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(Not) the essence of Richard Rorty and Steve de Shazer

Having spotted one of his books, Philosophy and Social Hope, on my brother-in-law’s bookshelf, I’ve become fascinated by the work of the American pragmatist philosopher, Richard Rorty (1931-2007). So fascinated in fact that I recently ran a 3-hour workshop, looking at connections between Rorty’s ideas and solution-focused practice. I called the workshop The Pragmatism of Useful Descriptions, and you can find the slides I used here.


To introduce Rorty, I told a story about Steve de Shazer (the more I read Rorty the more surprised I am that de Shazer didn’t make use of his work, as he did that of Wittgenstein and Derrida, for example - two of Rorty’s philosopher heroes as it happens).

In chapter 4 of his book, Words Were Originally Magic, de Shazer relates how, when he began to look at the doing of therapy, he searched for its essence, “an essence that provides a fixed stable center (sic) or foundation (that was perhaps determined ahead of time and for all time)” (p29). In particular, he searched for this by reading (“over and over”) Milton Erickson’s accounts of his clinical work, looking for “an underlying, fundamental theory upon which Erickson built his approach”.

Try as he might, de Shazer struggled to find such a theory, as “the essence was hidden away” (p30). What flummoxed him in particular was Erickson’s “idiosyncratic genius” (p31). Whatever theory de Shazer began to develop, there always appeared “odd-ball, miscellaneous cases that did not fit”. He could not view them as flukes though, or as involving arbitrary therapist activity. Erickson himself had said that he knew what he did, “but to explain how I do it is much too difficult for me” (quoted on p30). In the view of Jay Haley, another follower of Erickson, “there is no adequate theoretical framework available for describing (Erickson’s therapeutic technique)… When one examines what he actually does with a patient… traditional views do not seem appropriate”.

His quest began to seem hopeless, and de Shazer wondered if he had been missing the point. Perhaps “there was nothing hidden away and… variety and diversity were the “essence” of Erickson’s approach” (p31). In that case, there would be "no Theory, no grand design, but instead, just local, rather idiosyncratic activities” (p32).

This was the point at which de Shazer, following Wittgenstein’s advice, renounced all Theory, and abandoned his search for an underlying, fundamental theory “as an approach for looking at doing therapy”.

What did de Shazer do instead? He read Erickson differently. He stayed on the surface, avoiding reading between the lines or looking beneath the words for some hidden meaning. Furthermore, and to help in doing this, de Shazer read Erickson’s accounts of his work, not as case examples, but as stories. One result of this was that he took the distinction between “literature” and “science” less seriously.

He found that Erickson told good stories, with good plots, sub-plots, twists and turns, and with one character fully developed - Erickson himself as the therapist: “I came to see Erickson, the therapist in these stories, as the persona developed by Erickson-the-author; this persona I came to call “Erickson-the-clever”.” (p32-33).

Other characters, however, were underdeveloped, notably Erickson’s clients, so that “(w)e have little or no idea about their contributions to the therapeutic endeavour”. When de Shazer came to read his own cases from this point of view, he came to realise what clever clients he had.”Most of the ideas for “unusual interventions” in the miscellaneous pile in fact came from the clients themselves!” (p34).

These clever-clients might suggest that the therapist-in-the-story is rather stupid, and that other therapists could not learn as much from de Shazer-the-stupid as from Erickson-the-clever. However, de Shazer concluded

Maybe we all need to remember the dialogic or conversational nature of doing therapy and re-read all these stories with an interactional focus which would lead us to the idea that clever therapy depends on having clients and therapists cleverly working together in clever ways.

I like this story, of how de Shazer began to read accounts of therapy as stories and the influence this had on the way he then looked at the doing of therapy. I have read it before, perhaps more than once, but it has taken on a whole new meaning for me in the light of my reading Richard Rorty.

I will mention some, but not all, of the connections here. Their number, and diversity, mean I will have to write more than one blog post on this topic.

Rorty revived the pragmatist tradition of philosophy, which was begun in the USA by Charles Peirce, William James and John Dewey in the late 19th century, but had lost favour by the mid-20th century. One thing the pragmatists did was to challenge the dualisms of classical Greek philosophy, such as subject and object, body and soul, and, in particular, appearance and reality.

This last dualism is deeply ingrained in us - going back to the time of Plato as it does - leading us to believe that there is a way things really are, that is not immediately apparent to us. Things have essences that are hidden, so we have to distrust their outward appearances and delve deep into their underlying structure - whether these things are the physical world, ourselves and our fellow human beings, or the doing of therapy.

Descartes’ notion of the mind, as a substance separate from the material world, is based on this appearance-reality distinction and, as Wittgenstein said, this picture has “held us captive”. The metaphor in the title of Rorty’s book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, describes this well. The human mind acts as a mirror to the world outside it, and reflects this world to varying degrees of accuracy. Later, philosophers shifted their attention from the mind to language, though the central idea was the same - language is a medium through which we represent reality.

The task facing us as humans then is to use our minds and our language to penetrate behind appearance to reality - to discover the objective Truth waiting there, that was “determined ahead of time and for all time”, to use de Shazer’s words for the essence or foundation of doing therapy. And note the Truth with a capital T, just like the Theory with a capital T that de Shazer thought he should find.

Rorty and the pragmatists have challenged all of this, and put in its place a progressive alternative, just as de Shazer found a different way to approach the doing of therapy. The pragmatists begin with a Darwinian account of human beings, not separated from their environment by an ethereal mental substance that represents it, but simply doing their best to cope with this environment. This is accompanied by a different view of knowledge, which is seen as “a matter of conversation and social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature” (Philosophy & the Mirror of Nature, p171). Rather than seeing language as representing an outside and separate reality, words are seen as tools, used to deal with the world and to co-operate with our fellow human beings.

Rorty puts it beautifully in the preface to his book that first grabbed my attention, Philosophy and Social Hope. Our most distinctive and praiseworthy capacity is not, as Plato and Aristotle thought, to know things as they really are, to see the reality behind appearances. Rather, it is “our ability to trust and to cooperate with other people, and in particular to work together so as to improve the future” (pxiii).

Some of these ideas can be found in one of the essays in Philosophy and Social Hope, ‘Truth Without Correspondence to Reality’. The Solution-Focused Collective Reading Group will be discussing this at its next meeting, on Tuesday 13th October 2020, from 7pm to 8.30pm (British Summer Time). You are most welcome to join us - just email us at to let us know you’re coming, and we’ll send you the chapter.

My thanks to John Wheeler, for inviting me to present an online workshop, and to his suggestion that I focus on my philosophical interests, which led to my doing a crash course in Rorty. This blog post has provided just a taste of the results of this, and there’s more to come. I look forward to reading a lot more, and to finding more connections with solution-focused practice.

If you’re interested in these ideas, I would love to hear from you -

Guy Shennan

12th October 2020

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