Irina Glukhova (Belarus). On The Paradoxes of Philosophy, Understanding and The Word: An Existential and Therapeutic Foreword to Hans-Georg Hadamer’s Hermeneutics
It is impossible to begin speaking about Hadamer otherwise than by mentioning two mind-blowing dates: the year of his birth, 1900, and the year of his death, 2002. While still a young man, Hadamer attended the lectures of Husserl and Heidegger at the Freiburg University in the early 1920s, and in 2000 he became an honorary doctor of the university in St. Petersburg.
The heritage of Hans-George Hadamer, one of the finest and most sensitive German philosophers of the twentieth centuries, remains underestimated among existential-phenomenological therapists, who view mainly the works of Kierkegaard, Husserl and Heidegger as the theoretical foundation for their practice.
Hadamer became the founder of modern philosophic hermeneutics – a science about understanding and sense, language and dialogue, the principal task of which was, for him, not so much producing expert knowledge as going back to the practical philosophic knowledge we all carry.
As a manifestation of this practical knowledge, philosophy becomes closely related to daily communication, language, speech and dialogue, the need to understand, to negotiate and to reach agreement. Hadamer stated that this need grows to be increasingly important in the modern world with the heightening of tension between nations, generations and religions.
We would note that these complicated social processes cannot but find reflection in psychotherapeutic practice. Hence, Hadamer’s philosophy becomes attuned to the positions and principles on which existential therapy is based, as well as being congruent with the challenges to which it as a modern social practice has to respond.
The philosophy is, by definition, resistant to classical structured and systematised exposition, as it is phenomenologically descriptive and often paradoxical at its root.
The first paradox: the incompetence of philosophy. Hadamer’s philosophy rejects the ambition of providing expert knowledge, available to professional philosophers only. According to Hadamer, philosophy cannot instruct us in practical daily issues, and one should not expect a philosopher to provide recipes for action in a particular situation. Solving the tasks we face remains the prerogative and responsibility of each of us.
For Hadamer, philosophy is not a science for the elect intellectuals but something greater, something belonging to culture as a whole. According to him, there are no non-philosophers, and philosophic questions are the ones we cannot help asking.
The discovery of practical knowledge has both a political and a therapeutic effect, because people live in one and the same world and solve the same issues. This is why both practical philosophy and psychotherapy turn out useful in life.
The second paradox: inability of verbal expression. It is clear that philosophising, communication and psychotherapy all require verbal expression and take place through language and speech. Hadamer draws our attention to communicative phenomena where words become either superfluous and useless, as, for example, in ‘taciturn agreement’ or understanding in few words, or, on the contrary, absolutely insufficient for expressing the lived experience, as, for instance, in ‘mute wonder’ or ‘silent awe’. This inability to progress with the conversation further, this perplexity, stimulating our thinking point, according to Hadamer, to the ability of penetrating a subject and the effort to know the truth.
The third paradox: multiple meanings of the word. Hadamer says that any utterance is motivated, therefore one and the same combination of words, can, depending on the context, be a statement or a question, a plea or an order, a request or a condemnation.
‘It seems that the foundation of a language,’ writes Hadamer, ‘is made of the capacity of words, despite the determinacy of their meanings, to have multiple significations, the capacity of any word to express a flexible range of meanings, and this flexibility manifests a certain audacity of undertaking to speak.’ And, I would like to add, here we see the unmatched daring to such impossible undertaking as psychotherapy, where the word, the conversation and the silence become treatment methods.
The fourth paradox: hermeneutic uniqueness. Hermeneutics as a philosophical science was born and developed due to a very practical need to understand and interpret texts, initially mostly Biblical and legal texts. As a rule, these were texts written very long ago, in very different historical circumstances. Therefore, it was considered that this historical and cultural distance constituted an impediment for understanding the text.
Hadamer believes that this chronological and culture distance is unsurmountable and that authentic reconstruction of the past events is impossible. Hadamer speaks of the fact that, in interpreting a text, we proceed from our pre-existent prior understanding, prior knowledge and prior expectations.
This leads to two conclusions: first, there are no single correct and authoritative explanations made for once and for all times; and, second, every one of us as a unique human being and ‘also a philosopher’ has a right to one’s own understanding of the ‘text’. Hadamer writes: ‘To support a dialogue by all means, to give someone with a different way of thinking an opportunity for expression, to know how to understand the utterances – this is the heart of hermeneutics’