Qualifying Exams - Philosophical Ethics

From BrothersBrothers



Discuss the concerns that motivated Gadamer in Truth and Method to radically depart from the earlier traditions in the field of hermeneutics, and instead to explore the problem of understanding from the perspective of practical philosophy.


  1. In explicating the influences that guided his work in Truth and Method Gadamer claims:
    • "Insofar as they are my constant companions, I have been formed more by the Platonic dialogues than by the great thinkers of German Idealism." (76:25)
  2. There are numerous pieces of evidence that may cause this claim to ring false. For example, Gadamer has elsewhere 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.
  3. We can note also that Plato receives only rare attention in Truth and Method, while a whole chapter (over 90 pages) is dedicated to an account of German philosophical hermeneutics reaching from Schleiermacher to Heidegger.
  4. Behind these superficial pieces of evidence, and indeed despite the simple question of which figures were most important in forming Gadamer's thought, is the more complex truth that Gadamer is engaged with the questions 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.
  5. The question of which school or tradition can claim Gadamer, then, seems to provide little help in understanding Truth and Method. A much more fruitful way to place this text in context is to ask how the dialogues of Plato and the thought of the German Idealists have been "effective" in Gadamer's thought, as articulated in Truth and Method.
  6. 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 one German Idealist, Friedrich Schleiermacher. In particular, I will attend to those concerns of Schleiermacher's that Gadamer takes up polemically: historical consciousness, and the role of methods.
  7. 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 in particular, reveals that Truth and Method is no evolutionary step in the field of hermeneutics. Rather, Truth and Method is a radical departure in work centered on hermeneutics.
  8. I will show that Gadamer's constructive work in hermeneutics, which I will take up in more detail in a future lecture, emerges from the effect (wirkung) of Plato's dialogues on Gadamer's thought. In this section, I will address two related motifs that Gadamer appropriates from Platonic dialogues, Socratic ignorance and the priority of the question.
  9. My aim is to substantiate Gadamer's claim. While he does engage polemically with German Idealists and other participants in the discourse on hermeneutics, his constructive work places him within a tradition with its roots in Greek philosophy, a tradition he identifies as practical philosophy.

Part One: Schleiermacher

  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 two of Gadamer's critiques of this work and the role these critiques play in Gadamer's own philosophical hermeneutics. I will end this section by specifying the continuities and discontinuities between the hermeneutic programs of Gadamer and Schleiermacher.
  1. On Schleiermacher's account, hermeneutics is an activity that seeks to reconstruct the intended meaning of the authors of texts.
    • Consider a footnote here clarifying that the use of the word "activity" is intentional, since a key issue in the discourse between Gadamer and Schleiermacher, or rather critics of Gadamer concerned with his interpretation of Schleiermacher, is whether Schleiermacher saw himself as suggesting a method for attaining understanding, or a discipline appropriate for pursuing understanding.
  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. The details of how Schleiermacher models the interpretative process of moving between the grammatical and the psychological side is a matter of some controversy. Does Schleiermacher have in mind a specific method that an interpreter should follow to attain understanding of a text, or does he visualize this process as taking a more free form? I will address this issue below.
  5. For now, however, it is important to note that 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).
  6. Gadamer's attention to psychological interpretation is direction 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).
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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. Gadamer's critique of the idea that hermeneutics allows a reader to "understand what an author is saying better than the author" is one element of his polemical engagement with what he calls "historical consciousness."
  2. Gadamer takes the relationship between the interpreter and the author (or, perhaps, the text itself) as an example of a more universal relationship between an I and a thou. He observes that an I can engage with a thou in three ways, the first two of which can be considered "self-regarding" ways of experiencing the thou.
    • First, the "I" can treat the "thou" as an object that can be understood under the rubric of "human nature." That is, the I is a subject who excludes him or herself from tradition by applying a "cliched version of scientific method" (T&M 359). The thou is then treated as a object that can be understood through theoretical knowledge about human nature. Gadamer takes this account of the relationship between the I and thou as representing one dimension of the human sciences.
    • Second, the "I" can acknowledge the concrete personhood of the "thou," rather than as a mere instance of human nature, but still persist in treating the thou as an object of knowledge. In this account, the I fails to recognize his or her relatedness to the thou, and thus treats the thou as Schleiermacher proposes, as an object that can be understood better than the other understands him or herself. The I on this account is again a knowing subject who seeks to step out of his or her own historical context. The thou is regarded as an historical object, but an object nonetheless. Gadamer interprets this act of knowing by the subject as an effort to attain mastery over the thou. Just as with the first example of how an I may encounter a thou, the basis for this mastery is a form of method. This method is again oriented toward the task of removing the knowing subject from his or her own historical situatedness, and thus attain knowledge free of prejudices (T&M 360).
  3. In reference to the circumstance where the "thou" is a tradition or element of the past, Gadamer calls this experience of the thou historical consciousness. Gadamer takes Schleiermacher as the originator of this orientation toward the past, and follows it through its intellectual history to Dilthey and other.
  4. Gadamer is highly critical of historical consciousness. In fact, Truth and Method, or at least its Part 2, can be read as an extended critique of this orientation toward the past.
  5. Gadamer rejects historical consciousness for at least two related reasons.
  6. First, he believes that persons always encounter texts, works of art, and indeed the world, with a set of prejudices. He even formulates this more strongly: it is through our prejudices that we are able to engage with texts. When we are trying to understand, we start by "project[ing] a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges in the text." 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 or first impression, we revise our interpretation and move forward with the revised interpretation serving as our new prejudice (T&M 267).
  7. 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. 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."
  8. Because prejudices are constitutive of our being, attempts to eliminate them completely from the way we encounter a text, an author, or a tradition, as in this case in historical consciousness, are at best futile. At their worst, such attempts cause our understanding to be

Part Two: Platonic Dialogues

Dialogue and Agreement
Socratic Ignorance
Priority of the Question


Discuss the influence of Aristotle and Aristotelian ethics on Gadamer’s thought. Address in particular the relationship between Aristotle’s virtue of practical rationality and Gadamer’s account of practical philosophy.

How Gadamer Draws on Aristotle

  1. Treating hermeneutics as a practice
  2. Treating early hermeneutics as a techne
  3. His own hermeneutics as a form of phronesis
  4. This is unusual - would not normally treat reading of a philosophical text as a practice, but rather as concepts, as if they are contemporaries

Why Make The Move to Hermeneutics as Practice?

  1. Interest in Human Sciences
  2. Anglo-American distinction between Humanities and Human Sciences
  3. Natural sciences as conquering nature

Practical-Moral Concerns about the Conquest of Nature by Science

  1. Basis for concerns about cartesian Anxiety
  2. Definition of Theoria has changed since Greek times
  3. Link between Aristotle's Moral Philosophy and Gadamer's Practical Philosophy
  4. Aristotle's view of moral philosophy based on different view of theoria/concrete knowledge, which is also the basis for Gadamer's take on practical philosophy

Analyze Gadamer’s account of hermeneutic understanding. In particular, discuss why he claims that "all understanding is self-understanding."


The Object of Understanding

  1. Philosophy of the Subject
    • Underlying assumptions
    • Why Gadamer rejects Philosophy of the Subject
  2. Gegenstand

Against Philosophy of the Subject

  1. Logical Priority of the Question
  2. Remaining Open

All Understanding is Self-Understanding


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

Applying Theory

  1. Gorowitz and MacIntyre
  2. Applied Science

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.