Tapio Malinen, tapio.malinentathata.fi, Sundintie 26, FI 06650 Hamari, Finland


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Ratkes 3, 2003

On Wittgenstein

Tapio Malinen

Austria-born Ludvig Wittgenstein can be considered one of the most central background figures of postmodern therapy theory. He has had powerful influence on such people as Harry Goolishian, Harlene Anderson, Kenneth Gergen, John Shotter, Fred Newman and Lois Holzman. However, there haven't been very many references to him in the solution-focused literature published in the last twenty years, either in Finland or other countries. There is, of course, one clear exception. This is Steve de Shazer, the most notable theorist and founding father of the solution-focused method. The Milwaukee-based sociologist Gale Miller has, since the 1990´s when he joyned the Brief Family Therapy Center staff, studied the meaning of Wittgenstein's ideas while developing a theory for solution-focused psychotherapy together with de Shazer. (de Shazer & Miller 2000; Miller 1997)

de Shazer's Wittgenstein references started with his third book Clues: Investigating Solutions in Brief Therapy (1988). He reports (de Shazer & Miller 2000) reading Wittgenstein earlier than this (as a science philosopher), but as he embarked on teaching brief therapy, he became aware of how the different thinking and practice of solution-focused psychotherapy were closely connected to the so-called late Wittgensteinian thought and particularly the book Philosophical Investigations.

I believe that it was specifically Philosophical Investigations, with its pragmatic and action-focused idea of language, that piqued de Shazer's interest in the connections between Wittgenstein and Brief Therapy. While reading Wittgenstein, de Shazer noticed that the structure of philosophical uncertainties is similar to that of therapeutic uncertainties. ”Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment orf our intelligence by means of language” (FT, 109). And we must use language to be freed from this bewischment. ”The picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repaeat it to us inexorably” (FT, 115). For Wittgenstein, the goal of philosophy is to show a fly the way out of a bottle whose mouth is open the whole time. The more the fly struggles inside the bottle, the more it forgets that – the mouth of the bottle is open the whole time!

According to Wittgenstein, the key to the solution of problems is the therapeutic process, in which we examine and describe our ways of using language. Language is a practical activity, with the help of which we build social realities and relationships. Wittgenstein might say that conversation is inevitable so that language can work. Communication is inevitable so that language can do its job.
”Language is an instrument. Its consepts are instruments. I don´t ofer any philosophical theory, but instruments in order for you to liberate from a need of such theory” (FT, 569). In other words, Wittgenstein offers us philosophical therapy to clarify what is still unclear for us.

Solution-focused psychotherapy is a language community or discourse, in which speech practices are organized so that they build beneficial meanings instead of problem realities. There is no need for us to seek hidden motives or subconscious meanings behind the words; instead, we should simply remember that words are words and observe how they work in therapy. Wittgenstein felt that it is not essential for solutions to look ”behind” or ”deeper”, because nothing is hidden, everything is present the whole time.
He laconically states: ”Don´t think! Look!” (FT, 6 ) and ”Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything. Since everything lies open to view thera is nothing to explain” (FT, 126).

In a sense, we are completely at the mercy of our communication. When a therapist participates in a conversation with a client, he or she immediately becomes a part of a therapeutic system, where interaction and meanings are constructed together. Meanings are born out of dominant speech practices in a dialogical interaction between people who look for them: the meaning of a word is its any given usage at any given moment. Thinking in these terms, language is both a curse and a blessing for us. As professionals, we are always deeply responsible for the way in which we use language as an instrument. On the other hand, silence is also a therapist's friend, because in silence, explaining steps aside and is replaced by seeing. In the words of Wittgenstein: ”It often happens that we only become aware of the important facts if we suppress the question “why” and then in the course of our investications these facts lead us to the answer” (FT, 471).

Steve de Shazer, the developer of solution-based therapy, relates that he stopped trying to explain things over 30 years ago and started to only describe what he and his clients found to work: ”Theories tell us what should happen. Descriptions tell us what happened. Traditionally, we think that theory leads to practice, but as Lyman Wynne said many years ago, practice is always ahead of theory. Furthermore: when we have a theory, then according to human experience, we also have a tendency to make facts correspond to the theory – just like Sherlock Holmes showed – even if facts should be able to change theories. If solution-based therapy had a theory, it would be as complex as any other Theory, and it could also easily blur people's minds” (de Shazer & Miller, 2000, p. 24). It is not our job to create new theories, but rather to remember what we already know. As philosophers or therapists we are not, like scientists, building a house or laying its foundation. We are simply ”cleaning the room”. The problems are solved not by seeking a new experience, but rather by fitting together what has always been known. In this way, people's local knowledge about their lives and the functioning practices of living become more important than expert information.

For me, it has been important to examine the philosophy of my work at times, and I have perceived that searching for the roots of my thoughts and actions makes my action more flexible, aware and ethical. Knowing and feeling that my work is part of a greater whole, I can better make purposeful choices while consciously participating in building realities that do people good.

What touches me the most about Wittgenstein's way of thinking is that he does not intend to teach us anything new with his investigations - the idea that you never have to add anything to or deduct anything from a person. As therapists, we always have everything that is. The only thing that matters is to understand and perceive what has always been open before our eyes and what we, for whatever reason, cannot see. ”The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something – bacause it is always before one´s eye” (FT, 129). This has been an important concept for me over the years, as I've worked to change the process of power relations that is inevitably present in a therapy situation, transforming it into an event of collecting and recycling local knowledge, built on people's everyday experiences and everyday wisdom.

Another strongly resonating Wittgenstein concept for my work has been that the meanings of words are not found in dictionaries. Different ways of using language are, according to Wittgeinstein, like a network of different paths. They take us into different directions, allow us to see different landscapes or new things in old landscapes, whichever we choose. Problems and solutions are socially built life forms maintained by different kinds of language games. Wittgenstein argues that langauge games are formed out of different ways of using language with which we create meanings and build our relationships. For instance, the classical miracle question of solution-focused therapy is a different language game than so-called problem-focused language games, where the focus is on people's flaws and the reasons for the problems. Steve de Shazer argues that the miracle question is just like driving a car: you don't have to think, except in the beginning when you're learning how to drive. The car takes you forward, from point A to point B.

The clients are not the problem; the problem is often the language they must start using with their therapist to answer his or her questions. In my opinion, even the solution-focused language game is rather too one-dimensional in this respect. At the moment, I am also very interested in methods where a person's intentionality, meanings, values, dreams, sense of community, spirituality and commitments become ever more heard. In these methods (narrative and collaborative therapy), people are seen as creatures that contain many stories. By opening alternative stories to the problem in a rich and multi-faceted way we are not solving anything, but simply creating space for understanding and beneficial actions.

1) Postmodern therapies are pracices, according to which knowledge is as a discursive practice and its truthfulness is defined locally and contextually. Among these practices, language is seen as a generative tool creating different realities. The therapist's power as an expert is alleviated by striving for an interaction with the clients that is as respectful and cooperative as possible. These approaches include, for example, solution-focused, narrative and collaborative psychotherapy.


de Shazer, S.: (1988) Clues: Investicating Solutions in Brief Therapy. New York: Norton.
de Shazer, S. & Miller, G. (1998) Wittgenstein for Therapists. A Brief Therapy Center Audiotape.
de Shazer, s. & Miller, G. (2000) Wittgenstein for Therapist. Unpublished manuscrift.
Malinen, T. (2001) From Think Thank to New Therapy: The Process of Solution-Focused Theory
and Practice Development. Ratkes 2.
Miller, G. (1997) Becoming Miracle Workers. Language and Meaning in Brief Therapy. Aldine De
Gruyter, New York.
Wittgenstein, L. (1968) Philosophical Investications. Oxford: Blackwell.


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