Constructivist Couseling: A Primer

Article excerpt

Constructivism has become a major influence in counseling and psychology. Various trends of constructivist thought and the historical origins of these trends are discussed, including Kelly's theory of personal constructs, developmental constructivism, narrative reconstruction, social constructionism, and systems theory. Emphasis is placed on the integrative potential of constructivism for counseling theory and practice.

At one point or another, every discipline becomes infused with buzzwords. An example is the term constructivism, which has recently been used more and more in the psychology and counseling literature. Even though the term is difficult to define, this article attempts to situate the emergence of constructivism in its historical context, provides an overview of the major streams of contemporary constructivist thought, and discusses constructivism's implications for counseling. It is hoped that readers new to constructivist theory and practice will gain a better understanding of the issues surrounding this important perspective in counseling. Throughout this paper, a special emphasis is placed on constructivism's interrelatedness to other disciplines and its potential to provide counselors with an integrative theoretical framework for counseling practice.


As the middle ages gave way to the Renaissance, a new conception of the world emerged based on Galileo Galilei's (1564-1642) mechanistic view of the universe. He saw the world as a giant machine, the parts of which are constantly in motion. As these parts move, they collide with other parts causing them to move as well. Galileo argued that such movements were not random and that the object of science was to discover the laws that governed these movements. The French philosopher Rene Descartes (1595-1650) extended this mechanistic view to humans whose behavior he viewed as following generalizable laws (Benjamin, 1997). Applying the newly found approach to the physical world, the Age of Enlightenment (mid 18th century) brought with it a number of scientific discoveries, technological innovations, industrialization and a burning optimism or faith in the ability of human reason to grasp the reality of the world (Alioto, 1987). Science was seen as essentially different from art, religion, and philosophy in that it could lead to the discovery of objective truths, and the "gradual conquest of matter by the human mind" (Sarton, 1962, p.102). Physics, chemistry, mathematics, navigation and other scientific studies were conceptualized as providing accurate descriptions of the external world in the form of tangible laws, formulas, tables and charts. The guiding assumption was a correspondence theory of truth: a fundamental belief that humans could accurately represent or map the contours of the real world. This movement found its fullest expression in logical positivism, a school of thought prominent in Vienna at the turn of this century.

Logical positivism holds that the meaning of statements can be equated with the empirical operations designed to investigate them (Suppe, 1974). In other words, statements are true if they are logically consistent and if they can be verified through sense observations. Because all scientific endeavors were seen as being strictly free from cultural or historical influences, it was widely believed that humans would eventually discover the causes and origins of all phenomena. Furthermore, this emphasis on the objective or detached relationship between the knower and known (or observer and observed) has led some contemporary scholars to refer to this approach as objectivist (Mahoney, 1990). The origins of this modern notion about the objectivity of knowledge is most associated with two philosophical traditions: empiricism (e.g., Locke, Hume and Berkley) which relies on the notion that truth can be accessed through sense observation, and rationalism (e.g., Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz) which relies on logical inferences to arrive at true statements. …


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