Ontological hermeneutics in psychotherapy is a phenomenological theory of human nature that psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors have applied to their field of work. Hermeneutic psychotherapy is an application of phenomenological hermeneutic philosophy as a whole. It is related to, but different from other forms of philosophical hermeneutics like biblical hermeneutics (limited to interpretation of sacred texts) or radical hermeneutics (the process of radical deconstruction of meaning). Although related to other, more widely known, theories of psychotherapy like person-centered and existential therapy, hermeneutic psychotherapy does not yet have an established body of empirical support, but it aims to more authentically describe and engage with human nature. Critiquing the analytic and Anglo-American philosophical foundations of other theories of psychology and psychotherapy, Hermeneutic psychotherapy presents a different perspective on what it means to be a human. Whereas many of these other traditions (like cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical-behavioral therapy) place emphasis on coping skills, thoughts, or the ego, Hermeneutic psychotherapists emphasize that both human problems and their amelioration take place in human relationships with one another and their world.
The term hermeneutics is typically traced to Hermes, who was the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology: a messenger whose sole purpose was to interpret the will of the gods to man. However, the actual etymology of the word, although disputed, comes from the Greek verb ἑρμηνεύω which directly refers to interpretation. Hermeneutics became a discipline for interpreting religious scripture and folk literature around the 15th ψentury, A.D., and was later adopted as a theoretical discipline for the human sciences in the 19th century. The man most directly responsible its adoption was Wilhelm Dilthey. Dilthey was followed by a succession of philosophers and psychologists, such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Binswanger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricœur, Charles Taylor, Brent D. Slife, Frank C. Richardson, Timothy J. Zeddies, Jack Martin & Jeff Sugaran, John C. Christopher, and David Polizzi, who built upon his efforts to use hermeneutics as a way of studying and theorizing about human nature, as well as developing it as a counseling theory. The use of hermeneutics as a sub-discipline to understand the fundamental nature of humanity invoked the term ontological, from the study of ontology, which is simply a way of saying the way something is or, the way something exists. It follows then that ontological hermeneutics is the theory and art of interpreting human nature: namely, what it means to be human and what it means to have experiences.
Ontological hermeneutics affirms that human beings exist in a world around them and that through background a priori (before experience) foreknowledge, they constantly seek to understand themselves and that world, including other humans and inanimate objects. Heidegger termed human beings as Dasein, the German word for being-there. In other words, an individual is termed Dasein because he or she exists there, being there at some place in the present. Put in more simple terms, an individual is Dasein because he or she literally exists. Heidegger, along with Dilthey, was concerned about understanding human nature, what it means to exist, to be.
Heidegger theorized that Dasein exists as an agent who is always-already engaged in a world with other human beings. Charles Taylor built on Heidegger's work when he talked about engaged agency, or the idea that Dasein is an agent inescapably engaged in his world. What Heidegger, and later Taylor, are saying is that that world is constantly “there-for-us” to experience prior to any abstract, disengaged scientific theorizing, and this is where hermeneutics starts to deviate from mainstream psychological and personality theories. In other words, Dasein (a person) does not need to scientifically analyze human interaction to take part in it. All he needs to do is observe human interaction, interpret what those observations mean for him, and then participate accordingly. Heidegger termed this description as being-in-the-world, i.e. human beings exist in the world as active participants who are so deeply immersed that their world around them becomes utterly inescapable, especially when trying to understand themselves.
As human beings (Dasein) navigate their world around them, they look for tools and ways to accomplish what they need to do: food and water for survival, instruments to complete tasks, shelter for protection etc. Heidegger theorized that Dasein’s “quest” to exist, so to speak, can only be completed via his relationship with others and his world around him. This is what Slife termed radical relationality: human beings are fundamentally and inescapably relational beings. That human beings exist in-the-world as radically relational beings ultimately means that Dasein must seek out his existence through opportunities that present themselves in his world and through his relationships with others. In other words, what ontological hermeneutics is saying about what nature is that human beings cannot be thought of as merely “self-certain actants” capable of distancing themselves above and against their world effortly to determine rational courses of action, nor as little more than computers that have been programmed to react to stimuli. Instead, all understanding of how to exist comes from being-in-the-world and understanding one’s relation to, or place in, that world. Put another way, human beings conduct themselves within the context of their life-world (the world in which their lives take place) which provides Dasein with possibilities of how to act. It is this understanding of himself in that life-world that informs his choice.
That Dasein is a relational being, being-in-the-world, lead Heidegger to theorize about the notion of authenticity. Heidegger believed that Dasein’s efforts to understand himself ought to lead to interpreted truths about himself and, in turn, Dasein being exactly who he is with others in the world. Heidegger postulated that authenticity would lead to better relationships and enrich human experience. However, authenticity is more than just honest interaction and being who one is. For Heidegger, authenticity is also a sense of richer and fuller participation with others. If human interactions produce rich and full outcomes, and are appropriate to the context and situation of the relationship, then they are authentic. Authenticity is not just a mere mindset, it is a relational phenomenon. Anything that Dasein offers in his relationships, verbal or non-verbal, inviting or antagonistist, is authentic only because it is arising out of a particular relationship. That means that the perspectives or opinions that he shares, and the behaviors he demonstrates, are done so because of a particular relationship with a particular person and in that particular place and time.
Taylor built upon Heidegger’s work when he described human beings as constantly being engaged in the process of interpreting and re-interpreting themselves using their own unique perspectives based on their thoughts, feelings, and desires. According to Taylor, human beings make sense of their feelings by seeing “them as embodying a judgment about the object they bear on: ‘To experience fear is to experience some object as terrifying or dangerous; to experience shame is to experience some objects as shameful or humiliating” (Taylor: 47, as cited in Richardson et al.: 216). What Taylor is getting at is that Dasein's emotions provides him with a sense of situational understanding and are “affective modes of awareness” (as cited in Richardson et al.: 216). Psychologists practicing ontological hermeneutics in counseling write that this standpoint is in stark contrast to mainstream cognitive approaches which hold that emotions are merely byproducts of our cognitive awareness. Instead, Taylor is taking the cognitive-affective relation out of a linear mode of understanding (thoughts lead to emotions) and placing it phenomenologically in non-linear fashion (thoughts=emotions=interpreted knowledge, meaning they don’t necessarily happen in sequence). This affective mode of awareness serves as more than just knowledge about the world and/or about Dasein, where upon Taylor takes the theory to its logical conclusion: if Dasein's emotions reflect his judgments about the world around him, they also show what is important to him and why. For example, to experience love for another person subjectively informs Dasein that the relationship with that person is important to him. It is through such subjective experience that Dasein's world and his experiences become meaningful to him. Richardson et al. say that this contrast between Taylor’s theory and mainstream approaches has profound implications for conceptualizing human suffering as therapists. Taylor's argument is that emotions are not the mere result of cognitive processes, but subjective judgments about how human beings view their world around them and what is important to them, then it begs questions like what is human suffering, what causes human suffering, is all suffering bad, etc. Taylor, drawing on ontological hermeneutics, takes the phenomenon of human suffering out of the objective, scientific realm (where mainstream psychotherapy has currently placed it) and restores it to the subjective realm of embodied experience. Proponents of ontological hermeneutics state that this is where it rightfully belongs.
Ontological hermeneutics states that subjective experience, and the meaning created from it, is not an individual event. Phenomenologists such as Gadamer, Mikahil Bakhtin, John Macmurray, and Taylor have articulated this by addressing the concept known as dialogism, or in other words, the process of engaging in dialogue, or conversation, with others in an ongoing effort for humans to co-create meaning for themselves and others in the world. Additionally, creating subjective truth and meaning, along with engaging in dialogue, requires two mental faculties: memory and imagination.
Memory and imagination
Martin and Sugarman describe memory and imagination as two ontic (real) characteristics of human nature which are vital to humans' capacity for dialogue. According to Martin and Sugarman, it is through both that people are able to remember the conversations that “we furnished with the symbolic and relational tools we require to consider past experiences and previous learning, and to entertain future possibilities” because memory allows humans to reconstruct their past while imagination allows them “to project [them]selves into the future”. In other words, when humans converse with others, they recall memories and imagine future possibilities to help themselves mentally construct potential ways for understanding themselves (self-interpretation) and their world, and their place in it, so they know how to relate to others.
Another primary advantage to imagination is that, though it is contextualized by physical elements and time, it is not entirely subject to them, therefore enabling the kind of creativity they need to imagine possibilities not readily visible in their physical world and further weigh alternatives. Put otherwise, imagination provides “the means for navigating between our experiences in conversations and practices, and the theories we develop about our selves, our lives, and our world.” Through discourse, it also enables people to envision the experiences of others in their minds and by so doing invoke a deeper understanding and empathy toward others. Martin and Sugarman write that this kind of empathic envisioning is instrumental to therapeutically conceptualizing and understanding the clients with which therapists work.
Hermeneutic therapists use memory and imagination to envision others’ experiences in their minds. As they do, possibilities come to the mind of the therapist that might not present themselves to the client: possibilities for potential re-interpretation, healing, meaning, relating, and discovery (knowledge). It is for these reasons that hermeneuts consider imagination is so vital to not only reflexive development but it is vital to therapists as an intersubjective tool to help promote growth in clients by bringing “to mind what is presently absent", which helps establish some stability to one's knowledge and, in turn, establish personal truth and meaning about a self and his or her experiences. Finally, the knowledge produced from imagination is only constitutive of a person's (client's) identity and experiences when that person marks that knowledge as meaningful to his- or herself, thus reinforcing the impact of co-created meaning in counseling.
James Mensch provided an understanding of imagining the experiences of others (what can also be called empathic envisioning) and what that might look like when he talked about literary imagination humans: the capacity of humans to imagine the experiences of characters in novels. Mensch explained that human beings' embodiment provides them with the capacity to imagine these experiences and then relate to them through empathy. For Mensch, people are only capable of having experiences because of and through their body. Humans (Dasein) experience life, others, the world, etc. via their bodies which can taste, smell, hear, feel, and see. More to the point, their bodies encapsulate our various mental faculties required for processing and retaining those experiences. This means human experiences are experiences of the body. Relating to others then is when two bodies experience one another: they inter-relate. Because humans (Dasein) hold their bodily experiences in their memory, they are able to use our literary imagination to envision the experiences of characters in novels.
Hermeneutic counselors advocate his same process can be used in counseling to envision the bodily experiences of others in reality. For example, a client may present with tears while verbalizing feelings of pain and humiliation in response to a break up with a significant other. A therapist, using his memory of past embodied experiences of relationship heartache, can empathically envision in his imagination very closely to what the client is experiencing, therefore sharing that experience with the client and in turn enabling him to authentically relate to the client. Furthermore, this is precisely what enables the therapist and the client to work together to imagine new therapeutic possibilities. Mensch states that this capacity of human beings necessitates their responsibility to relate to and understand others as best they can. Humans may not always be able to, or entirely be able to, but their co-existence as embodied beings demands that they make the attempt.
Paul Ricoeur discussed, in a similar vein to Martin and Sugarman and Mensch, the concept of intropathy through which he described imagination as a representation “of things absent but still existing somewhere else” (p. 171). These representations of things absent exist in the mind, or imagination, of “an external observer,” or for therapeutic purposes, the therapist, and have the function of “taking the place of.” A therapist's own approximate memories can assist in understanding the client's experiences and enable the therapist to relate to the client empathically.
Ricoeur also invoked the notion of distanciation when interpreting and understanding others. For Ricoeur, distanciation is two-fold: a) humans always interpret from a distanced position via their physical and experiential proximity to the experiences being discussed (i.e., they were not always there when it happened), and b) there will always be a distance between their experiences and their interpreted truths and meaning of those experiences. While imagination enables hermeneutic therapists to understand their clients and empathize with their experiences, there will always be a distance between what the therapist imagines and the actual embodied experience of the client. Ironically, it is this concept of distanciation that invokes the therapist's responsibility to make the attempt, to get as close as is possible, because without breaching that surface, truth and meaning are limited in their co-creation. Hermeneutic counseling theory states that a therapist and a client cannot work together to co-create meaning without empathically envisioning and understanding one another.
While imagination, memory, literary imagination, and intropathy are faculties comprised in the mind, which is ultimately enfleshed by the body, heremenutica counseling theory states that they are faculties that emerge in dialogue as part of the process of understanding and relating to others. These various conversations become a series of ongoing, multiple conversations humans have with their selves, others, and the world. In other words, the lives of human beings and their experiences manifest as an everlasting, ongoing dialogical process, or conversation.
The dialogical part of ontological hermeneutics states that Dasein co-creates meaning from his self-interpretations and subjective experiences through the process of dialogue, i.e. conversing with others. Human beings are constantly engaged in dialogue with others and their world around them. Macmurray postulated that dialogue is our primary, if not only, source of knowledge. Bakhtin claimed that human beings are more than beings who engage in dialogue, but that they are dialogical beings composed of multiple simultaneous voices: voices that are their own and voices that belong to others. These voices represent who Dasein is, his or her dispositions, and his or her roles in society. In this case, the term voice is meant to signify a particular role Dasein takes up or a particular aspect of who Dasein is. These voices of human beings are not to be thought of as hallucinated voices, as in psychosis, but rather different elements of who Dasein is: I like Italian food as one voice and I do not like it when people interrupt me as another voice, or I am a therapist as one voice but I am a patient when I visit my primary care physician as another. That is not to say that these voices determine Dasein's actions or behaviors. On the contrary, Dasein is an agentic being (a being capable of choice) who thinks, acts, and chooses for himself. But this process “emerges through conversations among functionally independent elements within persons” (Lysaker & Lysaker: 2). The emergence of these multiple voices within us via multitudes of ongoing conversations with others is why Bakhtin described us as polyphonic beings, or “products of ongoing series of dialogues among distinct voices” (Lysaker & Lysaker: 2).
These voices can emerge as accommodating or opposing dispositions and roles. For example, a therapist’s voice of being pro-life while working with a client contemplating abortion—-the role of a therapist is thought to always be understanding and supportive, but this role can become conflicted by a therapist’s disposition or set of dispositions. This precisely illustrates Dasein's polyphonic (simultaneously composed of multiple voices) nature. Dasein's voice is constantly engaged in conversations with the voices of others, and these conversations mesh and mash into each other within each individual. The therapist’s voice of being pro-life is actively colliding with the patient’s voice to abort a pregnancy. Additionally, hearing the voice of the client adds to the ongoing private conversation the therapist has with himself as he continually re-evaluates where he stands on the issue.
Even though conversations occur between, and are influenced by, others, the roles Dasein takes up, the behaviors he comports, and the choices he makes are still his own. For example, self-as-student is just one role, or voice, that emerges toward the foreground within Dasein when he is learning in an environment such as school, while self-as-teacher is a diametrically opposed role, or voice, that emerges into the foreground when he is teaching (causing the self-as-student role, or voice, to recede into the background); but, Dasein still chooses to take up these roles or not, and if so, how to carry them out. These roles are termed voices because they are the voices Dasein take up when dialoguing with others: e.g. a student dialogues with his teacher with the voice of being a student.
Lysaker & Lysaker explained that Bakhtin theorized of human beings as entities composed of a multiplicity of voices (self-as-father, self-as-son, self-as-student, self-as-teacher, self-as-sad, self-as-happy, self-as-pro-life) that are in constant flux within him as he dialogues with and relates to the world around him. These voices constantly arrange and re-arrange themselves in hierarchies that are not governed by an overarching ego. Each hierarchy of voices (roles and dispositions) constitutes a dialogical position. Lysaker & Lysaker use the term dialogical positions because they are exactly the positions (roles and dispositions) Dasein takes up in the world when interacting with and relating to others—-and are constituted by his polyphonic nature. The flux, or re-arrangement, occurs from situational contexts that tells Dasein which dialogical position, or set of voices, must come to the foreground. The flux is also based on increased understanding of the world around human beings and their respective roles in it. Hermeneuts say that this is a stark contrast to mainstream paradigms in psychotherapy. Instead of a single ego, or voice, that makes up a person's identity and stands above and against the world, a constantly-rearranging hierarchy of multiple voices dialogues with others and co-constitutes a person's identity, and that this is the reason that Taylor writes that we should abandon paradigms such as the self as a highly autonomous individual and re-conceptualize that self as a dialogical self that is always-already a relational being constantly engaged in multiple ongoing conversations.
While dialogue can involve two or more people having conversations about opposing view points, it is not dialectical because there is no thesis or antithesis. In dialetical debates, all parties engaged are trying to prove the other wrong (which is what modern day psychotherapy boils down to). Rather, dialogue is more of a fusion of horizons, to use Gadamer’s term. When Dasein engages in dialogue with others, his horizon effectively fuses with the horizons of others. These horizons are polyphonic (multi-voiced) and fuse for the sole purpose of achieving higher truth and understanding. Put differently, the horizons of two polyphonic individuals are fused together during dialogue in such a way that both horizons are influenced and edified as opposed to one winning out over the other, and as opposed to one horizon remaining the same while the other that is judged to be wrong, or could be, is changed. Hermeneutics states that fusing horizons with others involves memory and imagination. It is through dialogue that memory and imagination enables therapists to empathically envision (intropathy) the horizon of their clients and further fuse it with their own.
Engaging this dialogical process of communicating is how human beings come to be composed of multiple voices (which constitute their horizons) that are in constant flux and always incomplete. This implies that Dasein's self-interpretations are never complete; ergo, the establishing of Dasein's identity is never finished and his knowledge of the world and others is never complete. If Dasein's identity and knowledge is never complete, then human beings are never complete. Bakhtin referred to this as human beings always being unfinalized. In other words, Dasein is never complete because his understanding of himself (i.e. his self-interpretations) remains open to future re-interpretation as his knowledge increases via ongoing dialogue with others and the world. Furthermore, the number of possibilities of who Dasein may become is infinite so long as Dasein remains unfinalized. And, who Dasein is at any given moment may be just one voice, or may be one temporarily aligned hierarchy of voices (dialogical positions) that will realign the next moment. More to the point, Dasein’s identity never exists as an immaterial entity in his mind, rather it emerges through his embodied acts while relating to others. Philosophers and hermeneutic psychotherapists who reject the mind-body dualism state that is another significant contrast between ontological hermeneutics and mainstream counseling.
Ontological hermeneutics does not attempt to reduce humans down into easily studied creatures. It assumes that humans are relational in nature, with valuable and unique insights, and life experiences. It calls for deeper relationships, and assumes that psychological healing will come through that depth.
Relational and compassionate psychotherapy
Some hermeneutic therapists have posited a name for the efforts to utilize ontological hermeneutics as a psychotherapy: relational and compassionate psychotherapy (RCP). It is not a separate therapy from hermeneutics, but rather a continuation of previous efforts to bring hermeneutic theory to psychotherapy. The authors point out that RCP can be used as a grounding theory for assimilative integration to govern the use of other evidence-based interventions (such as CBT and DBT).
The authors state that ontological hermeneutics is merely a philosophy. The application of that theory in counseling is what they call RCP. They provide an outline that summarily explains how ontological hermeneutic counseling, or RCP, is done in psychotherapy:
- Focusing on the fundamental relationship between the client and the therapist.
- Compassionate/peaceful relationships heal
- Relating and modeling compassion and peace
- Maintaining an attitude of openness to the client
- Allow what the client says to matter
- Seek understanding before explaining
- Finding ways to offer new perspectives
- The therapist merely listens and provides counsel
Differences from other therapies
There are several key differences between ontological hermeneutics and other mainstream psychotherapies.
Symptoms and needs emerging within relationships
Since Dasein (clients in therapy) is a relation being, constantly engaged in and constituted by ongoing dialogue, ontological hermeneutics states that his symptoms, concerns, and needs are occurring in relation to others and the world, and not purely in the mind as byproducts of distorted cognitive processes. Hermeneutics holds that even though other forms of therapy, such as Imago therapy, Positive psychotherapy, and Object relations acknowledge the role of relationships in the life and well-being of the client, only ontological hermeneutics fully recognizes and embraces Dasein’s relational mode of existing prior to any other abstract theorizing. Slife states that this is a significant difference between ontological hermeneutics and all other counseling theories because how a client's suffering is conceptualized will in turn result in how a client's healing is conceptualized.
Currently, mainstream psychotherapy and diagnostic models view human suffering as resulting primarily from erroneous cognitive and affective processes located solely within in the individual. As a result, psychotherapists by and large remain unable to account for the roles that society, culture, and relationships play in human suffering, as Cushman writes:
|“||[Psychotherapists] cannot explore the synchrony of the social institution, its social practices, and the larger cultural frame of reference. Without appreciating the synchrony, they cannot shift the old loop. They cannot free themselves to comment directly on the structural causes of local emotional ills, grasp their unintended involvement in the perpetuation of those ills, or devise therapeutic practices that would attempt to heal those ills without simultaneously reproducing them. Most object relations, humanistic, cognitive, and addictive therapies, for instance, however effective in producing behavioral change or emotional experiences in the short run, inevitably reproduce the very causes of the ills they treat by implicitly valorizing and reproducing the isolated, empty individual. (p. 7)||”|
Put otherwise, mainstream theories rarely, if at all, acknowledge that it is through relationships, via Dasein's inescapable relational nature, that symptoms and client needs emerge, therefore inadvertently limiting their ability to explain the emergence of said symptoms and needs in the life of the client. Furthermore, this causes psychotherapy to perpetuate the paradigm that human beings are highly autonomous individuals responding primarily to cognitive reason, taking them out of their relational contexts in the world and limiting human beings to find healing purely from within. Ontological hermeneutics theory states that this kind of relational de-contextualizing actually leads to a form of individualism that is inauthentic and can also result in interpersonal problems that cause human suffering because the individual is ultimately collapsing into an empty self.
Hermeneutic theorists and therapists write that ontological hermeneutics is ideally situated to address this limitation of individualism because it upholds from the outset that human beings are relational and it attempts to explain human suffering and healing in these relational contexts. What ontological hermeneutics theory is saying is that it is not through isolated reflection upon personal cognitive and affective processes that heals psychological suffering. Instead, it is being-in-the-world and relating authentically to others through dialogue that provides a nexus of healthy, meaningful relationships that alleviates human suffering and promotes a sense of the good life for Dasein.
Dasein is therefore enabled to participate authentically in co-creating meaningful truth for his life as he engages in healthy, meaningful relationships—including in therapy. Where other mainstream approaches discourage dialogue about subjective meaning and truth in an effort to maintain therapist objectivity and value-neutrality, ontological hermeneutics encourages authentic dialogue between therapist and client that co-creates meaningful, subjective truth to enrich the life of the client. This process not only provides new perspective for the client via the fusing of horizons, but it also serves as a model for the client to follow when he goes into the world and seeks authentic relationships vital to psychological well-being.
Creating subjective truth and meaning
Ontological hermeneutics provides a way for the clients and therapist to work together to create subjective truth and meaning for the client. Where other therapies such as Cognitive-behavioral therapy, Rational-emotive behavioral therapy, Dialectical-behavioral therapy, and other eclectic approaches frequently create a conflict between freedom and commitment for the client. For example, a client seeing a counselor may want to work on becoming more of an individual by exploring his or her self-concept by finding personal meaning, breaking away from social trends and peer pressure, and discovering his or her own interests. Therapists utilizing traditional theories, like cognitive behavioral therapy, rational emotive behavioral therapy, or even eclectic approaches, will guide the client in this process according to how the therapist's chosen therapy would say about how an individual ought to go about this process. In other words, the client will have to commit to exploring his or her self-concept based on how cognitive behavioral therapy, or another therapy, says the client should learn about who they are, therefore limiting the amount of freedom afforded to the client to creatively develop his or her own ways of self-exploration. Proponents of ontological hermeneutics state that hermeneutic psychotherapy strives to provide freedom to the client by affording his or her voice a privileged position in therapy to develop their own options.
What ontological hermeneutics is saying is here that the therapist strives to avoid an attitude of “expert” or “specialist” on human suffering and healing. Even though many mainstream counseling theories assume such roles, the position of ontological hermeneutics is that such roles create a conflict between freedom and commitment for the client and should therefore be avoided. In fact, hermeneutic theory states that such positions are nonexistent. Therefore, therapist does not intervene with objective truths that are intended to disprove the client’s previously perpetuated ways of thinking and feeling. Fusing horizons “is, instead, a matter of integrating another’s horizon in such a way that the one’s own outlook is changed in the process”) so that both therapist and client are thus both authentically benefited. And, ontological hermeneutics holds that this process is only possible via authentic dialogue during which both therapist and client utilize their memory and imagination to develop therapeutic possibilities. Furthermore, through this process, empathy is seen as a deeper phenomenon (intropathy) for relating to others; the entire process being what may be referred to as empathic envisioning, and compels therapists to become subjective in their value-laden conversations.
Fusion of horizons
In ontological hermeneutics, a horizon is used to identify an individual's past experiences, personal beliefs and opinions, cultural background, intentionality, and overall life direction. In simpler terms, to refer to an individual's horizon is to refer to an individual's future goals, as informed by their past experiences and personal belief system. Since goals, beliefs, and experiences are plural, there can be horizons within a larger horizon, similar to how there can be multiple thoughts within a core belief in CBT, or how there can be multiple experiences of high school within the overall experience of high school. However, there is never one masterful, overarching horizon that governs all the others.
The notion of fusing horizons serves as a guiding model for therapeutic dialogue. Furthermore, this process necessitates the need for the therapist to allow what the client says to matter to him and even challenge what he believes. Instead of the therapist assuming the role of expert, he rids himself of any therapist hubris and shares authority with the client, therefore allowing for safe conversation and critical openness toward both counselor and client. By both remaining open, horizons from each party are mutually influenced.
Since the client's life is his to live, and not the therapist's, hermeneutic counseling states that therapists must be open to the horizons of the individuals they work with, even when their horizon conflicts with the therapist's. Hermeneutic theory states that this is an important part of understanding that client resistance to therapeutic intervention is not always a defiant or oppositional act as mainstream therapies would say. Instead, an understanding of client resistance is re-conceptualized as part of the dialogical process and effort for both client and therapist to learn how to relate to one another authentically and arrive at contextual truth and meaning for the client.
Pivotal role of the therapist
The therapist plays more of a pivotal role in the client’s life than mainstream approaches claiming objectivity and value-neutrality would state. Authentically relating to the client implies a much more involved role that the therapist plays in the life of that client. Instead of just being seen as a disengaged, objective observer who spots incongruences between cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes that may lead to unhealthy consequences, the therapist must dialogue deeper with the client about the subjective truths, values, and meaning that makes up who the client actually is and how he relates to others in the world. Ontological hermeneutics states that this will serve to empower the client, when it is authentic to do so, that it will assist the client's interpretive efforts toward self-understanding. Hermeneuts also state that clients will better understand themselves relationally among others and subsequently participate more meaningfully and authentically in-the-world. Ontological hermeneutics states that these interventions are what relieve human suffering.
These five differences are some of the many reasons why many hermeneuts state that therapists cannot settle for commonplace, mainstream counseling approaches that provide insufficient understandings of human experience.
Differences from eclecticism
Psychotherapy recognizes two types of eclectic therapy: theoretical eclecticism, where the therapist chooses to use different therapies or mixtures of therapies at any given time, and Technical eclecticism, as directed by Multimodal therapy, where the therapist utilizes one a basic theory the guides a set of techniques and interventions apart from their respective theories. Fancher writes that one limitation of eclecticism is "that the therapist makes up his own version of therapy" (p. 324) that has no way of being empirically tested for efficacy or effectiveness. Others write about different problems and perils of therapists making up their own hodge-podge forms of therapy, such as the fact that many forms of therapy contradict themselves and are therefore incapable of being integrated at both theoretical and practical levels.
Richardson et al. provide the example of behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy. If a therapist wanted to understand how the world affects his clients, he might integrate behavioral therapy into his practice. But, once he wanted to understand the inner dynamics of the psyche, he would have to integrate psychodynamic therapy in with behavioral therapy. The problem is that psychodynamic therapy says human suffering is caused by the conflicts and turmoil within the inner psyche while behavioral therapy says that human suffering is caused by external stimuli, reinforcement, and other forms of conditioning. These two theories are in direct contradiction to each other.
Hermeneutic therapists state that ontological hermeneutics is ideally situated to address these issues and limitations because, as these authors state, it is a comprehensive theory of human nature, and it is an open system that enables exploration of therapeutic intervention without deviating from the theory itself. What this means is that therapists integrate multiple therapies simultaneously because what one theory lacks insight into, another theory provides; even though the theories may be contradictory among themselves. Ontological hermeneutics therapists, on the other hand, state that it is comprehensive enough to provide adequate insight into human nature as a starting point, but also provides a framework through dialogue to uncover truths about clients in therapy, therefore evading any problems of contradiction. Since ontological hermeneutics theory is a single theory, it avoids the problems of therapists creating their own forms of therapy.
Lack of empirical status
Since ontological hermeneutics does not aim to be a scientific, manualized approach to therapy, it is currently not capable of quantifiable research to test its efficacy or effectiveness. However, proponents of ontological hermeneutics state that scientific and manualized approaches are de-contextualizing, totalizing, reductionistic, and even oppressive.
Threat of relativism
Fancher states that radical hermeneutics, which is similar to but different from ontological hermeneutics, may end up being a kind of Trojan horse for psychotherapy because its emphasis on subjective narrative and deconstruction can lend itself to a dangerous relativism. He likens it to a small boy jumping up and down on the diving board of an empty pool: what starts out in innocence is likely to end up in disaster.
Chessick also acknowledged the dangers of relativism implicit in ontological hermeneutics. He acknowledges that the art and theory of interpretation is not bound by today's methods of science that aim to prevent nihilism and relativism. However, Bernstein has pointed out that there never could be any hard and fast rules or methods for interpretation because it does not aim to be a science. Gadamer states that the methods of the natural sciences are too impoverished to reveal many truths about human nature and likewise advocated for a hermeneutic approach. Others have made similar arguments for ontological hermeneutics. Chessick writes that the limitations preventing the natural sciences from uncovering certain truths about human nature is precisely why Dilthey initially advocated for a distinction between the natural and human sciences, paving the way for hermeneutics to become a method of inquiry.
Gadamer writes that human tradition and reason can serve as a standard of measure for testing uncovered truths and avoiding relativism. Heidegger states that we can avoid relativism by testing interpreted truths against Dasein's facticity, or something that is already given in existence that informs our theorizing. Additionally, hermeneutic psychotherapists and theorists say that interpreted truths must be congruent with ontological hermeneutics theory.
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