A hermeneutical account of psyche and polis:

History making of self and identity

Randal G. Tonks

Camosun College

Victoria, B. C. Canada


This account follows Wilhelm Dilthey`s situating of human lived experience at the nexus of psyche (mind) and polis (cultural world). As such this account draws from the human science of Dilthey and the hermeneutics of other more contemporary scholars. Beginning with a discussion of the shared ontologies of self and identity for Gadamer, Taylor, and Erikson, the emergent methods for Dilthey and Erikson are examined. Built upon this overview of the hermeneutics of self and identity is an application of an Eriksonian model of psychohistory-making to the lived experience of one young Canadian. Thus a brief biographical sketch is made which grounds "Sarah's" expressions of identity in the larger cultural life of the social and institutional milieu in which her life has emerged. The resulting account constructs her identity as a dialogical self with a dynamic horizon that has been thrown into an ethico-moral, historical, situation.


Throughout history the dictum "Know thy self" has often been quoted to illustrate the importance of critical self-reflection (Paranjpe, 1998; Taylor, 1989; Hodges, 1952). Posing this task, however, begs several questions like "what is the nature of this self that is to be known?" "What impact does such self knowledge have on one's everyday life?" and "How does one come to understand the self? These perplexing questions of paramount importance have provoked innumerable answers to this essential human feat.

Beginning with a brief examination of these questions, this account considers the role of self and identity in the hermeneutical tradition. Special attention is paid to the nature of psyche and polis within several theories of self and identity, particularly with respect to the works of Charles Taylor, Wilhelm Dilthey and Erik Erikson. Central to this essay is a description of the hermeneutics drawn from Erikson's model of identity, along with a comparison of his methods with those of Dilthey. In closing an application of Eriksonian hermeneutics is performed in making a case of the lived experience of one young Canadian, as an example of contemporary cultural psychology.

What is this self that is to be known?

There have been many books and edited volumes on self and culture that have emerge over the past 20 years. These range in perspective from culture and psychological theory bridging (Paranjpe, 1998, 1984) to ego-analytical psychology (Roland, 1988, 1996), psychological anthropology, (Heelas &Lock, 1981; Paranjpe, Ho & Reiber, 1988; Rosenberger, 1992) and sociology (Carrithers, Collins & Lukes, 1985). Beyond their specific disciplinary perspectives, these numerous accounts of self and person also arise with attachments to the weltanshauungen or worldviews of natural and human science.

Tonks (1997) provides an overview of several important features of these foundational worldviews and their impact on scientific psychology. Central to the divisions between these views are attitudes towards praxis or practical knowledge, the identities and roles of scientists/observers, and the role of history in knowledge and understanding. Natural science, on the one hand, can be characterised as being driven by the pursuit of a technological orientation to applied knowledge, seeking control over nature by obeying the laws of nature. Natural scientists also tend to idealise the "objective" observer who maintains a division between scientific and personal roles and identities in the pursuit of trans-historical knowledge. On the other hand, human science can be characterised by an emancipatory ethico-moral interest in taking action through the application of knowledge or understanding. Human scientists also tend recognise the need for continuity between personal lived experience and the observational roles we play as scientists in seeking historically grounded understanding.

Charles Taylor (1985a,1989, 1994) has carefully examined the nature of the person, citizenship and society. He contends that the self or person is literally informed by the moral topographies or social traditions in which the life is lived (Taylor, 1988). Taylor refers to the "inescapable frameworks" that form the basis of all psychological experience or self. These moral ontologies provide an intuitive "background picture" for self and personhood by informing the person of the right, good, or just action or behaviour. Within an everyday cultural world, the self and person are constructed as experiential and societal identities in a dialogical process of moral informing through the recognitions we give to and receive from others (Dumont, 1985; Mauss, 1985; Taylor, 1985b; 1994).

Grounded within such a moral topography is an "ideal of authenticity" that supports constructions of individualised identity and of the need for our being in touch with our moral feelings. Taylor indicates that within this ideal of authenticity there lies a need for fulfilment of the moral sense in order to "be true and full human beings" (1994, p. 28). He also contends that the völk or polis of a people has an equivalent need to be "true to itself." Together, these inherent needs reveal the "fundamentally dialogical" nature of human identity. According to Taylor (1994), we engage in a process of negotiation of our identities through the "crucial feature" of human life, language and dialogue with others, both overt and internal. Not only does identity hinge upon immediate psychosocial processes; it also depends upon the historical conditions that lead the current social world to unfold.

Paranjpe (1998) shares this dialogical view of self with Taylor along with his recognition of the crucial significance of practical knowledge of selfhood and identity. If one is to "know thy self" one must develop an awareness of the socio-historical conditions of "thy self". In doing so, one can then come to understand and emulate that "right", "good," or "just" life that is most fulfilling for one's human condition.

Implications of self knowledge to everyday life

Intellectual civilisations have given consideration to knowledge of living the right life or knowing to how to live a life worth living since the earliest times of recorded human thought and history (Taylor, 1989; Paranjpe, 1998). Prescriptions abound as human beings have advocated one or another perspective on self and the application of self-knowledge to everyday life. Charles Taylor (1994) points out that these ideals of authenticity and moral sense arise through the social histories in which we live that offer a substantive moral commitment for us to make to "the Good Life", as we understand it. Within recent history the ideal of bildung or character development has emerged as an important characteristic for human fulfilment. Within the Germanic human science tradition, bildung is placed centrally to identity as it entails finding one's place in society as a fulfilment of the ideal of authenticity. Wallulis reports that Gadamer and Erikson regarded bildung as a form of play or ritual grounded self-formation. A similarly grounded notion is the related concept of phronesis.

According to Richard Bernstein (1988), Gadamer's appropriation of Aristotle's phronesis involves the acquisition of "ethical-know-how" where phronesis is a mode of moral judgement that is grounded in tradition and is constitutive of the ever-changing unfolding identity of our being or dasein. As such, ethical reasoning is something to be "engaged in" within an "acting situation" where one is "obliged" to take some form of action.

The self and identity in the hermeneutics of Dilthey and Erikson

Turning to the self and identity for Dilthey and Erikson this essay focuses on how to know or develop self-understanding, however, this requires some discussion of the ontology of the self. Dilthey (1961) pointed to biography and autobiography as the most suitable methods for understanding the lived experience (erlibnis) of a person or group of people in developing his model for human science. Thus, to understand a person's life, one must understand the socio-historical context in which the life was lived. As with Gadamer's historical effectivity and throwness, Dilthey (1883/1989) acknowledged the actual life lived as existing in part as psyche (individual and personal) and in part as polis (social and historical); forming a primary dialectic of identity.

Gadamer's effective historical consciousness involves the emergence of an explicit awareness of one's historical "affinity or belongingness"

[Where] true historical thinking must take account of it's own historicity. Only then will it not chase the phantom of an historical object which is the object of progressive research, but learn to see in the object the counterpart of itself and hence understand both. The true historical object is not an object at all, but the unity of the one and the other, a relationship in which exist both the reality of history and reality of the historical understanding. A proper hermeneutics would have to demonstrate the effectivity of history within itself. (Gadamer cited in Bernstein, 1988, p. 142, italics added). Further, Gadamer's notion of the fusion of horizons involves the recognition of "vantage points", each of which have their own boundaries, limits of view, or horizon. For each situation or circumstance that one can be "thrown into", Gadamer's notion of facticity involves an ever-changing perspective that may potential "fuse" with another resulting in an enrichment or enlargement of one's own view. Such an event is essentially dialogical or linguistic, where an "ideal speech situation" plays a facilitative role in enabling genuine dialogue. Such a situation would be expected to arise in a community in which a variant of phronesis is realised, synesis which involves friendship and solidarity (Bernstein, 1988).

Dilthey's ontological hermeneutics also considers the nature of the historical object (human life) as being inextricably bound to its social-moral tradition with which it is codetermined. Psyche and polis, together form the "I - world" nexus as the subject-object interface that comprises the foundation for psychology as an understanding of human lived experience. Knowledge is grounded in the psychological and social domains of the person and his or her culture. Thus, "the world" and the consciousness of the person are seen to meld in a form of mutual dependency, something akin to Erik Erikson's notion of wirklichkeit or mutual activation (Hodges, 1952; Erikson, 1964; 1970). Focussing of the social and the psychological interface or nexus, Dilthey suggested a grounded understanding of biography in both the context of its occurrence (as experienced) and the context of its later interpretation as a historical case study (Owensby, 1994).

Dilthey and Erikson shared an interest in biography, both emphasising the psychosocial, volitional, and temporally situated nexus of lived experience or "psychosocial" identity (Tonks, 1999). The phenomenal experience (psyche) of the "subject" is understood against the context of its social milieu (polis), recognising the identity of lived experience as grounded in a practical life nexus of communicative relations. For Dilthey, self-understanding involves an awareness of the categories of life as lived, with an explicit recognition of the phronesis of life. In this context, a person's life involves bildung, or the development of character and a practical sense of value and action, "knowledge in the service of life" (Owensby, 1994, p.1). Likewise, for Erikson, the development of identity involves enculturation (internalisation in psychoanalytic terms) through the ritual play of bildung, enabling self-cultivation and self-understanding as part of the historical process of psychosocial life (Erikson, 1970; Wallulis, 1990). He states that:

A sense of identity means being at one with oneself as one grows and develops; and it means, at the same time, a sense of affinity with a community's sense of being at one with its future as well as its history--or mythology. (1974, pp. 27-28, italics added) Not only did Dilthey and Erikson share worldviews on the nature of human living; these scholars each pioneered methods in understanding humanity through the construction of narrative accounts of identity. Dilthey (1961) further recognised that "autobiography is the highest and most instructive form in which the understanding of life confronts us" (p. 85) yet he also recognised that all understanding is grounded in the experience of both the author and the reader of the biography. According to Dilthey biography invites one to understand "from different points of view, creat[ing] a coherence in that life which he [sic] is now putting into words" (1961, p. 86). Erikson (1968) also acknowledged the historical stance of the writer of the narrative, and he elsewhere states "the way you 'take history' is also a way of 'making history'" (1974, p. 13). For Dilthey, the goal of historical understanding is to reveal the meaning of human life where "the past is not fixed" but constructed through a working backwards to find significant events, and then forwards in producing a coherent collection of events (Owensby, 1994). Such biographical events are related to the context of their narrative reflection as an expression of the individual and communal dimensions of human lived experience. For Erikson, the "making of history" involves the construction of "cases" where: 'under observation,' he becomes self-observant. As a patient he is inclined, and as a client often encouraged, to historicize his position by thinking to the onset of the disturbance, and to ponder what world order (magic, scientific, ethical) was violated and must be restored before his self-regulation can be reassumed. He participates in becoming a case, a fact which he may live down socially, but which, nevertheless, may forever change his view of himself (1964, p. 54, italics original). They each are putting into words, making a case of one's life, coming to see the world order and the life having meaning, coherence, and clarity when standing as figure and ground to each other.

Erikson further articulates his method stemming from the fact that the lives of the clinician and the client merge as they engage in disciplined subjectivity and work to develop "shared insight" in the achievement of emancipation or cure in psychotherapy. It is through a careful self-reflection of their own experiences that they can share their feelings and notions of identity, acquiring new contexts of meaning and new understanding of their lives. Through the ongoing process of self-reflection and the sharing of insights, the two people reveal and re-interpret their understanding of themselves, their personal histories, and their cultural traditions. Each partake in the other's life (as any two people do), through mutuality or the "cogwheeling" of the virtues of life accompanied by the transference and counter-transference that is expected in a therapeutic relationship (Erikson, 1968). Through this sharing of experience they "put into words" their thoughts and feelings about experiences they have had in creating the historical case study. One might say that they are negotiating troubling points from the past through present narrative construction, transforming and shaping, smoothening and refining, making harmonies and contrasts into a new identity that is carried into the future. This reveals the same dialogical character of the fusion of horizons of identity that is seen in the hermeneutical writings described above (Taylor, 1985a, b, 1989, 1994; Gadamer, 1982; Habermas, 1973).

Revealing the lived experience of the person also often forces the historian or clinician to become "inexorably drawn into the super-personal history 'itself', since he, too must learn to conceive of, say, a 'great' man's crisis and achievement as communal events characteristic of a given historical period" (Erikson, 1968, p. 696). Psycho-history making involves the meaningful construction of the private and public spheres of life, as they unfold together (Erikson, 1968). For Dilthey, the diachronic coherence of life is achieved through reflective narration of lived experience that is elicited from life and not imposed upon it; having been a "call for narration" that carves out the life-story (Owensby, 1994). Any understanding of the importance and significance of the events must be understood against the context of the life as lived itself and as it was recorded and interpreted. As seen above, for Erikson it is through the worldview in which the life is lived that the meaning must come in order to fulfil the liberation and cure. Like Freud's "talking cure", the putting into words of psychohistory making provides meaning in many ways; personal, social, historical, cultural.

Inroads from Cultural Psychology

The recently burgeoning field of cultural psychology has been built upon hermeneutical foundations like these as well as those laid out by Vico and Herder's accounts of Vökseele and Volkgeist (Berlin, 1976). The 19th century work of Lazarus' and Steinthal's folk-history and psychological ethnology and Wundt's ten volume Völkerpsychology have also been identified as human science exemplars (Jahoda & Krewer, 1997).

Richard Shweder (1990) was one of the first contemporary scholars to articulate cultural psychology as involving an understanding of the dialectics of the subject-object / person-constituted social world. Others like Cole (1996) have also echoed the need for understanding personal and collective identity as "thinking through" language, value and custom as they are expressed and interpreted along with others. Shotter's (1993) notion of "joint action" also focuses on this everyday practical activity of our cultural lives as the foundation of shared knowledge or common sense. Cole suggests that living within historical traditions is the fundamental human activity, not unlike the playing of language games in the making of linguistic tools (Shotter, 1993). Ratner (1997) suggests that the interpretation of behaviour & verbal statements can reveal the "objective" common cultural activity as well as the "subjective" personal psychological experience. By interpreting personal experience against the context of the collective, a dialectical relationship between the experience and social activity is revealed. This revelation can offer a glimpse at the meaning of human life as understood in a historically situated account.

Narratives of identity and ethnicity in Canada

It is task of this essay to apply these hermeneutical ideas in developing a qualitative understanding of the lived experience of young people living in Canada. Only one case is presented here due to limitations, however, other cases developed in parallel with this one also involved similar themes to the ones presented here. This account draws from Grounded Theory by recognising a role for "outside" information and the investigator's observation notes to play in the interpretation of data and the development of descriptive themes (Rennie, 1998).

This present narrative account arose through the (less than ideal) speech situation of a semi-structured interview, however, mutuality and dialogical production are present in the process. Furthermore, recognition of one's personal identity is essential to the interview and narrative process in order to produce authentic expressions of identity through the fusion of horizons and disciplined subjectivity. Along with these interests, some discussion is presently made about character development (bildung) and the development of an understanding of one's own social-moral world. In the collection of interviews performed there were many common themes and numerous variations on each theme that emerged, such as crisis and confusion, comfort and stability, go with the flow. Principally because of her "call for narration" present discussion is limited to a focus on issues of crisis and resolution in the case of Sarah. At the time of the interview she was a 28 year old woman who is the daughter of a Chinese-Native-Irish father and a "radical ex-hippie" white mother. Growing up in poverty, "washing her clothes in the creek", and later bouncing from foster home to foster home while her alcoholic mother tried to sober up she experienced many challenges in life. She reports having grown up with feelings of alienation from the other natives when at powwows with her "white" mother. She states:

When we were out in Native gatherings with our white mother we were shunned by the Natives, and then, but when I was at school without my white mother, I was shunned by the non-Natives. Feelings of cultural alienation are common to many young Canadians and it is of interest to examine a variety of such expressions. However because of the need for spatial economy, further elaboration is not presently made on such variations. This is but a brief example of the "putting into words" of her feelings about identity, feelings that may come from semiconscious or unconscious experience. As another person, Rochelle, reported there were many issues and ideas that came up through the interview, things she hadn't thought of before. By talking about some things, they were made clear for her, and she felt somewhat liberated in receiving an audio tape recording of the discussion that led to the fusion her horizon with the interviewer, an event that enabled her to better understand herself. Talking about past events also appears offer the possibility of coming to grips with difficult situations. Sarah talks about her youth when she had negative experiences of being Native. She says: ... in the seventies when I was in elementary school, the Native image was very negative. In grade four my teacher asked me to ask my mother, as a child I was so poor, never had any lunch, there was no doubt that that child was Native, asked me if she could come to our class to talk about the culture with the class as a project. Sure, I was all excited, went home and asked my mom and she said sure, and when that day came I couldn't wait for her to get there, my mother showed up, then the teacher went to the door and she had a few words with my mother and then she left. I didn't figure it out until I was an adult, we just went on and no one explained it. Cause a week later another mother came in with long black hair and some baskets and she talked about basketry and jewellery, and my mother wanted to talk about the way the government was treating Indians. Q - How did that make you feel at the time? Oh Devastated, I left the room, and I went to the Safeway and I stole some Certs,
and I was caught.
At the time unable to verbalise her feelings, she turned to deviant action as a way to express her self-depreciation. Now, as an adult, she is able to verbalise her earlier experiences, in part reliving them, in part reconstructing them against the context of her present self-understanding. She now has developed a more positive sense of identity, but that is not without a struggle. Even though she says "what is means to be Native to me means to be extremely confused", she continues to say that "Native Indians in a group feel a lot of pride, but once we disperse into society that is quickly stripped."

This reveals some of the polis in which her identity has emerged, where the history of our region, Canada, is marked by the forced assimilation of Natives to Christian European culture, forced marginalisation and segregation, the languages, practices and family traditions have almost been wiped out. Nowhere is the negative impact of Europeans on Natives more clear than the residential schools that Canadians are now coming to grips with, putting into our own words as we come to initiate the healing process following generations of enculturative disease. For many Canadian Natives there is a new dawn on the horizon, as more power, respect and authority is being given back to the First Nations peoples. A new territory, land claim settlements, and the recognition of native justice, healing and cultural systems in mainstream Canadian life. As a collection of peoples we share a common legacy, bad and good, that can be seen in micro form in the particular life of one person.

Now turning back to Sarah's life, one can recognise the collective struggles of identity and history as they are played out in the life of a young woman. Sarah reports finding her tradition in the following passage:

Well there was a lot of pride in being a first nations restaurant, with BBQ salmon and bannok, deer, and especially at EXPO [86], it was the first time I truly felt pride in my culture. It was set up on the EXPO site and I was myself was amazed by the Native artwork, and the line-up, they would line up forever. I couldn't believe that outside of my reserve that there were people who were intrigued, other than my mother, by Native Indians. And that they didn't look at us as drunks. That there were people out there that saw us as a culture that had something to share. Something to be respected. She is able to now grasp at the cultural world-view, including its value system in developing her own sense of strength and bildung. As seen in her involvement in the above shared activity, sharing her culture with the world, she develops the virtues of her ego (Erikson, 1964), developing fidelity to a way of life. Everyday practical activity of identity (phronesis) is the process through which one is a member of a culture, sharing the socio-moral order that defines them as persons within that tradition (Paranjpe, 1998;Taylor, 1988; 1989; 1992). Her developing historical consciousness has enabled her to understand herself more fully, offering her some degree of emancipation from the horizons of her (personal and collective) past identities. In reaching her goal of becoming a native counsellor, Sarah will be able to continue to develop her pride and comfort in being Native. With her blossoming awareness she is obliged to take action in helping others in her community to become more settled in their identities taking part in the re-emergence of traditions and reconstruction of collective identity and history. Charles Taylor (1994) contends that it is this recognition of identity that emerges through the dialogical negotiation of psyche and polis that is crucial to achievement of the ideals of personal and social achievement and authenticity.


Growing from the hermeneutics of Taylor, Gadamer, Dilthey and Erikson, this account of identity and ethnicity offers a mere snap shot of human lived experience. Constructing a rich and detailed biography or historical case study would require several hundred pages and much more space than is presently afforded. This brief sketch was written to provide a glimpse at the method of history making in application to a particular psychosocial case. While concern over the editing and rendering of a life lived into quotes and context provides only limited insight into the human experience, it offers one of many possible accounts of the experience of culture and identity as captured on paper, magnetic tape or living in real time.

Nonetheless, a number of characteristics of self and identity have been articulated and illustrated by excerpts as a hermeneutical account of identity. Whether or not this account "passes" the criteria for a scientific or good qualitative account is perhaps another matter that can be considered by the reader. Elliot, Fischer & Rennie (1999) provide a number of criteria, including owning one's perspective, situating the sample, grounding in examples, coherence and resonating with readers that may prove to be useful in evaluating this and other hermeneutical accounts of identity. It is hoped that at least some of these criteria are met by this account and that the reader has acquired some new understanding of the hermeneutics of psyche and polis.


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