11 April 2007

Interpersonal Hermeneutics

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:50 pm

In prior posts about Biblical exegesis we’ve addressed hermeneutical considerations. How should texts be interpreted? Can the reader discern the author’s intent? Can we identify the interpretive community in which the text is embedded? Does every reader impose his own meaning on the text? In comments on prior posts we’ve also alluded to the importance of trying to understand what people mean by what they say and do. What are their intentions? What is she trying to tell me? Am I missing something? Am I reading things into the situation? Are we talking past each other? Does anyone really understand me? Figuring out how to “read” social interaction can framed as a kind of interpersonal hermeneutics.

Donald Davidson asserts the indeterminacy of interpretation, such that multiple interpretations can make sense of the same behavior or utterance without there being any absolute basis for determining which of the alternative meanings is the right one. Interpretation occurs within a holistic framework that includes ideas, behaviors, language, attitudes, and relationships. The interpretive framework affects the way an individual maps ideas and words onto phenomena in the world. However, the phenomena do exist independent of interpretive frameworks, so interpretation cannot float free of contact with the world. Because there is correspondence between meaning and the world, interpretations can be evaluated in terms of the individual propositions about the world. What would it take to understand what someone else means? Davidson proposes a process of triangulation, by which two people orient themselves to the same phenomenon in the world. Through triangulation it becomes possible to arrive at knowledge about one’s own interpretive framework, the other’s framework, and the world. Language is the primary medium in which triangulation takes place. Self, other and the world are inextricably linked in frameworks of meaning; knowing any one of them entails also knowing the other two.

Gadamer likewise proposes that a person can know only from inside a particular interpretive framework, which establishes the “horizon” of what the person can understand. Whereas Davidson focuses on individual interpretive frameworks, Gadamer looks at cultural frameworks that shape the understanding of individual members of a culture. Stanley Fish refers to “interpretive communities,” groups of people with shared attitudes and beliefs who essentially “write” the ways in which behavior and speech are to be interpreted. While the shared framework of an interpretive community defines meaning, the framework itself is usually unstated and inaccessible to conscious awareness. For Gadamer, the interpretive framework can be detected and critiqued only through conversation with someone who comes from another community, who understands the world through a different interpretive framework. In conversation differences in the interpretive horizons of the two people emerge, resulting in misunderstanding. Through questioning one another it becomes possible for two individuals operating within different interpretive frameworks to converge, extending the horizon of understanding for both of them.

The client in a therapeutic relationship may have an inadequate interpretive framework for understanding himself, other people, and the world. Further, he may not interpret things the same way as other people around him do. Others may interpret his behavior in ways he does not intend or realize or grasp. These interpretive gaps can result in confusion, anger, failed expectations, and a sense of isolation. There is no way to know which interpretive framework is the right one, or even the best one. However, it is possible for people with different points of view to “fuse” their horizons. Through conversation and questioning the therapist can align his own interpretive framework with the client’s, in effect seeing the world the way the client sees it. He can thereby help clarify gaps between the client’s framework and other possible frameworks. Through triangulation the therapist can evaluate individual elements in the client’s evaluative framework. By comparing understandings of worldly phenomena, the therapist and client can jointly identify differences in the ways their ideas and expressions correspond with the world. Through this conversational process, alternating between community and individual levels and between the holistic framework and the individual elements of that framework, the therapist and the client can explore the client’s difficulties in interpreting himself, others, and the world.



  1. What is she trying to tell me? Am I missing something?

    Two questions I ask myself regularly when involved in dating relationships……invariably I never get past the question marks……

    1 Corinthians 7:28b


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 11 April 2007 @ 6:56 pm

  2. Next time try this: (1) have a conversation, (2) triangulate, (3) fuse your horizons. Don’t thank me, it’s my job. Nice verse quote.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 April 2007 @ 7:02 pm

  3. Funny verse. Why I’m single…my MOM sent me the following:

    A man riding his Harley was riding along a California beach when suddenly the sky clouded above his head and, in a booming voice, the Lord said, “Because you have tried to be faithful to me in all ways, I will grant you one wish.

    The biker pulled over and said, “Build a bridge to Hawaii so I can ride over anytime I want.” The Lord said, “Your request is materialistic, think of the enormous challenges for that kind of undertaking; the
    supports required reaching the bottom of the Pacific and the concrete and steel it would take! It will nearly exhaust several natural resources. I can do it, but it is hard for me to justify your desire for worldly
    things. Take a little more time and think of something that could possibly help mankind.”

    The biker thought about it for a long time. Finally, he said, “Lord, I wish that I and all men could understand women; I want to know how she feels inside, what she’s thinking when she gives me the silent treatment, why she cries, what she means when she says nothing’s wrong, and how I can make a Woman truly happy.”

    The Lord replied, “You want two lanes or four on that bridge?”


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 11 April 2007 @ 8:03 pm

  4. I lol’ed literally and read your mom’s joke to my wife. Anne did not laugh, said to tell you she found nothing funny about it, and wondered why I lol’ed. So you’re in California — how’s that bridge coming along?


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 April 2007 @ 8:25 pm

  5. I don’t have a Harley, so I haven’t been keeping up to date on that bridge. The lanes are only big enough for big burley men on Harley’s. I’m more sensitive than that…so God granted ME the more meaningful wish (of course He also said to me that I’ve been following all His ways, too…uuhh…yeah)! Tell THAT to Anne! I actually WROTE Gibson’s “What Women Want.” I hear voices. I have to ignore them, or I get puffed up. Lol…very just kidding.


    Comment by Jason Hesiak — 11 April 2007 @ 8:31 pm

  6. I’m all for triangulation…in fact, I groove on triangles. (Click here.)

    And regarding the mystery of women, well, what can I say? Clearly Paul was stymied. I would contend that it too is the ” good fight”, but then that’s just me.

    John, you better stop giggling…

    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by bluevicar — 12 April 2007 @ 6:44 am

  7. I have lot’s of questions, but on understanding women, I gave up long, long ago!

    First, i want to know whether I’ve understood what you are proposing. So, the basic concept of communication is some sort of agreed correspondence between signifier and signified. But then there is each individual’s interpretive framework that has to be ‘adjusted’ in a mutual way. This happens through conversation and quetioning. Beyond this as a model for communication, there is then the special therapeutic relationship that you would want to establish where there are two processes, understanding the client and then adjusting that person’s interpretive framework. But here you propose that first the therapist has to completely enter the horizon of the client and that sounds somewhat different from the usual conversational ‘meeting of horizons’.


    Comment by samlcarr — 15 April 2007 @ 7:24 am

  8. Sam –

    Yes, that’s the idea. The therapist tries to shift his interpretive framework to emulate that of the client. An interpretive community is established between the two participants in the conversation, purposely skewed toward the client’s point of view. The client is assured that some other person can see what he sees, that his perspective isn’t so idiosyncratic as to be crazy. The client, assured of understanding and acceptance by the therapist, may be more willing to lower his defensive barriers against change. If the therapist can align his horizon with the client’s while retaining his own perspective, he can identify overlaps and gaps between the two horizons that might prove useful to the client. Ultimately it’s the client who must make the interpretations of his own and others’ points of view, so hopefully the client too will learn to shift toward others’ horizons. Does that make sense?


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 April 2007 @ 9:59 am

  9. Yes, thanks, I’m getting the general idea! Now, to some meta questions. Is the therapist’s own framework the ideal one that the client has to understand and eventually emulate? Is it possible that this ‘ideal’ exists as a common ideal or will there be a different ideal for each individual to attain? What defines this ‘ideal perspective’? Is it practical to expect the therapist to be enough of a ‘polyperson’ to be able to understand and involve wholly in the various perspectives of the various clients? Is the correspondence theory really an adequate one within which such complicated processes and conversations can take place (questions that actually comes from a discussion on Jason’s blog)? Can we think of the ideal to be attained as some form of ultimate truth? And finally, what difference, if any, may differing ‘vertical dimensions’ have on the process of conjoining horizons?


    Comment by ponnvandu — 15 April 2007 @ 10:57 am

  10. I think that link is not working. easier, click on jason’s name in his post above. A similar question came up in Jonathan’s blog too: http://theosproject.blogspot.com/2007/01/greg-koukl-on-truth.html


    Comment by ponnvandu — 15 April 2007 @ 11:14 am

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