Re: cognitive awareness

Tim A. Connor (
Thu, 17 Sep 1998 13:03:30 -0700 (PDT)


I don't think I'm arguing for a dynamic unconscious in the Freudian sense.
I do believe that PCP needs to be able to account for the phenomena that
the Freudian theory seeks to account for: that people do and feel things
that they acknowledge themselves unable to make sense of, and that they
tend to forget events that are relevant to these "inexplicable" acts and
feelings. I take it as given (in my clinical and personal experience, as
well as a good deal of research) that people do experience inner conflict,
and if PCP denies that this is possible, as you seem to be saying, then so
much the worse for PCP. Of course, I don't believe PCP implies this.

On Sun, 13 Sep 1998, Josh Soffer wrote:

> I sense that Tim Connor's position concerning a Kellian
> 'unconscious' is consonant with neo-Freudian notions of a dynamic
> unconscious, or perhaps a social constructionism ala Gergen and Efran.
> My preference is for more radically self-directional interpretation
> of Kellyian constructivism , like that of Mascolo and Neimeyer.

I'm not sure what you mean by "self-directional," since, as Kelly said, in
PCP there is no self, only a self/not-self construct.

> A key
> difference between these camps centers around the question of how much
> incompatibility between succssive constructs a person can allow. Kelly
> argued that the Fragmentation corollary was in part a derivative of the
> Modulation corollary. The amount of inferrential incompatibility
> allowable within a system of constructs is limited by the requirements
> of superordinate consistency, that is, overall coherence at the more
> global levels of ones outlook.

My reading of these corollaries is a bit different: Kelly does not, in my
view, claim that superordinate consistency is required, at least not in
the sense that the construct system as a whole must always be coherent
when viewed from a "top down" perspective. An optimally functioning
system would be, but construct systems don't always function
optimally--that's why there's psychotherapy.

> Tim argues "If an event does fall in the range of convenience of two
> incompatible subsystems, intrapsychic conflict and active repression
> would be required to maintain coherence."

(a slight change in my wording here, which results in what I would call a
significant change in meaning--I said "something like" intrapsychic
conflict and repression. But I could have been clearer, no doubt.)

> First of all, the event would
> be construed under one or the other of the subsystems but not both

Kelly does seem to imply that only one subsystem can be used at a time (at
any rate, he writes of people successively employing subsystems, and never
of simultaneous use of incompatible subsystems). If this is the
assumption, I would have to say I believe that more recent findings in
cognitive neuroscience suggest Kelly was wrong, but I don't think this
creates any problems at all for the theory. The distributed nature of
mental processing (and memory) seems to me to imply that we are indeed
capable of holding two (or more) incompatible constructions of an event
simultaneously--but not comfortably, or often consciously, for reasons
which I think PCP explains very well. (For the neuroscience, I suggest
that Antonio Damasio's book DESCARTES' ERROR lays out a theory that could
virtually be regarded as the neurology of PCP.)

If I have two construct subsystems whose ranges of convenience are "mother
being cruel" and "mother being kind" (which form a construct pair in
themselves, and include not only mother's behavior but my responses to it
on the verbal, motor, and hormonal levels), but lack a superordinate
construct system for "mother and my response to her" that is sufficiently
permeable to encompass both sides of that pair, I will have considerable
difficulty construing my mother. If the superordinate system constellates
"mother" with "kind" I may make great efforts to construe her cruelty as
kindness, or I may construe it as cruelty in the moment, when the stress
hormones are flowing, but forget ("repress") it when arousal is lower and
mother is behaving in ways more consistent with my superordinate
structure. If her behavior is ambiguous (and the ambiguity, of course is
in my construction, not inherent in her behavior), something else happens:
my superordinate structures (the verbalized ones in the prefrontal cortex)
may construe her as "kind" while some subordinate structures (those
farther back in the brain concerned with somesthetics, voice tone, etc.)
are construing her as cruel--but the superordinate construct system can't
encompass ambivalence. And the more verbalized construing is usually
conscious, so I have the experience of construing mother as kind, even
while I respond with threat and hostility because I am unconsciously (or
out of awareness, to use Kelly's phrase) construing her as cruel.
Depending on the degree of permeability, I may be unable to construe my
own hostility at all (analogous to denial), or I may construe it as
inexplicably hostile ("I don't know why I get angry, she's just trying to

So "repression", as I see it in PCP terms, is the result of a failure of
superordinacy--impermeability at a higher level.

> The implications for psychotherapy are important. The therapist who
> sees intrapsychic conflict in his patients takes a more directivist
> approach, believing in the power of incorporated meanings to subvert,
> distort, dominate or condition a person's way of thinking.The goal of
> this approach to therapy is limited in comparison with Kelly's notion of
> optimal therapeutic outcome, by giving too much authority to an inhernet
> content of meanings we assimilate.

Interesting observation, but it doesn't match my experience--it seems to
me that therapists who assume no inner conflict tend to be more directive,
because they assume that the consciously held constructions are all there
is, and so direct clients toward goals consonant with those constructions.
If one assumes that the client's stated goals are only part of the
picture, it makes sense to focus on facilitating the elaboration of the
construct system with the goal of helping the client devise superordinate
constructs with which to construe and resolve conflicts, and then identify

> Kelly's way, as I interpret it, does not give events the power to
> condition, distort, conflict, but instead emphasizes the critical
> dimension of the process of organization. The meaningfulness of meaning
> lies not in its 'content' but in its gentle integration within a system
> of understanding. We dont suffer because we incorporate a rogue content
> in conflict with another aspect of our psychological functioning. We
> suffer when we FAIL to adequately incorporate new events due to a
> dynamic limitation of our superordinate axes of understanding. It is not
> a matter of being torn between two clearly understood directions but of
> not being able to move in any coherently meaningful direction until we
> enrich our assimilative capacities.

Here I think we agree--as perhaps elsewhere, too--at least as regards the
role of content vs. organization. I suspect content can affect
organization when we come to look at shared constructions in larger
systems, such as families, but that's another discussion.



Tim Connor, M.S. "Psychotherapy is not
Pacific University an applied science, it
School of Professional Psychology is a basic science in
2004 Pacific Avenue which the scientists
Forest Grove, OR 97116 USA are the client and his
<> therapist"
--George Kelly