top of page
  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Deepening Understanding

Now that we have the “lay of the land” of hermeneutics, we can proceed to explore a few of the concepts that will be central to my dissertation, for, as we shall see, hermeneutics and play are related and many of these concepts are interconnected. True to Hermes’s nature, they are not always straightforward but seem to intertwine and interpenetrate. As in the hermeneutic circle, there is a to and from movement between them, so I begin with the dialogical nature of hermeneutics, and examine the connections of experience and art, before moving on to the notions surrounding the fusion of horizons and then proceed with a discussion of the importance of application and play, and end by elucidating image, reverie and the autonomy of the soul.

Dialogic Nature

All of the functions of the word hermeneuin (to say, interpret, translate) spring from the oral tradition and remind us that hermeneutics seeks to open a dialog between the interpreter and the work. As Palmer (1969) reminds us: “Literary works are human voices out of the past that must somehow be brought to life. Dialogue, not dissection opens up the world of a literary work.” They are not objects of analysis calling for disinterested objectivity, but “humanly created texts that speak” (p. 7). What is needed to understand a literary work is “not a scientific kind of knowing which flees from existence into a world of concepts; it is an historical encounter which calls forth personal experience of being here in the world” (p. 10). Although Palmer is referring to literary works, his comments apply to all art. Romanyshyn and Goodchild (2003) counsel: “A work of art, or a dream, or an historical event require more than cause-effect analysis or reductive explanations. They require description and interpretation, which stays rooted within the human experience and the cultural-historical contexts of expression” (pp. 26- 27).

In dialogue, as in understanding and play, there is a back and forth movement, a questioning that takes place. According to Gadamer (1975): “To ask a question means to bring into the open. The openness of what is in question consists in the fact that the answer is not settled . . . . The openness of the question is not boundless. It is limited by the horizon of the question.” (pp. 326-327) A question always has a certain direction and as Palmer (1969) notes, “the sense of the question already contains the direction in which the answer to that question must come” (p. 199).

Questioning is being open to the subject matter and what it has to say, as “questions always bring out the undetermined possibilities of things” (Gadamer, 1975, p. 338). Gadamer discusses this back and forth reciprocal relationship using the metaphor of a conversation, revealing that it is “more than a metaphor, it is a memory of what originally was the case, to describe the work of hermeneutics as a conversation with the text” (p. 331). He further notes the autonomous nature of conversation: “no one knows what will ‘come out’ in a conversation. Understanding or its failure is like a process which happens to us.” Gadamer concludes that “All this shows that a conversation has a spirit of its own, and that the language used in it bears its own truth within it—i.e. , that it reveals something which henceforth exists” (p. 345).

Experience and Art

Experience is the immediacy of life as we meet it, which exists before the subject/object split. The world and our experience of it are given together; experience is something you cannot step out of. Subject and object do not exist independently of each other, and this is what hermeneutics recognizes—the subjective involvement of the interpreter. From quantum physics we understand that the observer has an effect on the observed. The observed also has an effect of the observer. In hermeneutics, the text is allowed to speak on its own terms and has an effect on the reader or interpreter.

Jeffrey Miller (2001) reminds us that both depth psychology and hermeneutics call us to move beyond Cartesian dualism, the “either/or thinking of the empirical scientific method that reduces the world into opposites and splits the subject from the object, organizing the world into opposing camps: mind/body, spirit/matter, self/other, interior/exterior, idea/fact.” This dualism removes depth by forcing all reality into two dimensions, directing “our attention away from the limitlessness of the cosmos, the connections ‘between’ that create the fabric of ontology . . . . It also banishes liminality by demanding distance; liminality requires proximity and connection both of which are denied by Cartesian duality” (pp. 12-13). By including human nature in the interpretive process, hermeneutics challenges the distancing between subject and object that Cartesian philosophy constellated (Slater, 2001). Play, as we shall see, seeks connection and proximity, to bring back liminality and disappear, or at least, perforate the Cartesian slash.

Expression is what springs from and reflects experience, since experience is pre-reflexive consciousness (Palmer, 1969). Art is thus the embodiment of experience: “Artwork doesn’t point to the author at all, but to life itself . . . for this reason, artwork is the most reliable, enduring, and fruitful object of the human studies” (Palmer, pp. 113-4). Art is not only aesthetic, but a sharing of insights and discovery; through art one can come to understand oneself and the world. Artwork is a disclosure of being, or a window to the sacred realm. “A great work of art speaks and in doing so brings a world to stand. This speaking, like all true saying, simultaneously reveals and conceals truth” (Palmer, p. 159). Truth or aletheia, Palmer notes, is uncoveredness or disclosedness. “The essence of art lies, not in mere craftsmanship but in disclosure. To be a work of art means to open up a world. To interpret a work of art means to move into the open space which the work has brought to stand” (Palmer, pp. 160-1). This open space is important and in German the word for it is linked to play. Gallagher (1992) explicates:

The hermeneutical situation involves . . . what in German is called a spielraum, literally, “room to play,” or figuratively “freeplay.” Interpretation requires some clearance (Abstand) in which to play. Gadamer refers to this clearance as Zeitenabstand “temporal distance.” Interpretation, one might say, requires some room in which to move in its dialectic between the familiar and the unfamiliar. (p. 124)

Art performs a function that requires someone for whom and upon whom the function is performed; art isn’t a thing but a showing. As the work of art has a life of its own, beyond the intention of the author and beyond the conditions of its origination, it also has a life beyond its original audience. Since the text opens a new world of meaning to its audience, it follows that different audiences might not only see things differently, but might also see different things altogether which allows for a multiplicity of meanings. The interpreter is such an audience, who needs an attitude of openness to be addressed by the tradition, of expectancy, of waiting for something to happen. Palmer (1969) proposes that methodologically one must seek to

become the “servant” of the text; one doesn’t so much try and observe and see what is in the text but to follow, participate in and “hear” what is said by the text . . . . Hearing, Gadamer asserts, is a far greater power than seeing . . . . He is not so much a knower as an experiencer; the encounter is not a conceptual grasping of something but an event in which a world opens itself up to him. Insofar as each interpreter stands in a new horizon, the event that comes to language in the hermeneutical experience is something new that emerges, something that did not exist before. (pp. 208-209)


To say that the work opens up a world brings us to the notion of horizon. The concept comes originally from Husserl who, in describing something akin to the hermeneutic circle, talked about the “horizon structure” of experience. Schleiermacher and Dilthey had previously discussed the text in terms of its objective historical context, but Husserl went further than this, and by “horizon structure” he meant that everything comes to be known within a context and that this context makes sense out of what is unknown. “We are always already actively understanding the world even before we attempt to grasp a thing in a thematic or cognitive fashion” (Gallagher, 1992, p. 60).

Heidegger recognized and explicated the significance of the horizon even further. For him, every experience has its own horizon which consists of something we have in advance, namely our preconceptions and biases, which are a result of our traditions and linguistic heritage. These biases are derived from traditions to which we have access through language: we not only have the language, the language has us. For this reason, we not only have access to traditions, but traditions have a certain power over us (Gallagher, 1992). Even sudden insights and inexplicable hunches or unconsciously motivated intuitions are based on prior knowledge. As Hocoy (2002, lecture) notes “you can’t escape your lens.” Our horizons can be thought of as a lens through which we view the world; they are colored by our own personal history, as well as our traditions, culture, and language.

Depth psychology has given greater insights into different aspects of our horizons by disclosing their unconscious dimensions. Freud gives us the personal unconscious composed of repressed or forgotten biographical experiences. Jung expands the horizon with his contributions of the notion of archetypes and the collective unconscious. Hillman sees through the different gods or archetypes present not only in ourselves but also in the world, taking us out of the consulting room, and Casey highlights the idea of place or the physical landscape itself. Romanyshyn and Goodchild bring back the soul, the calling of our wounds and a metaphorical neither/nor consciousness, while Grof and Tarnas acknowledge the importance of the transpersonal dimension and of the cosmos itself. Gallagher (1992) relates:

Understanding even if it is in the form of sudden insight, does not develop out of nowhere, without basis; its ground is always prepared in a past which we carry around with us . . . . We always find ourselves with a past that simply does not follow behind, but goes in advance, defining the contexts by which we come to interpret the world. Despite the fact that traditions operate for the most part “behind our backs,” they are already there, ahead of us, conditioning our interpretations. (p. 90- 91)

So, we are always under the influence of history, situated in history, we cannot extricate ourselves from it, nor can it become completely objective to us.

Because we are in our own world or horizon, conditioned largely by unconscious forces, so likewise, whatever we hope to understand, whether a text or a work or another person, has its own horizon as well. Gadamer (1975) spoke of the “fusion of horizons,” by which he meant the convergence of the world horizons of the interpreter and the work. As an interpreter, one has to open oneself and one’s horizon to the horizon of the work

Application and Play

Interpretation not only includes explaining what the text means in its own world but what it means in terms of our present moment. According to Gadamer (1975), for understanding to occur, “something like an application of the text to be understood to the present situation always takes place” (p. 274). Ricoeur sees this application as appropriation, that is, making one’s own that which was initially other or alien. For Ricoeur (1981), “Appropriation is also and primarily a letting go . . . . it is in allowing itself to be carried off toward the reference of the text that the ego divests itself of itself (p. 191). Appropriation is a reinterpretation of the self, which occurs when one encounters the text:

in opening up these new worlds for the reader to explore and appropriate, literature offers the reader as well an opportunity to consider alternative modes of human existence. As Ricoeur observes, “To understand is . . . to expose oneself to [the text]; it is to receive a self enlarged by the appropriation of the proposed worlds which interpretation unfolds . . . [I]n reading, I ‘unrealized myself.’ Reading introduces me to imaginative variations of the ego. The metamorphosis of the world by play is also the playful metamorphosis of the ego.” (Bontekoe, 1996, 170-171) citations omitted

Thus for Ricoeur (1981), understanding oneself “in front of a text is quite the contrary of projecting oneself and one’s own beliefs and prejudices; it is to let the work and its world enlarge the horizon of the understanding which I have of myself” (p. 178).

The text proposes a way of being in the world and this proposed world of the text is what you appropriate. Appropriation is for Ricoeur a key part of hermeneutics. Krajewski (1992) notes that film is a good example of this sort of appropriation:

You must enter the world. To understand is to be let in on something, so you let yourself go in to the projected world, something like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass. Even if you are close, you are still an outsider, on our side of the looking glass, and the text remains an object, for there remains a distance between you and the text. (p. 9)

When you allow the text to speak to you, you make its meaning real for you, in Ricoeur’s eyes, you appropriate it, making it your own, or, as Gadamer would say, you apply it to the present. The text has something to say to you and you respond to it. This to and fro movement of appropriation is like that of play. Krajewski (1992) continues the metaphor showing how play and appropriation effect transformation:

When you read a text you are invited to undergo an imaginative variation of your ego. The Looking Glass beckons Alice to move, to enter. She is not to remain outside, staring at herself in the Looking Glass. Her task is to stop seeing only herself, to lose herself by stepping through the mirror. Ricoeur says, “as reader, I find myself only by losing myself.” Like Alice, after you are in the world of the text, you are no longer the same. Likewise, play is an experience which transforms those who participate in it. For instance. There is a curious lack of decisiveness in the playing consciousness, which makes it impossible to decide between belief and nonbelief. Gadamer says that “play fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself in play.” Here, play is serious . . . . (p. 10-11)

Play and hermeneutics are intrinsically tied and structurally similar. Both Gadamer and Ricoeur, as previously noted, discuss play. Gadamer (1975) uses the notion of play extensively to de-center subjectivity, to show that it is not personal to the players. He likens play to the way of being of the work of art itself. A work of art, as we have seen, has it own autonomy. In this way, it is like play or a game, which exists independently of the players, with its own dynamics and goals. Krajewski (1992) quotes Gadamer and explains:

"The work of art has its true being in the fact that it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences. The ‘subject’ of the work of art, that which remains and endures is not the subjectivity of the person who experiences it but the work itself. This is the point at which the mode of being of play becomes significant. For play has its own essence, independent of the consciousness of those who play . . . . The players are not the subjects of play, instead play merely reaches its presentation through the players.” Similarly, a text can reach presentation only through a player, a participant, a reader, one who is willing to be hermeneutical. (p. 11)

Play not only transcends the subjectivity of the players, “play involves us in a transcendence towards the world, toward our own possibilities” (Gallagher, 1992, p. 120), a projection toward the not-yet-realized. Play involves venturing into the unknown, going beyond ourselves to experience the unfamiliar. Yet we begin from that which is known, in terms of the world, that which is most familiar to us. Our own possibilities, not alien or meaningless possibilities, are revealed in play, because they are found within a meaningful context projected by our own horizon. Play, insofar as it involves learning, involves and leads us to a transformation of meaning. Gallagher remarks:

Just as there is a transformation of the self in play, so also there is a transformation of meaning . . . . In play we do not simply move from one preconstituted world into another; rather, our existing world is transformed into a new one, one which was potentially there in our “undecided possibilities.” The transformation in(to) structure takes place when what is unfamiliar or meaningless is finally integrated into the meaningful. But this integration not only transforms the unfamiliar; it transforms the familiar. The world of meaning opened up by play “is in fact a wholly transformed world” (TM 113). (p. 121)

Gallagher (1992) in discussing hermeneutics in the education process suggests that we are constantly learning about ourselves in light of our experiences through play. Gallagher notes that play is the dialectical interchange of transcendence and appropriation. He remarks that “play is interpretational because it shares the same structure as interpretation. In the tradition of hermeneutics, this structure is called the ‘hermeneutical circle’ ” (p. 53). Thus, it seems we have come full circle on our tour of hermeneutics, yet a few last observations about play and interpretation are in order.

Play compels us to participate and transform. Jung alluded to this when speaking of the transformation that can occur during active imagination: “the piece that is being played does not want merely to be watched impartially, it wants to compel [our] participation (Jung 1963/1977, p. 496, para. 706). When we play, we suspend other purposive relations, and according to Gadamer (1975), “what is emerges. In it is produced and brought to light what was otherwise constantly hidden and withdrawn” (p 101). Palmer (1969) connects our experience of art and brings in the notions of self-understanding and horizon into the picture:

As soon as we stop viewing a work as an object and see it as a world, when we see a world through it, then we realize that art is not sense perception but knowledge. When we meet art, the horizons of our own world and self-understanding are broadened so that we see the world in a new light as if for the first time . . . . when we understand a great work of art, we bring what we have experienced and who we are into play. Our whole self-understanding is placed in the balance, is risked. The understanding of a work of art does not come from cutting and dividing it as an object, or through separating form from content; it comes through openness to being and to hearing the question put to us by the work. Hence the work of art truly presents us with a world, which we are not to reduce to the measure of our own or to the measure of methodologies. Yet we only understand this new world because we are already participating in the structures of self-understanding which makes it truth for us . . . . The artist has the power to transform into an image or a form his experience of being. (pp. 167-169)

Image, Reverie, and Autonomy of the Soul

The image is a way of seeing, a notion that is attested to by phenomenologists Merleau-Ponty and Edward Casey, and by the psychologist James Hillman. For them, Romanyshyn and Goodchild (2003) state: “the image opens a world,” and “through the image we are given passport to those other realms of experience and knowledge that are not known through facts and reason” (p. 15). The events being researched are re-imagined, refigured, and deepened “into an image whose symbolic quality and imaginal depth move the soul in addition to instructing the mind” (p. 16).

Romanyshyn’s (1991) first attempt to elucidate the psychological gnosis that would eventually become alchemical hermeneutics was known as “complex knowing.” The title “Complex Knowing” was intended not only to challenge the Cartesian ideal of reducing complexities of thought into clear and distinct ideas, but also to suggest, as Romanyshyn (1991) explicates,

a domain of knowledge, a way of knowing, a kind of gnosis characterized by indirections and distortions, by twists and turnings, by allusions and displacement, which indicate that we know only through our complexes, and which betray, therefore, the complex character of our knowing. (p. 10)

The most significant point of this early formulation was the notion of the image quality in the mirror play between the text and reader, which Romanyshyn termed “complex reading”:

As mirror play, complex reading becomes a mutual field of transgression where the border of the mirror is a border crossing, the place of exchange where the reader not only is re-figured and deepened by the text and the text is re-figured and deepened by the reader, but also the place where each is transformed into an image. In this regard, neither the text nor the reader is just a fact with a history or content. Rather each has entered into this realm of the soul as an image . . . . The mirror play of complex knowing attends to the image quality of the work done in research. It asks, “what are the images at play in the facts and ideas one has about the topic?” the work, like the mirror image itself, is neither an empirical fact nor a conceptual idea.” (Romanyshyn & Goodchild, 2003, p. 14)

This imaginal realm, the mundus imaginalis, land of metaphor, the in-between, is privileged in alchemical hermeneutics—a place of neither facts nor ideas, that is neither empirical nor philosophical. This in-between space is also Hermes’s realm and the place of reverie. The state of reverie, Bachelard tells us, is a way of being that expands our lives “by letting us in on the secrets of the universe,” a kind of consciousness that understands that “the world wishes to see itself” (Romanyshyn & Goodchild, 2003, pp. 13-14). Alchemical hermeneutics holds a place where “the work wishes to see and say itself through us, where the work, like the world for one in reverie, shines through us but is not just about us” (p. 14).

In staying longer in the moment, being questioned by the “text,” we see how “our concepts—our ideas, thoughts, and questions about our research—are originally conceptions, about how the mind is inseminated by the soul” (Romanyshyn & Goodchild, 2003, p. 29). In the slower mode of reverie, “consciousness is able to let go of its busy intentions for and perhaps its impatience with the work to allow the voices of the soul of the work a place in the work” (p. 21). Romanyshyn and Goodchild talk about loitering, or lingering aimlessly. Trickster tales often begin with the trickster wandering aimlessly. Thus, when we linger aimlessly, we are inviting in this unpredictable creative energy. In this space of reverie, there is a kind of emptiness that has the qualities of patience and hospitality. It leaves the researcher continuously open to surprise, to the epiphany of the extraordinary within the ordinary. The researcher, “in having no plans simply invites the ‘text’—the guest—to tell its tale” (p. 30).

Romanyshyn and Goodchild (2003) thus acknowledge the autonomy of the soul. In research, taking the stance of a witness in reverie rather than a critic, we realize that meaning of the work arises from the presence of the soul of the work. It addresses us, calls to us before we start to “ address it, to focus our attention on it and impose our conscious intentions, plans and concerns” (p. 37). When we become a witness in reverie, we are able to

remain present to how the wholly and holy other is present in the complexes that haunt our concepts, in the myths that haunt our meanings, in the dreams that haunt our reasons, in the symptoms that haunt our symbols, in the fantasies that haunt our facts, in the fictions that haunt our ideas, and in the images that dwell in events. (p. 34)

Romanyshyn and Goodchild (2003) thus playfully speak of alchemical hermeneutics as “a hermeneutics for dummies, where the wholly, holy Other and the ancestors are the ventriloquist, where what we say in the work are the sacred and ancestral words of the soul of the work” (p. 37). They give a place in research to the primacy of the invisible—the imaginal domain, “the inter-world that is neither a matter of empirical facts nor rational concepts, the subtle presence of the invisible that haunts the visible, that no-where world that is always and also now-here” (pp. 46-47). By being open to and honoring of these subtle imaginal realms of reality and in a devotion to a direct initiatory experience of these unseen worlds, a place is made in research for revelations, epiphanies, moments of synchronicity, dreams and other anomalous experiences as authentic and reliable realms of knowledge.


bottom of page