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Postmodern Psychology is Postcognitive:

Postmodern Psychology is Postcognitive:

Selfhood and Embodied Discourse.

Based on a paper by John Pickering & Will Barton

given at the "Persons in Society" conference

Huddersfield University, July 17th. 1995.


At the heart of modernism is science and at the heart of science is mechanism. Despite the murmurs of postmodernism that can now be heard, psychology still pursues the modernist agenda of cognitive reductionism. This draws attention towards the structure of internal mechanisms while drawing it away from structure that emerges from the interaction between individuals and their environment. It is this internal emphasis constrains psychological inquiry into the self. This constraint can now be eased as part of the shift in postmodern science. This shift is from reduction towards emergence from from scientism towards pluralism and from the mechanism of Descartes to the organicism of Whitehead (Griffin, 1988).

Postwar philosophy discloses that science is not the privileged methodological citadel that positivism had built. It is a cultural craft,a practice, with fashions, local traditions and rules of thumb (Grene, 1985; Collins & Pinch, 1993). Reactions to this condition polarise between the stout defence of the citadel by unreconstructed reductionists like Dawkins, Wolpert and Crick and the planning of airy castles of intuition by new age visionaries like Capra and Rosak. Psychology, with its central concern to emulate science, is particularly sensitive to these movements in the foundations of the scientific edifice.


Modern science followed a programme outlined in Bacon's Novum Organon. Bacon famously derided those scholars who sought knowledge of the material world from books or debate in preference to experience. Science's method relies on the generation of knowledge by induction from observation and the empirical testing of theory by experiment. Scientific method was progressively formularised by succeeding generations of practitioners and philosophers. In the nineteenth century it provided the underpinning for the great age of programmatic positivistism. For Comte and Mach, there had unfolded, from Newton to Darwin, a systematic endeavour that had progressively demysitified a universe of order and law. In consigning religion and superstition to the past, a future of unlimited enlightened progress stood revealed, based upon the provenance of empirical science and technology. The important discoveries had been made. The nature of reality, the lawful motion of matter, was laid bare. All that remained was the fine scale mapping of the territory.

At this time the leading philosophers of science were also practising scientists. Thereafter, the roles diverged, with important results. With the start of the twentieth century there came relativity and quantum mechanics. The latter especially undermined the concept of a universe which was fully describable in objectively testable terms. These developments had terminal implications for positivist philosophers of science, but these were not realised. The principle of verification remained the central conceit of logical positivism: the only truth is that guaranteed by empirical observation and resistance to experimental disproof.

That such a position could dominate English speaking philosophy for over a decade only happened because of the profound divergence between practicing scientists and philosophers. As the practice of the natural sciences came to acknowledege more and more explicitly its heuristic nature, it was only philosophers and practitioners of would be sciences such as psychology, that claimed a positivist fixity of foundation that had largely been abandoned.

Feyerabend in his "Against Method", maintains that scientists have never in fact employed the scientific method and indeed that to do so would be impossible (Feyerabend, 1975). As a matter of historical fact, he contends, science has always proceeded by a mixture of observation, rhetoric, craft, heuristics, knowhow and commonsense. Questions of truth are as much resolved by agitation and propaganda as they are by experiment.

Science's claim to objectivity has also come under attack from sociologists, environmentalists and most recently from postmodern cultural theorists. One way or another, the myth of privileged discourse, unified theories and of a uniquely reliable methodology have gone. Psychology offers a unique arena in which to observe the dissolution, and the reactionary preservation, of modernism. While positivism has collapsed elsewhere, psychology preserves it as cognitive reductionism refashions the ghost in the machine into the software in the zombie. In seeking to model their practice on modernist science, psychologists making the discipline into an ironic monument to a dead agenda.

However, postmodern science is here, and for psychology more than for other sciences, its theoretical and methodological pluralism will be liberating. It deals in chaos, emergence and self-organisation. It's process character embraces diversity, openess and the creative advance of nature. It is psychology's job to inquire into selfhood. As, the tools of cognitivism are patently inadequate, it is time they were replacedby those of postmodern science.


What are the tools of postmodern psychology to be? A strong indication here is the central position given to Whitehead, Bohm and other process philosophers in discussions of postmodern science (Griffin, 1988). Whitehead, in reacting to the positivism of his day, urged that science treat nature as an organic process rather than as a mechanism. Now, the mechanistic approach of cognitivism emphasises structure over process, information over meaning and rationality over feeling. Mental life must be decontextualised from such mere contingencies before it may be properly understood (Gardner, 1985, pg. 6). Once decontextualised, a unified theory of mental life can be formalised (Newell, 1991).

But Whitehead's views, the metaphysical basis of postmodern science, promote a different style of psychological inquiry. Here process, meaning and feeling are primary (Langer, 1988). Bruner notes how the original impulse behind the cognitive revolution of the 1950's, namely, to inquire into cultural meanings, has been hijacked by an empty computational metaphor (Bruner, 1990). He recommends that psychological inquiry start from the assumption that the motor of mental life is an effort after meaning. This effort is charged with feeling and cannot be usefully considered apart from the cultural context in which the effort occurs.

Now selfhood is both the condition of making this effort and the product of it. It is a process occuring within a system of many levels of order: physical, biological, psychological and cultural. Indeed, selfhood integrates these different levels since it is the means by which meaning flows from one level of the system to another. Bohm, taking a Whiteheadian line, places the exchange of meaning at the heart of his new perspective on the mind body relationship (Bohm, 1990).

Trying to isolate these 'mechanisms' and to take them apart in order to see how they work, is a reductive blunder. Cognition, as Bohm presents it, is part of an organic system integrated by the interchange of meaning. This interchange, which dialectically causes and is caused by selfhood, has emergent causal dynamics which are quite independent of how decontextualised cognitive mechanisms may appear to work. In the human case, these dynamics are strongly influenced by cultural objects and practices. While there are bound to be constraints in both directions, cognitive mechanisms are produced by culture rather than the other way around. As Lotman says: "Thought is in us, but we are within thought ...." (Lotman, 1990, page 273). Lotman's semiotic treatment of culture demonstrates a maxim from ecological psychology, which can be paraphrased as: "Don't look at what's going on inside the head, look at what the head's going on inside of." (Mace, 1977) .

A new psychology of selhood is taking shape which emphasises relation, process, meaning. The basis of this inquiry is Whitehead's organicism rather than Descartes' mechanism. For Whitehead, Western science and philosophy have been progressively misdirected and unbalanced by the initial success of the mechanistic world view. Whitehead's critique applied, mutatis, to psychology, clearly resembles recent critiques of cognitive reductionism (Valsiner, 1991; Edelman, 1992). It is necessary to change the ontological basis of psychological inquiry into selfhood. Instead of concentrating on internal cognitive mechanisms alone, postmodern psychology will deal with the process of selfhood in which cognition participates. There can be no unified theory of selfhood. It cannot be exclusively identified with any particular level of the system, such as brain function or cognitive mechanisms (Sperry, 1994).

To summarise: postmodern psychology is postcognitive. It begins by recognising that the motor of mental life is an effort after meaning. Selfhood is the condition of making this effort and is also the product of it. Selfhood is not a structure but a processes, distributed through and supported by a system of biological, psychological and cultural levels of order. No level in this system has explanatory priority. Selfhood clearly involves cognitive mechanisms, but these are necessary, not sufficient preconditions of selfhood. Cognitive mechanisms are permissive, but not consitutive, that is, while they permit the process of selfhood to emerge they are not any more fundamental to selfhood than other levels of the system.

Such an approach has much in common with other postcognitive reformulations of psychology (Harre & Gillet, 1994) and with those seeking to replace the mechanistic underpinnings of science and technology (Thelen & Smith, 1994; Checkland, 1981). Following Mead and Vygotsky, it is proposed that cultural practices produce cognitive competence, not vice versa. Following discursive psychology and social contructivism, it is also proposed that the cognitive underpinnings of self awareness emerge from discourse. This discourse, however, needs to be more broadly contextualised than it presently is, as the next section proposes.


Harre & Gillett propose replacing the material world with discourse as the subject matter for psychology. In our view this is merely the substitution of one monolith for another. Postmodernism is about double coding, adding and re-framing, not about denying, subtracting or replacing. It does not contradict experimental science, merely holds it in equal value with other Weltanschaungen. Equally, to concentrate on discourse and to underplay the biological, technological and sociological practices that support it, is to miss the opportunity to create a truly pluralist science.

To say that something is socially constructed is not to deny its materiality. Not the stuff of, but the boundaries in the world are the products of discourse. Edges, categories, etc are negotiated. Social constructionism does not assert that materiality cannot be experienced, still less that it does not exist, but only that categories, individuals, etc are conventional, not objectively grounded in natural kinds.

To assert that the division of the world is arbitrary is not to assert that it is unmotivated. The individual person - one body coextensive with the surface of the skin, one mind, one ego, one self - is arbitrary. Any number of other descriptions are possible and at least three - the genetic, the cellular and the social would surely make as much sense to any non human intelligence. The individual, like the self, like everything of which we speak, is created in use.

Individuality, the self as separate and independent is culturally parochial. The modernist discourse of the industrialised world elevates the self above the collective and isolates the subject to a degree greater than any other culture and any previous period in history. It rests on what McPherson (1962) calls the theory of possessive individualism. This modernist self is fixed, consistent and unitary. Each of us has one "true" self and to deny it or behave counter to its "nature" is dishonest and hypocritical. The unity and consistency of the self is political. We recognise people by their bodies and we expect their behaviour and personality to be consistent. When it isn't we may say "She didn't seem herself". A single, continuing self is a requirement of legal systems and hierarchies of power. Although praise and censure can be used to motivate, formal systems of coercion, control, reward and punishment such as wages or imprisonment are physical.

The body is the substrate for the social construction of the self. The constructed self is grounded in the physicality and directedness of the body. Awareness of self arises dialectically with awareness of the other. The awareness is derivative from the dawning awareness of discourse; but the self is defined as a continuing subjectivity linked irreducibly to a body. The point of view of that subjectivity is parasitic upon the structure, position and posture of the body and its organs of perception and action.

Selves are directed because they are embodied. Vertebrate bodies, being tubes, are inherently directional - they go towards food and away from excrement, which is why mouths are at the front and anuses at the rear. Selves are teleological - our activities are goal-directed in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. While there are disembodied intellectual pleasures, these only come into consideration when the body is satisfied, as Maslow pointed out. Even then, they are mediated by the body. This goal directed activity was identified by Freud as the pleasure principle. If the effort after meaning is the motor of mental life, then the pleasure principle is the fuel. In consequence, we assert that the science of the self is not only about meaning but also how that meaning is embodied. As selfhood is essentially a condition of plurality, the science of selfhood must reflect this.


The rhetoric of unified theories and priviledged levels of explanation, part of what Rorty calls 'foundationalism', has to be relinquished (Rorty,1979). The image of finalised, consensual knowledge is replaced by a fundamentally provisional, 'continual conversational' that is the postmodern condition of Western intellectual culture, including scientific psychology. This process is literally interminable, in the best and most productive of senses. It is a reflection of the free play of signification that Baudrillard identifies with the unprecedented mobility of meaning and value in postmodern culture (Kellner, 1989).

Thus when Harre & Gillet present discursive psychology as the 'culmination' of a program begun by, among others, Mead and Vygotsky (Harre & Gillet, 1994, page viii), we encounter a appropriately postmodern irony. Discursive psychology is obviously well suited to take part in Roty's provisional, 'continuing conversation'. Therefore, however, it cannot be a 'culmination' since to culminate is to stop. To elevate discursive psychology to the priviledged status that was previously held by cognitivism is to persist in foundationalism.

Pluralism is to not just to accept that 'different views are possible' but to accept that different views are simultaneously valid. Thus embodied discourse could be approached as a matter of social conventions, linguistic rules, neuropsychological functions and so on. The way ahead is to approach it at all these levels at once. Thus, discourse is made possible because of the biological, psychological and cultural systems in which it is embodied. While it has its own dynamics and structure, it also reflects those of other systems to which it is intimately bound. Discourse per se cannot be taken as a final or priviledged perspective on mental life. Discourse needs to be treated by as many approaches as possible, in parallel, to best understand how it is embodied and situated in all the systems that carry psychological life.

Discursive psychology thus cannot stand alone. In particular, it will need to take a more structured account of biology and culture. For example, Burkitt (1994) draws attention to the bodily practices in which the self is embedded. He points to what semiotic theorists of culture call 'social habitus'. This is the set of body-scaled objects, tools, actions and practices which regulate the way human beings live their lives. This term, as Burkitt uses it, applies primarily to socially constructed conditions, such as are created by social class and cultural norms. In fact, more recent treatments broaden this concept to include the material support for human culture as a whole and the role it has played in recent human evolution (Kingdon, 1993, ch. 1; Sinha, 1988).

Taking this broader view, discourse should be treated as embodied in an dense historical web, not only of cultural evolution, that produces the objects and practices of social habitus, but also of biological evolution, that produces the structures of body and brain, to which these practices are geared. Under this view, selfhood is seen as embodied in the deeper sense that Neisser has proposed, depending on knowledge of fundamentally different types (Neisser, 1988). A pluralist mind science will not single out a particular type as fundamental, such as internal mental structure or discourse.

A systems approach is required, especially when we consider the development of selfhood (Thelen & Smith, 1994). One that accept diversity and historical causality as fundamental. Here, the productive lines of advance are set out in the work of Bateson, Maturana and Bohm, all of whom share a concern with the ecology of meaning and communication (Bateson, 1980; Maturana & Varela, 1992; Bohm, 1990).


Pluralism is practice, not just a slogan. The search for unitary theories is part of the fading enlightenment project. Postmodern science is interdisciplinary as well as theoretically and methodologically pluralist. Thus postmodern psychology deals not with a single vison but with a kalidoscope of perspectives. Embodiment, as something whose proper treatment requires that it be studied in parallel by a number of different techniques, is a paradigmatic issue for this new science. Psychological inquiry into selfhood cannot rest on just one theoretical perspective. It will treat embodiment and discourse together to disclose more accurately how the cultural is embedded in the biological. In doing so many of the positivist practices and values implicit in contemporary Western psychology will need to be revised and incorporated with new traditions or, in most cases perhaps, abandoned.

Psychologists who have too much invested in their discipline being exclusively as a positivist science, are made uncomfortable by such things as phenomenology, discursive psychology or social constructivism. It is an ironic complementarity that the more radical constructivists occasionally appear to find biology irrelevant. We propose and defend a free market in ideas. Let everyone set out their stall and see who buys what. Those who seek to restrict access to the market in the interests of academic correctness need to be asked what the problem is and who's got it.

Because psychology is a profession as well as a discipline, it cannot be value free; it can be used to heal or to torture. Anything that predicts or influences selfhood places a serious ethical burden on practitioners. Bohm maintains that postmodern science " .... should not separate matter and consciousness and should not therefore separate facts, meaning and value" (Bohm, 1988). A postmodern psychology that blends traditions, that recognises the interdependence of psychological life and that dissolves the modernist cordon sanitaire between facts and values will be better placed to recognise this and engage with it.


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