Beyond Cybernetics: Comments on Atkinson and Heath’s “Further Thoughts on Second-Order Family Therapy”
Anderson H. & Goolishian H. A. (1990) Beyond Cybernetics: Comments on Atkinson and Heath’s “Further Thoughts on Second-Order Family Therapy”. Family Process 29: 157–163. Available at http://cepa.info/4096
All things are to be examined and called into question. There are no limits set to thought. – Edith Hamilton The Greek Way
We appreciate the invitation to respond to Atkinson and Heath’s  thought-provoking article. Our response allows us an expansion of the many conversations that we have had with others and with each other. Although our comments are in the spirit of an opening dialogue, we realize, just as Atkinson and Heath point out in their footnote, that our attempts to open dialogue sometimes end up being regarded as rhetorical.
In their article, Atkinson and Heath join a growing number of therapists and clinical theoreticians who are struggling with and challenging some familiar, cybernetically based, family therapy concepts , , , , , , , , , , , . All of these authors debate or take issue in some form with the limits and consequences of cybernetic systems-based family theory and practice. The issues have included concepts such as first-order versus second-order cybernetics, power versus control, aesthetics versus pragmatics, instrumentality and intervention, normative versus pathological, homeostasis, change, change in behaviors versus change in beliefs, gender-organizing principles, therapist position vis-à-vis change, therapist expertise, and therapist values, to mention a few. A central feature to this debate is the concern over the therapist’s role. Do we, and are we able to, change others and thus exercise power, or do we not? Do we run the grave risk of promoting systemic disease if we control certain parts of the system at the expense of others?
In their article, Atkinson and Heath  enter this critical theoretical arena by addressing two main concerns: (a) the dilemma of the either/or issue of first-order and second-order cybernetics, and (b) the therapist’s role in promoting the cybernetic notion of systemic health that necessitates a change in the therapist’s personal epistemology. They address these concerns by advocating a therapy that is not based on “either” first- “or” second-order cybernetics but, rather, a therapy that is based on a cybernetics that includes a complementary relationship between the two perspectives. They highlight the importance to them of the cybernetic notion of systemic health. This is a state in which natural systems achieve balance and diversity through mutual constraint. These con-cepts combine to form the platform from which they advocate a therapist position that represents “ecosystemically responsible action” and that leads to aesthetically informed “pragmatic action” (p. 151). They rightfully suggest that this position is difficult. Atkinson and Heath are very clear about the seductive power of our human (perhaps modernist) tendency to attempt to willfully determine (p. 154) or influence the direction of therapy toward an outcome that is a therapist-informed, pre-known, and usually normative outcome.
As an alternative, they advocate a therapist position that is based on what they call “systemic wisdom” (p. 146). In short, a systemically wise therapist is less willfully determined and is less occupied by a wish to change a system. A systemically informed therapist is more content to be less attached to a desired or perceived favorable outcome. This nonattachment is described as the key to facilitate movement of a disturbed system toward systemic health, and it acknowledges the potential in all systems toward self-correction or self-healing.
In taking this position, Atkinson and Heath admirably anticipate the challenges of skeptics who may view these ideas as solipsistic in nature, or as denying that a therapist’s knowledge cannot “not” influence. They are quick to say that they do not mean to indicate that being a systemically wise therapist is the same as being a passive or a passionless therapist. Their position does not, for example, condone human conditions such as child abuse (our attribution). Their main points, they iterate, are that the therapist should not purposely try to move a system in any one direction based on therapist knowledge and good intention, and that “ecosystemically responsible action requires conscious, pragmatic action that is implemented by individuals whose personal contentment is not dependent upon the extent to which their actions are successful in producing desired outcomes” (p. 151). They further emphasize that “aesthetic orientation does not deny the importance of conscious strategy, but it must involve more than ecologically responsible conscious strategy” (p. 151). Therapists, they imply, must always have intentions and values, but not be unhappy or discontented if they cannot enforce them.
The problem then, according to Atkinson and Heath, is how to participate and not to control. They suggest that it is neither that therapists must control nor must not control. Instead, they propose that therapists should consider other things, namely, to have a conscious, pragmatic strategy that is informed by systemic wisdom. This is purported to be the delicate balance between natural systems without human planning. In short, it seems to be a position between Golann  and Hoffman . It involves a limit on knowledge, a position that requires a shift in personal epistemology toward what the Batesons  called “fey,” a kind of state of Buddhist nonattachment.
It is interesting to note that this state of “fey” and the condition of Buddhist nonattachment is surprisingly similar to the Hellenist philosophy of Stoicism. Stoic philosophers also advocated the necessity to give up the personal need for power and to move with nature. Doing good consists in acting in accord with nature, in being in harmony with the totality of reality. Our desires, according to the Stoics, should be identical with the providential plan for the universe. Nothing should be out of balance. For the Stoics, and apparently for Atkinson and Heath and the Batesons, “fools” would be those who try to impose their selfish desires on reality. Such foolish imposition results only in unhappiness and unfreedom (read symptoms). Stoicism is an interesting position that is quite close to the change in personal epistemology proposed by Atkinson and Heath. It is important to realize that Stoicism does not require a cybernetic epistemology for its advancement.
In practice, what the authors (and the Stoics) propose is that we must give up the determination to reorganize the world to suit our purposes. The authors, like Freidman , define willfulness as an orientation in which individuals respond to difficult or inconvenient situations primarily by attempting to change the situation rather than first orienting themselves so that they will be content regardless of whether the situation changes or not. In clinical practice, this means that the therapist should be pragmatic and try to bring about change, but that his or her contentment should not depend on success (Stoicism?). The therapist should come from a normative position, should have a view and values, but not try to enforce them or think that his or her way is the better way. The therapist should be humble in the face of fate.
We find the ideas put forth by Atkinson and Heath to be a fresh, well thought-out attempt to think through an increasingly important series of issues. They are to be commended for their attempt to avoid the dichotomous separation of first- and second-order cybernetics and to bridge the debate in the field about power and control versus nonintervention. We generally agree with Atkinson and Heath on many main points, such as the necessity of not knowing, of not trying to change, of giving up the determination to impose our view, and of the necessity of changing one’s personal epistemology. We particularly agree with their suggestion that the therapist must give up the need to produce a mandated outcome. We, however, take this somewhat further and suggest that in therapy we are always moving toward what is not yet known , . In summary, we find substantial agreement with the thrust of their ideas, but we are in serious disagreement with their explanations.
Our basic critique of this article is that Atkinson and Heath do not go far enough. Their position leaves the debate in the realm of cybernetics. We believe, as we think Bateson later did, that the language of cybernetics is not appropriate or sufficient to deal with the issues of human systems and therapists’ work with them. We have found cybernetic language especially inadequate to deal with the increasing struggles and dissatisfactions with the limitations and consequences of translating concepts such as therapist knowledge, symptom functionality, normative ideology, and intervention into the domain of therapy.
Take symptom functionality, for example. Atkinson and Heath think of a symptom as a self-adjustment or correction in the system, a self-healing process in response to a lack of balance. When symptoms occur, when some part of the system gets too enlarged or out of place, the system will self-correct. They suggest, for example, that over-population will lead to starvation and, thus, a balance. No matter how deleterious the effect, a system will self-correct, self-heal, and move to a condition of systemic health and balance.
This premise of systemic wisdom, or the Batesonian idea that there is a natural and aesthetic (correct) way for things to be, seems quite parallel to Parsonian ideas of social-systems teleology. According to Parsons , , social systems are driven to some natural condition of balance and growth. This meta view of social science, as we have pointed out before , is both a normative and pathologizing premise. It assumes that there is a way that things should be, some kind of natural order; and, perhaps more dangerously, it implies that there is a pathology independent of human intention. This latter is, of course, implicit in the very notion of an epistemology since this suggests that there is an ontology to be known. We think that this is why Bateson took the position that the idea of symptom functionality is not too useful in the clinical arena. In his “Forward” to Double Bind (Sluzki and Ransom, 1976), Bateson  stated:
However well intentioned the urge to cure, the very idea of “curing” must always propose the idea of power…. We were inevitably stupid-bound, like the protagonists in a Greek tragedy, to the forms and shapes of processes which others, especially our colleagues, thought they saw. And our successors will be bound by the shapes of our thought…. I was bored by and disgusted … by my colleagues’ obsession with power, by the dumb cruelty of the families which (as we used to say) “contained” schizophrenia, and appalled by the richness of the available data. “Mussen wie alles ansehen.” “Must we look at everything?” said the German girl as she climbed the steps to enter the British Museum. (pp. xii-xiii)
We believe that in order to avoid the black holes of many familiar family therapy concepts and to avoid the either/or dilemmas of their implications (power versus no power, intervention versus nonintervention), it is necessary to abandon the core concept of cybernetics itself in our attempts to inform and describe therapy. We believe that the issues of power and control, of intervention, and of curing (to use Bateson’s term) are all implicit in cybernetic epistemology.
We would, in major ways, agree with Golann’s  general premise that so-called systemic therapies as expressions of second-order cybernetics have intrinsic problems with the concept of the therapist’s power, control, and responsibility for the direction of the reparative action. We would add, however, that it is difficult, even impossible, to move beyond the issue of therapist power, direction, and control when our therapy is informed by the metaphor of cybernetic epistemology. It seems to us that, for clinical practice, Golann’s claim that the systemic therapists are denying the issue of interventive direction and control is a result of the basic concept of control theory. Mechanical control is the underlying metaphor of cybernetic epistemology.
For Golann, this aspect of control and power is essential to the process of therapy and must be accepted and used. For us, and it seems for Atkinson and Heath, this position is unacceptable. We are required to reject the concept that therapy is the exercise of power and control in a beneficent fashion. We also reject the position that power and control are essential concepts either to the understanding or the practice of the therapeutic process. Still further, we reject the assumption that control and direction are necessary for the therapist to behave in a responsible clinical manner. However, we would agree with Golann  that in too many ways the so-called second-order cybernetic therapists deceive themselves when they assume that they hold a position that makes it possible to assume a nonhierarchical position and to abandon the use of therapist power. We disagree with Golann that therapy must involve the use of power. To the contrary, we hold that this is so only when we remain within the cybernetic paradigm of control theory. Cybernetics, first- or second-order, is at its base a theory of ordered control. We can attempt to soften the control or to make it more gentle and kinder through a second-ordered cybernetics, but it is, as Golann points out, still control. We would add to this limitation the further thought that when we speak of observers, whether in first- or second-order positions, we limit meaning to the head of a single person. For us, it is more useful to think of meaning, the human mind, as an intersubjective phenomena. This is a concept that the cybernetic paradigm cannot describe.
When Bateson  talked of the “news of a difference” (p. 29), we believe that he was moving into the world of human meaning and out of the world of mechanical cybernetics. This is certainly one of the implications of his work in Mind and Nature , namely, that evolution is a mental process. How these issues were then elaborated in Angels Fear  is still a matter of considerable debate but they were certainly different than the issues of symptom functionality or mechanical cybernetics. It is our interpretation that the use of what may be thought of as “spiritual” concepts in Bateson’s later work represented his attempts to deal more directly with the issues of the generation of human meaning and the inter-subjectivity of mind. We believe this was a continuing movement on Bateson’s part to free himself from the limitations of mechanical and scientistic cybernetic theory.
In response to our frustrations with many of the family therapy concepts and the resulting either/or dilemmas, we have found ourselves moving away from the patterns of cybernetic theory to what we call a “post-cybernetic” interest in human meaning, narrative, and story. We see a basic limitation in cybernetic thinking to be its inability to conceptualize humans as embedded in cultural practices and in conversation with each other. This limitation prevents us as clinicians from seeing our clients as people who think and construe, understand and misunderstand, have agency and intention, and who guess and interpret .
In the pursuit of these interpretive and hermeneutic approaches, we have developed ideas that move our thinking about therapy into the domain of shifting systems that exist only in the vagaries of discourse, language, and communication. Our position leans heavily on the premise that human action takes place in a reality that is created through social construction. This is a world of human language and discourse, and not the world of cybernetic control and observed patterns. We see therapy as a linguistic event that takes place in what we call a therapeutic conversation. The therapeutic conversation involves a mutual search and exploration through dialogue (a two-way exchange, a crisscrossing of ideas) in which new meanings are continually evolving toward the “dis-solving” of problems and, thus, the dissolving of the therapy system and what we have called the problem-organizing problem-dis-solving system . Change is the evolution of new meaning through the narratives and stories created in the therapeutic conversation and dialogue.
For us, a move from the domain of cybernetics into the domains of semantics and human meaning gives relief from the many problems generated by the cybernetic paradigm. For instance, the dilemma of the individual versus context, individual versus family therapy, the problems of the larger system, and, importantly, the problems of power and control and intervention versus nonintervention, can all be viewed from totally different perspectives. They become, in fact, nonproblems. In our opinion, much of what is called the use of therapist power and expertise can be simply reduced to the rhetorical use of language, that is, the use of language to influence and persuade. Issues of reframing, positive connotation, therapeutic strategies, and the confrontation of narratives in order to deconstruct old narratives or to provide new narrative possibilities, are all examples of rhetoric as opposed to the dialogue that we believe is essential to a therapeutic conversation. For us, psychotherapy is in a conversational domain, and the art of psychotherapy is a conversational art. The theoretical base that informs and develops the vocabulary of understanding for therapy should reflect this position. Our thesis is that a clinically responsible and effective position can evolve from a science of narrative and semantics.
We do not mean to imply that in dialogue the therapist is not influencing. When ther-apist and client are in dialogue with each other, they must influence each other. This influence is not an expression of a linear use of hierarchical power by the therapist. The difference in is the intent. In a therapy based on the kind of dialogue that we are talking about, the therapist’s intent or aim is to influence the creation of and facilitate an intersubjective conversational process. The natural consequences of such a process is change. In such a process, both the client and the therapist are at risk to change. We believe this position goes far beyond the attempt outlined by Atkinson and Heath not to have one’s competence moored in winning or having one’s way. What is critical to this position is the therapist’s exposure to change through the process of dialogue.
If the emphasis is shifted to the client and therapist, and to the shared influence of both on understanding, then understanding and meaning becomes a function of both. They participate in a shared developmental process. From this perspective, client and therapist are seen as mutually creating meaning, and mind becomes a mutual intersubjectivity. Therapist and client come together in dialogue and neither maintains an independent meaning structure that works only in an interactive fashion. In effect, they generate a dialogically shared domain of meaning that belongs to the moment and in(and only in) the therapeutic conversation. A new world, a new narrative, a new story is created. The client and therapist do not create an interactive and dialectic situation. Rather, they combine meaning in the moment of mutually created, new understanding. It is an understanding that exists only at the moment and continues to change throughout time. Meaning, understanding, and language never remain static in dialogue. They are always becoming history on the way to change.
We think that the task of clinical theory may be thought of as an attempt to develop a powerful language of description in order to be able to talk about the human world of meaning as experienced by people. We want to talk about this with each other and with those we call our clients. The language of psychological and cybernetic theory makes this task always difficult and often impossible. The language best suited to doing therapy does not have to be invented. It already exists in the ordinary language of explanation and the narratives of self-description of our clients. If we use the expertise of their language, and if we learn to move in the narratives of their first-person stories, then we can work in a world that journeys far from where we are and yet is close to where they are. As therapists, our expertise is in being able to accomplish this narrative adventure. Our expertise is not in seducing, constraining, or coercing clients to think, understand, and explain their behavior in the foreign language we call cybernetic or psychological theory.
The price paid for this capacity, this joining the world of human meaning, is the loss of the universal “certainty” found in the more usual methods of therapeutic inquiry. Like Atkinson and Heath, we do not find this certainty useful. However, we feel that our position is very different from the position of “fey” or “non-attachment.” Dialogue and conversation require active involvement. For us, the gain is the shared understanding. Meaning is high for us and for those with whom we work. We should not, however, lose sight of the obvious, namely, that the clarity, precision, and certainty of traditional cybernetic inquiry is just as illusory as any other kind of understanding (including narrative understanding). Understanding therapy from the position of conversation and dialogue helps us to generate the kind of first-person narrative that stands a remarkably high chance of maintaining contact, coherence, and continuity with the experiences of our clients, and our own experience as well. This contact and continuity with experience holds the promise of promoting the kind of dialogue that provides the maximum opportunity for changing narrative and, thus, more open futures. This is what change in therapy is about. In open dialogue all parties change.
This way of thinking about therapy avoids the normative categories of traditional understanding, avoids the issue of therapist power and control, and permits an understanding more sympathetic to how we experience our humanity and our being. We suggest that this is more properly the change in personal “epistemology” urged by Atkinson and Heath. The only change we would make in this strongly presented and appealing position is that, in the hermeneutic tradition, we would substitute the word “understanding” for epistemology.
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