Hermeneutic circle of understanding 

The phenomenological attitude of  putting aside, or bracketing, theories and pre-conceived ideas in favor of un­derstanding the client does not mean the absence of interpreting. It also does not mean that therapists should not have pre-knowledge and theoretical understandings. It is im­possible for anyone, therapists included to not interpret. According to Heidegger, “from the very beginning our essence is to understand and to create comprehensibility.” To interpret and understand is to be human (Staemmler, 2009, p. 65). At the same time, it is through our pre-understandings that we can have any understanding at all. 

For this understanding to be authentic, and not based on blind interpretations of theory, what counts is the attitude towards gaining this understanding. According to Gadamer (Gadamer, 1975/1960), the German word for “understanding” (Verstehen) is also used in the sense of a practical ability (e.g., er versteht nicht zu lesen, “he can’t read”). This is the understanding when one goes beyond simply acquiring scientific knowledge— when one gets well versed in something, like understanding a text, or, in the case of therapy, the client. In efforts to access this kind of understanding, Gadamer writes, one would have “the accomplished understanding (that) constitutes a state of new intellectual freedom” (p. 251). Gadamer likens all such understanding to be ulti­mately self-understanding (sich verstehen). What this means is that understanding in this attitude is a dynamic process of self-involvement. Gadamer explains how when reading words written by someone else for example, the reader projects his/her own meaning for the words as he/she encounters them. As one reads or listens further, one has expectations for what meaning is to come, new meaning then emerges and expecta­tions are revised according to what meaning emerges further. This is the process of un­derstanding the subject matter through self-reflection and reinvestigation of the subject. 

Heidegger (1971), in his writings on what and how art is, says, “What art is should be inferable from the work. What the work of art is we can come to know only from the nature of art” (p. 18). Heidegger adds that in discovering a piece of art, we are lead to a circle of questionings. While we are tempted to avoid this circle, we cannot avoid it if we are to understand that “The artwork is, (…), a thing that is made, but it says something other than the mere thing itself is, allo agforeuei. The work makes pub­lic something other than itself; it manifests something other; it is an allegory. In the work of art something other is brought together with the thing that is made… The work is a symbol” (p. 19). Through this circle of learning and self-reflection, Heidegger de­veloped the concept of the hermeneutic circle. 

Gadamer quotes Heidegger in Being and Time, “(The hermeneutic circle) is not to be reduced to the level of a vicious circle, or even of a circle which is merely tolerat­ed. In the circle is hidden a positive possibility of the most primordial kind of knowing, and we genuinely grasp this possibility only when we have understood that our first, last, and constant task in interpreting is never to allow our fore-having, fore-sight, and fore-conception to be presented to us by fancies and popular conceptions, but rather to make the scientific theme secure by working out these fore-structures in terms of the things themselves” (p. 269). Heidegger defines here the attitude towards authentic inter­pretive understanding. This attitude requires the interpreter to have an awareness of the self, and the prejudices (or fore-having, fore-sight and fore-conception). Gadamer states: “all correct interpretation must be on guard against arbitrary fancies and the limi­tations imposed by imperceptible habits of thought, and it must direct its gaze ‘on the things themselves’.” In the context of psychotherapy, the gaze should be directed on the client and what is happening in the alliance. “For the interpreter to let himself be guided by the things themselves is obviously not a matter of a single, ‘conscientious’ decision, but is ‘the first, last, and constant task’.” In other words, it has to be an attitude towards the understanding process. “For it is necessary to keep one’s gaze fixed on the thing throughout all the constant distractions that originate in the interpreter himself” (p. 269). Gadamer adds that the process of understanding texts— and we can translate this to the verbal and non-verbal communication of the client— involves projection on the part of the interpreter: “He projects a meaning for the text as a whole as soon as some initial meaning emerges in the text.” This projection is necessary in order to make meaning of what emerges— “the initial meaning emerges only because he is reading the text with particular expectations in regard to a certain meaning”. It is the working through of this projection and constantly revising the understanding as new material emerges, “is un­derstanding what is there” (p. 269). It is also worthwhile to note that Gadamer found it important “… to distinguish the true prejudices, by which we understand, from the false ones, by which we misunderstand.” However at the beginning of the Hermeneutic pro­cess it is difficult to tell one from the others (Staemmler, 2009, p. 86).


Gadamer, H. G. (1975/1960). Truth and method . (G. Barden, & J. Cumming, Trans.) NY: Seabury.

Heidegger, M. (1971). Poetry, language, thought . (A. Hofstadter, Trans.) Harper Perennial.

Staemmler, F.-M. (2009). The willingness to be uncertain: Preliminary thoughts about intepretation and understanding in Gestalt Therapy. In L. J. Hycner (Ed.), Relational approaches in Gestalt Therapy (pp. 65-110). NY: Gestalt Press.

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