The Problem of Perspective

Talk given to the Philadelphia Association, London, 4th December 1998

Psychotherapists and counsellors and their clients – we – have a problem which I don’t think we’ve ever managed to solve even nearly satisfactorily. It’s a problem which lies at the very heart of the whole undertaking of psychotherapy, and which – as far as our passions ever are aroused – in my experience arouses our passions like no other.

Put at its most basic (and at the same time, I think, its most superficial) this is the problem of how far people – in particular, of course, the people we call patients or clients – are responsible for their actions, or may be held so for the purposes of therapeutic change.

Change, of course, is the name of our game. Clients come to therapists expecting to find relief from painful aspects of their lives. Therapists and counsellors, even if only tacitly, lay claim to expertise in bringing the desired changes about. But in the process of making that claim, they do not typically absolve the client from personal involvement in the business of change. Clients are expected to ‘take responsibility’ for adjusting their conduct in accordance with the insights which therapy affords.

Now let me say straight away that I do believe this is, in essence, perfectly reasonable and quite right. I do not believe, however, that we understand at all well in what respects it is reasonable and right, and all too easily we drift off into notions of change and responsibility which are far from right and reasonable, and frequently place colossal burdens on all concerned, therapists as well as clients. But particularly clients. Suggesting to people, however indirectly, that they are ‘to blame’ for their own difficulties does them no favours at all.

Consider for a moment the following propositions:-

1. It’s no good just telling people to pull themselves together

2. People have free will: we are not the mere playthings of fate

3. In the last analysis it’s up to the individual to effect change

4. To a great extent we are the products of our past and present environment

5. Intellectual insight does not bring about change

Now I think these are by and large statements with which most therapists and counsellors would agree, even if with some reservations. In fact I could probably think of quite a few more of such statements, but these will do for the purposes of illustration.

Our difficulty is that, even superficially, these statements are inconsistent with each other, as is suggested in the table below ('+' indicates concordance, '-' discordance). Many would say perhaps that the inconsistencies are indeed superficial, and that they can be resolved at a deeper level. But I’m not sure about that: in my view, the deeper you go, the more inconsistent they get. But we can’t just jettison some or all of them; for the therapeutic undertaking to be viable, these mutually inconsistent propositions are ones with which we have to agree.

Common therapeutic assumptions





1 You can’t ‘pull yourself together’

- - + +

2 People have free will

+ - -

3 Only you can do it

- -

4 We are shaped by the environment


5 Intellectual insight is not enough

When it comes to trying to give an account of motivation and change, then, we are liable to find ourselves in quite a muddle. This muddle, I believe, is evident right from the beginnings of what we think of as psychotherapy, and is nowhere more evident than in the writings of Freud himself.

When considering the issues surrounding ‘responsibility’ and change, Freud seems to be struggling to square the circle created by a) his observations of his patients, b) the dictates of his scientific assumptions and aspirations, c) largely unstated moral beliefs about freedom, and d) the promptings of a somewhat reactionary political stance.

Freud was of course always at pains to invoke the authority of ‘science’ for his position and it was doubtless his scientific aspirations which led him to develop the notion of ‘psychic determinism’ as a means of rendering human conduct amenable to the technical operations of psychoanalysis. But the result seems to me to be merely cosmetic – i.e. giving just an appearance of ‘scientificness’. In fact, ‘psychic determinism’ seems to mean little more than the shifting of culturally everyday ideas about blame and responsibility and the operation of will power from one mental sphere (the conscious) to another (the unconscious). For example, modestly claiming ‘a triumph for the interpretative art of psychoanalysis’ in revealing the origin of ‘parapraxes’ such as slips of the tongue, etc., Freud wrote that such events were ‘strictly determined’ and ‘revealed as an expression of the subject’s suppressed intentions’ or ‘a clash between two intentions, one of which was permanently or temporarily unconscious’ (1). All that seems to have happened here, however, is that Freud has transferred the processes of will from the conscious to the unconscious mind; ‘unconscious mental acts’ come about in exactly the same way as conscious ones, apart, of course, from the individual’s not knowing about them. For example, in another place(2) Freud writes that:-

Even if a man has repressed his evil impulses into the unconscious and would like to tell himself afterwards that he is not responsible for them, he is nevertheless bound to be aware of this responsibility as a sense of guilt whose basis is unknown to him.

At every point here Freud’s language fudges the issue of whether people are or are not responsible for their actions. Instead offering an objective analysis of the working on individuals of powers beyond their control which might lead to a compassionate solidarity with them, Freud casts his account in terms of ‘evil impulses’ for which ‘we like to tell [our]selves afterwards that [we] are not responsible’. This carries undertones of the kind of moral bigotry which likes to make rape victims complicit in the crime which has been perpetrated upon them. Indeed, this is moralism with knobs on: the individual is placed in a kind of moral double-Nelson. Not only are we to be held responsible for our conduct, but we are also guilty of ‘repressing’ knowledge of that responsibility so that it has to be elucidated for us by a professional expert (the analyst) before we have an opportunity for atonement.

The kind of social philosophy which underlay Freud’s moralism is all too clear, and expressed quite unashamedly in his The Future of an Illusion. It’s all a question of ignorant masses and enlightened leaders. The masses, he writes:-

are lazy and unintelligent; they have no love for instinctual renunciation, and they are not to be convinced by argument of its inevitability; and the individuals composing them support one another in giving free reign to their indiscipline. It is only through the influence of individuals who can set an example and whom masses recognize as their leaders that they can be induced to perform the work and undergo the renunciations on which the existence of civilization depends. All is well if these leaders are persons who possess superior insight into the necessities of life and who have risen to the height of mastering their own instinctual wishes. There is a danger that in order not to lose their influence they may give way to the mass more than it gives way to them, and it therefore seems necessary that they shall be independent of the mass by having means to power at their disposal. To put it briefly, there are two widespread human characteristics which are responsible for the fact that the regulations of civilization can only be maintained by a certain degree of coercion – namely, that men are not spontaneously fond of work and that arguments are of no avail against their passions.(3)

Insofar as it’s possible to summarize Freud’s position on the question of responsibility, one might do so as follows:-

a) Psychological distress arises from the desires and fantasies of individual sufferers themselves (and not from the injuries inflicted by a material social environment)

b) Although such desires and fantasies are largely unconscious, the rules of conventional morality still apply: people are ‘responsible’ for their distress, and guilt over its causes is not inappropriate, even if the way to expiation is only likely to be found through engagement in the formal process of psychoanalysis.

c) The functioning of civilization requires that for the mass of ordinary people some kind of disciplinary procedure is necessary if their natural inclination to indolence and anti-social conduct is to be contained. In contrast to the illusory and increasingly discredited rules and dogmas of religion, psychology offers the scientific means of achieving this discipline.

Now if this isn’t muddled, I don’t know what is. In many ways of course things have moved on quite a bit since Freud’s time, and my point is not to castigate Freud specifically, but to use his writing as an example of the kind of muddle we still get ourselves into. What these passages of Freud’s demonstrate very clearly, I think, is that, in trying to understand motivation and ‘responsibility’, we are influenced by a range of factors which tend almost inevitably to lead us in conflicting directions. These factors may be summarized as:-

1. Scientific assumptions - e.g. human behaviour is lawful and predictable

2. Empirical observation - e.g. people can't change at will

3. Moral inclination - e.g. human beings have free will

4. Interest - e.g. therapists need to make a living

Now these different spheres of influence are of course not as neatly separable from each other as they look, and interact with each other in complex ways. But let me for the sake of argument speak about them for a moment as if they were more rather than less independent of each other.

It is not necessary for psychotherapeutic theorists to subscribe to scientific assumptions about human conduct, but most probably do, and most would want to feel able to make something approaching general statements about how people’s psychology is formed and to be able to predict the outcomes of certain particular kinds of circumstances in people’s backgrounds, and so on. If every person was a unique and entirely unpredictable mystery it would be virtually impossible to write anything sensible about the process of psychotherapy. In practice, this means, I think, that there is a substantial part in most of us that believes in – though probably not determined – at least predictable regularities in human conduct which are out of reach of, so to speak, the whim of people themselves to control.

This kind of assumption is supported by the observation – which we needn’t shy away from calling a scientific observation – that people indeed cannot control their conduct at whim, and that for this reason it is quite pointless to instruct them to pull themselves together when in the grip of impulses which lead them into difficulties which they are as anxious as anyone else to avoid.

Our scientific inclinations will furthermore be strengthened precisely by the observation of regularities in the stories people tell us. The phenomena of distress have a history within the individual which, when enquired into, starts to make sense of the predicament they find themselves in. What’s more, once you’ve spoken to a few dozen people, it starts to become apparent that similar histories often lead to similar predicaments, and so we are encouraged to begin to construct for ourselves a theory or a set of explanatory models for the development of distress which will help us in our work with clients yet to come.

Were it just left to our heads and our actual experience of clients’ histories, then, we might well find ourselves being led in the direction of a fairly deterministic account of people’s problems. But this is where the other influences upon us come in.

For reasons which it may not be too fruitful to speculate about, psychotherapists and counsellors – apart, that is, from the behavioural branch – have a kind of natural antipathy for hard-nosed scientific methods and assumptions, and the idea that human beings’ behaviour is rigidly determined, and hence possibly predictable and controllable by experts, is not only repugnant but seems to contradict one’s own personal experience of self. It is nobody’s – probably I should say almost nobody’s – experience that they don’t have free will. Intuitively, there is something morally sound and decent – certainly appealing to the heart if not the head – in the conviction that in some very fundamental respects human beings are in control of their own fate. Such a belief would seem to be supported by all that is noble and uplifting in the culture and history and spiritual development of the species. We would also – rightly – be very suspicious of anyone who invoked determinism as an excuse for their actions. Any such statement as ‘I killed her because I had an unhappy childhood’ reeks so strongly of bad faith that in itself it seems to provide an argument against determinism.

At the very heart of the psychotherapeutic enterprise, then, there lies the moral conviction that people have free will. The interesting thing about this conviction is that it’s rarely if ever explicitly stated, probably because it conflicts with other important assumptions such as people not being able to pull themselves together, and when it crops up it tends to do so awkwardly – rather as it does in Freud’s ideas about ‘psychic determinism’ – as a sudden demand on individuals to abandon their ‘dependency’ on the therapist and reach instead for their own bootstraps. If no other explanation can be found for someone’s failure to change, it comes down to some form of ‘resistance’ for which s/he is responsible.

But if our moral conviction tends to conflict with our scientific assumptions and observations, it tends to chime in rather conveniently with our interests.

It has never been fashionable to invoke the interests of the therapist as an important contributor to the formation of therapeutic theory. Indeed, the whole question of interest (in a straightforward material sense) as an important ‘motivator’ has, in my view amazingly, scarcely figured in psychology as a whole. And this despite the fact that the easiest and most obvious way of controlling and predicting human behaviour is to acquire power over people’s access to the basics of material existence. Psychologists seem to be completely in the dark about factors which are blindingly obvious to the rest of the world (especially, of course, to politicians).

The situation of the therapist provides us with a good case in point. What a therapist believes about the nature of change will be conditioned by the implicit claim which every therapist makes to be able to improve people’s lot – or, in a slightly weaker form, to be able to help people to improve their lot. To claim any less than this (as some psychoanalysts sometimes do) – for example that therapy is not about change, but merely understanding – is to drift towards an almost Calvinistic view of predestination, and one unlikely to pull in customers in any great number.

On the whole, the therapist has to believe that change is possible through the process of therapy, for if it is not, then there can be no justification for the professional practice of therapy. With this fundamental constraint on the freedom of their thought, therapists tend to waver between the two poles of the freedom-determinism issue: at one change is seen as the result of a rigid cause-and-effect process initiated technically by the therapist, at the other it is seen as the outcome of the individual client’s will, probably following on the acquisition of therapeutically provided insight. Both these extreme positions of course exist, but neither is supported particularly convincingly by the evidence: the vast research effort that has taken place in psychotherapy and counselling in the second half of this century gives virtually no indication that the application of technique is important to therapeutic outcome, nor is there any support for the idea that individuals can change course at will having once seen the desirability of doing so.

The argument that somehow the answer lies in a compromise somewhere between these two extreme positions doesn't really seem to me to resolve the difficulty, and takes us straight back to what might be called the counsellors’ conflict and the typically muddled fudging of the issue which, though it appeals to the heart and protects the wallet, leaves the intellect far from satisfied.

Now I think there is a way out of this fudged position which a) reconciles our heads with our hearts and b) allows those who want to and need to to continue with honour in the practice of psychotherapy. It is, furthermore, a way which nudges us in a satisfactorily scientific direction: that is to say, a direction which places human beings alongside rather than apart from the rest of creation, acknowledging our moral status while at the same time recognizing that we are subject to the same natural order as all the other phenomena, animate and inanimate, upon which we bring to bear our scientific gaze. Two concepts are fundamental to the approach I am advocating: power and perspective.


It would help us, I think, in our psychological work if we discarded the notion of will and replaced it with that of power. ‘Will’ is a handy concept to use in all sorts of situations, but as a thing it does not exist and it can be invoked neither as a potential cause nor as an explanation of anything. There is within us no reservoir of will which can when all else fails be called upon to effect change. The fruitlessness of exhortations to pull oneself together is indeed an entirely accurate observation. Nor can we validly explain otherwise awkward aspects of someone’s conduct by resort to ‘will’ (for example in the form of ‘resistance’), for there is no thing corresponding to the word lurking somewhere inside the person.

There are, on the other hand, such things as powers which enable us to do things. Powers are for the most part made available to us from outside, that is to say from the social environment. Let me give a quick and very sketchy indication of the kind of thing I mean.

Terrain of proximal powers
Terrain of proximal powers(4)

The figure is intended as a rough indication of the kinds of powers and resources which may be available to the individual in his or her social environment (in a negative sense they may act as liabilities as well as assets - for a somewhat fuller account of this approach click here.)

Understanding someone’s predicament thus becomes a matter of analysing what powers are bearing down upon them to maintain their position in the world and what powers are available to them to alter that position. This constitutes of course a very radical switch in the usual direction of therapeutic attention – from the inside to the outside, from what people are responsible for to what their environment, past and present, permits them to do. From the scientific point of view, this seems all to the good, and accords well with our experience of people as shaped by their social environments and our observation that very often people simply cannot change even though they wish to do so with all their heart. On the other hand, there seems something morally repugnant about this view: does it not suggest that people are the mere puppets of fate, ignoring our conviction that very often we can choose to do or not to do things? Does it not open the door to people using adverse circumstances as an excuse for, for example, the kind of laziness and greed which so alarmed Freud about the masses?

Well actually I don’t think it does. I think it is possible to translate just about every statement using or implying the term ‘will’ into a statement referring to available powers and resources. But there is a problem which needs addressing if my case is to be made more persuasive, and that is the problem of our personal experience of willing, of the feeling which accompanies our ‘willed’ conduct. I need to appeal to hearts as well as to heads. And this is where perspective comes in.


There are two important perspectives on human action: a) that of the actor and b) that of the social community in which s/he acts. The actor knows from the inside what it feels like to act, while the community may observe the wider context in which the action takes place. Both perspectives or standpoints in fact involve observation, but they are not in our everyday thinking – in popular culture, so to speak – always seen that way. It is frequently felt that being the actor, knowing action from the inside, gives one a specially privileged view of things which is fundamentally more accurate than that of a mere observer. The individual is in this way often seen as the ultimate authority on the question of the motivation of his or her own actions.

The scientific approach has always tended to contest this popular view, privileging the viewpoint of the observer above that of the individual actor. Hence Freud’s claims for psychic determinism, or behaviourism’s banishment of all things mental from scientific explanation. But the scientific viewpoint has not managed to establish itself in therapeutic psychology, principally because it offends our subjective conviction of freedom and appears to attempt to put the observer on a morally superior plane to that of the people observed, able to tell things about them which they cannot say for themselves.

And yet, I think, when it comes to giving an accurate account of the reasons for someone’s conduct, in essence the scientific approach is potentiallythe more correct of the two. That is to say, an explanation based on observations made from within the individual’s community stands a greater chance of being correct than one based on observations made from within the individual him or herself. Of course, the accuracy of an observation is in no way assured merely by its having been made from within a certain perspective: ‘psychic determinism’ as well as behavioural theory are both wildly inaccurate.

The difficulty we have in countenancing the greater potential validity of an external perspective stems in my view from the conviction carried by our subjective perspective. The problem is that while being the person who acts is a) an extremely misleading position from which to establish the reasons for action, it is b) one which carries with it a virtually irresistible conviction of truth. Perhaps I should say a bit more about each of these propositions.

Short horizon

The principal reason why persons themselves are not particularly reliable witnesses to the reasons for their own actions is that their perspective is in fact very limited – their view out into their social environment is characterized by a very short horizon, more or less restricted to those proximal events and experiences which are or have been, so to speak, right up against their skin. The figure below suggests how the individual's view of the powers which shape his or her experience become increasingly obscure the more distant they are from him or her

Personal Perspective
'Power Horizon' from the personal perspective

The direct experience of power – its impress on our bodies through the mediation of those we encounter in our daily lives – carries with it colossal authority. Paradoxically, it is precisely these influences which are probably the least important when it comes to formulating an explanation of why we do what we do: we are all in the grip of influences far more powerful than those we are personally acquainted with. For example, you are likely to experience your boss as far more powerful and influential than s/he really is, and to be almost unaware of the institutional structures which determine his/her conduct towards you. Similarly, parents are endowed by infants with almost supernatural powers which even seventy-year-old ‘children’ very often have a struggle to see through.

I think quite a few ‘psychological’ constructs become easier to get one’s head round once one begins to take into account the essentially limited depth of the average person’s ‘power horizon’. Even the notion of ‘the unconscious’ can be understood in this way: one may be unable to see into the reasons for one’s conduct not so much because one has in some way (almost wilfully) repressed them, but because they are quite literally caused by factors beyond the limits of one’s field of view. This would be particularly true of small children, whose power horizons are extremely short, and actual experience of power correspondingly impressive – they are likely to make numerous, and very significant, mistakes about the reasons for what happens to them. Some of these mistakes may become so deeply embodied (so profoundly impressed) that they are never able to shake them off.

Irresistible subjectivity

It is this same irresistibility of immediate experience, I think, which accounts for our conviction in our own power to exert our will upon the world. For we do not just act as others act, we feel our actions, and we cannot but conclude – so powerful is the impression – that the embodied sensation of action is actually its cause. This is why we find it intuitively far easier to think of the behaviour of others as determined whereas our own is somehow free (we tend to account for the actions of others in terms of externally driven ‘motivation’, our own in terms of intentions). We can more readily observe the pushes and pulls exerted on others from the environment, whereas much more vivid for ourselves is the sensation of doing things.

However constrained – even determined – our own conduct may be, it is extremely difficult to feel it as anything other than of our own creation. This makes it very difficult for us to attribute the causes of our own conduct to their proper sources, and renders us very easy prey to pomposity, conceit and hubris. It also – more importantly from the psychotherapeutic point of view – quickly brings to bear upon us the self-conscious spotlights of guilt and anxiety. When things go well we falsely credit ourselves with virtue, when they go badly we wrongly torment ourselves with blame.

It is essential to note that this – often misleading – sense of personal responsibility is not one from which it is possible to opt out. We cannot but be the agents of the powers and influences we mediate, and we cannot but experience ourselves as such. As soon as we attempt to opt out of this sense of responsibility, to plead helplessness in the face of powers over which we have no control, we opt into either insanity or rank bad faith. (The morning I write this I read in the paper of Toscanini’s once having tried to justify assault on a fellow musician by claiming to have been ‘in the grip of genius’!)

So where does this leave us? Can we no longer attribute responsibility and blame? Does the human being simply disappear in the play of environmental powers and influences? Must we succumb to a hopeless fatalism?

Changing our perspective doesn’t change our experience, nor alter what we can and cannot do. It simply accounts for these things in a new, and, I think, psychologically more fruitful, way. As individuals we are the self-conscious focus, the intersection in social space, of a highly complex network of social powers. We are a little like neurones in a complex nervous system which have become self-conscious. We transmit rather than originate power, but we feel it as our own. It is still true, though, that system couldn’t work without us (collectively, that is; sadly, it can still work fine without me or you).

We may perhaps usefully be said to ‘have’ some of the powers which are transmitted to us, and we may be expected – even required by law - to use them in appropriate circumstances. There is no harm, in such circumstances, in talking about ‘will’. But if we really want to understand what makes it possible for us to act in some circumstances and what impedes our actions in others, we will need to take a wider perspective than merely that of what, as individuals, we can feel and see. The attribution of responsibility and blame are ways through which influence is brought to bear and in no way explanations.

We have freedoms – some of us more, some less – but they are not really freedoms of our own choosing – they are afforded us by the social environment. Those of us having quite a few may perhaps usefully discuss with a psychotherapist how best they may be deployed. Those of us having hardly any may find this a less useful undertaking. If we really want to improve our lot, I suggest we shall need to pay more attention to the world we live in than to our own interior ‘psychology’.

Insofar as psychology is successful as a science in present-day society, it is so principally as a kind of unofficial science of manipulation. The ‘best’ psychologists are thus those who understand that, owing to the immediacy of their embodied experience, people are easily persuadable that they are responsible for the adverse circumstances of their lives. The cunning politician (of which, alas, there appears these days to be no other kind) knows the irresistibility of the proximal. Even while smoothing the path for distal powers which operate to the advantage of the interest groups they represent, politicians will insist on the personal responsibility for their lot of those they damage. It is time, I think, that ‘official’ psychology at least caught up with that degree of sophistication.

David Smail
London, December 1998

(1) From the first of Freud's 'Two Encyclopaedia Articles' in Vol 15 of The Pelican Freud Library - Historical and Expository Works on Psychoanalysis, pp 136-7.

(2) Freud, S. 1973. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Vol I, p. 374. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

(3) S. Freud. The Future of an Illusion, originally published 1927.

(4) Hagan, T. & Smail, D. (1997) Power-mapping - I. Background and basic methodology. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 7, 257-267.

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