Philosophical Hermeneutics: A Metatheory

to Transcend Dualism and Individualism in Western Psychology




John Chambers Christopher

Health & Human Development

Herrick Hall

Montana State University

Bozeman, MT 59715


Frank C. Richardson

Department of Educational Psychology

504 Sánchez Building

University of Texas at Austin

Austin, TX  78712


Suzanne E. Christopher

Health & Human Development

Hoseaus PEC Complex

Montana State University

Bozeman, MT 59715


An earlier version of the paper was presented as:

Christopher, J. C., & Richardson, F. C. (2000, July). Philosophical hermeneutics: A metatheory to transcend dualism and individualism in Western psychology. In K. D. Smith (Chair), Metatheories in the natural sciences and in cross-cultural psychology. Symposium conducted at the International Congress of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychologists, Warsaw, Poland.




One impediment for psychology in grappling with the significance of culture and the challenges of intercultural contact continues to be its underlying metatheoretical framework. Philosophical hermeneutics deconstructs Western psychology’s emphasis upon objectivity and neutrality, and its aspiration to be culture-free, ahistorical, and universal by demonstrating how these rely upon a particular socially constructed vision of life. This vision obscures a more fundamental level of agency in which  humans are embedded within cultural practices and traditions prior to the development and emergence of the Cartesian “I” and its dichotomized world of self/other, subject/object, fact/value, and mind/body. We argue that philosophical hermeneutics provides conceptual tools for (a) critiquing the existing Newtonian-Cartesian metatheory, (b) discerning the ways this metatheory impedes recognition of the cultural values and assumptions underlying the social sciences, (c) identifying the resulting impact these values and assumptions have upon psychology in terms of a "disguised ideology," and (d) developing an alternative metatheory that is non-dualistic and non-individualistic.


Keywords: hermeneutics, metatheory, ontology, ethics, individualism, relativism


Philosophical Hermeneutics: A Metatheory

to Transcend Dualism and Individualism in Western Psychology


            Hermeneutics is most well known in social science circles as a qualitative method for interpreting meaning. Less well known, hermeneutics evolved during the 1900’s into a full-blown metatheory that provides a viable alternative not only for cross-cultural psychology but for psychology as a whole. As a metatheory, philosophical hermeneutics, beginning with the work of Martin Heidegger, provides an account of human agency that transcends many of the dualisms that permeate Western psychology such as the mind/body, subject/object, self/other, and fact/value dichotomies. Moreover, philosophical hermeneutics provides tools for situating existing psychological theory, research, and practice in their cultural and historical context as a means of discerning and critiquing their underlying ontological and moral commitments (which up to this point have been largely individualistic in nature). Unlike many of the attempts to apply post-Newtonian physics to psychology, philosophical hermeneutics is not just a heuristic metaphor or analogy; it is a successful metatheory that has already been used to critique existing theory, research, and practice, as well as to develop alternative models and methods. In this article we consider how mainstream social science and psychology is based on what has been called naturalism and objectivism—products of the Newtonian-Cartesian world view. We indicate some of the problems this generates and then provide a brief overview of philosophical hermeneutics and how it can facilitate intercultural relations.

Naturalism & Objectivism

            Most Anglo-American psychology in the 20th century has sought to emulate the outlook and methods of the natural sciences in order to achieve a similar kind of success. To this end, they have adopted an outlook, worldview, or metatheory which is perhaps best termed naturalism (Taylor, 1989), the view that human life is fundamentally a part of nature and nothing other than nature, to be studied and explained by disciplined, objective sciences that rely mainly on controlled experimentation and seek, so far as possible, strictly objective, “value-free,” “value-neutral,” or “culture free” accounts of human phenomena.

Naturalism is a key element of the modern Western outlook or consciousness which involves, in Max Weber’s famous phrase, a “disenchantment of the world.” This disenchantment or desacralizing of the world stems, in part, from the influence of objectifying. This process, employed by much of natural science, ignores or abstracts away from the rich appearance of things, including the values and meaningful relationships of our ordinary experience, so that it can regard the world objectively, as made up of inherently meaningless objects in causal interaction with one another. Too often, the world so regarded is taken to be the real world, or the only world. But the common human life-world, the sphere of intertwined lives, shared purposes, moral struggles, and the search for meaning is still there, even if it is temporarily ignored in the pursuit of one narrow, albeit valuable, kind of knowledge.

            The corollary of this new kind of objectified outlook on the world is an unprecedented kind of subjectivity in which values and meanings are thought to reside in the individual and are projected onto the world. It is, in Taylor’s (1975) words, a new kind of “self-defining identity,” one “accompanied by a “sense of exhilaration and power” because the individual no longer needs to define him or herself in relation to an external order (pp. 8-9). A crucial consequence of this shift is that the horizon of human identity is now to a great extent found within, which gives birth to the uniquely modern emphasis on inwardness and inward depths. This inward turn is accompanied by a sense of a fundamental gulf between individuals and their world, both natural and social. Thus, it appears to be a mainstay of modern individualism, whereby we tend to view human beings atomistically as discrete centers of experience and action, concatenated in various ways into social groups, struggling to reduce inevitable conflicts with others through negotiations and temporary alliances. Critics of excessive individualism, beginning with de Toqueville (1969),  have been concerned with how it may purchase valuable new freedoms at the price of alienation and emotional isolation, in part because it largely eliminates the possibility of profoundly shared values and long-lasting social ties from our picture of human life (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985; Cushman, 1990, 1995b; Etzioni, 1996; Sandel, 1996).

            In this brave new world of individual subjects, often seen as having inward depths, set over and against a universe of objects governed by causal laws, knowledge or understanding comes to be viewed as the correspondence of our inner beliefs to an external reality. This epistemological view often termed representationalism assumes the existence of an external reality that has determinate properties independent of our beliefs and practices. The focus of epistemology and the core of scientific inquiry then becomes the development of reliable methods that allow us to be sure that our knowledge of reality is entirely “objective,” that is, uncontaminated by our wishes, fears, or evaluations. Methods such as random assignment and the double blind study anchor knowledge in objective fact so that knowledge can serve as the basis for accurate predictions that enable us to re-engineer reality in some desired way. Correlated with this modern representational view of knowledge is an unprecedented view of the human person as essentially a knowing subject. This knowing subject was firmly planted in Western cultural history by Descartes through his method of radical doubt which resulted in the conviction that the one thing that can be known with certainty is the self that can potentially know. The self, in this view, appears as a kind of isolated point of consciousness and will standing entirely apart from or over and against the world of brute objects. Taylor (1995) describes this aptly as the modern “punctual self.” In his words, this self is “ideally disengaged, that is, as free and rational to the extent that he has fully distinguished himself from the natural and social worlds, so that his identity is no longer to be defined in terms of what lies outside him in these worlds” (p. 7).

            Some form of this new subject-object ontology and representational epistemology has served as the cornerstone of most 20th century social science. This approach to understanding human action and social life reflects what Bernstein (1983) defines as the “objectivism” that has underpinned so much modern thought and culture. Objectivism is the “basic conviction that there is or must be some permanent, ahistorical matrix or framework to which we can ultimately appeal in determining the nature of rationality, knowledge, truth, reality, goodness, or rightness” (p. 8). Bernstein further believes that the defining feature of mainstream social science is the ideal of the social scientist as a “disinterested observer” who can uncover universal, ahistorical, atemporal social and psychological laws. 

Problems with Objectivism

A number of different problems exist with objectivism. First, naturalism, representationalism, and objectivism have not delivered anything like what they promised for the social sciences. In the opinion of many, in spite of tremendous effort, little or nothing has been achieved resembling the main goal of the naturalistic approach, namely the kind of well-developed explanatory theory that counts as hard representational truth concerning its subject matter, thereby permitting precise prediction and technical control. Just describing interesting patterns of variables—which always have many exceptions—does not yield the sort of instrumental control over events we associate with modern physics, biology, or engineering. This striking failure has led many to conclude that human science inquiry may be saddled with an epistemological ideal that is inappropriate for its subject matter. For example, Gergen (1982) concludes that a “fundamental difference exists between the bulk of the phenomena of concern to the natural as opposed to the sociobehavioral scientist.” Thus, “there appears to be little justification for the immense effort devoted to the empirical substantiation of fundamental laws of human conduct. There would seem to be few patterns of human action, regardless of their durability to date, that are not subject to significant alteration” (p. 12).

Second, there is evidence to suggest that attempts by the social sciences to emulate the natural sciences are based on a distorted and unrealistic understanding of the natural sciences. Post-positivistic philosophers of science beginning with Feyerabend (1978) and Kuhn (Kuhn, 1970) and including Laudan (1977; 1984), Shapere (1984), Kitcher (1993) and Suppe (1977) convincingly show that positivistic philosophies of science with their underlying faith in objectivism fail to represent or capture what actually occurs in the process of the natural sciences. Revisionist thinkers now stress the profoundly interpretive or hermeneutical dimension of science, according to which observation is considered to be depen­dent on the­ory and the confirmation or rejection of theories is to some degree conven­tional and influenced by certain values, such as parsimony or fruitfulness. These changes in the philosophy of the natural sciences suggest that the social sciences have modeled themselves on a false ideal.

            Third, functioning as the official faith of the social sciences, objectivism has led to a paradoxical and harmful apotheosis of method, which has been dubbed “methodolatry.” Slife and Williams (1995) point out that objectivist social science generally treats theorizing as distinct from, and subordinate to, the use of scientific methods to uncover knowledge. Wherever our theories or conjectures come from, they are valid or acceptable only to the extent that they are tested and confirmed by methods which have been determined in advance quite apart from any particular theoretical beliefs. The problem with such a view, however, is that methods are adopted on the basis of some theoretical or philosophical beliefs about the nature of things and how we might best come to know them. We would have no idea about what sorts of methods might be useful—or even that we needed methods in the first place—except on the basis of preconceived beliefs about the human realm, which usually reflect social and moral ideals as well as metaphysical commitments. Thus, “method itself is a theory—a philosophy…it makes assumptions about the world, and important implications arise from those assumptions.” As a result, these biases or assumptions rule out some kinds of explanations and evaluations and support others in a very unscientific manner—“by philosophical fiat in the guise of 'scientific method” (Slife & Williams, 1997, p. 120).

            Fourth, the unrealistic and distorted view that objectivism advances sets the stage for a type of either/or thinking in which the only other alternative to objectivism is relativism. Loss of the objectivist faith can plunge a thinker into a despairing or giddy relativism. Witness the efforts of contemporary postmodern or social constructionist theorists to abandon altogether a representationalist view of knowledge and subvert all claims to anchor our understanding in a secure way (Gergen, 1985, 1994; Rorty, 1979, 1982). For example, Gergen (1985, p. 270 ff.), argues that social constructionism help us get past the traditional subject-object dualism because in this view psychological inquiry is deprived of any notion of experience as a “touchstone of objectivity.”  So-called reports or descriptions of one's experience' are really just “linguistic constructions guided and shaped by historically contingent conventions of discourse.” Therefore, there is no “truth through method,” no correct procedure that bestows a warrant of objectivity on our findings or theories. Moreover, social constructionism “offers no alternative truth criteria.” Instead, “the success of [our] accounts depends primarily on the analyst's capacity to invite, compel, stimulate, or delight the audience, and not on criteria of veracity” (p. 270 ff).

Difficulties in Overcoming Objectivism

            Why have we been so dedicated in social science to holding on to the representational view, trying to make do with or compensate for its shortcomings rather than seek a fundamentally more adequate epistemology? Part of the answer seems to be, as Taylor (1995) suggests, that the modern, disengaged, “punctual” self is as much a moral as a scientific ideal. The modern self confronting a natural and social world to which it has no essential or defining ties “connects with ...central moral and spiritual ideas of the modern age,”  such as the modern ideal of “freedom as be self-responsible, to rely on one’s own judgment, to find one’s purpose in oneself” (p. 7). This self is well-positioned to freely and rationally treat both itself and the outside world instrumentally, to alter them in desired ways, or, in later permutations of the modern self, to resist social pressure to conform and pursue self-actualization or personal authenticity as it sees fit. Thus, the representational outlook begins to look like a central strand of our way of life in modern Western culture, one often thought to purchase valuable freedoms at the price of much alienation, and to stress mastery and control over nature and ourselves to the potential detriment of other kinds of social, moral, or spiritual values in living. The aspiration to an uncontaminated knowledge of independent realities in science fits very well with the antiauthoritarian, emancipatory moral outlook of modern times (Richardson, 1989). This outlook is dedicated to advancing and protecting individual autonomy as its highest priority, but tending to neglect, as Frank (1973) thoughtfully puts it, other, more traditional, possibly worthwhile values or virtues such as "the redemptive power of suffering, acceptance of one's lot in life, adherence to tradition, self-restraint and moderation" (p. 7).         

            The quest for certainty via a representational epistemology and the exaggerated individualism of modern times may be connected in another important way as well. The transition to a modern way of life that is urban, pluralistic, and mobile can entail the breakdown of supporting institutions and the dissolution of human ties of shared purpose and obligation (Berger, 1977; Berger, 1979). The wrenching nature of this upheaval may be one important source of our modern romance with both the ethical ideal of an impregnable individual autonomy and the intellectual goal of invincibly certain knowledge.

According to Dunne (1996) the typically modern sense of self—he calls it a "sovereign" self—presents a strong front of “separateness” and “mastery” (p. 138) But that front may cover up a great sense of fallibility and precariousness in our new, modern, uprooted and emotionally isolating condition. This situation, Dunne suggests, produces an almost compulsive drive for certainty and security which finds expression in many different sectors of modern life and thought. Bernstein (1983 p.16ff) finds in Descartes' Meditations, “the ‘locus classicus' in modern philosophy,” a similar dynamic at work. Descartes' reflections are partly driven, Bernstein feels, by a deep “Cartesian anxiety” which insists that either we have an Archimedean point, an indubitable and certain foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape being enveloped by forces of darkness, by intellectual and moral chaos, even madness. Perhaps our insistence on a one-sided autonomy in practical life and the possibility of certain knowledge, which seems to promise mastery over many of life's threats and uncertainties, has been, in part, an effort to quell this “Cartesian anxiety” and give us something solid to hold on to in the flux.

Philosophical Hermeneutics

            We are drawn to hermeneutic philosophy because it seems to offer the most powerful means of identifying the problematic assumptions of the naturalistic outlook and pointing the way toward truly post-Newtonian perspectives for cross-cultural psychology and social inquiry in general. Postpositivist views of natural science fit very well with the hermeneutic viewpoint, which see all knowledge as fundamentally interpretive and hammered out in traditions of understanding. But hermeneutics contends that there are still fundamental differences between the kinds of interpretations and explanations offered by the natural and human sciences.

Abstraction and Objectification

In the hermeneutic view, it is quite appropriate (and obviously fruitful for its worthy, if limited, purposes) for natural science, for the most part, to follow an approach to its subject matter of abstraction and objectification. First one abstracts away from the rich appearances, felt meanings, and meaningful relationships of everyday experience. Then one can regard things, even human behavior, as neutral events or processes, and to creatively map their structural make-up and causal dynamics from such a temporarily disengaged and objectifying perspective. Berger (1977) describes how this remarkable human capacity for abstraction has burst the bounds of science and pervades a great deal of modern experience. On the “level of consciousness,” abstraction establishes particular forms of thought, especially a “quantifying and atomizing cognitive style, originally at home in the calculations of entrepreneurs and engineers,” which leads to ignoring and even “repressing” other kinds of spontaneous, passionate, numinous, or contemplative experiences and emotions. On the “level of social life,” such abstraction entails the “progressive weakening, if not destruction, of the concrete and relatively cohesive communities in which human beings have found solidarity and meaning throughout most of history” (p. 71).

            In this view, however, it is a mistake to assume that this approach of abstraction and objectification should be employed in studying humans. First and foremost, this approach seems to screen or bleach out a great deal of the reality of human life and experience with which we should be concerned. In addition, the picture of human being or agency that results from taking an objectifying stance toward our own existence—that of an isolated, disengaged, knowing subject that seeks to form correct representations of the world for the purposes of theorizing and technical control—seems to be a major source of the exaggerated individualism, alienation, dissolution of lasting social ties, excessive orientation toward mastery and control, and inability to accept healthy limits that, in the judgment of many, afflict modern Western life. It is true that this picture of the disengaged or decontextualized modern subject—in other words, a subject-object ontology—tends to support cherished modern values few of us would wish to discard, such as a great deal of personal autonomy, basic human rights, and a critical stance toward our traditions. But by itself this approach tends strongly to throw out the baby with the bath, to dispense with all notions of tradition, community, and core ethical values beyond human rights and fair procedures (Sandel, 1996) in order to eliminate any possible distortions of these ideals. Perhaps, in the end, this is more a way of playing it safe in life than genuinely pursuing the ethical quest.

Basics of a Hermeneutic Ontology

Contemporary hermeneutics makes a modest proposal about how we might avoid many of the difficulties incurred by both objectivism or representationalism and postmodernism. The cornerstone of philosophical hermeneutics according to Gadamer (1975) is the belief that prejudices or pre-judgments are at the foundation of all knowledge. Knowledge is an interpretation that is always situated within a living tradition. From this perspective, any attempt to have objective, value-free, ahistorical knowledge is both unachievable and misguided. A growing but substantial body of hermeneutic and postmodern critiques of different aspects of psychological theory, research, and practice, now exist that demonstrate that despite the best efforts in psychology to be neutral or objective, cultural values and assumptions thoroughly permeate the field (Christopher, 1999; Christopher, Christopher, & Dunnagan, 2000; Cirillo & Wapner, 1986; Cushman, 1995a; Hogan, 1975; Kirschner, 1996; Richardson, Fowers, & Guignon, 1999; Sampson, 1977, 1988; Spence, 1985; Woolfolk, 1998).

Knowledge can never be objective because of our inescapable historicity.  We are always situated in a particular “horizon” of understanding that is based on a combination of cultural and personal presuppositions (prejudices). Consequently, for philosophical hermeneutics, hermeneutics is no longer just an epistemology, it no longer simply provides a method to guide interpretation; rather, it is now a social ontology that discusses how the natures of personhood, selfhood, and agency are inescapably embedded in a social context or tradition.  In short, the social ontology of philosophical hermeneutics is based on the claim that we are “essentially beings constituted by and engaged in interpretive understandings” (Bernstein, 1983, p. 137).

            In developing these ideas, the hermeneutic philosopher Martin Heidegger offered an interpretation of the “being” who is engaged in the activity of interpreting that provides an alternative ontology to the punctual or disengaged self so central to the Newtonian-Cartesian metatheory. Heidegger characterizes us as being-in-the-world, a view of the person that is both non-dualistic and non-individualistic. Being-in-the-world points to an aspect of human existence that is engaged in social practices and is prior to the dualism of self and other, subject and object, mind and body, and fact and value. Instead of thinking of the self as an object of any sort, Heidegger (1962, p. 426) conceives of human existence as a “happening” or a “becoming.” Individual lives have a temporal and narrative structure. They are a kind of unfolding movement that is “stretched along between birth and death.” In Guignon's (1993) words, just as “events in a novel gain their meaning from what they seem to be pointing to in the long our past lives and our present activities gain their meaning from a (perhaps tacit) sense of where our lives are going as a totality” (p. 14).

            Heidegger deconstructs the Cartesian sense of self, the punctual or disengaged self—the atomistic, skin-encapsulated “I” that is set over and against the world and other people (see also (Rubin, 1997). He sees this sense of “I” as a cultural construction that distorts and obscures a more fundamental sense of agency that he terms being-in-the-world. To convey an understanding of this sense of agency, Heidegger developed the example of a carpenter working on a construction project. When work is going smoothly, the carpenter does not construct hammers, nails, and boards as separate, discrete objects that he or she is “set over and against.” Rather, hammers, nails, boards, and the carpenter are subsumed under the goal of the project. When in such a state of flow, being-in-the-world is a “unitary phenomenon” “in which self and world are reciprocally intertwined in such a way that there is no way to drive a wedge between a “self” component and a “world” component (Richardson et al., 1999, p. 209). Heidegger is trying to draw our attention to a level of experience that precedes the self-other and subject-object dualisms that shape Western ways of construing reality. Heidegger believes we only create hammers, nails, and boards as separate objects when they no longer seamlessly integrate into the project; when, for instance, we have the wrong type of hammer for the project at hand. It is at this point we may see the hammer as an object having certain properties, functions, and uses.

            The fact-value dualism is also problematic from a hermeneutic perspective. In objectivism, values and meanings are subjective creations that are projected onto the neutral world of objective facts. In Heidegger’s view of being-in-the-world, facts and values seamlessly interpenetrate. In his view, our lives are structures of care—the way we live our lives, the way we allocate our time and energy reveal our most basic values and commitments or what we care about. Such embodied or lived values may or may not be consciously known—and may even be in a state of conflict with what we consciously espouse or profess to value.

            A similar state exists with the relationship of culture and the self. As Jahoda (2000) and Ratner (2000) contend, psychologists, even cross-cultural psychologists, have generally failed to develop a cohesive and comprehensive conception of culture. The result has been primitive or uncritical models that fail to grapple in a serious way with the ontology of persons, the nature of culture, and the relationship between the two. This dominant tendency according to Geertz (1973) has been the proliferation of what he calls “stratagraphic” views of the self in Western social science. In these stratagraphic views the self is drawn with concentric circles, having layers or levels like an onion. Invariably, culture is the outermost layer—like values it is thought to overlay or be appended to our more basic realms of biology and personality. In the hermeneutic view, culture precedes us. We are at the most basic level beings that are brought into and take over social practices and the meanings implicit in them. For instance, in the United States, we experience hot showers and baths and thereby participate in the meanings implicit in them developmentally long before anything like the Cartesian sense of ourselves as an “I” that can choose or internalize cultural beliefs and values emerges. Meanings and values, what Geertz called “webs of significance,” already pre-exist in the dynamic life-world and social practices that we are thrown into upon birth and encounter in our day-to-day activities. Or put in another way, the social practices we learn prior to becoming self-conscious revolve around a particular interpretation of the self and the good life. By learning to interact in our families and social world we take over these interpretations of life (and sometimes modify them). But importantly, the meaningfulness of things does not have to be a mental process that is either internalized nor projected onto the world. While meanings and values are in one sense constructed, as revealed by their tremendous variation across cultures, they are for the most part not constructed by any one of us individually. 

Through his account of being-in-the-world, Heidegger’s “goal is to get us to see that in our initial, everyday, prereflective encounter with the world, things show up for us directly as already value-laden and having significance” (Richardson et al., 1999, p. 209). The meaningfulness of things is not mere projection of human values. Consequently, from Heidegger’s perspective the ability to be disengaged, to see meanings and values as subjective construals that is so central to naturalism or what he calls the “theoretical attitude” is not neutral or objective—it is a cultural and developmental accomplishment; it reflects a breakdown and distortion of our normal condition of being-in-the-world. Similarly, Heidegger sees Descartes’ cogito, his belief in the primacy of the “I” that “thinks” as a fundamental and tragic ontological error that is also a collapse of what is more primordial, being-in-the-world. In other words, the subject-object ontology, the Western sense of ourselves as an “I” set over and against society and nature is a cultural construction; it is not our most primary way of being.

Hermeneutics, History, and “Strong Evaluations”

The ontology of engaged agency is broadened in philosophical hermeneutics by considering what it is that the self is embedded in. While hermeneutic thinkers discuss how human beings are immersed in social practices and traditions, they are particularly interested in the meanings that inform or underlie these concrete patterns of interaction. Geertz (1973), for instance, refers to culture as “webs of significance” that underlie social life and give it coherence and meaning. In Taylor’s (1985a; 1989) view, human beings are self-interpretive animals that always exist within what he calls inescapable frameworks. These inescapable frameworks are largely implicit but inextricably both ontological and moral. They form moral visions (Christopher, 1996; 2001) that inform us as to both what the self is and what the self should be or become. These interpretations becomes self-constituting.  As Taylor observed, “A fully competent human agent not only has some understanding (which may be also more or less misunderstanding) of himself, but is also partly constituted by this understanding” (1985a, p. 3). For Taylor, actions are clearly guided by interpretations. Consequently, actions can only be fully understood or identified by taking into account their aim or purpose. This frequently requires taking seriously the agent's “vision of things.” Thus, human beings cannot be fully understood as “brute data” that can be comprehended without reference to the subject. Rather, human emotions and actions are partly defined by the agent's own judgments and perceptions, by his or her own interpretations.

In the hermeneutic view, individual lives are always “thrown” into a familiar life-world from which they draw their possibilities of self-interpretation. Our own life-stories only make sense against the backdrop of possible story-lines opened by our historical culture (Guignon, 1989, p. 109)

In this way, hermeneutics claims to take the full measure of our historical and cultural embeddedness and the inexorable limitations of human understanding, to the extent that Gadamer (1975, p. 245) can say that the “self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life.” Yet it is just this embeddedness and these limitations that make possible a sense of identity and a meaningful or purposeful life. Only they provide the needed context for such a life.

            In the hermeneutic view, partly because of this embeddedness, people care about whether their lives make sense and what they are amounting to (Heidegger, 1962, p. 228). Therefore, they have always taken some stand on their lives by seizing on certain roles, traits, and values. Indeed, they “just are the stands they take in living out their lives” (Guignon & Pereboom, 1995, p. 189). Taylor (1985a, p. 3) develops this notion of care with the idea that humans do not simply desire particular outcomes or satisfactions in living. Rather, they always make “strong evaluations” (Taylor, 1985a, p. 3). Even if only tacitly or unconsciously, they evaluate the quality of their desires and motivations and the worth of the ends they seek in terms of how they fit in with their overall sense of a decent or worthwhile life. Humans never simply prefer or desire certain pleasures or results. They always, in addition, are building their lives around some notion of what is decent vs. indecent, noble vs. base, or deep vs. shallow—the terms vary widely across societies and eras. The claim is that this is not an optional activity, but something that we do as an inherent feature of human existence. It certainly does not mean that the ideals that inform our living are necessarily clear or refined or put into practice in a non-hypocritical or conflicted way. It only means that, in some form, they cannot be dispensed with or completely evaded.

            What this means is that we are always “insiders” with respect to some deep, defining set of commitments and identifications, even though their content varies greatly across cultures. Both positivists and postmodernists seem to feel it is appropriate to try to step outside or distance ourselves as much as possible from historical entanglements. Hermeneutic thinkers argue that “the language of science, when applied to the study of human beings, is a relatively impoverished language. Using traditional scientific investigations, we force ourselves to study human beings at a distance” (Slife & Williams, 1995, p. 195). In the hermeneutic view, this is not only impossible, but probably somewhat inauthentic. The only sort of human agency we can imagine takes place according to a "logic of question and answer" (Gadamer, 1975, p. 333) within a "space of questions" (Taylor, 1989, p. 26) taken for granted by our culture or elaborated by us in some way. Failing to recognize this we can easily allow our own cultural frameworks to become a form of disguised ideology (Prilleltensky, 1989) in our scientific endeavors.

            Yet even if it were possible to be outside this dialectic or disengaged from it, we would not gain a better grip on who we are—we would simply not know what meanings things have for us and potentially incur a frightening kind of dissociation. We can and often should profoundly criticize our norms and practices. But we always critique not from some privileged objective and neutral vantage point but on the basis of other commitments or moral insights from our traditions which for the moment we take for granted (Warnke, 1987). Our various cultural and moral traditions are rich resources for such critique. The common view of these traditions as stable, monolithic authorities is actually a narrow, prejudiced outgrowth of the Enlightenment. In fact, our traditions of meaning and practice seem essentially to be multivocal, interminably noisy debates rather than static sets of rules (Fowers & Richardson, 1996). That insight applies to scientific traditions, religious traditions, and even to what is now the weighty tradition of the Enlightenment itself, the meaning and shortcomings of which are today everywhere in dispute.

Dialogic Understanding

Hermeneutics puts the living process of dialogue in place of both the modern quest for certainty through method and the postmodern stance of detached irony and relativistic play in all our doings. In doing so it proposes not only a metatheory for psychology but also a means of approaching intercultural relations.

What is this dialogue? Hermeneutic dialogue is a process or method of attempting to understand or make sense of the meanings, interpretations, and commitments of others, especially when they differ from our own. The fundamental premise of hermeneutic dialogue is that genuine understanding relies on a “fusion of horizons.” As a first step, this means that we need to understand the horizon or background of meanings underlying the perspectives of different parties.

Dialogic understanding can be portrayed as a kind of interplay between openness and application. The beginning phase of openness (Gadamer, 1975) rests on the assumption that we do not have any corner on truth and that others might have important things to say to us. Genuine openness to any meaning or claim actually involves granting it provisional authority (Warnke, 1987, p. 167ff.) to challenge our beliefs and prejudices. While any effort will always be partial and incomplete, the goal is to try to get at how it is that others could take themselves seriously and live as if their approach to or outlook on life is true and meaningful. The “fusion” occurs when we can adopt such a stance of respectful openness to the Other; when we grant others the provisional authority to challenge our own mostly deeply held values and assumptions. For Gadamer (1975), this is the most authentic way of relating to others, a form of I-Thou relationship, and it offers us the best way of avoiding an imposed etic.

The second phase of hermeneutic dialogue, application, involves ascertaining or testing out in a fully critical way whether an insight or point of view gained through openness really offers us a better way to make sense of our current situation as well as new circumstances and unforeseen challenges. The rigorous application of our new-found understandings to our own concrete situation helps us to decide which of these insights to retain and which to set aside. The application of what we learn from the other will always be modified by our own concrete circumstances and historical background rather than being ingested whole. Yet continued openness can help us to counteract the tendency to be too narrow in our application.

            The danger with openness, Warnke (1987) points out, is conservatism in which we slavishly bow to authority or rationalize the status quo out of fear or timidity. The only cure for such inauthentic rationalization is further rigorous application of these claims to our unique historical situation. The danger with application is subjectivism or the clever, opportunistic interpretation of events or principles in a self-serving manner. However, the only cure for such arbitrariness is further, sometimes painful openness to challenge from others. Richard Williams describes this process as a kind of "artful, meaningful participation" (Williams & Faulconer, 1997, p. 28) in which it appears that "agency and knowledge...are intimately associated" (Williams, 1994, p. 36).

In Gadamer’s (1981) view the ongoing to-and-fro of question and answer characterizes not just attempts to understand texts and other form of discourse; it characterizes the unfolding “play” of tradition as well. According to Richardson et al. (1999),

In Gadamer's view, we are always engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the meaningful, historically shaped pre-understanding we find around us, and in this dialogue we are constantly testing our assumptions in the light of what texts and other speakers have to say.  In fact, for Gadamer, as for Hölderlin and Heidegger before him, a human being just is an ongoing dialogue or conversation in which the voices of the past are critically appropriated in the attempt to find a truth applicable to the present.  [Therefore] our horizon and the questions we ask are constantly transformed through this ongoing dialogue” (p. 232).

            We can always defensively or dishonestly distort the process of dialogic understanding. No sure-fire method or social arrangement of checks and balance can prevent this from happening. Still, this approach suggests a way to blend qualities that we often admire but find hard to reconcile. For example, dialogic understanding helps reconcile commitment and criticism. At their best, serious moral and political commitments encourage us to be as open as possible to challenges from the outside. Because of the importance of the subject matter, we have a strong motivation to get things right. Also, such commitments contribute to the sense of self needed to withstand the uncertainty and trepidation of the questioning process.

            The result of hermeneutic dialogue is not only an approach that can be used to understand differences when they occur, but becomes a way of trying to get at truth. Instead of trying to ground truth and representation through method as objectivism does or dismiss the whole notion of truth as much of postmodern thought does, hermeneutics substitutes a dialogical form of truth. Hermeneutics sees the pursuit of truth as essential to human existence, but suggests we can never have certainty we have found truth. For instance, while statistically significant correlational findings are often assumed to indicate universal, ahistorical truths about the human condition, Bernstein observes that they could simply reflect “regularities or systematic interrelationships in the personal or social existence of particular historical communities...” (1978, p. 31). We can never be certain about our theories, our research findings, our epistemic principles, our values, or our ontological commitments. In consequence, hermeneutics substitutes what Taylor (1989) terms our “best accounts” for the quest for timeless, universal laws of human behavior. We can only offer our best accounts, our best interpretations, our best arguments, and our best reasons to the ongoing historically situated dialogue in which we are necessarily immersed.

            Social Theory as Practice. Finally, in the hermeneutic view, social theory is a form of practice. Psychology has always struggled to reconcile its insistence on pursuing a neutral form of inquiry with its mission of advocating human welfare. However, philosophical hermeneutics and other postmodern critiques have pointed out how the ideal of the “disinterested observer,” is misguided, self-deceived and ultimately impoverishes the social sciences. Social science is not a “disembodied cognitive enterprise,” as Bellah and his colleagues point out, “It is a tradition, or set of traditions, deeply rooted in the philosophical and humanistic (and, to more than a small extent, the religious) history of the West" (Bellah et al., 1985, p. 301). They further note that,

social science makes assumptions about the nature of persons, the nature of society, and the relation between persons and society. It also, whether it admits it or not, makes assumptions about good persons and a good society and considers how far these conceptions are embodied in our actual society. (p. 301)

 The unavoidable presence of these type of normative commitments leads Bellah and others (Haan, Bellah, Rabinow, & Sullivan, 1983) to claim that social science would be more accurately portrayed as a form of moral inquiry.

From the hermeneutic or interpretive perspective (Hiley, Bohman, & Shusterman, 1991; Rabinow & Sullivan, 1979), social science, which seeks to elucidate or explain human action in real life cultural contexts, cannot be understood mainly as formulating hypotheses and comparing them to independent facts. The “facts” in this case are lived experience and social practices which are not independent objects but are constituted, in part, by our changing meanings and self-understandings. Experimental, correlational, qualitative, and other methods may serve well at times to identify patterns or bring realities to light in our experience or world. But they cannot stand entirely on their own as “objective” explanations or descriptions to which we must conform our thinking. Rather any importance or meaning they have is a function of larger interpretive efforts to make sense of our situation, tested in ongoing dialogue. Thus, an interpretative or hermeneutic approach is not a substitute for rigorous empirical research—rather it complements it by providing a metatheory that can better situate its application and findings. Because the conclusions we come to, the interpretations we make are never final or certain, like everything else in life, a hermeneutic outlook is consistent with methodological pluralism.

To put it simply, we might say that the primary point of social and psychological theory and research is clarification of the meanings we live by, not sheer predictive accuracy. Sometimes theory and research findings will reiterate and validate some aspect of our way of life. But they always reinterpret our social practices to some degree, and so may bring to light errors, inconsistencies, or deficiencies that push toward transformation of that way of life. It should be stressed that interpretation and dialogic understanding in everyday life or social science always have an inescapable evaluative dimension, an indelible practical point. It is for this reason that Bernstein (1978) believed that social science should be simultaneously empirical, interpretative, and critical. Social theory and research are essentially, in part, ethics and politics by other means, an extension of our search for justice, love, and wisdom in practical life. If that is true for the kind of social and psychological inquiry we carry out extensively on ourselves and our way of life, even in a multicultural society, think how much more it applies to cross-cultural psychology, which is bound often to shake our foundations, call us into question, and show us different, sometimes better ways of being human.

Implications for Intercultural Relations

            Hermeneutics’ biggest contribution to intercultural relations is to help us understand better what is involved or at stake in intercultural interactions. From the hermeneutic view, what is at risk in these interactions is a moral vision of what the self is and what the self should be or become (1996). Recognition of this notion in general and learning to see these moral visions in particular interactions, can help us to avoid premature judgments, ethnocentrism, and imposed etics.

            For instance, virtually all aspects of the practice of psychotherapy and counseling have been noted to be influenced by values and assumptions about human nature and the good life (Cushman, 1995a; Ellis, 1973; London, 1986; May, 1967; Tjeltveit, 1989). As Szasz (1961) pointed out the “socioethical orientations” of the therapist will “influence his [or her] ideas on what is wrong with the patient, what deserves comment or interpretation, in what possible directions change might be desirable, and so forth” (p. 116). Wachtel (1977) gets even closer to the heart of the matter in observing that “the theories that guide contemporary therapeutic efforts both reflect and shape the culture’s view of human potential and the good life” (p. 3). Diagnosis, conceptualization, treatment goals, and interventions are all culturally informed. The challenge is to translate this general abstract realization into the ability to discern these cultural influences in our practice.

An example of dialogical understanding in couples counseling helps set the stage for how hermeneutic understanding might guide intercultural relations. Often, couples in conflict struggle to determine who is right, who is wrong, and where the truth lies. This dynamic is rarely helpful; even if it could be determined what the truth is or was, it tends to perpetuates a power struggle with one partner feeling vindicated and the other diminished. An important dimension to working with couples is assisting them to move from a dynamic of right and wrong to a dynamic of mutual understanding. In the dynamic of mutual understanding, couples work to understand the perspective of the other—they attempt to understand how the other person’s perceptions and inner experience make sense to them. This process (which is essentially the same thing as the phase of openness in the hermeneutic dialogue) is often powerfully transformational. Couples frequently shift from adversaries to partners who are looking together at a common problem. At its most profound level this can lead to the type of I-Thou relationship described by Buber (1970) and is often accompanied by a deeper sense of compassion for the other and a renewed sense of intimacy in the relationship.

We believe that this type of dialogical mutual understanding is an essential ingredient in multicultural counseling (and more broadly in intercultural relations). Hermeneutics is a way of thinking interpretively about what is ultimately at stake in these intercultural encounters: moral visions and moral stances made on the basis of them. Having a sense of what can vary (notions of the self, the good life/person, fundamental metaphysical, moral and epistemological assumptions, etc.) can guide us in understanding how these may differ with a specific client (Christopher 1996, 2001). In the climate of managed care and treatment manuals, the therapist is frequently encouraged to adopt an instrumental approach in which the patient is objectified as something to change from one point to another. This results in essentially what is an imposed enculturation of a Western view of the self and the good life because we are pushed to act before we can fully understand and appreciate. Consequently, a deep understanding of the client from the inside is precluded—this often occurs as well when the therapy is conducted within the same culture. Hermeneutic therapy includes phenomenological understanding of the client’s experience and hermeneutic analysis of the values and presuppositions underlying the client’s phenomenology. In such a dialogue we work to situate the client by trying to make sense of their life, the choices they make, the emotions they experience, and the types of thoughts they tend to have—seeing all of these different aspects or dimensions of the person as expressing a moral vision. Instead of disregarding such information, a dialogic approach to therapy begins with client’s deepest senses of the self and the good life, and helps clients identify and express these core values and commitments in an open environment. This type of dialogue can be also thought of as ethical position: it treats the other as inherently worthy of respect and understanding and helps to avoid an unconsciously and uncritically imposed etic. Hermeneutic dialogue is also important for pragmatic reasons. It provides an important kind of data: the structure of values and assumptions that constitute and animate the lives of clients from other cultural viewpoints.

We believe this type of deep interpretive understanding is also essential for the researcher: it is incumbent upon the researcher to have a general sense of the historicity of the concepts, ideas, and theories underlying their work (Cushman, 1990, 1995a). The need for this is illustrated by considering how we address acculturative stress, on both theoretical and practical grounds. Berry (1997) details three levels or “points of view” for considering the level of difficulty individuals have in psychologically acculturating: behavioral shifts, acculturative stress, and psychopathology. On one side of the spectrum are those individuals who can easily adapt by changing their “repertoire” – behavioral shifts. On the other end is mental illness as Berry and Sam note: “When major difficulties are experienced, the “psychopathology” or “mental disease” perspective is most appropriate” (p. 298). While this perspective can certainly capture important behavioral symptoms, it also potentially obscures the concrete fact that we are engaged in pathologizing those who struggle the most with such changes. This pathologizing rests on the presupposition that cultural transitions should be relatively facile—those who struggle most are most ill. If we step back and ask why should cultural transitions be easy, we run into our own cultural meanings. For instance, might we by pathologizing these individuals be reinforcing the Western notion that the self should be flexible, adaptable, and highly mobile (Bauman, 2000). If we consider that what is at stake for such  individuals is ultimately their world view, ethos, understanding of what it means to be a person and how life should be lived, then it seems questionable that cultural transitions should really be so easy or straightforward. The transition to a modern way of life that is urban, pluralistic, and mobile involves a wrenching experience of the breakdown of supporting institutions and the dissolution of human ties of shared purpose and obligation. Are not the symptoms of “psychopathology” an eminently sane and comprehendible reaction given the task involved? Moreover, might seeing such individuals  primarily in terms of psychopathology potentially lead us to miss seeing possible strengths and virtues? For instance, resistance to shedding identities and indigenous social practices may in some cases indicate a form of psychological strength or integrity. The potential risk is that by drawing on or resorting to Western understandings of mental illness and their associated diagnostic classifications, we may forget to situate such individuals within their own frameworks of meaning. We may, as a result, fail to grasp the underlying views of “human potential and the good life” (Wachtel, 1977, p. 3) that are being expressed even in the midst of the most severe experessions of psychopathology. Applying hermeneutic understanding to such situations is a way of attempting to discern what’s at stake from the “native’s point of view” (Geertz, 1983)  and exemplifies that it is “interpretation all the way down” (Dreyfus cited in Hiley, 1991).

 To conclude, hermeneutics begins with ontology, a developed theory that looks in depth at the concept of the person, the idea of culture, and the relationship between the two. Western psychology, in contrast, has largely attempted to avoid theory not based on empirical research findings. A considerable amount of scholarship suggests that by not taking ontology seriously, Western psychology has simply taken over the categories of our individualistic folk psychology. This is not only not neutral, but it often precludes an awareness of and sensitivity to other culture’s indigenous psychologies. To gain a deeper appreciation of culture and cultural influences, Ratner (2000) suggested psychology needs to “overcome the Western inclination of trying to link psychological functioning with abstract social variables…” (p. 9). We believe the interpretative thrust of hermeneutics provides a way of understanding the significance and meaning that such variables have for those on both sides of the cultural divide.  We see this as ultimately the best means to “culturally re-center” both the “research enterprise” (Easton, 1991) [cited in (Gudykunst & Bond, 1997, p. 148) as well as intercultural relations themselves.


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