Irina Glukhova (Belarus) On the Hermeneutic Foundation of Existential Therapy
The term itself – “hermeneutics” – is ancient Greek and its translation is “the art of interpretation”. The philosophical dictionary defines hermeneutics as the art and theory of understanding and interpreting, and counts it among the main branches of modern philosophy. The main category of philosophical hermeneutics is understanding, which is defined as the clarification or attachment of meaning.
Vladimir Dal’s Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language explains “to understand” with these synonyms – to access with mind, to cognize, to comprehend, to realize, to grasp meaning, to grasp with one’s mind, to find meaning within something, to find purport within something, to see the cause and consequences. All of these words and phrases are being used both in everyday and in philosophical and psychological contexts.
Paradoxically, psychology as a science has accomplished very little in its research of understanding.
Modern researchers agree that the problem of understanding is interdisciplinary, and point out three main traditions in the approach to it: cognitive, existential and hermeneutic.
The cognitive tradition compares understanding to knowledge; it is assumed that the more you know, the more you understand.
The existential tradition views understanding as the understanding of essence, hidden meaning, first of all, the meaning of existence.
The hermeneutic category of understanding differs from the existential mainly because in hermeneutics the attempt to understand meaning is directed mainly towards a text, and finds its expression in the interpreting of this text. In modern hermeneutics, man’s life itself or a specific life situation can be read and interpreted as a text.
In existential therapy we often talk about understanding and meaning.
We often encounter the necessity to understand and interpret in our practice. We need to understand what is being said by the lecturers that teach us psychology or the practice of therapy. We need to understand the texts in books – in psychology, philosophy and psychotherapy. We need to understand what our colleagues and clients are talking about. And quite often we need to understand all of this not in our native language, i.e., interpret and explain it somehow inside ourselves.
Hermeneutics is behind all of these attempts to understand and interpret.
It is assumed that hermeneutics as a science began with the work of the German theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). He held the view that hermeneutics as the interpretation of a text needs to move from the text to its author, as arriving at understanding of a text without understanding of the author’s personality is impossible. Moreover, it is necessary to try to become familiar and intuitively enter the text in order to understand not only what has been clearly said in the text, but also what is meant by it, or has not even been perceived by the author; in other words, to understand the author better than he has understood himself.
The next step in the development of hermeneutics as a philosophical teaching about the method of understanding and interpreting was taken by the German philosopher and cultural historian Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911). He also attempted to uncover the meaning of a text, based on the assumptions about the unclear intentions of the author and the possibility of emphatically entering them, on the ground of the common human nature.
When speaking about modern hermeneutics, it is impossible to not talk about the works of Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), who saw understanding as a fundamental way of human existence, and held the view that man as an understanding being includes in his sphere of understanding not only texts, but the whole world.
And in conclusion we turn to the hermeneutics of the French philosopher Paul Ricœur, who thought that hermeneutics is not so much a method of cognizing, more a way of existence. A person lives through understanding and interpreting himself and his world. For our multilingual society, there is an important work by this French philosopher – the lecture “The Paradigm of Translation”, which he gave at the Protestant Theology Faculty in Paris, October 1998. According to Ricœur, “a translation can become a synonym for the attempts of understanding and interpreting a text within the same native language.”
A translation from one language to another (Ricœur calls this kind of translation external) has existed always, and there have always been those who practice it. The very question of differing translations is possible only because any thought can be expressed in different ways within the same language.
Often we need to rephrase a thesis that has not been completely understood by someone; we seem to be translating within the same language. Ricœur calls this kind of translation internal.
It needs to be said that this kind of internal translation is an integral part of psychotherapy. We often encounter attempts – and the impossibility – of delivering the same thought in different words. And quite often with our additional explanations we deepen the misunderstanding instead of avoiding it, even if the dialogue takes place in a language that is native for both persons.
We cannot escape the truth, that we always have only our personal point of view at our disposal, and that we will never reach a complete mutual understanding, as we all view things differently. And we talk about them differently. Our own native language gives so many possibilities for that! We can say the same things, yet in different ways; we can think something and say the opposite; we can discuss what we have imagined instead of what truly exists.
All this range of possibilities is completely present in therapy, and any practising therapist can find an example of it in his memory.
All that is left to say is that the hermeneutic lining of existential practice reveals itself even in the way the text of this article can be understood and interpreted: as something trivial and well-known or quite the opposite, as something way too complicated and far from life.