The Perils of Understanding

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I once worked with a deaf female client by having her type what she wanted to say to me, and I typed to her. I didn’t know much sign language but was eager to show off what little I had. As she wrote about herself, I kept making the sign that I thought meant, “I understand”. She looked at me funny until she told me that the sign I kept on making was for “horny”.

Mistakes were made, by both of us.

The mistake she made was when she jumped to a conclusion, without thinking for a moment that there might be some other meaning to the sign I made. She thought my sign had to mean “horny” because that’s what it means, apparently, in American Sign Language. It didn’t occur to her that the sign I made only meant I wasn’t fluent in American Sign Language.

I made many more mistakes in this interaction than she did. I was mistaken by the sign and I was mistaken in believing I could use sign language to communicate with her. I should have stuck to typing. But, the most serious mistake was in saying and believing I understood when I didn’t. I have an excuse. This was before I learned about hermeneutics.

If you’ve never studied theology or the German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, you may not have heard of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics began as the science of how to understand or interpret a text – the Bible, for instance. We have Gadamer to thank for taking hermeneutics out of the seminary and applying it to any communication about any subject. I believe therapists should be familiar with hermeneutics as should anyone who needs to understand and communicate with anyone else.

The deaf client had been telling me she had a voice in her head that wouldn’t shut up. I remember thinking that because a deaf person couldn’t hear sounds, she couldn’t possibly be having auditory hallucinations. So, I figured that when she said a “voice” in her head, she meant to say she had a persistent thought, distinct from her usual thoughts. I thought I understood.

I later learned that I was wrong. It turns out that deaf people can hallucinate voices. The client was coming down with schizophrenia and I missed it.

Gadamer would say that there was prejudice at work here, doing its dastardly deeds. Prejudice is when you believe you understand before all the facts are in; when you pre-judge. We were both pre-judging; me, about the nature of the voice, and she, about the meaning of my sign.

We’re often urged to be free of prejudice. You can see why that might be a good idea. Many times, when I was learning to be a counselor, I was taught to clear my mind of preconceptions and listen to what the client was trying to say. Look at things through her eyes. Walk a mile in his shoes. Factor out your own subjectivity.

Is that even possible?

Gadamer would say no. Being objective is an illusion. From the very beginning of any interaction, we can only know what we know. This is what he calls the hermeneutic horizon. She knew American Sign Language. I didn’t know so much. English resided within both our hermeneutic horizons. Between the two of us, only she experienced these voices she was trying to tell me about. Her voices were beyond the horizon for me. The only place I could start was with my experience of voices, the kind you have when someone speaks to you.

We have a prejudice against prejudice, but some amount of prejudice is necessary for there to be any communication at all. Prejudices are all we have when we first meet another person, or in the case of classical hermeneutics, a text. Prejudices are a kind of scaffolding that puts you in the vicinity of knowledge. You shouldn’t end with your prejudices, no more than you should put up scaffolding and forget about the building it was put up for. In order to reach beyond your hermeneutic horizon, it’s necessary to make your prejudices provisional. Put them at risk. Let them be modified by what you’re finding beyond the horizon. This process of going back and forth, starting with prejudices, taking information beyond the horizon, modifying the prejudices, and back to gaining new information is what’s known as the hermeneutic circle.

I was eager to show her I understood, but I shouldn’t have been in such a damn hurry. It would have been better to say I didn’t understand. I should have announced my prejudice that deaf people can’t hallucinate and let her demolish it. As it was, I preserved my prejudice by acting all nice and understanding.

Gadamer would go so far to say that there was something immoral about what I did. I was condescending. I pretended to understand when I placed myself in her shoes and reconstructed her point of view while forgetting my own. In fact, I gave up on finding, in her, any truth valid and intelligible for myself.

Think of it this way. If I’m proud of knowing that in Israel they have salad for breakfast, that could just be an interesting fact for me, something people do in another country. But if I try having salad for breakfast and weigh the pros and cons of not having eggs, then I’ve really reconsidered what it means to have breakfast.

To read Gadamer in the flesh, click here to go to a pdf of his book, Truth and Method.