About Hermeneutics

The term hermeneutics originates in the Greek word for interpretation and is related to Hermes, god of communication who ferried messages between the gods and humans.  Hermeneutics initially referred to the theory and method of interpretation and emerged during the Protestant Reformation as a means of interpreting the Bible. At the turn of the eighteenth century Frederich Schleiermacher extended hermeneutics to establish a general interpretive methodology for uncovering the original intent of all forms of human communication, not just written texts. This version of hermeneutics, sometimes called romantic hermeneuticscurrently influences qualitative research methods, theories of epistemology and clinical interpretation in psychodynamic therapies, and narrative approaches to psychotherapy. The most recent turn in hermeneutic thought, philosophical or ontological hermeneutics, was ushered in by Martin Heidegger’s work in the 1920’s.  Philosophical hermeneutics, which goes beyond methodology to consider broader ontological questions about the nature of human beings, has been largely untapped within psychology except for a few notable exceptions (Martin, Sugarman & Thompson, 2003; Messer, Sass, & Woolfolk, 1988;  Richardson, Fowers, and Guignon, 1999; Woolfolk, 1998).

Heidegger (1962) maintained concern, care and signification are central to human existence. We are, as Heidegger put it, beings for whom our being is an issue. Our lives, as a result, are “structures of care.” What we do, how we have established our lives, the decisions we make, the way we spend our time all reveal what it is that we care about, either individually or collectively. From this perspective our behavior and even our thoughts and emotions presuppose care. Heidegger concluded, “the Being of Dasein itself is to be made visible as care” (pp. 83-84) and “Dasein, when understood ontologically, is care” (p. 84).

Building on this Charles Taylor (1989) evocatively stated that “Selfhood and the good, or in another way selfhood and morality, turn out to be inextricably intertwined themes” (p. 3). Charles Taylor makes the claim that part of what it means to be a human being is that we are situated within “inescapable frameworks.” In his essay “The moral topography of the self” Taylor (1988) alleged that we are all situated within a moral topography or moral space that orients us to life by demarcating the good (what we consider valuable, meaningful, desirable, etc.). To illustrate how these moral frameworks underlie our sense of identity and our evaluations of our lives, Taylor observed that we all have a sense of what it means to feel “out-of-joint” through such experience as being “lost, or condemned, or exiled, or unintegrated, or without meaning, or insubstantial, or empty” (p. 300). But in addition, according to Taylor, we have some sense of what it would mean to be back on track, in alignment, healed, saved, and so forth. And we also have a visceral feel for the internal resources, strengths, or virtues we need to draw upon or cultivate in the process. Taylor’s moral space then governs our gut-level sense of how we are doing, how we measure up, and what it is that we need to be doing or not doing. Typically, it is this sense of being out of joint that bring clients into therapy. Sometimes this moral space is explicitly known by us; but whether or not it is consciously articulated it is still always present in an implicit form that hits us in a kind of visceral way. As Taylor (1985a) writes, “these deepest evaluations are the ones which are least clear, least articulated, most easily subject to illusion and distortion. It is those which are closest to what I am as a subject, in these sense that shorn of them I would break down as a person, which are among the hardest for me to be clear about” (p. 40). Quite often in therapy we witness our clients profoundly struggle with “these deepest evaluations.” Taylor’s framework encourages us to see this struggle as a moral struggle, as entailing their deepest senses of what life is about and where they stand within it.