Schleiermacher's hermeneutics: main theses, theory and further development of the idea

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Schleiermacher's hermeneutics: main theses, theory and further development of the idea
Schleiermacher's hermeneutics: main theses, theory and further development of the idea

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834) is perhaps not among the greatest German philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Kant, Herder, Hegel, Marx or Nietzsche. However, he is certainly one of the best thinkers of the so-called "second level" of that period. He was also an eminent classical scholar and theologian. Most of his philosophical work is devoted to religion, but from a modern point of view, it is his hermeneutics (i.e., the theory of interpretation) that deserves the most attention.

Friedrich Schlegel (writer, poet, linguist, philosopher) had a direct influence on his thinking. The ideas of these two outstanding men of their time began to form in the late 1790s, when they lived for some time in the same house in Berlin. Many of the provisions of the theory are general. Not every thesis is known exactly which of the two husbands proposed it. Since Schlegel's methods are much less detailed and systematic than Schleiermacher's, the lastgiven priority.

Friedrich Schleiermacher
Friedrich Schleiermacher


The following names are connected with the emergence of the theory of interpretation: Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Gadamer. Hermeneutics, the founder of which is considered the last of these philosophers, is associated with problems that arise when working with significant human actions and their products (mainly texts). As a methodological discipline, it offers a toolkit for effectively addressing the problems of interpreting human actions, texts, and other relevant material. The hermeneutics of H. G. Gadamer and F. Schleiermacher is based on a long tradition, since the complex of problems that it solves appeared in human life many centuries ago and required repeated and consistent consideration.

Interpretation is a ubiquitous activity that takes place whenever people seek to understand any meaning they consider relevant. Over time, both the problems and the tools designed to solve them have changed significantly along with the discipline of hermeneutics itself. Its purpose is to identify the main contradiction of the process of understanding.

Philosophers-hermeneutics (F. Schleiermacher and G. Gadamer) associate it not with thought, but with manipulations of thinking. Consider the main theses and concepts of this theory.

Hermeneutics in philosophy is
Hermeneutics in philosophy is

Development of a philosophical idea

Schleiermacher's theory of hermeneutics is based on Herder's teachings in the field of philosophy of language. The point is that thinkinglanguage dependent, restricted to, or identical to. The significance of this thesis is that the use of the word is important. However, there are deep linguistic and conceptual-intellectual differences between people.

The most original doctrine in the philosophy of language is semantic holism. It is he (according to the philosopher himself) that significantly aggravates the problem of interpretation and translation.

Johann Godfried Herder
Johann Godfried Herder


If we consider Schleiermacher's hermeneutics briefly and clearly, then we should pay attention to the key ideas of the theory he proposed.

Here are its main principles:

  • Interpretation is a much more difficult task than is commonly understood. Contrary to the common misconception that “understanding happens as a matter of course”, in fact “misunderstanding happens as a matter of course, so understanding should be sought and sought at every point.”
  • Hermeneutics in philosophy is a theory of understanding language communication. It is defined as opposed to, not equated with, its explanation, application, or translation.
  • Hermeneutics in philosophy is a discipline that should be universal, that is, one that applies equally to all subject areas (Bible, law, literature), to oral and written speech, to modern texts and to ancient, to work in native and foreign languages.
  • This philosophical theory includes the interpretation of sacred texts such as the Bible, which cannot be based on special principles,for example, to inspire both the author and the translator.

How interpretation works

Considering the issues of hermeneutics briefly, we should pay attention to the problem of direct interpretation. Note that Schleiermacher's theory also relies on the following principles:

  • Before you can actually interpret a text or discourse, you must first have a good knowledge of the historical context.
  • It is important to clearly distinguish between the question of the meaning of a text or discourse and its truth. There are many works of dubious content. The assumption that a text or discourse must necessarily be true often leads to serious misinterpretation.
  • Interpretation always has two sides: one is linguistic, the other is psychological. The task of the linguistic is to infer from the evidence that lies in the actual use of words in the rules that govern them. However, hermeneutics focuses on the author's psychology. Linguistic interpretation is mainly concerned with what is common in the language, while psychological interpretation is more concerned with what is characteristic of a particular author.
Schleiermacher's hermeneutics concisely and clearly
Schleiermacher's hermeneutics concisely and clearly


In presenting his ideas of hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher implies several reasons why linguistic interpretation should be complemented by psychological one. First, this necessity stems from the deep linguistic and conceptual-intellectual identity of individuals. This feature at the level of individualfaces leads to a problem of linguistic interpretation in that the actual use of words available for proof will usually be relatively small in number and poor in context.

This problem should be solved by turning to the author's psychology, providing additional clues. Secondly, an appeal to the psychology of the author is also necessary to resolve ambiguities at the level of linguistic meaning that arises in certain contexts (even when the range of meanings available for the word in question has become known).

Third, to fully understand a linguistic act, one must know not only its meaning, but also what later philosophers called it "illocutionary force" or intention (is what intention carries out: message, inducement, evaluation, etc.).


F. Schleiermacher's hermeneutics requires the use of two different methods: the "comparative" method (ie the method of simple induction), which the philosopher considers dominant from the linguistic side of interpretation. In this case, it takes the interpreter from the specific use of the word in the rules that govern them all to the "guessing" method (that is, the creation of a preliminary erroneous hypothesis based on empirical facts and going far beyond the available database). The scientist considers this approach to be predominant in the psychological side of the interpretation.

The concept of "fortune-telling" widely used in literature for a philosopher is a process of psychologicalself-projection into texts containing a grain of truth, as he believes that hermeneutics requires some degree of psychological common understanding between translator and interpreter.

Thus, in Schleiermacher's hermeneutics, the text is considered from two positions.

Theory of hermeneutics
Theory of hermeneutics

Review of parts and the whole

Ideal interpretation by its nature is a holistic action (this principle is partially substantiated, but it goes beyond the scope of semantic holism). In particular, any given piece of text must be considered in light of the entire array to which it belongs. Both should be interpreted from a broader perspective of understanding the language in which they are written, their historical context, background, existing genre, and the overall psychology of the author.

Such holism introduces a pervasive circularity into interpretation, as the interpretation of these broader elements depends on the understanding of each piece of text. However, Schleiermacher does not consider this circle vicious. His solution is not that all tasks should be done at the same time, as this is far beyond human capabilities. Rather, the idea is to think that understanding is not an all-or-nothing matter, but something that manifests itself in varying degrees, so one can gradually move towards full understanding.

For example, with regard to the relationship between a part of the text and the entire array to which it belongs, from the point of view of hermeneutics, Schleiermacher recommends that you first read and interpret as much as possiblewell each of the parts of the text, so as to come to an approximate general understanding of the entire work as a whole. The method is applied to clarify the initial interpretation of each of the specific parts. This gives an improved overall interpretation which can then be reapplied to further refine the understanding of the parts.


In fact, Schleiermacher's hermeneutics is almost identical to Herder's. Some common ground here is due to the fact that they were both influenced by the same predecessors, especially I. A. Ernesti. But, considering briefly Schleiermacher's hermeneutics, it should be noted that it owes exclusively to Herder two fundamental points: the addition of the "linguistic" by the "psychological" interpretation and the definition of "fortune-telling" as the predominant method of the latter.

Herder had already used this, especially in On the Writings of Thomas Abbt (1768) and On the Knowledge and Feeling of the Human Soul (1778). Schleiermacher's theory, in fact, simply combines and systematizes ideas that have already been "scattered" throughout a number of Herder's works.

Hermeneutics H. G. Gadamer F. Schleiermacher
Hermeneutics H. G. Gadamer F. Schleiermacher

Differences and features

However, there are several significant exceptions to this rule of continuity, related to the differences between Schleiemacher's theory of hermeneutics and Herder's ideas.

To see this, one should start with two deviations, which are not problematic, but are quite significant. First, Schleiemacher exacerbates the problem of interpretation by introducing semantic holism. Secondly, his theory introduces the principle of the ideal of the universality of hermeneutics.

Note that Herder rightly stressed the vital importance of interpreting the correct definition of the genre of a work, and the great difficulty in doing so in many cases (particularly because of constant change and the subsequent widespread temptation to falsely assimilate unfamiliar genres).

However, Schleiermacher paid relatively little attention to this issue. Especially in his later work, he defined psychological interpretation in more detail as the process of identifying and tracking the necessary development of a single author's "original solution [Keimentchluß]".

Furthermore, Herder included not only linguistic, but also non-linguistic behavior of the author among the evidence relevant to psychological hermeneutics. Schleiermacher thought differently. He insisted on limiting linguistic behavior. This also seems to be wrong. For example, the Marquis de Sade's recorded acts of cruelty seem to be more potentially important in establishing the sadistic side of his psychological make-up and in accurately interpreting his lyrics than his violent statements.

Schleiermacher (unlike Herder) saw the central role of "fortune-telling" or hypothesis in hermeneutics as the basis for a sharp distinction between interpretation and natural science. Hence, and to classify it as an art, not a science. However, he would probably have to consider this as a basis for recognizing understanding and natural science.similar.

His theory also tends to downplay, obscure or omit some of the important points regarding hermeneutics that Friedrich Schlegel has already stated. His own attitude to such questions, expressed in some texts such as The Philosophy of Philosophy (1797) and Fragments of the Atheneum (1798-1800), is largely reminiscent of Schleiermacher's approach. But it also includes points that are less bold, obscure, or missing altogether from the writings of philosophers.

Schlegel notes that texts often express unconscious meanings. That is, every excellent work is aimed at more than it reflects. In Schleiermacher one can sometimes find a similar point of view, most evident in the doctrine that the interpreter should strive to understand the author better than he understood himself.

However, Schlegel's version of this position is more radical, providing for a truly infinite depth of meaning that is largely unknown to the author himself. This thinker emphasized that a work often expresses important meanings not explicitly in any of its parts, but in the way they are combined into a single whole. This is a very important point from the standpoint of hermeneutics. Schlegel (unlike Schleiermacher) emphasized that works tend to contain confusion that the translator must identify (unravel) and the interpreter explain.

It is not enough just to understand the true meaning of a confusing work. It is desirable to understand it better than the author himself. You also need to knowcharacterize and correctly interpret the resulting confusion.

August Beck
August Beck

Development of ideas

Despite these significant but limited shortcomings in the details of Schleiermacher's hermeneutics, his follower August Beck, who is an eminent classical philologist and historian, subsequently gave a broad and more systematic reformulation of the ideas of hermeneutics in lectures that were published in the work Encyclopedia and methodology of philological sciences.”

This scientist expressed the opinion that philosophy should not exist for its own sake, but be a tool for understanding social and state conditions. It was thanks to the combined influence of the interpretations of these two thinkers that hermeneutics, in short, achieved something very similar to the status of the official and generally accepted methodology in classical and biblical science of the 19th century.