Postmodern Therapies Tool boxes
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How does language work so that I can communicate my ideas to you? Let's say, I tell you, "The cat is on the front steps." How would you know what I meant by that?
The father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand Saussure. would say that you would know because the sound of my words would evoke something in your mind he called "signifieds". You might think of these "signifieds" as "concepts" but their nature is left a little vague. Still, the idea is that different words evoke different signifieds. Learning a language means training the the mind so that it presents itself with the correct signifieds each time it hears or sees particular words.
At first glance this Saussurean explanation might sound pretty good,
but look more closely with me. .Here's my sentence again:
Would these words trigger the signified of a fat white persian cat sprawled out like a feather duster on the front steps? Or of a sleek orange tabby poised ready to pounce on a nearby bird? And, if it's a neutral signified that's evoked, how am I to tell that both the feather duster cat and the orange tabby are cases of a "cat on the front steps"?
Before you take these signifieds too seriously, remember the existence of these ghostly signifieds is very speculative. Saussure argued that they were related to the sound of the word much as a body is related to a soul (p.103) and to me that leaves the nature and existence of signifieds very much in question.
Here's another theory:
So, you ask: What does this matter? I'm just a postmodern therapist, not a metaphysician.
It matters a lot. Even if you have never heard of the famous Saussure, his theory weaves through our culture and it teaches us to trust our natural understanding when a little more humility about how much we understand about each other would serve our therapy well. At least, Wittgenstein's and Lyotard's model of language convinces me that misunderstanding is much more prevalent than we realize. Thinking of words as evoking signifieds makes it seem as though understanding each other is inevitable. It teaches us to trust our initial sense of what was said when it might help our clients feel more understood if we were more respectful of the difficulties in communication..
I'll illustrate this point. Remember, for Saussure, a word evokes a signified that clarifies what the words mean. So, in a therapy session a client says, "I want to do this fast." But is she saying she wants to start it fast (because she is eager) or do it fast (to get it over with)? Or maybe she says she is tired, but does she mean she was physically drained? Or sick and tired? Or tired in the sense she was bored?
Phrase after phrase has ambiguity like this in language, They are like potholes in our language. Unless we know about them and know how to navigate around them in our conversations we are likely to get stuck in a tangle of misunderstanding. As Wittgenstein says, words have whole "families of meanings" and, often, there is no single common element among these different meanings. To make things worse, we can think we understand when we don't.
So, is it hopeless?
Not at all. I believe, it is the possibilitiy of misunderstanding that provides the most hope, at least if we recognize how easy it is to misunderstand. It is our respect for misunderstanding that inspires us to listen more carefully, to suspend belief in first impressions and explore deeper understanding.
And to get this, all we need to do is recognize that we might have heard something wrong, and, of course, accommodate what we say and do next to that realization.
That, at least, is what I see that Wittgenstein and Lyotard have over Saussure. Not only are there subtle differences in the families of meanings each term can evoke, but we slip between these meanings in conversation with the consequence that we can talk past each other. The potential for misunderstanding is not only between therapist and client but, of course, between the client and significant others.
Saussure offers the therapist no help in unraveling misunderstandings
like these, but Wittgenstein does. He alerts to the vast possibility
of confusion and misunderstanding. Nothing can help us more than
the creativity that comes from recognizing that we might be miscommunicating.
And that's what it takes, I think, to have a therapeutic conversation
with someone, the awareness of possible misunderstanding, a little curiosity,
a few questions, and then listening. In this way we can sometimes
navigate the confusing waters and flow with the current of the conversation.
Words don't come to us with perfectly defined meanings. In fact,
The postmodern therapists in the PMTH community seem to agree that misunderstanding
may not be such a bad thing. First, Tom
Strong introduced the topic of "understanding" for general discussion.
Good topic. I look forward to hearing what Strong has to say. My reading of people here, however, is that misunderstanding is an integral part of understanding.
This sounded very much, to me, like what Riet
Samuels had been calling "creative listening". As an example
of "creative listening she pointed to a comment Lynn
Hoffman reported making in in her new book, Family Therapy. The
son in the family told Hoffman "I'm in prison. I'm stuck with this
family. Hoffman responded:
And the conversation continued with a play on this metaphor. Did
the client hold the key? I can see this as "creative listening".
Can you? It built off of the client's imagery but it took it in a
direction that was creative. Samuels said about Hoffman:
I know what she means. Hoffman is famous for that creative part
of her thinking. Hoffman herself responded to this conversation between
Samulels and myself by saying:
Myself, I think this is modest on Hoffman's part. While it is true that her creativity seems to emerge from the client talk, I believe she adds what Samuels calls a "creative part" that transforms the dialogue in a distinctive way.
But creative understanding is not the only productive aspect of failure
to understand each other in exactly the correct terms. There iis
something productive about understanding breakdown. Tom
Conran put it this way:
I couldn't agree more. It is this misunderstanding that allows
creative twists and that also invites us to explore more deeply into the
subject matter at hand by, as Katherine
And, part of what emerges in that conversational exploration is there before we begin to talk about it, but part of it, at least, emerges from the creative twist that the listener brings to take the topic down new associative paths of uncharted meaning.
Maybe this is what Lois
Holzman meant when she said on PMTH that
The creative twist is the change through which one "comes to understand."
Growing old can be pleasure? Well, social constructionists Ken and Mary Gergen argue that it can be. Read their newsletter for ideas and inspiration for turning aging into something positive.
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I had a fabulous visit with Lynn Hoffman this last month. She simply jumped on a plane and landed in my vacinity where we talked and talked.
In fact, for almost two weeks we settled into conversations that i found most illuminating. We talked over breakfast, at lunch, and sat for hours in my office discussing everything from her new book, Family Therapy: An Intimate History to the application of postmodern philosophies to therapy. A couple of those conversations were video taped and I hope to make them available. Studying those will be good preparation for an Event I am planning on PMTH with Hoffman.
This is a book that charts Hoffman's study, experience and sometimes
enchantment and disenchantment with
Virginia Satir, instead, brought us a focus on the family's strengths and resources and gave us the word "dysfunctional" to replace the concept of "mad" or "bad." (p.14)
Oh, there is so much more. This is just a beginning. You
will hear more about this new book and Hoffman's journey through types
of family therapy, more about where she is now in her thinking, if you
read PMTH NEWS. Better yet, follow along while reading the book that
we will be reading and discussing. Again, it is:
Just because two theorists use the same words doesn't mean that they have the same concept. The conversation that I am having right now with Priscilla Hill and Jerry Shaffer is making this increasingly clear to me. What philosopher John Searle means by "social construction" seems different from what Ken Gergen means by that term.
Still, we are just working these issues out. You might join us in our reading, because I intend to report on any conclusions or insights we have. If you're inclined to do this, take a glance at:
Gergen, K. The social constructionist movement in modern psychology. American Psychologist. 1985 40(3) 266-275
I want to recommend Ken Gergen's new book and provide you with this bit of summary and review. The new book is called:
If you click on the title, it will take you to the Amazon page where you can buy the book.
But, first, perhaps, you'd like to hear a little about it. It's a book of readings by Kenneth Gergen, the author who is, probably more than anyone else, identified with "social constructionism" in the field of psychology, today. I will quote and comment on a few selected passages starting with the introduction and then I'll provide you with the table of contents.
On p.3, Gergen tells us that new forms of therapy work, community
building, and research have been influenced by social constructionism.
Then he tells us:
Rather than preach to the already convinced , Gergen tells us
that he wants to have dialogue with the unconvinced. Who are the unconvinced?
Critics, for example, who seem to feel that social constructionism
paints a picture of science that :
The book of readings Gergen presents us is intended to grapple with these problems. This reminds me of a remark recently made to me by Glenn Larner, that the question now for many postmoderns is how to learn to speak the language of those who would differ with us. I said much the same thing in a chapter I recently published in a book edited by Sloan, Critical Psychology, so there are a number of us who feel, today, that postmodern and social constructionist thinkers need to be concerned, at this point, in developing ways to talk with those who see things differently.
Or, as Gergen puts it, we need to learn to speak the tongue of our critics.
How do we do this? Looking ahead to chapter one I see the first
recommendation that Gergen makes: First, he notices that "realists"
are often key critics of social constructionism. Then, he points
out that social constructionists often use the language of realism to justify
their non-realist philosophy. And, at the same time, realist often
use the language of social constructionism to justify their own realist
philosophy. There is not only sense in this way of thinking, in my
view, but considerable humor. Let me show you. Here's
an imaginary dialogue between a social constructionist I'll call "SC" and
a realist I'll call "R" just for short:
If you know something about these two schools of thought, you are slapped with this paradox: Each school is arguing for the advantages of its own theory by using the argument from the opposing theory! It is a little like a Christian saying Christianity is right because it's Jewish while a Jew arguing that Judaism is right because it's Christian.
Crazy making? Not really, says Gergen, because:
This, so he explains,
This theme, sidestepping the senselessness of mutual blame, is a subject that Gergen has contributed to before. If you like his ideas, and I do, then I suggest you not only read the last book that I have reviewed here, but two of his other recent books:
invitation to Social Construction
Great reads, all of them. Just right for those of us trying to maneuver around this postmodern corner.
Now, I said I would give you the table of contents for Gergen's new book. let me end this review, then, by giving you the TOC for Gergen's new book,
Social constructionism in Context
Part 1: Social Constructionism and the Human Sciences
Part II: Social Construction and Societal Practice
Part III: Social Construction and Cultural Context
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