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Unlocking meaning: language in the therapy room.


As an expatriate Italian the issues of language, translation and interpretation have been a significant daily factor for most of my life. The never ending struggle to achieve understanding across cultures sparked my interest in investigating the use of language in psychotherapy and the view expressed by Wittgenstein that 'clarity about its use and concepts involves clarity about our life' (Cited by Heaton, 2013: p 10). I have become aware that my personal engagement with the complications of translating between different languages has a broader application because of the effect of the variables of gender, class, education, culture and age group upon the use of words, metaphors and symbols within any one language.

The hypothesis I wish to explore is whether the familiar shorthand description of therapy as 'the talking cure' might be extended to include the concept of hermeneutics. Can the beliefs expressed in everyday speech be revealed and explored through a hermeneutic process in which translation and interpretation is a central feature? If the talking cure is 'an exercise in truthfulness ... which undermines conventional beliefs by undoing the framework upon which they are based' (ibid. p 30) then I would suggest that translation and interpretation, or more broadly, a hermeneutic approach, can be an act of creation and a dynamic tool for forming or unlocking meaning and facilitating self-reflection in existential-phenomenological psychotherapy. In following this line of enquiry I have sought to clarify for myself the ethical and theoretical basis of my work as a therapist.

The relevance of Paul Ricoeur

My investigation into the possible relevance of hermeneutic methods for therapy led me to the extensive works of Paul Ricoeur. I was immediately attracted to him because he seemed to perform the act of translation and interpretation in his own philosophical practice and writing. Having spent three quarters of my life surrounded by relatives who stridently believed in an Absolute Truth, which only they were properly equipped to express, I was delighted to encounter this 'inveterate mediator, someone who navigated and negotiated transits between rival intellectual positions ... a diplomat of philosophical positions, forever finding a point of commerce between ostensibly irreconcilable viewpoints' (Kearney, intro to Ricoeur, 2006: p vii). In his youth Ricoeur explored existential phenomenology, went on to write on Freud and Philosophy, Faith and Religion and, towards the end of his life, worked on narrative, translation, memory and history. As Director of the Centre d'Etudes Phenomenologiques et Hermeneutiques he reworked the German phenomenology of Heidegger and Gadamer towards developing a hermeneutic phenomenology which argued that 'whatever is intelligible is accessible to us in and through language and that all deployments of language call for translation or interpretation' (Dauenhauer & Pellauer, 2012). He worked closely with Levinas and Derrida in tutoring a new generation of French phenomenologists (Kearney, 1994: p 91).

The urge to translate

The departure point for my journey of enquiry was to consider whether the processes of translation offer a model for psychotherapy. At its most basic level translation is a process of substituting words, sentences or other syntactic elements from one language to another. However, for Heidegger it could be 'the crossing over to "another shore" in one's own mother tongue' (Mayr, 2001: p 331). He suggests that 'a genuine translation sets us over into another realm of experience' (Heidegger, 1993: 53:75 cited in Dahlstrom, 2013: p 223). It is 'an awakening, clarifying, unfolding of one's own language through the help of the encounter with the foreign language' (ibid.). So translation, which reaches its height in poetic language, may intercede between languages or within a language and can be 'the movement from the untranslatable to the translatable and, conversely, from the unthought to the thought within one's own historical mother tongue' (ibid. 53:79). Dahlstrom states that for Heidegger 'every interpretation, even within the same language, is a translation. and [the latter] is in fact harder, given our tendency to think we understand our own language without further ado' (ibid. p 223). This seems to me to be a useful warning to all therapists to be alert to the variety of meanings that may be expressed in the simplest speech.

Another perspective comes from Freud, arguably one of the principal theorists and innovators of translation, who deemed that translation encompassed: 'dreams; generalised hysterical, obsessive and phobic symptomatology; parapraxes; fetishes; the choice of suicidal means; and the analyst's interpretations' (Mahony, 2001: p 837). Freud argued that 'a translation of psychic material must take place' at the boundary between 'successive epochs of life' (Freud, 1985, cited by Mahony, p 837). A client may therefore 'be psychically conceived as an accumulation of translations--as when the hysteric turns into an obsessional and thus becomes a bilingual document' (Freud, 1913: p 319, cited by Mahony, p 387). At this point the therapist 'assumes the complementary role of a translator ... [and] by means of translation ... effects a transposition of what is unconscious to consciousness' (ibid.).

When Schleiermacher (cited by Ricoeur, 2006: p 4) describes translation as 'bringing the reader to the author and bringing the author to the reader' he seems to restrict it within the narrow boundaries of the written word and to suggest that there is necessarily a mediator in the form of the translator. However, from the perspective of the therapist, this appears limiting, as the spoken word is obviously the essential tool of both the client and the therapist for striving to achieve understanding. What is clear to Ricoeur and, I believe, is applicable to therapeutic dialogue is that 'it is always possible to say the same thing in another way.and is what we do when we reformulate an argument which has not been understood' (ibid. p 25). However, as Davidson indicates, although translation 'carries what is said in one language over to another [...] it does not always do this easily or without a transformation of what gets carried over' (Davidson, 2013: p 61). Importantly he points out that the title of one of Ricoeur's essays on translation includes the word 'paradigm' which suggests that the act of translation can be 'a model for other types of transactions that take place between what is one's own and what is foreign' (ibid.). In this sense there is a way in which the process of translation may be an exemplar for the dialogue between the client and the therapist or between the client and a rephrased translation of their own dialogue. In fact Ricoeur suggests there are two paradigms for language. 'There is the linguistic paradigm which refers to how words relate to meanings within language or between languages. And there is the ontological paradigm which refers to how translation occurs between one human self and another' (Kearney, introduction to Ricoeur, 2006: p.xii).

From translation to interpretation and hermeneutics

Continuing on my voyage of discovery I concluded that translation on its own may be too limited a notion to suggest a comprehensive model for the therapist to work upon. However it had become clear that the terms 'translation' and 'interpretation' are frequently used interchangeably and can perhaps be brought together and subsumed by the wider term, 'hermeneutics'. This broadens the field of enquiry enormously as hermeneutics has been defined as 'being about the most fundamental ways in which we perceive the world, think and understand' (Jasper, 2004: p 3). In the words of Ricoeur, therefore, 'hermeneutics cannot remain a technique for specialists rather ... [it] involves the general problem of comprehension' (Ricoeur, 1974: p 4). He charted the development of hermeneutics through St. Augustine, Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Nietzsche and Freud. He argues that hermeneutics is a philosophy which aims:

to show that existence arrives at expression, at meaning, and at reflection only through the continual exegesis of all the significations that come to light in the world of culture. Existence becomes a self--human and adult--only by appropriating this meaning which first resides outside in works, institutions and cultural monuments in which the life of the spirit is objectified

(ibid. p 22)

The first attempts to articulate a genuinely philosophical hermeneutics while making sense of the texts handed down from the past were made by Friederich Schleiermacher. He argued that 'understanding other cultures is not something we can take for granted. Understanding others involves an openness towards the fact that what seems rational, true or coherent may cover something deeply unfamiliar' (Ramber & Gjesdal, 2005: p 5). He suggested that although hermeneutics cannot guarantee a full understanding it can assist in avoiding the trap of filtering another's speech or writing through one's own cultural, theological or philosophical frame of mind (ibid.). He introduced the idea of the hermeneutic circle. 'In order to gain an overview of the text in its completeness we must give proper attention to the details and particulars. But we cannot appreciate the significance of these details without a sense of the whole work' (Jasper, 2004: p 21). This process does not provide any final conclusion 'but an endless stimulation to further inquiry and conversation' (ibid.). So, in my view, the hermeneutic process of constantly refocusing from the particular to the general and back again seems to be close to the process of engaging in dialogue with clients in psychotherapy. It connects to 'a common theme taken up by prominent phenomenologists: [that] understanding, description, interpretation and speaking are intertwined with and manifested in language and other forms of semiotics' (Strong et al. 2008: p 122).

Hermeneutics in therapy: a case study

My work with A, a financial executive in her early forties with two small children and a husband in full-time work, provides an example of focussing upon the particular meaning of the word 'challenge'. This was useful in enabling A to define her stance in responding to 'a request' made by her boss to take part in what he described as 'a fantastic team-building challenge.' This involved canoeing across the Channel and had resulted in A initiating an exhausting and time consuming regime of preparatory training which had impacted negatively upon her family and her own well being. Asked to describe the emotions evoked by the word 'challenge' in this specific context she responded with the words 'trapped' and 'angry'. She said the usual meaning of the word in her vocabulary was 'something to face at all costs' or 'an absolutely inevitable occurrence'. She noticed my physical reaction to the emotional content in her definitions of the word 'challenge' and this opened up the possibility for her of exploring her own interpretation and understanding of the word. What meaning did she want to accord in the here-and-now to the concept of 'a challenge'? Articulating the different emotions evoked in her by this word and by its multiple meanings led her to reflect upon and re-consider beliefs derived from her past and to interpret them from the perspective of her being in the present. She came to the realisation that the challenge made to her could itself be challenged. She re-evaluated her current priorities, according to her own, newly considered individual values and she significantly altered her stance to her boss's invitation, which she had previously accepted without reflection. She concluded that paddling a canoe across the Channel in order to develop better relationships at work was not, from her perspective, a challenge she either had to take on or one that was reasonable within the context of her life. Her relief was manifest.

Towards a hermeneutic phenomenology

As Ricoeur (1970, pp 26-27) sees it 'there is no general hermeneutics, no universal canon for exegesis, but only disparate and opposed theories concerning interpretation.' He states that 'the hermeneutic slip' can be grafted onto the young plant of phenomenology either by a short route or by the long route that he favours (Ricoeur, 1974: p 6). The short route is Heidegger's way which 'breaks with any discussion of method' and which moves straight to the level of ontology in order to recover understanding (ibid.) 'One is transported there by a sudden reversal of the question ... Instead of asking: On what condition can a knowing subject understand a text or history? One asks: What kind of being is it whose being consists of understanding?' (ibid.) Ricoeur characteristically makes it clear that he does not hold Heidegger's method as invalid but that he sees Heidegger's approach as 'not wanting to consider any particular problem concerning the understanding of this or that being'. Ricoeur's long route seems more adaptable to psychotherapy when he suggests that the 'point of departure be taken on the same level on which understanding operates, that is, on the level of language' (ibid., p 10). His further definition of hermeneutics as 'the art of deciphering indirect meaning' (cited in Kearney, 1994: p 91) seems to me to describe one of the activities in the therapeutic process.

Elsewhere, however, Ricoeur--like Schleiermacher before him--seems specifically to suggest that the task of hermeneutics is to bridge the gap in the differences of meaning between the world of the reader and the world of the author through the world of the text (Davidson, 2013: p 63). Although Ricoeur has 'a predilection for written texts and tends to examine oral discourse as if it were written' (Simms, 2003: p 34) he does not generally argue that everything is text but 'that all human action can be understood as if it were text because of the inherent similarity between human action and text' (Langdridge, 2004: p 246). On this basis, I would argue that his approach to the hermeneutic task of translation and interpretation could equally be applied to the ongoing task of bridging the differences of meaning and understanding between the world expressed in the spoken words of the client and the understanding and reflection of this world from the different world view of the therapist. Just as Ricoeur described the process of translation as a paradigm he also repeatedly uses this term to describe the hermeneutic task, again suggesting that he views it as a model for some other activity. I would, therefore, agree with Langdridge's view that 'we might usefully incorporate notions from his theory into the process of recollecting meaning within the therapeutic relationship' (ibid. p 251).

Truth, Suspicion and Relativism

I have to confess that my practical attempts in the therapy room 'to bracket off' my preconceptions, as suggested by Husserl, has usually found me unequal to the struggle and to be imperfectly accomplished. Despite my best efforts I have to acknowledge that I 'always speak from somewhere, from some tradition and some ideological position' (ibid.). This does not mean that I abandon the attempt: it rather spurs me on to work harder to define, clarify and acknowledge the respective viewpoints held by my client and me. Considerable effort and concentration is required when there may be cultural differences between us reflected by ethnicity, religion, age, gender or sexuality. Ricoeur's hermeneutic phenomenology suggests the need to approach a client's story with empathy and 'hospitality' whilst 'recognising a need for suspicion' (ibid.). He uses the word 'suspicion' to define the hermeneutics practiced by Marx, Nietzsche and Freud whom he called the 'masters of suspicion'. By this he meant that they utilised hermeneutics as a process for 'the demystification of a meaning presented to the interpreter in the form of a disguise' (Thompson, 1981: p 6). This type of hermeneutics is sceptical of the given and distrusts the symbol 'as a dissimulation of the real' (ibid.).

The 'suspicious approach' in hermeneutics contrasts with an alternative view animated by faith and usually practiced in the translation and interpretation of religious texts and therefore explicitly concerned with restoring an important true meaning. The interpreter is characterised 'by a willingness to listen and ... by a respect for the symbol as a revelation of the sacred' or an ultimate Truth (ibid.). This type of perspective is fundamentally challenged by Caputo (2013, p 15) who suggests that the modern understanding of hermeneutics is 'that every truth is a function of interpretation, and the need for interpretation is a function of being situated in a particular time and place and therefore of having certain inherited pre-suppositions.' He argues that modern hermeneutics 'must seek not for Absolute Truth but good interpretations and instead of Pure Reason we need good reasons (ibid., p 214). Ricoeur, however, 'developed his own particular brand of philosophical hermeneutics' which Kearney dubs 'dialogical hermeneutics' (Kearney, intro to Ricoeur, 2006: p viii). This sought a path between the romantic hermeneutics of Schleiermacher and Gadamer with its emphasis on empathy and conviction and the suspicion and detachment of the more radical hermeneutics of deconstruction espoused by Derrida and Caputo and of Habermas's Critical Theory (ibid.). Ricoeur's eclectic incorporation and appreciation of various perspectives into his own work seems to me to embody in practice what I aim to achieve as an ethical existential therapist working in the modern world.

One element of this is manifested in my suspicion concerning the concept of Truth. Caputo's view that hermeneutics is 'the key to the postmodern mutation in the idea of truth' becomes useful here. He suggests that 'interpretation is the pin that pricks the balloon of absolutism once and for all and denies Pure Reason its over-inflated privileges without landing us in the ditch of relativism' (ibid., p 200-201). However, as he points out, the suggestion that everything is 'a matter of interpretation' risks throwing 'truth under the bus of relativism [and] to reduce it to somebody's opinion' (ibid., p 203). He attempts to resolve the problem by arguing that interpretation is 'a matter of insight and sensitivity to the singularity of the situation with which we are confronted rather than one of submitting the situation to a set of inflexible rules laid down in advance by Method or a pure fiction called Pure Reason' (ibid.). In the context of psychotherapy this insight and sensitivity is not simply an intellectual activity but, from my lived experience with clients, involves the body and bodily sensations. Intuition, or gut feeling as it is commonly called, and body language are interpretive tools for me, as is the consideration of dreams.

Distanciation and appropriation

In my view Ricoeur begins to address the relativity problem highlighted by Caputo by proposing a dialectic of distanciation. Ricoeur (1981, p 92) suggests that a text externalises or distances the reader from the thoughts of an author and broadens the audience, the context and the meaning of the text, which therefore takes on a life of its own. He argues that interpretation brings the context of the text to the world of the reader and that then, through a process of appropriation by the translator and the reader, the struggle against cultural and historical distance is overcome (Davidson, 2013: p 63). Langdridge's suggestion (2004, p 252) that these processes of distanciation and appropriation can be applied to therapeutic dialogue is one that resonates with my own experience as a therapist. Distanciation in therapy can be achieved by the regularity of sessions and the time gaps between them that provide the scope for reflection upon what has been said. In other words, although the utterance of a sentence is an ephemeral phenomenon, a sentence may nevertheless be re-identified as the same on subsequent occasions, i.e. between one therapy session and another, without having to be captured in writing. Appropriation, I would suggest, is the process by which a client or a therapist turns their exposure to the world of the Other, of what might initially appear to be alien, into something of their own. Thompson (1981, p 11) suggests that 'the semantics of discourse sheds light on the primitive processes of creativity and interpretation in ordinary language.' Creativity depends upon 'the intrinsic polysemy of words, that is the feature by which words in natural languages have more than one meaning' (ibid.). Therefore the therapist must be constantly on their guard concerning the meaning from the client's point of view of what is being said to them. So, in Ricoeur's own words, 'the simplest message conveyed by the means of natural language has to be interpreted because all the words are polysemic and take their actual meaning from the connection with a given context and a given audience against the background of a given situation' (Ricoeur, 1978: p 125).

Examining one's life story

Part of the distanciation that Ricoeur says is achieved by the translation of thought into text can, in my view, be paralleled in the therapeutic context by the examination of the personal narratives through which clients interpret their life history. He suggested that when confronted with the question 'who am I?' we will tell a certain story and emphasize aspects that we deem to be of special significance (Ricoeur, 1988 p 246). His approach was to combine phenomenological description with hermeneutic interpretation and consequently to reject any claim that the self is immediately transparent to itself or fully master of itself. He argued that self-knowledge only comes through our relation to the world and our life with and among others in the world (Dauenhauer & Pellauer, 2012).

I have applied this critical approach to personal narrative in my work with a client, K, a 26-year-old from Liverpool who has described herself as marrying into a social class above her family of origin. In the manner described by Ricoeur in Time and Narrative (1988, p 246) she presented me with a life story that emphasised aspects of special significance that defines who she is. K's narrative and her perception of herself were clearly derived from her parents' depiction of her as a naive and incapable child. She has been given and has largely adopted her parents' message that she had been presumptuous to step outside her social class. Her mother, for example, crushes K's self-esteem by telling her that she is bound to struggle to match the parenting skills of her husband or his GP sister-in-law who has had a baby at the same time as K. My own direct observation is that K appears to be well bonded with her child and skillful in her caring role. I suggested she distanced herself from her usual narrative by imagining herself and her family as characters in a film played by actors. The narrative of this 'objective' story assisted her to perceive that the character representing her sister-in-law may be 'pushy' and could impact negatively upon those around her. She saw that the character representing herself was neither inferior nor incapable but seemed to have the potential for a happier life story than the sister-in-law's. This objectification of her narrative provoked a shift in her perception of herself. She acknowledged that her parent's descriptions of her might not be accurate but had strongly influenced how she had recounted her own story. She has appropriated this perception and she moved on to acknowledge that there seems to be evidence to suggest that she can be seen as tolerant, sensible and practical. K seemed, therefore, to have originally interpreted herself in terms of a life story in which she is the narrator and the main character but not the sole author (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2008: p 201).

Her case seems to confirm the view that 'the story of any individual life is not only interwoven with the stories of others (parents, siblings, friends etc.) but is also embedded in a larger historical and communal meaninggiven structure' (ibid. citing MacIntyre, 1985: p 221). Hermeneutically examining this narrative, I would suggest, has offered a way to understanding the origins of this self-narrative and the opportunity to reconstruct it. Ricoeur uses the term 'narrative identity' to describe the problem and its solution. 'Learning to "narrate oneself' may benefit [from] ... critical appropriation' (Ricoeur, 2005: p 101) by which he means that the identification with a character in a novel or film can throw light on one's own story. 'Learning to narrate oneself is also learning how to narrate oneself in other ways.The idea of narrative identity gives access to a new approach to the concept of ipseity' (ibid.). He suggests that this reference to a narrative identity enables the unfolding of a specific dialectic: 'that of the relation between two sorts of identity, the immutable identity of the idem and the changing identity of the ipse, the self, with its historical condition' (ibid.).


In writing this paper I have tried to apply the hermeneutic process that it aims to consider and it therefore attempts to use a structure revealing the path of discovery and new understanding that I have followed. I have found myself swept up into a hermeneutic circle that has involved me in a constant process of re-interpretation of what I have understood, of what I want to say and what this article is actually about. With every new book and every new article my perspective has broadened and I have gained new insight. However by approaching the subject in this way l feel that this paper is like a snapshot of my thoughts frozen in text at a moment in time. As an object, a text, distanced from my being-in-time, my meanings may not appear clear to the reader or reflect my intentions. I feel sure that, as soon as I have submitted it and it is rendered immutable in print, I will be able hermeneutically to re-examine its constituent elements and my overall intentions and will realise that I have moved on to other new interpretations and understandings based on new reading, thought, reflection and dialogue.

In exploring and defining my own approach to psychotherapy and the influences that have shaped it for this article I have felt liberated by the discovery of the work of Ricoeur which, in addition to being readable, humorous and, in his own word 'hospitable', seems to suggest a language-based approach to psychotherapy that attunes well with my own experience and knowledge. This hermeneutic phenomenological way is based on the close and creative examination of the language used by both client and therapist and to the larger hermeneutic issue of a person's narrative or life story. I believe that I have reached a point where I do not use therapeutic dialogue as a tool or as a method but as the therapy. By borrowing and applying some of the methods of hermeneutics to an existential-phenomenological approach I aim to empower the client to be able to consider their own being-in-the world and to be liberated from scripts that may have shackled or held them back. Having now extensively explored the hermeneutic phenomenological philosophy of Ricoeur I think it helps to explain how both client and therapist can become free to the veracity of being through the joint enterprise of narration and reflection and through labouring to examine our language and our meanings. I do not believe that the therapist can persuade the client to revise their life-narrative at will, because there seems no fixed 'self' standing outside the narrative to do the editing. Consequently, my developing view is that psychotherapy is a hermeneutic process of collaboratively reviewing and elaborating the client's socially structured narratives as presented in both an individual session and in the preceding sessions with the aim of broadening the client's participation in the recognition of different perspectives. In the process of seeking clarity and understanding, conflicts of interpretation inevitably arise and this enables new possibilities for meaning to emerge as narratives come to be understood to represent more than they may have originally. The aim of this activity is not in order to achieve the approximation to some ideal narrative but to enable the client to experience the malleability of narrative and 'to participate in the continuous process of creating and transforming meaning' (Gergen, 1994: p 245).

My ethical approach to engaging with clients in psychotherapy has been developed out of my life experience as a foreigner trying to understand and to communicate effectively with Others. I daily find myself striving to bring languages and people into communication with one another, through translation and interpretation, in a way that does not violate the integrity of either one. This is neatly summarised by Ricoeur's paradigm of 'linguistic hospitality'. Throughout his life he was 'occupied by the question of how it is possible for two distinct selves separated by time and space, perhaps even by language and culture, to understand and relate to one another with generosity and hospitality' (Taylor, 2011). He found otherness everywhere, extending beyond 'the obvious cases of peoples foreign to one another to less obvious instances of inter-linguistic, inter-personal and even intra-personal relations' (ibid.). Ricoeur frequently reiterates the view that only by surrendering, or mourning, the dream of the 'perfect translation' and by engaging with 'the work of remembering'--seeking to find the appropriate word or phrase--can we relate to each other hospitably. I have found throughout Ricoeur's work a moving exposition of how I aim and wish to act as a therapist and as a human being-in-the world. Taylor (2011) summarises it far better than I could as:
   realising that I do not have perfect access to the other, that I
   cannot capture the workings of the other S mind within my own ...
   And yet, through the struggle to remember my own dormant, forgotten
   resources for communication, and through the process of mourning my
   desire to understand the other perfectly or completely, I can come
   to a new understanding of both my other and myself as
   'irreducible', partially untranslatable, and yet as capable of
   being communicated with and understood. This personal hospitality
   will result, as did linguistic hospitality, in my learning to be a
   generous and capable host to my other, whether foreign or familiar,
   and it will manifest itself in the happiness that attends relating
   to another person who is utterly unique, irreducible to my own
   projects and horizons of meaning.

Rossella Vaccaro trained at Regent's University where she was awarded the Hans W Cohn Award for Excellence. She is a UKCP registered existential therapist offering therapy in three languages in her private practice. She is a member of the Society for Existential Analysis.

Contact: 9 Beverley Road, Barnes, London SW13 0LX



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Date:Jul 1, 2015
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