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The Nature of Theory

I want to talk this morning about the basic notion of theory, to discuss the theory of theory.

There are some common difficulties with the whole question of theory. These difficulties appear at many places in the Co-Counseling Community. On the one hand, there are such tendencies as trying to settle questions that need to be thought about by instead saying, "Harvey says..." On the other hand, you have some resentment expressed, not only at Harvey, but at an explicit, written, firm theory. There are some feelings that the leaders of Re-evaluation Counseling, and particularly Harvey, are intolerant and narrow-minded because they insist on not thoughtlessly borrowing contradictory ideas or practices from various psychologies or human growth movements.

I think that confusion underlies both these kinds of difficulties, and that these confusions are not peculiar to us but come into Re-evaluation Counseling from a confusion in the general society.

Common Fallacies

We have been told, from many sources, for example, that there are such things as "absolute truth." We hear in some religions that there are propositions which must not be thought about, which must be accepted without question. On the other hand, there are philosophies extant which condemn consistency as narrow-mindedness and extol eclecticism, pragmatism and changing your mind about everything every day. I think that this situation can be examined in a way that will do away with most of these difficulties, but it will require for many of us a fresh look at things we have taken for granted.

All Information Is Constructed

In the first place, I think we must face and accept that all our knowledge, all our pictures of reality, consist entirely of mental models which our own intelligences have constructed. Not only is there no possibility of attaining absolute truth or absolute knowledge about anything, but we can never even make direct contact with the reality that surrounds us. All our concepts of the reality around us are mental images constructed by us from little flashes of electricity that travel along our nerves from our sense organs to our forebrain. If I say I am in direct contact with this chair, it is not strictly true. I am receiving little flashes of electricity from the nerves in my thumb, and from the frequency and intensity of those flashes construct a notion of the hardness and solidity of the chair. The way the electricity flashes along my optic nerves allows me to construct a notion of "orange" color about the rug. That is all the information we ever have of the universe, the flashes of electricity coming through to our switchboard in our frontal lobes.

A Satisfactory Situation

To face this does not increase our insecurity because it turns out that in practice we can construct mental models of the reality around us that are as accurate a description of that reality as we wish.

If we wish to be more accurate, we simply need to make more effort. We may need to construct additional sensors such as telescopes and microscopes, but we can do so.

Not only is this true, but any two individuals' different mental concepts of the reality around them can be made to coincide, can be brought into just as close agreement as desired, if each secures sufficient information, discharges the distress patterns which introduce confusion, and allows for the difference in viewpoint of any two observers. By this last we mean that an observer on one side of a house can say, "The house is red," while the observer on the other side of the house can say, "The house is white," and they can then agree, "The house is white on one side and red on the other side."

This way in which we approximate the nature of reality turns out to be as useful and desirable as we need. Once having realized this, we can also realize that the whole desire for "absolute truth" or "absolute reality" arises only from the insecurity of human distress patterns. If the patterned desire to know everything "exactly," in an absolute sense, could be fulfilled, we would then be in the terrible dilemma of eternal boredom.

A Choice Is Necessary

With this digested, we need to be rigorous about another basic question. One cannot state in any absolute sense even that there is a reality or that the universe is real. One must choose between assuming that it is real, or that, since we have a conception of it, assuming that it is a projection of our minds. Whole schools of philosophers have adopted each of the two positions, and both schools have erected systems that are logical and consistent within themselves, on each of the possible two assumptions.

Re-evaluation Counseling, along with the physical sciences in general, chooses to start with the assumption that a real universe does exist, independent of our perception of it. We choose to start with this assumption for the reasons that this assumption leads to more interesting results and to more satisfactory lives. These are good reasons and are quite sufficient. In practice, this assumption of the reality of the universe underlies almost all human activities. Even the idealist philosophers who avowedly start with the assumption of no real universe, eat their breakfasts each morning as vigorously as if they were real. The usual practice, however, is not a careful enough basis for rigorous thought on important questions. We prefer to say clearly that we do start with this assumption of a real universe and reject any ideas or any mental models that are not consistent with this. We assume that the universe is real.

A Dynamic Reality

We observe that the universe is dynamic, that in every manifestation it is in constant change, at greater or lesser rates of change.

Reality Is Consistent

We also assume that the universe is consistent, that the reality of any portion of the universe does not make untenable the reality of any other portion of it. If such apparent inconsistencies appear, we assume these are caused by lack of information or lack of understanding of the phenomena. As a result of assuming the universe to be consistent everywhere, we place the requirement on any theories which we erect about the universe that these theories be consistent as well.

The Use Of Inductive Logic

In seeking to comprehend and develop theories about the portions of the universe in which we are interested, there are two principal acceptable methods. I will call one method the method of inductive logic. This is the method mostly used by the physical sciences. This consists of observing the working of various portions of the reality we're interested in and generalizing from what is common to these particular examples for a description (a "rule," a "law") which we hope will cover all such examples even though we can only examine a limited number of cases. Generalizing from particular examples is the main principle of physical science, of inductive logic. For example, if we freeze some distilled water many, many times and it always freezes at zero degrees Celsius, we generalize from these experiments to the statement that distilled water freezes at 0 degrees. The physicist used to call these generalizations "laws." Modern physicists are more aware that they are always, in a sense, conjectures, always subject to revision in the light of future data which may not fit the generalization. When these generalizations are made carefully and thoughtfully, however, they are usually only superseded by being included in a more general law or generalization of which they become a part. If an experimenter eventually notices that at high pressure water consistently freezes at a slightly different point than zero degrees, she or he will create a new generalization which takes into account the changes in the freezing point with regard to pressure while the old generalization becomes the limited case for atmospheric pressure only. When Newton's generalizations about gravitation were superseded because they no longer described some known events accurately enough, they became a special case of the more general laws of relativity.

Practice Came First

Re-evaluation Counseling theory developed, in the first place, on the basis of inductive logic. Successful practice came first. The theory arose later as an attempt to explain successful practice which had already taken place. This has not been the rule for most so-called "social sciences." Today, especially, in the era of a collapsing society, many theories about people are seized upon and promulgated that are purely the result of introspection. Particularly in the field of human behavior, rigor and care in setting up and interpreting experiments has been almost entirely absent. This is, in part, the result of general carelessness but in part results from pressures to serve the interests of oppression in that society. A rigorous theory of economics, for example, could not be taught in the universities without threatening the foundations of the present society and its ruling class. A premium is thus placed upon intellectual nonsense in these fields. Intellectuals often take refuge from these pressures in eclecticism and pragmatism, these being a cloak for non-consistency in thinking and for irresponsibility toward the implications of one's "theorizing" for the oppressed people in the society.

RC began accidentally. Something very interesting and positive happened to one person who was allowed to cry at length. The results were so interesting that attempts were made to duplicate them. Enough success attended these efforts that within a few months there was an obvious need for some generalized explanation for what was already happening in practice. This corresponds exactly with the physicist inducing general laws from particular experiences.

No Absolutes

Many different theories can be constructed to fit any set of observations. A particular theory survives and is valued, not only on how well it fits the facts (this is basic), but also on how useful it is in predicting what new attempts at useful activity should be tried, how consistent it is, how understandable it is, and how much use one can make of it in guiding one's practical activities.

The theory that we call Re-evaluation Counseling is not necessarily the only explanation that could be made about successful counseling practice. It is simply the best guesses that we have been able to make as to why these successes happen. To say this is not to yield authority to "theorists" who are sure that what they are saying is "absolute truth." We are much closer to the nature of reality than they are. We are secure enough to say these are guesses, and having said this, we can be quite positive about them in that they have proven to be very useful guesses that have been carefully checked for consistency, that have continually led to new, useful areas of practice. Such key concepts as the sharp distinction between the human intelligence and the distress pattern, or the notion of the distress pattern being composed of frozen intelligence and unusable information which is converted by discharge into liberated intelligence and useful information, for examples, have proven to be very powerful and effective in guiding peoples' re-emergence.

Respect For People, Not Wrong Theories

Insecure people coming into Re-evaluation Counseling sometimes have a conditioned "respect" for current "official" or widely-publicized theories. They may feel that my confidence in RC theory is arrogance. They charge me with being "intolerant" of other theories. This is true. I am. I have little respect for much current nonsense.

This should not be taken to mean, however, that I am intolerant and arrogant toward the people who follow these other theories. This is not true. Psychologists and human growth leaders and sociologists are good people trying to do good things, and sometimes succeeding. Many professional "therapists," for example, are giving some support and help to distressed people that we in the RC Communities are not yet ready to take responsibility for. In my opinion, however, they are hindered rather than helped by their "theories." It is their essential human nature and their caring rather than their theories which lead to the good results they achieve. I think it is ridiculous for any theory to claim to be useful in this field if it does not distinguish between distress patterns and the flexible human intelligence, for example. How can one possibly lump them together, as almost all these theories do, and achieve any useful results?

Although as with any scientific theory, any part of RC theory is subject to revision at any time that real, verified evidence contradicts it, its validity, consistency, and usefulness are well-established. It must and will be defended vigorously against any careless intrusion of contradictory concepts.

Alive And Growing

RC theory is by no means completed. Profound additions to the theory are currently taking place on many fronts. They are often not recognized as theory because they are of such immediate practical importance. Many Co-Counselors regard these advances as practical questions or current policies rather than as theory. Yet our current examination and analysis, for example, of the oppressive patterns installed systematically by an oppressive society and the means for eliminating them will, as understanding evolves, have as great importance to our re-emergence as the familiar Spectrum of Techniques concept.

We are farther along in our understanding of the chronic pattern, but we are still engaged in working out much of this theory.

We are starting many special journals whose function is not only communication, but also to assemble a group of thoughtful editors and writers on these particular topics, to create and apply a theory in these special fields.

A Second Logical Structure

The theory of Re-evaluation Counseling developed only as an inductive structure until the early l960's. At that time, though our results were known only to a narrow circle of people, they were so exciting, so rewarding, and so important that we made an attempt to strengthen theory from another direction. The consistency we had been able to achieve had been of the greatest importance in the further development of the theory and in the practical work. We sought for a means to improve the consistency still more, to make it still more rigorous and dependable. The means we chose was to try to erect a second logical structure alongside the original inductive one.

The now familiar list of 24 "Postulates" or axioms of Re-evaluation Counseling was drawn up. These, of course, were in some sense drawn inductively from experience, as all sets of axioms are, but the usual intuitive leap was made in setting these assumptions up without avowed recourse to the reality which underlies them.

(The source of any set of axioms or postulates does lie in observation of reality, but, since any conclusions drawn from observations of reality are subject to contradiction by some future observation not yet made, in order to have a completely consistent logical structure, one states the axioms without recourse to the reality from which they arise.)

We simply say of the 24 "Postulates" that "we assume these things to be true." We state these as a starting point for this new logical system. So, in this new logical system, these are not to be questioned and the truth of any further developments in this system depends only on the truth of what we started with, and, of course, the logical rigor of our development. We say, then, that "our conclusions are true if our starting point is true." We do not say flatly that our conclusions in this system are true with reference to reality.

From these "Postulates," then, we sought to deduce rigorous, air-tight conclusions which would be in accord with the generalizations we had reached from practice.

More Dependable Consistency

We have had considerable success with this. This gives us the advantage of more dependable consistency for our theory. If one accepts the 24 "Postulates" as assumptions, then the logical conclusions deduced from them are dependable and consistent. If these conclusions are reinforced by our generalizations from experience, then we can be much more confident about what we are doing about our practical work.

One system gives us touch with reality. The other system gives us consistency. So Re-evaluation Counseling has attained a more reassuring consistency and dependability than most scientific systems, and this in an area of work where consistency has previously been almost entirely lacking.

Long-range Importance

Many co-counselors as yet know or care little about this. Conditioned to be suspicious of theory, which in the past has often been used to oppress them, they are satisfied with the pragmatic results. They say, "I don't care about the theory. RC works for me. That is what matters." This is understandable, but these basic questions are of great importance in the development of the future, not just of Re-evaluation Counseling, but of humankind.


If you say any theory consists of making guesses, won't this make people feel insecure about the theory?

No, it is rather the person who is insecure in his or her understanding of the theory who feels that he or she has to fiercely insist that this is the truth, the truth, the whole truth, or engage in "arguments" with other equally rigid views which are more shouting matches than arguments. If we can remember to say, not "This is the theory" or "Harvey said so" but rather that this is the best explanation we have been able to work out of why our practice works so well, people will be able to hear us better.

Would you clarify what you said about the existence of the universe and our perception of it?

The idealist schools of philosophy assume that our perception creates the world, that there is no sound unless someone hears it, that apparent reality is a projection of my mind or God's mind. We assume that the universe would be there even if we didn't notice it. There is no "proof" of one or the other viewpoint, but you must assume one or the other and stay with it in order to be consistent.

Why do you think people resist theory? I would think they would enjoy it.

In general, they do. The human mind loves theory inherently. Theory is an expression of its intelligent functioning. Most people in this society, however, have seen false theories used as weapons to oppress them. From this can come a rigid distrust of all theory. We have to be patient with this at first. I certainly agree that the mastery of theory is necessary for our full emergence. In most approaches to human behavior we have an "expert" who knows the "theory" and a "patient" who is acted upon. One of the distinctive features of RC is that we try to put the full theory in the possession of the client.

Can you give an example of how the requirement of consistency helps in theory and practice?

A number of clients cried very hard, when we paid attention to them. A number of other clients didn't discharge when we paid attention to them. Our theoretical notion of consistency led us to think that all clients would cry if the conditions permitted, since all clients desired the results which the ones who cried attained. Therefore, consistency led us to continually try to find different things that the counselor could do so that the others could cry as well, instead of assuming that people have different natures, that some can cry and some can't.

Harvey Jackins
(Talk at Madison V, R.C. Teachers' Workshop, May 9-14, 1976)

Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00