PMTH NEWS                                                                02/17/00

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A picture held us captive.  And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, #48e

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Is There Wisdom in Postmodernity?
Val Lewis

Jerry Shaffer began a conversation a week or so ago when he announced that he was soon to give a talk to an audience of retired people.  Shaffer said he was thinking of discussing wisdom as a topic, and he asked the PMTH community  for comments.  He wanted to know, for example, whether wisdom was a modernist concept and what postmodernists would have to say about it. He asked: Would postmodernists say that postmodernism is wise?

The answers tended to group several ways. First, there were the three replies that went to the issue of defining wisdom in terms of the people who were listening to the presentation. Tom Strong, Riet Samuels, and I (Val Lewis) were interested in the retired folks as a source of definitions of wisdom, and Strong spoke of wisdom "as a part of an oral tradition" in which the shared experiences of a lifetime would contribute to the usefulness of the concept of wisdom.

Then, Hershey Bell provided a quote from Socrates' defense before the Court of Athenians, in which the famous notion of "knowing that I know nothing" as an indication of wisdom was introduced... today echoed in the postmodern "end of knowing". 

Following along this line of thinking. Bryson Walb discussed the Tao Te Ching in which wisdom is not seen as being attached to learning, but points out that living one's life will provide a form of knowledge that includes perspective as opposed to an accumulation of facts. Facts are elusive behind the simplifying aspect of our language, and in  the first few lines of this classic text, we hear:

Though words or names are not required to live one's life according to the Tao, 
to describe it, words and names are used, that we might better clarify the way of which we speak, 
without confusing it with other ways in which an individual might choose to live. 

Several other posters mused, as well,  about how what is seen as wisdom in one context, is seen as 'folly' elsewhere or on other occasions (Katharine Levine, Don Smith).  Tom Hicks provided us with some of Oscar Wilde's view of 'wisdom' which includes the idea that we must think for ourselves and not expect others to think as we do.

Then, Lois Shawver drew our attention to a recent discussion with Richard Rorty  in which he proposed that wisdom might be a balance between stubbornness (which many felt was similar to sticking to one's pagan voice) and conversability (dialogue, generous listening).

And so, as ever, there were quite a few replies, although few actually addressed the questions Shaffer  specifically raised. Of interest is that the topic seemed to inspire quips and short answers, and I found myself wondering if this is a reflection of postmodern change, in which the notion of wisdom is gradually retreating from its once primary place in the forefront of philosophical inquiry and as a goal of the 'good life'. In my view, we each harbor our own interpretation of wisdom, and tend to share with Shaffer the view that "there is no one thing which is the essence of wisdom." But no-one rose to the 'bait' regarding whether postmodernists would say that postmodernism is itself "wise." I think we all will stick with Socrates on that one.

What did Shaffer finally say about wisdom in his talk?  The last I heard he had decided to speak on a different topic.

Can You Hear Our pagan yelps?
Lois Shawver

On page 10 of the Postmodern Condition, Lyotard says:

[The] rules [of language games] do not carry within themselves their own legitimation, but are the object of a contract, explicit or not, between players (which is not to say that the players invent the rules). 

What I think Lyotard means is two things.  First, we have to agree what terms mean in order to make sense together, and often this involves checking how each other is using terms.  Second,  it is not so easy to introduce a new term into a conversation.  Somehow the term has to make sense to people.  It has to feel useful.  Otherwise, after a brief flury the term drops out of mind. 

Still, this is what postmoderns do: this is our paganism. That is, being postmodern pagans we sometimes try to change the rules to make things work in other ways.  This is because we want to escape old rigid categories of thought.  The point is to tease new meaning and give birth to new ideas. . 

And it is in this pagan spirit that we at PMTH sometimes invent new terms.  Recently we have introduced a few.  They are little seedlings now, but if we nourish them, they may take root and flourish.  Certainly, our thinking about these concepts here can help that happen.

Consider Joe Pfeffer's new term "pagan yelp."  To me this is a splendid term.  Pfeffer was telling us that in his heart he had a passionate desire to argue against capital punishment, but, being postmodern, he realized that any position like this can always be deconstructed.  Nevertheless, although his position can be deconstructed, he wants to find a way to express his heart, and he called this expression his "pagan yelp."  Isn't that a splendid term?

And why can't a postmodern have a pagan yelp?  We have hearts, too, and there is no real need to justify every conclusion in terms of logic.  The postmodern must learn to live with this predicament, that many require logical justification while making room for the cries of the heart, the "pagn yelp." 

Terms like this are nournished with each new use.  And so it was when Judy Weintraub used this term in her discussion that she expanded its meaning.   Before the postmodern shift, Weintraub says, people have the 

...ability to simply invoke absolute criteria and let the matter rest - [but this is only possible] under conditions of relative homogeneity of language games.... 

That is, if we all use terms the same way, then we can sometimes agree just by stating criteria and agreeing on that.  And, yes, there are regions of language that are like this, even in postmodern times.  For the most part, for example, we can all agree what time it is in London, or the sum of two plus two.  But there are other regions, in which we are caught in different ways of talking. We are using different language games. This is particularly true today where diverse people come together and try to talk. This 

gives way to the constant onslaught of deconstructive situating of absolutes which then are no longer "absolute" anymore, but are simply the pagan yelps of just another paralogist. Under postmodern conditions, this doesn't mean that such yelps....are trivial and inconsequential.  They are just legitimated differently, and are less effective for establishing any sustained dominant consensus.

I like that statement.  It says that in postmodern conversations we cannot establish consensus by stating absolutes in which we all agree.  The conditions of the conversation has changed and something else is now required. 

But we can, I feel, give expression to our hearts, that is, our pagan voices.  Moreover, I feel, that when we learn to do this with some generosity towards others, our conversation is likely to produce paralogy. so that new and exciting ideas are born and sometimes thrive.

Making Space
Tom Strong

Back in late January, Lois Shawver started an evocative thread with this line:"Perhaps more than anything else in CLS, I am inspired by the metaphor of "making space." 

For those of you unfamiliar with CLS , the phrase stands for Collaborative Language Systems therapy. CLS therapy was developed by Harlene Anderson and the late Harry Goolishian at the Houston Galveston Institute.  The term  "making space" fits well with their conceptualization of therapy as a context for reflective and generative dialogue. To get a rough feel for what it means, think  of making space for someone at a dinner table.

At any rate, Shawver's kickoff posting on "making space" brought forth a range of responses regarding how therapists make space:



by being silent and saying less, to reflect together with clients on the differences between the conversations outside the consulting room and those possible inside it
b) by continuing talking without having to evoke positions, 


by clearing out our personal clutter so that we can be fully present to our conversational Other(s)


by inviting someone to put forward their opinions (while tempering ours) on what is being discussed or asking them to elaborate on an utterance


by becoming aware of what we do that stops dialogue and then not doing that, by seeing our involvement in dialogue as an ethical act in helping bring forth (or conversely, ignore or supplant) an Other's idioverses


viewing the "making of space" as an antidote to what Debora Tannen has referred to as an argument culture
g) seeing "space" as something therapists not so much furnish as they collaborate in  constructing/negotiating with clients
h) by creating a more Other-
receptive tone of voice and posture


by listening with a Derridean sense of (mis-)reading, knowing that any given meaning exists alongisde many unarticulated alternatives.

When we therapists try to make space  in therapy, we are quickly confronted with the question of how to do it, how to actually negotiate with clients in order to make that space.  Of course, it is not an exhaustive list, but it seems to me to be a good beginning.

Come Read with Us
Lois Shawver

Many PMTHers subscribe to an additional online community called AFT. People join AFT to collaborate in the reading of selected papers that are published in the Journal of Family Therapy. So far the readings last about three weeks, and there are two or three of them a year. 

And, I understand that from this point on the authors of the papers being discussed  will be included in the discussion from the beginning so it's really a great way to read new articles, chatting with the author about the meaning of a passage, and then with a colleague about the implications of the point.  What could be better?

The  next event will be on a quite interesting paper by a stimulating author, Glenn Larner.  Larner brings a Derridean perspective to his discussions that I find very valuable. Others who read PMTH NEWS are likely to do so, too.  This reading will start on Sunday, March 12th and continue through Saturday April 2st.

The best way for people to learn a little about the AFT forum, however,  is to visit the URL at:

From there it is possible to join the AFT list and to download the next discussion paper.

Chris Evans owns the list for the Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice in the UK, and David Pocock serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Family Therapy as the internet  moderator of this discussion..


This is a past issue of 
to visit the most recent issue 

Another PMTH Reporter
Lois Shawver

I announce with pleasure that PMTH subscriber, Val Lewis, has joined Tom Strong, Tony Michael Roberts and myself (Lois Shawver) in writing articles for PMTH NEWS.

Captives of Confusion
Lois Shawver

Surely, no one talks more clearly about confusion than Wittgenstein.  And, the topic of confusion is important for Wittgenstein. In fact, the theme of his later writing is that we get ourselves tangled into confusions, disoriented even, whenever we ask philosophical kinds of questions because there are snares in language that we seldom see.  Still, see them or not, these snares are there like little steel traps waiting to capture the minds of any one wandering through the tangles of philosophical perplexity.

Of course, in most contexts, language seems to work fine. We might go to a cafe, for example, and ask for coffee, and the waitress knows what to get us.  And, most of the time, we can tell our children , "Pick up your toys," and they seem to understand, whether they mind us or not.

But things are different when we do philosophy, and this is because, so Wittgenstein says, of the way our ordinary language is constructed.  And, once we are in this confusion:

We feel as if we had to repair a torn spider's web with our fingers.

Caught in this confusion, one might be led to say:

"But this is how it is _____" I say to myself over and over again. I feel as though, if only I could fix my gaze absolutely sharply on this fact, get it in focus, I must grasp the essence of the matter.

It is as though we are bewitched, but

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of a language.

in that

The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language.  These bumps make us see the value of the discovery.

What bewitches us about language?  Certain metaphors (or similies) that are absorbed in language, certain picturesque ways of speaking that have become so routine that we scarcely notice these metaphors have become maps of the world, misrepresenting the world at the same time that they give clear directions. 

   A simile that has been absorbed into the forms of our language produces a false appearance, and this disquiets us. "But this isn't how it is!"-- we say. "Yet this is how it has to be!" 

Finding our way out of this trap requires us to notice the metaphors that bewitch us.

What metaphors?  Well, take the metaphor about "inner" thoughts.  Just because nobody but you can hear your thoughts does that really make them inner in the simple sense that there is an inner and outer part of a refrigerator.  With a refrigerator, somebody opens it up, and she  can see what is inside.  But open up your body, your skull, your brain, and you are not likely to discover objects that are your thoughts.  And even if it were possible, if the neurosurgeon could put his ear up to your exposed brain and hear your thoughts, would that be any more inner than a whisper?

In other words, there is something fishy about the metaphor "inner" when it is applied to minds.  It feels right in a way, but there is something not quite right about it, too. 

So, you ask: How can we think about it otherwise?  That's the trick Wittgenstein hopes to teach us.  But if we hope to learn this trick, the first step is to recognize the philosophical confusion when it happens.
We are like flies who can only learn our way out of our fly bottles when we realize that we are pressing our noses up against a glass wall.  Only then can we start looking around for the mouth of the bottle.  Once we start that search, then perhaps Wittgenstein can help us.  When asked::

What is your aim in philosophy?

Wittgenstein answers:

To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. 

The idea is to find a way to escape this philosophical confusion.

For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. 

Can you see, then, why Wittgenstein conceived of his philosophy as a kind of therapy?  He said:

There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.

and also:

 The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness. 

Want to know more?  Then you might consider reading Wittgenstein.  All of the above is taken from what I consider to be the second section of the Philosophical Investigations, approximately aphorism #86 through #255.  It will make more sense if you ground this summary with a reading of the first 85 aphorisms, and you can read that,  by clicking here.

Welcome to My Idioverse
Says Postmodern to Another
Lois Shawver

There's a new word floating around PMTH and it's popping up its head in an increasingly wide range of posts.  The word is "idioverse."  This new term is the coinage of PMTHer, Kilian Fritsch.

Now, it isn't every day that a new term wins adherents with such enthusiasm.  But idioverse seemed to strike a chord. For example, Lynn Hoffman said to Fritsch:

 I like very much your notion of "idioverses."  I have long wanted a term to describe the thought palaces that domains of knowlege build around themselves, partly of words, partly of fealties and history. I thought I could use Bahktin's "many universes of consciousness, each with
its different world," but the prefix "idio" adds an essential flavor of

Before long Tom Strong and Nick Drury were using this word idioverse in their posts, too.

So, I asked Fritsch: What does it mean?  This catchy new term "idioverse?" 

And he told me that the term was related to universe.  But, whereas everything is included in the universe:

[t]he point of inventing this word [idioverse] was to underscore how particular are the the world(s) within which we live, perceive, interact, make sense, etc. 

And when I asked him to elaborate, he sent me some private notes saying that the pattern of our individual understandings cannot be fitted into a universal template, but rather 

people  organize  their lives according to some  idiosyncratic  pattern   which  can  be discerned and described.

In other words, as Hoffman suggested above, idioverses are "thought palaces" in the mind. 

Interesting term. I suspect the meaning of the term will be further clarified in use.  It reminds me somewhat of Hans Gadamer's term "horizon."  I used to have trouble with that term until I realized it was related to the idea that one could only see what was within one's horizon.  If you climbed to a high mountain you would have a wider horizon  and  if you moved to a different part of the world you would have a different horizon -- and thus be able to see different things.

For Gadamer, though, the key was bringing horizons together.  When I read him talking about this I pictured two people standing on a mountain looking in somewhat different directions but bringing those images together with words so that they had a more panoramic view of things.

And, maybe, this was what Drury was pointing to when he said:

For me these words and phrases are the keys to the idioverses that I need to enter with them, ...

That is, the trick is how to understand someone else's idioverse -- and since we must do that within our own idioverse, it means joining our idioverse with their's, our horizon with their's, and gaining a more panoramic view.

Ken Gergen on the Key Threat to Therapy
Lois Shawver

I have been making a study of Ken Gergen's work of late because  he is such an exciting postmodern author to read but also because I think he is going to accept my invitation to for him to visit PMTH to discuss his upcoming book with us.  (I have been able to preview this book and you should really order it.  I believe it is Gergen's best work to date.)

But what I am writing about now is completely separate.  I want to draw your attention to what Gergen tells us in the recent interview in the New Therapist. Here Gergen says that he thinks that the key challenge in the psychotherapy industry today is an economic one.  He asks: Will therapists continue to make a reasonable living doing therapy? 

What do you think?  It is no small matter that therapists are having a harder time making a living since the advent of managed care.  Will the profession continue to survive?  It's a serious question and we are going to have to think together, perhaps, to save it.

If you would like to read the Gergen article you can read it online.  Click here:

Page down to the center of the page where the article is announced, with the name Ghost in the Therapy Machine.  Just click on that and the article will be available to you.  Or click here to learn how to subscribe to this hot new magazine.

Also, let me add, the next issue of the New Therapist will include an interview of our own Lynn Hoffman, and an interview of me, as well.

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