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).

  1. 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)
  2. 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.
  3. 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, can help clarify his concerns.
  4. 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 one of the concerns that Gadamer raises about Schleiermacher's work, a concern that Gadamer labels historical consciousness. I will then also briefly touch on Gadamer's engagement with Wilhelm Dilthey on the topic of methods.
  5. 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.

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. In order to explore what is at stake in Gadamer's critique of Schleiermacher's hermeneutics, let us consider a table with three rows and three columns (include Table 1). The three rows represent three different frames or contexts in which Gadamer examines the implications of hermeneutics in Truth and Method. These three rows differ in their scope or specificity, but they do not necessarily more from most specific to most general. Rather, they represent three contexts in which Gadamer wants to explore the implications of hermeneutic understanding. These rows are not only helpful in understanding Gadamer's engagement with Schleiermacher, but they are also helpful in understanding the contexts that motivate his account of hermeneutics. Gadamer moves between these contexts in order to move his conclusions in a specific area, such as scriptural hermeneutics, into broader contexts.
    • The first row represents Gadamer 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 Gadamer's engagement with Schleiermacher occurs primarily at the level of the reader seeking to interpret an historical text. Elsewhere in Truth and Method, Gadamer engages with other specific fields of application within hermeneutics. For example, we will later see that Gadamer finds that legal hermeneutics provide an apt example of the type of hermeneutic practice that most interests him.
    • The second row represents Gadamer's movement to a more generic framing of hermeneutics. Here, hermeneutics is frames as 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 primarily from the field of philosophical hermeneutics, and more specifically phenomenological hermeneutics as presented by Heidegger.
    • The third row represents what appears to be Gadamer's primary driving interest in Truth and Method. This context differs from the second row in that the thou is no longer a generic though, but is instead "past", the tradition or traditions that influence the "I". This context therefore signifies Gadamer's interest in 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 continental these are all the Geisteswissenschaften.
  2. Gadamer's movement from the first row, that of hermeneutics in a specific field, provide the clue to Gadamer's interest in Schleiermacher's claim that it is possible for an interpreter to attain understanding that exceeds that of the author. Gadamer engages in Schleiermacher's claim not only at Schleiermacher's own level of textual hermeneutics, but also at the second level, that of philosophical hermeneutics.
  1. Having now identified the three contexts organized here into rows, let us now turn to the columns. The columns represent the orientations that 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, and the one which Gadamer finds most problematic. In this orientation, the I treats 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.
    • The second column represents an orientation in which the "I" does acknowledge the concrete personhood of the thou, as opposed to the orientation in the first column, in which the I treats the thou as a mere instance of human nature. In this way of encountering the thou, the I persists in treating the thou as an object of knowledge. Gadamer argues that one of the key elements in this orientation is a failure on the part of the I fails to recognize his or her relatedness to the thou. It is this failure that allows the I to treat the thou 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.
  2. Let us save the third column for later, and instead explore how Gadamer's examination of the "self-regarding way of experiencing the thou" can be understood in the context of the Geisteswissenschaften. Recall that in this third row, the "thou" represents a tradition or element of the past; the thou is the subject matter of the Geisteswissenschaften. In this context, those practitioners of in the fields of the Geisteswissenschaften treat the past as a whole as an object over which mastery can be attained. As we will discuss later in this lecture, the potential to attain mastery over tradition is attributed to the methods of the Geisteswissenschaften, of the human sciences. But let us focus for now not on the methods of the human sciences, but on the orientation, the frame of mind, of the practitioner in the Geisteswissenschaften toward their subject matter, the human past or tradition. According to Gadamer, this orientation can be characterized as historical consciousness. Gadamer takes Schleiermacher as the originator of this orientation toward the past, and follows it through its intellectual history to Dilthey and others.
  3. 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.
  4. Gadamer rejects historical consciousness for at least two related reasons.
  5. 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 language of the first row: 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" (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 or first impression, we revise our interpretation and move forward with the revised interpretation serving as our new prejudice (T&M 267).
  6. 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 second and third rows. 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).
  7. 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).
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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, more importantly to Gadamer, the orientation of the Geisteswissenschaften.
  11. But we will later see 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.

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.