Year

2005

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication - Faculty of Arts

Abstract

Reason and absurdity are two processes for bringing about personal change, with very different implications for power and control in interpersonal relationships focussed on change. I approach the topic of reason and absurdity as change processes in two ways. The first is through a conceptual discussion of reason and absurdity. My main argument is that reason is limited in the degree or type of change it can lead to whereas absurdity is better placed to lead to profound change. I also make the case that reason is normally based on persuasion, power and control whereas absurdity is a means of turning dominant paradigms and power inequities on their heads. My second approach is to use psychotherapy as a case study of personal change by first providing an overview of psychotherapy as a serious activity based on reason and then discussing ways in which absurdity, particularly as humour and paradox, can be an effective form of psychotherapy. I give many examples and case vignettes of these to demonstrate the potential of absurdity for fostering profound personal change.

Since its inception in the late 19th century, modern psychotherapy has sat firmly within the science-reason paradigm. Exponents of the major psychotherapeutic orthodoxies — psychoanalysis, behaviourism, cognitive-behaviourism, and even humanistic psychology — have mostly couched their descriptions and guidelines in the language of science and rationality. Before the 1970s there was little reference in the professional literature to therapeutic humour and paradox and though interest in them has steadily increased since then it is still minimal whereas trivialisation and suspicion are common. Contemporary psychotherapeutic orthodoxy now also demands evidence-based practice; replicable, easy to teach techniques and outcomes; and accountability, with academic, professional and financial support now mostly dependent on these criteria.

In contrast, since the 1970s there has been a proliferation of psychotherapies into the several hundreds. Many of these developed in reaction to a perception that reason-based talking therapy was limited. New themes became increasingly represented through concepts of human potential, liberation, spontaneity, self-actualisation, Eastern philosophies and spirituality. A new wave of therapies reflected alternative beliefs and practices to the dominant science-reason paradigm and emphasised direct experience and profound change rather than talking about experience and change as adaptation to social expectations.

Where a person goes to therapy to make specific changes to behavioural or cognitive patterns, linear, reason-based, cognitive-behavioural techniques can be very effective. On the other hand, to produce profound or complex change, absurdity may be a better approach, bypassing habitual cognitive patterns, seeing the comic in the tragic, shocking the person into dramatically new ways of behaving and thinking. If this is so, absurdity should be seen as at least equal to reason and, in some cases, superior.

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