TWO. Personal horizons, unformulated experience, and group analysis

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) is one of Heidegger's most famous students (Gadamer, 1985; see introductions by Johnson, 2000, and Lawn, 2006), whose work is situated within Germanic traditions of existentialism and hermeneutics. Gadamer lived through four regimes—Weimar, Third Reich (briefly), Communism, and the Federal Republic—which make his writings all the more interesting, even though social reality was not his object of inquiry. An influential figure, with pan-disciplinary appeal, he has been criticised for, on the one hand, conservatism, with his emphasis on tradition and authority, whilst praised for the precise opposite, his valuation of freedom, trust in dialogue, and rejection of closure (Gadamer, 2006, in conversation, explores such controversies).

As we saw in the preceding chapter, there is considerable interest in applying hermeneutic (and narrative) ideas to the psychoanalytic project (Spence, 1982, 1987; Steele, 1979), which in part is a reaction against Freud's ideal of the analyst as detached observer and of psychoanalysis modeled on the image of the conquering scientist. This chapter shows how Gadamer's hermeneutics has an equal and compelling relevance to group analysis.

The concept of horizon

The concept of "horizon" is used by several twentieth-century phenomenological philosophers, but it is to Gadamer that we can turn for a more systematic definition. Gadamer situates the concept squarely in the domain of philosophical hermeneutics, which is concerned with issues of how we come to an understanding of historical texts, cultures, and people. The stance of Gadamer radically departs from Cartesian and rationalist philosophy, with its idealisations of "Reason" and denial of the historicity of being. For him, horizon is like a non-fixed vision, with Gadamer defining the quality of "truth" as openness to experience and a willingness to modify one's horizons.

One can link the idea of horizon with Stolorow's "organisation of experience", discussed in the previous chapter, or to Nietzsche's "perspectivism", discussed in the next. Horizon concerns our inevitable historical situatedness, indicating the ground on which we stand and our embeddedness in what we inherit; context is everywhere, forever behind one's back, as it were. Understanding and interpretation always stems from a particular perspective and tradition within this historical matrix, upon a background of pre-understandings. Gadamer used the term "tradition" to express this dimension of legacy, as the something we always stand within: "it is always part of us, a model or exemplar, a recognition of ourselves ..." (Gadamer, 1975, p. 282); we are always situated somewhere in relation to what we seek to understand or to know. Weinsheimer (1985) writes: "Horizon is another way of describing context. It includes everything of which one is not immediately aware and of which one must in fact remain unaware if there is to be a focus of attention; but one's horizon is also the context in terms of which the object of attention is understood" (p. 157).

Attempting to free the word "prejudice" from its negative, Enlightenment associations, Gadamer argues that prejudices are an inevitable part of the fabric of involvement and interaction with the world, and influence our presuppositions. He argues: "Prejudices are biases to our openness to the world. They are simply conditions whereby we experience something—whereby what we encounter says something to us" (Gadamer, 1966, p. 8). When we are better aware of the historicity of our background beliefs or prejudices, alternative organisations of meaning become possible and with this can arise a greater understanding of the context within which the other's meaning exists. Gadamer calls this shift "fusion of horizons", which is not an end point but is part of many further, incomplete acts of understanding.[1] Understanding, at bottom, involves a relation between horizons that is continually subject to revision.

Understanding (verstehen) in Gadamer's work is premised on involvement, in which we "reach" and "develop" contact, a term which refers both to person—as in a "person with understanding"—and process—as in "we reach an understanding" (Orange, 1995). Arguing against objectivist versions of science, Gadamer was interested in the process of understanding and not its static and precise product. Understanding emerges in the play of dialogue, in conversations which are neither predictable nor possessed by either party. We need, he argues, to retain a constant openness to the other, to the text or other culture, to what is being said, in order that the contours of our own prejudice (background beliefs) can appear. Simply put, one opens oneself up to other possibilities, including new prejudices, productive or otherwise.

Clinicians can surely relate to a notion of horizon. Therapeutic conversation or dialogue promotes fusion of horizons in a lively back and forth process in which it is trusted that something new can emerge (for each party). We know that patients can only see as far as they can look and we hope that, through therapy, any given individual will emerge with broader horizons and a greater flexibility of perspective. Patients (indeed, humans) are metaphorical "world-makers", beings busy at toil within their own epistemological circles, hampered and hexed by the repeating problems to which they seek solutions. Horizons of a particular present are like defences, in that we need them but are constrained by them, they both reveal and conceal aspects of reality. Speaking as a philosopher, not as a therapist, Gadamer (1975) recognised that, "we are always affected, in hope and fear, by what is nearest to us" (p. 305). A narrow field of vision can help in some circumstances (e.g., fight-flight acts of survival) but, in others, is non-adaptive: where no "fusion of horizons" is attempted, critical understanding and the possibility of alternatives cannot emerge. True understanding and change necessitates some awareness of our own horizons and a capacity to decentre from them in order to be influenced by the horizons of the other. This decentring is relative, since we cannot but remain ourselves when we encounter someone else or another culture. Yet that encounter can help, one hopes, to modify our stance, even our identity, depending on what is at stake in that encounter.

It is useful, therefore, to compare the work of the psychotherapist with, say, that of the historian. Crucially, the psychotherapist reaches for successive understandings of the patient's inner culture just as the historian recreates and researches a culture of the past. Of course, all patients carry complex cultures within them, as do their therapists. Therapists enter any clinical situation informed by their traditions, prejudices, and horizons, and so one challenge is: how do we begin to understand the reality of another person's subjective world and horizon? How do we relate to the stranger, the other, and how do we develop an understanding in which dimensions of familiarity and unfamiliarity are inescapably present? Such issues are an intimate part of the challenge of empathy. Derived from the German, Einfuehlung—"to feel into"—empathy involves elements of understanding what it might be like to be in someone else's place or shoes and of "becoming aware of someone strange or different" (Fremdwarhrnehmung) (Basch, 1983). Yet, as Orange, Atwood, and Stolorow (1997) suggest, in the clinical situation the challenge involves developing "an attitude of continuing sensitivity to the inescapable interplay of observer and observed. It assumes that instead of entering and immersing ourselves in the experience of another, we join the other in the intersubjective space" (p. 74), or in the case of group, the intersubejective spaces of a multi-person situation.

  • [1] In English translation, "fusion" seems a somewhat inadequate term, implying that two horizons simply bond together (Kidder, 2013).
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