Sunday, 9 December 2007

Who needs Relational Frame Theory?

I have recently learnt a lot from ACT - the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy developed by Steven Hayes. I have come to greatly appreciate the diverse, skillful and humane strategies developed there to help the client (well, and the practitioner too) to, well, 'get out of their mind [through becoming mindful of what is occurring there, and staying in a relationship to thoughts and feelings, rather than becoming identified or enmeshed with them] and into their life [through a discovery and commitment to one's values - to what really matters]'. The entire approach to human suffering strikes me both as profound and also as providing a theory of what goes on in diverse therapies - not just ACT - when they are working at their best.


What however has troubled me, when I have my theorist rather than clinician hat on, is the claim that 'functional contextualism' (FC) and 'relational frame theory' (RFT) are the way to provide the theoretical foundations for ACT. (It is RFT in particular which underlies the prima facie surprising claim that "language is at the heart of much human misery".) This is because I am not even convinced that they are altogether theoretically cogent positions. My basic concern, I think, amounts to the following:



  • RFT and FC are just too reductionistic (especially in their behaviourism)

  • They redefine psychological and other essentially normative vocabulary in non-psychological, non-normative, ways

  • This redefined terminology is then used to theorise ACT

  • However to understand ACT we must rely on irreducibly psychological understanding; the theorisation cannot work

  • Nevertheless, the appeal of RFT and FC needs to be explained. This can be done by noting the tacit equivocation on the nature of 'the mind' in the theory and therapy

  • On the one hand 'the mind' refers in ACT to an illusory neurotic realm which traps us. Its goal is to change the mode of our thinking and to begin to be able to learn from and trust in experience again

  • Yet there is another sense of 'mind' which simply refers to everyday intentionality, life, experience, meaning, purpose, non-neurotic thought

  • Behaviourism may seem to appeal because it provides a kind of extra-mental perspective which allows us to undercut the otherwise-endless neurotic machinations of 'the mind'

  • This however is unnecessary; the notions of everyday behaviour and action, of intentionality, mindedness, non-neurotic thinking, understanding, etc., are both irreducible to non-intentionally specified behaviours, and also essential to making sense of ACT


  • I am not going to argue here for this rather bold set of propositions above. (Make up your own mind by having a look at chapter 2 of Hayes, Strosahl and Wilson's (1999) super book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change.) It should be said that the theory of RFT is complex and, well, I may just fail to do it justice. If this is the case I hope there is someone out there who can put me right, since I suspect that I may not be alone in my confusion.

    I shall finish this post with a thought about what Hayes et al describe as the "Need for Philosophy" (pp. 16-18). Here the authors encourage the idea that it is important to state and own the fundamental assumptions which structure and constrain, and provide the 'rules of evidence or criteria for truth' for, the psychological theory one develops. Next they tell us that:

    the goal of examining the philosophical level is not to justify one's own philosophy, but to specify and integrate analytic assumptions. Put another way, the goal of philosophizing is nothing more than clarity and responsibility. ... It is important to keep this goal in mind, because there is an enormous temptation to use philosophy to bludgeon those outside one's own philosophical camp. This is an especially delicious form of useless activity if you criticise the assumptions and values of your intellectual adversary, because you are then in the untouchable position of laying waste to others' assumptions and values by virtue of empirical/logical analysis secretly based on your own
    assumptions and values.
    Now I wouldn't want to just baldly disagree with this; partly this is because I am unsure whether the authors intend it as an expression of their own "analytic assumptions", or whether they intend it as a statement which anyone might recognise from reflecting on common shared meanings of terms like 'philosophy', 'analytic', 'asumption', etc.
    I do however wish to 'fess up to a basic philosophical assumption of my own - although it is certainly not one which I would wish to render immune from the criticism of others. This is that the noble philosophical pursuit of attaining reflective clarity and taking on responsibility for what one is saying is not limited to specifying assumptions. I shall rather assume that we all sometimes get in a muddle, even when we are doing philosophy, and that this muddle can go unnoticed by us. In fact it may be that others are in a better position to spot the assumptions we are unwittingly making than we ourselves.
    It is of course important not to bludgeon each other with philosophical arguments. However I shall further assume that we have a comon, shared, understanding of the context-specific meanings of the terms of our language, and that we can make appeals to such a putative shared understanding when we philosophically question whether what someone else, or our past selves, made as much sense, or the kind of sense, that they or we supposed.
    I should admit that I have felt the need to state this here to try and ward off an attempted reply to my philosophising regarding the theoretical foundations of ACT which would accuse me, say, of 'bludgeoning' or of not playing by the rules the authors have set for discussion of their work. I want to urge that a different set of rules governs such discussion: a set which does not lay claim in advance to limit the possibility of this or that critique striking a chord, but which allows for the possibility of genuinely critical and open dialogue about what exactly the underlying assumptions are that we all undoubtedly have.