CEPA eprint 3750

Relativism and the social constructivist paradigm. Philosophy, Psychiatry

Gillett E. (1998) Relativism and the social constructivist paradigm. Philosophy, Psychiatry. and Psychology 5: 37–48. Available at http://cepa.info/3750
Table of Contents
Constructivist Relativism
Hoffman’s Social Constructivist Paradigm
Critique of the Social Constructivist Paradigm
Summary and Conclusions
The central thesis of this paper is that most versions of epistemological relativism and constructivism fall into two categories which I call “noncontroversial” versus “controversial.” The former holds that beliefs about reality are constructed by the mind and are relative to various frameworks: history, culture, and individual circumstances. Controversial constructivist relativism holds, by contrast, that truth itself is constructed by the mind and is relative to various frameworks including those Kuhn (1970) calls “paradigms.” Controversial constructivist relativism tends to exert a detrimental influence on psychoanalysis by undermining the search for truth in both theory and clinical practice. Arguments are presented to show that controversial constructivist relativism (CCR) is untenable whereas noncontroversial constructivist relativism (NCR) is trivial in the sense that nobody disputes it. Hoffman’s social-constructivist paradigm (endorsed by Gill) is untenable to the extent that it espouses CCR. Although both Hoffman and Gill explicitly reject CCR in some of their statements, other statements appear to embrace CCR. They can resolve this logical inconsistency by retracting those statements that endorse CCR but at the cost of rendering the social-constructivist paradigm epistemologically trivial. These same arguments apply to the issue of relativism in hermeneutics and postmodernism.
Key words: psychoanalysis, science, social constructivism, epistemology, fact, reality, empirical, validation, hermeneutics, postmodernism
The seventy-fifth anniversary issue of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis is devoted to the question “What is a psychoanalytic fact?” The editor, David Tuckett, says that
Psychoanalysis today, to judge by what we know of both theory and practice, is in a state of considerable ferment. We have schools of analysis which appear to be entirely at odds with one another. We have extreme forms of relativism…. After seventy-five years it is time not only to review our methodology for assessing our truths, but also to develop approaches that will make it possible to be open to new ideas while also being able to evaluate their usefulness by reasoned argument. The alternative is the Tower of Babel…. Nonetheless, I assert that by and large our standards of observation, of clarifying the distinction between observation and conceptualization, and our standards of discussing and debating our observations are extraordinarily low: and they have received far too little attention (1994, 865).
Although many of the authors writing in this anniversary issue subscribe to standard views of science, some endorse a relativist epistemology. For example, Ornstein and Ornstein assert “that psychoanalytic clinical facts are jointly created by patient and analyst and are to a great degree dependent on the analyst’s mode of observation and theory” (1994, 977). This follows from what they call “a slowly developing post-positivist climate in psychoanalysis.” I believe that the pervasive influence of relativist thinking in psychoanalysis may have contributed to the “extraordinarily low” standards of discussion underscored by Tuckett above. By denying the existence of truth, controversial constructivist relativism undermines the search for consensus achieved through scientific debate. Insufficient concern for theory validation is one of the most often voiced criticisms of psychoanalysis (see Edelson 1984).
The harmful effects of relativist epistemology on clinical practice are not as easy to ascertain because those who explicitly espouse controversial constructivist relativism reject its logical consequences – namely, that “anything goes.” They tend to conflate controversial and noncontroversial versions of constructivist relativism. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to infer that such clinicians are more apt to neglect the exploration of transference distortion in the therapeutic process. As we shall see later on when Hoffman’s ideas are discussed in more detail, relativists tend to deny the possibility of distortion in the transference or to view it as purely a matter of emphasis. The denial of distortion is a consequence of the relativist notion that each individual has his or her own “constructed” reality with its own truth. The exploration of transference distortion is central to more traditional views of the therapeutic process.
Hoffman and Gill have proposed new and interesting ideas for therapeutic practice, none of which relies on relativist epistemology. They urge analysts to be less dogmatic and arrogant in assuming that they have privileged access to the truth about what transpires in the therapeutic relationship and to be less dismissive of the patient’s beliefs about this reality. The acknowledgment of a high degree of uncertainty in the therapist’s clinical judgments about the patient’s subjective experience is not equivalent to controversial constructivist relativism. One of the major points made by Hoffman and Gill is that the patient’s transference reaction to the therapist is not simply a distorted projection onto a “blank screen” but can often be explained as an understandable response to an accurate perception of the therapist’s behavior. One of Hoffman’s most interesting ideas is that the therapist must sometimes help the patient overcome a resistance to expressing thoughts and feelings based on a true perception of the analyst’s subjectivity (1983, 413–415).
For a better understanding of the positive contributions of Hoffman and Gill to psychoanalytic technique, I refer the reader to their writings. The focus of my paper is on the confusion resulting from conflating controversial and noncontroversial versions of constructivist relativism. Hoffman’s social-constructivist paradigm is based on the ideas of social constructivism in the field of sociology which embraces the philosophical doctrine of epistemological relativism.[Note 1] Although contemporary psychiatry and psychology are firmly committed to the natural science model, a significant segment of the psychoanalytic community regards psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic discipline rather than a natural science.
Why should it be controversial to regard psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic discipline, since interpretation is obviously of central importance? As Gill notes (1994, 4), many assume that a hermeneutic discipline cannot be scientific. The reasons for the incompatibility of these two labels must lie in the meaning of the term “hermeneutic.” There are several different views on the nature of hermeneutics. Some associate the label with a radical relativism incompatible with the status of natural science. These hermeneuticists criticize others (e.g., Hirsch 1967) who argue for the importance of empirical validation.
The purpose of this paper is to criticize the doctrine of constructivist relativism in its controversial form and will focus on the social-constructivist paradigm formulated by Hoffman (1991) and endorsed by Gill (1994). Although I believe Phillips (1991; 1996) has made a useful contribution in arguing for a hermeneutic dimension to psychoanalysis, it seems to me his views lean too far in the direction of controversial relativism. My critique of social constructivism applies equally to relativism in hermeneutics.
Constructivist Relativism
In order to evaluate Hoffman’s social-constructivist paradigm, I propose what I hope is a useful clarification. There are many kinds of relativism, comprehensively surveyed by Harré and Krausz (1996), but those most relevant to our concerns fit into two categories on the basis of whether beliefs or truth are alleged to be relative to some framework. I call the first “noncontroversial relativism” because it seems obvious that a person’s beliefs are powerfully influenced by history, culture, and individual circumstances. For example, beliefs about the stars were very different in the period preceding the invention of the telescope. Most people accept the prevailing beliefs of their culture. Scientists tend to be strongly biased in favor of their own ideas.
I call the second category “controversial relativism” because it seems to me untenable that the truth of a given belief is relative to a framework. Controversial relativism says that a belief and its negation can both be true relative to different frameworks. Varieties of controversial relativism differ with respect to the framework in question. One form holds that each person’s beliefs are relative to the individual. Another holds that the truth of a belief is relative to a person’s culture. When I refer to “relativism” without qualification, it should be understood I am referring to the controversial version.
Some varieties of relativism discussed by Harré and Krausz are not relevant to epistemology, which is the defining feature of Hoffman’s social-constructivist paradigm. For example, we will not be concerned with moral and aesthetic relativism. I don’t believe I overlook any kind of relativism that would make a difference to my thesis. One absolutist thesis mentioned by Harré and Krausz holds that “All people at all times and in all cultures could be brought to agree on assessment of meaningfulness, existence, goodness (moral worth) and beauty (aesthetic value) of the relevant entities” (24). The denial of this thesis is one variety of relativism that is clearly included in my definition of noncontroversial relativism.
To evaluate Hoffman’s social-constructivist paradigm, it is important to understand the relationship of relativism to constructivism. There are two radically different versions of constructivism which correspond to the two categories of relativism. Noncontroversial constructivism asserts that beliefs are constructed by the mind. Who would doubt this? Noncontroversial constructivism obviously meshes with the noncontroversial relativist claim that beliefs are influenced by history, culture, and personal circumstances.
Understanding controversial constructivism requires a grasp of the relationship between a belief and its “referent” – i.e., what the belief is “about.” It is noncontroversial that beliefs influence reality via their effects on a person’s actions. Controversial constructivism, however, asserts that beliefs have a direct influence on their referents and, in fact, “construct” these referents. Mount Everest exists because people believe it exists.
Radical constructivism is linked to the philosophy of antirealism. Searle (1995) describes two versions of antirealism, “First, the view that all reality consists in conscious states, and, second, the view that reality is socially constructed, that what we think of as ‘the real world’ is just a bunch of things constructed by groups of people. To have labels, let us call the first view ‘phenomenalist idealism, ’ and the second ‘social constructionism’” (183). Searle answers the question of how we construct an objective social reality and defends realism, the idea that there is a real world independent of our thought. He defends a correspondence theory of truth according to which our true statements are typically made true by how things are in the real world that exists independently of the statements (xii).
My claim that controversial constructivism is untenable requires some qualification. If truth is a correspondence between beliefs and reality, then truth is constructed in the sense that beliefs are constructed. Beliefs are expressed in a language which is also constructed. What is not constructed is the extra-linguistic fact which is the referent of a true belief. There are beliefs about beliefs and beliefs about language. Although the referents of these beliefs are constructed, this does not mean that the truth is constructed in an interesting epistemological sense. The existence and nature of a belief’s referent is independent of the belief itself, regardless of whether the referent is Mount Everest or some socially constructed aspect of reality. Beliefs (and all mental representations) are constructed, but which beliefs accurately represent reality is a matter of discovery.
Because I speak of “truth” as a correspondence between beliefs and reality, it may be objected that my critique is vulnerable to alternative concepts of truth such as the coherence or pragmatic theory. The correspondence theory of truth has been criticized on the grounds that we have no direct access to “things in themselves” and therefore have no way of knowing whether truth corresponds to reality. We judge the truth of a belief on the basis of how it coheres with other beliefs. However, any sophisticated coherence theory assigns a privileged status to observation sentences. It would be absurd to claim that any arbitrarily selected coherent set of statements is true. Some philosophers opt for a correspondence theory of the meaning of “truth” and a coherence theory of justification. The important point is that philosophers who debate rival theories of truth agree that the outcome would not make a difference to the truth values working scientists actually assign to statements. I choose the correspondence theory because it provides the most convenient language for discussing the issue of relativism.[Note 2]
The clarifying distinction described above helps explain why constructivist relativism has been so influential as well as why it is untenable in its controversial form. Many embrace constructivist relativism because they fail to draw a clear distinction between the noncontroversial and the controversial versions. The plausibility of the controversial version trades on the plausibility of the noncontroversial version. Constructivists support their position with arguments that are valid for the noncontroversial version but then, illegitimately, switch the conclusion of their argument to refer to the controversial version.
Devitt (1984) presents one of the most comprehensive critiques of constructivism, which he sees as arising from two ideas of Kant – “the idea of an unknowable, noumenal world independent of us; and the idea of the known, phenomenal world as partly our creation through the imposition of concepts” (235). Constructivism results from combining these two ideas with relativism leading to the notion that people literally live in different worlds. Consequently, their world views are incommensurable. The line of reasoning leading to constructivism starts with the claim that all beliefs are theory-laden and fallible. This is alleged to imply epistemic relativism, which in turn implies semantic relativism, which leads to ontological relativism. Devitt denies the validity of this chain of inferences.
Devitt notes that constructivist claims taken literally appear so absurd that one searches for a charitable way of interpreting them, which he describes as follows: “A metaphorical interpretation of much of this talk is easy to find. (1) Our theories of the world really are our constructions. So we can take talk of world construction as a colorful way of talking of theory construction. (2) It is plausible to think of the mind as imposing theories on our experiences of the world…. This charity is encouraged by the careless way in which some Constructivists vacillate between talk of theories and talk of the world” (239). Constructivists commonly speak of “constructing reality” when the expression plausibly refers to constructing beliefs about reality. Switching back and forth between two different meanings for the term “reality” (beliefs about reality and reality itself) is the error of equivocation in which arguments that support the noncontroversial version of constructing beliefs are used to support the controversial version of constructing reality itself.
Why is controversial relativism untenable? Perhaps the most influential version of relativism worthy of refutation is that associated with Kuhn’s concept of incommensurable paradigms. Recall that controversial relativism holds that a belief and its negation can both be true relative to different frameworks. The same applies to beliefs which may not contradict each other in the formal logical sense but which are mutually incompatible. For example, a thing cannot be both red and green all over. How can the relativist maintain that two incompatible beliefs can both be true relative to different incommensurable paradigms? Kuhn’s reasoning is that different paradigms carry with them different standards for judging the truth of various beliefs. Consequently, two incompatible beliefs might both be judged true by the different standards of each paradigm.
However, if no standards for judging truth are superior to those of any other paradigm, it logically follows that “anything goes.” For any belief it is possible to invent a paradigm whose standards would justify that belief. Absurd paradigms justifying absurd beliefs can only be excluded if one believes there is a privileged set of standards by which the standards of other paradigms can be judged. This is why Quine (1969) dissociates himself from what he views as Kuhn’s “epistemological nihilism.” Whether or not Kuhn espouses controversial relativism as I have defined it has been debated (see Bernstein 1983).
In his discussion of incommensurability, Kuhn (1990) claims that believers in rival paradigms can understand and argue with each other even if the terms of one paradigm cannot be translated into those of the other. This would seem to undermine the relativism that has been attributed to him. Some of Kuhn’s followers clearly do espouse a radical relativism along the lines discussed above. Such a stance logically implies that “anything goes,” a position that cannot be disproved but which few avowed relativists wish to embrace.
Haack (1993) says, “It is open to question whether, in the relevant sense, epistemic standards really are local, parochial, culturally variable” (197). She accounts for most apparent differences in terms of background beliefs: “My conjecture is that the very deep-seated disagreements which have encouraged the idea that standards of evidence are culture-relative – or, in the intra-scientific form of the variability thesis, paradigm-relative – may be explicable in a similar way; as lying, that is, in a complex mesh of further disagreements in background beliefs, rather than in any deep divergence of standards of evidence” (207).
Let us conclude with a refutation of relativism by Boghossian (1996). He uses an example from a front-page article in the New York Times of October 22, 1996, dealing with two views of where Native American populations came from. According to the scientific account, humans entered the Americas from Asia, crossing the Bering Strait over 10, 000 years ago. By contrast, some Native American creation accounts claimed that they have lived in the Americas ever since their ancestors emerged from a subterranean world of spirits. A British archaeologist who has worked with the Zuni people is quoted as saying, “Science is just one of many ways of knowing the world…. [The Zuni’s world-view] is just as valid as the archaeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about.”
It is difficult to see how both of these theories could be true since they contradict each other. One says the first humans in the Americas came from Asia, and the other says they came from a subterranean world of spirits. How can a claim and its denial both be true? Boghossian compares this to claiming the world is both flat and round. How can both statements be true? Postmodernists respond to this dilemma by saying that both are true relative to some perspective and assert there can be no truth outside of perspectives. According to the Zuni perspective, the first humans in the Americas came from the subterranean world. According to the Western scientific perspective, they first came from Asia. Since both are true according to some perspective, both are true.
Boghossian argues that such a view is untenable simply by applying it to itself. Realism is a perspective relative to which it’s true that a claim and its opposite can’t both be true. Boghossian concludes, “Postmodernism would have to admit that it itself is just as true as its opposite, realism. But postmodernism cannot afford to admit that; presumably, its whole point is that realism is false. Thus, we see that the very statement of postmodernism, construed as a view about truth, undermines itself” (15).[Note 3]
Hoffman’s Social Constructivist Paradigm
Hoffman (1983) distinguishes between the conservative and radical critiques of the “blank screen.” The blank screen concept is “the idea that the analyst is not accurately perceived by the patient as a real person, but that he serves rather as a screen or mirror to whom various attitudes, feelings, and motives can be attributed depending upon the patient’s particular neurosis and its transference expression” (389). Hoffman observes that the psychoanalytic literature is full of attacks on the blank screen concept but draws what he considers a key distinction between “conservative” versus “radical” critiques.
Conservative critics draw a distinction between neurotic transference and what Freud (1912) regarded as the unobjectionable positive transference. The blank screen applies only to the neurotic transference in which the patient distorts reality under the persisting influence of childhood experience. Conservative critics exclude the patient’s view of the analyst as trustworthy and competent from the concept of transference. They call this the “therapeutic alliance.”
The defining feature of the conservative critique is retaining the dichotomy between the patient’s realistic and unrealistic perceptions of the analyst. Conservative critics give more careful attention to realistic aspects of the patient’s experience but retain the concept of transference as distortion. In relation to this concept of transference, the analyst remains a blank screen. As Hoffman puts it, “By not altering the standard paradigm for defining what is or is not realistic in the analytic situation, conservative critiques of the blank screen fallacy always end up perpetuating that very fallacy” (393). By contrast, speaking of radical critics he says,
They argue instead that transference itself always has a significant plausible basis in the here-and-now. The radical critic of the blank screen model denies that there is any aspect of the patient’s experience that pertains to the therapist’s inner motives that can be unequivocally designated as distorting of reality. Similarly, he denies that there is any aspect of this experience that can be unequivocally designated as faithful to reality. The radical critic is a relativist. From his point of view the perspective that the patient brings to bear in interpreting the therapist’s inner attitudes is regarded as one among many perspectives that are relevant, each of which highlights different facets of the analyst’s involvement. This amounts to a different paradigm, not simply an elaboration of the standard paradigm which is what conservative critics propose (393–94).
Hoffman (1983) emphasizes the philosophical doctrine of relativism as essential for distinguishing between conservative and radical critics of the blank screen. He calls his new paradigm “social-constructivist” to “capture both the idea of the analyst’s participation and the idea of construction of meaning” (1991, 74). Hoffman underscores the shift from a positivist to a constructivist model and cites Gergen (1985) and Berger and Luckmann (1967) as sources.
Let us now turn to the writings of Gill (1994) who endorses Hoffman’s social-constructivist paradigm in the following:
I have become convinced that … another new perspective is developing in psychoanalysis, of which Irwin Hoffman is a principal architect, among others of course. He has named it social constructivism. Hoffman (1991) has made clear that social constructivism involves two antinomies or axes, an important distinction. One is the drive-relational antinomy, and the other is the objectivist-constructivist antinomy. Both antinomies have important implications for technique (xii).
Gill discusses the relationship of constructivism to hermeneutics and asks “Can there be a constructivist and a hermeneutic science?” (1994, 2). Hermeneutics is an influential perspective in psychoanalysis, but one must bear in mind that not all versions of hermeneutics are relativist (e.g., Hirsch 1967). Gill says, “Indeed, the charge frequently leveled against those who consider psychoanalysis to be constructivist and hermeneutic is that this is an evasion of the responsibility of psychoanalysis to subject its theories to testing by the methods of science” (5). He argues that “A major reason that constructivism and hermeneutics are ruled out as science is the failure to recognize that all science is constructivist, even though this is less obvious in the natural than in the humanist sciences. An antonym to relativism is positivism. The latter assumes facts that are in no way relative to the observer. There is only one true answer. The observer can be, as it were, factored out” (5).
Commenting on Hoffman’s (1983) distinction between conservative and radical critiques of the blank screen, Gill says, “The radical critics of the blank screen are, in effect, constructivist” (37). He illustrates his point with an example from Levenson (1991) where the patient accuses the therapist of having poisoned his soup, but the therapist is convinced he contributed nothing to this delusional idea. It is obvious the therapist has not fed the patient soup, but Gill proposes the intriguing speculation that poisoned soup is a metaphor for the patient’s experience of receiving poisoned interpretations. According to Gill,
Constructivism not only implies that the analyst makes a contribution to the patient’s experience, but also that the patient’s experience is ambiguous, that the sources of the analyst’s views and actions are not fully known, and that analyst and patient act to cocreate interactional realities, both through enactments in transference and countertransference and through searching for new ways of being in relationships. I derive these formulations from Hoffman’s writings (38).
Critique of the Social Constructivist Paradigm
My argument against Hoffman’s social-constructivist paradigm is very simple. To the extent that it embraces noncontroversial constructivist relativism (NCR), it is epistemologically trivial. To the extent that it embraces controversial constructivist relativism (CCR), it is untenable. Hoffman’s language is ambiguous as to whether he espouses NCR or CCR, but my critique applies to either interpretation.
If social constructivism is interpreted as embracing NCR, it is trivial in the sense that no one disagrees. However, Hoffman can no longer use epistemological relativism to distinguish between conservative versus radical critiques of the blank screen as he does in his 1983 paper. Since no one disagrees with NCR, it would require a misreading of those he regards as conservative critics in order to construe them as repudiating NCR.
The other horn of the dilemma is for Hoffman to interpret social constructivism as espousing CCR. Some statements strongly support such an interpretation. Hoffman says, “Although psychoanalysis may be lagging behind developments in contemporary physics, philosophy, and literary theory with regard to the paradigm issue, it is not out of step within the world of professional practice” (1991, 78–79). His reference to contemporary physics suggests that Hoffman is allied with those who believe that quantum mechanics provides support for radical constructivism. The key feature of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is the notion of “observer-created reality.” According to this view, it is alleged to be meaningless to speak of subatomic particles having certain properties prior to their being measured. Measurement is an observation that some claim creates the reality of what is observed.
The notion of “observer-created reality” shows how constructivism is related to the issue of epistemological relativism. Recall that NCR says that beliefs are relative to various frameworks – historical, cultural, and individual. Beliefs are constructed by the mind under the influence of historical, cultural, and individual factors. Who would dispute this? By contrast, CCR holds that the mind constructs – not the beliefs – but the reality to which beliefs refer just as when the observer measuring a property of a subatomic particle is alleged to create that property by the very act of observing. Since different observers create different realities, it follows that truth becomes observer-relative, which is the doctrine of controversial relativism. Although proponents of CCR claim support from quantum mechanics, physicists and philosophers have challenged the Copenhagen interpretation in favor of a more realist view, and no reputable physicist claims that quantum “weirdness” at the submicroscopic level extends to the macroscopic level.
Although some of Hoffman’s writings appear to endorse CCR, other statements clearly reject extreme constructivism as in his “Reply to Orange” (1992). Orange (1992) advocates what she calls “perspectival realism” (equivalent to NCR). She criticizes Hoffman’s constructivism as connoting a solipsistic relativism in which anything goes. Hoffman vigorously denies this and says,
In the version of constructivism that I am trying to articulate, there are facts; there are givens. They vary in terms of the nature of their relation to human activity, but for all practical purposes they may be indisputable. There is a bridge called the Brooklyn Bridge that people use for travel between Brooklyn and Manhattan…. Can anyone in his or her right mind doubt that these things are true or, conversely, that a set of statements directly contradicting these would be false? (568).
Hoffman contrasts the example of the Brooklyn Bridge with the example of a person’s experience during a certain interval of time and defines his use of the term “constructivism” as follows:
[I]t picks up on the experience-shaping aspect of human action…. As such, the experience is intrinsically and fundamentally ambiguous. The organization of the factual components of the experience, of its more uncertain aspects, and of its more subtle affective aspects is fluctuating, elusive, and emergent…. The experience does not sit there like the bridge waiting to be looked at from various points of view. Instead, through language as well as nonverbal schemata, it is consciously and unconsciously organized and constituted by us as subjects. Moreover, the constituting activity is itself a part of the experience … (568).
Hoffman is correct in claiming that for situations where it is easy to obtain relevant evidence, our beliefs are more likely to be true. Evidence for the truth about subjective experience in the psychoanalytic situation is much harder to obtain, usually depending on the memories of each participant. Memories tend to fade and are subject to a variety of distortions. Therapist and patient co-construct interpretations about their subjective experiences, and the justified level of certainty for these interpretations is usually less than for beliefs about the Brooklyn Bridge. But these considerations do not warrant the claim that subjective experience is any less “real” than the Brooklyn bridge or that it is “constructed” by subsequent interpretations. Differences in the level of certainty for beliefs about physical reality versus beliefs about subjective experience do not support CCR.
Philosophers who debate theories of truth make no such distinction (see Schmitt 1995). It is more difficult to discover the truth about human experience because of its elusiveness and ambiguity correctly noted by Hoffman, but this does not mean that it is any less real. With regard to the mind/brain controversy in philosophy, both materialist monism and dualism assume there is a close correlation between mental events and certain physical events in the brain. A dichotomy between physical and mental events is not warranted with regard to truth. The truths which patient and therapist seek to discover in the psychoanalytic situation exist regardless of whether the search is successful.
Radical constructivism holds that reality is mind-dependent. When linked to the philosophy of idealism, radical constructivism would claim that Mount Everest is “constructed” by those who have observed it and believe in its existence. From the perspective of philosophical idealism, only the mind exists and what we customarily construe as physical reality is constructed by the mind. Hoffman rejects such radical constructivism for material reality such as the Brooklyn Bridge but may endorse radical constructivism for subjective experience depending on how one interprets his ambiguous language. What makes me unsure of Hoffman’s intended meaning is his use of the phrase, “the constituting activity is itself a part of the experience” in the passage quoted above.
It is obvious that the subjective experience of patient and therapist in the psychoanalytic situation are not mind-independent in the same way as the Brooklyn Bridge. To understand the objections to Hoffman’s epistemology, it is necessary to draw a clear distinction between two different meanings of the word “construct.” There is a noncontroversial sense in which subjective experience is “constructed” by the mind just as Hoffman says. This noncontroversial sense of “construct” does not imply that the truth about subjective experience is relative in the controversial sense. The ambiguity of Hoffman’s position is revealed in the following comparison he draws between our knowledge of a bridge versus a 30-second segment of subjective experience:
In that respect, an analogy better than that of photographing a bridge might be the experience of building the bridge or the process by which the idea of the bridge is conceived. Even after the 30 seconds … have passed and we are thinking back on our experience during that time, the appropriate analogy is not photographing the completed bridge (or, I might add, interpreting a written text). Whatever might be said in general about the interdependence of the observer and the observed, bridges (and texts) are out there to be studied and restudied in a way that experience as such is not. The words we put to experience and the attitudes we adopt retrospectively toward it affect what the experience becomes for us in the present (569).
Constructivists often begin by admitting there is a “reality out there,” but that we are unable to “know it as such.” What is “real for us” is our mental representation of that reality. They then proceed to define “reality” in a new sense synonymous with “what is experienced as real” rather than “what is out there.” They are then able to move from the true premise that we construct our mental representation of reality to the invalid conclusion that we construct reality itself. The trick depends on switching between two very different meanings of the term “reality.” Devitt (1991, 203–58) presents this line of criticism in much more detail than is possible here.
One particularly troublesome sentence in the above quote from Hoffman is, “The words we put to experience and the attitudes we adopt retrospectively toward it affect what the experience becomes for us in the present.” Hoffman is talking about the interpretation of a past experience. In what sense can it be said that “the experience as a whole is partially constituted by the act of interpretation itself”? The expression “partially constituted by” seems to imply that the interpretation is having a causal influence on an experience that preceded it. This would be an untenable claim for backward causation in which a cause follows rather than precedes its effect.
A verdict on Hoffman’s ambiguous language is not necessary for an appreciation of the logical dilemma faced by his epistemology. If he opts for NCR, he is unable to draw his desired distinction between conservative and radical critiques of the blank screen. On the other hand, if he embraces CCR, his paradigm is indefensible for the above reasons.
This dilemma undermines Hoffman’s reply to Zucker in a letter to the editor (1994). Zucker (1993) reproaches Hoffman for espousing unrestrained relativism, the same charge leveled by Orange (1992). As a rebuttal, Hoffman quotes five statements from his papers acknowledging the importance of reality. Unfortunately, these statements do not resolve the ambiguity of his writing described above nor do they extricate him from the dilemma of choosing between noncontroversial and controversial versions of constructivist-relativism. Hoffman cannot refute Zucker simply by quoting statements where he recognizes the existence of reality. He must also repudiate or clarify the meaning of those statements that appear to espouse a radical version of constructivism. Otherwise his position is logically inconsistent. Analysts who espouse relativism almost invariably insist they reject an unrestrained relativism in which “anything goes.” What they fail to appreciate is that controversial relativism logically implies that “anything goes” as argued in the first section.
Hoffman raises another issue that some might interpret as a moderate form of constructivism when he says, “Freud’s view of perception is consistent with naive realism rather than constructivism” (1991, 85). “Naive realism,” according to Hoffman, is the idea that perception is a simple matter of coming into contact with reality. He quotes Schimek as saying that
Freud seems to have been hampered by his belief in the originally veridical nature of the contents of perception and memory and the dichotomy between factual an psychical reality. He retained the concept of immaculate perception rather than assuming that perception always involves the interaction between the “objective” features of the external stimuli and the “subjective” drive or schemata of the individual which selectively organize and give meaning to immediate experience (1975, 180).
Whether Freud is truly guilty of this implausible form of naive realism is beyond the scope of this paper, but it seems to me that this quote expresses what I have called NCR.
Let me briefly comment on Gill’s position, which is vulnerable to the same criticisms directed at Hoffman. Gill also fails to clearly distinguish noncontroversial from controversial constructivist relativism and shifts from one to the other without explicitly acknowledging the shift. For example, he starts out saying that “Constructivism is the proposition that all human perception and thinking is a construction rather than a direct reflection of external reality as such. Otherwise stated, any perception or idea is from the particular perspective of the perceiver or thinker” (1). Who would deny this?
Gill clearly shifts to CCR when he says, “Another familiar way of conveying the constructivist premise is to say that there are no facts as such. In a vivid metaphor, facts are soaked in theory” (1). The statement that facts are “theory-laden” is often found in psychoanalytic writings without any clear explanation of what this means. The idea originally derives from Quine’s holistic view of the relationship between theory and evidence. When a scientific theory is tested, it is necessary to logically deduce observations which the theory predicts and compare them with those of rival theories. Such deductions require many premises other than those of the theory being tested. Consequently, a theory can always be retained in the face of disconfirming observations by claiming that some auxiliary premise is at fault. In this sense, observations are “theory-laden.”
Although Quine is adamantly opposed to relativism, his idea was used in Kuhn’s concept of incommensurable paradigm’s to argue that a paradigm contains within it the criteria for deciding what observations are to be counted as relevant evidence in theory testing. If what counts as an empirical observation depends on theory, a vicious circle arises in which there appears to be no basis for choosing between rival theories. If each paradigm contains its own criteria for judging the validity of a theory, truth becomes relative to the framework of the paradigm as claimed by CCR.
According to Quine, “Holism at its most extreme holds that science faces the tribunal of experience not sentence by sentence but as a corporate body: the whole of science. Legalistically this again is defensible” (1986, 620). Quine makes clear that different “compartments” of science vary in their vulnerability to disconfirming evidence, but no scientific theory is immune to disconfirmation. It is generally accepted that scientific theories are underdetermined by observational data, which means they are not deductively entailed by these data. The confirmation of scientific hypotheses is a matter of degree which cannot be objectively measured with any precision. Although scientific theories can never be logically deduced from empirical observations, there are important principles of inductive inference which scientists employ in judging the merits of rival theories with respect to the evidence.
In his most recent writing on “theory-laden observation,” Quine says,
In conclusion, I retained the absolute notion of an observation sentence as simply an occasion sentence that commands the subject’s immediate assent, however fallible and revisable. Fallibility is then accommodated in a separate dimension, theoreticity, which invests observation sentences in varying degrees…. Theoreticity is at a minimum in the observation sentence “That’s blue,” and appreciable in “That’s a rabbit” (1996, 162–63).
Summary and Conclusions
The purpose of this paper is to clarify the significance of relativism in psychoanalysis, focusing on Hoffman’s social-constructivist paradigm which has been endorsed by Gill. I propose a clarifying distinction between “noncontroversial relativism” versus “controversial relativism” which is linked to a parallel distinction between “noncontroversial” and “controversial constructivism.” Noncontroversial constructivist relativism (NCR) holds that beliefs are constructed by the mind under the influence of history, culture, and individual circumstances. Controversial constructivist relativism (CCR) holds that truth is constructed by the mind. A crucial difference between these two forms of relativism is that nobody disputes NCR whereas CCR is untenable. I present arguments purporting to refute CCR and cite other authors with cogent arguments against CCR. These same arguments apply to relativism in postmodernism and hermeneutics.
Analysts who embrace CCR are less motivated to seek truth by attempting to resolve logical inconsistencies. Although dominant scientific paradigms often survive the discovery of numerous anomalies, paradoxes have historically served as a major stimulus to scientific creativity leading to the demise of a current paradigm when a better theory emerges. According to the physicist Steven Weinberg, Kuhn doubted that changes in paradigms bring scientists closer to the truth. He makes this point in an exchange of letters to the editor discussing Sokal’s Hoax and bases his conclusion on a copy of a 1991 lecture Kuhn sent him where Kuhn writes that “it’s hard to imagine … what the phrase ‘closer to the truth’ can mean”; and “I am not suggesting, let me emphasize, that there is a reality which science fails to get at. My point is rather that no sense can be made of the notion of reality as it has ordinarily functioned in philosophy of science” (Weinberg 55–56).
In some of their statements, Hoffman and Gill vehemently repudiate CCR. Hoffman clearly does so for physical reality such as the example of the Brooklyn Bridge, but appears to endorse CCR with regard to subjective experience, depending on one’s interpretation of his ambiguous language. My criticisms of Hoffman’s social-constructivist paradigm focus on those statements that appear to espouse CCR. It is not enough for Hoffman and Gill to deny that “anything goes.” They must clearly repudiate those statements that imply CCR because CCR logically implies that “anything goes.” Otherwise their position is logically inconsistent. Such a repudiation would render their position logically consistent and defensible but at the cost of being trivial from the epistemological perspective. What is useful in Hoffman’s and Gill’s proposals for psychoanalytic technique does not require accepting CCR.
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For a comprehensive survey, see Cole 1992, pp. 33–82.
For a comprehensive survey of theories of truth, see Schmitt (1995).
Many cogent refutations of relativism can be found in philosophy, and those who doubt my thesis should consult the following: Giere (1988), Haack (1993), Hollis and Lukes (1982), Laudan (1984), Putnam (1981), and Scheffler (1982).
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