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John Rowan

I am a bit slow in catching up with my journals, and it was only this week that I got around to the article by Susie Linder-Pelz and Michael Hall (The Coaching Psychologist, 3(1), 2007). But recently I had been reviewing the book by Lisa Wake on Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy (2008), and the special issue of The Psychotherapist (2008) on Constructivism. They all make the same claim - that NLP is based on constructivism - and in my opinion it is a false claim.

This is a very simple argument. Constructivism (and constructionism, which is closely similar) in all its forms questions the existence of a fixed external reality, ready to be discovered by scientists, and call this ‘The Myth of the Given’ (Sellars, 1956). Some of them also use the phrase ‘The Myth of the Framework’ in order to emphasise that big ideas like The Unconscious are to be questioned and seen through rather than taken for granted. An even more important and basic argument was put forward some time ago by Kenneth Gergen (1985).

The basic case is that knowledge, scientific or otherwise, is not obtained by objective means but is constructed through social discourse. Hence the study of dialogue and discourse and text become extremely important. No single point of view is more valid than another, because all points of view are embedded in a social context which give them meaning. ‘Such a view does not obliterate empirical science; it simply removes its privilege of claiming truth beyond community.’ (Gergen, 1997). However, within this general outlook there are a number of important differences.

Kurt Danziger (1997) makes a distinction between light constructionism and dark constructionism. Light constructionism says that ‘among those points of view which do not claim a monopoly on the path to the truth, which do not prejudge the nature of reality, tolerance must be the order of the day. A thousand flowers may bloom, provided none of them is of a type that threatens to take over the entire field, if left unchecked’ (p.410). Dark constructionism (often referring to Foucault) says that discourse is embedded in relations of power. Talk and text are inseparable from manifestations of power. While light constructionists such as John Shotter emphasise the ongoing construction of meaning in present dialogue, dark constructionists emphasise the dependence of current patterns of interaction on rigid power structures established in the past and protected from change by countless institutionalised practices and textual conventions.

Cor Baerveldt and Paul Voestermans (1996) make a distinction betweeen weak social constructionism, which says that there can be such a thing as natural emotional responses (although they can only become connected with a sense of self only within the context of a cultural system of beliefs and values), and strong social constructionism, which denies the relevance of physiological processes altogether. ‘From this perspective, the states and functions of the body become a cluster of cultural instead of natural, that is, biological constructions’ (p.695). This is not positing physiology and culture as polar opposites: it is merely saying that physiology is not to be taken for granted as foundational.

Now NLP has consistently said right from the beginning that its theoretical underpinnings are derived from the analysis conducted by Richard Bandler and John Grinder of the work of Milton Erickson, Virginia Satir and Fritz Perls. The only philosophy visible in this endeavour was a broad and undiscriminating pragmatism - let’s see what works. Milton Erickson happily used the concept of The Unconscious, and never questioned it - so did Bandler and Grinder. Virginia and Fritz happily used the concept of the Real Self - Bandler and Grinder never questioned this. Philosophically all of the three exemplars are very different from each other, and none of them is a constructivist. Bandler I would describe as some kind of pragmatist - he will use whatever works. Grinder used to be a pragmatist, but I gather he has since been on some kind of spiritual quest, which I don’t know much about.

The most ambitious attempt so far at painting NLP as constructivist is the book by Lisa Wake (2008). This actually claims that NLP is not only constructivist but actually postmodern. There is, however, no evidence of this in the book itself, which is quite extreme in its attempt to include anything and everything and claim it for NLP. This is not a work of constructivism, it is a work of bricolage. It is interesting that in spite of all the references to the importance of constructivism, there is no mention of such classic contributions as those of Danziger (1997), Gergen (1997) or Greer (1997). As Raskin (2007) has pointed out, psychologists have been guilty of ignoring a whole variety of constructivist sources such as Ecker and Hulley, 1996; Eron and Lund, 1996; Fransella, 2003; Guidano, 1991; Hoyt, 1994, 1996; Mahoney, 2003; McNamee, 1996; Neimeyer and Mahoney, 1995; Neimeyer and Raskin, 2000; Raskin and Bridges, 2002, 2004, 2008; many of the NLP people, however, do pay lip service to the work of George Kelly’s (1955/1991a, 1955/1991b) personal construct psychology.

There is, of course, a danger in all this of paying insufficient attention to the ground on which the social constructionists themselves are standing. And in recent times they have started to question this themselves. A rather long quote from Kenneth Gergen, one of the classic pioneers of this approach, makes the point well:

While constructionist critiques may often appear nihilistic, there is no means by which they themselves can be grounded or legitimated. They too fall victim to their own modes of critique; their accounts are inevitably freighted with ethical and ideological implications, forged within the conventions of writing, designed for rhetorical advantage, and their ‘objects of criticism’ constructed in and for a particular community. The objects of their criticism are no less constructed than the traditional objects of research, not do their moral claims rest on transcendental foundations (Gergen, 1997, p.739).

This seems an appropriately humble statement, and it shows us how the social constructionists are capable of taking their own medicine. With all this in mind let us look at the special issue of The Psychotherapist on Constructivism (Issue 37, Spring, 2008) where we have contributions by Martin Weaver (who points out that NLP is in the Experiential Constructivist section in the UKCP, as if that proved anything), Jane Mathison and Paul Tosey (who argue that we should pay more attention to introspection), Lisa Wake, Pam Gawler-Wright (who sees links with the 12-step programmes), Jaci Stephen (with a personal tract), and a very positive review of Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy (Wake, 2008) by Weaver. None of these shows any real understanding of the radical challenge of constructivism: they all want to have it all ways, which means never challenging the founders and their exemplars, and including as many fashionable names as possible. However, they do not quote people like Donald Davidson (1984) who really do know constructivism.

Let me put it even more simply: you cannot be based on constructivism and hold in an unquestioned way a belief in the Unconscious. But it is even worse than this - in NLP they shift from one definition of the Unconscious to another. In Neurolinguistic Psychotherapy (Wake, 2008), on p.49, we are accepting the Freudian unconscious, The Coaching Psychologist, Vol. 4, No. 3, December 2008 161 NLP is not based on constructivism on p.56 we are accepting the hypnotic notion of the unconscious, on pp.59-62 we are going with the definition of Morris Massey, on p.135 we have a whole farrago of 21 functions of the unconscious, quoted from Tad James, an exponent of ‘Quantum Linguistics’ and ‘Time Line Therapy’. This can only be described as undiscriminating.

Coming back to Linder-Pelz and Hall, it has to be said that they seem to want to include everything: this is not constructivism, but something different, and highly dubious. Actually, when I say ‘everything’ there are two important exceptions: they do not want to include (and this is true too of the other NLP exponents) the transpersonal or the primal. They are not unique or even exceptional in this, but in view of their wide pretensions, it seems a pity.

It does seem, and not only to me, that NLP could be perceived as a conceptual fog borrowing from many strands of psychology, but not making such lineage clear and doing so in a very imprecise way. But the only point I really want to make is that NLP is not based on constructivism or constructionism.

John Rowan

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