As the messenger of the Gods in Greek mythology, Hermes was tasked with translating and interpreting the meaning of the divine words to the humans. He possessed the art of understanding what the Gods had to say, which meant he not only had to ascertain that he had really grasped what Zeus’ message was but also to find the right words to communicate it without causing misunderstandings amongst the ancient Greeks. Hence it is said that the term ‘hermeneutics’ derives from Zeus’ messenger and essentially describes the science of interpretation. As such, hermeneutics is based “on the principle that we can only understand the meaning of a statement in relation to a whole discourse or world-view of which it forms a part” (Scott & Marshall, 2005: p.322).
Within social pedagogic practice, hermeneutics requires a particular kind of approach towards understanding other people, whether they are children or adults: we need to take into consideration that there is not just one reality, but many different constructions of reality which are based on a person’s experiences and how they perceive the world around them. Their world can only be understood through their eyes and in their social context. And if we don’t understand their reality we are of little help to them.
A well-known example to highlight this is the placing of a child with a foster family due to parental neglect. From our professional perspective we may think that in reality the child’s parents are not capable to care and that therefore the child is better off with foster carers. This reality may look very different from the child’s perspective, who may feel a conflict of loyalties towards both the birth parents and foster family. Our professional sense of accomplishment, of having found the right solution, might therefore not evoke the same emotions within the child. To understand this more systematically, and thereby be able to explore new avenues in which to respond, it can be helpful to adopt a hermeneutical approach.
Herman Nohl, an influential German pedagogue during the first half of the 20th century, identifies four steps leading to hermeneutical understanding (Nohl, 1938). First, we need to observe a person in a concrete situation, which helps understand what might be going on in the person and what they might feel. Second, through using our own experiences we can then empathise with the person, recollecting how we felt in a similar or comparable situation as that of the person. Third, as our own experiences could be misleading in interpreting somebody else’s behaviour, we need to include shared experiences in the analysis so that it becomes less reliant on our subjective interpretation. Fourth, in order to grasp the full meaning of a situation, we have to see it in context, as embedded in the social, emotional and physical environment of the subject. For instance, we can only hermeneutically understand peer pressures amongst young people
- if we first observe interactions, power relations, behaviour, body language, status symbols;
- if we second consult our own experiences of being pressured by peers and recollect our own actions within such situations;
- if we third can discuss the experience with the group or individuals, find ways of engaging in dialogue or of creating situations that allow them to share their experiences of feeling pressured;
- and if we fourth have an insight into youth culture and what surrounds these young people, where they live, what they think about themselves and others, their past and their future – whatever can add colour to the context in which the situation takes place.
There are several reasons why hermeneutics is so important in social pedagogic practice. Most fundamentally, hermeneutics dispel the notion that our reality is automatically everybody’s reality, which has significant implications. As the Greek philosopher Dandemis reminds us, “Don’t condemn the judgement of another because it differs from your own. You may both be wrong”.
Therefore, rather than pass judgement under the veil of ‘objectivity’, we must engage in dialogue with others in order to share our different perceptions of reality. And dialogue is exploratory in its nature and implies that we meet as equals. Only through dialogue can we ensure that our social pedagogic practice has a positive impact on a person’s reality.
Hermeneutical pedagogy emphasises that we need to be empathic as professionals, that both our head and our heart are fundamental, that we must bring in a personal element of ourselves (which doesn’t mean that some things aren’t private – see the Danish model of the 3Ps). As the “capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person” (Kohut, 1984: p.82), empathy requires both an intellectual and emotional effort to genuinely understand. In this sense, hermeneutics challenge us to see and emotionally imagine the world from a different perspective and therefore to relate to the position of others. Aiming to understand a position that we don’t agree with is incredibly valuable, because it can help us realise that the world is much more complex, and what makes sense from one perspective might be the opposite of what makes sense from another perspective.
For these reasons, social pedagogy requires professionals to be constantly reflective, to aim to understand with head, heart and hands in order to learn and improve. This then influences our ability to respond in meaningful ways, to jointly explore how we can best help based on our hermeneutical understanding of the situation in its context. Through this we can make a genuine and lasting difference in another person’s life – together with them, not for them.
Gabriel Eichsteller is a Consultant working with Thempra Social Pedagogy.
Kohut, H. (1984). How does analysis cure? Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Nohl, H. (1938) Charakter und Schicksal. Frankfurt: Verlag Gerhard Schulte Bulmke.
Scott, J. & Marshall, G. (2005) A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.