The history of any community is continuous, it is not duplicated in every event of understanding, but rather it is applied to a present situation and defines the context in which we understand the past (Gadamer 1977). If we were to imagine that we just found out we had HIV, the way in which this experience is understood by us is based upon our history and tradition. This experience would have been understood differently if we lived in a community that stigmatized those who had HIV, if we had little knowledge of what it meant to have HIV or if we did not have social support. Each individual’s understanding of experiences is based upon his or her continuous history and tradition. Human understanding cannot be taken as the outcome of a methodical approach; rather it is the essential part of human existence. In other words, how do you quantify the experience of how an individual understands what it means to have HIV? Can you sum up this experience, this truth for that individual using a mathematical formula? Gadamer, would argue that is cannot be done and would instead suggest that it is the task of philosophical hermeneutics to “bring out this truth” (Gadamer 1977). Through this truth and the dialogue between the person and the other, a fusion of horizon occurs. Therefore, understanding as seen in this way is an application that can be applied to a historical event.
Our tradition and the tradition of our community is the totality of all understandings and experiences, which exist and are differentiated in all the things one does. Therefore, when we look at the diversity that exists in social communities and cultures, we see the self-manifestation of a whole (Gadamer 1977).
When we talk to the other about our own traditions, we are in essence sharing our narrative or our story. Narratives, according to Paul Ricouer, attain their full meaning when they become a “condition of a temporal existence.” Time is a part of each of our lives and “that fact manifests itself in the narrative of a historian.” Ricoeur believes that
our historical narrative is connected to our past and this narrative is “firmly tied within the confines of the perspective of each individual historical agent” (Wood 1991: 20).
The spoken word and sharing stories can help others in our community imagine a different way of being; they help communicate our worlds, our history and our future. The broadening of understanding is the necessary consequence of language. Language is an integral part of understanding our past and can give us hope for the future. When a woman is first diagnosed with HIV, her understanding of what that means is connected to her past experiences and the totality of her past and present influence the hope she has for her future.
As human beings, stories of the past, present and future are essential and indispensable parts of understanding. It is ultimately through cultural images that individuals come to understand themselves and draw meaning from experiences. However, it is also through the process of language and conversation with the other that the opportunity arises to imagine a new way, to experience all that can be. Language, conversation and the development of new understandings can help challenge existing assumptions and values. They allow new ways of thinking about the world to develop and can provide a foundation towards understanding the social and medical challenges facing many HIV-positive women.
* Excerpts from: Living Positively: Narratives of Forgiveness and Imagination among Women with HIV. Copyright © 2010 Hamaseh Kianfar, Ed. D.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg1994 Truth and Method, 2n d rev. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marchall, trans. Continuum Publishing Co: New York. 1981 Reason in Age of Science, Frederick G. Lawrence, trans. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1977 Philosophical Hermeneutics, David E. Linge, ed., trans. University of California Press: Berkeley, California.
Ricoeur, Paul 1984 Time and Narrative I. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago. 1986 Fallible Man: Philosophy of the Will. Fordham University Press: New York, New York. 2004 Memory, History and Forgetting, Kathleen Blarney, David Pellauer, trans. University of Chicago Press.
Wood, David, 1991 On Paul Ricoeur: Narrative and Interpretation. Routledge Press: New York.