CEPA eprint 3835

Is constructivist psychotherapy epistemologically flawed?

Efran J. S. & Heffner K. P. (1998) Is constructivist psychotherapy epistemologically flawed? Journal of Constructivist Psychology 11(2): 89–103. Available at http://cepa.info/3835
Table of Contents
Realism–antirealism dichotomy
Classificatory mayhem
Reality claims in the clinic
Representational tradition
Language as action
Objectivist obsession
Navigating logical levels
Should constructivists repent?
Barbara Held has taken postmodern therapists to task for making “reality claims” when they have presumably committed themselves to an antirealist epistemology. She is concerned that by focusing so exclusively on individual client narratives, they ignore important aspects of the client’s “extralinguistic” world. Held suggests that constructivist therapists adopt a “modest realism” within which they could (a) tailor therapy methods to individual clients, (b) further systemize therapeutic principles, (c) give extralinguistic reality its due, and (d) make truth claims. The authors argue that the problems she identifies derive largely from the distinctions with which she insists on framing the debate. They agree that constructivists are not always crystal clear about the implications of their epistemology, but it would accomplish little if they were to retreat to the realist posture she proposes.
Barbara Held’s recent article in this journal (1995b) repeats the critique of constructivist and social constructionist[Note 1] perspectives that she has detailed in a book and a variety of previous works (Held, 1990, 1991, 1995a; Held & Pols, 1985a, 1985b, 1987a, 1987b). Because her criticisms represent common misconstruals of constructivism, including some to which constructivists themselves tend to fall prey, her analysis provides a useful opportunity for everyone concerned to become clearer about constructivism’s basic propositions. In what follows, we first outline the rudiments of Held’s objections and then suggest why such issues continue to confound both practitioners and theoreticians. Our own stance in these matters is rooted in both constructive alternativism (Kelly, 1955) and structure determinism (Maturana & Varela, 1987). We mention this bias at the outset because some of the conceptual haze in the field derives from the inappropriate blending of different constructivist views.
Realism–antirealism dichotomy
Held begins by accusing constructivist psychotherapists of being epistemologically muddle-headed – of not practicing what they preach and being reluctant to preach what they practice. Her basic claim rests on a sharp distinction she draws between realist and antirealist epistemologies. She then proceeds, in procrustean fashion, to assign all constructivists to the latter category (whether they like it or not). This is an unfortunate set of premises on which to ground the debate. It seduces readers to accept, at the very outset, a misleading and oversimplified version of constructivist ideology. Moreover, rather than treating this preassignment as prejudicial, Held presents it as merely preliminary and noncontroversial. It was George Kelly who frequently warned students that discussions falter when limiting dimensional axes are fixed in advance.
To be more specific, Held defines realism as the presumption that “the knower can attain knowledge of an independent reality – that is, a reality that … does not originate in the knower, or knowing subject” (1995a, p. 4). Realists believe that, at least in principle, one can attain absolute knowledge of an external world, undistorted and unmediated by personal, theoretical, or cognitive biases and processes. As she puts it, “knowable reality – indeed, reality itself – is not merely a theoretical, cognitive, or linguistic construction on the part of the knower” (p. 5). In contrast, Held defines antirealists as those who deny that human beings can ever have direct, unfiltered access to an independent reality. They view truth as relativistic, biased, situated, and tentative. In her words, antirealist knowers claim to “invent, create, constitute, or narrate, in language, their own subjective realities” (p. 7).
Held writes as if this realist – antirealist distinction exhausts the relevant possibilities. Moreover, she interprets it to mean that antirealists have committed themselves to a preoccupation with the ephemeral, hypothetical, and linguistic rather than anything more substantial or consequential. Held fosters this impression in part by splitting reality into linguistic and extralinguistic components and discounting the former by frequently referring to it as “merely linguistic” or “just linguistic.” The overwhelming implication is that language events are separate from, and trivial compared to, the real-life occurrences to which they presumably refer. Here, again, a basic dichotomy tilts the playing field in favor of objectivist assumptions. The grounding of the debate reinforces a simplistic form of language–action dualism and an outmoded, representationalist theory of language.
Classificatory mayhem
Many postmodernists now reject these positions. Indeed, those who have had the opportunity to comment on her classification scheme (e.g., Dell, 1987; Friedman, 1996; Neimeyer, 1995; Oz, 1991; Von Foerster, 1985) take strong exception both to her characterizations of their own positions and to the very dimensions she uses in framing the debate.
Held defends the accuracy of her classifications by citing, repeatedly, a handful of quotes from prominent constructivists. However, these snippets of text, frequently taken out of context, hardly authenticate her category assignments. Like campaign sound bites, they do not tell the whole story. Moreover, as we have suggested, the cited authors themselves take issue with her delineation of their beliefs. Even Friedman (1996), in an otherwise positively toned review of Held’s (1995a) book, notes that the value of her argument is “vitiated … by its pervasive either–or of subjective versus objective, realist versus antirealist” (p. 321). Similarly, Neimeyer (1995) is forced to reject her typing of him as an “antirealist,” finding neither pole of the hoary realist–antirealist dimension congenial to his work. If anything, he thinks of himself as an “arealist” – an option not available in the conceptual map Held sketches. It is not so much that he wishes to deny reality (as the term antirealist implies), but that he is invested in other matters, such as the personal and social constructions people use to navigate life.
We, too, balk at being labeled antirealists (e.g., Held, 1990, 1991, 1995a), especially because Held’s use of the term implies that this classification also obligates us to being subjectivists. Our personal epistemology is participatory, not subjectivist. As Varela (1979) takes pains to explicate, “The successor to objectivism is not subjectivism, by way of negation, but rather the full appreciation of participation [emphasis added], which is a move beyond either of them” (p. 276). In eschewing objectivist epistemologies and the various forms of representationalism, we are compelled to renounce subjectivism as well. Just as “up” has no meaning without “down,” as soon as objectivism is ruled out of the picture, the meaning of its contrasting term, subjectivism, evaporates. If nothing can be objective, nothing can be subjective, either.
In addition, we reject Held’s dualistic partitioning of reality into separate linguistic and extralinguistic elements. Even for the “antirealist,” words and stories are actions – not merely abstract or disconnected commentaries. Gergen – a social constructionist Held frequently quotes – makes it quite clear, even in the very sections Held cites (1995a), that he never regards stories as simply stories but always considers them to be situated actions, inseparable from other aspects of life performances. Our position is similar. However, in Alice-in-Wonderland fashion, Held keeps asserting that constructionists such as Gergen mean what she says they mean. Thus, in reading her interpretations, one sometimes comes away with the impression that she is more interested in rigidly pigeonholing constructivist theorists than in understanding them. She relies heavily on a small set of constellatory constructs (Kelly, 1955) that have the effect of blurring the subtleties of meaning each theorist struggles to communicate.
Reality claims in the clinic
Even more difficulties arise when Held turns her attention to the psychotherapeutic practices of postmodernists. Because she has already classified such clinicians as antirealists, she attributes to them all the characteristics she associates with that term. For example, she presumes that they focus on detached linguistic productions rather than more tangible problems and that their theoretical presuppositions prevent them from asserting any “reality claims,” either about a client’s life options or, for that matter, about the usefulness of their own form of therapy. In other words, she portrays constructivist therapists as having no warrant to firm opinions about either their craft or the world. She acts as if such therapists are obliged, if they are to be theoretically pure, to operate in (and on) a detached set of linguistic utterances.
Having arrived at those conclusions, she then goes on to note correctly – that constructivist therapists do not follow any such prescription. In fact, they frequently speak out about the value of their own therapeutic approach, and they often induce clients to take actions that operate on the very same “real” world in which objectivists live and practice. For Held, something is clearly wrong here. She believes she has put her finger on an inadvertent “oscillation” of constructivist clinicians between realist and antirealist positions. We see the problem as related, instead, to Held’s inability or reluctance to fully appreciate some of the nuances of the constructivist program. From her perspective, constructivists are a muddled lot. From our perspective, her analysis imposes limiting and artificial distinctions that straitjacket the discussion. The impasse reminds us of the story of the zoologist who scolded platypuses for laying eggs when he had already classified them as mammals!
It is certainly and inevitably true that many constructivists make what Held considers to be reality claims. In fact, without them, living (not to mention practicing therapy) would be an impossibility. However, it is not true that their epistemological posture forbids making such claims Flesh and blood people – constructivist and objectivists alike – continually assert values and make consequential choices in their experiential world. That world encompasses all the elements of the physical universe, even for those who do not believe that their knowledge of it is ever fully direct and unmitigated. Neither clients nor their therapists exist in the linguistic cocoon Held thinks constructivists are proposing.
Moreover, therapy of any stripe involves the “production” of identifiable results and the promulgation of one set of preferences over another. The comparison between constructivist and objectivist therapies is not about whether real actions are involved but about the locus of responsibility for any decisions that are made. Objectivists often seem to be speaking on behalf of the universe at large. The constructivist speaks only for himself or herself, with a voice (and vocabulary) that reflects the exigencies of his or her biological structure and the circumstances of the local community.
As we have pointed out elsewhere (Efran & Clarfield, 1992; Efran & Fauber, 1995; Efran & Greene, 1996), there is no doubt that the writings of some constructivist practitioners have contributed to the confusions in these matters. For example, those who claim to operate from a position of “therapeutic neutrality” seem to us somewhat myopic about the fact that therapy is necessarily an interpersonal influence process. Similarly, rather than claiming that they are merely “facilitators” of conversation, family therapists who engage in “reframing” would do well to recognize that they are electioneering for one particular set of options over another. As Golann (1988) pointed out, it is sheer mystification for such therapists to declare that they exert no interpersonal power and are simply hosting interaction.
We consider our own therapy practices thoroughly contextualist, yet we unabashedly argue the advantages of some alternatives compared to others. In addition, we explicitly tout the virtues of our own therapeutic approach. If we did not believe that our methods were superior, why would we work so hard to develop expertise in them or to teach others what we think we have learned? On the other hand, we take full responsibility for such value claims and understand that all such preferences derive from our socially embedded experience. We do not claim access to immutable facts that have somehow managed to enter our consciousness unaffected by who and where we are.
For constructivists and objectivists alike, psychotherapy is a practical endeavor. As Held notes, clients come to therapy to get better. They do not elect treatment merely to have their descriptions of events modified or to trade morose stories for more cheerful ones. Therefore, we fully agree with Held that no therapist ought to be content simply to have a battered wife’s story change if the abuse itself continues. (On the other hand, “abuse” must necessarily comprise, at least in part, components that are ordinarily considered “linguistic.”) We also concur that even diehard constructivists take their client’s complaints seriously. That is, they ordinarily assume that the accounts of clients such as the battered woman in the above example are not entirely hypothetical or fictional – that the woman’s husband really is being physically abusive. Her complaints almost certainly have a social and personal grounding and are not simply disconnected fantasies or linguistic epiphenomena. (What is more interesting to recognize is that even the sheerly fantastic and bizarre verbal utterings of the acute psychotic have more than “merely” linguistic status – they are simultaneously and constitutively social performances, with consequential effects for both the psychotic individual and the members of his or her community.)
Representational tradition
These matters are very difficult to discuss coherently for several reasons: First, any time we are forced to use linguistics to analyze linguistics – what are the other choices? – we run into referential paradoxes in which our words never quite seem to mean what we hoped they would. For instance, in the process of making the case that linguistic reality is not really independent from extralinguistic reality, we must first define and use those two separate terms, implying, of course, that they must indeed represent distinct phenomena. Thus, in the very process of making one argument we are inadvertently trapped into lending support to the opposing view.
Second, most of us who have been reared in contemporary west‑ern society find it virtually impossible to spring free of the older representationalist assumptions concerning language. Varela (1979) reminds us how overpowering the tradition is:
No matter how determined one may be to break away and start afresh, one inadvertently falls back into the conventional track and sees problems where there is no problem…. [We] revert to some form of realism and … forget that what we are thinking or talking about is under all circumstances our [italics in original] experience and that the “knowledge” we acquire is knowledge of invariances and regularities derived from and pertaining to our experience. (p. 276)
In other words, by using ordinary language to examine linguistic experience, we regularly and automatically reify and reinforce the stultifying Aristotelian split between language, affect, and action (Efran & Blumberg, 1994). Unfortunately, Held’s discussion perpetuates those splits instead of helping all of us overcome them.
Given the difficulties involved in speaking clearly in this domain, perhaps constructivist workers should be forgiven for sometimes contributing to the impression, which Held harps on, that they concern themselves only with surface verbiage and not “actual” life happenings. Similarly, they sometimes seem to imply that clients can modify just about any set of circumstances simply by telling a new story about it. This is, of course, not precisely what they mean. Constructivists obviously realize that people cannot fly (without airline reservations) just by asserting that they can. The Wright brothers also recognized that fact, but they simultaneously understood that their experimentation in manned flight had to begin with a conversation. Henry Ford (1863-1947) tried to get at that same intimate connection between thinking and doing when he said to his employees, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.” Analyzed literally, the statement is logically inaccurate. However, the allusion is useful.
As postmodernism has gained popularity, it has spawned a plethora of therapy methods that have little or nothing to do with underlying constructivist principles. Elsewhere we have argued that many of these practices are, in fact, superfluous, theoretically unsound, or both (e.g., Efran & Clarfield, 1992; Efran & Fauber, 1995; Efran & Greene, 1994, 1995, 1996). As the new kids on the therapeutic block, constructivists have attracted considerable attention but, still being in a stage of youthful exuberance, they have not entirely perfected their act. Thus, we share some of Held’s concerns about the field’s current state of disarray. However, we do not agree with her primary assessment that constructivist principles and practices are inherently incompatible.
Language as action
As we have intimated, the perplexities Held encounters in attempting to come to grips with constructivism derive largely from her conceptualization of language. Contemporary theories of language suggest that all activities in a social community are thoroughly saturated with linguistic components. In other words, we live in just one experiential world – a continual and interconnected flux that cannot be neatly partitioned into linguistic and nonlinguistic, real and unreal, components.[Note 2] In accordance with structure determinism, we define language as a specialized form of communal activity – the use of words and symbols as a second-order form of social orchestration. From this perspective, people do not speak now and behave later – speaking is behaving (Efran, Aldarondo, & Heffner, 1997). Moreover, language is never purposeless chatter or just preparation for future action. Describing an event, telling a story, arranging a meeting, affixing a label – these are all tangible social performances. Like the grooming behaviors of chimps, words and symbols are behavioral devices for creating and maintaining the social order. For constructivists, words do not have set, universal meanings, and they do not reference a free-standing, external universe. Paraphrasing Kelly (1969), language is what language does.
Language is action. However, what makes Held’s emphasis on real (vs. linguistic) problems ironic is that all forms of therapy rely on conversation. Even the purest forms of behavior therapy are intrinsically linguistic ventures. Perhaps a session of systemic desensitization could be conducted in pantomime, but mime, after all, is also a symbolic exchange. In other words, regardless of epistemological persuasion, therapists must use words and symbols in their interaction with clients. It is the only medium available for assessing, persuading, reporting, labeling, and sharing experiences.
Note that it is primarily through words (and symbolic gestures) that the abusive husband in our earlier example would have to be persuaded to enact his hostility differently. Alternatively, the wife may have to obtain a restraining order – yet another form of linguistic interchange. She could also master techniques for evading her husband at times when he comes home drunk or become more skillful at modifying the linguistic and gestural patterns that escalate their confrontations. In any event, language operations do (and must) figure prominently into such interventions. Thus, even when a client’s complaints concern highly physical events, language, as we define it, plays a pivotal and integral role. This alone renders the linguistic/extralinguistic distinction Held insists on largely irrelevant.
To amplify a point we made earlier, it should also be recognized that a husband’s abusive behavior – although it involves salient physical actions – must be linguistically orchestrated. Abuse never consists solely of random motor performances and verbal outpourings. It is a purposeful social enactment encoded in words and symbols. If the linguistic elements of an assault could be magically stripped away, the remaining corporeal elements would also dissipate. In human enterprises, the coherence of directed acts is difficult or impossible to maintain without the support of verbal and symbolic markers. This can be observed dramatically in patients suffering from certain forms of brain injury. As they lose the capacity to generate meaning, they also lose the ability to perform familiar actions such as hammering a nail, combing their hair, or drawing a house. They still have the requisite motor skills, but the social choreography of these meaning-dependent activities evaporates (Sacks, 1985).
To reiterate, it is only in abstract, theoretical descriptions that events can be parsed into separable linguistic, affective, and physical components. Certainly, it makes no sense to presume that any therapy can deal solely with one of these factors to the exclusion of the others. Thus, despite the occasional looseness of their rhetoric, constructivist therapists never intended to present themselves as focusing on the modification of detached utterances.
Objectivist obsession
From our perspective, it is also problematic to view language as spoiling or distorting information about a pre-existing, independent reality. That mediationist position, like Held’s “take” on subjectivity and extralinguistic reality, presupposes an untainted standard against which such distortions might be evaluated. The notion that observers can actually get outside their own skin long enough to witness distortions is what Neimeyer (1995) labels the objectivist obsession (p. 342). Of course, using words and symbols, people regularly cleave distinctions between “themselves” and “their world,” but such divisions never actually allow them to escape the confines of their own experience. Varela (1979) sums up the situation thus:
“Knowledge,” whatever rational meaning we give that term, must begin with experience, and with cuts within our experience…. Hence, this world of ours, no matter how we structure it, no matter how well we manage to keep it stable with permanent objects and recurrent interactions, is by definition a world codependent with our experience, and not the ontological reality of which philosophers and scientists alike have dreamed…. [It is] a reflection of our individual and collective actions. (p. 275)
It was Bateson (1979) who taught that the “properties” we attribute to “objects” are actually indications of the fit between our structures and the surrounding ecology. Far from being epistemologically naive in such matters, cyberneticists, general semanticists, and constructivists have been at the forefront of those who have worked to unravel the paradoxes of map–territory relations (e.g., Gergen, 1994; Johnson, 1946; Korzybski, 1933; Varela, 1979; Von Foerster, 1981). They have insisted that knowing who is behind the camera helps decipher the meaning of the photograph. Constructivists have written about the recursive nature of linguistic processes, the importance of logical typing (Whitehead & Russell, 1963), and the centrality of metacommunicative acts to therapeutic interaction. Constructivist practitioners recognize that virtually all clinical phenomena involve reflexivity and paradox, as in the case of the man who suffers from a fear of anxiety, the woman whose troubles multiply as she drinks to forget them, the person who needs assertiveness training but is too shy to sign up for it, and the client who wishes he wanted to quit smoking.
These recursive linguistic loops of human living make it possible for peoples’ motives to be modified by their own conversations. Unlike nonlanguaging species, people’s verbal and symbolic maps continuously become a part of the territory in which they live – another reason to avoid subscribing to Held’s simplistic linguistic–extralinguistic dichotomy. Such intricacies and paradoxes of language interaction intrigue many clinicians (Efran & Caputo, 1984) and may, in part, account for their sustained interest in constructivist approaches. This seems at least as plausible an explanation of the growing popularity of constructivism as the one Held (1995a, 1995b) proposes. She links the current appeal of postmodernism (in mental health circles) to a misguided attempt by therapists to generate a therapy that can be tailored to the needs of individual clients. Held believes that the constructivist movement, with its emphasis on unique client stories, fun‑damentally represents a rebellion against previous “one size fits all” methods. We cannot speak to others’ motives, but that characterization certainly does not ring true in terms of our own attraction to the postmodern perspective.
Navigating logical levels
G. Spencer Brown’s (1972) “laws of form” – a more complete and contemporary rendering of Whitehead and Russell’s theory of logical types – makes it clear that human beings regularly make (and need to make) statements that sound nonsensical if interpreted literally (Hofstadter, 1979). In other words, it is frequently legitimate to assert claims that, when parsed in ordinary language, seem self-contradictory or paradoxical. We have already alluded to these sorts of statements in explaining the difficulties of using language to discuss language. We also gave some examples of client conundrums that involve a crossing of logical types. One thing we have learned about all this is that propositions about propositions will follow different rules than the propositions they qualify.
Keeping this in mind, it becomes entirely appropriate for theoreticians to assert – in absolute terms – the impossibility of making absolute assertions. In mathematics, GOdel’s famous incompleteness theorem is an exemplar of the importance of such a maneuver – he provides a rigorous theoretical proof concerning the limits of theoretical proofs. Similarly, constructivists can, in good conscience, maintain that reality cannot really be known. Maturana (1988, 1990), a scientifically committed biologist, achieves something of this sort when he insists, as a starting premise, on always placing objectivity “in parentheses.” For him, science is (and always has been) a human enterprise that proposes ways for people to live together – not a method for revealing ultimate objective truths. Held has previously classified him as an “antirealist” and is prone to argue that science cannot be performed from that perspective. Of course, if Maturana really was an antirealist he would not bother putting objectivity in parenthesis – he would omit it altogether. Again, the problem is that Maturana’s observer ontology (Dell, 1987) cannot be suitably described within Held’s restrictive terminology. Thus, he would have to respectfully disagree with both her classification and the conclusions she draws from it.
“Production” of any sort requires assigning particular outcomes precedence over others. As a form of production, psychotherapy, too, requires definite value commitments. Thus, even though they accept the tentativeness and social nature of all knowledge (in terms of the big picture), constructivist therapists are obliged to set “real” goals, strive passionately to achieve them, and investigate the effectiveness of their methods (in both anecdotal and scientific terms). Moreover, although they may like to think their interventions make a difference, they are in touch with the hubris of any such claims.[Note 3] In a self- reflexive, ever-changing ecology, it is never possible to establish unambiguously how much of a client’s improvement is attributable to his or her motivation, the therapist’s methods, or the evolving social circumstances. Thus, constructivist clinicians have learned to live with the paradox that they are, on the one hand, powerful change agents, and, at another level, merely pawns in the larger societal flux. A basic credo of constructivism is that local causal attributions are not to be trusted – they reflect social traditions, not immutable facts or stable boundaries (Efran, Lukens, & Lukens, 1990).
Should constructivists repent?
Despite her voluminous writings about the fallacies of constructivism, Held is not really antagonistic to constructivist clinical methods per se. In fact, she has assimilated some of the idiographic emphasis of constructivists into her own therapeutic work. However, what irks her is that her constructivist colleagues refuse to acknowledge their presumably covert realist leanings. Held’s proposed solution to all this is that constructivists join her in espousing a “modest realism” (1995a). Modest because “although there are many things about the world we can know (either directly or indirectly), there are also many things about the world … we may have to go a very long time without knowing, if indeed we can ever know them at all” (p. 252).
In the context of modest realism, constructivists and objectivists alike could join forces in pursuing scientifically valid information about (a) the causes of psychopathology, (b) the categories of client problems, and (c) the effectiveness of various treatment strategies. She argues that constructivists would still be able to customize their treatment plans and, at the same time, would be better positioned to develop and test a relatively complete system of therapeutic principles.
Remember that Held assumes that the major reason constructivist therapists bolted from realism in the first place was to justify individualizing their therapeutic practices. However, she maintains that they went overboard by “unnecessarily confounding the goal of individualizing therapy with antirealism” (1995b, p. 313). Therefore, if they were to become modest realists, they could remain responsive to individual client needs while dropping a needlessly burdensome commitment to antirealism. In other words, she sees herself as offering constructivists an opportunity to reform; as modest realists, she implies, they could have their cake and eat it, too.
Modest realism assumes that human beings have direct access to at least some aspects of an independent reality. Held finds encouragement for this position in the “radical realist” writings of her colleague, philosopher Edward Pols (1992). In a nutshell, Pols argues that rationality is a basic human function, a “birthright” (p. 123) that automatically gives people the ability to directly contact aspects of the surrounding world. According to Pols, the only way this “fundamental and primordial” (p. 126) awareness can work is “by virtue of an inner affinity, an ontic resonance, between the superordinate that is the knower and the superordinate that is the known” (p. 215). He believes that the sole (and only necessary) proof that such a facility exists is each reader’s intuitive appreciation that outside objects, such as birds and trees, can be vividly perceived and identified “just as they are” (p. 144). As he puts it, the “reflexive intensification of that capacity … provide[s] its own authentication” (p. 176). For Pols, it is self-evident that we perceive such objects independently “of our wish or will on the one hand and of whatever formative capacities our reason may possess on the other” (p. 176). Much of Pols’s writings on this subject are an attempt to demonstrate the obviousness of this primal insight and to explain why, despite this, realism continues to be so thoroughly maligned by the members of the philosophical mafia that Pols labels the “linguistic consensus.”
Held appears to find solace in Pols’s realist philosophy. However, from our perspective, he simply reiterates the tenets of naive realism. The added “radical” twist in his version is that its naiveté is advertised boldly as a virtue rather than concealed as a liability. Also, as a work of philosophy – not psychology – Pols’s analysis omits any consideration of the experimental literature on topics such as object permanence and color perception. That body of knowledge might at least give him pause about whether birds, trees, and the like are actually perceived as pristinely as he imagines.
Modest realism apparently resolves for Held the basic tension she experiences between the poles of the realist–antirealist construct. It permits her freely to pursue her interest in narratives without abandoning her commitments to realism. However, there would be no obvious advantage in constructivists retreating to the form of realism she proposes. The tensions that trouble Held are largely of her own creation and do not need to concern constructivists. In our opinion, they derive from the Aristotelian either – or oppositions with which she insists on grounding her analysis. Thus, it is perhaps Held, not constructivists, for whom modest realism constitutes a salvation.
On the other hand, Held’s writings do provide a useful mirror for constructivists. Because their epistemology is riddled with paradoxes and potential confusions of logical type, they would be well-advised to express themselves more clearly. Held’s mirror reveals just how readily their basic postulates and practices can be misinterpreted.
The authors wish to thank Elsa R. Efran for her editorial assistance in the preparation of this article.
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Following a naming convention established by Gergen (1985), Held (1995b) makes a distinction between social constructionism and constructivism. In this article, we use the term constructivism to represent both camps except in contexts where it is necessary to maintain the distinction.
These sorts of statements are what Held usually calls “reality claims” because they appear to refer to how the world actually is. Held argues that such pronouncements are strictly verboten for constructivists. Essentially, this is the nub of her diatribe about the inconsistency of constructivist practitioners. However, as we explain again in discussing logical types, our reality claims do not assume knowledge of a free-standing universe and therefore do not violate constructivist tenets. They are simply statements – part of the network of communal agreements within which we live our lives. In short, they represent details of our assumptive structure. As Lily Tomlin puts it, “Reality is a collective hunch.”
From time to time, it is useful to remind ourselves that there are entire nations in which people live out their lives without benefit of either Prozac or couples’ counseling.
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