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The training programme in psychotherapy of the Institute of Constructivist Psychology refers on one hand to constructivist epistemology as a philosophical foundation and on the other hand to George A. Kelly’s theory of personal constructs as the implementation of the assumptions of costructivism in the field of psychology.
Kelly’s theory was published in the United States in 1955 in the magnum opus The Psychology of Personal Constructs (Norton). It was brought to the attention of an European audience in the Sixties by two British psychologists, Don Bannister and Fay Fransella and a Dutch one, Hans Bonarius. The theory offers a markedly different approach to clinical and psychotherapeutic practice compared to most of the models which were then (and still are) current. The reason for this difference is the unusual amount of attention devoted to the philosophical and epistemological assumptions of the theory itself and therefore to the model of knowledge which the theory refers to and to which it contributes. Within the framework of person-centered psychological theories, the focus of interest, the object and at the same time the subject of Kelly’s theory is the person in their totality, considered as the active creator of theories, engaged in interpreting their world and in creating – through language, negotiation of meanings and shared narratives – the interpersonal context, the social fabric in which to live. In other words the psychology of personal constructs faces rather than evades –maybe the first to do so in the history of psychological theories – the taboo of the eye looking at itself (to borrow a phrase from Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela). The taboo of the knowledge of knowledge.
To be willing to put oneself in the interesting and unstable position of someone who questions himself about the knowledge of knowledge means to break with the tradition of the realistic epistemology according to which knowledge is the outcome of a linear process of accumulation of data which should gradually yield the truth about objects and about the laws of the world and to immerse oneself into the challenge of complexity. The complexity of a knowledge which circularly has to question itself about itself, about its own generative processes and can no longer expel the observer from the observed phenomenon.
Far from the idea of a natural science made up of pure and simple statements about its objects of study – and perfectly distinguished from them – the psychology of personal constructs considers reality to be dependent on the observer and cannot avoid considering itself, reflexively, on the same terms: as a theoretical reality created by someone to explain and order the personal theories of others but also his own. A theory of theories which must necessarily explain itself. A “reality” which is, like every construction of reality, transitory and transitive.
If this puts constructivism and Kelly’s theory on a different plane compared to “realism” the same happens in relation to “idealism”. Constructivism, in fact, offers itself as a tertium datur (a given third). The answer to the question: “Does reality exist?” is neither “Yes” (Realism) nor “No” (Idealism). Reality is simply not independent of the observer, it is not disconnected from the system which knows it and from its own generative “mechanisms”.
Once again the focus is on the person with their theories and their way of constructing them. A person such as a scientist or narrator is deeply involved in making sense of himself, of others, of his relationships with others, of the world; his processes “ are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates the events”; this is Kelly’s ‘fundamental postulate’. Therefore the realities which we create – and which deliver the world into our hands in the way in which we perceive it – are subject to continuous reconstructions, continuous reinterpretations and rediscussions. To accept and to embrace the eclipsis of Truth in favour of the idea of a reality which can be interpreted in many alternative ways, summarizes the philosophical position called constructive alternativism.
Focusing on the person, on the structure of the system which knows, also means opting for a recursive vision of knowledge, according to which the world, the environment is specified by the system itself and, emerging from the interactions of the components of the system it becomes a source of perturbations. This approach replaces, with deep ethical, methodological and technical implications, a behavioural and naturalistic view, where the living system is reduced to its own behaviour and the environment – which is necessarily considered the locus of ‘control’ – is simply a source of input.
In other words Kelly anticipated the notion of enaction in current philosophy and neuroscience, where the person is seen as the creator of a reality through their own actions, where the mental map of the world becomes the lived and experienced ‘reality’ of the person.
This means that we connect with reality through our embodied convictions. In the light of this theoretical approach meaning, interpretation and the construction of reality dissolve the necessity of two time-hallowed and irreducible dualisms: ‘mind-body’ and ‘cognition-emotion’.
Thus the Psychology of the Personal Constructs, in the form of a fundamental postulate and of the corollaries which articulate it, is shown to be one of the rare approaches equipped with an impressively elaborated epistemological structure and with a fully developed system of innovative therapeutic techniques, derived from its chosen philosophical assumptions.
On a more clinical level, the novelty of the approach consists in, among other things, providing an alternative to the dominant medical model still employed, both implicitly and explicitly in most other therapeutical approaches.
The two central themes of reflexivity and of constructive alternativism reflect themselves in clinical practice and become the criteria of ethical and concrete acting.
Despite its complex and finely articulated philosophical foundations, the core of Kelly’s theory is to be recognized as the intention of creating a psychological science which can really be understood by everyone and which can be used in everyday life, avoiding the pitfalls of both an old-fashioned psychological science which places itself above human beings and the creation of another form of mystifying psychology with internal hierarchies of power, knowledge, control and all the non-participative practices which result from them.
In fact the metatheoretical tenet of reflexivity highlights the attempt to create a useful and comprehensible psychology of meanings, at the same time close and not foreign to common experience: whatever a psychological theory says about its ‘patients’, about other people and their theories, must necessarily also be applied to itself. In other words, the therapist, if he wants to be coherent, must apply to himself the same theory he uses for his clinical work. It is easy to understand that this is not simply a theoretical subtlety but a strong ethical requirement.
On the other hand, the central theme of constructive alternativism, obliges us to be constantly vigilant towards our desire to take our experiences as absolute, changing them into certainties and to consider the ideas of the people with whom we interact to be as valid as ours, even if to us they look undesirable or unacceptable. In this there is both the expression of a deep respect, of a deep conviction of the legitimacy of the other – since the only world we have available to us, is the one we can share with him – and a statement of hope and faith in the creativity of human beings. Engraved in the theory is the conviction of a positive psychology, based on the creative power of people when they are together, based on the power of anticipating alternative futures and on the refusal to accept defeat when facing recurring and repetitive themes and roles of the past. Alternativism is an open invitation to people to rethink, revisit, reconsider and improve their own ways of understanding themselves and others.
This approach shows a deep respect for personal differences, since the creation of alternatives depends on the perceptions and on the idiosyncratic ways each person has of constructing their reality. Consequently, this is a psychology which recognizes personal differences in all their forms and which upholds the need to be aware of these differences in every field of social activity. At the same time, each individual must accept responsibility for the kind of reality he creates through his own actions.
From this point of view, Kelly’s model favours personal questions rather than giving simplifying answers. To understand another person fully, means to understand his deep questions rather than paying attention to the kind of answers he has contented himself with.
The social energies of people come from their leading questions, perplexities and quests while the ‘given answers’ are often social techniques to keep people on their tracks, to keep them quiet and to keep them under control. An example of this could be the typical situation of a child during the phase when he starts to ask his parents ‘Why?.....’. In the beginning the parents enjoy ‘giving the answers’ (putting themselves forward as experts), but the children are very good at making their parents understand how limited is their current knowledge is, and at the same time, how limited their ability to share it.
Kelly’s theory puts itself and people in front of the extreme boundary of knowledge, the extreme limit of what we know and what we do not know. In other words, its primary importance is to articulate and elicit relevant questions concerning those things which are covered by a layer of apparent self-evidence of which we remain normally and often voluntarily unaware. The only way to evolve as human beings – according to Kelly – is to put oneself in front of our own areas of personal and collective ignorance, and to perform together experiments which can continuously push forward the frontiers of our knowledge. The strength of human beings is therefore to be identified with their attitude for quest and experience, and its instrument consists of the courage to experiment with ourselves as the main problem of each experiment.
However evident its peculiarities, the Psychology of Personal Constructs is related to various other important psychology theories on one hand, and to a vast philosophical tradition on the other.
The relationship with Jean Piaget’s theory is obvious; according to the epistemologist Ernst Von Glasersfeld, Piaget applied a radical constructivist perspective to the understanding of the development of knowledge with a particular but not exclusive emphasis on childhood and adolescence.
In the field of philosophy, this approach can be traced through a number of authors, such as Heraclitus, Berkeley, Vico, Vaihinger, Korzybski and Dewey in the hermeneutic tradition and in phenomenology with authors like Heidegger, Gadamer and Merleau-Ponty.
There is an obvious affinity between Kelly’s thought and the second cybernetics which has developed from the Gregory Bateson’s ‘ecological’ theory thanks to the contribuitions of Maturana and Varela, with their notions of autopoiesis (self-organization of a system) and enaction (knowledge through action).
There is a strong connection with the Gestalt theory which emphasises the superadditive property of parts: the whole is something different from the sum of the parts. The difference between the two models lies mainly in the fact that, while the Gestalt perspective focuses on the sum of the parts, constructivism considers the relationships between the whole and the parts. As in the system theory of Bateson, the emphasis is on “the patterns which connect” the events to an observer and which represent the process of knowledge of the organism in its environment.
Out of this ‘ecological’ vision of the person in action, engaged in interpreting his world and in creating, in language, together with others, the social fabric in which he lives, and which in its turn, in the act of living together, gives sense to himself as a human being, arises our choice of a constructivism which can be labelled as ‘systemic’ and ‘hermeneutic’. This is the source of the explicit reference to an integration of some techniques used in family and Gestalt therapy. These models are employed to delve deeper in the recurrent themes handed down from one generation to the next in families, and to recognize the “roles” played by each family member. These roles, most of which are implicit and unacknowledged refer back to meanings (constructs) particularly relevant for each family member; their clarification is fundamental to aiding the psychotherapeutic process.
Finally, the relationship between personal constructs psychology and therapy on one hand and cognitive psychology and psychotherapy on the other – notwithstanding some significant differences – is not one of opposition but of historical and epistemological affinity. In Italy from the time it was first introduced, personal constructs theory was considered, not unreasonably, as related to cognitivism, and is consequently officially acknowledged by the Italian Society of Behavioural and Cognitive Therapy as one of its approaches.
The difference between the psychology of personal constructs and classical rationalistic cognitivism is essentially that the former does not recognise the ‘cognition-emotion’ dichotomy which builds the foundation of the latter theory. In fact, Kelly’s theory – by leading everything back to a system of constructs which become, at more and more abstract levels, inclusive of both the terms of these opposition – does not consider the classical antitheses of Cartesian thought to be heuristically relevant.
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