Clinical interpretation: the hermeneutics of medicine

Theor Med. 1990 Mar;11(1):9-24. doi: 10.1007/BF00489234.


I argue that clinical medicine can best be understood not as a purified science but as a hermeneutical enterprise: that is, as involved with the interpretation of texts. The literary critic reading a novel, the judge asked to apply a law, must arrive at a coherent reading of their respective texts. Similarly, the physician interprets the 'text' of the ill person: clinical signs and symptoms are read to ferret out their meaning, the underlying disease. However, I suggest that the hermeneutics of medicine is rendered uniquely complex by its wide variety of textual forms. I discuss four in turn: the "experiential text" of illness as lived out by the patient; the "narrative text" constituted during history-taking; the "physical text" of the patient's body as objectively examined; the "instrumental text" constructed by diagnostic technologies. I further suggest that certain flaws in modern medicine arise from its refusal of a hermeneutic self-understanding. In seeking to escape all interpretive subjectivity, medicine has threatened to expunge its primary subject--the living, experiencing patient.

MeSH terms

  • Diagnosis*
  • Medical History Taking
  • Philosophy, Medical*
  • Physical Examination