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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Hermeneutics of love: new ground for psychological and social practice

Kryuchkov Kirill Sergeevich

Lecturer, Division of psychotherapy and counseling psychology, Moscow institute of psychoanalysis

107031, Russia, Moskva oblast', g. Moscow, ul. Petrovka, 17s4, of. 69

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Abstract: This article analyzes and compares two analytical approaches actively advanced in the school of America hermeneutic psychology and clinical social psychology: “hermeneutics of love” and “hermeneutics of suspicion”. The author examines the hermeneutics as not only a narrow practice of interpretation of texts, but as a foundation for thinking and professional worldview, including for psychological work. Hermeneutics of suspicion serves as the foundation for many research and therapeutic practices. At the same time, hermeneutics of love is the basis for psychological practices, developing within the framework of hermeneutic psychotherapy, including client-centric psychotherapy of Carl Rogers and its branches. This work is completely theoretical. The author claims that the hermeneutics of love may not only be an approach towards interpretation and understanding of text, but also the ethical and epistemological basis for social practices. Moreover, it can serve as the foundation for practices pertaining to interaction with people and communicative practices, and not just for psychological practice.

Keywords: Epistemology, Onthology, Ethics, Ground for practice, Hermeneutics of suspicion, Hermeneutics of love, Hermeneutics, Grounds for understanding, Basis for practice, Art of interpretation

Hermeneutics as a philosophical approach: the roots

Originally, the word ‘hermeneutics’ is the latin form of the greek word ‘hermeneutice’ which refers to the specific type of knowledge in contrast to ‘sofia’ – the knowledge of what has been said or revealed and which does not deal with the truth-value of what the content (Ramberg, Gjesdal, 2014). Antic authors such as Plato and Aristotle referred to this term as to the practice of scrutinizing and refutation of the text, not as the practice of understanding texts per se. It was not until the Stoicism that Hermeneutics started to be understood as the methodology of the textual understanding (ibid).

Augustine invested a lot into the textual studies. For instance, in his work De Doctrina Christiana he distinguishes things and signs. According to Woo (2013): ‘Because the aim of his book is to understand the teaching of the Bible, Augustine divided knowledge into two: that of things (res) and that of signs (signa). Things which are not employed to signify something are learned through signs, which are employed to signify something’ […] ‘God can communicate with the believer through the signs of the Scriptures. Thus, humiliation, love, and the knowledge of signs are an essential hermeneutical presupposition for a sound interpretation of the Scriptures’ (ibid.). So there we may see an appearance of the specific presuppositions necessary for understanding. Augustine also regards the duplex commandment of love in Matthew 22 as the heart of Christian faith (ibid.), so, love may also be named as one of presuppositions.

Not only works of Augustine, but also by such prominent authors such as Martin Luther, Giambattista Vico, Benedict Spinoza and some others, influenced modern hermeneutics (Ramberg, Gjesdal, 2014). The first more or less accurate theory of interpretation, which sets a number of normative rules for the interpretative process, has been offered by Johann Martin Chladenius (ibid). Chladenius distinguished hermeneutics from logic and offered a classification of points of view. Accordingly, he explains how variations in our perception may interfere with our understanding of texts (ibid). German Philosopher Friedrich Ast offered another system. According to Ramberg and Gjesdal (2014): ‘Individual utterances are neither to be understood with reference to their author, nor with reference to their place within the semiotic system, but according to their location within world-history. This, Ast thought, was possible through the combination of a synthetic and an analytic approach, the former focusing on the whole, the latter on the particular parts of which this whole consists. Ast thereby extends the scope of the hermeneutic circle’. Another important name is August Wolf, who is often considered as one of the predecessors of the so called ‘romantic hermeneutics’. Wolf claimed, that in addition to concentrate on the knowledge of the object studies should also concentrate on the relevance of the object and the method through which it was obtained. For instance: studying antic texts, one should be aware not only about the general culture, but also about the individuality of an author (ibid.).

‘Romantic Hermeneutics’: what we usually call hermeneutics

So called ‘romantic hermeneutics’ is what the hermeneutics in general referred to by the most. Friedrich Schleiermacher, who may be called ‘a father’ of romantic (modern) hermeneutics, extended the scope of the art and a science of textual understanding and interpretation from the sacred texts to all kind of texts and to the human communication in general (Forster, 2013). He concluded, that the good understanding of text must be prepared by the understanding of the context where this text was born. Schleiermacher also claimed that each interpretation has two sides: linguistic and psychological. Linguistic interpretation is mainly concerned with what is common or shared in a language; psychological interpretation mainly with what is distinctive to a particular author (ibid.).

Important extension of Schleiermacher concept has been given by W. Dilthey. According to Dilthey, scientific explanation of nature must be completed with a theory of how the world is given to us through symbolically mediated practices (Ramber, Gjesdal, 2014). Dilthey distinguished the lived experience from an understanding (Erlebnis and Verstahen ). Experience does not automatically lead to the self-understanding, self-understanding is obtained only to the extent that the self relates to itself as it relates to others, i.e., in a mediated way (ibid.).

Martin Heidegger being under the influence of Husserl’s and Brentano ideas of intentionality, shifted the focus of hermeneutics from interpretation to an existential understanding. He tried to apply that to actual psychiatric and psychotherapeutic practice which then gave a rise to Medard Boss’s Dasein Analysis (see, Heidegger, ‘Being and Time’ and ‘Zollikon Seminars’).

One of the most influential philosophers of the XX century, Hans-Georg Gadamer was the key-figure in the development of hermeneutics. Being under the influence of Heidegger, Gadamer asserted that methodical contemplation is opposite to experience and reflection. We can reach the truth only by understanding or mastering our experience. According to Gadamer, our understanding is not fixed but rather is changing and always indicating new perspectives. The most important thing is to unfold the nature of individual understanding. One of the most important claims made by Gadamer is that our being is based on so called ‘prejudices’ or ‘pre-judgements’ which are, according to Gadamer and contrary to Husserlian phenomenology) the positive things. Each text is created within the context which constitutes prejudices. In addition to that, text is not only being created in within the context but also is being understood within that. Which means – to understand the text one must understand one’s own prejudices in addition, understand the context where the text has been written - thus understand the author and thus, finally, obtain an understanding of the text (Gadamer, 1975).

Another author which had a great impact on hermeneutics was Jurgen Habermas, representative of so-called critical hermeneutics. Habermas criticized Gadamer’s approach for too much laying on tradition and historical context. According to Habermas, much more important is not just an analysis of the way in which we de facto are conditioned by history but a set of quasi-transcendental principles of validity in terms of which the claims of the tradition may be subjected to evaluation. In other words, Habermas emphasized the role of critical reflection in the process of interpretation. (Ramberg, Gjesdal, 2014). Habermas endowed a lot into the theory of communication and socio-political science.

Paul Ricouer agrees to Habermas and his followers about the role of critical thinking in the process of interpretation. However, he does not agree with the statement, that in order to achieve that, the historical tradition must be put aside. Ricouer emphasizes how the text itself may open up a space of existential and political possibilities (ibid.).

Concluding the paragraph considering the historical development of hermeneutics we should mention the very important term – ‘hermeneutic circle’ which has been described by Schleiermacher as the movement from the individual parts of text to the whole text back and forth. We will not go deeper into the descriptions of different positions regarding the hermeneutic circle, but just leave a note that different thinkers had different attitudes to this term. Hermeneutics has a lot of applications in the different areas of science and social practices. For example, psychology (see works by S. Kvale and our further paragraphs) or legal studies (see works of E. Betti).

Hermeneutics as a ground for research and applied psychology

As we said above, hermeneutics is a ground both for research and an applied psychology. Below we will consider the role, hermeneutics plays in both of these areas.

Hermeneutics as a ground for research psychology. The most obvious direction in research psychology which roots are traceable to hermeneutics is qualitative psychology or in other words, qualitative research methodology in psychology. According to Packer, Addison (1989), Davidsen (2012), Smith (2004, 2009, 2015), Creswell (2009), Laverty (2003), Kafle (2011), Kvale (2009), also, Bousygina (2013), and Vorobyeva (2013), hermeneutics is a basis for qualitative researches and interpretative studies.

Creswell (2009) noted, that hermeneutic researches in psychology are oriented toward lived experience and interpreting the texts of life researchers first turn to a phenomenon which interests them, reflect on essential themes, then write a description of the phenomenon maintaining a strong relation to the topic of inquiry and balancing the parts of writing to the whole. It is an interpretive process in which the researcher makes an interpretation of the meaning of the lived experiences. In other words, hermeneutics is a basis for an interpretation widely used in qualitative analysis.

Laverty (2003), Vorobyeva (2013) and Kafle (2011) emphasize the term ‘hermeneutic phenomenology’, distinguishing it from ‘pure’ phenomenology as based not on perception (‘pure’ and unbiased) but on pre-understanding of the world which is not something a person can step outside of or put aside, as it is understood as already being with us in the world. While still being phenomenological in a sense of ‘gathering’ the ‘data’, It is an attempt to unveil the world as experienced by the subject through their life world stories, or in other words, a turn from description to interpretation (Boussygina, 2009a).

On a more technical level, hermeneutics is a basis for the very specific research techniques, such as interpretative analysis (see. Smith, 2015; Bousygina, 2009b). Bousygina (2009b) describes traditional and ‘deep’ variations of hermeneutics analysis in psychology. Hermeneutics offers very specific techniques and modes to interpret the concrete data such as ‘meaning categorization’ (in contrast to phenomenological ‘meaning condensation’) (see, for example, Kvale, 2009; Bousygina, 2009b; Smith, 2009, 2015)).

So hermeneutics is an important part of research psychology not only as something that underlies qualitative research philosophy, but also as a source and root for the very specific research techniques.

Hermeneutics as a basis for applied psychology. There is a large amount of literature dedicated to an important role of hermeneutics for applied psychology and psychotherapy. As we mentioned above, the whole school of Dasein-analysis, founded by M. Boss, was grounded on hermeneutics developed by Martin Heidegger (see, Boss (ed.), 2001; Wilberg, 2003). Vorobyeva (2013) offers E. Gendlin’s focusing as an example of an approach based on phenomenological hermeneutics. The very Freudian psychoanalysis has an art of an interpretation as its heart and soul, so it is implicitly based on hermeneutics (see, for example, Bousygina, 2012, 2013; Steele, 1979; Ricoeur, 2008; Terwee, 2012), as well as the humanistic psychology undoubtly has traceable hermeneutics roots (Rennie, 2007).

So there is no doubts that hermeneutics is an important ‘way of thought’ or ‘philosophical direction’ that underlies both different research and practical schools and methods in psychology.

Hermeneutics of suspicion: what is ‘the usual’ interpretation in psychology

As was stated by Ricoeur (1970/2008) and was then widely acknowledged both in philosophy (see, Gadamer, 1984) and in psychology (see: Hay, 1999, Josselson, 2004; Langdridge, 2008) hermeneutics of suspicion is a practice of interpretation which is aimed to decode meanings that are disguised. Gadamer (1984) noted that these radical suspicion was introduced by Nietzsche.

Psychoanalysis is fully grounded onto this kind of interpretation, it is the basic presupposition of it that one never actually means what one says (see, Langdridge, 2008; Leiter, 2006; Clarke, 2006; Dean, 2002; Blatt et. al, 2006; Strowick, 2005). So, in psychoanalytical setting, as Langdrige quite accurately noted, researcher's (therapist’s) care of the subject becomes secondary to attempts to engage in crudely reductionist explanatory analyses.

The very same might be said with regard to the cognitive-behavioral therapy where one’s actions are attached with one’s mindsets, cognitive distortions, conditioning, virtually anything but one’s free will (see, for example: Kuss, Griffiths, 2015; Elliott et. al, 2011; Gordon, 2009).

Taking into account that psychodynamic approaches grown out of psychoanalysis and the CBT are obviously among the most usable therapy approaches in the world, we believe, it is legitimate to say that the ‘usual’ kind of interpretation we get in psychological practice is that of suspicion. It puts aside human dignity making person nothing more than an object affected by an external stimuli (where ‘unconscious’ can legitimately be set as an ‘external’ with regard to person’s will).

Ontologically, hermeneutics of suspicion does not regard a person as an agent of own being and actions. Person is an object affected by different external impacts. Logically it is derived that ethically such person does not have human dignity, his/her life and will do not belong to him/her. Epistemologically once more, it means that a person is a weak-willed subject/object on which any kind of manipulations may be performed, regardless of his/her own will and well-being.

That is why it is important to seek an alternative mode of interpretation, which is, to us, hermeneutics of love which is discussed below.

Hermeneutics of love: foundations

From the first glimpse the term ‘hermeneutics of love’ may seem paradoxal – ‘interpretation of love’. This concept is somewhat well-developed in religious and literature studies where it is used as an interpretative tool and an alternative to the hermeneutics of suspicion (see: Shafer, 1994; Netland, 2007; Jeanrond, 2010; Winston, 2018). It is not yet broadly developed in psychology, though in some areas, such as in humanistic clinical-community psychology (an area that applies clinical and psychotherapeutic approach to the issues of the whole community) this approach is being used. Even though this concept have implicitly existed in the humanistic and existential approaches in psychology (as it will be demonstrated below), an explication of this concept will make it possible to provide professionals with the general ground, the framework, that will create the unite ‘language’ for ‘so different, but not such distant’ approaches within the large variety of ‘third force’ (existential, humanistic, person-centered) approaches.

Based on papers by authors representing hermeneutics of love, such as Robins (2015), McInerney (2015), and Selig (2015) and some others (see for example, Crisp, 2017; Cristopher, Campbell, 2008; Wiliams, Gantt, 2013 etc.) we can give this approach a name – ‘hermeneutics on love’, as hermeneutics based on love. In a short, love as agape love seems to be the main prejudice for such hermeneutics.

Scrutinizing the hermeneutics of love first of all it should be noticed that here ‘hermeneutics’ is understood mainly not as a narrow interpretative practice, but broader as an epistemological position for both social science and practice. Selig (2015) defines the hermeneutics of love as ‘the act of interpreting with love, through love, and for love, including the intention to take action on behalf of love’. McInerney (2015) shows that community practice may be based on the principles of communitas (mostly, ‘spontaneous communitas’, described by V. Turner and distinguished by him from normative and ideological communitas), munificence and allopathy grounded into the shared burdens such as alterity and finitude. It is possible to derive a definition of hermeneutics of love as broad social interpretative practice which gives basis for understanding and action in an extensive way, not limited to the textual interpretation. In other words, hermeneutics of love is the fundamental position, presupposition , on which any community action could be based.

Trying to analyze the concepts, underlying hermeneutics of love, we should first define the ‘love’ which is mentioned. This is the type of love, called ‘agape’ which is different from other types such as eros or philia. According to the philosophical encyclopedia ‘‘Agape’ has come, primarily through the Christian tradition, to mean the sort of love God has for us persons, as well as our love for God and, by extension, of our love for each other—a kind of brotherly love. In the paradigm case of God's love for us, agape is “spontaneous and unmotivated,” revealing not that we merit that love but that God's nature is love (Nygren 1953, p. 85). Rather than responding to antecedent value in its object, agape instead is supposed to create value in its object and therefore to initiate our fellowship with God (pp. 87–88). Consequently, Badhwar (2003, p. 58) characterizes agape as “independent of the loved individual's fundamental characteristics as the particular person she is”; and Soble (1990, p. 5) infers that agape, in contrast to eros, is therefore not reason dependent but is rationally “incomprehensible,” admitting at best of causal or historical explanations’ (Helm, 2013). So, in a short, agape may be defined as a loving attitude without an attitude to make other belong to one. Robbins (2015) refers to Post claims: ’Agape love, a willing of the good of the other, is an interpretive stance by which the dignity of the other can be disclosed and understood’. That is obvious, that standing on this point of view, we could no more relate to other person as to a manipulable object.

So, ontologically, hermeneutics of love regards an other person as a wholly other with his or her free will. One must acknowledge the freedom of the other (‘radical otherness of the other, according to McInerney). Ethically that means that we may not not to acknowledge the dignity of other person. According to Robbins (2015): ‘To say that human beings have dignity is to say that any given person is beyond price, of nonquantifiable value that is nonfungible and therefore of infinite worth (i.e., infinite in the sense that something that is priceless is infinite in worth; its value cannot be estimated and therefore no price is high enough). Therefore, ironically and paradoxically, any given person is a finite being with infinite worth. What makes the person priceless is his or her vulnerability, perishability, and mortality—in other words, his or her finitude [which is one of the shared burdens among us which provides the foundation, however, shaken and unstable, for community practices – K.K]’.

So, what is the epistemological, practical position of hermeneutics of love? Robbins (2015) uses Paul’s Ricouer term ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ to define this. Under the hermeneutics of suspicion Ricouer mention approaches (Such as Marxist or Freudian, we could add here Lacan) which imply, that what is pronounced is not what the truly meaning is. So, the other person is always ‘under the suspicion’. While hermeneutics of love ‘interprets not through a mood of fear but through the attitudes of charity, empathy, and openness. When a person is approached through these attitudes, with sincerity, it allows the person or text to reveal otherwise hidden truths, which can be communicated through a well-earned sense of trust and nondefensiveness’ (Robbins, 2015). This is very close to so-called ‘taoistic’ perspective of science, offered by A. Maslow (1993), a ‘loving perception’, which gives objectively higher accuracy in scientific work. Moving further and contrasting the hermeneutics of love with an approach commonly used by neuroscience or psychology ‘as a natural science’ it is impossible to disagree with the Maslow’s statement, that there is no value-free love. What are this values? Apart from the positivistic values of objectivity, validity, falsifiability, in the very attitude to its subjects that type of science has a value of ‘greater knowledge’. In other words, that kind of scientist presumes, that he or she knows his or her subject better than the subject oneself. Which is very equal to the hermeneutics of suspicion. The very fact how, quite often, the research objectives are being formulated, in the form of hypothesis which implies the (if we apply here the language of the theory of activity and motion) ‘projected image of the result’ (Bernstein, 1967). This result is already ‘gotten’ by the researcher – the only thing he or she needs is to confirm it – so the subject in that case is reduced to only two variables: ‘confirmation’ and ‘refutation’. Can we speak of ‘accuracy’ in that case? Yes, if we are interested in the isolated aspects of psychic or behavior (in some cases it is necessary, for example if, for example, the activity of certain group of neurons is being studied), however, in most cases, the more human aspects are studied the les accurate such approach is (even in physiological studies, when, for example, the question of ‘choice’ is about to be educed to the neuronal reaction, see, for example Behrens et. Al. (2007) ).

Practice: not hermeneutics but love

Given examples of hermeneutics of love provides us more of examples of applied love than hermeneutics as the study of interpretation. Unfortunately, such examples, especially, described in exact terms of hermeneutics of love, are rare.

Selig (2015), for example, offers M. Luther King as an example of non-violent social and political practice. Responding non-violently to the worse acts of violence committed against him, such as bombing his house, he was continuing infallibly love his enemies. Thus, empowering his followers. According to Luther King, hatred does not empower. As it had been summarized by Selig (2015): ‘Summarized simply, violence could never bring about the beloved community’.

McInerney (2015) and Goss (2015) offer hermeneutics of love as a framework for participatory-action research (PAR). They provide examples of such usage within the PAR in educational setting (McInerney, 2015) as well as within queer-theory based community PAR (Goss, McInerney, 2015).

Another approach where hermeneutics of love is being developed is the Person-centered approach. Crisp (2017) offers an example of social-ethical action taken by a medical staff at a large public hospital in Australia aimed at helping an asylum seekers in Australia. Clinical, social and political action was taken in order to better conditions of those asylum-seekers needed help. Crisp offers this as an example of a constructive practice of social ethics, which, in other words, may be described as based on an applied hermeneutics of love.

Another example of the practical application of the hermeneutic of love within the person-centered approach is given by Robert (Bob) Lee. This prominent follower of Carl Rogers developed the concept of conditional and unconditional mind. He derived it from his almost 50 years of psychotherapy practice. In a short this concept may be condensed in a phrase (see, picture): 'Unconditional experiencing basically involves simply being with another or others, immediate, direct, instantaneous, right here-and-now, impersonal and impartial viewing and expression takes place. In such a state of Mind, unconditional acceptance and appreciation is naturally-spontaneously happening which directly leads to clear understanding” (Lee, 2012).


Hermeneutics of love may be defined as an approach to human science and practice which is not reduced to the art of text interpretation, but to the art and science of an understanding and communication with people regardless of the area of application.

Even though the concept of hermeneutics of love this was somewhat implicitly presented in the humanistic and existential approaches in psychology (such as R. May’s, V. Frankl’s and C. Rogers’), an explication of this concept is more than important as it will provide professionals with the general ground, the framework, that will create the unite ‘language’ for ‘so different, but not such distant’ approaches within the large variety of humanistic approaches (including existential, person-centered, transpersonal, etc), without limitation neither to specific school, nor to the specific area of application.

Hermeneutic of love is based on the ontological view of another person as a person with own freedom and free will, which means ethically: acknowledgment of the freedom and dignity of the other and epistemologically: approaching the subjects and the valuable individuals with through the attitudes of charity, empathy openness and good will for other. This gives a ground for social and community practices in different spheres such as psychotherapy or politics, while this ground is not formalized and fixed, while being existential and liminal ‘always in motion’. We provided several examples of how this approach works from political actions to clinical and from clinical to research. This approach, being relatively new for psychology has good potential for the development in the modern psychology as the requests for social and community actions for psychologist made by society are growing gradually. Hermeneutics of love gives an opportunity to build common language and provide common grounds for 'related but distant' schools and areas of application such as different schools in psychotherapy, community psychology, researches, community actions and social work.

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