Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Thoughts on Knowing: Epistemic Implications of Counseling Practice

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Thoughts on Knowing: Epistemic Implications of Counseling Practice

Article excerpt

Two people sit in a room. One does most of the talking while the other listens, tries to understand, and attempts to respond with helpful remarks. After a set period of time, they agree to meet again and part ways. At first glance, this simple meeting would not seem to suggest deep philosophical questions. On closer inspection, however, this basic counseling scenario is fraught with profound and fundamental philosophical issues.

One intriguing line of philosophical inquiry involves the nature of knowing, or epistemology, as it applies to the counseling situation. For most of the twentieth century, counseling orientations were rooted in a modernistic epistemology (Hansen, 2002; Speed, 1991). The foundational assumption of modernism is that an actual reality, with particular enduring properties, exists that is independent from those who observe it (Erwin, 1999). The modernistic agenda is to gain increasing knowledge of this reality through objective, scientifically based observation (Sexton, 1997). Modernism, as applied to the counseling situation, means that counselors can objectively observe clients and accurately come to know particular truths about them.

The postmodern movement, however, has challenged the basic assumptions of modernism (Sexton, 1997). The general assertion of postmodernism is that meanings are created, not discovered, by observers (Leary, 1994). For example, one social group may consider a particular behavior to be deviant, whereas another group might consider the same behavior to be a sign of psychological health. Thus, the behavior, like any other thing or event, does not have a fundamental, real meaning that exists independently from those who observe it.

In short, modernism posits that observers can overcome their perceptual biases and know reality in its true form. Knowledge that exists in the minds of observers mirrors objective reality accurately. Postmodernism, alternatively, maintains that observers can never transcend their perceptual sets. Thus, knowledge always represents some combination of the observer and the observed; truths are created, not discovered.

When postmodern conceptualizations are applied to the counseling situation, a number of intriguing questions emerge: Can a counselor ever gain accurate knowledge of a client's experience? What is the role of language in the counseling situation? Does the counselor have access to truths that are imparted to clients, or do the two parties coconstruct healing narratives? The postmodern movement has stimulated these types of epistemic queries. However, the literature on postmodernism is complex, and the language used is often ambiguous, making the essential tenets of the various epistemic mind-sets and the critiques of particular systems of knowing difficult to grasp (Rosen, 1996). Given this situation, the purpose of this article is twofold: (a) to clarify this often confusing and esoteric literature so that counselors can understand the various epistemic debates and their implications for the practice of counseling and (b) to propose a meta-epistemic system that attempts to integrate the various systems of knowing. I accomplish this by reviewing modernism, postmodernism, social constructionism, and constructivism. I then propose an integrative framework that will help counselors to use these philosophical concepts in their practice.


Beginning with the enlightenment, modernistic epistemology has become the dominant model of knowing for Western civilization (Sexton, 1997). The foundational assumption of modernism is that an objective reality exists that can be accurately known by observers (Erwin, 1999). The scientific method, with its emphasis on eliminating observer bias, is the fundamental tool of this epistemology for viewing reality accurately. Language, according to modernistic assumptions, is representational in that it accurately reflects the phenomenon to which it refers (McNamee, 1996). …

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