Existential Psychotherapy, Interpretation and Gadamer’s Hermeneutic Circle

Nov 23


Max Lowe

Max Lowe

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This article shows how existential psychotherapy, by uses the hermeneutic circle, allowing for a dynamic view of the past. 

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The Existential approach to psychotherapy has been a growing in popularity in Britain for almost thirty years. Despite this,Existential Psychotherapy, Interpretation and Gadamer’s Hermeneutic Circle Articles very little is known by other therapeutic modalities about what the existential approach actually is and how its practitioners actually work with clients.  In this paper, I want to sketch as simply as I can the existential phenomenological approach to interpretation and an approach to interpretation called the hermeneutic circle.


The hermeneutic circle is a method of interpretation conceived by German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer in his 1960 work, Truth and Method.  It is highly significant work in the history of 20th century continental philosophy.  Unfortunately, It is not well known outside of philosophical circles, perhaps this is due to its being over-shadowed by Being and Time, the famous and radical work by Gadamer’s teacher, Martin Heidegger.  It is of tremendous importance to existential psychotherapy, and in this paper, I aim to demonstrate why. 

Gadamer’s interest is in hermeneutics: the study of the theory and practice of interpretation.  In Truth and Method, his aim to discover what makes an interpretation successful or unsuccessful. Hermeneutics can be seen as a kind of science, or perhaps more precisely, the soft science of interpretation.  The fact I’ve used the expression ‘soft science’, is in no sense a put down.  It is perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase, but Gadamer hermeneutic project is about developing a method of finding out about the human world; the world of signs and symbols rather than the natural world.

Not everything in life, can or needs, to be learned from the physical world and science, or from ‘facts’.  Now if someone proposes that the only way to learn anything is from facts, your argument ultimately leads to the argument that you can’t learn anything from art, and simply put, that’s a lie.  We do learn from constantly from the world of signs and symbols, and we do learn something from Shakespeare.  It is a something that isn’t or can’t be captured by or in the world of ‘facts’.  This is where hermeneutics comes in: it asks what and how we learn from the human world, our immediate world, the world that we are actually being in, or to use Heidegger’s term for human being in the world, Dasein.

Since I’m mentioning Heidegger, I should also highlight a key element Gadamer borrows from Heidegger; his conception of temporality.  Heidegger’s theory of temporality firstly states that the human experience of time is finite:  will end.  Additionally and significantly, he argues that time should not be seen as linear.  Instead, argues Heidegger, a human being experiences past, present and future all at once.

In this conception, the past is always with us, but moving in time as we do, we find ourselves constantly moving away and becoming alienated from our past from our own culture.  Thus, we find ourselves inevitably pulling the past with us, revisiting it and again, inevitably reinterpreting it, and making it relevant to who we are now, in the present day. 

To give an example, when I first encountered Shakespeare as a kid, I hated it.  By my teens, that had changed, and now I think some of it is fantastic and it means something very different to me.  Further, how I interpret Shakespeare in the future is open to change.  There is no final interpretation I will come to about the work of Shakespeare. 

While on the one hand this may appear incredibly obvious, if we contrast it with the enlightenment of Hegel, we see something very different.   For Hegel, and for enlightenment, modernist and Freudian therapy, we are moving towards a point; an end of history moment, when we find the interpretation.  With Gadamer, there is no movement towards a final understanding, but a movement away from our own alienation from our personal history, background and culture.  There is no final End Of History point: we move back and forth, or rather around in a circle re-appropriating culture through our experience and reinterpretation of it.

This temporality of experience is what offers us the chance to reclaim art and our lives for ourselves.  It is the very act of growing and changing, as society grows and changes around us that makes interpretation possible.  It’s our revisiting that is the enabler to new interpretation and the process of uncovering truth.

Viewing interpretation as a circle, rather than in a linear fashion distinguishes existential psychotherapy from other kinds of therapy.  Existentially, the clients’ past is not seen as fixed, as how the clients remembers the past from his or her own present, is flexible and open to change.  An existential psychotherapist would encourage a plurality of interpretation from client around his or her past, where as an analyst would be more likely to seek aninterpretation that was the explanation to a clients particular way of being in the world. Of course I am speaking in generalities here, and there are many types of psychoanalyst, and many branches of psychoanalytic theory.  However, I do feel that by highlighting the use of the hermeneutic circle as a method of interpretation it becomes clear how much Freudian theory is based upon enlightenment and modernist conceptions ideas, where as an existential approach allows for more contemporary understanding of what it is to be human.

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