Comments on the Task of Interpreting

November 14, 2022
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The major topic of this essay is “hermeneutics” as it applies to addiction counseling.

Definition and aim

What is “hermeneutics”?

“Hermeneutics” can be defined as “the science of interpretation”.   It’s the knowledge about and methods for the task of interpreting

Interpretive methods differ across different fields of thought.  Different hermeneutical methods are used to understand various areas of reality, human interest, and life.

As a body of knowledge and as a skill, hermeneutics has specific aims.

  • It seeks to encircle knowledge from disparate sources such as logic, natural science, aesthetics, and culture.
  • It seeks to find a set of principles for interpreting each, and another for interpreting all. 
  • It asks the question, “What are the keys of interpretation that work across all of the domains of knowledge?”
  • Its aim is to produce an “effective historical consciousness” that produces what is called “common sense”.

Another central aim of hermeneutics is “transparency of apprehension”.   This is contrasted with an opaque kind of apprehending.  When transparent apprehending is happening, you see or hear the thing being represented, rather than the thing doing the representing.  For example, the expert pianist playing Mozart conveys the composer, while the struggling student conveys Mozart plus sounds that are sourced in self. 

World view from the field of hermeneutics

Hermeneutics has a specific way of defining “science”.  It defines “science” as any organized body of knowledge – from physics to theology, and literary criticism.  It does not define science in the more limited sense of merely “natural sciences” such as chemistry and biology.

Hermeneutics seeks to understand methods of interpreting.  For example, we obtain knowledge from science through rather rigidly formulaic methods of interpreting, while we gain truth from art through non-formulaic methods of interpreting.  And as a discipline, hermeneutics puts forward the idea that people gain their most important truths from non-formulaic sources of interpreting. 

People understand the world on its terms.  And they also create their own understanding of their own life on their own terms.  Those are different hermeneutics – different ways of understanding.  For each of us this is complex and life-long.

Further, hermeneutics separates the nomothetic from the ideographic

  • Nomothetic results are those pertaining to the normative, based on observation from the position of the external, using scientific laws, and requiring logical reason.
  • Ideographic results are those pertaining to the internal and personal, based on understanding symbols, with observation from the position of inside the person. 

Hermeneutics also understands any human activity as a linguistic gesture and gives us a way of interpreting those gestures.  It views the broader social culture as serving the purpose of collectively progressing away from our individual and permanent alienation.  It does not view our broader social culture as collectively progressing toward an ultimate and positive endpoint. 

An example of applying this aspect of the world view of hermeneutics to our work as addiction counselors is in attempting to understand the person’s personal path of improvement. 

  1. For some, recovery might serve as a project of extrication from the culture of addiction, shedding its trappings and language, and simply forming a new way of understanding.
  2. For some, the use of recovery language, narrative, and culture might only be temporary and serve the goal of moving back into the larger culture of contemporary society and accommodating it.   
  3. For some, the goal might be a return to what one was alienated from, and not include a movement toward an unprecedented and imaginary future.
  4. And some of those we serve might “change teams” as a means of rejoining the larger cultural team. Such a switch would then leave open the question (along with its related anxiety) of whether this change of teams is or should be temporary or permanent and pertain to matters of personal identity or not.   

With that basic background in hermeneutics being established, how does the discipline of hermeneutics understand the work of interpreting?  We will look at interpreting at the level of the little picture, the big picture, and some applications to addiction counseling.

Interpreting at the little-picture level

Each body of knowledge has its own methods of interpreting – its own hermeneutic method.  Different hermeneutic methods are particular to their respective knowledge area or discipline. 

  • Some methods of interpretation are necessarily more rule-bound, as with the understanding in a geometry proof.  Other methods are necessarily less rule bound, as with understanding art.  But nonetheless, both rely upon a mechanism of interpretation.
    • For example, the products of a chemistry experiment are interpreted using very different interpretive methods than those used by the reader of a novel, or a person viewing paintings and sculptures in an art gallery. 
  • It’s important to know that the rules of hard science are not our only method of interpreting all information.  We do learn truths from less-scientific sources and their accompanying and necessarily less rigid interpretive methods.
    • For example, we may come away with truths while reading fiction. 

Interpreting at the big-picture level

There is another difficult challenge in the work of interpreting. 

Imagine simultaneously holding different kinds of information that come from very different kinds of sources, and whose disciplines each have very different interpretive methods.  And imagine attempting to blend or assemble all that information into a coherent whole. 

That would require interpreting at the meta-level and would not merely be about deciding which kind of interpretive method wins out over the others.  Rather, it would be like drawing a circle around all that information, each with its own interpretive method, and using a different way to interpret all of it together.  The work of addiction counseling relies on this level of interpretive methodology rather routinely. 

Hermeneutics and addiction counseling

In addiction counseling we encounter information from various sources:  academic, clinical, research, experiential, etc.  And some may also be culturally indigenous, socially bound, and outside our clinical system of understanding and doing. 

How are we doing at switching our interpretive (hermeneutical) methods as we encounter differing types of information?  How are we doing in flexibly using different interpretive methods as we move from the kind of information that requires more strictly objective interpretive methods, to a somewhat less rigidly objective method, and then the kind of interpretative method that is “squishy but still has a form”? And how are we doing at encompassing and interpreting the whole?   

Patients, like us, are people.  We can understand them using these same principles from their own interior position outward.  We can also seek to improve our understanding of them each day through our gaining of a wider access to various frameworks of interpretation across clinical disciplines, domains of life, and culture. 

The addiction counselor is often challenged to grasp the essential discipline-specific information from primary health, nursing, psychiatry, clinical psychology, spiritual care, and mental health counseling as well as culturally bound information from the family system, faith community, recovery community, etc.  And to these, the addiction counselor adds the information and understanding specific to and directly from the discipline of addiction counseling and then builds a case conceptualization. 

Interestingly, the patient is usually working on the same project of building an understanding, at the same time, on their own behalf.  And as the patient moves through time, the addiction counselor helps the patient work on this project of their own as a continuous process.  The addiction counselor helps the patient build a way of understanding over time that holds across person-centered domains (strengths, illness, recovery, illness self-management, recovery management, etc.).  I will point out that many times, helping the patient with this very matter is so natural for the addiction counselor that they might be doing it without precisely realizing it.  (But if we do precisely realize it, we may be able to precisely improve it).

People discover and understand the world on its terms and create their understanding of their life on their own terms

  • The addiction counselor must know and understand both of those per the source of the person of the patient.  That is to say, the person of the patient is the source for that information. 
    • In this, the information source about how the patient understands the world on its terms and life on their own terms is not the object of the patient the counselor encounters from the position of an external observer. 
    • Rather, the source of that information is the subject of the person of the patient from the location of the patient’s own interior.   
  • Simultaneously, the addiction counselor is also involved in both of those projects (discovering and understanding the world and creating their understanding of their own life) for themselves as a person.  And the counselor is also involved in both of those projects with respect to understanding the patient.

With that basic relevance of hermeneutics to addiction counseling in mind, and a partial sense of the improved clarity it can help us gain, what are some dos and don’ts we can consider? 

Hermeneutical methods for understanding people


  • Appreciate the general notion of understanding people as subjects.
  • Attempt to understand from the inside of the other person’s understanding.
  • Find ways of thinking about the way people think about cultural symbols.
  • Interpret in a way that relies on methods including social taste, tact, wisdom, judgment (rather than certainty), and proportion (rather than mathematical certainty).
  • Use objective rules of fuzzy logic (proportion, reconciliation of differences, cultural traditions).
  • Develop an encyclopedic circle of knowledge around different life domains.
  • Connect the horizon of the person with the collective horizon of society’s culture.


  • Use hermeneutics as a specific way of understanding people as objects
  • Reason about the person from your position on the outside of the person
  • Develop a perfect overlap with the univocal reasoning found in hard sciences
  • Develop a specific way of thinking about people related to the concrete literalism of cultural objects.
  • De-legitimize differing domains of understanding (art, science, cultural traditions, etc.)

Over our clinical careers, addiction counselors should strive to improve their methods of understanding.  With the above dos and don’ts in mind, what are some ways we can go about improving our interpretive methods through a hermeneutic lens?

Getting better at interpreting

Early in our career we rely on others (academic educators, textbooks, articles, and clinical trainers) to provide the results of various kinds of interpretive work for us.  And we also begin to build our methods of interpreting. 

Later in our career we find the world changes around us and around our initial methods of understanding.  Thus, we must incorporate new information and new understandings.  And this includes re-interpretation of our previously gained information and previous understanding over time. 

This is a process not unlike a career-long continuous quality improvement project related to interpretation itself, wherein we keep revising and updating our interpretive methods, and gaining new ones as well. 

From the earliest part of our career, going forward, we can choose to expand or limit the scope of our own development.  And we can choose to improve or limit our understanding of our patients.   

We can: 

  • Understand that patients, as people, perhaps use hermeneutics from their own interior position outward toward the world.    
  • Seek each day to improve our understanding of the person we serve through widening our access to various frameworks of interpretation across other disciplines and domains of life and culture. 
  • Strive to intentionally and overtly use interpretive methods that are matched separately for the kind of information we face, or blending of information we receive, to build an understanding.  
  • Protect against reductive information and logical strictures as supplanting or replacing the challenge of intentionally pursuing our personal development in this area.
  • Recognize that done properly, this activity alone would be so complex as to seemingly require life-long clinical supervision of counseling and of clinical supervision.   

Our interior as addiction counselors and clinical supervisors

We do not know and understand and treat the individual patient merely by knowing the science of our profession.  The clinician does not treat the average, hypothetical patient.  The clinician treats the individual person that is actually present.  Put differently, ”Statistics describe everyone and apply to no one”.

Hermeneutics can help us gain awareness of more than just the objective viewed from an external position. Ideas and the representation of ideas are contained in symbol systems.  We find symbol systems in language, science, art, philosophy, and culture.  Hermeneutics applied to addiction counseling would outline a shift in methods of interpreting from:

  • nature to people
  • objects to subjects
  • narrow science to all bodies of knowledge
  • reason to understanding
  • looking at the world from the outside, to contemplating it from the inside
  • beings to “Being”

Further, as a field and as individual clinicians we must find a way to have a shared understanding across disciplines and sectors – various kinds of clinical programming.  We probably assume we do when we in fact don’t. 

The counselor or the treatment program might be one in form, but is it one in interpretation?  And on that basis is it delivering what it should? 

To help us and our systems improve, upstream influences with sufficient competency, lack of countertransference hindrances, and high-information/high-quality supervisory lineage are relevant starting points.  Downstream, in our routine clinical work, do we hear the patient, apprehend transparently, and also interpret without adding our compositional items to the person’s life?

We are all impacted by our cultural traditions.  We should be suspicious, and retain the suspicion, that those traditions may be impacting us.  Language has historically conditioned us and distorts our interpretations. 

We must learn to live inside the constant process and circular operation of forming an expectation, having it thwarted, reforming our interpretation, having that thwarted, and so on.  And to improve our interpretations over time as a result.  

A concluding comment

After my graduate internship, I spent my first 19 years working in a 9-12 month residential therapeutic community addiction treatment program that shared its staff and physical plant with an outpatient methadone maintenance program.  I can assure you that those two types of programs are built on very different ways of understanding.  And because the staff worked across both programs, we all developed the interesting advantage of a 3rd perspective that was outside the circle that could be drawn around those two clinical units. 

For me, growing up simultaneously in those two ways of thinking, and that third way of thinking, has served me over the long haul as a relatively helpful starting point. But a starting point is just a starting point. 

When we addiction counselors seek to learn and understand and honor diverse kinds of clinical programs and recovery pathways, expanding our awareness in an on-going way over the years of our career, we grow in our practical usefulness and our patients are better off. The reasons might be many, but it strikes me that at least part of the reason is found in the aim of hermeneutics as a project: “effective historical consciousness” that produces what is called “common sense”.


Sugrue, M.  “Gadamer:  Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences.” Lecture given at Princeton University.

Suggested Readings

Gadamer, H-G.  (1960/2013).  Truth and Method.  Bloomsbury Academic.   

Garman, N. B.  (1990).  Theories embedded in the events of clinical supervision: A hermeneutic approach.  Journal of curriculum and supervision, 5(3): 201-213.

Pickering, J.  (1999).  The self is a semiotic process. Journal of consciousness studies, 6(4): 31-45.

Rendon, M.  (1999) Interpretation in the Context of Supervision. International forum of psychoanalysis8:3-4: 234-242. DOI: 10.1080/080370699300056275

Rubianes, M., Muñoz, F., Casado, P., Hernández-Gutiérrez, D., Jiménez-Ortega, L., Fondevila, S., Sánchez, J., Martínez-de-Quel, O., & Martín-Loeches, M. (2021). Am I the same person across my life span? An event-related brain potentials study of the temporal perspective in self-identity. Psychophysiology58(1), e13692.

Tulleners, T., Taylor, M., & Campbell, C. (2022). Peer group clinical supervision for community health nurses: Perspectives from an interpretive hermeneutic study. Journal of nursing management30(3): 684- 693.

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