Friday, 23 October 2015

Weekend 1 aditional reading: Hermeneutic Listening

This paper related to the session we had on interviewing. This is an interesting concept. Rather than laying aside our prejudices when we talk to an 'other', we acknowledge those prejudices (positive and negative), and work towards a common understanding. We do not need to change others' minds but find areas of common ground.

The notes I scribbled on the text whilst in the session were:
- We bring prejudices with us when we listen to others.
- We need to consider what someone is saying. In an interview, this happens in the moment - we need to listen carefully in order to respond in an appropriate way.

Kimball, S. & Garrison, J. (1996). Hermeneutic listening: An approach to understanding in multicultural situations. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 15, 151-159.

The article starts with a quotation by Gadamer, who was key in the development of hermeneutics. The quotation concerns conversation being a means of understanding. Conversation encourages consideration of others' viewpoints and also highlights new ways of interpreting our own positions. This is helical - consideration of others leads to greater understanding of ourselves, which leads to improved consideration of others, etc.....

The authors home in on multicultural conversations - for multiculturalism to work, there must be respect for others' experiences (and their interpretation of the experiences), and to create new understanding.

The authors warn against both 'passive listening', which can lead to the listener being 'assimilated' by a dominant culture, and also against 'empathetic listening'. The authors prefer a concept of listening as 'the art of interpretation'. Hermeneutics can be used to interpret the 'text' of a conversation to achieve understanding between individuals.

Within hermeneutics, meaning is developed within a particular context, amongst particular participants - the role of hermeneutics is to produce new understanding in both conversants. It is important to understand what a person says rather than understanding the person.

From empathy to ontological hermeneutics

There is, as mentioned, a difference between empathetic listening and hermeneutics. Empathetic listeners acknowledge prejudices and their role in understanding, but claim to be able to put them to one side in order to understand another person as they 'really are'. However, this claim is, according to hermeneutic listeners, very limiting. There is the assumption that prejudice is "bad", but Gadamer shows us that this assumption is incorrect. There has only been this negative connotation to the word since the Enlightenment. Prejudices are just 'pre-judgements' which allow us to get through everyday life.

One must recognise that we are "conditioned by historical circumstances" - we are the product of our experiences, values etc. We cannot eliminate this; to think that we can do so is false. Our participation in different communities (family, school, state, nation, race, gender etc.) shapes how we interpret the world and our pace within it. This is what makes us 'us'.

So, hermeneutic conversation requires us not to rid ourselves of these prejudices but to examine them, and free ourselves of those which hinder our efforts to understand others. It is only when we encounter difference that we can recognise our own prejudices and question them. Then understanding can be developed.

We do not necessarily have to take on the other's views when we examine our prejudices, but change of some sort will occur. "By coming into contact with different beliefs, ...[etc.], we become aware of our own prejudices". If we can interrogate these prejudices in light of the newly perceived alternatives, then new understanding is opened up both with others and in ourselves.

In this way, the authors suggest that the hermeneutic process is compatible with multiculturalism. Empathetic listening is not, as it presupposes that differences between people act as barriers to understanding which must be overcome. Prejudices cannot just be set aside - to suggest as much is to reduce the need for reflection on our pre-judgements. Empathy seeks to 'reproduce' the speaker's original meaning. This way, new understandings cannot be reached. Hermeneutics produces new, multicultural understandings.


'Openness' is more than being open to what the other means so that the understanding can be reproduced. Instead, the listener is open to new meanings and understanding that are being developed through the conversation. Meanings are produced rather than repeated. Meaning relies on more than one person within a specific socio-historical context having a discussion and jointly assigning meaning.

With regard to multicultural conversations, this openness can be thought of as an "openness to alternative interpretation", including self and culture. We reinterpret our experiences differently after time has passed, and also after encountering new people and cultures. This leads us to new meaning. What is said, what is not said (i.e. omitted), the tone of voice, all reflect our prejudices. By listening to ourselves as we speak to others, we can achieve greater awareness of our identity and what frames it.

How does this differ from empathy? A person committed to hermeneutic listening/understanding acknowledges that each person in the conversation is conditioned by different historical circumstances even if they share the same race, culture, gender, etc. It is important to acknowledge these differences rather than to eradicate them and use our own culturally conditioned prejudices to imagine another person's experiences. By responding with a question providing an analogy to the experience, the comparison may not be exact but new meanings can be made through this exploration.

Fusion of horizons in multicultural conversations

"So far, we have described hermeneutic listening as a continuous, cyclical process by which we become more aware of ourselves as well as the unfamiliar other." This leads to the "mutual creation" of new understandings and meaning. Gadamer calls these points where new understandings are reached as a 2fusion of horizons" - opening up a new horizon of understanding through conversation with others of different beliefs, culture, values, etc. Horizons are ever-moving. Where we enter situations that test our prejudices, our horizons will be redefined.

2The act of understanding involves the fusion of horizons" - through looking at other people's lives we broaden our own horizons. Within hermeneutics, it is important to accept the possibility of tension between different sets of prejudices but we can draw this out to create common understanding, a "social construction" shared by all.

The object is to neither have empathy for not to subordinate the other but to redefine our mutual horizons, whilst still acknowledging difference. This builds a common ground to continue the mutual dialogue.

Why listen?

Why should we go through the process of questioning our prejudices and shifting our horizons? Sometimes, we cannot avoid it. However mostly it is a conscious decision for at least one of three reasons:
  1. education is to challenge familiarity with the novel/uncomfortable, to reach new understanding;
  2. We can only come to know ourselves through our encounters with others. Otherwise we are unaware of the prejudices which shape our views;
  3. when we wish to change ourselves, we need to interact with 'others'. Change in ourselves is a social process.
To sustain conversations with others can lead to new understanding which can be beneficial to our personal growth.

The writers finish by discussing that throughout the paper, their thoughts are underpinned by their own cultural prejudices.

My own thoughts?

Once again, this paper is about having an awareness of the lenses through which we see the world. In interpretivism, it is important not to try to put these lenses to one side. This is impossible. But what we must do is acknowledge that they exist.

Other thoughts: How does this link to Lyotard? The talk about Gadamer here suggests there is the reaching of a mutual understanding. However, if I remember correctly, Lyotardian paralogy goes further than that - moving towards a continuous expansion of knowledge and understanding.

Another thought (irrelevant but I wanted to capture it): when it spoke of change in ourselves being a social process, I was very struck by the way this links to Slimming World. when we wish to change, we need to interact with others. Nothing here to do with multiculturalism, but discussion amongst others to change an individual's mindset.

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