“A well-intentioned person blinded by the wrong theory is little better than a person driven by selfish impulses.” David Sloan Wilson

A philosophy can be defined as “a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour”.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’ve all got one.

Our philosophy is how we navigate the world.

It is usually derived from our cultural upbringing, education and previous experiences, and therefore carries with it a whole host of assumptions about how the world works, how we measure things, and even what we think of as ‘true’.

Although having a philosophy is essential for navigating a complex world, it remains ‘under the surface’ for most of us. In other words, the principles that are guiding our thoughts and behaviour (i.e. our operating system), remain unknown to us and unconscious.

For most of the population, this isn’t a major issue – but if you’re working as a mental health professional or a coach, then being unclear on your basic philosophical assumptions can cause problems.

In clinical work, you’re in a position where you can dramatically alter a client’s behaviour, worldview, their sense of self, and even what they consider to be true about the world.

Therefore, it’s very important to become consciously aware of your own philosophical assumptions, own them, and “weed out” any inconsistencies, so you can ensure you have a philosophy that best serves those you work with.

Awareness is one of the first steps to creating change, and by becoming conscious of the principles guiding your thoughts and behaviour, you can question them to see if your philosophical ‘operating system’ is the most effective for your work as a clinician.

If it is, great.

But if it isn’t, then you can now adopt a new philosophy; one that better serves you and your clients.

So, in this post, we’ll explore:

1.) The four root metaphors underlying most philosophical assumptions and worldviews, and how to know which one you hold

2.) Functional contextualism; what it is, and how it differs from other forms of contextualism

3.) Why functional contextualism is a particularly effective philosophy for psychotherapy and how to apply this way of thinking in your clinical work.

Functional Contextualism

In his 1942 book: ‘World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence, philosopher Stephen C Pepper makes the bold claim that human philosophical systems are not really that complicated, and that they usually cluster around the following four “world hypotheses”:

  • Mechanism
  • Formism
  • Organicism
  • Contextualism

World hypotheses are derived from “root metaphors”, which are common sense, yet fundamental ways of perceiving the world.

Interestingly, each root metaphor has its own unique criterion for truth and its own goal.

According to Pepper, two people with different root metaphors will not only see the same event from different points of view, they will also derive different interpretations of what is true from it.

Let’s briefly look at each root metaphor and an example of each.


Functional Contextualism

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People who hold mechanism as their primary world hypothesis have the sense that the entire universe functions like a machine.

Machines are made up of separate, individual parts that relate to each other in a systematic kind of way. For mechanists, the relationship between the parts is not important as each part exists independently of these relations. For a machine to work, it requires a kind of force or energy that flows between the parts which enables it to produce predictable outcomes.

In his 1988 review of Pepper’s work, “Finding the philosophical core”, Dr Steven Hayes uses the example of a lever to illustrate this.

First, a lever is made up of two separate and independent parts: a lever and a fulcrum.

Second, the lever and fulcrum are related to each other in a systematic kind of way (e.g. by placing the lever on the fulcrum).

Third, applying force to one end of the lever will cause a predictable outcome at the other end.

The mechanist view of the world applies to both the person perceiving the world and the objects they perceive within it. They believe that we relate to the world by producing a kind of internal representation of it.

In other words, we can never really know the world itself; only a copy of it.

Truth then, is how well our representation lines up with the real world, which can be tested by prediction.

The goal of the mechanist is to discover all of the different parts and how they relate to one other – underneath surface level appearances. In this world view, all of the distinct parts are assumed to fit together, meaning that the only real knowledge is ultimate knowledge.

An example of a mechanistic world view in psychology might be a neuroscientist who spends her life studying the most minute and tiny details of the brain – with no intention to understand how it relates to everyday life as a human being.

She assumes that the knowledge gained will eventually be useful, but doesn’t need to know in advance what this use will be.

On the one hand, we can see how this exploratory approach could lead to new scientific discoveries that were previously unknown. On the other, we can also see how this worldview does not lend itself well to clinical work.

When a client first enters psychotherapy, it is usually because they are suffering, and looking for a practical solution to alleviate it as soon as possible. The exploratory nature of a mechanistic worldview isn’t ideal in this context.

Furthermore, the mechanist’s view of the world as consisting of separate individual parts could cause problems in that it could lead to the therapist attempting to influence the independent variables of a client’s life situation, without taking the broader situational context into account.

For example, imagine you are working with a teenager who has difficulty opening up about his emotional life. To address the problem, you recommend that he express his emotions more fully at school. However, unbeknownst to you, this teenager comes from a rough neighbourhood, where violence and bullying are the norm. Therefore, your attempt to solve the issue could actually make things worse because you haven’t considered the context surrounding the variables you are manipulating.


Functional Contextualism

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Formists hold similarity as their root metaphor.

They like to divide the world up into neat categories in terms of recognisable forms. E.g. colours of hair, days of the week, types of personality, etc.

To the formist, what is true is what can be sorted and named.

Unlike mechanism, formism does not require prediction – only that things can be categorised appropriately. In this worldview, you can be an expert and know a lot about one domain, e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy, while having almost no knowledge of another e.g. humanistic psychology.

Again, it’s easy to see how this worldview could get in the way of effective psychotherapy.

Picture a situation where a client comes to a formist therapist because she has recently experienced a divorce, the loss of her job and the bereavement of a parent.

What is he or she likely to do?

A formist therapist might look for the symptoms that the client is experiencing, and then consult the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to see what they correspond to. The therapist would then diagnose the client with a particular disorder e.g. anxiety, depression, and then prescribe treatment appropriately.

The limitation here is obvious – the client doesn’t have a ‘mental disorder’.

She has real problems in her life that need to be addressed by the therapist; not labelled, categorised and diagnosed.


Functional Contextualism

Image by Cathy Keifer

Organicists view the world through the lens of organic development.

They assume that all living things (including people) are continuously moving from one stage of development to another – in an orderly way. When you look at the world this way, you presume that change is the default state of nature, and it is staying the same that needs to be explained.

Organicists believe that any confusion surrounding a particular event is only caused because of incomplete knowledge of the whole organic process of which that event is a part.

Therefore, the organicists’ goal is to understand the purpose of the whole organic process of which the event belongs, because in doing so, the contradictions will disappear.

In psychology, this root metaphor manifests itself in the various models that explain stages of human development. E.g. Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development, Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development, or Freud’s psychosexual stages.

The organicist root metaphor can be limiting to the clinician who holds it because it can lead to an excessive focus on stages of development, at the expense of the context in which that development is taking place.

Only by understanding the contextual relationships and situation (the independent variables) in which a client is embedded, are you able to influence them and change behaviour to produce a new outcome (the dependent variable).


Functional Contextualism

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The root metaphor of contextualism is the ongoing purposeful act in context.

A contextualist views every event as part of a larger whole, that is situated in both a historical and situational context.

They see everything as ‘going together’.

To the contextualist, every action you perform now is intimately connected to your history and the current situation you find yourself in.

Before reading further, consider the following:

What events from your past and circumstances surrounding your current situation have led you to reading this blog post on functional contextualism?

Engaging in this thought experiment shows us that almost every action we take is intimately connected to both a historical and situational context.

Interestingly, this worldview also allows you to view any act from multiple vantage points.

You can ‘zoom in’ on the details, and ‘zoom out’ to see where the details fit into the wider whole.

Take the example of the seemingly trivial act of putting petrol in your car.

Viewed from the context of today, you are filling up the car so you can get to work on time. You’re keen to get in early because you will be delivering a presentation for the senior staff at your company, which you know could eventually lead to a promotion. You are excited about this as the promotion would significantly increase your monthly salary, which will enable you to save more for your children’s university education.

So, is the purpose of what you’re doing to put petrol in your car?

Or is it to get your children into university?

To the contextualist, both answers are true; it just depends on what vantage point you are looking at the situation from.

You could also analyse the situation from any of the following points of view:

  • From the view of the shop owner who sees your purchase as helping his small business survive
  • From the vantage point of the economy which is growing thanks to your custom
  • From the view of planetary welfare, in the sense that putting petrol in your car is burning up fossil fuels and contributing to the looming climate crisis
  • From the perspective of a physiologist who is interested in the biological mechanism that allows your hand to grasp the petrol pump
  • Through the lens of privilege. A huge percentage of people on the planet are not able to afford a car and therefore the act of putting petrol in yours’ signifies that you are in an extremely fortunate position in life
  • From the view of the cultural historian who studies how different societies have used petrol throughout the course of history

There are several different branches within contextualism, but in this post we’re going to focus on functional contextualism.

We’ll explore how it differs from other forms of descriptive contextualism, and examine why it is a particularly effective philosophy for those working in the helping professions.

Functional Contextualism vs Other Forms of Contextualism

Functional Contextualism

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Functional contextualism differs from other more descriptive forms of contextualism in a few important ways.

First, it allows you to avoid ‘paralysis by analysis’.

We can see from the example of putting petrol in your car how it might be easy for a contextualist to get lost in analysis. Being able to zoom in and zoom out on any situation and view it from multiple different angles could easily lead to a great deal of inertia; particularly when doing scientific and therapeutic work.

To counteract this, functional contextualism’s truth criterion is ‘successful working’.

In other words, according to this philosophy, truth is defined by what gets you the results you want in life.

Therefore, when viewing an ‘act in context’, the level of analysis that a functional contextualist takes, is always the level that is most likely to lead to successful working – and this prevents the problem of paralysis by analysis.

Second, it enables you to let go of truth with a capital “T”.

Very often, we create and hold a rigid story about how the world works (i.e. what is true) based on our earlier experiences. We tell ourselves things like: “I’m not the sort of person who ‘X’”, or “If I let my guard down, I’ll get hurt again – so it’s best not to trust anyone.”

Not only is our version of “truth” usually inaccurate, but it also limits us and prevents us from living the life we really want to live.

For example, a client might say: ‘I want to develop more meaningful relationships, but I can’t because I was bullied as a child.’

According to their view of truth, they would only be able to start developing meaningful relationships with the help of a time machine. In other words, you would have to go back in time with him or her, and prevent the bullying from happening in the first place.

Then they’d be okay.

From this example, we can see that what the client considers “true” is preventing them from living the life they want now. Therefore, a primary aim of functional contextualism is the letting go of “Truth with a capital T,” and adopting functional truth (successful working).

This subtle shift enables you to keep bringing your client back to what they really want out of life now, and use that to help guide decisions and behaviour.

So, instead of their ‘truth’ holding them prisoner, it now empowers them.

Third, functional contextualism requires that you take a scientific approach to behaviour change.

The main analytic goal of functional contextualism is prediction and influence with precision, scope and depth.

Said differently, those who adopt a functional contextualistic approach in their clinical work aim to predict and influence the behaviour of their clients, while taking both the situational and historical context into account.

Furthermore, they aim to do this in such a way that their analyses have:

  • Precision (a limited number of concepts are relevant to achieving the goal)
  • Scope (these concepts can be applied to tackle a wide range of problems)
  • Depth (they cohere across multiple levels of analysis, i.e. what you find at the psychological level, will not conflict with what you find at the archaeological level, evolutionary level, or at the level of interpersonal relationships etc)

This makes functional contextualism a particularly effective philosophy for psychotherapists because not only does it involve predicting behaviour like a mechanist might, it also requires that you influence (change) behaviour too – and that you do so in a measurable way.

Fourth, functional contextualism affords you more flexibility than any of the other root metaphors.

Because they have successful working as their ultimate goal, functional contextualists are free to experiment with a wide range of worldviews in their efforts to achieve it.

They are not confined to any one particular way of viewing the world.

For instance, you could temporarily adopt the root metaphor of a mechanist or an organicist if you feel this would lead to successful working – as long as you are conscious that you are temporarily shifting worldviews to achieve your aims.

Finally, as a functional contextualist, you have to state your goals up front.

A major (and valid) criticism of adopting successful working as your view of truth is that it could lead to a kind of ‘philosophical free for all’.

If I define truth as simply what ‘works’ in a functional sense, as many pragmatic traditions do, then there’s nothing stopping me from justifying behaviour that has already taken place, because it helped to achieve a certain outcome or goal – and this can get us on to slippery terrain.

For example, if you take this line of reasoning far enough, you could argue that the Nazi Ideology that caused World War Two was ‘true’ because it eventually led to the creation of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the aftermath of the war.

Fortunately, functional contextualism counteracts this problem and differs from other forms of pragmatism because it requires you to state what your goals are beforehand – clearly and publicly.

These are your measure of truth and what you are held accountable to.

For example, if I take a functional contextualistic approach to writing this blog post, I would need to state clearly at the start of the article what I am trying to achieve by writing it, e.g. “Provide a clear and accessible introduction to functional contextualism and why it’s an effective philosophy for psychotherapy”.

That would be my definition of successful working in this context and therefore also my criterion of truth. As a functional contextualist, it is your responsibility to define what you want from truth, and if you want to share your journey towards truth with others, then it also requires that you share it with them.


Functional Contextualism

Our philosophy affects almost everything we do in life.

It affects how we see the world, how we interpret events, what we value, what we measure and even what we consider to be true.

Therefore, if you’re in the business of helping others, whether as a psychotherapist, counsellor, psychologist or coach, it can pay huge dividends to become aware of your philosophical assumptions, so you can ensure they are consistent with your aims as a clinician, and most conducive to helping your clients improve their quality of life.

Out of all of the philosophical systems we’ve covered in this post, functional contextualism appears to be the most effective for those working in the helping professions.

If you’re interested in adopting this worldview in your own work, here are some of the key things to keep in mind:

  1. View every action as situated in both a historical and situational context
  2. Let go of truth with a capital “T”
  3. Adopt successful working as your ultimate goal and be flexible in your approach towards achieving it
  4. Take a scientific approach to behaviour change; aim to predict and influence behaviour with precision, scope and depth
  5. State your goals clearly and publicly before you begin any analysis and use this as your criterion for truth

If you can do all five of the above, you’re well on your way to developing a highly effective philosophy for your clinical work.

Further Resources