I am a student at Gateway Community Tech. in New Haven Connecticut. I am taking a course in
Methods and Theories. A question I have is stumping me, it is "What is the Pragmatic Approach to
Counseling?" I have found some information but am unable to find very much. I am studying William
James and C.S. Peirce. Could you help?
At first it would seem there are two answers to this question depending on whether the term is used
being used in the lay sense or philosophically/ psychologically. However, they are really one and the
same. Philosophically you are in the right area with William James, C.S. Peirce and I would certainly
add John Dewey. If one takes Peirce's view of truth as one of experimental knowledge i.e. when one
knows how a thing responds to experimental manipulation then one knows the object, then one
answer to what is the pragmatic approach to counselling begins to emerge. Namely that if the
counsellor has a clear idea of the intervention they are applying and is clear of the effect on the
person being counseled, than a pragmatic approach to counselling could be said to be in operation.
I suspect when counsellors talk about a pragmatic approach to counselling this is what they mean,
although they would in all probability put it in simpler terms and talk about using interventions that are
known to work irrespective of their own theoretical orientation or biases. In this way pragmatic
counselling belongs to a broad spectrum of interventions that used to be labeled 'eclectic' and are
now termed 'integrative.'
However, it should be noted that Peirce had in mind invariable natural laws in mind when he talked of
a pragmatic theory of truth and it is debatable whether this can be strictly applied to counselling the
James was of course more interested in the individual and talked about the distinctively concrete, the
individual, the particular and effective as opposed to the abstract, general and inert. Thus, James
talks of 'pragmatic meaning' and was subsequently criticized by Russell and Moore for suggesting a
thoroughly relativistic approach to truth. This raises a profound question in relation to counselling
about where meaning is to be located. Does it belong to the privileged consciousness of the
counselee or does it assume at a minimum some level of shared meaning between counsellor and
counselee? Such debates tend nowadays to be couched in terms of debates about the relative merits
of the hypothetico-deductive position, (Peirce's view) and social constructionism (James' view), with a
recognition by philosophers, psychologists and sociologists on the way in which meaning is socially
constructed. Social construction is viewed as occurring through the panoply of social and cultural
forces and the discourses that are used both to support and challenge this. Moreover, within some
conceptualizations, discourses are seen as constituting this socially constructed self.
The hypothetico-deductive method and social constructionism offer two very different and opposing
views of the world. There is a middle ground however, provided by those who adopt a 'critical realist'
position. Taking their cue from Kant, 'critical realists' acknowledge the material reality of the world (the
realist view) but argue that our knowledge of it is always mediated by individual and social processes,
e,g, the counseling process itself.
It may also be helpful to consider the difference between pragmatismand the pragmatist.The former
is suggestive of a theoretical/philosophical model, the latter of the activity, without necessarily a well
worked out theory behind it. A. O. Lovejoy examines this distinction in an essay entitled 'Pragmatism
Versus the Pragmatist' in the Thirteen Pragmatisms and Other Essays.
Dr Robert Hill
South London and Maudsley
National Health Service Trust