Critical Social Theory and Psychotherapy: An Analysis of the Moral Ethos of Contemporary Psychotherapeutic Theory and Practice

Abstract

This study explores the moral ethos of contemporary psychotherapy as represented in the psychoanalytic and systemic therapeutic traditions. It examines current moral/ethical debate in the field and presents a detailed critique of the individualistic normative orientation of this debate; its peripheral status within the discourse of psychotherapy; its restrictive focus on professional micro ethics; and the eschewing of engagement with wider macro level moral themes and concerns. The disjuncture between this individualistic moral ethos and the vigorously relational thrust of wider developments in psychotherapeutic theory and technique is highlighted. An argument is made for the reformulation of moral/ethical debate in terms that take account of these relational developments, which might in turn serve as a catalyst for the realization of what is arguably their progressive and democratizing potential. The failure of hermeneutical, post-structuralist and postmodernist influences in recent decades to move this debate forward and the entrenched modernist/postmodernist divide within psychotherapeutic discourse are also explored. Underlying the limitations of current moral/ethical debate is the restricted paradigm of individual consciousness within which this debate unfolds and which it appears unable to transcend. In this study the critical social theory of Jűrgen Habermas serves as a touchstone for exploring potential for movement from the paradigm of consciousness to that of communication as a framework for moral/ethical deliberation. It is argued that key trends within psychotherapy are already straining towards a communicative ethical orientation which is implicit in current practice and that the theoretical vacuum around this subject is impeding recognition of its full potential. Alongside Habermasian theory, Axel Honneth’s theory of recognition and Anthony Giddens’s social theoretical perspective on psychotherapy offer key points of reference for the dialogue between critical social theory and psychotherapy which this study seeks to promote. Drawing on the work of Habermas and Honneth, it is argued that the underlying moral “grammar” of the psychotherapeutic encounter may be framed in terms of the struggle for understanding and agreement and the struggle for recognition. The theme of reflexivity emerges as an important organizing framework for this discussion and as a bridge for dialogue between psychotherapy and social theory. It is proposed that we can helpfully think of significant discursive moments in the therapeutic encounter as islands of heightened reflexivity in which the full communicative power of language is potentially unleashed. The study concludes with a view of psychotherapy as a reflexive resource and potential carrier of communicative reason helping people to develop and enhance cognitive and emotional capacities that may in turn help them participate in spheres of discursive communication and move towards genuinely communicative use of language.

Cite this paper

@inproceedings{Donovan2011CriticalST, title={Critical Social Theory and Psychotherapy: An Analysis of the Moral Ethos of Contemporary Psychotherapeutic Theory and Practice}, author={Mary Z Donovan}, year={2011} }