The Hermeneutics of Healing

The Hermeneutics of Healing

Note: I’m a philosopher, not a mental health professional. These reflections are my personal opinions and none of them should be construed as professional advice regarding the diagnosis or treatment of mental illness.

Problems for Therapy as it is Traditionally Construed

Despite branding efforts to the contrary, psychotherapy remains a human endeavor (and more an art than a science). Therapists are frequently portrayed as detached scientific observers, analyzing behavior, diagnosing according to the DSM, and delivering the best evidence based treatments to their patients. Yet this picture fails to capture the reality of the therapeutic process. For, upon examination, it turns out that psychotherapy doesn’t always have a stellar empirical track record. Jeffrey Kottler, for example, notes that about a third of clients fail to come for a second session after an initial interview, and about half stop showing up after two sessions.[1] Of those that do continue, many will keep going for at least 12 sessions despite seeing no improvement in their symptoms, and “10 to 20% of clients…actually deteriorate in therapy.”[2] These are clearly not exemplary outcomes, yet psychologists still don’t understand what is responsible for them.[3] And when we turn from the statistical evidence, to particular high profile cases, things start to look even worse:

“Judy Garland’s therapist used to see her twice per day for sessions and prescribed all kinds of drugs to help her sleep, stay awake, and reduce depression, anxiety, and loneliness. (She died of an overdose.) Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s therapist actually moved in with him for a year, insisted that all music composed during that time credit the therapist as a coauthor, and charged Wilson $1 million. Marilyn Monroe’s therapist…may actually…have killed her with a barbiturate suppository. (He was the last one to be seen with her alive.) He also made the depressed actress run errands for him, gave her unlimited supplies of Nembutal, Seconal, and chloral hydrate, and required that she purchase her house within walking distance so he could have easier access to her.”[4]

In such cases, the therapeutic relationship appears to be not only ineffective, but also positively abusive.

These concerns are not limited to external critics of the “helping professions” but are shared by many operating within those fields.  Kottler describes the sense of unease that therapists feel when they realize that they don’t really know what they are doing and confesses that “a lot of the time we are operating in the dark, pretending that we know far more than we really do, and often clueless about what is really going on with a client at any given time.” [5] Moreover, “feeling clueless isn’t all that rare for most therapists, who admit to having questions about their effectiveness about 25% of the time, often throughout most of their careers.”[6] And this feeling of cluelessness is further exacerbated by the fact that the broader professional community seems to be equally clueless. This can be inferred from the fact that one is likely to receive contradictory recommendations from different colleagues when seeking their counsel on the diagnosis and treatment of a patient. Kottler explains:

“As convinced as you might be about any particular case conceptualization and treatment plan, as certain as you are about the best way to proceed, it is more than a little disturbing to admit that there are notable experts in the field who would strongly object to the path you are taking and maybe even recommend the exact opposite approach.

            How often have you sought supervision with a number of different colleagues and been given very conflicting advice about what to do? How often have you heard passionate debates between respected therapists, each of whom advocates a radically different course of action? How can we possibly reconcile that a client comes in for treatment, presenting symptoms of depression, and might be told by a variety of mental health professionals that the best treatment is medication, or exercise and meditation, or brief cognitive therapy, or long-term psychodynamic therapy, or systemic family therapy, or… well, you get the point.”[7]

In light of this confusion that plagues both individual practitioners and the profession as a whole, it is unsurprising that burnout for therapists is marked by the belief that “I am not sure therapy works or is helpful.”[8]

            One may take the chronic and fundamental confusion of the field as evidence that psychotherapy should not be subsumed under a scientific or medical model. Further evidence can be marshalled in the fact that it is hard to see how one could even gather the relevant data regarding the effectiveness of psychotherapeutic interventions. There are, in fact, several difficulties in this regard. First, there is no agreed on criterion for success; each school of thought defines successful therapy differently. For example, “an accomplished cognitive-behavioral therapist may work in a business-like fashion and follow a treatment protocol, depending on what the client wants to address. A more psychodynamic therapist might judge mastery based on the quality of interpretations that reveal underlying core issues in need of attention. A humanistic-existential therapist might be less interested in identifying a specific presenting problem and more concerned with creating a deep connection with clients in the context of a warm, caring and supportive relationship.”[9] But, without an agreed on criteria for success, the various schools of psychotherapy are rendered incommensurable.

            Not only are there conflicting measures of success, but it is also difficult to even retrieve the relevant data. For the self-reports of both therapists and patients appear to be unreliable. “What therapists say they do in their sessions may bear only a remote resemblance to what actually transpired. You may think that it was a particular confrontation or elegant interpretation that made the most difference to a client, but, more often than not, the client will hone [sic.] in on something else entirely that you may not even remember.”[10] Likewise, therapists can have mistaken intuitions about when a client has actually improved. “There are clients whom we think—no, we are positive—we helped, yet we discover at some time in the future that they are ‘fooling’ us or that the changes didn’t last beyond a few weeks…. Even when we are reasonably certain that significant progress was accomplished, we rarely discover whether the changes lasted over time or whether there was a relapse.”[11]

Moreover, the self-reports of patients prove to be massively unreliable. Kottler observes that

“Clients lie. A lot. They lie about what they did—or didn’t do—during the preceding week, whether they completed assignments or not. They lie to themselves about what is really happening in their lives. Most of all, they tend to exaggerate the extent to which others are responsible for their suffering.

            Far more perverse and disturbing are those instances when clients present themselves in ways that are deliberate, strategic falsifications in order to mange their image or even play games with their therapists. In one project, we collected dozens of cases in which therapists were duped by their clients in extreme ways by their claiming they were dying of cancer, actively suicidal, or even presenting whole fictitious lives that were simply invented to manipulate, control, or deceive their therapists.”[12]

But if neither therapist nor client can provide us with accurate information about the course of treatment, gathering data relevant to evaluating the effectiveness of therapy becomes extremely difficult if not impossible.[13]  

One promising solution to this problem is to admit that therapy is more of an art than a science and to deal more candidly with its human dimensions. Those who do this tend to call attention to the subjective virtues that they believe make for a good therapist. Kottler and Carlson, for instance, maintain that a master therapist will have the virtues of wisdom,[14] emotional regulation,[15] relational dexterity, [16] authenticity of voice,[17] and even having lots of qi. They describe the last of these features as follows:

“[This term] refers to the vitality of the therapist, perhaps close to what we sometimes too lazily call vital life force. The Japanese word seiki is also a way of pointing to this vitality of presence. Cal Whitaker hinted at it when he said therapy was as good as the goodness of the therapist.”[18]

Note, however, how everything turns on the subjective character of the therapist on such a model. The goodness of the therapist is defined in terms of his subjective character and the goodness of the therapeutic relationship is defined as one in which a client is related to a good therapist. Kottler and Carlson approvingly cite Bradford Keeney’s assertion that “ if you have seiki, or a powerful life force, then any model will come to life. Without it, the session will be dead and incapable of transformation… if you have seiki…, you feel what I am talking about; if you don’t , no words will matter. The extent to which you feel, smell, taste, hear, and see this vitality is a measure of how much mastery there is in your practice and everyday life.”[19]

            This subjective characterization of the therapist and the therapeutic relation strikes me as more plausible (and honest) than the standard model. It nonetheless opens one to the challenge that if the therapeutic process is so mired in subjectivity, the therapist will thereby lose professional credibility. Training programs, professional bodies, and regulating and accrediting organizations all exist only on the supposition that there is some kind of objective characterization of what makes for good therapy (apart from the subjective characteristics of the therapist like how much qi he or she has). One response could simply be to bite the bullet and admit that therapists should not conceive of themselves as members of a guild subject to the same kinds of norms as other medical professionals.

            But even if one agreed that therapists should not conceive of themselves in terms of a medical model, one might nonetheless feel uneasy about the claim that therapy is a radically subjective undertaking. For example, consider the following cases: (1) x and y are friends. X has the subjective characteristics of a good therapist (e.g. is wise, relationally, dexterous, full of qi, etc.). Y is having a hard time in life and leans on x for emotional support. Given our subjective definition of the therapeutic relation, x would thus be y’s therapist. (2) x is a twitch streamer and has all the subjective characteristics that would make for a good therapist. Y is lonely and having a hard time in life. Y thus donates to x and schedules some private chats. Y feels emotionally validated by the arrangement. Given our subjective definition of the therapeutic relation, x would thus be y’s therapist. (3) x is a fortune teller and y is a client. X has all the subjective characteristics necessary for a good therapist. Y is lonely and having a hard time in life, so, in addition to y’s apparent intention for visiting x, y leans on x for emotional support. Again, given our subjective definition of the therapeutic relation, x would be y’s therapist.

Therapy as Hermeneutics

            One might simply bite the bullet on these cases as well and claim that there is nothing to prevent these kinds of relationships from being therapeutic. But, if one has the intuition that there is something fundamentally distinct about the therapeutic relation, it would be worthwhile to see whether we can find a way of recapturing a more objective conception of therapy while still avoiding the problem of trying to subsume it under empirical science. To do so, it is important to remember that traditionally both the Naturwissenschaften (the natural sciences) and the Geisteswissenchaften (the humanities) were considered to be sciences, and both were thought to seek objective truth. This allows us to consider a new possibility: if psychotherapy fell under the Geisteswissenschaften, we could consider it to be something objective that is nonetheless not a part of the natural sciences. I’ll attempt to spell out one such model, by interpreting therapy as a form of Gadamerian hermeneutics.

            The term ‘hermeneutics’ derives from the Greek word ‘ερμηνευω and concerns the science of interpretation. It was originally intended to establish the proper interpretation of religious, legal, and historical texts, but it was developed by Gadamer to include a broader phenomenological interpretation of being. Gadamer sought to establish a science of hermeneutics that was distinct from the natural sciences yet still anchored in objective reality.

The Concept of Play

            Gadamer begins by focusing on the phenomenon of play (Spiel). When players play a game, they are engaged in something that transcends their subjectivity, yet is also not analyzable in terms of natural science. Consider the case of playing push hands in Taiji. Each player has a subjective intention to play, but, when they play well, they manifest something beyond themselves, Taijiquan itself. The same holds true for other games such as football, basketball, tennis, or even card games. In genuine play, we do not play the game. It plays us.[20] “For play has its own essence, independent of the consciousness of those who play.”[21] [Denn das Spiel hat ein eigenes Wesen, unabhängig von dem Bewusstsein derer, die spielen.[22]] “The players are not the subject of the play; instead play merely reaches presentation through the players.”[23] [Das Subjekt des Spieles sind nicht die Spieler, sondern das Spiel kommt durch die Spielenden lediglich zur Darstellung.][24] The game itself is thus the true subject of play, filling the players with its spirit and confronting them with a reality that transcends them.[25]

 “All playing is a being-played. The attraction of a game, the fascination it exerts, consists precisely in the fact that the game masters the players. Even in the case of games in which one tries to perform tasks that one has set oneself, there is risk that they will not ‘work,’ ‘succeed,’ or ‘succeed again,’ which is the attraction of the game. Whoever ‘tries’ is in fact the one who is tried. The real subject of the game (this is shown in precisely those experiences in which there is only a single player) is not the player but instead the game itself. What holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, and keeps him there is the game itself.”[26]

The Ontology of the Work of Art

            Gadamer then considers the realm of art in which play is endowed with additional structure. Consider, for example, the difference between playing football and the play Hamlet. In football, there are general rules in place, but each specific match is something radically new. There is no such thing as a repeat performance of the same game. But in the case of a play such as Hamlet, the structures guiding the performance are more rigid. Performances may vary, but the play’s plot and lines are set in a canonical form which allows it to be repeated.

It is this transformation into structure that allows a higher reality to be manifested, a reality in which truth resides. When actors and actresses play their parts in the play, they are transfigured in its meaning. It is no longer they as individuals who matter when they are on stage, but what they signify in the world of the play. It “is a transformation of such a kind that the identity of the player does not continue to exist for anybody. Everybody asks instead what is supposed to be represented, what is ‘meant.’ The players (or playwright) no longer exist, only what they are playing.”[27] Likewise, this transfiguration in meaning is not confined to the actors on stage but radiates out to the audience as well. Gadamer thus compares the play to a festival or religious rite in which “to be present means to participate.”[28] [Dabeisein heisst Teilhabe.][29]

Specifically, the audience participates by θεωρια. It looks on and is taken up into the reality that reveals itself in the artwork. θεωρια is thus “a true participation, not something active but something passive (pathos), namely being totally involved in and carried away by what one sees.”[30]  In other words, the audience recognizes the True as it discloses itself in the play, and the theater is rendered a site of initiation. Hence, “the joy of recognition is… the joy of knowing more than is already familiar. In recognition what we know emerges, as if illuminated, from all the contingent and variable circumstances that condition it; it is grasped in its essence. It is known as something.”[31] It is in such recognition that reality manifests itself as it really is. And, in this manner, the reality depicted in the play comes to have more truth than the empirical reality from which it was derived:

 “The ‘known’ enters into its true being and manifests itself as what it is only when it is recognized. As recognized, it is grasped in its essence, detached from its accidental aspects. This applies especially to the kind of recognition that takes place in play. This kind of representation leaves behind it everything that is accidental and unessential—e.g., the private particular being of the actor. He disappears entirely in the recognition of what he is representing. But even what is represented, a well-known event of mythological tradition, is—by being represented—raised, as it were, to its own validity and truth. With regard to knowledge of the true, the being of the representation is more than the being of the thing represented, Homer’s Achilles more than the original.”[32]

Both actors and audience are thus transported into the higher reality of the play. This world of the play is a self-contained whole endowing all of its parts with meaning. Because it constitutes a totality of meaning incapable of evaluation by a standard outside of itself, the truth can speak through it.

“But, above all, what no longer exists is the world in which we live as our own. Transformation into structure is not simply transposition into another world. Certainly the play takes place in another, closed world. But inasmuch as it is a structure, it is, so to speak, its own measure and measures itself by nothing outside it. Thus the action of a drama—in this respect it still entirely resembles the religious act—exists as something that rests absolutely within itself. It no longer permits of any comparison with reality as the secret measure of all verisimilitude. It is raised above all such comparisons—and hence also above the question of whether it is all—because a superior truth speaks from it.”[33]

In this manner, the work of art both redeems the empirical world and reveals its true nature.

“The transformation is a transformation into the true. It is not enchantment in the sense of a bewitchment that waits for the redeeming word that will transform things back to what they were; rather, it is itself redemption and transformation back into being true. In being presented in play, what is emerges. It produces and brings to light what is otherwise constantly hidden and withdrawn.”[34]

            The artwork not only reveals the truth of the world, but also the truth of the self. Consider, for example, the case of tragedy. Tragedy has traditionally been defined through its effect on the audience.[35] Aristotle, for instance, noted how tragedy generated the feelings pity (ελεος) and fear (φοβος ) in those viewing it. These feelings, claims Gadamer, are not merely subjective states of emotion. Rather, they are forces transcending the individual that come to expression through the work of art. He explains:

“Both are events that overwhelm man and sweep him away. Eleos is the misery that comes over us in the face of what we call miserable. Thus we commiserate with the fate of Oedipus… The German word ‘Jammer’ (misery) is a good equivalent because it too refers not merely to an inner state but to its manifestation. Likewise, phobos is not just a state of mind but, as Aristotle says, a cold shudder that makes one’s blood run cold, that makes one shiver. In the particular sense in which phobos is connected to eleos in the definition of tragedy, phobos means the shivers of apprehension that come over us for someone whom we see rushing to his destruction and for whom we fear. Commiseration and apprehension are modes of ekstasis, being outside oneself, which testify to the power of what is being played out before us.”[36]

These feelings thus bring us outside of ourselves, and thereby effect an internal division in our psyches. But when the feelings are released in the denouement of the play we are brought back to wholeness. This is why Aristotle believed that tragedy had the power to cleanse the soul.

“Being overcome by misery and horror involves a painful division. There is a disjunction from what is happening, a refusal to accept that reels against the agonizing events. But the effect of the tragic catastrophe is precisely to dissolve this disjunction from what is. It effects the total liberation of the constrained heart. We are freed not only from the spell in which the misery and horror of the tragic fate had bound us, but at the same time we are free from everything that divides us from what is.”[37]

Self-knowledge and knowledge of reality thus come to coincide in tragedy.

“The spectator recognizes himself and his own finiteness in the face of the power of fate. What happens to the great ones of the earth has an exemplary significance. Tragic pensiveness does not affirm the tragic course of events as such, or the justice of the fate that overtakes the hero but rather a metaphysical order of being that is true for all. To see that ‘this is how it is’ is a kind of self-knowledge for the spectator, who emerges with new insight from the illusions in which he, like everyone else, lives. The tragic affirmation is an insight that the spectator has by virtue of the continuity of meaning which he places himself.”[38]

            Gadamer observes that this knowledge of self and world mediated through the play presupposes an ontology of the work of art. For the audience member to see himself reflected in the play, he must be able to think the language of tragedy. He must see himself reflected in it.

“The elevation and strong emotion that seize the spectator in fact deepen his continuity with himself. Tragic pensiveness flows from the self-knowledge that the spectator acquires. He finds himself again in the tragic action because what he encounters is his own story, familiar to him from religious or historical tradition; and even if this tradition is no longer binding for a later consciousness… there is more in the continuing effect of such tragic works and themes than merely the continuing influence of a literary model. This effect presumes not only that the spectator is still familiar with the story, but also that its language still reaches him. Only then can the spectator’s encounter with the tragic theme and tragic work become a self-encounter.”[39]

            To encounter oneself through the artwork, one must thus come face to face with Tradition and the claims that it makes upon us. Tradition is fundamental to the ontology of the work of art, since, according to Gadamer the play exists only in its performances. Gadamer likens it to a religious ceremony in this respect, for in the religious rite “no one will be able to suppose that for religious truth the performance of the ritual is inessential.”[40] For there to be a Roman mass, for example, it needs to be performed. It does not exist in some kind of disembodied ideal realm, but exists only as it is performed in the ecclesiastical community. Gadamer argues that the same holds true for the work of art.

“The same is true for drama generally, even considered as literature. The performance of a play, like that of a ritual, cannot simply be detached from the play itself, as if it were something that is not part of its essential being, but is as subjective and fluid as the aesthetic experiences in which it is experienced. Rather, it is in the performance and only in it—as we see most clearly in the case of music—that we encounter the work itself, as the divine is encountered in the religious rite. Here it becomes clear why starting from the concept of play is methodologically advantageous. The work of art cannot simply be isolated from the ‘contingency’ of the chance conditions in which it appears, and where this kind of isolation occurs, the result is an abstraction that reduces the actual being of the work. It itself belongs to the world to which it represents itself. A drama really exists only when it is played, and ultimately music must resound.”[41]

The mode of being of this playing out of the play through time is Tradition. In a tradition of performance each iteration of the play looks back at and is answerable to past exemplars. Gadamer explains:

 “Here there is no random succession, a mere variety of conceptions; rather, by constantly following models and developing them, a tradition is formed with which every new attempt must come to terms. The performing artist too has a certain consciousness of this. The way that he approaches a work or a role is always in some way related to models that approached it in the same way. But this has nothing to do with blind imitation. Although the tradition created by a great actor, director, or musician remains effective as a model, it is not a brake on free creation, but has become so fused with the work that concern with this model stimulates an artist’s creation interpretive powers no less than does concern with the work itself. The performing arts have this special quality: that the works they deal with are explicitly left open to such re-creation and thus visibly hold the identity and continuity of the work of art open towards its future.”[42]

Each new singer who takes on the challenge of Wagner’s Siegfried, for example, will bring something new to the role. But he will always do so by looking back and comparing himself to the greats like Max Lorenz, Lauritz Melchior, and Wolfgang Windgassen. There will thus be a line of canonical performances that one measures oneself by, and, if one is successful, includes one within its fold.

            Not only will a Tradition that manifests itself in a work of art establish normative standards for performers, but it will also make claims upon the audience. Gadamer distinguishes a claim from a demand. Whereas a demand is a specific command (e.g. read chapter so and so), a claim is the abiding authority to issue such commands (e.g. the teacher student relation). Gadamer notes:

“A claim is something lasting. Its justification (or pretended justification) is the primary thing. Because a claim lasts, it can be enforced at any time. A claim exists against someone and must therefore be enforced against him; but the concept of a claim also implies that it is not itself a fixed demand, the fulfillment of which is agreed on by both sides, but is rather the ground for such. A claim is the legal basis for an unspecified demand. If it is to be answered in such a way as to be settled, then to be enforced it must first take the form of a demand. It belongs to the permanence of a claim that it is concretized in a demand.”[43]

The artwork then (and the tradition that articulates itself through it) is the ground for an indeterminate claim upon us, which can be rendered determinate when we encounter the work of art at a time and experience its particular demands. One is reminded of Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo in this regard:

“We cannot know his legendary head/ with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso/ is still suffused with brilliance from inside,/ like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,/ gleams in all its power. Otherwise/ the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could/ a smile run through the placid hips and thighs/ to that dark center where procreation flared./ Otherwise this stone would seem defaced/ beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders/ and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:/ would not, from all the borders of itself, / burst like a star: for here there is no place/ that does not see you. You must change your life.”[44] [Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt, /darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber/ sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,/ in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,/ sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug/ der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen/ der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen/ zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug./ Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz/ unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz/ und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;/ und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern/ aus wie ein Stern: den da ist keine Stelle, die dich nicht sieht. Du must dein Leben ändern.]

Therapy and the Fusion of Horizons.

            What then can all of this tell us about the therapeutic relation? I suggest that it allows us to see therapy as a hermeneutic endeavor. The client is, in a sense, an artwork to be interpreted, a story to be told. Il n’y a pas de hors-texte. The therapist is likewise constituted by his or her own story. Both therapist and client will have their own unique histories, and these histories will determine what they see in the world. Gadamer calls this historically effected consciousness (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewusstsein). Both therapist and client exist in a historical situation that “limits the possibility of vision”[45] while at the same time opening up another range of perceptual possibilities. Gadamer calls this a horizon, a “range of vision that includes everything that determines it.”[46]

            In many schools of therapy, the therapist is mandated to step outside of his own horizon and into that of his client. According to such a model,  the therapist is supposed to non-judgmentally understand the client’s worldview and lend his or her empathic support. Such an approach conflicts with that of the hermeneutic practitioner. To see how, consider the parallel case of trying to understand a historical text. If we approached the text exclusively from within its own historical horizons, attempting to non-judgmentally reconstruct the values of the society in which it was written, the text would thereby be rendered powerless to say anything true. For, to be true, it would not only need to be true in the world of the text, but also in the historical world that we inhabit. Thus, Gadamer claims that “the text that is understood historically is forced to abandon its claim to say something true”[47] and that “acknowledging the otherness of the other in this way, making him the object of objective knowledge, involves the fundamental suspension of his claim to truth.”[48]

            For the hermeneutical therapist, the default non-judgmental stance of other therapies is a relation of disrespect. For in abandoning my own perspective for that of the client, I have given myself a position of superiority where I “cannot be reached”, since I have “stopped trying to reach an agreement.”[49] “By factoring the other person’s standpoint into what he is claiming to say, we are making our own standpoint safely unattainable.”[50] When a therapist treats a client in this way, he treats him as an inferior, as one wholly incapable of speaking the truth. The standard therapeutic stance is thus fundamentally dehumanizing.

            For the hermeneutical therapist, by contrast, insight is not achieved by merely stepping into the horizon of the other, but by initiating a fusion of horizons (Horizontversmelzung). In such a meeting of perspectives, both parties come to see themselves from a higher perspective.

“Transposing ourselves consists neither in the empathy of one individual for another nor in subordinating another person to our own standards; rather, it always involves rising to a higher universality that overcomes not only our own particularity but also that of the other. The concept of ‘horizon’ suggests itself because it expresses the superior breadth of vision that the person who is trying to understand must have. To acquire a horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand—not in order to look away from it but to see it better, within a larger whole and in truer proportion.”[51]

We truly reach an understanding, not by horizontally stepping into a different perspective, but by vertically ascending to a higher more encompassing viewpoint. In other words, we come to see our horizons as a working out of a higher Tradition realizing itself through our individual stories.  Gadamer notes:

“the horizon of the present cannot be formed without the past. There is no more an isolated horizon of the present in itself than there are historical horizons which have to be acquired. Rather, understanding is always the fusion of these horizons supposedly existing by themselves…in a tradition this process of fusion is continually going on, for there old and new are always combining into something of living value, without either being explicitly foregrounded from the other.”[52]

            I believe that this hermeneutical model can solve the problem of subjectivity in the therapeutic relation. However, to do so, it is necessary to appeal to an unfolding of consciousness in history. There needs to be some kind of higher perspective expressing itself through Tradition that both therapist and client can appeal to. Without it, there would be no possibility of a fusion of horizons. What is needed, then, is something like Hegel’s Absolute Spirit: the self-reflection of ultimate reality upon itself through the development of art, religion, and philosophy. But this leaves us with a further dilemma. If we accept the standard subjectivist model, there is no clear demarcation between the therapeutic relation and other relations. There is nothing in principle different in the relationship between a therapist and his or her client and a twitch streamer and his or her fan. Psychotherapy would thus lose its status as a unique discipline. However, if we take a hermeneutical approach, one can take a more objective stance and view the therapeutic relation as an interpretive relation—an irruption of truth in the unfolding of Tradition. But, on this reading, it appears that psychotherapy again loses its unique status and cedes its place to art, religion, and philosophy. Thus, according to either option, the supposed uniqueness of psychotherapy vanishes. I wonder, then, whether we wouldn’t be better off searching for a new Wagner rather than a new Freud to address the ills of our age. Wouldn’t Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare make for better therapeutic training than the Gloria tapes?[53] I’ll end this post with the story of an African shaman’s reaction to the description of psychotherapy. In light of the forgoing considerations, his reaction may not be unreasonable:

“I recall one shaman from the Bushman people who literally fell off the rock he was sitting on, laughing hysterically, when I told him how I work by listening to clients, helping them sort things out and talk about what is most bothersome. The shaman called over others from his village, yelling out, ‘Come over here! You gotta hear what this white dude shaman character says’ (that’s a rough translation). Once assembled with his friends, he urged me to repeat what I do in therapy. He was absolutely dumbfounded that I didn’t bring together the whole community as witnesses to the healing. There was no dancing, shaking, chanting, or drumming in my description of psychotherapy. There was no calling to the spirits. There was no fire built for the healing ceremony…Again the shaman grabbed his belly and everyone laughed at my expense. Finally, when he caught his breath, he asked me if I had ever helped anyone with just this talk.”[54]

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] Kottler, On Being a Therapist 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 104.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. 104-105.

[5] Ibid., 164.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 165.

[8] Patterson et al. Essential Skills in Family Therapy: From First Interview to Termination 3rd ed. (New York: Guilford Press, 2018), 290.

[9] Kottler and Carlson, On Being a Master Therapist: Practicing What You Preach (Hoboken: Wiley, 2014), 16.

[10] Ibid., 16-17.

[11] Ibid., 166-167.

[12] Ibid, 18-19.

[13] The deception even extends into the domain of therapeutic training, since many of the canonical training videos were faked. Kottler recounts “As impressed as I have been by watching eminent therapists in their sessions up close and personal, I have also been occasionally surprised by how poorly some of them do when they are working with clients. I remember one well-known master therapist struggling terribly once the cameras were rolling. I had long admired this person for his groundbreaking ideas in the field but was shocked that he didn’t seem to know how to conduct a session. This was all the more confusing because I had previously seen tapes of him working and he seemed pretty impressive…I asked the gentleman about the discrepancy, and he explained sheepishly that the previous sessions I had watched had actually been staged, with some of his assistants pretending to be clients, and a teleprompter had been used so he could read from a script.” Master Therapist, 19-20.

[14] “Whereas knowledge may be domain specific, one thing that distinguishes truly distinctive professionals is their greater wisdom. Such individuals study widely, way outside the parameters of the social sciences, reading fiction, science, and a dozen other fields that interest them. They find inspiration and truth in great novels just as Freud did during the earliest years of the profession… This actually flies in the fact of the current Zeitgeist in which we are discouraged from pursuing excellence and instead settling for mere competence to conform to minimal standards of practice.” Master Therapist, 31.

[15] Kottler, Being a Therapist, 235.

[16] Kottler and Carlson, Master Therapist, 31. This will include the ability to foster relationships that project “a sense of safety, trust, and intimacy; and some degree of negotiated goal attainment.”

[17] Ibid, 42. “The major therapists in our field have found a way to make therapy their own. Whereas at once time they may have followed mentors, each of them discovered a way to adapt, develop, and invent a style that reflects their individual personalities, values, interests, and goals…. What made it possible for them to develop their own therapeutic approach was challenging conventional wisdom and the status quo. They questioned why things were done in a particular way.”

[18] Ibid., 109.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Gadamer, Truth and Method rev. ed. trans Weinsheimer and Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2004), 103.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Wahrheit und Methode (Tübingen: J.C.B Mohr, 1990), 108.

[23] Truth and Method, 103.

[24] Wahrheit und Methode, 108.

[25] Truth and Method, 109.

[26] Ibid., 106. Alles Spielen ist ein Gespielt-werden. Der Reiz des Spieles, die Faszination, die es ausübt, besteht eben darin, dass das Spiel über den Spielenden Herr wird. Auch wenn es sich um Spiele handelt, in denen man selbstgestellte Aufgaben zu erfüllen sucht, ist es das Risiko, ob es ‘geht’, ob es ‘gelingt’ und ob es ‘wieder gelingt’, was den Reiz des Spieles ausübt. Wer so versucht, ist in Wahrheit der Versuchte. Das eigentliche Subjekt des Spieles (das machen gerade solche Erfahrungen evident, in denen es nur einen einzelnen Spielenden gibt) ist nicht der Spieler, sondern das Spiel selbst. Das Spiel ist es, was den Spieler in seinen Bann schlägt, was ihn ins Spiel verstrickt, im Spiele halt (112).

[27] Truth and Method, 111. Das Spiel selbst ist vielmehr derart Verwandlung, dass für niemanden die Identität dessen, der da spielt, fortbesteht. Ein jeder fragt nur, was das sein soll, was da ‘gemeint’ ist. Die Spieler (oder Dichter) sind nicht mehr, sondern nur das von ihnen Gespielte (117).

[28] Truth and Method, 121.

[29] Wahrheit und Methode, 129.

[30] Truth and Method, 122. Theoria ist wirkliche Teilnahme, kein Tun, sondern ein Erleiden (pathos), nämlich das hingerissene Eingenommensein vom Anblick (130).

[31] Ibid, 113. Die Freude des Wiedererkennens ist vielmehr die, dass mehr erkannt wird als nur das Bekannte. In der Wiedererkennens tritt das, was wir kennen, gleicchsam wie durch eine Erleuchtung aus aller Zufälligkeit und Variabilität der Umstände, die es bedingen, heraus und wird in seinem Wesen erfasst. Es wird als etwas erkannt (119).

[32] Ibid, 114. Das ‘Bekannte’ kommt erst in sein wahres Sein und zeigt sich als das, was es ist, durch seine Wiedererkennung. Als Wiedererkanntes ist es das in seinem Wesen Festgehaltene, aus der Zufälligkeit seiner Aspekte Gelöste. Das gilt vollends für die Art Widererkennung, die gegenüber der Darstellung im Spiel statthat. Solche Darstellung lässt ja all das hinter sich, was zufällig und unwesentlich ist, z.B. das eigene besondere Sein des Schauspielers. Über das Erkenntnis dessen, was er dargestellt wird, der bekannte Vorgang der mythologischen Überlieferung, wird durch die Darstellung gleichsam in seine gültige Wahrheit gehoben. In Hinblcik auf Erkentnis des Wahren ist das Sein der Darstellung mehr als das Sein des dargestellten Stoffes, der homerisches Achilles mehr als sein Urbild (119-120).

[33] Ibid., 111-112. Was nicht mehr ist, ist aber vor allem die Welt, in der wir als unserer eigenen leben. Verwandlung ins Gebilde ist nicht einfach Versetzung in eine andere Welt. Gewiss ist es eine andere, in sich geschlossene Welt, in der das Spiel spielt. Aber sofern es Gebilde ist, hat es gleichsam sein Mass in sich selbst gefunden und bemisst sich an nichts, was ausserhalb seiner ist. So ist die Handlung eines Schauspiels—darin gleciht sie noch ganz der Kulthandlung—schlechterdings als etwas in sich selbst Beruhendes da. Sie lässt kein Vergleichen mit der Wirklichkeit als dem heimlichen Maβstab aller abbildlichen Ӓhnlichkeit mehr zu. Sie ist über allen solchen Vergleich hinausgehoben—und damit auch über die Frage, ob den das alles wirklich sei–, weil aus ihr eine überlegene Wahrheit spricht (117).

[34] Ibid, 112. Die Verwandlung ist Verwandlung ins Wahre. Sie ist nicht Verzauberung im Sinne der Verhexung, die auf das erlösende, rückverwandelnde Wort wartet, sondern sie selbst ist die Erlösung und Rückverwandlung ins wahre Sein. In der Darstellung des Spieles kommt heraus, was ist. In ihr wird hervorgeholt und ans Licht gebracht, was sich sonst ständig verhüllt und entzieht (118).

[35] Ibid., 126.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 127. Das Überkommenwerden von Jammer und Schauder stellt eine schmerzhafte Entzweiung dar. Es ist darin eine Uneinigkeit mit dem, was geschieht, ein Nichtwahrhabenwollen, das sich gegen das grausige Geschehen auflehnt. Eben das aber ist die Wirkung der tragishcen Katastrophe, dass diese Entzweiung mit dem, was ist, sich auflöst. Insofern bewirkt sie eine universal Befreiung der beengten Brust. Nicht nur von dem Banne ist man befreit, in den einen das Jammervolle und Schauerliche dieses einen Gesichickes gebannt hielt, sondern in eins damit ist man von allem frei, was einen mit dem, was ist, entzweit (136).

[38] Ibid., 128. Der Zuschauer erkennt sich selbst und sein eigenes enliches Sein angesichts der Macht des Schichsals. Was den Grossen widerfährt, hat exemplarische Bedeutung. Die Zustimmung der tragischen Wehmut gilt nicht dem tragischen Verlauf als solchem oder der Gerechtigkeit des Geschicks, das den Helden ereilt, sondern meint eine metaphysische Seinsordnung, die für alle gilt. Das ‘So ist es’ ist eine Art Selbsterkenntnis des Zuschauers, der von den Verblendungen, in denen er wie ein jeder lebt, einsichtig zurückkommt. Die tragische Affirmation ist Einsicht kraft der Sinnkontinuität, in die sich der Zuschauer selbst zurückstellt (137).

[39] Ibid, 128-129. Die tragische Wehmut entspringt der Selbsterkenntnis, die dem Zuschauer zuteil wird. Er findet in dem tragischen Geschehen sich selbter weider, weil es seine eigene ihm aus religiöser oder geschichtlicher Überlieferung bekannte Sage ist, die ihm da begegnet,und wenn auch für ein späteres Bewusstsein…diese Überlieferung nicht mehr verbindlich gilt, so liegt doch in der Fortwirkung solcher tragischer Werke und Stoffe mehr als nur die Fortgeltung eines literarischen Vorbildes. Sie setz nicht nur voraus, dass der Zuschauer mit der Sage noch bekant ist, sie schliesst auch ein, dass ihre Sprache ihn noch wirklich erreicht. Nur dann kann die Begegnung mit solchem tragischen Stoff und solchem tragischen Werk zur Selbstbegegnung werden (138).

[40] Ibid., 115.

[41] Ibid., 115. Das gleiche gilt nun in ähnlicher Weise für das Schauspiel überhaupt und das, was es als Dichtung ist. Die Aufführung eines Schauspiels ist auch nicht einfach von ihm ablösbar als etwas, das zu seinem wesentlichen Sein nicht gehört, sondern so subjektiv und fliessend ist wie die ästhetischen Erlebnisse, in denen es erfahren wird. Vielmehr begegnet in der Aufführung und nur in ihr—das wird am klarsten an der Musik—das Werk selbst, so wie im Kult das Göttliche gegegnet. Hier wird der methodische Gewinn sichtbar, den das Ausgehen vom Speilbegriff einbringt. Das Kunstwerk ist nicht von der ‘Kontingenz’ der Zugangsbedingungen, under denen es sich zeigt, schlechthin isolierbar, und wo solche Isolation doch geschieht, ist das Ergebnis eine Abstraktion, die das eigenliche Sein des Werkes reduziert. Es selbst gehört in die Welt hinein, der es sich darstellt. Schauspiel ist erst eigentlich, wo es gespielt wird, und vollends Musik muss ertönen (121).

[42] Ibid., 117. Es gibt hier kein beliebiges Nebeneinander, eine blosse Varietät von Auffassungen, vilemehr bildet sich aus ständiger Vorbildnahme und produktiver Abwandlung eine Tradition, mit der sich jeder neue Versuch auseinandersetzen muss. Davon hat auch der reproductive Künstler ein gewisses Bewusstsein. Wie er an ein Werk oder an eine Rolle herangeht, das ist immer schon irgendwie auf Vorbilder, die das gleiche taten, bezogen. Dabei handelt es sich keinseswegs um eine blinde Nachahmung. Die Tradition, die durch einen grossen Schauspieler, Regisseur oder Musiker geschafen wird, indem sein Vorbild wirksam bleibt, ist nicht etwa ein Hemmnis für freie Gestaltung, sondern hat sich mit dem Werk selbst derart verschmolzen, dass die Auseinandersetzung mit diesem Vorbild nicht minder als die mit dem Werk selbst die schöpferische Nachstellung jees Künstlers aufruft. Die reproduktiven Künste haben eben dies Besondere, dass die Werke, mit denen sie es tun zu haben, zu solcher Nachgestaltug ausdrücklich freilassen und damit die Identität und Kontinuität des Kunstwerkes nach seiner Zukunft hin sichtbar geöffnet halten (124).

[43] Ibid., 123. Ein Anspruch ist zwar etwas Bestehendes. Seine Berechtigung (oder die Vorgeblichkeit einer Solchen) ist das Erste. Eben weil der Anspruch besteht, kann er jederzeit geltend gemacht werden. Der Anspruch besteht gegen jemanden und muss daher bei ihm geltend gemacht werden. Offenbar enthält der Begriff des Anspruchs aber, das ser nicht selber eine festgelegte Forderung ist, deren Erfüllung eindeutig vereinbart ist, sondern veilmehr eine solche begründet. Ein Anspruch ist die Rechtsgrundlage für eine unbestimmte Forderung. Wie ihm so entprochen wird, das ser abegolten ist, muss er dann, wenn er geltend gemacht wird, die Gestalt einer Forderung erst annehmen. Dem Bestehen des Anspruchs entspricht also, das ser sich zu einer Forderung konkretisiert (132).

[44] Trans. Stephen Mitchell.

[45] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 301.

[46] Ibid., 301.

[47] Ibid., 302.

[48] Ibid., 303.

[49] Ibid., 302.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 304.

[52] Ibid., 305. Der Horizont der Gegenwart bildet sich also gar nicht ohne die Vergangenheit. Es gibt so wenig einen Gegenwartshoizont für sich, wie es historische Horizonte gibt, die man zu gewinnen hätte. Vielmehr ist Verstehen immer der Vorgang der Verschmelzung solcher vermeintlich für sich seiender Hoizonte. Wir kennen die Kraft solcher Verschmelzung vor allem aus älteren Zeiten und ihrem naiven Verhalten zu sich selbst und zu ihrer Herkunft. Im Walten der Tradition findet ständig solche Verschmelzung statt. Denn dort wächst Altes und Neue immer wieder zu lebendiger Geltung zusammen, ohne dass sich überhaupt das eine oder andere ausdrücklich voneinander abheben (311).

[53] https://youtu.be/Mo47lqk_QH0

[54] Kottler, Being a Therapist, 14.

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