PostmodernTherapies NEWS                 02/01/02
(Also known as PMTH NEWS)

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 I should like to say: conversation, the application and further interpretation of words flow on and only in this current does a word have its meaning.
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Remarks on 
the Philosophy of Psychology
Aphorism #240.


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On Our Understanding Each Other
or Not
Lois Shawver

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:

The cat is on the front steps.

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: 
Sometimes, one just responds mechanically to words, much as we respond to smiles and other nonverbal gestures.  Imagine this:  You're watching a thriller in a movie theatre when an annoying voice to your left says,  "Excuse me, please."   Ugh.  You pull in your legs to let her pass while you're craning your neck, keeping your eyes on the screen.  What signifieds were triggered to the phrase "excuse me" or by the word "please"?  What if she had just tapped you on the shoulder and given you a significant look, wouldn't you have gotten the same message?  Are words really so special that they required a different explanation than significant looks?  To my ear, this talk of signifieds is more hocus pocus than science.  (cf Wittgenstein). 

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.
Only then can we free ourselves from this belief that we always know what each other is saying.  Only then are we curious enough to ask, "What do you mean" and wise enough to listen to the answer. Only then can we forfeit listening to monologs and switch to having conversation.

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,

 I should like to say: conversation, the application and further interpretation of words flow on and only in this current does a word have its meaning.


Creative Listening
and Understanding
Lois Shawver

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.  Strong said:

I've become quite interested in how people explain understanding each other. I have a few thoughts that I'll be glad to share, but how do others see understanding occurring?

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.

Tom Hicks said:

Bakhtin used the term "creative understanding" because when we try to
understand another's expressions we always misunderstand them because it is impossible to duplicate their meanings exactly... so when we understand we
create new understandings in the attempt.  Understanding is a Creative Act.

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:

I don't know.  Maybe you're the one who holds the key to the door
(Hoffman, p. 58). 

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'm sure her images touch a chord with her clients. You can't come up with those
images without listening carefully, but then there is that added touch: the
creative part...

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:

What continues to impress me is when an image seems to come out of the exchange rather than being suggested by the therapist.

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:

 We need each other, and we fulfill much of this need by
mutual comprehension - punctuated by periodic breakdowns that give us
chances to keep at it.

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 Levine said:

through a combination
of listening, asking the right questions, making the right
comments and being silent at the right times.

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

Change is the activity through which one comes to understand

The creative twist is the change through which one "comes to understand."

Postmodern Geriatrics
Lois Shawver

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.

Click here

Until Spring
Lois Shawver

Dear friends, The next issue of PMTH NEWS will appear in early spring.  If you would like to receive notices of the publication of PMTH NEWS, just write me.  I will send anyne these announcements. 

Click here to receive a form to write me and to receive announcements.

Want to Join Us?

Lois Shawver

PMTH is a closed community for professional therapists, as well as scholars,professors and graduate students with specialities related to therapy. We keep our list reserved this way in order to have a special place for people who are concerned with doing good therapy to discuss their personal issues about therapy in some depth.  We go to other lists to discuss things with people who don't fit this profile.  If you want to invite one of us to a list you're on, there is a way to do that.  Or, if you fit the profile for membership to PMTH, you can consider joining us.  Whichever you want, you can write me, by clicking


This will send a post to me, Lois Shawver.  Tell me of your interest. If you are looking to join us, also give me a little information about yourself that tells me how you fit the profile for joining the PMTH online community.  And, in either case, .tell me that you got the idea to write by reading PMTH NEWS.


My Visit with Lynn Hoffman
Lois Shawver

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 
various forms of family therapy.  She gives us an intimate portait of the therapy of people like Jay Haleyl  Haley, she said

believed that people with problems were playing a control game.  If the therapist presscribed the symptom, then the client would have to abandon it in order to "win."

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:

Lynn Hoffman (2002) Family Therapy: An Intimate History.  New York: Nortons.

click here to find it on Amazon

Two Kinds of Social Construction
Lois Shawver

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 

Searle, J. R. The Construction of Social Reality 

Ken Gergen's New Book
Lois Shawver

I want to recommend Ken Gergen's new book and provide you with this bit of summary and review.  The new book is called:

Social Construction 
in Context

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:

I find these developments in metatheory, theory and practice enormously exciting and worthy of continued dedication.  At the same time, however, these developments are bought at a certain cost - that of [the] growing isolation [of social constructionism].  These various [new] dialogues and practices have brought constructionism into a productive self- consciousness, but simultaneously tended to create constructionism as a domain unto itself.

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 :

renders science equivalent to mythology... [Also, other critics who]  find find constructionism's moral and political relativism pallid if not reprehensible.  And [finally,] still others [who] find that constructionism has been all too occupied with critique, and its substantive contribution to social understanding too narrow.

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:

The advantage of social construction is that it is right and true.



 I don't know about social constructionism being right and true, but the advantage of realism is that we can socially construct it any way we like.


So, you don't believe in the real truth of the theory you market?


No, I just believe realism is the most productive way of talking. 
Well, I believe in the truth of social constructionism.

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:

No longer am I [the social constructionist] thrusting the defender [of realism] into the position of the evil others, but rather I am inviting him/her to consider with me our common condition.  If this invitation is accepted then we embark on a new form of relationship, one with a potentially productive as opposed to destructive telos.

This, so he explains, 

might help us sidestep patterns of mutual blame.

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:

1) An invitation to Social Construction
And notice my review on that page.  I'm a fan of this book.  (I only write about authors here that I admire.)
2) Relational Responsibility (co-authored by Sheila McNamee).

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
1 Constructionism and Realism: A Necessary Collision?
2 The Place of the psyche in a Constructed World
3 The Limits of Pure Critique
4 Who Speaks and Who Responds in the Human Sciences?
History and Psychology: Conflict and Communion

Part II: Social Construction and Societal Practice

6 Therapy as Social Construction with Lisa Warhus
7 Social Construction and Pedagogical Practice with Stanton Wortham
8 Ethical Challenge of a Global Organization
9 Organizational Science in a Postmodern Context with Tojo Thatchenkery

Part III: Social Construction and Cultural Context

10 From Identity to Relational Politics
11 Technology, Self and the Moral Project

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Lois Shawver

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