Hermeneutics in Psychology: Crawling Out From Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Roger D. Carlson
Eastern Washington University


Neda Hadjikhani
Occidental College

Paper presented at the meeting of the American Psychological Society
San Diego, California, June, 1992.


The American Psychological Society motto reads, "Advancing the scientific discipline and the giving away of psychology in the public interest." As it advertises itself as such, methodologies and theories of scientific psychology are frequently viewed as austere, independent, and aloof which miss the expectations and interests of the public. So while paradoxically psychologists frequently advocate the scientist/practitioner model, in the interest of maximizing objectivity the discipline remains curiously isolated. While as a scientific discipline, the fruits of its research endeavors do not regularly acknowledge the discipline's own social dimension (and agenda), it nonetheless gives pretensions of operating in a contextual vacuum. We argue that the very pretensions that psychology makes to being science are unnecessary, counterfeit, and constricts the kind of rigorous enlightenment that psychologists have to offer.

In a parallel fashion, the reactionary humanistic and phenomenological corrective of highlighting the subjective and experiential reinforces a tendency toward over-valuing private experience, thereby giving emphasis to the person by the extraction of the person from the social milieu, thereby giving rise to such notions as individuality, functional autonomy, differentiation, internality and the like. Such isolationism makes a theorist prone to solipsism by emphasizing uniqueness and privatism in the quality of experience.

Further, the arbitrary and non-scientific moral, political categorizations and prescriptions made of the individual by clinical psychologists results in a further extraction and alienation of the person from the rich social embeddedness of everyday life.

In short, instead of a person's life being characterized as presently defined by a political, social, and linguistic history, the person appears in contention, confrontation, and alienation from society. The overly objective account makes the human appear barren, two dimensional, and sterile, whereas the overly subjective account makes the human appear isolated and alone. In an effort to emphasize individual psychology, both accounts seem only to give lip-service to the social embeddedness of the experience of the person (and that of the discourses that psychologists give) by speaking tokenistically of social determination.

Still, psychology is at a privileged epistemological juncture between empiricism, philosophical speculation, and practice, but has yet to acknowledge and to take full advantage of this position. More than any other social science, psychology has cultivated its indebtedness to both science and philosophy, and continues to make strides in all these arenas independently. More than any other discipline, it can be argued that psychology occupies the best vantage point from which to reconcile Gesieswissenshaften (mind science) and Naturwissenshaften (natural science).

At present, however, psychology is far from fulfilling itself in these respects. This juncture between the empirical, philosophical, and practical is neither harmonious, symbiotic, nor balanced in what Gadamer might call a "healthy tension." More often than not, this privileged position is eclipsed from all sides from psychology's overidentification with the "hard" sciences, its correlative eschewing of philosophy, and the subsequent reliance on a curious, yet mysterious amalgam of all or none of the above, particularly within the clinical setting.

Each such constituency in psychology is in its struggle to own/author the human psyche.

Due to the history of the discipline, the professional psychologist finds him/herself between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand sitting on the rock, we find the thinker, the rationalist, the speculator, the philosopher who is shunned as non-scientific. In the hard place, is the press for aspiring to "hard" scientific pretensions by trying to fit what we understand as social and interactive, into the mold of "data" and scientific theory. Neither role fits the person seeking to understand human action because each create a distance from our being-ness--one, a rational distance, and the other, an empirical distance.

Are we stuck between psychology as science or psychology as common sense? Are we stuck between the dilemma of psychology as impossible or psychology as trivial? We think that there are options other than these.


We propose a solution that emerges from the contemporary work of philosophers. In a previous work (Carlson and Hadjikhani, 1992) we questioned the necessity of the distinction between the objective and the subjective. Here, adding to the work of Wittgenstein and Foucault, we propose a hermeneutical corrective to psychology which criticizes the Kantian position bestowing normative power to centrality of "data" and theory in the methods and criteria of the natural sciences. We seek to bring the insights of philosophy to the fore of psychology by uncovering the concrete ways in which philosophical hermeneutics is "always already" (anti) present in the person, position, and symbolics of the clinical psychologist.

Philosophical Perspectives

Wittgenstein. The ordinary language philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein establishes that the criteria for knowing a concept rests in the social nexus of its use in a purposive way. It is the individual's social history of use of concepts and knowledge of exemplars which serves as socially, shared criteria for correctness of meaning. Such social knowledge is imbedded in a one's individual (private) history of sociality. Therefore knowledge of other minds is not a mystery. When evidence of the shared criteria for knowing a concept is recognized (either individually or collectively), we say that we have an "understanding" of the mind of another person at which point the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity collapses. For Wittgenstein, it is language (consensual) relationships which are paramount in defining knowledge.

Foucault. Knowledge is something which has political, moral, ethical, and historical purposes within the time and place of a particular society. Knowledge is not "pure" and enduring but rather serves the purposes of people within a particular society. For Foucault, it is social (power) relationships which are paramount in defining knowledge.

Gadamer. In a hermeneutic paradigm, the fundamental data of the social sciences are neither simple nor atomistic. On the contrary, data consist of meanings, intentions, plans, goals, and purposes. Here, the objects being studied are subjects embedded in cultural practice, who think, construe, understand, misunderstand, interpret, change, as well as reflect on the meanings they produce. Human life and human theories are inescapably enmeshed in a "web of meaning" which necessarily obviates the notions of "facts" and professionals existing in vitro and apart from the interpretive process. Accordingly, there is a shared and public nature to the contexts in significance that mediate human awareness. Tradition and history are not barriers to understanding, rather they are indispensable to it. Only in terms of our cultural images, institutions, etc. can we know ourselves and others at all. History does not belong to us, we belong to it. Gadamer welcomes prejudice. Science's prejudice against prejudice with its attempt to rid oneself of the same, leads to greater falsification and deeper concealment. Bias is the vehicle of our openness. For Gadamer, it is relations of form against form (change, montage, enlightenment, or altered consciousness) that are paramount in defining knowledge.


The odd amalgam of psychology's concern with the empirical, the philosophical, and the practical is perhaps a product of psychology's pretensions to science. Feigning to be a science has led to a scientistic presumption of the "mystery" of mind only "truly knowable" by experts and the methods of experts. This scientism has led to an anti-epistemology in his eschewing and utter disregard for the philosophical examination of his foundational concepts.

It is recommended that psychologists think along with philosophers about the nature of theory and its socio-political embeddedness instead of merely thinking through the lenses of theories. It is also recommended that psychologists think about evidence and data rather than unquestioningly raising it to such stature that we are only influenced by it. Leveling the stature of theory and evidence while acknowledging our own social embeddedness as psychologists can only serve to give a fresh, more egalitarian and less contentious relationship between the many constituencies of psychology as a discipline and psychologists as professionals.

If one argues along with Foucault that all characterizations are necessarily embedded within a social nexus of norms, purposes, power, etc., then how does one argue that one reality (e.g., that of the political power nexus of the clinical psychologists, or that of the sterile explanatory world of the scientific psychologist) is necessarily more counterfeit than another? How can one select one over another as "better"? Or how can we make one reality the slave to the other? Turning to Wittgenstein, we are reminded that ultimately meaning is consensual--the meaning of a concept is what a language-using community gives it. Whether it rests in a power nexus or not, understanding a concept is a matter of being able to identify exemplars of the concept. Meanings evolve and change with the evolution of a language-using group, group membership, with the evolution of a concept as it is understood by a group. Nothing is inherently wrong with circularity in meaning. All meaning ultimately results in an infinite regress of words.

In the person of the clinical psychologist or psychoanalyst, we have the sort of professional who must, for the sake of understanding, be at least tacitly hermeneutically sensitive. Interacting with a client, it is this professional who has the willingness to understand and to find meaning in human action on its own terms, by acknowledging her/his own social embeddedness and the impossibility of divorcing oneself from one's own social and linguistic history. As such, the most fertile ground for the investigative psychologist to have and to create insight is in the narrative/discursive understanding of the social, moral, political rather than in the usual pretensions to objectivity. Such posturing does not necessarily lead to nihilism, but does precisely the opposite: it re-embraces the meaningfulness inherent in human action as understood in a social, dialogical milieu. Further, we believe "expertise" ought not be defined in terms of scientific or clinical methods or the imposition thereof but a commitment to:

(1) the assumption ("faith" of Gadamer) that there is meaning/understanding to be had as one sharing in community,

(2) affirmation (Gadamer's "good will") toward the person in however one presents oneself, and

(3) perseverance in the dogged pursuit of understanding the individual or individual's relationship to groups with the ultimate criterion for understanding residing in the social milieu.

We would encourage that, like a clinical psychologist or psychoanalyst, we get to know our subject's qualities before interpreting their behavior or their being quantitatively.

Without a hierarchy of "goodness" of explanation or expertise, then the value of the expertise of psychology becomes one of enlightenment or expanded consciousness, or insight via change of characterizations. Again, along with Wittgenstein, if the language-using collective agrees that a particular conception is more useful or characterizes better (for its purposes) than another, then such a conceptualization process has been of value. Its value cannot depend upon superordinate criteria for truth.


Carlson, R. D. and Hadjikhani, N. (1992). "AHA" Revisited: A Hermeneutical Account of Public and Private Everyday Genius. Paper presented at the meeting of the Western Psychological Association, Portland.

Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things. New York: Pantheon.

Warnke, G. (1987). Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations. New York: Macmillan.