Another Turn of the Circle:
Hermeneutics and the History of Psychology in Canada

Randal G. Tonks
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University

Over the past ten years, since I first heard the word "hermeneutics", I have had many different impressions and understandings of what it means. Beginning with (what I can now remember of it) a complete beguilement from having no referent, object, term, or definition to apply to it, but rather a familiar uneasiness of being left out of the significance of the discussion. While trying to comprehend the meaning behind the glint in my professor's eye as he spoke of hermeneutics in our class on the self and society, I began my turning of the hermeneutic circle, with my freshman graduate student interest and ambivalence; the beginning of my understanding. Today, following uncountable thoughts, muses, discussions, impressions, feelings and experiences about what hermeneutics are or can be, I can only offer the following expression of some important sources and understandings of the nature of hermeneutics.

Beginning with the above, perhaps crude, literary description of my first experience with hermeneutics, I will now turn to a more traditional psychological analysis of the meaning of the term, followed by a return (hopefully) to the expressive, artistic form of intimation through which hermeneutics are frequently understood. (as in Tai Chi). Deepest meanings are often not spoken but accepted in their sublime or profane significance, as a sense of understanding emerges for some object of thought and its milieu. Sometimes, as in phenomenological, empirical (pure, as in James' (1890/1950) radical empiricism), or introspective psychology, the objects of thought are thoughts themselves; thus arises an irony and a dilemma about the nature of psychological subject matter as well as its methodology. Questions about methodology abound in psychology, and one might say that they even define the nature of contemporary psychological praxis. In psychoanalysis, Eriksonian psycho-history making, object-relations, and transpersonal psychology the merging of knower and known is not only recognized but encouraged. An example of this is seen in the work of many contemporary feminists who have led the way in developing psychological praxes which are socially, politically, and ethically guided where they consider values, cultures, ideologies and other personal and community concerns as integral sources and contexts for understanding the psychology of persons and their worlds (Tomm et al., 1989).

This journal has been established to provide a voice for smaller centres of psychological enquiry, centres which focus on different methodologies and different questions and answers about the nature of psychological praxis. I believe that these different expressions of psychology are exemplary of hermeneutical psychology; expressions which recognize "non-mainstream" orientations of psychological perspective and practice under an umbrella of pluralism. Likewise, when considering hermeneutics, it is important that we address our understanding of it with an open minded attitude that enables us to become more aware of 'others' perspectives; acquiring a critical attitude about our own biases so that we may broaden the horizons our experience and keep moving towards living personal and collective lives that are most worthwhile and meaningful.

Introduction to Hermeneutics

As outlined in an earlier editorial for Psybernetika, I referred to the essay by Woolfolk, Sass and Messer (1988) as a good place to begin. In this introduction to Hermeneutics and psychological theory: Interpretive perspectives on personality, psychotherapy, and psychopathology these authors point out that hermeneutics can be understood in three principle domains: the ontological, the methodological, and the critical (or evaluative).

Ontological Hermeneutics

Beginning with the ontological question, or theory about the basis of reality and nature, a common consideration for ontological hermeneuticists is to consider the self (subject--knower) as being inseparable from the world (object--known). As articulated by Dilthey (1883/1989), the "life-nexus" of self and its milieu is the fundamental reality that is apprehended by self-consciousness. Developing his human science perspective from the phenomenological tradition of Kant and Hegel, Dilthey recognized that any metaphysic (theory about the nature of reality) could never apprehend the totality of consciousness that comprises the human life-nexus. Rather, he suggested that it could only be apprehended (in parts) through a process of description and articulation; revealing the "first expressions" of "acting and suffering" and of "selfsameness" (Makkreel & Rodi, 1989, p. 21). In doing so, a human science is practiced which avoids the second order (objective) perspective of the natural sciences. This notion of the difference between two modes of knowing is reflected in Heidegger's distinction between "ready-to-hand" understanding of "engaged" subject-object (self-milieu), and "present-at-hand" or "disengaged" subject -- object (self vs. world) knowledge (Woolfolk et al., 1988). This notion of the "engaged" social person has become more common in Euro-American social psychology (Harre & Secord, 1972; Gergen & Gergen, 1984, Shotter, 1993) and others, but received a full lifetime of expression in the works of Erik Erikson (1950, 1964, 1980).

Erikson's notion of mutuality is precisely what this ontological hermeneutic of self-milieu life nexus is. In his psych-social ego-analytic perspective, Erikson considers the mutual exchanges between persons as a central concern in his human science psychology. As in therapy, where transference and countertransference arise, the psychological spheres of understanding of both (or all) persons involved in a relationship (whether it is therapeutic or everyday) are literally "cogwheeling" each other. Erikson's (1964) notion of cogwheeling suggests that persons are interdependent and both initiate and receive changes in others and themselves. As in Vico's notion of knowledge per causes (Berlin, 1976), and Shotter's (1993) joint action or knowledge of the third kind; psychosocial living is shared experience. This connectedness of persons in language, ritual, custom and tradition is precisely what many ontological hermeneuticists have focused on (e.g., Dilthey, 1883/1989; Wundt, 1916; Dewey, 1925; Mead, 1934; & Vygotsky, 1962; but to name a few).

Stefan Linquist briefly addresses this aspect of hermeneutics in his discussion of Heidegger's notion of Dasein, of understanding-being, as well as in his presentation of Gadamer's notion of horizon. As with the other ontological hermeneuticists mentioned above, Gadamer's notion of moving into and being moved is one that Stefan does address. Also common to the traditions of phenomenology and existentialism (as facets of modern hermeneutics) is the consideration of the three worlds (Popper, 1977), spheres (Erikson, 1965), or plateaus of transaction (Dewey, in Bernstein, 1967) of human experience that are often referred to as the mitwelt (the social world), the umwelt (the physical world) and the eigenwelt (the self world).

While examining Gadamer's critique of Schleiermacher's and Dilthey's works, Stefan focuses on the methodological considerations of hermeneutical enquiry rather than on a detailed examination of these ontological concerns. In spite of that fact, it is worth noting that Dilthey and many others in this tradition have considered "will" to be a central facet of human life-nexus where the issues of value that arise in collective life are addressed in a forthright manner. Wundt, for example, in his voluntaristic psychology (Danziger, 1980), considered both the individual and collective minds as forms of "creative synthesis" or apprehension. Part of this sensitivity to the human consciousness involves a recognition of the evaluative aspects of human life as in the act of critical self appraisal. This reflexive awareness is often suggested to arise in the genesis of mind (Mead, 1934), self or ego (Kegan, 1982) where awareness of others and a sense of social or moral value is instilled from the social world (Freud, 1923). As such, the "self and the real world are therefore given in the totality of psychic life. Each exists in relation to the other, and is equally immediate and true" (Dilthey in Makkreel & Rodi, 1989, p. 8). This mutual existence, like all understanding in hermeneutics, is forever revisable and never fixed or achieved; the recognition of it as such is, according to Dilthey, central to any examination of the expressions of human conscious-life-nexus.

Methodological Hermeneutics

Continuing with the methodological aspect of hermeneutics, it is concerned with an articulation of the dictum: "there is no understanding without pre-understanding." Originally uttered by Schleiermacher, and popularized by Dilthey, this dictum is central to the development of textual or historical accounts. In attempting to provide authentic interpretations of Biblical texts, early philologists gave birth to the term hermeneutics (derived from Hermes, a Greek messenger from the Gods) in their various exegeses of those texts. Since those early days the term has been maintained, and expanded upon where this particular meaning--the art of interpretation--has become but one of three spheres of hermeneutics, albeit the most the widely known or recognized.

The central focus of Stefan Linquist's interesting account of Gadamer's appraisal and critique of Dilthey's method stands on its own. Without further elaboration I will direct the reader to his paper, however, I might add that Dilthey's notion of understanding can be seen as a constant process which continuously creates new understandings (which recede into future pre-understandings) out of contexts of pre-understanding (Woolfolk, et al., 1988).

Additionally, as a brief aside, the psycho-historian, Erik Erikson, made great and detailed use of a hermeneutical approach to understanding his clients and other famous figures (Erikson, 1968). Here he clearly points out various potential problems or biases that might arise in the process of making history; issues such as the psychological and socio-historical contexts at the time of recording history as well as the psychological and socio-historical contexts of the history maker. Following the lead of the historical R.G. Collingwood (1956), Erikson suggests that the act of making history is a "process of thought . . . . [in which h]istory is the life of mind itself which is not mind except so far as it both lives in historical process and knows itself as so living" (Collingwood cited in Erikson, 1964, p. 54, italics original). Here Erikson reveals his commitment to critical self-appraisal and the constructive nature of psychological understanding of other persons and oneself within a greater socio-historical context.

Critical or Evaluative Hermeneutics

The critical or evaluative sphere of hermeneutics is characterized by a concern for making all of human action ethically and socially responsible. As Dilthey openly recognized the need for a human science that was both theoretically and practically oriented, he made sure that issues of value were not to be brushed aside but instead were to be embraced. These concerns are echoed in the works of many contemporary human scientists, such as Richard Bernstein (1983), John Shotter (1993) and Charles Taylor (1994).

Woolfolk, Sass, and Messer (1988) point out that Habermas' concern for the purposes and uses of knowledge is typical of critical hermeneutics. Here, they identify Habermas' concern about the "ideal speech situation" and the three "cognitive interests" as being central to his Marxist inspired work. Habermas was critical of the natural sciences (empirical-analytic disciplines) which he viewed as being dominated by a technical interest for the control and mastery over natural phenomena. Conversely, Habermas raised awareness for the historical-hermeneutic sciences whose "interest is to promote intersubjective understandings of shared cultural meanings" (p. 23, italics added). Thirdly, he brought awareness to the empirical-critical praxes which "are guided by emancipatory interest and are distinguished by their capacity to reflect critically upon their own ideological foundations" (Woolfolk et al., 1988, p. 23, italics added). In sum, critical hermeneutics is characterized by this orientation towards "critical self understanding" which is expressly (overtly) concerned with human values and living according to such "ideal values".

In Canada, psychologists have repeatedly expressed concern over the ethical and evaluative considerations that result from the practice and teaching of psychology (Wand, 1993; Tonks, 1996). Many of these concerns were in mind when designing my psychology 308--History of Modern Psychology Course, the course from which the final four papers in this issue came.

Hermeneutics and the History of Psychology in Canada

In preparing this course I attempted to create a syllabus that would give the students a greater understanding of the context in which their present psychological education arose. All the while I attempted to point out important individuals, theoretical, and practical developments in modern psychology, I also tried to get the students to think about the various psychological perspectives covered in the course as ideologies of psychology; ideologies which they could accept or reject as part of their own world-views of psychological practice and their own identities as psychologists. The course also began with an overview of two principle orientations to the practice of psychology as a science; the human and natural science perspectives (Tonks, 1995). Making use of the metaphor of a Necker cube, I tried to point out that various "paradigms" in psychology can be likened to various perspectives on what really is the overhead projector image of the "cube"; ranging from a cube of one or another orientation to geometrical shapes, to ink on cellophane or shadows on a wall.

Also, in attempting to make the course personally meaningful to the students, I introduced into the course syllabus two sections on the history of psychology in Canada. First, there was a section that briefly addressed the early days of psychology as philosophy in various Canadian institutions. Here, relying heavily upon the works of Armour and Trott (1981) and Wright and Myers (1982), I was able to paint a picture of Canadian Philosophical psychology as one that was centrally concerned with issues of mental and moral philosophy; being strongly influenced by Thomas Reid and the Scottish "Common Sense" movement. Second, with an interlude discussion of the pioneering work of Ned Bott during the first world war on applied psychology, I continued with a more thorough discussion of the development of the Canadian Psychological Association in 1939. Here, also making use of the Wright et al. (1992) "Golden Anniversary Symposium" papers, I pointed out that Canadian psychologists, as with their American counter parts, have been strongly concerned with establishing the proper relationship between psychology as a natural science and psychology as a professional practice (Wand, 1993).

Some students chose to emphasise the issue of identity crisis in the history of psychology. As suggested above, the course lectures frequently encouraged the students to think about psychological theories as ideologies of identity and two groups chose to emphasise the issue identity crisis which was presented to them during the second section on the history of Canadian Psychology (Wand, 1993). This first of these two groups was Seguin, Atzema and MacAskill who emphasized both the issue of identity crisis and also the legacy of pragmatism that began with the common sense school in their account of the history of Canadian Psychology from 1980 to 1983. Second, Ho-Asjoe, Sawada and Tymich also considered the issue of identity crisis to be relevant to their account of the Canaidian Journal of Psychology from 1984 to 1988, while also giving some attention to the numan science - natural science dichotomy. Another paper, by Gear, Thomas, Merasty and Qinones, focused almost exclusively on the human/natural science distinction in their account of Canadian Psychology from 1989 to 1993. Finally, Hannah, McManus, Holmquist and Boivin deviated from the other accounts where they made use of Maclean's magazine's ranking of universities and their own academic calendars to provide a statistical test of difference between various psychology departments.

While these reports may not have the deep sophistication of Kurt Danziger (1990) or of Erik Erikson (1968), they reveal that, given the same exercise, two different classes of students will provide very different accounts of the same texts. Thus providing an exemplar of the role of interpretation in the making of history, these students also have begun their own hermeneutical circles of understanding their historical legacies of psychology and some awareness of their own roles in the historical process. Both this collection of historical accounts and those published in the Winter 95 issue of Psybernetika were "first report" accounts. While I, as course lecturer, may have changed some of my ideas with respect to this project of reviewing Canadian psychology journals, and while the teaching assistants were different the second time around, these students' reports may show to be more similar in some ways when they are compared to the third set of accounts that are expected to be published in Spring 1997. This third set was constructed under yet another pair of teaching assistants, however, they had the "pre-understanding" of the first set of reports which had already been published in Psybernetika prior to their starting to construct their own reports. In this sense these three sets of accounts will provide a large amount of fuel for turning the hermeneutic engines of understanding the history of psychology in Canada.

Hermeneutics in Psychology: The Past, the Present, and the Future

While, in the past, hermeneutics has been a method for interpreting sacred and ancient texts and modern persons as texts, it has also been more than merely an orientation for understanding. Hermeneutics has often involved assumptions about reality and ethics as well as an appreciation for the complexity and importance of interrelations between all three of its domains or branches: ontology, ethical praxis, and methodology for the human sciences and everyday life.

Today hermeneutics continues be all of these things, and more, through its innumerable manifestations of understanding, critical self appraisal and experience of self and milieu. As arises in art, poetry, literature, dance, athletics, and other forms of human excellence, people regularly engage in the hermeneutics of life and living. Becoming fully what they can be at a given moment, individuals, groups, communities and even nations participate in the type of collective actions that John Shotter (1993) refers to as joint action or knowledge of the third kind. Through our psycho-social intra-interaction with others we can achieve successes of profound magnitude. As Erik Erikson wrote of Mahatma Gandhi, he was driven to participate in the bettering of human kind; of getting away from pseudo-speciation by developing a personal approach to understanding himself and his worlds of experience. Through such self-other disciplined subjectivity one can develop care and compassion; understanding for others and one's self. I think it is important that we do not forget the most significant values that we hold personally and collectively as psychologists, as Canadians, and as human beings; we must make sure that our actions are worthy of our existence as sentient beings. As Charles Taylor (1994) has clearly stated, it is important to "struggle for a 'transvaluation' . . . which could open the way to a mode of life, individual and social, in which these [moral] demands could be reconciled" (p. 214). To achieve such an end would be to get beyond objectivism and relativism (Bernstein, 1983), to achieve a form of collective action where neither absolutism nor rampant relativism would prevail; a goal of achieving some kind of multiculutural (or multi-moral) unity amongst diversity.

This issue may mark the beginning of another turn of the hermeneutic circles of understanding for all involved in the production and appreciation of its publication. Attempting to return to the more poetic and literary side of hermeneutics, I will simply say that I will yet again return to the texts of the history of psychology in Canada. Remembering all facets of hermeneutical understanding for now, while I let these ideas fall back into the unconscious background of my slowly developing "pre-understanding" of my own life-nexus, I will also rest comfortably with the understanding that all understanding of life, history and hermeneutics is never ending, it is "only a constant approximation" (Dilthey cited in Woolfolk, Sass & Messer, 1988, p. 7).

[The symbol of] wind and that for thunder form I. The superior man, in accordance with this, when he sees what is good, moves towards it; and when he sees his errors, he turns from them. (I Ching, Legge Trans.)

Randal G. Tonks (
Editor, Psybernetika
October 4, 1996

P.S. In the next issue of Psybernetika we hope to publish several accounts of psychology that are more literary oriented. Please remember, if you think you have something to say about psychology let us know, we want to hear from you.


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