3. Horizons, therapy and Schopenhauer

3.fw“A person who has no horizon does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him.”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer

Shifting outlook from the inward looking processes involving prejudices, Gadamer catapulted his thinking outwards as far as the eye can see to re-evaluate another common term in day-to-day use: horizons. And, in the course of such appraising, he introduced a radical metaphor for how we engage with the world around us.

700 x 343 Horizons

Cutting to the chase, Gadamer’s new perspective was the realisation that the level of consciousness we have been able to attain so far is analogous to a personal horizon. Whereby we find ourselves, as he put it, with a “range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point.”2 Which, because Gadamer was focussed upon hermeneutics – the study of understanding – translates into consciousness having a fixed point from which it perceives the world. So, in order to have more than just a limited consciousness one needs to have a horizon. Without a horizon one is somewhere between a goldfish and a sty-bound pig. As Gadamer illustrated, “A person who has no horizon does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him”.3 Rounding it all out, the near-sighted person, if one follows Gadamer’s logic, has little actual consciousness. Heads up, then, if we want to have a respectable level of consciousness beyond the merely conscious. Look up and look around.

700 Looking Around
Having a horizon means we can see a wider picture and are not limited to purely considering what is in front of us. Possessing a horizon gives us consciousness beyond that of the piscine and the porcine – something to which we can all aim at and hopefully master. However, we are limited by what we can see within our horizon and advancing beyond it requires a shift in consciousness. This should not present too drastic an obstacle though, because by the very fact of having a horizon – an important first step – we can also comprehend that there are sights beyond that horizon.

To my mind this is rather like taking a walk with Gadamer on a sunny day. Doing up our shoelaces, we leave the aquatic and animal kingdoms behind as we stroll out into the farmer’s field next-door to meander through his little patch of heaven and wheat, which we have gazed upon everyday from inside the cosy double-glazed and arm-chaired paradise, we call home. Thrashing between the golden stems of wheat, we scare the crows we have watched so often from our window settling down to munch on their delicious free meal full of starch, fibre and natural goodness. The farmer’s combine-harvester is parked next to his barn on the left, just as it always is when we have looked out in-between feasting ourselves on Gadamer’s nutrition packed, well maybe just tasty, plum jam sandwiches.

700 Plum Jam Sandwiches
The point being that by wandering into the horizon we have seen so many times before we still only really see the same old things we used to cogitate upon before we set a single shoe-clad foot outside our door. Gadamer, though, unbeknownst to me has got his hiking boots on.

Gadamer, you see, has realised that there is something beyond our own familiar vista, something beyond our horizon that could be explored. So, by concentrating our efforts and shifting our lumbering consciousness up we push through the last of the wheat to emerge at the far side of the farmer’s field. A tall hedgerow bounds the horizon that we have so far managed to see, with who knows what on the other side. Wishing that I had thought to wear a thicker coat to protect me from the thorns I plunge into the thicket after Gadamer.

Previously unknown territory slowly comes into view as I adjust my glasses and brush off the common knapweed, St. John’s wort, and butcher’s broom to say nothing of the wild fauna that seems to have wormed and wiggled its way down my back. A lunar landscape does not appear, although, how would I know that one such a scene was not there to greet me, seeing as how I have never gone beyond the comfort of my horizon before? Instead, there is a rather worn out country lane with a pub peaking out from round the bend on the left. Gadamer, possibly in need of refreshment, has already started walking in that direction. It’s almost as if Gadamer knew that if the vantage point changed then so would the horizon!

700 English Country Pub

Over the hedge a whole new horizon has come into view and I’m glad Gadamer persuaded me to explore it. As I sit next to him sipping my, apparently local, refreshing cider, as the barman has informed us, it seems that by altering my vantage point I am achieving a genuine new horizon where new levels of understanding can be gained. I mention to Gadamer that maybe after we finish our pints we could continue to explore and possibly find slightly more erudite arenas into which we can cast ourselves.

The point being that not only am I enjoying going beyond my traditional horizon, I am also open to such shifts in my vantage point from where I can conceive and create new horizons of experience. So, even though our own personal horizons may be “limited and finite,”4 as a nice Gadamerian chap, Richard J. Bernstein observed, they are also “essentially open.”5 Achieving openness, though, as many eastern philosophers will tell you, is not effortless. Would I ever have got beyond my horizon limit, the hedge, if it weren’t for Gadamer? Although, it must be stated for the record that I was open to the prospect. A stance key to Gadamer’s concept of individual horizons.

Moving on, there is a second critical stage to Gadamer’s work on horizons and how we think, understand and engage with the world. The introduction to this next stage can be a little tricky, but it is navigable if we take it slowly.

For Gadamer, understanding per se is something that is “historically effected”6. Our consciousness is not something that has popped out of nowhere, it has evolved throughout our lives and been effected by our own personal history and gives us our own unique horizon from within which we understand and process the world. As Gadamer said, probably repeatedly, but in this instance in conversation with Carsten Dutt, “no one is a blank sheet of paper”7. Consequently, each of us is different and sees the world through our own “historically effected consciousness”8, or ‘horizon’. Now, the tricky bit is how we bump our horizons together.

700 horizon fusing

Gadamer, rather obliquely, rolls the issues of horizon bumping and “historically-effected consciousness” together:

“The task of historical understanding also involves acquiring an appropriate historical horizon, so that what we are trying to understand can be seen in its true dimensions.”9

Right, what does that mean? The umbrella consideration of ‘appropriate’ is a useful starting point because I take him to mean that we need to be self-aware and understand ourselves as individuals that have been affected by our history: we are not objective gods, we are unique subjects. And, as unique subjects, we are limited and finite in our current understanding. However, in-built within each of us is the capacity to mature, adapt and grow intellectually. As well as recognising our own capacities, though, we also need to regard that which we survey in its “true dimensions,” by which I understand Gadamer to mean that we need to have respect for what we observe. And, this is the absolutely critical bit. We must take seriously, to the point of imperative, how the other – that which is not self – is to be incorporated within the metaphor of our personal horizon.

In order that we do not objectify the other, or their claim, we must avoid trying to assimilate them into our horizon as it stands, but also we should not attribute an alternative horizon to them into which we transplant ourselves whilst ignoring our own horizon. Instead of objectifying them, as in the former, or indeed objectifying ourselves, as in the latter, we need to recognise the fluidity of ourselves with the other and attempt to achieve what Gadamer termed a ‘fusion of horizons.’ Exciting and stimulating as this ‘fusion’ sounds, Gadamer very quickly grounds this concept before it takes flight in a flurry of naïve enthusiasm to conjure images of brightly adorned dancers grinning and singing vacuously about their mutual love for each other and the planet. Gadamer, after all was neither a hippy nor a Hollywood hack but a careful and methodical philosopher who instantly after he evoked the wonderful phase “fusion of horizons”10, determined that the most important application to this idea would not be musical fervour but order, discipline, and restraint.

700 Hippies dancing

For Gadamer, the “fusion of horizons” required regulation, and this he saw as the task of a “historically effected consciousness.” Again, when talking to Dutt once more, Gadamer said “we must take the encounter [the potential fusing of horizons] seriously” because “one of the most essential experiences a human being can have is that another person comes to know him or her better.”11 Isn’t that what we all want – to be understood? To have someone that listens properly to the wit and wisdom we have to bestow whilst also appreciating the depths of our torment and highs of our joyful responses to the world.

A personal ego masseuse or oral amanuensis, however, was not Gadamer’s end-goal here. Rather, he realised that a genuine dialogue needs to be created in order for there to be a fusing, as opposed to a swamping, of horizons. One-way traffic really isn’t going to cut it in Gadamer’s world. This is because he deeply believed that, just as we are each finite up to any moment of time, we are also each capable of being shown more than we can see within our own personal horizon. Or, as he said to Dutt, “Through an encounter with the other we are lifted above the narrow confines of our own knowledge… because there is always something about which we are not correct and are not justified in maintaining.”12 There is always another horizon to be shown or explore, and another hedge to be pushed through.

The regulation of any “fusing of horizons,” demanded seriousness, as we have seen. However, for Gadamer the demand went even further. As far as he was concerned, such regulation would be given the principle focus of his attention because, for him, it was “the central problem of hermeneutics.”13 The application of such a fusion, therefore, was given no small role within Truth and Method. Gadamer, warming to his theme, insisted that the crux of understanding compelled the avoidance of any objectification of the other, or oneself, in order to allow each to entwine with the other, in a fluid movement that generates understanding. One has to say that surely Gadamer is right when he commits himself to this steadfast position. How many times in our intellectual awakening and broadening, when chewing the fat with a close friend, colleague or family member, have we stumbled upon either a shared eureka moment or personal insight from one to the other. The process of openly fusing our horizons in a dialogue of trust and respect can yield dramatic shifts of vantage points in our consciousness.

Two People ideas

So much was Gadamer enamoured with this “central problem of hermeneutics” that he spent most of his adult life eagerly entertaining interested parties, from near and far, in debates and conversation. A famous example of his desire in this area was his wish to converse with Jacques Derrida. Unfortunately, it seems that the respect and trust was not there from Derrida’s side when they finally met publically at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1981. Derrida, Gadamer analysed subsequently, was not “capable of engaging in genuine conversation”14 and saw “both Heidegger and myself as part of the logocentrist camp.”15 It appeared, to Gadamer, that Derrida didn’t want to play his game. Which, one can tell, would have caused Gadamer great inner turmoil. To be able to converse with the great French deconstructionist and probe each other’s horizons could have led to great things in Gadamer’s mind, whilst also, by the very fact of conversing, giving his version of philosophical hermeneutics implicit validity. Instead, we are left with Gadamer’s rather mournful and tragic encapsulation “Whoever [by which he meant, Derrida] wants me to take deconstruction to heart and insists on difference stands at the beginning of a conversation, not at its end.”16

Perhaps, in Derrida’s case, Gadamer chose badly because Jacques felt he had to stick to his own guns and not be lulled into what he presumably saw as some kind of trap. Or, maybe, as Gadamer suggested in a more fruitful conversation (with Dutt), dialogue just wasn’t the great deconstructionist’s strength. Derrida apart, it’s really not hard to see that Gadamer was on to something ethically when trying to prioritise the “fusion of horizons,” by which I take him to mean the cultivation of trust and respect. Indeed, it is testament to his belief in his project that he had his conversations with Dutt when he was ninety-three years old when he was “genial, direct, and never at a loss”17. Quite a powerful message in terms of zest for life and thirst for what he believed in: people can converse and, together, they can constructively (Derridean pun intended) push the boundaries of each other’s understanding. An ethical thirst, n’est pas?

The cultural output that I want to explore now has its basis in psychotherapy, but is in the form of a novel. Dr. Irvin D. Yalom had over forty years of practising existential and group psychotherapy behind him before he wrote The Schopenhauer Cure as an open narrative that tries to realistically portray the inner workings of group therapy.

700 343 alt 2

Spoiler alert: if you are consider reading The Schopenhauer Cure some elements of the plot will be given away in this chapter.

The novel presents its characters whilst they attempt to grapple with personal issues, relationship problems and even the terminal diagnosis of the group therapist, Dr. Julius Hertzfeld. The path taken by Yalom in turning to literature to shine a light into the academic and practicing world of psychotherapy is one that few people can successfully navigate, but he is one of that particular métiers grand achievers. Of particular interest, however, is his ability to translate rigorous training and a lengthy career into believable characters who work together to find mutual understanding. And, this is where we find Gadamer’s “fusing” of “horizons.”18 By using artistic representation, Yalom creates shifts in his characters’ consciousnesses to drive them on towards new vantage points beyond their existing horizons.

450 The Schopenhauer Cure

The plot itself turns upon the therapist, Julius Hertzfeld, attempting to come to terms with the news that he has “one good year”19 left, before cancer puts an end to his career and everything else. In a solid and authentic manner Julius begins the process of examining his life and its internal worth. His deceased wife and living children are considered briefly before Yalom pushes the plotline to Julius’ thoughts about his career, which naturally mirrors Yalom’s own, with decades of therapeutic work with individuals and groups.

Thumbing through his old case files, Julius finds confirmation of his ability to treat his clients effectively, with positive reinforcement coming from every file containing closure or follow-up notes. The follow-ups are sometimes written years after the therapy sessions had ended. There is one exception in his life’s work, though. The name Philip Slate surfaces through the files as an individual he worked with without success twenty years previously. According to the files, Philip was a confirmed sex-addict, with an impressive intelligence and striking handsomeness, working in an unsatisfying job. The sticking point for Julius, as he begins to recall this particular case, was Philip’s desire to overcome his addiction and consign himself to study. Fixating upon Philip, Julius realises within himself that he needs to know what happened to this symbolic fly in his ointment.

700 Fly in the ointment

Seeking Philip out, Julius makes contact and discovers two things. The first is that Philip still appears as “cold, uncaring [and] oblivious of others”20 as he used to be. The second, rather disturbingly for Julius, is that Philip wants to become a therapist. A discovery, which in combination with Philip’s obvious inability to relate ‘normally’ to others, fascinates and horrifies Julius. Yalom, having crafted the creative tension and pull between the two main characters, then allows the plot to weave its way through their discussions and a series of group therapy sessions involving a cast of well-developed but minor roles alongside Julius and Philip. In addition, Schopenhauer’s life is presented in alternating chapters to the main storyline, as a backdrop to Philip’s new obsession. The idea being that he can be a philosophical counsellor with Schopenhauer as his guide.

Philip’s character, as hewn by Yalom, is a deeply self-involved misanthrope who believes that he can impart the wisdom of Schopenhauer to those he treats or works with in Julius’ group. The difficulty, that Julius sees all to clearly, is that Philip has no clue how to relate to other people. Philip avoids eye contact as much as possible and proclaims, when directly challenged, that he needs to focus on the words of Schopenhauer and that he prefers to keep his own council. Philip is also highly self-opinionated. When asked to provide feedback on Julius’ therapeutic work all those years ago he is completely damning:

“Overall, I’d have to say that my therapy with you was a complete failure. A time-consuming [three years] and expensive failure. I think I did my job as a patient. As far as I can recall, I was fully cooperative, worked hard, came regularly, paid my bills, remembered dreams, followed leads offered.”21

When probed deeper by Julius, Philip continues in much the same vein:

“Eventually I realized you didn’t know how to help and I lost faith in our work together. I recall that you spent inordinate amounts of time exploring my relationships – with others and especially with you. This never made sense to me. It didn’t then. It still doesn’t.”22

Philip ends his critical volley by sharing with Julius the light he has found himself at the end of the tunnel:

“I decided to heal myself… I developed a relationship with a therapist, the perfect therapist, the therapist who offered me what no one else had been able to give… Yes, Arthur Schopenhauer, [is] my therapist.”23

450 Schopenhauer

Yalom gives Philip’s horizon concrete definition, in that it amounts to the writings of Schopenhauer, after he first studied the Ancient Greeks and Germanic philosophers who followed Kant. Consequently, Philip’s world is viewed through a Schopenhauerian lens that appears to give him comfort and all the understanding he needs. However, Julius cannot agree. After everything that his career has been pinned on, Julius sees the limits that Philip has set himself, especially when realising that Philip just wants to ‘preach’ the teachings of Schopenhauer in the world of therapy.

So, the Gadamerian task for Julius, in his final year, is to work with Philip to get him to see beyond the world as portrayed by Schopenhauer and into eyes of those around him. En route, Julius dangles the potential quid pro quo that he, Julius, might also learn something from Philip about Schopenhauer, although Julius is in his own denial as to any probable benefit coming forth.

Both parties, hence, set out from their unique horizon points in an attempt to enlighten the other through the arena of dialogue in group therapy. The antagonism of Philip’s approach to life ruffles Julius in the group sessions, especially when his group seem to hang on Philip’s insights, such when he first introduced philosophy:

“Nietzsche once wrote that a major difference between man and the cow was that the cow knows how to exist, how to live without angst – that is, fear – in the blessed now, unburdened by the past and unaware of the terrors of the future… in this, as in so much else, he looted the works of Schopenhauer.”24

Julius response, as Yalom gives it, is to squirm in his chair thinking he must have been out his mind to bring Philip into his group, when there is a stunned but reflective silence from the others. In contra-poise, Julius states his thinking in a one-on-one discussion with Philip:

It’s not ideas, nor vision, nor tools that truly matter in therapy. If you debrief patients at the end of therapy about the process, what do they remember? Never the ideas – it’s always the relationship. They rarely remember an important insight their therapist offered but generally fondly recall their personal relationship with the therapist.”25

700 x 343 alt Therapy

In a further group session there is a direct clash of horizons as Philip attempts to enlighten the group as to Schopehauer’s views on personal attachments.

“The more attachments one has, the more burdensome life becomes and the more suffering one experiences when one is separated from these attachments. Schopenhauer and Buddhism both hold that one must release oneself from attachments and…”26

At this point Julius interrupts. “I don’t think that is helpful to me… and I’m also not sure if this is where this meeting should be going.”27 Noting a pregnant glance between two of the other group members, Julius continued:

“I come in on that in the opposite way: attachments, and plenty of them, are indispensable ingredients of a full life, and to avoid attachments because of anticipated suffering is a sure recipe for being only partially alive.”28

The two viewpoints, quite clearly are at loggerheads, so much so that one of other group members calls Julius on it, because he is acting in a very unconventional manner.

In this strained manner, the group sessions, week by week, continue with Philip still avoiding eye contact and quoting Schopenhauer, whilst Julius tries to reign himself in from being pushed by Philip’s lack of, or resistance to, interpersonal dynamics. At the same time, Julius attempts to adopt the protective role of therapist for Philip when he can see things reaching a boiling point, such as when one of the group returns from a visit to India to find the man she lost her virginity to, in a callous and unfeeling relationship, sitting opposite, in her beloved therapy group. When the truth of Philip’s behaviour fifteen years ago comes out, Julius is conflicted but wants to try and help both Philip and Pam, the unfortunate group returnee, to work through the pain of seeing each other once more. Philip attempts to detach himself from his previous life and behaviour by referring to himself in the third person when Pam confronts him as to what he did to her. Using this as an opener to work on the ‘here and now’ and the ‘process’ rather than ‘content’ of their obviously tortured discussion, Julius asks Philip why he used the third person, “I wonder, could you have been implying that you’re a different person now from the man you were then?”29 At this moment Philip opens his eyes and gazes into Julius’, in apparent gratitude for moving the dialogue into safer and more constructive territory. A connection, for Julius, has finally been made.

700 Hands reaching

Julius builds on this breakthrough by pushing back on one of Philip’s statements, that he feels happier when he does not have to deal with people, by saying, “but, if you’re going to be in a group or lead groups or try to help clients work on their relationships with others, you absolutely cannot avoid entering into relationships with them.”30 Philip, from now on edges towards Julius’ horizon and Julius seems to give the impression that he is trying to edge towards Philip’s by remarking that maybe he’ll reflect on Philip’s proffered Heideggerian statement regarding death being the “impossibility of further possibility.”31

Julius and Philip work through several key crisis moments over the months, ebbing and flowing into each other’s horizon, culminating in the final group meeting. There are unsettling instances and moments of real progress on the way which demonstrate the sure but uneasy shift in Philip’s centre of gravity, or vantage point. At the final session Julius summarises their situation or, in Gadamerian terms, their horizons:

“I don’t believe we’re as far apart as you think. I don’t disagree with much that you and Schopenhauer have said about the tragedy of the human condition. Where you go east and I go west is when we turn to the question of what to do about it.”32

Later Philip breaks down looking directly into Julius’ eyes and passionately says with tears and self-loathing “no one who has known me has loved me. Ever. No one could love me.”33 At this moment, Pam, the catalyst of his first shift in moving towards Julius’ way of viewing the world, steps in and says, “I could have loved you, Philip.”34 Julius’ work is done as Philip’s breakdown reveals that Philip can trust and respect other people and that he knows he will be better off for it.

700 Head in hands

Strictly speaking, the fusion of Gadamerian horizons between Julius and Philip never finds concrete realisation in terms of duration. Instead, what Yalom shows is the ethically imbued human dance that occurs in brief glimpses when two people see eye to eye on something that they have both been unable to resolve on their own. The fusion of horizons is after all the tantalising child’s blown bubble that mesmerises those whose attention it dazzles but then bursts as soon as it is touched. All the same, it makes life seem somehow richer for its passing existence.

700 bubble


  1. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 302.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Bernstein, Richard J. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1983. 143.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001. 307.
  7. Gadamer, H-G. Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary. Edited and translated by Richard E. Palmer, Yale University Press, 2001, 43.
  8. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 307.
  9. Ibid., 303.
  10. See Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 307.
  11. Gadamer, H-G. Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary. Edited and translated by Richard E. Palmer, Yale University Press, 2001, 49.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 307.
  14. Gadamer, H-G. Gadamer in Conversation: Reflections and Commentary. Edited and translated by Richard E. Palmer, Yale University Press, 2001, 61-62.
  15. Ibid., 62.
  16. Ibid., 61.
  17. Ibid., 1.
  18. See Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 307.
  19. Yalom, Irvin D. The Schopenhauer Cure, HarperCollins Publishers, 2006, 11.
  20. Ibid., 19.
  21. Ibid., 26.
  22. Ibid., 28.
  23. Ibid. 30.
  24. Ibid., 83.
  25. Ibid., 62-63.
  26. Ibid. 99.
  27. Ibid., 100.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid., 180.
  30. Ibid., 182.
  31. Ibid., 197.
  32. Ibid., 331.
  33. Ibid., 334.
  34. Ibid.


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