos of the Geisteswissenschaften cannot be understanding in the sense of theoretical knowledge. This is because a techne provides no justification, through method or through any other means, to determine that correct understanding has been obtained. Understanding must instead be understood as a type of knowledge that has the structure of a practical aim. That is, understanding is an aim that orients a practice, but the technical skills used within that practice to reach the aim of understanding are justified and refined on the basis of their ability to attain that practical aim.
  14. The implication here is emphatically not that Gadamer requires all scholarly work in the human sciences to be oriented toward application "in the real world." His move to render the Geisteswissenschaften as Aristotelian practices is not a movement toward an instrumentalist challenge to the human sciences. Many of the human sciences do address such pragmatic goals, the most obvious of which is political science. But Gadamer is arguing that all understanding, or work in pursuit of understanding, is already an act of application. This is true of work in the human sciences, and it is true for all instances of understanding. The clue to this rethinking of understanding can again be found in Gadamer's turn to Aristotle.
Understanding as Application
  1. The history of the link between understanding and application in the history of hermeneutics began prior to the Romantic hermeneutic tradition of Schleiermacher and Dilthey. In early writings on scriptural hermeneutics by J. J. Rambach, Gadamer identifies a distinction within hermeneutics among three elements: subtilitas intelligendi (understanding), subtilitas explicandi (interpretation), and subtilitas applicandi (application). He finds this distinction notable for at least two reasons. First, the Latin term subtilitas refers to "talents requiring particular finesse of mind" (T&M 307); Gadamer sees here an understanding of hermeneutic technique that more closely resembles a techne than an objective methodology. Second, and most relevant to our discussion here, application is seen explicitly as a stage in hermeneutic technique, albeit a stage separate from understanding.
  2. He sees in the Romantic development of hermeneutics a move to combine understanding and interpretation. In the work of Schleiermacher and Dilthey, we see a growing appreciation that human expressions can only be understood through interpretation, and in particular interpretation in light of historical context. With historical consciousness came a skepticism that a text or work of art could be understood for what it appeared to be, since its (true) meaning must be located in the historical context of its production.
  3. Gadamer can be seen as agreeing, at least in part, with this assessment. He finds the historical context of a work to be very important. But he also sees that Romantic hermeneutics attempts to "alienate" this unified process of understanding/interpretation from the context of the interpreter. This had not been the case with J.J. Rambach. He had considered subtilitas applicandi to be a part of hermeneutics because his scriptural hermeneutics was undertaken for a specific purpose. Rambach was seeking neither theoretical knowledge (i.e. of human nature) nor historical knowledge of the production of scriptures. Hermeneutics was a tool in the pietist effort to apply scripture to such practical work as preaching and moral behavior (T&M 307-308). The Romantic turn in hermeneutics, viewing such pragmatic concerns as a type of prejudice (and therefore by definition an unjustified prejudice), eliminated application from hermeneutics altogether.
  4. Gadamer does not recall Rambach's hermeneutics in order to argue for a return to his pietist account of hermeneutics with three subdivisions. Rather, Gadamer is interested in arguing for an account of hermeneutics that casts interpretation and application as inherent in all understanding (T&M 308).
  5. In order to understand what Gadamer has in mind, it will be fruitful to consider yet another example of a hermeneutic field that is oriented explicitly toward application: legal hermeneutics. Legal hermeneutics refers to the interpretation of legal texts, and in particular statutory texts, to specific cases. Gadamer describes this movement between the law and concrete cases as a mediation between the universal and the particular. The body of law is "universal" in the sense that, as law, it is intended to apply authoritatively to all relevant cases. Lawyers and judges involved in legal proceedings around specific cases seek to apply that universal to the concrete facts of the immediate case.
  6. Legal statutes can certainly be read for purposes that do not relate to their application in the courtroom, however. For example, a legal scholar may read an individual law as a document representing a particular historical period or locality, such as in a comparison of similar laws between different jurisdictions. Such a reading may reveal a highly interesting dimension of the law, such as why a legislature would pass a certain law in a particular jurisdiction. But in this case the legal scholar would be reading the law from "the outside," so to speak, as an historical object. This approach to a law is necessarily different from the treatment it would receive from "inside" as a law that carries authority. Within the context of the jurisdiction where the law applies, and in particular in court proceedings, the law is seen not as an historically-situated human expression, but as "truth". The judge, jury, or lawyers may disagree with the law, but they are subject to it as "truth."
  7. In order to understand a law according to the claim it makes, i.e. as a universal intended for application, it must be read anew in each and every relevant legal case that arises (T&M 309). Gadamer argues that, "the universal as something of which one is aware is subject to the indissoluble problematic of its rational application" (RitAoS 49). That is, the law as legal authority is always only understandable in light of its application to individual cases, since it is through its authority in these cases that becomes a type of "truth" rather than an historical object.
  8. How does such application take place? In answer to this question Gadamer would invoke the metaphor of a circle, the so-called "hermeneutic circle". This image helps reveal the back-and-forth movement between the universal and the particular that takes place in application. Before a specific law can be applied to a particular case, it must be recognized as relevant to the case. Here we see that the case must be "read" in light of a whole range of laws in order to discover which are relevant. Once a specific law is identified as relevant, the task of "reading" must be reversed. Now, the lawyer or judge must seek understanding about the law in terms of the claims it makes on the facts of the case. In other words, one must ask, "In light of what happened in this case, what does the law seem to mean?" Once a provisional understanding of the law has been developed in this way, the direction of the "reading" must again be reversed. Now the case must be "read" anew, since the concretized understanding of the law will reframe the facts of the case, both in the way the facts are interpreted and in the way the law places the facts in a normative light. Now, perhaps, a decision on the case can be rendered, which is the same thing as saying that a provisional meaning of the law can be settled upon. To settle upon a meaning of the law without this process of give and take, to take a "formalist" view of the law, on Gadamer's account "endangers [the] life" of the law (RitAoS 82).
  9. We can see now, perhaps, what Gadamer means when he argues that all understanding is application, and in particular in the case of the Geisteswissenschaften. Let us take a literary work written in an earlier historical period as an example. If a literary historian examines this work from the perspective of "historical consciousness", she will work to reveal the historical context of the work. She may ask questions like "What circumstances caused the author to write this work in this way?" and "How would the author's intended audience have understood this text?" In order to get at these questions, the literary historian will work to apply methods that will allow her to discover answers that don't depend on the historical context of her own situation, but that would apply in all contexts.
  10. But Gadamer argues that this self-understanding of scholarship in literary history needs to be revised in light of the analogy with legal hermeneutics. Just as a judge seeks to establish a decision on a case that is faithful to the law, the historian seeks to "establish the historical significance of an event within the totality of his historical self-consciousness" (T&M 338). The aim of the historian, implicitly at least, is to discover the significance of the literary work in light of the concerns that are of interest from her own perspective. We can see a back-and-forth movement emerging here, as well. The literary critic turns to this work not through a process of random selection, but because she expects that it will be relevant to the types of concerns that motivate her study. This process will continue when she actually reads the book, since she will now need to find in the text material that carries significance within her own "historical self-consciousness". As she reads, some material is likely to strike her as insignificant or irrelevant. She will pass over it as a section of the text that is not very interesting. On the other hand, she may find material that seems very significant, since it seems to address the concerns that motivate her reading. But it is not that her concerns allows her to find the significant portions of the text. Rather, it is her concerns that allows portions of the text to speak to her as significant.
  11. The meaning of "significant" here is crucial, though. On the account of historical consciousness, a text is significant because it provides evidence about a historical unit, such as a literary period, that is being treated as an object of study. This is analogous to the legal scholar who treats the text of a law as an historical object.
  12. One of Gadamer central claims, however, is that every human expression, if it is be understood, or in other words if it is to have any significance at all, must be read "from the inside" of human history. Gadamer wants the historian to be mindful of the fact that the historical unit of study, such as a particular literary period, is a part of human history. It is therefore an element of the total historical story within which the practitioner of the Geisteswissenshaften understands herself. In Gadamer's language, she is interested in the relevance of the text to "the totality of his historical self-consciousness" (T&M 338), even if she is not aware of this fact.
  13. To take the text seriously, then, is to turn the reading in the opposite direction. Because the text is understood to potentially hold significance in the shared "totality" of human history, to read it is to read that human history in light of the truth that the text carries. Returning to the analogy to jurisprudence, the text carries "truth" because its voice has authority not in all jurisdictions and in all times, but within a particular jurisdiction at a particular time. But if we are to understand at all, we must understand the jurisdiction within which the text carries authority to extend as far as our own time and place; we must understand ourselves self-consciously as sitting within the same historical "totality" as the text.
  14. Gadamer does not believe, however, that humans are capable of comprehending the "totality" of all human history (T&M 340). The totality he has in mind is that portion of the history of humankind of which the historian is aware and finds significant. The "totality" is the history that is relevant because it is the history within which the historian understands herself.
  15. Gadamer draws on Nietzsche and Husserl in referring to this "totality" as an horizon (Bernstein 143). He defines horizon as "the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point" (T&M 269). A person understands by seeing how the expression of another human "fits" within her own horizon, and therefore how it could be significant within the scope of place and time that is meaningful to her. And since it is within a person's horizon that she is able to understand her own significance, indeed, that she is able to understand herself, then the act of understanding is always to find out how that which is to be understood relates to that self-understanding. As Gadamer says, all "understanding is ultimately self-understanding" (T&M 260).
  16. Understanding is always application, then, because understanding always involves bringing that which is to be understood "inside" one's own concerns. But to put it this way is to frame things slightly differently from Gadamer. To imagine that we somehow change the expression of another human in order to make it intelligible is to imply a type of relativism. Gadamer is well aware that such an account would raise the concerns of the Enlightenment "prejudice against prejudice" (T&M 240). Gadamer argues that we are capable of bringing something that is to be understood "inside" our own concerns not by moving or changing the "object", but by extending our horizon toward it. Gadamer says that our "range of vision is gradually expanded" (T&M 302) and calls this a "fusion of horizons" (T&M 306).
  17. In the next lecture in this series I will explore in greater detail both the process and the implications of the "fusion of horizons". For now, it will be helpful simply to complete the analogy Gadamer draws between understanding in the Geisteswissenschaften and the application of a law in specific legal cases. In the back and forth movement between the reading of a law and the reading of a case, we saw that treating the law as "universal", as "truth", had at least two implications. First, the reading of the law most consistent with the law's intent qua law is the reading that applies its language in particular situations. Readings that treat the law as an historical artifact are possible, but these readings fail to understand the law from within its power as law. Second, understanding the law in this way creates the possibility that interpretations about guilt or innocence based on normative interpretations that are different from the law will in some ways be superseded by the law. Both of these implications are present in Gadamer's "fusion of horizons".
  18. For Gadamer, texts, like laws, are not written to express the perspective unique to a particular historical situation, but instead with the intention of communicating something of the "truth" the author has discovered in his or her life. To understand a text means to explore how that "truth" might speak to the interpreter in his or her own situation.
  19. On Gadamer's account, a person's horizons are comprised not only of the topics or history they find interesting, but the commitments that shape who they are and how they view the world. To expand one's horizon so that a text might be able to speak "truth" is to potentially call those commitments into question. In other words, to treat a text or expression as "truth" is to read one's own commitments in light of the text. This is not to say that a text, on Gadamer's account, carries an authority that is analogous to the nearly absolute authority a law carries in a courtroom. But to do only the opposite, to only allow a text to be read in terms of one's concerns without testing those concerns against the text, is to preclude the possibility of understanding the text as "truth".


  1. To summarize, then, Gadamer frames understanding, and in particular the understanding sought in the Geisteswissenschaften, as a type of Aristotelian practice. He argues that interpretation and application are not independent of understanding, but rather are inherent in every attempt to reach across differences in time and place in order to attain understanding. To understand, he argues, is to move back and forth in our reading. In one moment we must read a text or human expression in order to find its significance from the perspective of our own concerns. In the next moment, we must read our concerns in light of the "truth" we find in the text.
  2. In the next lecture, we will explore in more detail what Gadamer has in mind when he proposes a "fusion of horizons" as the approach that allows for proper understanding of human expressions. As we delve deeper into Gadamer's constructive work, however, we will never move far from Aristotle. In this present lecture we saw how Gadamer frames understanding as an Aristotelian practice. In the next lecture, we will explore how Gadamer constructs his philosophical hermeneutics around this framing, and in particular how his insights into understanding derive from his treatment of hermeneutics as a form of phronesis.

Analyze Gadamer’s constructive work in relation to hermeneutic understanding. In particular, discuss how he adapts Aristotle's account of phronesis into a philosophical hermeneutic.


  1. The last lecture focused on unpacking Gadamer's account of understanding as a form of application. This work was preparatory to an exploration of Gadamer's constructive work to develop an account of hermeneutics based on the model Aristotelian practice. In this lecture, I will take up this issue more directly. I will explore how Gadamer presents his hermeneutics as a type of practical philosophy. In particular, I will clarify how Gadamer constructs his hermeneutics as a form of phronesis as opposed to a techne. Building on this, I will analyze Gadamer's constructive work in philosophical hermeneutics, and the implications of that work for the Geisteswissenschaften.

Hermeneutics as Phronesis

  1. In introducing the Geisteswissenschaften as a type of practice in the last lecture, I drew a comparison between the structured methodology of the human sciences and the skill-based techniques used in techne. Both of these activities involve a set of procedures in which each action follows in sequence; both the methodology of the human sciences and the technical skills used in crafts are "methodical". But I indicated that this comparison is superficial, since the methods of the human sciences and the techniques of the crafts serve entirely different purposes. The technical skill of the crafts are applied "methodically" because a craftsperson who possesses "know how" can use them consistently to generate an eidos that serves its intended purpose. The human sciences take up "methodical" procedures in order to justify the knowledge they are used to produce.
  2. If we are to understand understanding, in the Geisteswissenschaften or other areas, as an Aristotelian practice, then we will need to move beyond the framework of a techne. Gadamer saw understanding as a practice that depends heavily on phronesis. In fact, the core of Gadamer's constructive work in philosophical hermeneutics can be brought to light using phronesis as a lens.
  3. In order to help clarify Gadamer's account of hermeneutics, I will return to the distinctions Gadamer highlights in a number of his writings between a techne and a practice that involves 'phronesis.
  4. Recall that he makes at least four distinctions. First, the procedure appropriate to a techne is closely linked to the product it is intended to produce. In a practice involving phronesis, there is no clear link between the telos and the means that should be used to attain it. Second, the types of teloi that define practices that involve phronesis are not as straightforward as the production of an eidos. Rather, an important element of practices that involve phronesis is deliberation on the concrete form the more general telos will take. Third, this deliberation on the concrete form a telos will take is closely linked with who the practitioner will become - a person becomes a phronimos, a prudent or reasonable person, through the work of phronesis (Problem of Historical Consciousness 107). Fourth, practices that involve phronesis necessarily involve shared practical reasoning in relationship with others.
  5. Let us now take each of these clarifying points in turn, and consider how each fits into Gadamer's account of philosophical hermeneutics.
Relationship between means and ends
  1. On Gadamer's account, understanding provides the telos for hermeneutics. It is the orientation toward understanding as an aim that defines what hermeneutics is and ultimately determines what form it will take qua practice. As we explored in a previous lecture, Gadamer does not see understanding as a type of knowledge that sits outside history. For him, understanding involves both an appreciation of the historical situatedness of the "thou" and a self-conscious recognition of the historical situatedness of the "I". Critically, Gadamer sees the historically concrete experience of the I not as a barrier to understanding, but as the grounds from which understanding is made possible. This is because the I is capable of approaching the thou from within a shared historical story, what Gadamer calls "the totality of [the I's] historical self-consciousness" (T&M 338). This not the totality of all history, but the totality of what the I is currently capable of regarding as significant for her.
  2. The overarching approach for meaningful understanding, then, is a process by which the "I" seeks to extend her "range of vision" so that the "thou" can be appreciated as significant within the concerns that constitute her "historical self-consciousness", her horizon. The means proper to attaining understanding is a fusion of horizons, but this is not the name for a set of procedures that can be followed (Bernstein 143). The fusion of horizons is Gadamer's image for a process that involves a give-and-take, what in the last lecture I called "reading in both directions".
  3. The "give-and-take" involved in the fusion of horizons precludes the formalization of understanding into a procedure. This is for two reasons. First, the nature of understanding as a telos is such that it must attain its meaning over time through individual events. As Gadamer says, "the aim itself, the 'universal,' derives its determinacy by means of the singular" (RitAoS 81). Second, the specific circumstances of individual encounters between a human expression and the interpreter seeking to understand it are so varied that the methods required also vary. The specifics of the "give-and-take" that are involved in the fusion of horizons must therefore be "weighed anew on each occasion" (Bernstein 147).
  4. This is not to say that the deliberation on the means appropriate to attain understanding are directionless. Following Aristotle, Gadamer recognizes that particular habits can be developed that will increase the likelihood that one is able to successfully engage in a fusion of horizons. These habits constitute a discipline that is neither methodical nor technical, but is nonetheless careful and responsible (Gadamer and Aristotle Hermeneutics as Participation 175).
  5. We can see from this that understanding is not an eidos whose quality can be judged on the basis of its intended use. And there is no straightforward way for a person seeking understanding to evaluate the procedure they have taken on the basis of its success in generating understanding.
Nature of the Telos of Understanding
  1. We can see, then, that differing circumstances result in variation in the form understanding takes and the means appropriate for attaining understanding. A slightly unsettling implication of this is that the meanings that emerge for interpreters working in different times and places will vary, even if they are working on the same text. The meaning or meanings that are uncovered in a text will change over time as an interpreter's context changes and as new interpreters working from within different contexts turn to a text. "Since the hermeneutical situation is a constitutive element in determining the meaning of a text," David Linge says, "there is no meaning of the 'text-in-itself' which the correct interpretation duplicates" (Linge 552). Brandom labels this feature of understanding as the "pluralism about the meaning of texts" (Tales of the Mighty Dead 93-94).
  2. If the best an interpreter of a text can hope for is to identify one meaning of a text, then how can hermeneutics adopt as an aim the goal to derive the "correct" meaning of a text? On Gadamer's account, it simply cannot. The goal of determining "correct" meanings for texts or other human expressions is not an appropriate telos for the Geisteswissenshaften in general, and philosophical hermeneutics in particular.
  3. Much of Truth and Method, and a number of other writings by Gadamer, are directed toward revealing how previous accounts of the Geisteswissenschaften incorrectly assume that meanings can be developed on the basis of methods that sit outside the history in which understanding is developed. This is Gadamer's critique of historical consciousness.
  4. However, when Gadamer highlights that understanding is not a type of telos that is a "particular thing", I do not believe he is pointing to the pluralism of meaning (Problem of Historical Consciousness 142, quoted in Bernstein 147). Meanings are short-term outcomes from individual encounters between an "I" and a "thou". When I read a text today, I will discover a set of meanings that are relevant to me in my current context. When I return to that same text in a decade, I will discover a different, perhaps overlapping, set of meanings. But individual meanings do not constitute understanding.
  5. Gadamer argues that when a person seeks to understand something like a text he "not only project[s] himself understandingly toward a meaning -- in the effort understanding -- but the accomplished understanding constitutes a state of new intellectual freedom" (T&M 260). That is to say, understanding does not just involve looking for a meaning in a text, it also necessarily involves a process in which the person seeking to understand works to place the "truth" of what the author says into a network of connections and conclusions that are significant for the interpreter (T&M 260). Gadamer likens this second element of understanding to the type of "know how" that a tradesperson utilizes to operate a machine used in manufacturing. Such a person "knows his way around" the machine. In seeking understanding, an interpreter must "know her way around" her own horizon, in order to find meanings in the text that relate to that which is significant for her. This notion is expressed, albeit ambiguously, in Gadamer's mantra that all "understanding is ultimately self-understanding." The German word that Gadamer uses to indicate self-understanding, Sichverstehen, carries the connotation of "knowing one's way around" (T&M 260).
  6. This discussion allows us to clarify the nature of understanding as a telos for hermeneutic practices. To adopt understanding as an aim is not to seek "correct" meanings, or even "correct" understanding. Rather, to pursue understanding is to seek to "disclose" what is "enclosed" in a text or expression that one seeks to understand (T&M 260). And that which is "enclosed" is the meaning that the text can carry in the current context. This process of disclosure, which as we have said is also a process of application, is a "happening" or "event" that takes place in concrete circumstances in a specific encounter between an "I" and a "thou" (Bernstein 126).
  7. But like individual meanings, these "events" of understanding provide no substantive telos for the practice of hermeneutics. Understanding, like "moral rectitude", is a general aim that a person seeks over the period of a lifetime. The specific form understanding will take cumulatively through a lifetime must be worked out in concrete terms in specific situations, in specific "events" of understanding.
Being as Becoming
  1. In Gadamer's move to develop an account of understanding as a type of phronesis, we can see that understanding, as a telos that is worked out through the course of a life, begins to closely parallel Aristotle's ethics, in which "moral rectitude" is the same type of telos for human life. In fact, we begin to see that these two teloi are not so different. Aristotle's account of practical moral reasoning considers this process not as a rational activity that takes place outside the concrete existence of human life, but as taking place within the lived experience of a "being that is becoming". Practical moral reasoning is determined by this being and determinative of it (T&M 312). Gadamer observes that humans become what we are through what we do and how we behave (T&M 312).
  2. In giving an account of moral reasoning in the context of a "being-in-motion", of human life as "being that is becoming", Gadamer is drawing not only on Aristotle, but also on Heidegger. He argues that "Heidegger's temporal analytics of Dasein has... shown convincingly that understanding is not just one of the various possible behaviors of the subject but the mode of being of Dasein itself" (T&M xxx). We see here that Gadamer is moving beyond Aristotle's focus on the role of practical moral reasoning in the becoming of the moral life, beyond his argument that "phronesis determines what the phronimos becomes" (Bernstein 146). Gadamer is arguing that understanding as practical reasoning is constitutive of human life. "Understanding," he argues, "is the original characteristic of the being of human life itself" (T&M 259).
  3. The insight that "being-in-motion" is constituted by understanding reveals two related dimensions of that being. First, human being is a state of finitude (T&M xxx). This is true in many ways, but Gadamer is here drawing attention to the way in which the world encountered in human existence poses a challenge to understanding. We do not immediately understand what we encounter in the world, so it is constitutive of existence that we must "make sense" of it over time. Second, because it is not just the world but also ourselves that we encounter as opaque, understanding represents the "potentiality-for-being" (T&M 259). Our effort to realize our own being is a challenge to understanding, and so it constitutes the "possibility" that we find in that being.
Relationship to Other Humans
  1. In observing with Aristotle and Gadamer that phronesis shapes who we as humans are to become, we should also clarify that this claim does not imply that we as humans are therefore "self-made" through our practical reasoning. In fact, the implication here is quite the opposite. Alasdair MacIntyre, in interpreting and building on Aristotle's account, has observed that in order to develop, humans require feedback from other humans. We require the observations of others to help place our own observations of the world in context (Dependent Rational Providers 94). We also require this feedback about ourselves. "It is because and insofar as my judgments about myself agree with the judgments about me made by others who know me well that I can generally have confidence in them (Dependent Rational Providers 95).
  2. Gadamer would wholeheartedly agree with MacIntyre's interpretation of Aristotle. But because his concern is with understanding, his assessment of the importance of the relationship between humans has a different focus. As we discussed in the last lecture, Gadamer introduces the importance of human relationships in phronesis by discussing the value of friendly advice. When a person asks for advice on moral matters from within the relationality of friendship, the person providing advice "thinks along with the other from the perspective of a specific bond of belonging" (T&M 323). It is this bond that makes the advice meaningful, since it represents a commitment to join in a process of deliberation from within the concrete circumstances of the person seeking advice.
  3. Gadamer's selection of this element of Aristotle's account of ethics is highly revealing. In this example, Gadamer presents two humans who are joining together in a process of deliberation with respect to a concern that becomes shared. So far we have discussed Gadamer's hermeneutics as if there is only one actor in an encounter. We have used the "I" to refer to an interpreter who is concerned with a "thou," which is the human expression or text that is being interpreted.
  4. In his example of friendly advice on moral matters, Gadamer is signaling yet another way he wants to reframe hermeneutics. In his example, two friends who share a sense of community with one another become concerned about a third thing, a Sache or subject matter. This example from ethics represents a more generic feature of human life in which people must come to agree with one another about something that is of importance to both. Gadamer's mantra that "understanding is always self-understanding" is shifted into a new mantra: "[T]o understand means to come to an understanding with each other" (T&M 180). And to come to an understanding together is always to come to an understanding about something.
  5. This point helps clarify Gadamer's observations about the fusion of horizons. We are able to extend our "range of vision" such that a text can speak truth into our circumstance. But as we can now see, Gadamer was quite intentional in selecting a term that does not imply unilateral action. Rather, the image carried by "fusion" carries a connotation of bilateral or symmetrical action. What is achieved in understanding is not my independent acquisition of understanding with respect to a text, but rather a "coming to agreement" with a person from another time or place about a subject matter that is of concern to both of us. And to be clear, the subject matter is not the words of the text itself or the composition of the work of art. Rather, we come to an understanding agreement about "whatever it is that the text is speaking about to us" (Bontekoe 4). The subject matter of the Bible is not what the Bible says, in the way that the debate over biblical literalism frames it. Rather, the subject matter of the Bible changes over time, and could include such issues as religious experience, prophetic calls for repentance, moral action, and many others. And to identify the Sache of understanding with even more precision, we can say that the subject matter of an event of understanding is "the substantive rightness of [the other's] opinion" (T&M 385). Gadamer says that "we do not relate the other's opinion to him but to our own opinions and views" (T&M 385).
  6. How are we able to come to an agreement with others about a Sache, a subject matter?
  7. I earlier observed that Gadamer's hermeneutics is not a method or technique, but rather a discipline. Following this same line of thought, Francis Ambrosio has labeled this Gadamer's "discipline of dialogue" (GPanDoD Ambrosio 19). What is the "discipline of dialogue?" We have already seen that this discipline necessarily involves a genuine engagement between two persons about a shared subject matter. Gadamer goes on to argue that this engagement necessarily takes the shape of question and answer.
  8. In order to explicate the importance of the interchange between questions and answers, Gadamer pursues two argumentative paths. First, he argues that in order for sense to be made of statements we must recognize them as answers to questions. Or to put the issue a bit more strongly, statements are always responses to questions, and the goal of understanding is to recognize which questions they are intended to answer. Second, Gadamer identifies the Platonic dialogues as exemplary of the type of exchange of question and answer that can lead to understanding. Let us consider each of these dimensions of question and answer in turn.
  9. Gadamer argues that questions hold a "logical priority" with respect to understanding (GaAHaPiH Ambrosio 179). Another way to speak of the "potentiality-for-being" that Gadamer finds constituted by understanding is to say that "the structure of the question is implicit in all experience" (T&M 259, T&M 362). When we encounter some object in the world, we may pass over it as insignificant, failing even to notice it. But in order to have an "experience" with respect to an object, we must direct our attention toward it. And to direct our attention is to ask something of it: We ask whether it is "this or that" (T&M 362). To ask a question is therefore to "open up possibilities and keep them open" (T&M 297). When we do this, we expose our prejudices to risk, since we are opening ourselves to the possibility that the object is "that", even though we had assumed it was "this" (T&M 297). It is our questions about that which we encounter, therefore, which creates the "potentiality-for-being," the possibility, that in turn creates our orientation toward the search for understanding.
  10. Gadamer observes that the openness created by a question is not just a matter of creating possibility, but it always narrows possibility. This is because it raises one issue as opposed to others, and points toward answers that respond to this question as opposed to other questions. He says that questions always have a "sense of direction" and that "a question places what is questioned in a particular perspective" (T&M 362).
  11. Because of this feature of questions, Gadamer argues that every statement, if it is to be understood, must be treated as a response to a question (RitAoS 106). The meaning "enclosed" by the statement is found in the question to which it is an answer. In some ways, then, hermeneutics should be more interested in the questions than it is to answers (RitAoS 106).
  12. We can now reframe our earlier discussion about the fusion of horizons in the language of question and answer. According to Gadamer, the encounter an interpreter has with a text involves at least two questions. First, the text was written as an answer in a particular place and a particular time to a question or set of questions. This question is important to Gadamer, but he argues that it is the only question recognized by Schleiermacher and Dilthey (T&M 373). The more important question for Gadamer is the question posed by the text to us. When we encounter it as potentially containing truth, it raises a question that "places our meaning in openness" (T&M 374). Put another way, we regard the text as potentially authoritative in such a way that we allow it to call our prejudices into question. When we do this, our prejudices become "open." Is what I believe true, or has my prejudice been mistaken? In order to answer this question posed by the text, we must begin to formulate our own questions about it. Note here a recapitulation of the back-and-forth movement, the "reading in both directions," that constitutes the hermeneutic circle in Gadamer's account.
  13. Ultimately, when we move beyond addressing a text as simply the answer to some historical situation, and instead allow it to pose questions to us, we start to expand the horizon of the text. And to raise questions in an attempt to answer the questions it raises for us is to open up our own horizons (T&M 374). For Gadamer, then, the fusion of horizons has the structure of question and answer.
  14. Having explored "the logical priority of the question" in Gadamer's hermeneutics, it will now be helpful to explore how Gadamer envisions the play of question and answer should proceed in an effort to attain understanding, to "come to an agreement about something." Gadamer account of exchange comes in the form of a turn to Plato's presentation of Socratic dialogue.
  15. So far in this lecture we have focused exclusively on the way Gadamer couches his constructive work in hermeneutics in Aristotelian terms. It may appear now that we are departing from this topic to address Gadamer's appropriation of Plato. This appearance is created by the fact that my focus on Gadamer's Aristotelian influence has been somewhat artificial. Gadamer sees himself as using both Plato and Aristotle. However, he does not understand himself as combining the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions. In Truth and Method he does move freely between Platonic and Aristotelian frameworks in order to clarify his meaning (GaAHaP Ambrosio 175). In The Idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy, however, he is more explicit about why he finds this move so natural. While he acknowledges the divergent elements in Plato and Aristotle, he finds a significant amount of shared ground between the two. Presenting this shared ground as a "Wirkungseinheit," a "unitary effect," he argues that the perspective Plato presents dramatically in his dialogues Aristotle presents analytically in his works on ethics (GaAHaP Ambrosio 175).
  16. In what ways, then, does Gadamer find the Platonic dialogues exemplary? The first way is the most obvious: in order to engage in a dialogue, the participants must be addressing the same topic and see themselves as working together (as opposed to working against one another) to understand (T&M 367). This engagement involves a willingness to listen to the other and to allow the conversation to proceed in its interchange of "play" (Bernstein 162). The result, therefore, is a conclusion that belongs neither to the questioner nor to the interlocutor, but to both; it is a common meaning (T&M 368). The Platonic dialogue therefore exemplifies the dimension of hermeneutics that involves coming to an agreement with another about a Sache, a subject matter.
  17. Closely related to the importance of working together is the orientation of Platonic dialogues toward answering questions related to truth. Socrates does not aim to find with his interlocutors why the two, as Greeks living in a specific place and time, believe certain things, but why one answer may be true and other possible solutions flawed. Implicit in the Platonic dialogues, then, is a rejection of historical consciousness.
  18. Included within Gadamer's regard for the Platonic dialogues as exemplary is his recognition of Socrates as the hermeneutic practitioner extraordinaire. Socrates demonstrates human excellence (arete) with respect to the endeavor to understand (GPatDoD Ambrosio 31). At the heart of Socrates' virtue in this regard is his docta ignorantia, his wisdom to recognize that he does not know (Warnke 95, T&M 362). It is this acceptance of ignorance that allows Socrates to open himself up to understanding, since he is willing to expose himself and his horizon to risk (GPatDoD Ambrosio 23).
  19. It is important to note that the conjunction of "wisdom" and "ignorance" in Socrates does not represent a "false modesty" or a "willful ignorance". Rather, Socrates exemplifies the "experienced person" who has gained through his experience an appreciation for the limits of being human. The "experienced person" recognizes that the answer to questions have often turned out differently from that which he originally expected (GPatDoD 23). Experience therefore leads not to closure, but to increased openness. Gadamer calls this the "dialectical negativity of experience" (T&M 362) and finds that it is this element of being experienced that creates the possibility to gain new experiences, to be open to the understandings that lead to conclusions that are "against oneself" (GPatDoD 24).
  20. Gadamer's interest in Socrates' excellence, then, reveals one way in which his account weaves together the dramatic examples of Plato with Aristotle's analytic approach to ethics. Socrates' docta ignorantia presents a particular hexis, a demeanor, that augments our ongoing discussion of phronesis. Aristotle's ethics is not concerned only with the individual acts of practical moral reasoning that take place throughout a person's life, and the telos of moral rectitude is not just a matter of always seeking to reason correctly. Rather, moral rectitude is primarily a matter of developing a character (ethos) out of which we are able to more successfully engage in moral reasoning and which constituted who we become as moral beings (T&M 313). Likewise, the hexis appropriate to hermeneutics is openness, since it enables one to more successfully engage in practical reasoning about how best to pursue understanding in different circumstances.

Understanding as Normative

  1. In recognizing Socrates as the ideal image of a hermeneutic practitioner, we have touched upon an additional point that requires clarification. We have seen in this lecture that Gadamer regards hermeneutics as a practice that involves phronesis. And because Aristotle discussed phronesis primarily as an issue related to moral matters, we have seen that Gadamer's hermeneutics in a number of ways begins to follow very closely the structure of Aristotle's ethics. However, a tension is apparent here. Gadamer frequently seems to be arguing that his hermeneutics describes how persons do, in fact, come to understand. This is apparent especially when he is discussing the "ontological character" of understanding. In other sections, he seems to see his hermeneutic approach as a proposal for how people, especially scholars working in the Geisteswissenschaften should pursue understanding. His hermeneutics in these sections adopts a more normative tone.
  2. Gadamer's hermeneutics, then, can be understood to involve at least two major dimensions. First, Gadamer is attempting to describe the circumstances that are common to all human lives that are relevant to understanding. Second, he has sought to develop an account of hermeneutics as a practice that is faithful and responsive to the ontological element of understanding. How shall we understand the relationship between these two dimensions of Gadamer's project?
  3. In order to clarify this issue, it will be helpful to identify which elements of his account are prescriptive, and therefore normative, and on what basis these elements can be considered normative.
  4. Let us start in this direction by recalling that Gadamer makes a positive statement that human life is oriented ontologically toward understanding. How do humans recognize this aim as an aim of human life? We can see the likely answer through an analogy with Aristotle's ethics. Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas after him, argued that humans are capable of recognizing the moral aim of human life through a type of intuition called synderesis. Synderesis is the human faculty that allows us to identify that actions are oriented toward goods, and that humans should work toward attaining those goods. Humans come to recognize the need to orient their lives toward moral rectitude because of synderesis. "Practical reasoning begins with something you want. It takes for granted that this is wanted and deliberates about the means of achieving it. The intellectual grasp of the aim as aim . . . is synderesis" (McCabe, 2002, 346). Synderesis means that humans can apprehend in a general sense that human life should be oriented toward moral action as an aim, even though this apprehension does not provide any information so detailed that it can directly guide that behavior.
  5. Although Gadamer does not address whether humans have the same ability to recognize understanding as an aim, we can assume that the orientation toward understanding as an aim that constitutes human existence can be apprehended by humans in general terms. This claim about human apprehension could not presume that humans would know the means that are appropriate for attaining understanding, nor would it necessarily provide them with a detailed understanding of what, exactly, understanding involves. Instead, it would simply allow humans to recognize, after Gadamer and Heidegger, that they should work to make sense of the world around them.
  6. If the recognition of understanding as a telos is potentially available to anyone, how much more knowledge of that aim do they need to have in order to actually attain understanding? In other words, do humans need to think about understanding in the same way Gadamer does in order to attain authentic understanding? These questions are very important in our effort to understand Gadamer's project, since he spends a significant portion of Truth and Method critiquing what he labels historical consciousness. On his account, does historical consciousness preclude authentic understanding, or do interpreters working in this tradition just misunderstand what it is they are doing?
  7. In order address this question, I will need to highlight a central concept in Gadamer's work that I have hinted at many times, but have not yet named: historically effected consciousness.
  8. There has been a good deal of disagreement about how best to translate this term coined by Gadamer, wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein, into English. Paul Ricoeur translated the phrase as "consciousness open to the effects of history", while other translations render it as "effective-historical consciousness" (T&M xv).
  9. The term is clearly intended to contrast with "historical consciousness." Gadamer's phrase retains the "historical consciousness" within which persons regard historical figures and their works as subject to the contextual influence of their historical situatedness. What Gadamer adds, however, is the self-conscious recognition that history has had is own effect on the way a person interprets him or herself as well as those historical figures and their works.
  10. To be more precise about this point, the Wirkung or effect with which Gadamer is concerned certainly includes the general social/historical features that influence the way a person encounters the world. For the contemporary United States, we would identify nationality of origin, religious background, social class, race and ethnicity, and gender as some of the most important features. There are certainly many other characteristics of historical places and times that are influential in the way persons think and therefore they way they understand what others have to say. However, Wirkung is also inclusive of more specific historical features. For example, when I study an historical writing within the discipline of bioethics examining the relationship between patients and healthcare providers, I come to this text not as a blank slate, but as a person who has extensive experience with this topic. I have read a variety of texts on this issue, I have discussed this topic with experts and non-experts, and I have engaged in relationships with patients as a provider myself. All of this is a Wirkung, an effect of the history of a specific tradition or subject matter on my own thinking. When I read an historical text on this topic, then, this Wirkung powerfully affects the questions I raise about it and its subject matter. And to complicate the issue even further, much of the Wirkung that influences me may already include the influence the same text has already had on the subject matter. This is especially true if I am reading a "classic" text on this topic.
  11. Notwithstanding these clarifying points, Gadamer acknowledges that historically effected consciousness is ambiguous. He observes that the term refers to the way in which one's consciousness is influenced by history, and at the same time the awareness that this is the case. He wants to argue that the former dimension of "effective history" is important to understanding, such as in the Geisteswissenschaften that regards itself as scientific, even though it is not acknowledged in that setting. Essentially, consciousness is historically effected even when one is not self-conscious of this fact (T&M xxxiv).
  12. We can therefore see that historical consciousness is not only misunderstanding about an historical expression, or really even primarily such a misunderstanding. Gadamer's point is that historical consciousness represents a misunderstanding about the self - it is a misunderstanding about the position of the "I" in history and the ability of the "I" to pursue understanding outside that position.
  13. Historical effective consciousness represents a proper understanding of the self, and this understanding is potentially important, although not indispensable, to the effort to attain understanding, as opposed to misunderstanding, with respect to a "thou". Gadamer argues that "the power of effective history does not depend on its being recognized" (T&M 301). However, he considers his case for the self-conscious recognition of effective history to be an valuable one, since denial of its importance can lead to "deformation of knowledge" (T&M 301). Gadamer does believe that this misunderstanding has led to conclusions, including scientific conclusions, that are later recognized as "obviously false" (T&M 301). But his primary concern is not with the way a denial of effective history can lead to incorrect conclusions in the human sciences, but with the way such misunderstanding is a "self-misunderstanding."
  14. Another way to clarify this observation is to return to the distinction between meaning and understanding. Those who adopt a worldview consistent with historical consciousness can certainly discover meanings in texts. In fact, from what Gadamer says we can assume that they will even tend to unconsciously encounter texts as possessing truth. How else could they form questions about the text or recognize areas that are potentially significant? For this reason, they will be able to extract meanings from the text, but also an understanding of sorts. However, as long as they fail to recognize this phenomenon of question and answer in their hermeneutic activity, they will fail to understand fully. And this means that they will fail to understand the significance of the text for themselves, and they thus will fail to understanding themselves.
  15. We can now see why Gadamer's account moves so freely between describing what he believes happens when a person attempts to understand a text, a human expression, or the world around her and arguing for an approach to understand well. On Gadamer's account, seeking to understand is not just something humans do. Understanding is a telos of human life. It is an aim that constitutes human life, and it is the ever-continuing pursuit of understanding that shapes who we are as humans. Since this is our aim, it provides us with a rationale for pursuing the approach that best provides us with an opportunity to understand the world around us and to understand ourselves as beings who are becoming. That historical consciousness allows us to extract meanings, or even limited types of understanding, from our encounters with others is not concerning because those meanings fail to agree with an objective standard. Gadamer's account destabilizes the understanding of understanding that would support such a concern. Historical consciousness fails us, instead, because it fails us in our life-long effort to understand the world around us and, more importantly, to understand who we are becoming within that world.

  1. Practical-Moral Concerns about the Conquest of Nature by Science


Write an essay in which you critically apply Gadamer’s insights to a particular case in medical or clinical ethics.

Patient as Question: Gadamer's Hermeneutics and Evidence-Based Medicine


  1. The aim of this paper is to unpack evidence-based medicine in philosophical terms, and in particular to explicate an understanding of evidence-based medical practice as a hermeneutical practice in the tradition of Gadamer.
  2. I believe this is an important task for philosophy of medicine undertake. The traditional understanding of medicine as a kind of combination of art and science has become more complicated during recent decades. Although medicine has perhaps long been a practice involved in weighing a range of commitments, medical practice now seems fractured in a novel way. Those who advocate for the rights of patients have tended to push for a medical practice driven by consumer interests. These priorities have often conflicted with scientific commitments in medicine, and evidence-based medicine currently sits in the vanguard of that counter-

attack. Finally, humanists have raised concerns that scientific medicine is impersonal medicine, and that what is needed is not more science in medicine, but more compassionate care.

  1. This conflict of commitments has generated significant complexity in medical practice in general and medical decisions in particular. In order to work toward insights that could help practitioners negotiate this morass, it seems important to first explicate these commitments with greater clarity. Although I believe, and later will argue in some detail, that working understandings of evidence-based medicine are sufficient for the most part to guide practice, these practical definitions and approaches lack the precision necessary to explain why this understanding should carry priority against competing commitments such as consumer-driven medicine and other articulations of science in medicine.

Theoretical Medicine vs. Empirical Medicine

  1. This recognition that medical practice is split across a range of commitments is important not only in demonstrating why evidence-based medicine requires philosophical explication, but also in defining evidence-based medicine itself. Evidence-based medicine can be defining in contradistinction from two other approaches to medicine. First, evidence-based medicine is most often defined in contradistinction with "unscientific" medical practice that is based in personal experience and the teaching of medical authority or medical tradition, and especially against anti-scientific health practices that compete with medicine, such as herbalism, chiropractics, and (low concentrations of what caused the disease - word finding problems here). Evidence-based medicine is rooted in the belief that decisions about health interventions should be scientifically based, and that scientific "evidence" is the proper resource for those medical decisions.
  2. This orientation is perhaps not unique to evidence-based medicine, as there is at least one other approach to medicine that is thoroughly scientific, and against which EBM is most commonly defined.
  3. Theoretical medicine is a science-oriented understanding of medicine that views practice as an application not of "evidence", but of theory. The traditional name for this form of medicine is "physiology", although modern scientific medicine involves a range of other theory-centered practices that fall outside that traditional field.
  4. In order to the difference between theoretical medicine, which I will henceforth refer to generically as physiology, and EBM, it will be important to explore how these approaches differ in three respects:
    • the method used for generating (scientific) knowledge
    • the types of conclusions that count as legitimate knowledge
    • the understanding of what is involved in applying such (scientific) knowledge
  5. As this discussion proceeds, it will become clear that this is not a strict typology, but rather that these three dimensions of physiology and EBM reveal scientific commitments that sit on a continuum.


  1. Differences
  2. Gadamer's I/Thou



  1. Gorowitz and MacIntyre
  2. EBM is a brilliant response to this assessment of uncertainty

Evidence-Based Medicine and Theory

  1. Not about general theories, but rather about observations of effectiveness of technologies
  2. Should not view EBM as applied theory.

Evidence-Based Medicine as Hermeneutic Practice

  1. Gadamer's Hermeneutics
    • Logical priority of the question
  2. Aim is to turn to a piece of medical literature with a question.
  3. This question is: Is this text relevant to the situation my patient is in?
  4. In viewing EBM this way, we can start to talk about practice of reading medical literature (not too far from current view taken by medical education)
  5. Allows reframing reading as a part of phronesis, which includes within that practical reasoning the reading of texts in light of questions coming out of concrete patient situations
  6. Second round of practical reasoning about how the findings should be applied in the greater context of the patient.


Construct a syllabus and bibliography for a course you would be prepared to facilitate on Hermaneutics and Practical Ethics.