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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Explanation: The Field of Hermeneutics

Ancient Approach to Modern Methods

The hermeneutic circle was anticipated in Plato’s notion of recollection or anamnesis: we can learn about the unknown only by recognizing it “as” something already known. Gallagher (1992) notes: “This hermeneutical ‘as’ emerges out of our ability to place the unknown within an already known context which bestows sense.” Gallagher adds that Aristotle’s acknowledgement that “all teaching and all intellectual learning comes about from previously existing knowledge” (p. 68) is also a forerunner of hermeneutics. However, the formal principle of the hermeneutic circle itself was not explicated until the Ninteenth Century.

Fredrick Ast is credited by Fredrick Schleiermacher as the originator of the concept of the circular structure of textual interpretation, and, for a long time, hermeneutics was associated with Biblical interpretation. Ast expanded hermeneutics reach to include the interpretation of other ancient texts and Schleiermacher expanded it to the science of understanding itself. He felt that meaning was not vested in individual parts of speech, but in their connections, so understanding of the whole is always provisional and open to revision in light of insights gained from deeper understanding of its parts (Bontekoe, 1996). For Schleiermacher, meaning “is approached at first by means of a bold initial guess” (Bontekoe, 1996, p. 35).

Wilhelm Dilthey brought the concept of historical understanding to the forefront of hermeneutics. As Dilthey saw it, there were three parts to hermeneutics: experience, expression, and understanding. Thus hermeneutics became not only a theory of textual interpretation, but also a theory of how life expresses and discloses itself in works. Art, for Dilthey the purest expression of life, was not silent about man but spoke to his inner nature and was related to something beyond itself as well. Heidegger brought phenomenology and hermeneutics together. Heidegger believed that the very essence of true understanding is that of being led by the power of the thing to manifest itself. It is not we who point to things, rather things show themselves to us. For our purpose, in understanding hermeneutics, Gadamer is the most important, because he relates hermeneutics to play.


Hans-Georg Gadamer, born in 1900, whose major work, Truth and Method was originally published in 1960, builds on Heidegger and expands on Husserl’s notion of horizon. He considers understanding to be the “fusion of horizons” between the interpreter and the work. Like Heidegger, Gadamer sees understanding not as an isolated activity but as a basic structure of human experience and explained interpretation through projection. Gallagher (1992) elucidates:

In understanding, human existence projects its possibilities before itself. As a human being I plan, proceed, pursue goals, dream, anticipate consequences, expect results, and so forth only because, as human, I am essentially oriented toward that which I am not yet . . . . A divine, absolute intuition of the world lies beyond human understanding. I do not intuit the thing-in-itself, I interpret it as something. Human understanding is always interpretational. (p. 43)

Gadamer relates hermeneutics to play, aesthetics, and to the philosophy of historical understanding. He notes the importance of language as a carrier of culture and tradition. Gadamer stresses the autonomy of the work and the importance of application to the present, or making something one’s own. There is, Gadamer feels, a reciprocal relationship between the text and the interpreter with the need for openness, dialogue, participation, and practical reasoning. Gadamer’s aim is “not to develop a procedure of understanding, but to clarify the conditions in which understanding takes place” (Gallagher, 1992, p. 55).


Paul Ricoeur, returns hermeneutics to its original meaning of textual interpretation, and in particular, uncovering the hidden meaning of a text. In 1965, Ricoeur explicitly expanded the realm of hermeneutics into the interpretation of dreams, and made a distinction between the hermeneutics of suspicion and trust (Gallagher, 1992). The hermeneutics of suspicion is akin to Freud’s questioning the manifest reality while searching for a deeper significance—to penetrate the symbol, seeking to demolish or demystify our myths and illusions. The hermeneutics of trust, on the other hand, is similar to Jung’s method of amplification and Bultmann’s “demythologizing” of lovingly dealing with symbols in an effort to recover or restore their meaning. Jung and Bultmann see the symbol or text as a window to a sacred reality, rather than a false reality that must be shattered (Palmer, 1969).

Like Gadamer, Ricoeur stresses the autonomy of the text, and from Gadamer’s notion of fusion of horizons comes the notion of understanding oneself in front of the text. Ricoeur, too, discusses similarities between play and hermeneutics. In conceiving of the hermeneutical arc as opposed to a circle, he sees the nature of interpretation as a bridge that takes one somewhere—from fixed nature of text to ground of lived experience; for him, the arc, better than the circle, reflects the finite nature of interpretation (Bontekoe, 1996).

Romanyshyn and Goodchild

For me, Romanyshyn and Goodchild have been most influential in crafting my research method and in thinking about research itself. I have been fortunate enough to have had them as teachers at Pacifica. Indeed it was for Dr. Romanyshyn’s first course on research that I made the dragon and found Grof through Google. For Goodchild’s course in Imaginal Methodology, I created the forerunner of the method I am using here, and linked astrology to the research process.

Romanyshyn and Goodchild (2003) in their formulation of “alchemical hermeneutics,” bring soul, regarded as radically other and autonomous, into the research process. Alchemical hermeneutics is a science of the soul, an “animawissenschaften” (p. 27) and a blending of hermeneutic and heuristic research methods. “Re-Search with soul in mind,” they propose, is vocational. One is called by the topic through one’s complexes in ways that, by definition, are unconscious: one is asked to linger or loiter and listen first to the questions that the topic puts to us. They feel that the topic chooses the researcher, rather than the researcher choosing the topic. “We discover that while we are working on our topics we are not only being worked on but also worked over” (p. 13). Alchemical hermeneutics is also a complex hermeneutics, in the sense that it starts with the assumption of a dynamic and collective unconscious composed of complexes.

The appropriate attitude towards research “is one of ‘negative capability’ described by the poet John Keats . . . ‘of being in un-certainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ (1973, p. 539)” (quoted in Romanyshyn & Goodchild, 2003, p. 30; Romanyshyn, 2000a, cassette). For Romanyshyn and Goodchild (2003), the researcher is “a witness who in reverie is not impatient about the meaning of the work, allows meaning to show itself in and through the presence of the work” (pp. 39-40). The research is guided by the gnosis of the heart and ear, rather than that of the mind and eye; the soul and the unconscious are more deeply considered than the mind and the ego. The image is used as a way of seeing. The researcher serves two masters: the ego mind with its demands for intellect, scholarship, and truth, and the soul, with its demands for feeling, art, and eros. Alchemical hermeneutics is an erotic and aesthetic method that follows a path of love toward transformation that encourages a poetic sensibility and is open to nonordinary states, such as reverie and active imagination, and nurtures these as legitimate modes of inquiry.

Romanyshyn and Goodchild (2003) use the image of the spiral to add the depth of soul to the hermeneutic process. This spiral of deepening transformation of the researcher and the topic

is a circle of understanding, which as it circles back upon itself returns to the same points but at different levels of complexity, which bring in the height and depths of the work, its highs and lows, its spirit and its instinct, its light and shadow, its clarity and darkness (p. 18).

In this spiral of descent and ascent, meanings that arise are continuously undone. Alchemical hermeneutics is not about solutions but about dis-solutions; it is about “learning how to hold onto the meanings we make by letting go of them. They are provisional, always for the moment, and for the moment that has to be enough” (Romanyshyn & Goodchild, 2003, p. 34). Alchemical hermeneutics is also about anamnesis, the recollection of what has been left behind, neglected, marginalized and unfinished; its gaze is the gesture of the backwards glance, which returns to what still calls out to be done and remembers what has been forgotten for the sake of a new beginning.

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