© The Association for Family Therapy 1997.

Published by Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford, OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA. Journal of Family Therapy (1997) 19:1–20 0163–4445 3.00

Reclaiming the idea of truth: some thoughts on theory in response to practice Carmel Flaskasa
This paper examines the idea of truth, its place in therapy and in the history of systemic theory. Beginning with some practice fragments, the theory exploration considers the idea of truth in the modernist frame, the paradox of the modernist metaphor in describing the activity of therapy, and the peculiarities of the idea of truth in the earlier systemic therapies. Postmodernist and social constructionist ideas are then explored, and meaning is identified as the concept which currently occupies the place of an idea of truth in systemic discourse. It is argued that meaning as a concept is insufficiently attached to an idea of (external) reality or to an understanding of the relationship of the individual to knowledge of her/his experience of the world. Reclaiming the idea of truth as an emotional and social process has more potential to meet the complexities of human experience in thinking about the process of therapeutic change.

This is a discussion paper about the idea of truth in the domain of therapy and in the history of systemic theory. Truth I know has an outdated modernist ring to it, accompanied by notes of certainty and even moralism. Though it has a chequered career in the systemic therapies, it is definitely not in fashion to use it as an idea in current theory or practice. Yet although I have no interest in reviving the modernist notion of truth as objective, certain and universal, it seems to me to be critical in therapy to hold some understanding of truth as an emotional and social process which enables a person to claim knowledge (‘truth’) about her/his experience. This passion for reclaiming ‘truth’ comes primarily from practice, but it also challenges theory. In doing so, it begs an exploration of the relationship of systemic theory to the idea of truth, and leads to an argument for reclaiming the idea of truth in therapy. Despite the clear focus of this paper on the question of truth, it may also be located in the milieu of an emerging discussion which
Lecturer, School of Social Work, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia.


Carmel Flaskas

is critical of some recent developments in systemic theory discourse, yet also appreciative of the value of a postmodernist awareness and constructionist and narrative perspectives. This discussion has been very much alive in the British context, and a number of articles published in this journal have addressed in different ways the contradictions and tensions between contemporary theory discourse and the activity of therapy (Speed, 1991; Pocock, 1995; Frosh, 1995; Launer, 1996). A similar kind of discussion has been occurring in the Australian and New Zealand context (Paterson, 1994; Paterson and Trathen, 1994; Flaskas, 1995; Harari, 1995; Gibney, 1996), and from North America, feminist writers continue to provide an ‘internal critique’ of current theory discourse (see, for example, Goldner et al., 1990; Goldner, 1991). However, though the wider discussion necessarily serves as a backdrop, this paper is wound very tightly around a focus on truth. Initially, I will present some practice fragments as a way of laying out the context of my interest in truth. I will then take a step back to theory, and explore the relationship of systemic therapy to the idea of truth. This will be done in four parts: the first part will map the position of the modernist idea of truth in relation to external reality, objective knowledge and certainty, and point to the paradox of ‘modernist’ therapies trying to exist within this frame; the second part gives a potted history of modernist times in systemic therapy and the relationship to truth; the third part considers the current framing of postmodernist and social constructionist ideas, and the fourth part gives a critique of the limits of the concept of ‘meaning’ which subsumes the idea of truth in contemporary systemic discourse. This critique leads to considering ‘truth’ as an emotional and social process, and the paper returns to practice. Beginning with practice – why bother about truth? Let me begin then with some fragments from practice, given that it has been practice rather than theory which has fuelled my interest in truth. First fragment
I see a young woman in individual therapy. She initially contacts me distressed about a fourteen-year-old girl with whom she is in love. The relationship with the girl seems very confused, and full of pain for the young
© 1997 The Association for Family Therapy

anxious. sexual) can crash through the capacity to know your own experience. Six months into the therapy. I didn’t know anything. and in therapy I witness an enormous anxiety that comes in like a tidal wave around themes connected with her father. or is he just imagining it? Is his wife really in love with another man. No. which I find very moving. It seems like the tip of the iceberg. he hasn’t imagined it – and so his worst fear has come true. and sometimes it feels a bit crazy. he sometimes doesn’t really recognize the word ‘abuse’ in relation to himself. or is he making a mountain out of a molehill? Again and again. She looks directly at me. he is immersed in the same dilemma – what is really going on. I didn’t know. but he didn’t know it was abuse. Second fragment I see a mother and daughter. because early invasive abuse (physical. how will he know the truth? He is a very good thinker. Or at least. and after interviewing her. She says to me about this: ‘I saw him. he didn’t really think about it. but neither outcome of reason offers much consolation. his thoughts can race. probably until he was ten. which she and her mother routinely witnessed. the protection workers see no evidence of abuse. Two years later. bewildered. I couldn’t think. something is going on. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t think. and I feel like we’re swimming in a very murky sea. The daughter is three. Later in the session I say: ‘This is so abusive’. is he imagining it. It’s another twelve months before the access is completely stopped by the Family Court on the grounds of possible sexual abuse. and claim some truth © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . Does his boss really fancy him. nothing sinister is going on. and forces himself to reason it through. They’re referred to me by the child welfare department after the mother had contacted them. when the child is six. It is perhaps not surprising that the people whose situations I have chosen to tell you about have all experienced early abuse. her father turns up outside her ballet class – she sees him from the door. emotional. Indeed she seems to be clouded in confusion about everything. Yes. and says: ‘but how do you know?’. The child is unable to verbally disclose to anyone other than her mother. and think it may be a crisis that’s been produced in the context of an access dispute. believing her daughter was being sexually abused by her father on access.’ Third fragment I see a man who knows he was sexually abused by his father from when he was about three. he has just imagined it – and so he must be crazy. He feels confused all the time. how bad is it. Even now. she brings me a letter in which she details scenes of sexual abuse of her sister by her father. he knew what happened with his father.Reclaiming the idea of truth 3 woman.

I would like to take a step back to theory. or their therapies. And indeed. before moving on to consider the peculiarities of the relationship of systemic therapy to the modernist idea of truth. Many of the current discussions about postmodernist ideas in systemic therapy imply that before the postmodernist influence. it is about the questions which confront me very directly as a therapist in these kinds of practice situations: how can I think about and understand the process of a person being able to claim a truth about her or his experience. truth takes up a particular position with respect to external reality. and that allows you to claim some sense of truth about your own emotional and social world. O’Hara and Anderson. It is possible and desirable to find and describe an observable reality. even if you have been lucky enough not to be abused or severely traumatized. knowledge and certainty. This paper is not about the specific situations of these people. and then to consider the paradox of modernism trying to describe and encompass the process of therapy. which has an existence separate to the observer. Doherty. and how people engage with it. Although it’s a familiar enough tune. for example. it’s worthwhile repeating it here. and it goes like this. 1991). In the modernist ‘frame’. we are able to build © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . I am not convinced of this. 1991. the modernist version of truth (see. are often seen in couple and family relationships and in the difficulties presented in therapy. Parry. systemic therapy fully embraced modernism and. The ramifications of this struggle. 1991. and would like to work through the basic tenets of the modernist frame. Other traumatic experiences can have a similar effect. By finding and describing ‘external’ reality. by implication. In this first part. or the experience of abuse and trauma.4 Carmel Flaskas about it. I want to map the modernist version of truth and the paradox of trying to fit the activity of therapy into a modernist frame. especially locating the place of truth. it can still be quite a struggle to come to a knowledge about your experience that allows for growth. and explore the relationship of systemic therapy to the idea of truth. and what ideas about truth might be helpful in this therapeutic endeavour? (1) Truth in the modernist equation and the paradox of ‘modernist’ therapies Having given the practice context of my interest in truth. However. I’m tackling this in four parts.

and the object which is being observed for knowledge and truth. The goal is to produce knowledge about a chosen aspect of the physical or social world which can claim greater certainty. . For though it may be quite nice as a fantasy for the therapist to subscribe to the idea of objective knowledge and the tidy split of subject/object. The sterility of trying to impose a split of subject and object in the process of therapy is beautifully illustrated by Ronald Fraser. the activity of therapy itself makes these categories very difficult to sustain. a social historian by profession. Modernist truth is indeed bound to certainty. You want to be the subject of your history instead of the object you felt yourself to be. Now it should be said that the modernist project has always been problematic in the field of therapy. He documents this dialogue with his therapist/analyst: ‘I’ve always thought that history served one purpose at least. And modernism both relies on (and produces) a clear splitting of the subject who wants to know. . the modernist equation is: external reality–objective knowledge–certainty about that knowledge–claim to truth–expert status given to holder-of-truth/knowledge.’ he (the analyst) replies warmly.’ ‘Yes. The same ought to be true of an individual’s history. and also confer on the people producing knowledge the status of holder-of-truth and expert about that aspect of the world. © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy .Reclaiming the idea of truth 5 up a knowledge about the world which is ultimately objective and verifiable. Therapy is centrally about human experience. external reality and objective knowledge. In the territory of understanding human experience. In short. the framing of objective knowledge and the idea of certain truth – rapidly falls apart as any viable metaphor for the activity of therapy. we are at one and the same time both the subject searching for understanding and the object to be understood. . and to bask as an expert in some space (or at least hope) of certainty. describes his own experience of trying to piece together some truths of his life. Thus the foundational splitting of subject/object – as well as the external position of the observer. but in human experience and in the practice of therapy it comes very much to life. By discovering the major factors of change one could learn from them. This may seem a dry and obscure point when phrased in terms of theory. Fraser. At that point we can confer a sense of truth about that knowledge.

and the debate around the legitimacy of its knowledge has centred exactly on the enmeshment of subject/object in the process of therapy. This is probably correct. even though it emerged in modernist times and reflected modernist assumptions. isn’t it?’ ‘The author of your childhood then. but the item I want to spotlight names the ambivalent relationship of Shotter (1993) offers a very interesting discussion of Fraser’s description of his own therapy. 1991). 2 The essays in Wollheim (1974) and Wollheim and Hopkins (1982) provide a good flavour of the history of this debate. systemic therapy fitted in any neat way into the modernist frame. p. But let me draw the discussion back to systemic therapy and truth. Parry identifies the earlier Freudian psychoanalysis as the quintessential modernist project in the field of therapy (Parry. an intense pragmatism in practice. It is interesting to see how different therapies have shown the tension of trying to exist within a modernist frame.6 Carmel Flaskas ‘The subject. and given a longer quotation of this dialogue on p. and adhering to modernist ideas in the practice of therapy. I have been wanting to lay the groundwork for the argument that it is too simplistic to assume that before the influence of postmodernist ideas. The tensions of describing the process of therapy in modernist terms. It’s the synthesis of the two. 127. the historian of your past.’ (Fraser. . is necessarily a synthesis of our experience of ourselves as both subject and object in relation to the world. showed in a number of ways in systemic therapy. then. . 1 © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy .2 The behavioural therapies stand as another example of the effects of this tension. This list could go on. Emerging directly from the disciplinary context of English-speaking psychology. yes – but also the object. . 1984. a use of ‘outside’ knowledges in fragmentary and often ideological ways. 187)1 The process of understanding human experience. For example. yet at the same time Freudian psychoanalysis has a long history of difficulty in establishing its ‘modernist’ credentials. where human experience had to be reduced solely to observable behaviour. the behavioural therapies show the pursuit of a pure modernist empiricism. despite the contradictions for both theory and practice. We could begin an extensive list – an ambivalence about ‘scientific knowledge’ (seen in the paucity of empirical research). a preference for ‘how-to-do’ knowledge.

the ruling 1950s American sociological paradigm. So let me pick up at this point. This gave the therapist a much greater flexibility. For this reason. The paradox of this indifference yet pragmatism in relation to families’ truths remains a practice theme throughout the first-order therapies. and discuss directly the peculiarities of this relationship. This involves some history. Production of expert ‘truths’ about families were enshrined in unproblematic diagnostic categories such as hierarchies. at the level of both theory and practice. It becomes impossible to make a sweeping generalization about the relationship of (modernist) systemic therapy to (modernist) truth. the shift in the early strategic therapies with respect to truth was not a difference about how the therapist positioned herself/himself vis-à-vis the families’ truths. At the same time. but on the other hand there was an indifference to the families’ knowledge and truths.Reclaiming the idea of truth 7 systemic therapy to the modernist idea of truth. This is probably not surprising. strategic and Milan therapies with respect to their relationship to the idea of truth. boundaries. and so I will comment on the models of structural. for there was no need to align with any diagnostic ‘truth’ unless that ‘truth’ was © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . this indifference to the families’ knowledge and truths was significantly tempered by a pragmatism about how those truths impacted on the therapy. for though structural therapy emerged in the 1960s. though. Yet the experience of people living within the dynamics which the structural categories attempted to define – and their ‘truth’ about that experience – was addressed only in so far as those truths acted to aid or hinder the goals of structural change. (2) Modernist times in systemic therapy and (modernist) truth The practice models which emerged in ‘modernist times’ in systemic therapy have major differences. Perhaps the only systemic therapy model with a vaguely straightforward relationship to the modernist idea of truth has been structural family therapy. enmeshed and disengaged relationships. The tension. then. there is no short cut to considering some representative models. and the functions of family subsystems. it was very much grounded in structural functionalism. which will necessarily be brief. shown in the structural model was on the one hand a strong commitment to the knowledge and truths produced by the therapist. Indeed. but rather a removal of the strictures on the therapist of diagnostic ‘truths’.

The first was a stringent adherence to circular causality as an explanatory frame for understanding human relationships (and relatedness).8 Carmel Flaskas constructed specifically to induce a particular (behavioural) change. for example. The initial collective work of the ‘original’ four Milan associates (Palazzoli. yet introducing new meanings as if they were true. These points of difference brought a shift in the relationship to 3 Ideas from the Milan group span two distinct periods. and relying very directly on the families’ desire for ‘better’ truths to sell a particular therapeutic intervention (Flaskas. the collection by Campbell and Draper. In this sense. 1992). In terms of ethics. and also the centring of meaning in therapeutic intervention and therapeutic change. Cecchin and Prata) is exemplified in Paradox and Counter-Paradox (Palazzoli et al. in the early 1980s. © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . I would argue that these charges related very directly to the tricky position of the therapist bearing no commitment to ‘truth’. that there was any abandoning of the position of the expertise of the therapist. it reflected commitments to Bateson’s later ideas. This period produced a model of therapy which has very strong intersections with the strategic therapies. from the behavioural focus of the earlier strategic therapies. the early strategic therapies extended the position of indifference yet pragmatism to the knowledge and truths of the therapist. However. and this version is the subject of my commentary here. and indeed Prata and Palazzoli have continued to elaborate this kind of therapeutic approach. These commitments were shown in two ways. 1985).3 As a second-order therapy. 1978). The second was a conceptualisation of the therapist–family system as the venue for the therapeutic change – no longer could the therapist be seen as ‘outside’ the field of therapeutic change. The early 1980s saw the beginning of the influence of the Milan model. and indeed two distinct models. Boscolo and Cecchin moved their theory and practice in a direction which very radically departs from the strategic therapies. Boscolo.. of course. the other main shift to be noted in the Milan model was the centring of meaning in the way in which problems were understood. This centring of meaning was very different. for example. though a belief was none the less maintained that in some way the therapist could remain ‘meta’ or ‘neutral’ in the process of therapy. charges of opportunism dogged the earlier strategic therapies. For the purpose of this discussion. It is this version of ‘Milan’ therapy which was most heavily popularized and extended in the English-speaking context in the mid-1980s (see. This is not to say.

© 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . The conceptualization of the therapist–family system brought with it more finely tuned interactional techniques (for example. though. enough has been said to draw out the points which are central to the thesis of this part of the paper. When we begin to look at some representative models of systemic therapy. the indifference to truth.Reclaiming the idea of truth 9 truth. The opposition to any linear ideas of cause and effect began to more directly challenge fundamental modernist premises. not just a pragmatic issue of enabling therapeutic flexibility (though. And the privileging of meaning in the Milan model in one way provided a means of engaging very centrally (and not just pragmatically) with clients’ truths. in practice. became a theory commitment. and indeed Bateson’s theory of circular causality was part of a movement away from traditional modernist understandings within the field of biology. but pragmatically relieved the therapist of the necessity to look for truths. Structural therapy adopted a modernist idea of truth with respect to the therapist’s truth. systemic therapy historically shows the strains of existing within modernism. With circular causality. it promoted an explicit focus on clients’ truth. objective knowledge. But hopefully. it was that as well). circular questioning) aimed at the production of different meanings. which underlies the modernist equation. Although systemic therapy was conceived and developed within modernist times. both therapist truth and client truth. but in another way negated the idea of truth altogether by treating it simply as one meaning among many meanings. certainty and truth. yet took an indifferent yet pragmatic position with respect to the clients’ experience of truth. Like other therapies. Now I am well aware that this trip through the structural. adding a theoretical and philosophical commitment to this lack of interest in truth. Milan therapy entered this field. by centring the idea of meaning. The peculiarities of its relationship to the modernist idea of truth may be seen in this context. the very activity of therapy flies in the face of the fundamental modernist assumption of the split between subject and object. it is simplistic to assume that it therefore bears an unambivalent relationship to the modernist equation of external reality. Strategic therapy kept a similar position to clients’ truth. Indeed. At the same time. it seems that the idea of truth does indeed have a chequered career. but this truth became reduced and relegated to the category of meaning. early strategic and Milan models and their relationship to truth has been rushed and schematic.

4 Only six years later. and came to complement it. and in the mid-1980s the related theory of constructivism moved to centre-stage. 1982. which is drawn from sociology and offers an understanding of the social process of constructing meaning in understanding the world. and the articles were very much located within the heritage of Bateson. The new epistemology attempted to enshrine Bateson’s idea of circular causality as the foundational basis for systemic theory (see Keeney and Sprenkle. there was no real differentiation between the kind of things that had been called ‘constructivist’ in 1985 versus the kind of things that were now being called ‘constructivist’ in 1991. 1985.5 This time around the articles had a very different flavour. Indeed. 1985). 4 © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . Milan therapy became in many ways a ‘transitional zone’ in systemic therapy between modernist and postmodernist times. Dell. 1985. one had to refer back to a very illuminating article published by Lynn Hoffman in 1990 (Hoffman. 5 This special feature included articles by Doherty (1991). and sociology became the ‘home base’ discipline of the theory references. was the ‘new epistemology’. However. Constructivism held continuity with Bateson’s ideas and biology. O’Hara and Anderson (1991) and Minuchin (1991). relating to the discipline of biology. Here she set out very clearly the difference between constructivism and the theory of social constructionism. in 1991. But a funny thing happened in the late 1980s. 1988).10 Carmel Flaskas (3) Postmodernist times and the appeal of social constructionist ideas In its shift to second-order ideas and its privileging of meaning. It was in fact the theory of social This special feature included articles by Efran and Lukens (1985) and Simon (1985). Simon. 1990). it published another special feature on constructivism. Goolishian and Winderman. and the constructivist idea that the internal structure of an organism organizes and limits the way in which the world is perceived was used in thinking about human relationships and family therapy (Efran and Lukens. Its heyday was confined to the early 1980s. The influential US magazine The Family Therapy Networker published a special feature on constructivism in 1985. The theory development which evolved in the English-speaking context alongside the Milan model.

there can be no such thing as objective knowledge. or indeed conflict with each other in their construction of knowledge. Postmodernist ideas ‘counter’ the foundational assumptions of modernism. New metaphors can be used to describe the process of therapy – and so we have Hoffman’s description of ‘collaborative therapy’ (Hoffman. do not adhere to modernist principles. to break from certainties of theory or practice. then. There is no such thing as an external reality which can be ‘known’ in any separate way to the person who wants to understand it. Social constructionist ideas had. the quest for certainty and truth must be abandoned. So let me clarify the place of these two sets of ideas in systemic therapy before examining the way in which social constructionism has centralized ‘meaning’ as a concept. there can no longer be a privileged position for holding truth. subsuming the concept of ‘truth’. The rapidity of this shift needs to be understood. Though it may again be repeating a familiar tune. I would like to note that postmodernism is an oppositional term only. 1993). these ideas and theories may address very different knowledges. And so it is now legitimate to talk of multiple realities. and in this sense it was the move to postmodernism that ‘fuelled’ the interest in social constructionism. Thus. in the context of the parallel influence of postmodernist ideas in the systemic arena. postmodernism and social constructionism have often been discussed together in the systemic literature. been around in sociology since the late 1960s. but they do all share the commonality of moving beyond the modernist equation (Flaskas. They became interesting to systemic therapy at the time that postmodernist ideas finally began to have some clout. and to move away from ideas of the therapist as ‘expert’ and to draw different images of the therapist position. Probably because of the parallel timing. Postmodernism is an umbrella term for a wide range of very different ideas and theories.Reclaiming the idea of truth 11 constructionism which informed much of the discussion in the 1991 Networker feature. Postmodernist ideas have been used to ‘free up’ ideas in the systemic field. you can simply take the modernist equation and add a series of negatives. 1995). Postmodernist theories. and make a decisive break with the desires inherent in the modernist project. Anderson and © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . of course. the period 1985–1991 had seen a major shift in theory allegiance from biology and constructivism to sociology and social constructionism. I think. If you want to define the general meaning of ‘postmodernism’.

as a general oppositional description it does not immediately provide any alternative ways of understanding the social and emotional world. p. then. Hoffman. 1991) has turned to some of Foucault’s theory in working with the idea of ‘constitutive’ reality. Zimmerman and Dickerson. It is a world of human language and discourse. 1994. but in the main it has been social constructionism which has been used most heavily to provide alternative understandings of reality and the social world. 1991) uses Derrida in drawing the idea of deconstruction in therapy. 1992). Anderson and Goolishian write that their position: leans heavily on the view that human action takes place in a reality of understanding that is created through social construction and dialogue . 1989. though postmodernism has a liberating potential with respect to modernist limits. 2) and that it ‘sees the development of knowledge as a social phenomenon and holds that perception can only evolve within a cradle of communication’ (Hoffman. we are still left with the task of trying to understand the world which our clients inhabit. is liberating with respect to modernist restrictions. White (1989. once we have let go of modernist ideas of reality and truth and certainty. 1993. (Anderson and Goolishian. or create new understandings. However.12 Carmel Flaskas Goolishian’s discussion of the therapist’s position of ‘not knowing’ (Anderson and Goolishian. p. Gilligan and Price. p. one has to turn either to specific postmodernist theories. 26) © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . de Shazer (1988. 1992. Hoffman writes that social construction theory ‘holds that our beliefs about the world are social inventions’ (Hoffman. Thus. . Sluzki. To meet this challenge. Penn and Frankfurt. 1990. 1994). have provided the two most coherent accounts of social constructionism in terms of its value for systemic therapy. 1992. and Anderson and Goolishian. postmodernism as a general orientation has encouraged a movement away from the strictures of modernist premises. And so in systemic therapy. but leaves us with the challenge to develop new understandings of the social and emotional world for use in the domain of therapy. 3). and allowed the space for creative rethinking in the systemic field. 1990. through socially constructed narrative realities that give meaning and organization to their experience. people live. . 1992. and understand their living. and a rise in the ‘narrative’ therapies which use the central metaphor of ‘storying’ in describing the therapeutic endeavour (Epston and White. and indeed the social world in which the activity of therapy itself takes place. Postmodernism.

and to form an attachment to meanings which ‘speak to’ something very important about our experience. people don’t take on new meanings or re-story their experience simply on the basis of the freeing potential of the new story for their interpersonal lives. Far from reality existing only at the level of language and discourse. meanings can change. Life becomes a story of our experience. Moreover. but it is not a very good description of clients’ experience of ‘re-storying’. and some stories are much better to live with than others. a desire to hold meanings against ‘the facts’ of our experience in all its specificity. See Pocock (1995) for a discussion of possible therapeutic criteria for ‘better’ stories which bridges modernist and postmodernist understandings. to see how new meanings ‘measure up’ as better descriptions of that experience. (4) A critique of the limits of the concept of meaning The social constructionist/narrative metaphor is an appealing and often very useful description of therapy. 6 © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . it begins to take some dents in practice when clients bring experiences in their lives which have not simply been ‘narrative realities’. or indeed of therapists’ experience of coming to have more helpful meanings about their own lives. they are created and exist in a very particular environment of specific events and actions and people. the world can often be (in Minuchin’s words) ‘stubbornly concrete’ (1991).6 At the same time. Of course. and that experience may be re-storied to allow different possibilities. but oppressive and abusive realities which have carried a destructive force separate from the meanings attached to them. For following the idea that our beliefs are social inventions. meanings and stories are not free-floating and limitless. There is. thank goodness.Reclaiming the idea of truth 13 These ideas have become core reference points in much of the narrative literature. This in turn creates different possibilities in our significant relationships. However. therapy may be drawn as an activity which attempts to change the meanings or ‘narrative realities’ which have shaped our perception and experience of the emotional and social world. This may be a sufficient description for the agenda of therapists. and that we live through socially constructed realities that give meaning to our experience. both in terms of how we experience ourselves and how we experience ourselves in relation to others.

. we could summarize these points by saying that ‘meaning’ as a concept is insufficiently attached to either the ‘object’ of experience or the ‘subject’ who is trying to understand her/his experience. p. separate from the meanings we come to have of it. the problem then is not so much to come to have a different story. the Holocaust survivor is not just telling a story. and privileging and cherishing meanings which speak to the heart of that experience. 13. it is very hard for people to privilege and cherish meanings that speak to the heart of an abusive experience which still feels unbearably toxic. The survivors fear that if the empirical links between life experience and its narration are modified in any way their story will be lost. . but somehow we are now in a territory where neither object nor subject has any reliable The recent discussion by Stephen Frosh circles this point. This point is raised by Harari. there is not a plurality of readings or multiple perspectives of equivalent validity from which the story may be told. someone who is giving testimony. my emphasis). who reflects on the ‘fit’ between the metaphors of narrative and the experience of Holocaust survivors: The narrative approaches . 7 © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . 1995.14 Carmel Flaskas We now come to the problem of meaning as it is currently being framed in systemic therapy. For the survivor. ‘meaning’ as a concept is insufficiently attached to an idea of reality which allows for the existence of an outside world. We may be out of the modernist problem of a complete splitting of subject and object. However. have provided bridges between subjective experiences and the social and historical contexts in which subjectivity is constructed. if meaning as a concept is insufficiently attached to an idea of (external) reality. At the moment. In this position.7 In theory terms. Of course. p. but rather to come to have a story that can actually begin to ‘hold’ because it has some congruence with both the events that occurred and the ‘reality’ of the person’s subjective experience of those events. I think. The clients I have written about have been in exactly this spot. (Harari. it is also insufficiently attached to the process of a person ‘measuring’ meanings against her/his specific experience. 190. 1995. when he contrasts the push within postmodernism to celebrate irrationality with the endeavour of therapy to ‘keep on trying to help people as if meaning can survive’ (Frosh. He/she is also a witness. my emphasis) However.

for it is the concept of meaning which has taken over the space of (modernist) truth. for ‘meaning’ lacks a commitment to the ‘object’ of experience in all its specificity and external reality. Experience is not the province of either (just) subjectivity or (just) objectivity – it is indeed. A person struggles to find and know some truths. Those truths are about her/his experience in the world. As a concept.Reclaiming the idea of truth 15 space. The last two sections have covered quite a lot of ground. a synthesis of the two (Fraser. but for as long as ‘meaning’ is not understood as being grounded in a reality of experience. As a concept. I then moved to a discussion of the framing of the concept of meaning in the current use of constructionist ideas. then. there is at least a subject and an object and the space in between. © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . To speak of a person’s ‘search for meaning’ with respect to experience is fine as a description for much of the time in therapy. but there is no reason why we should feel compelled to squash therapy into a postmodernist frame that may turn out to be as imperfect in describing therapeutic activity as the modernist metaphor which came before. The shift in systemic therapy from modernist to postmodernist times have been explored. The postmodernist critique frees us to think differently. I have been arguing that there are some problems in relying solely on the concept of meaning in the activity of therapy. it can also fail as an adequate description for therapy. to the idea of truth. then. 1984). and the bad press it has received in its modernist form. truth has some advantages which are lacking in the idea of meaning currently being used in systemic discourse. With truth. and returning to practice We come. and to the extent that the process of the individual’s attachment to meaning is not encompassed. and the appeal of social constructionist ideas has been contextualized within this shift. to repeat Fraser’s words. For all its historical shortcomings. and it also lacks commitment to the ‘subject’ of the person and her/his struggle to make sense of the ‘reality’ of their experience in the world. or indeed any recursive space in between. any ideas. it may still be worthwhile salvaging. the current framing of meaning misses out both the reality of experience and the process of a person coming to claim knowledge about their experience. as long as they’re more helpful. On re-claiming truth as a process. Meanings all too easily become free-floating ideas.

And so to return to practice and the beginning of this paper. I didn’t know. First fragment As her therapist. but it may be claimed as a process which is experiential. certain and universal. a knowledge which does not negate the reality of the past but which also allows some freedom from it? And what truths can she both find and allow which remain faithful to her knowledge of the world and her sense of self? Second fragment The six-year-old child says of the experience of suddenly seeing her father who sexually abused her when she was very little: I saw him. the relationship between truth and the sense of self.16 Carmel Flaskas To begin to think of truth as an emotional and social process is to begin to think of the necessary conditions for a person being able to claim a sense of truth about her/his own experience. and the effect of truths on the sense of both self and other people. and in the telling of the story there’s also a sense of some revelation. and indeed to tell a story in which she is able to keep a sense of herself and her own world at the centre. She says it with surprise. I couldn’t think. Truth may no longer be objective. I couldn’t think. to survive the pain. and to steer some course through the potential for abuse of the girl in this relationship? How much of the woman’s experience of the sexual abuse in her family needs to be known and thought about. I didn’t know. it’s not hard to understand the terrifying dilemma of the man who lurches between fearing the worst and believing he is crazy. and am moved by her ability now to recount the meeting with him. the barriers that make this difficult. more painful and probably far more dangerous than bewilderment? In what ways may she be able to come to a knowledge for herself of her own experience. to wrap some words around her experience. I find myself asking what would need to happen for the young woman in love with the fourteen-year-old girl to be able to make sense of her feelings. Third fragment In many ways. But it is very hard to find a platform of safety from which he can make some © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . and connected with feelings more specific. I’m reminded of the waves of wordless anxiety I had witnessed when she was three. But I think she is doing more than telling a story – I think she is claiming some truth. conditional and multi-levelled.

and instead we track around the day-to-day confusions while he tries to find some space for something other than (another’s) abuse or (his) craziness. there would be some relief from the ricocheting between abuse and craziness. this paper has mainly explored theory. It may be that if he could hold an attachment to some knowledge/truth which matched reality and his experience. If you like. but this is clearly a useless (if not abusive) course. conditional and multi-levelled.Reclaiming the idea of truth 17 sense of it all. The idea of truth has been the focus. and that both metaphors are limited in understanding human experience and describing the activity of therapy. Conclusion Although beginning and ending with practice. certain and universal. neither object nor subject has any reliable place in the attempt to understand experience. It is slow work. and the complexity of the relationship of the earlier systemic therapies to truth was drawn in this context. I could beat him around the head with the reality of it (and it’s interesting how often I feel like doing just that). If we abandon the modernist notion of truth as objective. In struggling to understand human experience and therapeutic change. and reclaim truth as experiential. I can keep a memory of this person being sexually abused for many years as a child. In considering the influence of postmodernist and social constructionist ideas. but though he is able to hold the memory of the events. However. and the exploration of the place of truth in systemic theory has necessarily covered a wide territory. or to an understanding of a person’s relationship to knowledge about her/his own experience. meaning has its limits. for at the moment this concept is insufficiently attached to either an idea of external reality. The traditional position of truth within the modernist frame was juxtaposed with the paradox of the modernist metaphor for the activity of therapy. a long way from any magical reframes or alternate stories. it becomes possible to begin to think about the © 1997 The Association for Family Therapy . And so an argument was made that the modernist metaphor which splits subject and object has been replaced by the postmodernist metaphor which loses subject and object. it is the concept of meaning which currently assumes the position of the idea of truth in systemic discourse. the idea of truth potentially has more to offer. and it’s sustained by a hope we both share that it may be possible for him to come to know something and not be terrified of it. he is unable to hold the associations of abuse.

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