Canadian Hermeneutic Institute 2020


On the Hermeneutics of Being Called:

From the Certitude of Conscience to the Perplexity of Interpretive Practice

Theodore George

Texas A&M University


Many of us experience hermeneutics not only as a research method but also as a commitment, even a vocation—or, as the Latin roots of the word ‘vocation’ suggest, a calling. Yet, this experience that many of us have is not easy to understand. The purpose of this lecture course is to pursue insight through a consideration of the hermeneutics of being called so that we may, in turn, examine our commitment to research in hermeneutics itself as a calling. This lecture course will culminate in the suggestion that the calling of research in hermeneutics reaches its summit in the practice of applied hermeneutics.

Day 1. The Hermeneutics of Being Called

The purpose of Lecture 1 is to consider the hermeneutics of being called. It is true that many around us appear to be indifferent to the question of their vocation. Yet, what about those who feel themselves called to make the world a better place—whether through their chosen profession, activism, charity work, or even scholarly research? How do we understand such experiences of being called? In this lecture, we will consider the hermeneutics of such experience in reference to two celebrated depictions of being called. First, we will identify important elements of the experience of being called through an analysis of Michelangelo Merisi da Carravagio’s The Calling of St. Matthew. Then, we will elucidate these elements further in reference to Martin Heidegger’s treatment of the call of conscience in Being and Time. In consequence of this analysis, we will suggest that the experience of being called is not one of self-righteous confidence. Quite to the contrary, the experience of being called can and does leave us perplexed. With Heidegger, we experience being called as a certitude of conscience that we must do something, but with no real guidance as to what; as he puts it, the call speaks only in silence.


Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, rvsd. Dennis Schmidt (SUNY Press, 2010), Division Two, Chapter 2 (§§ 54–60), pp. 257–288.

Janson, H. W. and Anthony F. Janson. The History of Art (Prentice Hall and Harry N. Abrahms, Inc., 2001, sixth edition), pp. 529–531.


Day 2. Interpretation

The purpose of Lecture 2 is to consider our response to being called. If being called demands that we do something but provides no guidance as to what, then how, exactly, are we to respond to being called? In this lecture, I will submit that we are to respond hermeneutically. Being called demands that we interpret ourselves and our situation in order to bring into focus what we are called to do. In order better to elucidate the character of this response, we will turn to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s approach to hermeneutical experience. With this, the response to being called demands that we interpret ourselves in terms of tradition, or meaning transmitted from the past, as well as our involvement in language. Accordingly, our response to being called is never a clear or simple adherence to some pregiven principle; rather, it takes shape as an event, always provisional, in which what we are called to do can first come to us.


Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method, trans. rvsd. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (Continuum, 2003, second rvsd. edition), Part II, II, 1, pp. 265–306. 


Day 3. Application

The purpose of Lecture 3 is to consider the calling of research in hermeneutics generally and in applied hermeneutics in particular. It is true that research defined by the demands of what can be described as the academic industrial complex ignores the question of being called to research. Today, too often, research is oriented simply toward the efficient production of results that can be published and assessed on the basis of quantifiable bibliometrics or other institutional idols. Yet, research in applied hermeneutics can, and at its best does, epitomize the perplexity of being called. This perplexity of research in hermeneutics becomes clear, as I wish to show, in reference to what Gadamer describes as the problem of hermeneutical application. In this, research in applied hermeneutics proves to be a calling to make the world a better place, but a calling that resists pregiven theoretical norms and methods of research in favor of open and sustained interpretive attention to what cannot be reduced to any theory, the individual case.


Gadamer, Hans-Georg. “What is Practice? The Conditions of Social Reason,” in Reason in the Age of Science, trans. Frederick G. Lawrence (MIT Press, 1981), pp. 69–87.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method, Part II, II, 2, A–B, pp. 307–324.

Caputo, John D. “Gadamerian Nurses,” in Hermeneutics: Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information (Penguin, 2018), pp. 217–244.

Moules, Nancy J., Graham McCaffrey, James C. Field, and Catherine M. Laing, Conducting Hermeneutic Research: From Philosophy to Practice (Peter Lang, 2015), Ch. 9, pp. 171–182.