Hermeneutics: The Handwritten Manuscripts by Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher. Edited by Heinz Kimmerle. Translated by James Duke and Jack Forstman. Oxford University Press, USA, 1978.

Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Dialectic, Or, The Art of Doing Philosophy is based upon a series of lectures he gave at the University of Berlin in 1811. The text of the Dialectic consists of Schleiermacher’s lecture notes for 49 class sessions, each of which is relatively short, averaging around 1-2 pages. The main text is accompanied by the notes of students Ludwig Jonas and Andreas Arndt in the form of footnotes, as well as helpful footnotes by the editor Terrence N. Tice. The lectures themselves are divided up into an introduction to the topic itself, followed by two main sections, “The Transcendental Part” and “The Formal Part,” and a brief conclusion.

Schleiermacher commences his lecture series by clarifying this topic and defining some terms. He claims that 1) there must be certain principles shared by all rigorous scientific disciplines, and 2) there must be “an architectonic for these principles” (1).  Next, Schleiermacher defines “dialectic” in the ancient sense of a critical, dialogical exchange of ideas; writing, “by ‘dialectic’ we mean the principles of the art of doing philosophy” (3). Given the philosophical context in which he was teaching, Schleiermacher’s conception of philosophy is quite radical and remarkably flexible. Eschewing the transcendental foundationalism of Kant, as well as the speculative idealism of Hegel, Schleiermacher describes philosophy as primarily a form of “art”:

To do philosophy is to bring about some knowledge, united with the clear consciousness of its being brought about. Thus, it falls within the category of art, and its product is therefore also a work of art, for a work of art is something individual within which what is general is directly presented and something infinite is contained (4).

He is thus able to acknowledge the constructed, “artful” aspect of philosophical inquiry, while still maintaining that such inquiry can get us in touch with the real, and help clarify the principles of other disciplines. Hence he concludes that dialectic may be understood as “the organon of all science” (7).

In the first section of the text, “The Transcendental Part,” Schleiermacher considers the question of how, and at what point we can establish thinking as an instance of valid knowing (14). A general familiarity with German Idealism—especially Kant—is especially helpful in grasping Schleiermacher’s historical and philosophical milieu, as well as what is at stake in his particular approach to “transcendental” philosophy. For Kant, transcendental philosophy is not concerned with actual objects per se, but rather with the conditions that make it possible for us to cognize any objects whatsoever (see Kant, 1998, A12/B25). Furthermore, Kant argued that the conditions that make possible our experience of the world are, so to speak, built in to our cognitive apparatus, which filters and actively constructs our experience of the world. Thus we only ever get the world as mediated, filtered and constituted by the structures of human cognition—we never get the world as it is in itself. In the Dialectic Schleiermacher pursues a very different sort of transcendental philosophy. Like Kant, he explores the conditions that make possible our experience of the world. He acknowledges that all knowledge consists of concepts and sense perceptions, what he calls “a formal element and a material element” (19), again tipping his hat to Kant. However, Schleiermacher abjures the bifurcation of reality into knowable appearance (phenomena) and unknowable reality in itself (noumena). Yet he does not mount an argument against the tenants of transcendental idealism; rather he takes what he likes and simply rejects many of Kant’s fundamental distinctions. Perhaps most significantly, Schleiermacher continually argues against epistemic dualism, insisting instead upon the unity of knowing and being (16). Thus he writes, “knowing is the congruence of thinking with being as what is thought” (17). For Schleiermacher, knowing and being are conjoined by way of judgment, which places particulars under general concepts and links subjects with predicates (24).

Next Schleiermacher makes a decidedly anti-Kantian move by invoking the concept of God or “the absolute” in order to ground human knowledge and the connection of knowledge with being. God is not an “object” of knowledge—not a “thing” to be known—but rather the ground that secures the interconnection of reality, the union between being and human knowledge (31). Thus God, or “the absolute” functions as the transcendental condition for our knowledge of the world. Schleiermacher writes, “cognition of God is the original cognition that underlies all other cognition” (29).

In the second section, Schleiermacher moves from the transcendental conditions of knowledge to a consideration of the formation of concepts and the development of judgments based upon concepts, especially inductive and deductive judgments (50). He writes,

The particular is that which is purely given in being but is not purely contained in thinking, and the general is that which is completely given in thinking but is not to be exhibited purely in being (52).

Traditionally, inductive judgments are understood as beginning with the particular and moving towards the general, while deductive judgments begin with the general and move towards the particular. Schleiermacher develops these concepts further, adding nuance to the traditional distinction between the two. For example he notes that while induction must emerge prior to concept formation, “once construction becomes conscious, everything is found already to have been done through concept formation” (54).

Schleiermacher goes on to articulate an insightful anti-foundationalist approach to the art of philosophical construction. He argues that, “real knowing is…something that is never to be brought fully into place” (59). Foreshadowing some of the major tenants of the philosophical tradition of American Pragmatism, Schleiermacher states that, “real knowing is also never to be demonstrated with apodictic certainty, because whether things that are really homogeneous have been assembled can be made evident only through their successful issue” (Ibid). Schleiermacher’s seems about as haunted by foundationalism as someone like Richard Rorty when he states that philosophy is an art precisely because “the application of rules cannot in turn be brought under the rules,” or under new rules ad infinitum; “rather, the application depends upon on disposition and talent” (62). And yet, Schleiermacher had a deep respect for the morality of inquiry and a conception of philosophy as an investigation into the truth of things:

Error is avoided through the clarity and integrity of disposition, which makes what is sense-oriented retreat behind objective interest. Leaping over intermediate stages is avoided through one’s love for what is real, which intends to release as little from a given object as is possible, thus as one rises through the various stages stick with the object as much as possible (Ibid).

It is remarkably difficult to imagine how radical Schleiermacher’s anti-foundationalist approach to philosophy must have seemed in the context of the “absolute knowing” of Fichte’s idealism, not to mention Hegel’s account of dialectical unfolding of Absolute Spirit and its culmination in the German state.

The Dialectic is an important work for both philosophers and theologians. This text will be of particular interest to philosophers interested in Pragmatism, as Schleiermacher’s philosophical approach in these lectures seems to prefigure some of the most significant ideas of American Pragmatism, e.g. falliblism, ontological and epistemological monism, etc. Theologians will profit from a close reading of the Dialectic alongside Schleiermacher’s seminal Christian Faith, especially with respect to his conception of “transcendental knowledge of God,” which he articulates in both texts.

As mentioned before, the 19th Century philosophical movement of German Idealism constitutes much of the background of Schleiermacher’s Dialectic, and readers lacking basic knowledge of Kant’s Critical philosophy will likely have a difficult time understanding this text. However, compared with the abstruse cogitations of Kant or the opaque prose of Hegel, the Dialectic is quite readable. That said, Schleiermacher’s notes are still quite dense in places, and one wishes that one could have been privy to the elucidations and elaborations that must have transpired in Schleiermacher’s lecture hall in 1811. Ultimately, Schleiermacher’s Dialectic makes for a fascinating, if sometimes perplexing philosophical read.


Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


Andrew Linscott
Boston University

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