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The Modern Family Therapy Movement

The Modern
Family Therapy Movement:

Is Systematic Edification Possible?

Graham Tuson
The modem family therapy movement involves significantly
novel behavioural technologies for bringing about change in
patterns of human relationships. As a professional discipline it is
characterised by a central tension which can usefully be understood in terms of the relationship between what Rorty has identified as the systematising and edifying paradigms in philosophy.

Rorty argues that:

In every sufficiently reflective culture, there are those who
single out one area, one set of practices, and see it as the
paradigm human activity. They then try to show how the
rest of culture can profit from this example. In the mainstream of the Western philosophical tradition, this paradigm has been knowing – possessing justified true beliefs,
or, better yet, beliefs so intrinsically persuasive as to make
justification unnecessary (Rorty, 1980, p. 366).

Opposed to such absolute and imperialist systematising philosophy, Rorty identifies several philosophers who engage in processes which he calls ‘edification’. He writes:


I shall use ‘edification’ to stand for this project of finding
new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking. The attempt to edify (ourselves or others) may consist
in the hermeneutic activity of making connections between our own culture and some exotic culture or historical period, or between our own discipline and another discipline which seems to pursue incommensurable aims in
an incommensurable vocabulary. But it may instead consist in the ‘poetic’ activity of thinking up such new aims,
new words, or new disciplines, followed by, so to speak,
the inverse of hermeneutics: the attempt to reinterpret our
familiar surroundings in the unfamiliar terms of our new
inventions … For edifying discourse is supposed to be
abnormal, to take us out of our old selves by the power of
strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings (Rorty,
1980, p. 360).

To be an edifying philosopher is to engage in a process of
promoting change in the ways we think, without simultaneously
prescribing the content of such new thinking as may develop out
of these processes. Thinking up new aims, and aiding us to
become new beings, is to engage in the promotion of change, and
in the promotion of the abnormal as a lever for change. It is not
about getting change as the result of new insights into how
something may have come about, or of discovering what lies
hidden within. It is about achieving change simply through
getting people to think, behave, feel and perceive differently.

Such change may consist simply in persuading and cajoling

people into stopping doing something, so as to leave space for
different feelings, thoughts, behaviours and so on. For example,
for Wittgenstein it is enough that we stop thinking of thinking as
a mental process. How we have come to think of thinking in this
way, or what deep intellectual, social and emotional needs such
thinking satisfies, is by the way. TheP hilosophical Investigations
does not attempt any systematic answer to such queries, it is
instead an intervention designed simply to make it impossible for
us any longer to go on thinking of thinking as a mental process.

What we think instead about thinking is left very open. In this
sense we can understand Wittgenstein as an edifying philosopher.

and as an exemplary agent of change.

A recent deconstructive reading ofWittgenstein conveys the
sense of his writings as interventions aimed to facilitate change,
as against the promotion of a new system of truths, or a new
representation of how things are. Staten writes:

The Philosophical Investigations is an intricate mixture of
arguments, images, satire, dramatic mimicry, and how-to
instructions, rather than a treatise… On the one hand,
Wittgenstein wanted to loosen up crystallized patterns of
philosophical language in order to force real thought,
thought subject to the most radical perplexities, for which
it would have no ready-made answers, but would have to
forge new language sequences. On the other hand, the
philosophical patterns which supposedly forestall the
necessity for real thought at the same time appear to him
to be sources of endless perplexity and unrest because they
do not correspond to the true complexity of the facts
(Staten, 1985, p. 64).

This idea of the edifying philosopher as an agent of change in a
system of thought, or way of life, or family of language-games,
has immediate parallels with the idea of the family therapist as an
agent of change in a system of human relationships.

The modem family therapist understands individual pathology
such as anorexia, or sexual abuse of children in the family, as a
function of a pattern of relationships which need to change, but
which are somehow both perplexed and stuck. The family therapist seeks to ‘loosen up crystallized patterns’; to facilitate new
sequences of behaviour and ways of thinking; to help people
develop increased cognitive and behavioural complexity which
will correspond better to the facts of their actual situation. So, for
example, in a well known video-taped session conducted by a
founding family therapist, Salvador Minuchin intervenes in a
family with an anorexic son in a way which reframes family
members’ understanding of the son as ‘sick’ to a son who is


‘tyrannical’ and ‘immature’. Minuchin is not concerned to discover whether it is true that the son is sick or not Nor is it his
concern to promote the truth that the son is tyrannical. Centrally,
he is concerned to help the family members find ‘new, better,
more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking’. In doing this,
his discourse is, and has to be, ‘abnormal’ for the family members.

It is important to remember here that talking of ‘speaking’ and
‘discourse’ needs to be understood to include behavioural and
contextual communications, not just words. The way Minuchin
goes about promoting such change is structurally identical to the
ways Wittgenstein goes about changing the ways we think about
language and philosophical problems (see Tuson, 1985).

He does not do this through interpreting the family members’

communications, or through interpreting members’ relationships
with him, as happens through transference and interpretations of

parodies, aphorisms. They know their work loses its piont
when the period they were reacting against is over. They
are intentionally peripheral (Rorty, 1980, p. 369).

It is a central feature of family therapy practice that the
therapist remains marginal to the family. That is, neither inside
nor outside the patterns of relationships which bound the family,
but remaining on or near to those boundaries. Family therapists
are intentionall y peripheral, and they have no role in relation to the
family when the pathology which they are reacting against is over.

And they are major users of satire, parody, and aphorism. When
Minuchin hears a member of the family characterise the anorexic
son as too old for his years, he asks ‘How old? fIJ? 70?’ The family
member agrees to 60, and thenceforth Minuchin uses this in gentle
satire and parody to show how the sick member is being allowed
to behave inappropriately like a grandparent in the family. None
of this is ‘true’ ,and will lose its point if and when the family move
on in the ways its members relate to each other. Perhaps it is an
example in practice of what Johansson has recently characterised
as ‘truthlikeness’ (Johansson, 1987).


dreams and free associations in psychoanalysis. Minuchin does
not primarily seek insight, either for himself, or for individual
family members. He does not try to dig out truths which lie within.

Rather he endeavours to get changes in the behaviour of family
members which simultaneously affect each individual’s perceptions of themselves, each other, and each other’s relationships. He
endeavours to get a theme in the family conversation going again.

The later Wittgenstein occasionally likened philosophy, or
his method of philosophising, to therapy, or the treatment of an
illness. The model of therapy which he had in mind was the depthpsychology of psychoanalysis, yet this is in many ways a particularly unsuitable model for a philosopher preoccupied with challenging the idea of philosophy as the discovery of essences. If
Wittgenstein disagrees with the view that the purpose ofphilosophy is the discovery of ‘something that lies beneath the surface,
something that lies within, which we see when we look into the
thing, and which an analysis digs out’ (Wittgenstein, 1972, para.

92), then it is in many ways misleading of him to use, in his
counterarguments, a model of therapy which is itself essentially
a seeking for, and digging out of, that which lies deeply within.

This is not to argue that philosophical and psychoanalytical
ideas of ‘essences’ are the same, but to indicate that there is a
family resemblance, perhaps emerging from a common root in
figures of ‘depth’, and which misleads because of this. Modem
family therapy thinking provides a language which is not grounded
in such figurations of ‘depth’, and hence can provide a more
apposite model for considering relationships between philosophy
as edification or as a process of change, and philosophy as
systematising, or as providing a system of thought.

The position of the family therapist in relation to the family is
identical to Rorty’s description of the edifying philosopher. He

Great edifying philosophers are reactive and offer satires,


The systematising and edifying trends in the family therapy
movement intertwine and overlap in ways which often seem to
create conceptual and organisational problems. There is a drive to
create a system, a profession, and a normal science of family
therapy, but this drive actually conflicts with some of the most
basic assumptions in which it is grounded. As a social movement
it is partly grounded in the ideas of general systems theory, and
seeks to build itself into a systematic professional discipline on
this conceptual base, but its actual character as an edifying social
practice precludes this possibility. The practical need of the
therapist to remain on the margins of fluid and indeterminate
patterns of relationships will be hindered by adherence to the
fixed and determinate theories which professions, disciplines,
and normal sciences require. The therapist requires a philosophical approach which allows him or her to access and use the
relationships between all the different ways people think about
their situation, so as to be able to help people negotiate amongst
them all, and to keep the conversation going without determining
its content through the intrusion of a particular theory or point of

One way in which contradiction arises between these two
paradigms is the way the movement retains focus on the family.

The basic assumptions within an edifying viewpoint, and within
much ofthe practice theory of family therapy, imply the need for
openness about the boundaries of the systems involved. ‘Finding
new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking … ‘,
or making connections between incommensurable vocabularies,
requires that boundaries around disciplines, ideas, languages,
social institutions, etc. should be open to radical change and
permeation. Similarly, much of family therapy practice is to do
with challenging and changing the boundaries which people
create and which become the source of problems, and the perpetuation of problems. For example, a couple who are separating and
engaged in conflict with each other may be unable to retain a
boundary between their marital relationship and their parental
relationship, and so unhelpfully draw their children into their
marital fights. A family therapist would intervene to get them to
deal with their adult interpersonal battle separately from their
relationship as parents. In this sense the therapist would be
challenging and changing the boundaries which are defining a set
of human relationships.

The main point here is that focussing on ‘the family’ is to
impose a boundary which may be quite counterproductive in
practice, and which is unjustified in theory. The boundaries
around any particular family, and families in general, are indeterminate, shifting, and different in relation to different situations.

However, the family therapy movement needs such an arbitrary,
boundary-creating focus since it needs to see itself as, and be seen
as, a system of thought and practice, a discipline, and a profession.

It needs this because of the need of its members to have a niche
in the market place. A distinctive product is needed by its
members in order to make a living or a reputation, and to have a
distinctive place in the social and economic world. In the same
way that Wittgenstein could not sell his school of philosophy
because he was seeking to avoid founding a school based on a
particular point of view, so the family therapy movement cannot
take its edifying position fully and simultaneously sell itself as a
professional school of thought. This contradiction creates many
insoluble issues round elitism, professionalisation, theory competition, accreditation of practitioners, the place of charismatic
practitioners, and so forth. To move towards a system will allow
a social system of professionalisation, but to do so will do
violence to the most basic assumptions of marginality and edification in which the practice of family therapy is grounded.

The systematising drive in the family therapy movement is
fuelled by many elements, such as the social and economic needs
of its members; the need to integrate a disparate range of innovative approaches to old problems; the use of new technology; and
the use of systematising philosophical assumptions within family
therapy theory. The intertwining of edifying and systematising
trends is of particular significance in relation to the use of
technology, and the use of systematic philosophy.

One important conceptual strand in the systematizing trend in
family therapy has been the use of Russell’s Theory of Logical
Typing. Bateson, the major foundational theorist of family therapy, makes large claims for the importance of Russell’ s work. For
example he has written:

Insofar as behavioural scientists still ignore the problems
of Principia Mathematica they can claim approximately
sixty years of obsolescence (Bateson, 1972, p. 279).

More recently he has written:

In what is offered in this book, the hierarchic structure of
thought, which Bertrand Russell called logical typing, will
take the place of the hierarchic structure of the Great Chain
of Being and an attempt will be made to propose a sacred
unity of the biosphere that will contain fewer epistemological errors than the versions of that sacred unity which
the various religions of history have offered (Bateson,
1980, p. 29).

Bateson’s systematising ambitions, evident in these quotes, although not necessarily explicitly shared by family therapy theorists and practitioners, nevertheless re-appear in many different
and displaced ways. The Theory of Types was developed by
Russell to deal with paradoxes of self-reference. The paradox, or
self-contradiction, built into a sentence such as ‘This sentence is
false’, was removed simply by asserting a rule tfiat proposition
about a statement is at a different logical level to the statement
itself. Similarly, a member of a class is not of the same logical
level as the class, and a class cannot be a member of itself. Without
going into the validity or otherwise of Russell’s views on the
problem of paradox and his resolution through the Theory of
Types, what is important is to recognise the nature of the use
which Bateson and his followers in the family therapy movement
have made of this theory.

Watzlawick, an influential follower of Bateson, explicitly
characterises his use of the Theory of Types as ‘an attempt at
exemplification through analogy’ (Watzlawick, 1974, p. 2). The
theory is used figuratively to help describe patterns of interpersonal communication in which communication at one ‘logical
level’ may be contradicted by a communication at another ‘logical level’, to create an interpersonal impasse identical with the
logical impasse created by sentences such as ‘this sentence is
false’. The use of this basic thinking to develop a range of
sophisticated understandings about interpersonal behaviour, and
ways of intervening to facilitate change, has been spectacular,
particularly in the activities of the founding practitioners and

This figurative use of the theory has to be understood as the
‘finding of new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of
speaking … the attempt to reinterpret our familiar surroundings in
the unfamiliar terms of our new inventions .. .’ It is not the
application of a philosophical theory about the true nature of
reality, which is the systematising emphasis in Bateson. In this
sense, the whole development of the family therapy movement
may be seen as a successful piece of applied edification. However,


The authority of family therapy practitioners comes not from
their privileged access to, and application of, theory, but from the
way they are with people. A significant feature of this issue has
been the relationship between the American founders of the basic
ideas and practices of modern family therapy, and their followers
in the UK. A major influence in the growth of family therapy has
been the observed and video taped performances of a handful of
‘star’ practitioners and theorists. This handful of stars has provided all the significant theoretical and practice innovations in
this field, and have been unashamedly entrepreneurial and technocratic in doing so. They have straightforwardly asserted their
ambition to develop an interventive technology which will actually make a difference to seemingly intractable personal and
social problems. These star performers have remained in an
edifying position, at least in part because this fits well with the
entrepreneurial culture of the US. In so far as ‘schools’ have
developed, they have remained closely identified with the person
of the original innovator, and have remained more like a business
than a bureaucracy. This has been very uncomfortable for the UK
development, since the tendency here is to create a professional
system which fits within a social class hierarchy and a welfare
bureaucracy. Progress in the field is understood to lie in the
increasing development of professionalisation. The development
of charismatic entrepreneurialism implied in the success of the
US innovators is fundamentally frowned upon by a significant
proportion of practitioners in the field, even if valued by Thatcherite politicians. One consequence of this may be that the fundamental lessons of the stars are not actually being understood and


this is to place it within a different philosophical paradigm to that
which Bateson seems to be striving for in the earlier quotes, and
which is evident also in lower level thinking and practice in this
area. Family therapists often practice and talk about their practice
as if they are simply applying a true theory about the hidden and
underlying structure of social relations, to which they have
special and privileged access, as against engaging in relationships
with people so as to lead them towards becoming ‘new beings’

through finding or creating new ways of speaking and understanding.

The figurative use of such systematising philosophy has been
closely connected with the developing use of video-recording and
one-way screens. A history of the use of video technology has yet
to be written, but it has been a major influence in the family
therapy field, and in the client-centred tradition of counselling. It
is no coincidence that both these approaches to interpersonal
change have used video and have also spawned a great deal of
outcome and effectiveness research. By contrast, the psychoanalytical tradition has been scandalously under-researched. The use
of video tape of interactions between people allows the study of
what actually goes on between them, as against what is reported.

No doubt we would have a very different view of psychoanalysis
if we had lots of video-tapes of Freud at work to compare with his
self-reported case studies.

The use of video has many aspects, but a central one has been
that it has enabled practitioners and researchers to look at actual
social processes rather than participants’ or observers’ remembered perceptions of them. This possibility has meshed very well
with the family therapy movement’s systematising needs, since it
puts the viewer of the tape, or the observer through the one-way
screen, into a seemingly privileged epistemological position. In a
recent article seeking to go beyond existing dualisms of ‘objectivism’ and ‘relativism’, J ohansson identifies a position which seeks
to save epistemological objectivism, not by denying that knowledge is determined by social factors, but by claiming that there are
‘cognitively privileged positions in society’. Johansson does not
defend this view, but rather sees it as part of a polarisation which
needs to be broken out of (Johansson, 1987).

He articulates what has become a central viewpoint within the
family therapy movement. That is, the use of video and the use of
systematising philosophical assumptions together contribute
towards encouraging family therapists into thinking they can


occupy a cognitively privileged position relative to the family. It
is as if, while assuming the relativity of knowledge the family
members have about themselves, the family therapist is able to be
objective about the family members, and objective about the
relativity of knowledge they have about each other. The video
allows the therapist to think that he is in a second order position
to the family members’ first order positions, whereas in fact he is
simply in a position with gives another viewpoint which may be
helpful, and which may contribute to the family conversation.

The video does not ensure the therapist the privilege of
‘really’ seeing what is going on, but simply ensures a position
from which he may be able to contribute to the family hermeneutic. The systematising trend in the family therapy movement
would tend to understand the videotape as providing a mirror of
reality to which the therapist has access, as against its role as an
element in the process of edification. The videotape still has to be
viewed, interpreted, re-interpreted and used within a network of
interactions. It cannot be understood as reflecting the truth of the
situation as if it were a new technological alternative to the
discredited mirror of the mind of the therapist. The video does not
actuall y provide the grounding in reality of a philosophical or professional discipline, it simply provides another point of view,
another contribution to the conversation.

Bateson, G., Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Ba1lantine, 1972.

Bateson, G., Mind and Nature, Fontana, 1980.

Minuchin, S., Videotape available from Institute of Family Therapy,

Iohansson, I., ‘Beyond Objectivism and Relativism’, Radical Philosophy 47, Autumn 1987.

Rorty, R., Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Blackwell, 1980.

Staten, H., Wittgenstein and Derrida, Blackwell, 1985.

Tuson, G., ‘Philosophy and Family Therapy: A study in
interconnectedness’, Journal of Family Therapy, 1985, 7: 277-294.

Wakzlawick, P., Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, Norton, 1974.

Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell, 1972.

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