Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Cognitive-Behavioral and Existential-Phenomenological Approaches to Therapy: Complementary or Conflicting Paradigms?

Academic journal article Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy

Cognitive-Behavioral and Existential-Phenomenological Approaches to Therapy: Complementary or Conflicting Paradigms?

Article excerpt

The relationship between the cognitive-behavioral and existential-phenomenological traditions in therapy is examined. While Beck cites phenomenological writers such as Heidegger, Husserl, and Binswanger, he does not initiate any dialogue with this tradition in depth. Parallels are drawn between the goals of psychotherapy as outlined by Rogers and goals identified in the contemporary cognitive-behavioral literature, between cognitive therapy's approach to clients' underlying assumptions and the phenomenological reduction as described by Husserl, and between a shared acceptance of the therapeutic use of the clienttherapist interaction. While, in both approaches, therapists take on an educative role, in each approach a different aspect of the learning process is focused on. Phenomenological therapy's attitude to reality testing, the dangers of a directive stance by the therapist, the conflict between empathy and rational dialogue, and cognitive therapy's view of emotion are also discussed. The complementarity between the two approaches is emphasized and acontinuing dialogue recommended.


Cognition is getting to know (from the latin cognoscere), and change in how we know provides a pervasive metaphor for personal development. In the Hindu tradition, there are three paths of spiritual growth: purification, devotion, and understanding. The latter is seen as a process of dispelling ignorance or inaccurate perception of how things are and of reaching a state of enlightenment in which the world and self are experienced without illusion or distortion (Mann, 1984). Development is often described as a process of expanding consciousness or consciousness raising. Most approaches to psychotherapy either explicitly or implicitly address cognitive transformation. They foster processes through which clients come to "get a new perspective," or to alter the framework of meaning through which they access themselves and the world. This emphasis is particularly clear in the personal construct theory of George Kelly.


Kelly's aim as a therapist was to make clients' idiosyncratic construct systems explicitand to assist them in reevaluating and changing them. Kelly (1969) describes how various eminent psychologists, with orientations as diverse as cognitive, existentialist, phenomenological, behaviorist, psychoanalytic, and dialecticalmaterialist, reacted favorably to his ideas, seeing them as quite consistent with their own. While Kelly refused to align himself with these positions (including cognitive and phenomenological), such recognition from a diversity of theorists points to the fact that he had articulated something fundamental about human nature, a structure running through and implicit in other formulations. This, I argue, is the cognitive metaphor which underlies both cognitive theory and phenomenology, and also accounts for common directions in the work of many therapists within the psychoanalytic and humanistic traditions.


The debate between behaviorists and phenomenologists has changed a great deal in the last 25 years since Rogers' (1967, first published 1961) rejection of Skinner's vision of Walden II. In Skinner's fictitious community, controlled by experimentally researched and benignly orchestrated schedules of reinforcement, people enjoyed contentment, self-respect and a sense of freedom. But, argued Skinner (1973), freedom and dignity are not qualities inherent in the individual; rather they arise from the nature of the system in which the individual is embedded. Rogers (1967) commented that such a world was not consistent with his own experience of human nature. "In the deepest moments of psychotherapy," he claimed, the person he encountered was "spontaneous... responsibly free, that is, aware of his freedom to choose who he will be, and aware also of the consequences of his choice" (p. …

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