Exploring the sphere of between: The adoption of a framework of complementarity and its implications for a constructivist psychotherapy
Chiari G. & Nuzzo M. L. (2006) Exploring the sphere of between: The adoption of a framework of complementarity and its implications for a constructivist psychotherapy. Theory and Psychology 16: 257–275. Available at http://cepa.info/917
Table of Contents
In the beginning is relation
Not One, Not Two: The Puzzle of Complementarity
The Sound of One Hand Clapping: The Constitutive Relation between Something and Something Else
From Dualities to Trinities: Complementary Modes of Description
The Foot Feels the Foot When It Feels the Ground: The I–World Relation
If I Am I Because You Are You, and If You Are You Because I Am I, Then I Am Not I, and You Are Not You: The I–Other Relation
Buber’s I–Thou meeting
A Dance in the Choreography of Coexistence: Dialogues, Conversations and Psychotherapy
Difficulties in Conversing
A psychological understanding of interpersonal processes in terms of complementarity is not new. It is enough to mention Buber (the title of our paper refers to an expression of his), as well as Bateson and his definitions of double description, binocular vision and complementary and symmetric relations. We would like to clarify the nature of complementarity, and to point out the presence of this framework in some philosophical and scientific discourses about the person. Moreover, we think that the adoption of a framework of complementarity becomes a metaphysical necessity within what we have called ’hermeneutic constructivism’, and that other constructivisms fail to acknowledge it, thereby losing much of their metatheoretical, revolutionary potential. We will document the possibility of adopting a framework of complementarity with respect to different pairs of poles, which specify as many phenomenal domains: (1) the relation between any entity and its environment; (2) the relation between modes of description; (3) the relation between the person and the world; and (4) the relation between people. In the final part of the paper we outline some implications of a consideration of complementarity for the psychotherapy process.
Key words: complementarity, hermeneutic constructivism, personal construct theory, psychotherapy
The title of our paper, ’Exploring the Sphere of Between’, refers to an expression of Martin Buber (1923/1937, 1938/2002), an Austrian Jewish thinker who lived in Germany and Palestine in the first half of the 20th century. His ideas have insightful implications not only for theology and metaphysics, but also for ethics, social philosophy, psychology, psychotherapy and educational theory (Friedman, 1955; Buber Agassi, 1999). Buber’s understanding of the ’personal’ is particularly relevant to the argument we intend to address in this paper.
In the beginning is relation[Note 1]
According to Buber, personality is neither simply an individual matter nor simply a social product, but a function of relation happening in the ’sphere of “between’. This is the primal category of human reality: ’On the far side of the subjective, on this side of the objective, on the narrow ridge, where I and Thou meet, there is the realm of “between”’ (Buber, 1938/2002, p. 243).
In the above statements, we single out three aspects which we would like to stress and work through:
neither simply an individual matter nor simply a social product: here is a neither/nor to be meant as a both/and: a both/and way of looking at otherwise opposite entities (the individual vs. the social). We can see a relation of complementarity between the two terms, a complementarity that we regard as a metaphysical necessity starting from the assumption that no reality exists independent of the observer and that the observer brings forth what is observed through the making of distinctions.personality is … a function of relation: that is, a third entity, the personal, arises from the opposition between the individual and the social as an emergent dimension that transcends both.happening in the ’sphere of “between”: that is, in the living relation between people, on the narrow ridge where I and Thou meet. We are more accustomed to thinking that a social process takes place whenever an individual meets another individual. In this case, we see two separate individuals interacting with each other. However, we can assume a different perspective and take the relation as primary: it is from the relation that the persons and their realities emerge. In this case, the two terms of the relation are no longer separately interacting; they complement each other.
A psychological understanding of interpersonal processes in terms of complementarity is not new, and it is not restricted to Buber. It is enough to mention Bateson (1979) and his definitions of double description, binocular vision and complementary and symmetric relations. Nevertheless, we would like to make clearer the nature of complementarity, and to point out the presence of this framework in some philosophical and scientific discourses about the person. Moreover, we think that the adoption of a framework of complementarity becomes a metaphysical necessity within what we have called elsewhere ’hermeneutic constructivism’ (Chiari & Nnzzo, 1996a, 1996b, 2000, 2004), and that other, ’epistemological’ constructivisms fail to acknowledge it, losing in this way much of their metatheoretical, revolutionary potential.
We will document the possibility of adopting a framework of com-plementarity in relation to different pairs of opposites, which specify as many phenomenal domains:
the relation between any entity and its environment;the relation between modes of description;the relation between the person and the world;the relation between people.
In the final part of the paper we shall outline some implications of a consideration of complementarity for the psychotherapy process.
Not One, Not Two:[Note 2] The Puzzle of Complementarity
Let us start by trying to understand the meaning of complementarity. To this end, it is useful to distinguish two different orientations in the way of looking at the world.
One consists in considering things, persons, ideas, as singularities, or as individualities, that is, as isolated entities occasionally interacting in relation to one another. It is the common-sense way of perceiving reality based on either/or thinking. It is also the most traditional attitude adopted by scientists who envision a mechanistic and atomistic world. This view provides an illusion of control and allows simplistic choices between two alternatives, consisting in absorbing one of them into the other, or in postulating an interaction between the two. In this connection the mind/body and the heredity/environment oppositions are particularly illustrative.
The other orientation consists in considering everything in relation to something else, that is, in taking the relation as primary on the basis of a both/and thinking. The sense of this latter attitude usually appears less intuitive; yet, once adopted, it can give rise to deep changes in our way of looking at other people, the world and ourselves. Unlike the most usual relational approaches, one is not concerned here with the possibility of considering the relation between things or persons. Rather, one is concerned with the impossibility of pointing at something without simultaneously considering (making reference to, specifying, putting into contrast, denying) something else, since the two entities are interdependent, mutually defining: they specify each other, they complement each other.
In fact, a possible definition of complementarity is the following: ’The interrelationship, completion or perfection brought about by one or more units supplementing, being dependent upon, or standing in polar opposition to another unit or other units’ (Union of International Associations, 1994-5).
In quantum physics, Bohr (1934) developed the complementarity principle to describe the wave/particle aspects of light, with both the wave and particle aspects of light necessary to understand light’s nature. Even though waves and photon particles represent two mutually exclusive approaches, both are regarded as necessary for an exhaustive description of the phenomenon. This is the puzzle of complementarity: the terms in relation appear mutually exclusive but simultaneously necessary. It is impossible to dissolve one member of the pair in the other: both must be used; they are two sides of one thing. There is relatedness of opposites in spite of the exclusion.
In philosophy and in some social and human sciences, the framework of complementarity has emerged relatively recently as a more or less central metatheoretical aspect. With respect to philosophy, it can be recognized as a basic premise in phenomenological and hermeneutical reflection, as will be discussed below. Not surprisingly, with respect to the social and human sciences, the complementary orientation appears in a few theories formulated by authors inclined to question the more traditional metatheoretical assumptions, or by thinkers whose work lies at such a level of abstraction as to intersect, and to be of interest for, many different disciplines.
The Sound of One Hand Clapping:[Note 3] The Constitutive Relation between Something and Something Else
As stated above, we regard complementarity as a metaphysical necessity starting from the assumption that we cannot claim that a reality exists independent of the observer as the observer brings forth what is observed through the making of distinctions. In the words of Spencer-Brown (1969), a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart. This is also, in modem cognitive science, one of the basic statements of Maturana and Varela (1970-3/1980, 1984/1987) in their understanding of cognition as a biological phenomenon: ’A distinction splits the world into two parts, “that” and “this,” or “environment” and “system,” or “us” and “them,” etc. One of the most fundamental of all human activities is the making of distinctions’ (Varela, 1979, p. 84); ’The act of indicating any being, object, thing, or unity involves making an act of distinction which distinguishes what has been indicated as separate from its background’ (Maturana & Varela, 1984/1987, p. 40). Here is the sense of our above statement: there is a constitutive, metaphysical complementarity between the two terms of an act of distinction.
In the field of psychology, James (1890, ch. XIII) has already stressed that knowledge derives from ’acts of discrimination and comparison’, that ‘experience is trained by both association and dissociation’, that ’the perception of likeness is practically very much bound up with that of difference’. However, as probably is already clear from the above quotations, complementarity is not for James a metaphysical necessity. It is a possibility: ’the same things … which arouse the perception of difference usually arouse that of resemblance also’.
In our opinion, Kelly (1955/1991) offers the most articulate, consistent and sophisticated contribution to this sense. The notion of construct – on which he based his personal construct theory, his psychology and his psychotherapeutic approach – is explicitly formulated in terms of metaphysical complementarity.
Kelly (1955/1991) departs from the notion of concept and from conventional logic by assuming that the differences expressed by a construct are just as relevant as the likenesses.
We see relevant similarity and contrast as essential and complementary features of the same construct and both of them as existing within the range of convenience of the construct. That which is outside the range of convenience of the construct is not considered part of the contrasting field but simply an area of irrelevancy. (Vol. 1, p. 49, italics ours)
Being interested in rejecting the epistemological assumption leading to an understanding of speech as a way of denoting entities, Kelly (1961/1969a) argues that
... a person never makes his choice merely between an entity and a nonentity. When he says that ’A is B’ it seems that he is also asserting that ‘A is not C’. The choice he makes is not, therefore, between ’B’ and ’not-B’, but between ’B’ and ’C’ – between two entities. (p. 98)
Kelly called his choice the double entity choice, to distinguish it from the single entity choice envisioned by classical logic.
In order to save this premise, Kelly describes a construct as dichotomous or bipolar in nature, but ’it must be understood that the personal construct abstracts similarity and difference simultaneously. One cannot be abstracted without implying the other’ (Kelly, 1961/1969a, p. 103, italics ours).
Both the similarity and the contrast are inherent in the same construct. A construct which implied similarity without contrast would represent just as much of a chaotic undifferentiated homogeneity as a construct which implied contrast without similarity would represent a chaotic particularized heterogeneity. (Kelly, 1955/1991, Vol. 1, p. 35)
Bateson (1979) holds a similar view. Objects are our creations: our experience of them is subjective, not objective, and is based on the perception of a difference. In order to produce information, two entities (real or imaginary) are needed, such that the difference between them can be immanent to their reciprocal relation. Each entity, by itself, is for mind and perception a non-entity, a non-being. It is not different from being and it is not different from not-being: it is an unknowable, a Ding an sich, the sound of one hand clapping, as Bateson states. Thus, we receive information in terms of events that correspond to outlines of the world. We draw distinctions, that is, we draw them out. The distinctions that are not drawn out do not exist.
From Dualities to Trinities: Complementary Modes of Description
The recognition of complementarity as a metaphysical necessity does not lead to the substitution of a world of singularities with a world of dualities, of opposites. It is, in fact, quite the contrary. Being the result of an act of distinction, of a construction of regularities, every duality can be resolved (dissolved) within a third ’thing’, a transcending duality (a superordinate construct in Kelly’s terms), which acts to provide a common unifying structure to mutually exclusive opposites.
Again, Kelly (1955/1991) shows this possibility by incorporating it in the hierarchical structure of personal construct systems, and applying it to the opposition free will/determination:
Determination and freedom are two complementary aspects of structure. They cannot exist without each other any more than up can exist without down or right without left. Neither freedom nor determination are absolutes. A thing is free with respect to something; it is determined with respect to something else.
The solution proposed for the problem of determinism and free will provides us with the pattern for understanding how people can vary and still be considered as lawful phenomena of nature. A person’s construction system is composed of complementary superordinate and subordinate relationships. The subordinate systems are determined by the superordinate systems into whose jurisdiction they are placed. The superordinate systems, in turn, are free to invoke new arrangements among the systems which are subordinate to them.
This is precisely what provides for freedom and determination in one’s personal construct system. The changes that take place, as one moves toward creating a more suitable system for anticipating events, can be seen as falling under the control of that person’s superordinating system. In his role identifying him with his superordinating system, the person is free with respect to subordinate changes he attempts to make. In his role as the follower of his own fundamental principles, he finds his life determined by them. (Vol. 1, p. 55, italics ours)
Varela presented a conceptual and formal framework of complementarities in terms of system theory that arrives at a similar conclusion. We refer to Varela’ s writings for the formal representation of this issue (Goguen & Varela, 1978; Varela, 1976, 1979). What is relevant here is his excursus into dialectics.
According to Varela, when different modes of description appear as opposites, it is more satisfactory to consider them as complementary instead. This allows one to go a step further to duality and dialectics, operating a transition from dualities to trinities.
By trinity Varela (1976) means ’the contemplation of the ways in which pairs (poles, extremes, modes, sides) are related and yet remain distinct’ (p. 62): the way they are not one, not two. Varela’s key idea is that of replacing the metaphorical idea of trinity with a built-in injunction that can tell us how to go from duality to trinity. He calls it the star statement:* = the it/the process leading to it, where the slash ’/’ is to be read as ’consider both sides of /’, that is, ’consider both the it and the process leading to it’ (p. 62).
Many classical dualities (whole/parts constituting the whole, holism/ reductionism, being/becoming, mind/body, space/time, structure/content, environment/system, recursion/behavior) can be seen in this complementarity framework. In general, Varela (1979) says,
... take any situation (domain, process, entity, notion) that is autonomous (total, complete, stable, self-contained), and put it on the left side of the /. Put on the other side the corresponding process (constituents, dynamics). ... In each of these cases the dual elements can be seen as complementary: they mutually specify each other. There is, in this sense, no more duality, since they are related. (p. 100, italics ours)
This view of complementarity, according to Varela, represents a departure from the classical way of understanding dialectics. In the classical Hegelian paradigm, duality is tied to the idea of polarity, a clash of opposites. The basic form of these kinds of duality is symmetry: both poles belong to the same level. The nerve of the logic behind this dialectics is negation: pairs are of the form A/not-A. In the cybernetic or post-Hegelian paradigm suggested by Varela (1979, pp. 100-101), dualities are adequately represented by imbrication of levels, where one term of the pair emerges from the other. The basic form of these dualities is asymmetry: both terms extend across levels. The nerve of the logic behind this dialectics is self-reference, that is, pairs of the form: it/process leading to it.
Pairs of opposites are, bound by necessity, on the same level and stay on the same level as long as they are taken in opposition and contradiction. Pairs of the star form make a bridge across one level of our description, and they specify each other.
The abstraction of the dialectics of opposites applies also to the observer’s properties. There is mutual reflection between describer and description, but here again we have been used to taking these terms – observer/observed, subject/object – as opposites, as Hegelian pairs. According to Varela (1979), ‘these poles are not effectively opposed, but moments of a larger unity that sits on a metalevel with respect to both terms’ (p. 101). In other words, it is possible to apply what was said above about trinities and put both the subject and the object on the right side of the star conversational pattern/ participants in a conversation, that is, participants engaged in dialogue, whether with each other, with the environment or with ourselves.
The Foot Feels the Foot When It Feels the Ground:[Note 4] The I–World Relation
To look at knowing (and being) in terms of complementarity is not as easy as switching the perception of a Necker cube, and putting mind (knowledge) in front and the world (reality) behind. In this case, we obtain a sort of reversal of perspective, similar to the one consisting in a shift from a naive realist to a radical idealist assumption. In order to convey the sense of a constructivist, complementary perspective by means of a graphical representation like a Necker cube, we should say that it derives from perceiving both of the possible interpretations simultaneously.
We could resort to another figural representation, a circle, which has the advantage of delimiting an inside from an outside, thus reminding us of our perception of an inner self and an outer reality. Again, it would be misleading to play with permutations. In fact, to exchange the location of mind and world would be nonsensical for most of us, whereas to put both the mind and the world within the circle would leave the outside empty, thus re-proposing an idealist viewpoint. In this case, the only way to abstract the sense of a complementarity between mind and world consists in pointing at the line tracing the circle. It is this very line that, as a distinction, allows both of the severed parts (the inner mind and the outer world) to come into being.
If we choose to remain in the field of geometry, maybe the figure most suggestive of an understanding of the mind – world relation in terms of complementarity is the MObius strip. Contrary to the first appearance, it has only one edge and one side; and, if you cut down the middle of the strip, instead of getting two separate strips, it becomes one long strip.
There is, in these examples, the idea of the possibility to transcend oppositions, dualities, dismissing the attitude consisting in viewing two parts, entities, unities in relation with each other, for assuming the relation itself as, say, a ’unit unifying the parts’. Here is the way Varela (1984) proposes to transcend the mind/world opposition:
Tradition would have it that experience is either a subjective or an objective affair, that the world is there and that we either see it as it is or we see it through our subjectivity. However ... we may look at that quandary from a different perspective: that of participation and interpretation, where the subject and the object are inseparably meshed. This interdependence is revealed to the extent that nowhere can I start with a pure account of either one, and wherever I choose to start is like a fractal that only reflects back precisely what I do: to describe it. By this logic, we stand in relation to the world as in a mirror that does not tell us how the world is: neither does it tell us how it is not. It reveals that it is possible to be the way we are being, and to act the way we have acted. It reveals that our experience is viable.
That the world should have this plastic texture, neither subjective nor objective, not one and separable, neither two and inseparable, is fascinat‑ing. ... It shows that reality is not just constructed at our whim, for that would be to assume that there is a starting point we can choose from: inside first. It also shows that reality cannot be understood as given and that we are to perceive it and pick it up, as a recipient, for that would also be to assume a starting point: outside first. It shows, indeed, the fundamental groundlessness of our experience, where we are given regularities and interpretations born out of our common history as biological beings and social entities. Within those consensual domains of common history we live in an apparently endless metamorphosis of interpretations following interpretations. (p. 322)
In the philosophical domain, the feature of complementarity has been put at the basis of human beings through the notion of intentionality in Brentano’s (1874/1973) psychology of act. The subject enters into a relation with the object of his or her own experience through a specific intentional act, that is, the consciousness’s pointing at a content. Subsequently, the notion of intentionality has been elaborated further as I–world relation in Husserl’s (1950, 1959) transcendental reduction, as well as in Heidegger’s (1962) notion of being-in-the-world.
Beyond the peculiarities of these three fundamental contributions to phenomenology, we are in the presence of a common attempt to transcend the opposition/separation between subject and object. In other words, we are in the presence of the rejection of both an objectivist and a subjectivist position in favor of a consideration of the subject/object interdependence, of a mutual specification between knower and known. What emerges from such consideration is something radically new. Instead of having to choose between two alternative, conflicting views (objectivism or subjectivism, realism or idealism), we have now the opening of a middle course resolving the opposition (Chiari & Nuzzo, 1996a). It is not at all a sort of compromise; rather, it is an overcoming of the old views to the extent that they are absorbed, and embraced, and explained by a new one.
Let us turn now to the psychological domain, and consider von Glasersfeld’s interpretation of the radical constructivist epistemology that he envisions in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. According to von Glasersfeld (1982), the Piagetian notion of adaptation is often misunderstood and regarded according to the more traditional view of knowledge as a representation of reality. In order to avoid such misinterpretation von Glasersfeld has repeatedly suggested that one should replace the misleading connotation of adaptation by the term viability. The relation between the river and the landscape provides him with a clarifying analogy (von Glasersfeld 1985).
The river forms wherever the landscape allows the water to flow. There is a continuous and subtle interaction between the inner ’logic’ of water – for instance, the fact that it must form a horizontal surface and cannot flow upward – and the topology of territory. Both impose constraints on the watercourse, and they do so in an inseparable way. In no case could one say, for example, that the river turns to the right ’because’ there is a hill, without implicitly presupposing the logic of water that prevents the river from flowing upward. Therefore the river does not represent the landscape, but fits into it. It finds its course between the constraints that impose themselves not from the landscape or from the logic of water, but always and by necessity from the interaction of both aspects.
The reference to a relation of complementarity between knowledge and reality can be found in Piaget (1973) when he states that ’knowledge does not begin in the I, and it does not begin in the object; it begins in the interactions… . There is a reciprocal and simultaneous construction of the subject on the one hand and the object on the other’ (p. 20).
Again, this feature of complementarity is redolent of phenomenological themes, for example Merleau-Ponty: ’The world is inseparable from the subject, but from a subject which is nothing but a projection of the world; the subject is inseparable from the world, but from a world that the subject him/herself projects’ (1945/1962, p. 430); ’There is psychology neither at the level of the directly lived, nor at the level of geographical world: the psychic is between the two’ (1964, p. 163).
If I Am I Because You Are You, and If You Are You Because I Am I, Then I Am Not I, and You Are Not You:[Note 5] The I–Other Relation
Even the I intentionally related with the world becomes an I who can distinguish him- or herself from the world as the result of an act of distinction by an observer, that is, in Maturana’s (1987) understanding, a being operating in language. Self, self-consciousness, awareness, mind and reality take place in language as explanations of the happenings of living by the observer. Therefore, they take place only in the social domain.
Indeed, the emergence of self is central to every psychological investigation, and the theories that regard the self as a social construction emphasize the role of interpersonal relations. However, few of them explore the nature of such relations in terms of an effective metaphysical complementarity as much as Buber in his discussion of the I–Thou and I–It relations, and Mead in his consideration of the I–Me relation.
Buber’s I–Thou meeting
According to Buber, life, reality, the world, are in essence a complex of interpersonal relationships. Life is between persons and between things, not in them, and we cannot become selves or live as selves except in relationships, since knowledge of oneself is pre-eminently knowledge of oneself in relation to another. There is no I in itself, but only the I which stands facing a Thou in the reality of relationship. ’Through the Thou a man becomes I’, a person (Buber, 1923/1937, p. 28).
It is interesting to note the difference that Buber traces between a person and an individual. To have dealings with people is not necessarily to have relation between persons. The person makes his or her appearance by virtue of his or her relations with other persons, in the I–Thou world. The substance of this world is not separation, nor undifferentiated unity; it is relation. Real living is a meeting, which involves mutual claims, sacrifices, promises and risks
But there is another world, the world of the I–It. The I of the I–It world appears as an individual entity, conscious of him- or herself as the subject of experiencing and using. The individual makes its appearance by virtue of differentiating itself from other entities. The world of It is set in the context of space, time and causality. Common sense and science share this attitude: this is the world of security, of predictable events, of fixed laws.
The I is separated from the It (be it a thing or another person) in the subject/object antithesis. He has things, he sees something or someone, he knows something, he grasps something, he disposes of something ... but these somethings or someones do not essentially change him, or penetrate to the core of his being. (Pfuetze, 1954, p. 147)
Buber maintains that the I–Thou attitude precedes the I–It attitude in the development of children and in the history of humanity. In the beginning is relation. The pre-natal life of a child is one of natural combination, of bodily interactions with the mother. As the child grows, out of the primal world of the ’primitive We’, the bodily individual gradually enters into relation, makes conversations with the personified environment, and thus becomes a self. Every Thou must at some time become an It. The child’s development, as well as the progress of civilization, are characterized by the consistent enlargement of the It-world at the expense of the Thou-world, with a corresponding lessening of the Thou-attitude.
We like to mention the similitude with Merleau-Ponty’s (1964, 1993) position on the perception of other people based on studies of human development in infancy, as well as Kelly’s (1955/1991, Vol. 1, p. 68) distinction between figures and constructs as dimensions in the child’s construction of the social world, and his (1962/1969b) differentiation between a psychology of manipulation and a psychology of understanding.
Mead’s I–Me conversation
Mead’s (1934) analysis of self and society implies the development of selves who are both individual and social: in his term, social individuals. People can live together in a world of meaning because there is a prior social process within which their biological lives are set. Having reached the stage of evolution where language (i.e. vocal gesture and symbol) is possible, human beings acquire a mind. Mind is a product of communication within a social process. In talking to others one stimulates oneself at the same time and in the same way that one stimulates others. At this point the self appears. Because, through speech, an organism can hear itself talk and so affect itself as it affects others, the organism can ’take the role of the other’, that is, respond to itself as others would: the self as social can take the attitudes of others implicated in the common activity. All this can be internalized so that one (the /) becomes the other to one’s self (the me): ’Thinking is simply the reasoning of the individual, the carrying-on of a conversation between … the “I” and the “me”’ (Mead, 1934, p. 335). Even though Mead hypothesizes a distinction between I and me, the ‘me’ is inconceivable without an ’I’.
In Mead too, free will and determination are complementary: the social individual belongs to a system which determines him or her in part, and at the same time to a system which he or she determines in part. He or she belongs to two systems at once. The individual is similar to a miniature society.
Loving and living
A singular commonality among some of the perspectives described above is represented by an explicit reference to the dimension of love.
In Mead, the law ’love thy neighbour as thy self’ is not simply a command; it is, rather, a ’law’ of our very nature. It derives from the process of role-taking: having put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we are in a position to see their point of view, to know their troubles and limitations, to understand why they act as they do, to make their interests our own interests. Thus, the more roles we assume, the more loving our attitudes will be (see Pfuetze, 1954, p. 86).
Love is, according to Buber, the central fact of life, the total direction of one’s life and will toward the being and the need of the other. I and Thou are two poles of an inter-personal relation: love is between I and Thou (see Pfuetze, 1954, p. 140).
Bateson offers a definition of love from the systemic point of view, in which the relationship has a crucial value in and of itself, as something that has a life of its own. Just as Mind is immanent in the larger system, so love is also immanent in the larger system as patterns of self-organization not determined by individuals or by the medium in which these ’love systems’ live. Human loving means our capacity to become a part of something larger than our individual selves, and this something larger is a system that is in turn part of an even greater system. Bateson’s is a vision of systemic embeddedness of ’loving’.
Love, or the acceptance of the other person beside us in our daily life, is, according to Maturana and Varela (1984/1987), the biological foundation of social phenomena:
Anything that undermines the acceptance of others, from competency to the possession of truth and on to ideologic certainty, undermines the social process because it undermines the biological process that generates it. Let us not deceive ourselves: we are not moralizing, we are not preaching love. We are only revealing the fact that, biologically, without love, without acceptance of others, there is no social phenomenon. (pp. 246-247)
A Dance in the Choreography of Coexistence:[Note 6] Dialogues, Conversations and Psychotherapy
Kelly’s personal construct theory encompasses many of the aspects illustrated above. In particular, his notion of role, if adequately understood, bridges the individual/social as well as the cognitive/behavioral oppositions.
The individual/social opposition finds its overcoming in the very definition of role as ’a psychological process based upon the role player’s construction of aspects of the construction systems of those with whom he attempts to join in a social enterprise’ (Kelly, 1955/1991, Vol. 1, p. 215). The role is a process, an ongoing activity ’carried out in relation to, and with a measure of understanding of, other people’ (p. 68). The personal construction of one’s role is the utilization of the construct self as an element in the context of a superordinate construct which abstracts similarities and differences with respect to other persons.
The overcoming of the cognitive/behavioral opposition can appear questionable if one forgets that ’construing’ is not to be confounded with verbal formulations, cognitive processes or mental operations; construing means to erect an abstracting structure. The notion of embodied subjectivity that Butt (1998) draws on from Merleau-Ponty allows a clear overcoming of this opposition. In any case, the following passage will make clear that, for Kelly (1966/1969c), we do ’talk’ to one another with our behavior:
Two people, say a mother and a newborn child, may not have a full intellectual meeting of minds the first time they try to enter into a discourse with each other in the maternity ward. But by sharing their encounter with events – including their own behaviour – some mothers and daughters do develop a fair understanding, each of what the other is talking about. (p. 28)
In the dispute between constructivists and social constructionists about the emphasis on individuality or sociality, cognition or language (Burkitt, 1996; Mancuso, 1996; Wortham, 1996), personal construct psychology and psychotherapy show the possibility of following a middle course by transcending both the oppositions with the very dimensions of personal and construct.
Difficulties in Conversing
The view of a human being who develops in continuous relation with other human beings, and who becomes an observer, a self, a person as a result of his/her being basically and primarily immersed in a social world, implies a radical re-consideration of the most usual ways of understanding what are designated as psychological disorders.
In a psychology of separatedness, coherent with a clockwork world, one is compelled to look for some broken gear or out-of-order mechanism in the person to explain what appears as abnormal in his or her behavior. Moreover, one is inclined to judge as abnormal everything that deviates from the way things should go on the basis of commonality. Thus, the clinical psychologist or the psychotherapist will look for static, intra-individual entities (cognitions, emotions, drives, needs), weighing their validity (normality) in quantitative terms or according to criteria of truth. A ’lack of self-confidence’, an ‘excessive need of dependency’, an ’arbitrary inference’ or any kind of ‘inadequate emotion’ are regarded as possible causes of the individual’s suffering. These and similar entities are what has to be corrected, revised, eliminated, reinforced, attenuated. If you hear a psychologist or a psychotherapist talking about clients in terms of ’too much’ or ’too little’, you come to know his or her metaphysical framework.
In a psychology of participation, quantities and qualities are irrelevant with respect to a professional understanding of personal suffering. To look at the person rather than at the individual or at his or her social world implies looking at the dynamics of the inter-personal processes in which he or she is involved, and looking for the possibilities and the constraints that they imply. His or her difficulties have to be understood as difficulties in the maintenance of a conversation with the world, that is, in terms of adaptation. By stressing the importance of the position one plays within a conversational net, we put the Kellyan notion of role and the transition of guilt at the center of the diagnostic process.
From this perspective, the dimensions used by clients (confidence, dependency, inadequacy, fear) – as well as their more or less profound transformations in the languages used by psychologists or psychiatrists – are not at all ’objects’ inside the mind of the clients or ’objective’ descriptions of their inter-personal relationships. Instead, they have to be regarded as abstractions, constructions of one’s role, whose eventual modification does not affect directly the role. At the most, their modification can allow the person to experiment with new ways of relating with other people.
The psychotherapist’s role, therefore, is that of joining the clients in pursuing the possibility of their return to a conversational net: in personal construct theory terms, in overcoming their transition of guilt. In order to favor this process, the psychotherapist has to reach a professional construction of the clients’ difficulties, that is, subsume the clients’ construction system under a psychological construction. The consideration of the whole therapeutic process in terms of a framework of complementarity guides the psychotherapist in many respects.
First, the consideration of the complementary nature of personal con‑structs allows the therapist to understand the personal meaning of the client’s verbalizations.
Given that the construction of one’s role is abstracted by the same constructs that the person applies to him- or herself, the therapist can obtain important information about the ways in which the client construes him- or herself by considering his or her construction of other people.
Moreover, the client who complains, say, of experiencing a sense of constriction can imply different complementary aspects. For example, he or she could contrast ’constriction’ with ’freedom from others’, or with ‘freedom to express himself, or with ’freedom to neglect’. It is important to differentiate among these or other possible constructs, since they can be considered the abstractions of different roles that the client can hardly maintain. The first one could have to do with a relation based on ’asking for/ giving protection’, the second one on ’complying with expectations/exacting satisfaction’, the third one on ’taking/declining the responsibility’.
The wish to reach the contrasting condition that the client frequently expresses (i.e. to be ’free …’) seems to be at odds with his or her manifest efforts to keep playing the old role. However, both are indicative of the difficulty in maintaining the old role and in finding a new dimension so as to keep filling a position in a conversational net.
With respect to all of the above, the therapists are not at all out of the play; they become a node in the clients’ net, and their (verbal and extra-verbal) conversation with them is inevitably involved. Here again, a consideration of the therapeutic relationship from the vantage point of a framework of complementarity can guide the therapist (Chiari & Nuzzo, 2005).
While asserting to look for a different role (actually, the complementary side of the usual role), the client is likely to invite the therapist to complement the old role. It is just here, in the ’sphere of between’ of the therapeutic relationship, that both the client and the therapist have the greatest chance to explore new conversational patterns. It is the therapist’s responsibility to set up a new choreography, but they have to dance together.
In order to choose the choreography, the therapists are required to carry out two tasks.
First, they must use a binocular vision, in Bateson’s (1979) terms, regarding the relation as always a product of a ’double description’. In other words, they have to consider the two parts of the interaction (the client and other people) as two eyes that separately give a monocular vision of what is happening and, together, a binocular vision in depth: that is, the relation.
Second, they must have a reflexive vision, that is, they have to consider in the same way what happens in the therapeutic relationship. Both the binocular and the reflexive vision are part of a professional understanding of the therapeutic process.
In this way the therapist – quoting Kelly (1955) – ‘extricates himself from those constructions which are not generally useful to the client, … enacts a series of carefully chosen parts and seeks to have the client develop adequate role relationships to the figures portrayed’ (Vol. 2, p. 76). In other words, the therapist seeks to favor the making of relationships that allow the clients to elaborate new, orthogonal dimensions of role by assuming an orthogonal position in the therapeutic relationship (Chiari & Nuzzo, 1996b). To create an orthogonal frame means to create a domain of interactions within which the therapist can relate effectively with the client in such a way as to conserve his or her own professional neutrality (and therefore an optimal therapeutic distance), and to not interact in a way that would be constitutive of the client’s conversational group.
Apart from the therapeutic conversation (but not disregarding it), and on the basis of the therapist’s understanding of the client’s difficulty in maintaining a role, social experiments inside the interview room (e.g. enactments) and outside the interview room (e.g. fixed-role therapy) can be designed so that other personal experiences can be favored.
Much of the above has to do with the postmodern turn in the social and human sciences (Chiari & Nuzzo, 2003; Kvale, 1992), and more specifically with social constructionism and some constructivisms whose basic assumptions echo many of the philosophical themes developed by phenomenology, existentialism, pragmatism and even some pre-Socratic schools, not to mention many Buddhist teachings. All of the above schools of thought share the attempt at ’transcending the obvious’ (Kelly, 1963/1977), in particular with regard to the most common ways of conceiving the nature of knowledge. Complementarity, as opposed to the idea of interaction between individual entities, appears to us as a useful conceptual tool for an anti- foundational understanding of many processes, from the making of distinctions to the emergence of self and, in the clinical setting, of the therapeutic relationship and the therapeutic process. Moreover, we regard the adoption of a framework of complementarity as a metaphysical necessity within what we call hermeneutic constructivism.
This is a revised version of a paper read at the meeting of the British Psychological Society, Psychotherapy Section, London, 27 January 2001.
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