Performative Statements and the Will: Mechanisms of Psychotherapeutic Change

By Ghaemi, S. Nassir | American Journal of Psychotherapy, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Performative Statements and the Will: Mechanisms of Psychotherapeutic Change


Ghaemi, S. Nassir, American Journal of Psychotherapy


Performative Statements and the Will: Mechanisms of Psychotherapeutic Change*

Performative statements are much discussed in the philosophy of language, e. g., by the linguistic philosopher, J. L. Austin, where they are distinguished from descriptive statements. Whereas the latter merely describe a current state of affairs from an external standpoint, performative statements enact a new state of affairs merely by being spoken, as when a minister pronounces a couple married during a wedding ceremony. Performative statements are words and deeds at the same time. They are special kinds of statements, requiring certain unique circumstances and relationships so that they can function validly. Leston Havens has made the connection between the ability to make performative statements and the setting of psychotherapy. He has asserted that performative statements are an important part of the psychotherapeutic repertoire and may be an important force in bringing about psychotherapeutic change. In this paper, I try to locate the mechanism by which performative statements may achieve this effect, suggesting that this occurs by means of influencing the patient's will directly. Performative statements work on the Will, much as descriptive statements influence the intellect. Philosophical ideas about the will, like Aristotle's notion of weakness of will, may explain some of the phenomena of psychotherapy, including resistance.

The Role of Language in Psychoanalytically Oriented Psychotherapy

Before a patient can gain insight into a psychoanalytic interpretation, Freud wrote that "two conditions are to be fulfilled: first, by preparatory work, the repressed material must have come very near to the patient's thoughts, and secondly, he must be sufficiently firmly attached by an affective relationship to the physician (transference) to make it impossible for him to take fresh flight again" (1).

As Freud suggests, making interpretations may be the last, and perhaps least important, of the tasks psychotherapists must perform. In fact, in that same paper, Freud suggests that it is the patient, and not the therapist, who ultimately makes the interpretation, having been led there by the nose, so to speak, by the therapist's "preparatory work." While others have emphasized the importance of Freud's second condition, transference, I wish to concentrate in this paper on Freud's first condition: "the preparatory work." Of what does this preparatory work consist? The traditional psychoanalytic response is free association, and the "fundamental rule" of "evenly hovering attention," While this response may be valid for classical psychoanalysis, it seems too limited to apply to most forms of psychotherapy in general. One might ask: What is the "preparatory work" that is implied in the very concept of psychotherapy? It would seem that, at its most abstract, psychotherapy is the therapeutic use of words. Thus, at a very basic level, it involves the nimble use of language. It might appear surprising, given this possible formulation of psychotherapy, that limited attention has been paid to the conceptual understanding of languagelinguistics and philosophy of language-as an aid to our understanding of psychotherapy.

The Role of Philosophy of Language in Understanding Psychotherapy

J. L. Austin was a linguistic philosopher whose work may be useful in understanding psychotherapy, Austin's contribution is stated most clearly in a series of lectures collected into How to Do Things with Words (2). In that work, Austin made a linguistic distinction that Leston Havens (3) has suggested is fundamental to understanding psychotherapy. Austin divided statements into two types, "descriptive" and "performative." Common sense identifies descriptive statements with language as a whole. These are statements of fact ("the cat is on the mat"-to take an example from Austin) and are thus either true or false, or nonsensical ("the unicorn is on the mat"-another of Austin's examples). …

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