PMTH NEWS                                                                04/20/00

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Every tradition closes the door to the new; every bold creation undermines a tradition. 
Ken Gergen, p.49

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What's All the Fuss About?

What is all the fuss we are making about Ken Gergen at the moment?  It is the advent of his publishing a new book, An Invitation to Social Constructionism. 

Want to learn more about this book?  Then, perhaps you would like to look at my review of it.  Just click here.

Introducing Sheila McNamee

It is my pleasure to introduce a new contributor to PMTH NEWS, Sheila McNamee.  McNamee is more than familiar with Gergen's philosophy.  She is a close colleague of Gergen's and has often published with him.  Their most recent joint publication was 1999 (Sage) book, entitled Relational Responsibility: Resources for Sustainable Dialogue.  (click here to see my review of that book)  And, click here to read more about Sheila McNamee

Social Constructionism and the 
Deconstruction of the Real
Shiela McNamee

On April 2, I was one of the people who lurked and observed the PMTH conversation with Ken Gergen.  I did it in part because Ken is a colleague and friend and I wanted to be able to talk with him after the event, knowing that I would appreciate the same.  Also, however, I am convinced of the social constructionist notion that meaning emerges in human relationships, and so I expected new meaning to emerge in the PMTH discussion because it opened new conversational possibilities.

There are certain issues that I notice are present in any discussion of social constructionism and they were not absent in the conversation here on PMTH.  One question that always seems to arise is: How can social constructionism critique the notion of the ˆ¨realˆÆ without positioning itself as simply another philosophy of the ˆ¨real.ˆÆ  This important topic was first raised in the  conversation by Glenn Larner when Larner asked Gergen, ˆ¨Does the idea of language game carry with it a sense that this is how things really are and that realists have got it wrong?  Or, if what Wittgenstein is saying is itself a language game, then how can it apply to the real world?ˆÆ

In answering Larner, Gergen explained that social construction is not against realism.  It simply raises the question of whether realism is the only discourse available and it affirms the importance of a multiplicity of
discourses in the conversation.  This is also one of the central themes of the book Ken and I wrote together, Relational Responsibility. 

In other words, both Gergen and I are suggesting that the philosophy of realism (in all its various forms) is a discourse not a truth telling. In describing realism as a discourse (rather than a discovered truth), we are free now to ask what potentials and constraints this discourse offers us. For example, does social constructionism show us (in Wittgenstein's words) "a way to go on togetherˆÆ?   That is, in those contexts in which I believe firmly that what you are doing is wrong and you believe the same about me, does a discourse other than our traditional, realist discourse give us hints as to how we might, nevertheless, still "go on"? If we rely solely on a realist discourse, where our focus is on individual capabilities, the chances might be great that our conflict  will escalate and may require a third party to mediate. And once this third party mediates, we may simply have to come to some forced agreement.  Perhaps an alternative discourse, a relational discourse emerging from a social constructionist sensibility, could offer some useful resources for going on together.  By "relational discourse" I mean conversations in which people discuss their situated, local activities within the broader context of cultural and historical ways of being and not just their individual propensities.

It is paradoxical, it seems to me, that this challenge to social constructionism requires social constructionism to evaluate itself within the criteria (i.e., "truth") of realist discourse.  The criteria used to evaluate a point of view is not a given, and its "truth" is, to my thinking, inappropriate as a criteria for social constructionism.  Social constructionists are not claiming a superior ˆ¨truthˆÆ or even a better way of being in the world.  They are focused on opening possibilities to multiple discourses, and this complex conversation will have, we hope, the voice of realists included.

Katherine Levineˆ‚s questions to Gergen were also worthy of some reflection.  Levine wanted to know if we could add to our discussion by asking about what is beyond words.  As a social constructionist, Gergen says, (and I agree, following Wittgenstein) that our worlds are created in language and that they are, therefore, relational constructions, not individual constructions.  But language is not limited to words, as Levine points out.  Levine talked persuasively of the significance of MRI readings, biological explanations, and other embodied forms of language. 

Nevertheless, from my point of view, Levine also stays within the criteria of "truth" that is offered by realist philosophies and does not take the social constructionist discourse as it presents itself.  For example, she quoted Gergen as saying, ˆ¨how we interpret whatever is there is deeply lodged within cultural meaning makingˆÆ and she wonders if for Gergen ˆ¨there is a quality that no truth can reside in deeply lodged meaning making.ˆÆ

Levine's question is important and shared by many.  To critique the notion of truth, as social construction does, implies to many that social constructionism has a cavalier indifference to the idea of truth (and to
others an extreme indifference).  As social constructionists we are not saying there is no truth.  We are saying that the truths that we live by are local achievements of people in relation to one another. To put it this way is certainly to question the notion of universal truth (such as "All good people do X"), but it is not to question the process of meaning
making whereby local truths and realities are created by people engaging with each other.   It challenges the idea that it is true that individuals are simply "happy people" or "angry people", for example, and replaces that with the notion that people together create contexts in which they are happy are angry.

Now the next issue that flows from this is what to do when the locally created realities of persons in relation are difficult, hurtful, or conflicted?  This topic was raised by David Pare in his question to Gergen: ˆ¨how (do) we go about deciding (with the other) that some meaning, some conversational direction, some description of identity, etc., is ˆ´rightˆ‚ at
this time and this place?ˆÆ  I will only raise this topic as one deserving much more discussion.  And thank you all for letting
me add my voice here.  I feel I am ˆ¨preaching to the choir.ˆÆ

The PMTH Imaginary Caseload
Lois Shawver

If you are following PMTH NEWS, then you know that PMTH has acquired some imaginary therapy clients.   These are sessions being composed by the credentialed therapists on PMTH in order to have data we can study and evaluate without violating confidentiality.  Sessions are composed by different therapists taking the role of client, therapist, or reflection team member and staged to create a therapy conversation.  The sessions are conducted with conversational contributions put forth in Email.

The first clients developed at PMTH were Jack and Jill.  Last PMTH NEWS, their second session was almost, but not quite complete.  The last passage in the session turned out to be, in my judgment, a very interesting transvaluation.  Throughout the sessions up to the point of the transvaluation, Jack had been interrupting Jill to complain that she did not talk enough.  To say that he "interrupted her" however is an arbitrarily characterize him in a negative way.   Jill would put it negatively, of course.   Taylor, however,  characterized Jack speech pattern transvaluatively saying, aptly, I thought, that Jack was "doing the lion's chair of putting himself on the hotseat."  Look at this second session, comment 60 and see how Taylor put this. 

This week, Jack and Jill's therapy has been taken over by Kilian Fritsch.  This third session, too, seems quite promising to me.  Jack is very apprehensive, understandably, that Jill see him as just another negative male, which Jill has some tendency to do.  (This tendency to view each other negatively goes both ways, however.)    Go to Fritsch's comment in 47 to see how a path is being made for Jack to listen to Jill without this fear of being demeaned in the therapy.

Do not think this kind of transvaluation is done merely as a ruse.  Therapy like this can be conducted to help the clients see themselves less negatively has the simultaneous effect, hopefully, of helping the therapists see them less negatively, too.

In addition to the Jack and Jill therapy case, a new individual imaginary case has been picked up by Judy Weintraub.  This is the case of Barb.  Barb is now in the middle of her first session.  She is an office worker in her early twenties.  Her presenting problem is that she is worried that her boyfriend (who happens to be the doctor that Barb works for) is attracted to, and flirting with another attractive office worker.  Barb comes to therapy hoping to find out if she is herself "crazy", that is, if the problem is really that the boss is flirting or whether she, Barb is just imagining it.  Barb, too, needs to collaborate with her therapist to find a safe path to examine this problem, and Weintraub seems to be trying to help her find such a path. 

You can watch these cases unfold without waiting for the next issue of PMTH NEWS.  That is, therapy updates will be posted to the transcripts periodically during the intermim between editions of PMTH NEWS.  Because these are not real cases, certain liberties (such as transfer of cases) will be treated more lightly than they would in real cases.

Go to our case load page to track these sessions, and, for easy access, note that a special tool has been put in the toolbar to access the imaginary PMTH caseload.  Look in the blue tool bar to the left, up near the top, right under the tool that says "About PMTH."

Missed an Issue of PMTH NEWS?
Lois Shawver

So, you've been tied up and you missed an issue of PMTH NEWS?  Never fear.  Old issues are not being tossed away.  You can always reach them by going to the top of our toolbar (there to the left -- the blue bar is our "tool bar").  Up at the top, right under the tool called "about PMTH" is another one called "previous editions of PMTH NEWS".  See it?  Click on it and you'll find a table of content for PMTH NEWS editions going way back.  There is even a little summary of what is contained in each edition.

Can't quite find what you want nevertheless.  Never fear, the second route to finding it consists in doing a search.  Use the search engine at the top corner of PMTH NEWS.  Then, see if you can recall a little of what you are looking for.  Try to think of a fairly unique word that would have appeared in that article, perhaps a name you recall.  Then, type that into the search field, click to search, and you will call up a list of all articles containing that word.  If that doesn't work, try a few other key words.

Racing Through Wittgenstein 
at Two Miles an Hour
Lois Shawver

Since its inception nearly two years ago, PMTH has always had an ongoing reading of the classic work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Philosophical Investigations.   This is the book that has inspired many of the people you will read about on PMTH, from Jean-Francois Lyotard, Fred Newman and Lois Holzman, Kenneth Gergen, Sheila McNamee, Harry Goolishian, Harlene Anderson, John Shotter, Steve de Shazer, Lynn Hoffman, myself (Lois Shawver), Judy Weintraub, Nick Drury, Diana Cook, John Walter, Tom Strong, Val Lewis, David Pocock,  Harry Korman, Ulf Korman and many others as well.    Some of these people have actively contributed to our Wittgensein readings, going passage by passage through this text, others have looked over our shoulder, and some have studied their Wittgenstein independently. 

But the Wittgenstein readings on PMTH is now a tradition.  Many of us have read Wittgenstein before, but few have actually studied him collaboratively online before.  This collaborative process that takes work.  Although it pays off, I feel, to read him so closely together, the process is inevitably slow.  We have spent years reading the first 100 aphorisms.  These are key aphroisms, however, and lay the foundation for reading the rest of the text.

For the last few weeks, however, we have raced ahead and read 10 new aphorisms.

If you are not a member of PMTH, but want to read over our shoulder, I have prepared a Wittgenstein commentary on the aphorisms we have read.  The latest aphoisms we have read are now posted to this commentary. You can reach it at:


You are reading  a past issue of 
to visit the most recent issue 

The Ken Gergen Event Happened
So-- How Did it Go?
Lois Shawver

Let me see if I can give you a general feel for the big event with Kenneth Gergen went.  At 4:02 Pacific Daylight Savings Time, it began like this:

LOIS Shawver: Ken, Are you with us? 
       Could you give us a sign?
KEN Gergen: Lois....I am now with you...
       and very happily so...Ken
TOM Strong: Hi Ken.  Welcome aboard 
       here.  Have you ever done this sort 
       of thing before?  ...
KEN: Thanks, Tom...yes, I have done 
        this sort of thing once before, and 
        I must admit, before the technology 
        was quite here we explore 
        yet another brave new world...and I 
        have high hopes...

Then, while an unknown number of PMTH subscribers lurked and listened, nine  outspoken PMTH conversationalists began to ask Ken Gergen questions, lots of questions, and very faced paced.  Every conversationalist had a particular topic and set of concerns which Gergen managed in a dialogue that sometimes looked to me a bit like a chess master playing simultaneous chess games.  He seemed very capable of keeping all the threads straight even though, within a period of less than three hours, he had 47 posts directed at him, the great majority of which he managed to answer in some form or another.

And, finally, at 6:52 Pacific time, Ken Gergen said his adieu to PMTH and the Ken Gergen Event on PMTH was over.  He promised he would be back -- but, when, and how, we have yet to learn. 

But I am glad he intends to come back.  As he could surely tell, we are just beginning to explore with him the issues we think are relevant to our postmodern work.

So, from the standpoint of one of the conversationalists, and from the feedback I have received from others, The Ken Gergen Event was a very engaging and exciting experience.  And, if you'll page through this issue of PMTH NEWS you will learn a bit more of the content of what we discussed during this electronic event.  Then, by next issue, I hope to be able to publish the archives of this event.

Constructing a therapeutic language
Val Lewis

Are you a realist?  Or a social constructionist?  The worthiness of each position has been a hot topic on PMTH in the last few weeks, partly no doubt because of the Gergen Event.  To simplify things a bit, realists argue that labels name what is truly there.  Social constructionists point to the way in which we configure the world we talk about with the categories in language that we set up to accomplish our many purposes. 

Our conversation about this started with Jerry Schaffer asking if social constructionists thought that adding "plutonium" to the periodic recently was just a social construction based on the scientists' "rhetorical ploy" or if the word "plutonium" named something that was really there.

Tom Strong admitted "rhetorical ploy" wasn't the right concept for adding plutonium to the table, yet scientists were still constructing the periodic table for the scientific purposes they envisioned.  Then, Strong invited Schafer to consider the DSM similarly to the periodic table.  Strong argued that the psychiatric categories in the DSM may make it seem as though diagnosticians are discovering real forms of mental illness, but the way they carve up the categories is not an innocent reflection of what Ian Hacking called [after Plato] the "joints in nature."  When the diagnostician configures a person as mentally ill, she does so with a purpose in mind, and it would be possible, under other circumstances, to configure them differently.  Would you be satisfied, Strong asked, if, we could argue that we call Moses, Mohammed or Buddha "mentally ill"  If we found a way to show their spiritual experiences  filled the criteria for a mental health disorder?

This note from Strong inspired Joe Pfeiffer to talk about an article on the diagnosis of an Apache Shaman, Black Eyes.  The diagnosis was made from a Rorschach inkblot assessment, by Bruno Klopfer.  Pfeiffer gave us some excerpts from Black Eyes' "richly textured story of his life and world view."  This information, we learned, was reconfigured by the Rorschach analysis to diagnose Black Eyes as having ˆ´character disorderˆ‚ (with oral and phallic fixations, etc.)  Such a diagnosis does violence to different meanings in the Apache culture and even looked some counterevidence from our own worldview. 

Lois Shawver then entered the conversation by observing how the application of labels can end up giving us self-fulfilling prophecies. As she pointed out, the therapist who makes a diagnosis may then unwittingly watch for its signs and ignore alternative signs.  This led her to ask how we might describe clients so that we were left with a more flexible language suitable for therapeutic processes. She said,  ˆ¨[P]athologizing labels like DSM numb our hearts and block the kind of vision [we need for doing therapy].ˆÆ 

Cathy Birkett responded to Shawver by pointing out that sometimes the diagnostic labels bring a form of relief to people bewildered by what has been happening to them. Shawver then questioned whether quick ˆ´reliefˆ‚ was the best measure here and suggested we should be looking, instead, for a language that allows collaborative redefinitions.  Birkett agreed, and argued that, in her view, Narrative Therapy's "externalization" can be used flexibly in this way. 

Shawver repeated that diagnostic labels of all sorts tend to be conversational dead-end alleys.  Relating our discussion to Gergen's critique of individualism, she noted that ˆ¨We are all caught in the trap of seeing individuals as atoms of causation rather than thinking in terms of complex interacting causes and influence.ˆÆ 

So, for now, the conversation has ended with this question:  How can we construct a therapeutic language for people?  That is, how can therapists talk about their clients (i.e., socially construct them) so that they are not treated just as atoms of causation, but rather as people acting out contexts that can only be unveiled when our language is provisional and exploratory.

Poetic Activism as a Reason for Optimism
Lois Shawver

Last issue I told you I would ask Kenneth Gergen about his optimism.  Well, in the flury of notes I didn't get to it.  But, I am glad to tell you that Tom Strong did.  Referring to Nicolas Rose, Strong asked:

[Rose] feels you portray too optimistic a view of our ability to liberate ourselves from the governmental effects of discourse, that our self narrating abilities, as he sees you describe them, are too bound to the romantic notion of a hero able to transcend the limitations imposed on us by

So, how did Gergen respond?  First, he said, 

I fear Nick [Rose] hasn't read my work carefully enough (it has been ten years since we spent any time together).  There is no way in which I would endorse a view of the individual as a romantic hero who can alone transcend the weight of traditional discourse.

Gergen continued

There are many reasons for my comparative optimism, and we can explore some of these issues later if you wish. However, for now I will just say that the existing "powers" remain such only because we participate in their regimes of meaning. Without "us" they fail to be powers. And, within our dialogues we have the capacity to move meaning down the road, as it were...poetic activism again...or "generative theory" in more formal terms.  Think of the Soviet Union...complete control of all educational systems, the government, social organizations, etc...and the story ultimately flopped...Much more to say about these issues... (italics mine)

Notice the  term "poetic activism" that I have highlighted above.  That term attracts me quite a bit.  The picture this term brings forth in my mind is the picture of someone using language to deliberately create new paths of conversation, new paths which, of course, will open new ways to live and be together.

A little sideline of Judy Weintruab's complex and interesting conversation with Gergen contained a hint of what this might involve.  Weintraub asked Gergen why he thought Kuhn's book, the Structure of Scientific Revolution, was so influential.  Gergen said, " I think part of the reason for his influence is his title, which contains the word "revolution."   It makes sense to publish a book with a catchy title like this .  Weintraub agreed  saying, "I think you are right about the difference such a label could make, though, I had never thought of that before. Certainly Black Body Theory is not so catchy. When I ordered it at the bookstore I felt extremely nerdy, whereas revolutions are always hip (except in places like Little Havana)..."

I (Lois Shawver) asked Gergen specifically about poetic activism.  I said:

I wonder if you would expand on your notion of "poetic activism" (p.41 of your book).   Heidegger has given us the notion of "poetizing", which I think of on the model of giving a name to cluster of stars.  Before the cluster was called "a big dipper" is was not thought of as a thing.  So, "poetizing" at least as some of us here use the term here, means to use language "to shape amorphous unnamed stuff into a thing"? or into something that can be talked about like a thing.*

But I think "poetic activism" might mean something a bit different than that, something more deliberate, more closely connected with "activism."

Is that right?  Could you talk about what you mean by this term?

Here is how Gergen responded:

The concept of poetic activism was primarily a way of speaking about our construction of new worlds (and thus, new domains of action and relationship). To speak nonpoetically (that is, normally, literally, prosaically) is to use a language of the real...that which we already assume to be the case. If we are to generate new realities we may often find it necessary to press language past its conventional play with words, denaturalize them, generate new juxtapositions, foster new metahpors, and so that the possibility of new realities can emerge...and thus, new forms of life. So Heidegger has a good point, but the socio/political implications are not elaborated.

That's my picture of things, too.  Heidegger did not elaborate the political side of poetizing (Shawver, 1996)

 Glenn Larner's comments on poetic activism help to illustrate this concept:

I think poetic activism captures the notion that words make a difference to what really is, that they act upon a world that while formed by language is to some extent independent of it. Also for Wittgenstein ,'language games' and 'forms of life' enabled an alternative thinking of philosophy.  They were not concerned with empirical or scientific statements about the real world but with philosophical propositions.

And so, you see, Kenneth Gergen has equipped us with a new vocabulary for talking about the politics of everyday poetry.  We can call it, "poetic activism."


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