Constructivism, truth, and lies

Tim A. Connor (
Tue, 27 Feb 1996 22:16:37 -0800 (PST)

A Zen story apropos constructivism and truth, forwarded from another list:

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 27 Feb 1996 17:28:01 EST
From: Dr. Jeffrey A. Schaler <JSCHALE@AMERICAN.EDU>
To: Multiple recipients of list NUVUPSY <NUVUPSY@SJUVM.STJOHNS.EDU>
Subject: Subject:

... a story about two zen students. They had been arguing and decided to
accept the decision of their master regarding the matter.
The first student presented his argument and the master
said, "you are correct." The second student presented her
argument and the master said "you are correct." The two
students said in unison, "but master, we both cannot be
The master paused and said, "you are correct."

<end of quote>

Thoughts on truth and lies, ethics, etc.... in response to all the recent
posts in this thread:

The assertion that is sometimes made that constructivism asserts that all
perspectives are equally valid collapses when you consider that to make
such a claim, one must implicitly adopt a transcendent point of view from
which one can evaluate all those perspectives. It is precisely this
transcendence that constructivism asserts is impossible. To be a
constructivist is not to insist that all points of view are "true"--it is
to insist that all points of view are, indeed, points of view. When you
adopt a different perspective, you gain something and lose something.
(God or a Bodhisattva may have a truly transcendent perspective, but the
rest of us don't, not in this life).

The claim that role-playing is lying rests upon the assumption that there
is an essential self that is misrepresented when we try out an
unaccustomed behavior by way of experiment. This is indeed a Socratic
assumption--and Socrates is fundamentally incompatible with Kelly.
Socratic (or, more accurately Platonic) ontology is static. Truth is
defined as eternal, and to the extent something is changeable it is
less than real. "Know thyself" becomes an injunction to achieve a
transcendent understanding of one's unchanging essence.

Kelly's assumption (which is in some respects an echo of Buddhist thought)
that a person is "a form of motion" cannot be reconciled with Platonic
essentialist ontology. A person _is_ a point of view (one might say a
viewer--but then we can get into koans about thoughts without thinkers,
etc.), and that point of view is changing all the time. There is no
authentic, "essential" self to discover, there is only the self we create
from moment to moment as we make choices and adopt positions from which to
consider our experience.

Certainly the constructivist position can be used as an excuse for
cynical and irresponsible actions--but then so can all philosophical
positions. (Shall we consider the Platonic assumptions underlying the
Inquisition?) It is precisely this issue that Kelly addressed in the
essay "Sin and Psychotherapy." He suggests, as I read it, that the
ultimate moral failing is to try to shift the responsibility for one's
choices onto "reality" or "truth," rather than owning them, and
recognizing that good and evil, truth and lies, are hypotheses rather
than facts. (Have you ever inadvertently deceived someone when you
believed you were truthful? Ever told what you thought was a lie only to
have it come true? It has been said that the most effective way of lying
is to tell the truth in such a way that it will not be believed...)

A constructivist definition of truth and authenticity, as I try to
approach it in my work and the rest of my life, does need to go deeper than
a _chacun a son gout_ relativism or any coherent story that will get the
immediate job done. It means not claiming more certainty than I have,
but recognizing that every action I take is an experiment, and the
results may modify my viewpoint, but that I am responsible for the
choices I make. This is not a license to be capricious--to adopt a role
that is profoundly incompatible with one's core structure is lying. But
to claim that one does not role-play because that would be dishonest is
also lying, by denying that one _always_ construes others constructions and
adapts one's behavior accordingly. Furthermore, if one could be
"authentic" and enact oneself without regard for others' constructions,
it would be profoundly irresponsible to do so--an exercise in disregard
for the effects of one's action and a denial of the social and moral core
of our humanity.

I find PCP to be a theory with serious moral foundations and implications,
though not always comfortable ones--but responsibility is rarely
comfortable. If people who claim adherence to those principles fail to
live up to them at times--well, they are hardly being Original (pass the



Tim Connor, M.S. "Psychotherapy is not an
Pacific University applied science, it is a
School of Professional Psychology basic science in which the
2004 Pacific Avenue scientists are the client
Forest Grove, OR 97206 and his therapist."
<> --George Kelly