Spencer McWilliamsSpencer A. McWilliams, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at California State University San Marcos, where he has twice received the psychology students’ Distinguished Professor of the Year Award.  He is the current President of the Constructivist Psychology Network (2012-2014), and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Constructivist Psychology.  Dr. McWilliams received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester and is a past director of the Clinical Psychology Doctoral Training Program at the University of Arizona.  He has been an actively participant in the Personal Construct Psychology international community since 1979.  He is the author of more than 60 journal articles and chapters and has applied constructivist psychology to such topics as mindfulness and Buddhist psychology, pragmatism, human agency, semantics, comprehensive knowledge, liberal education, creative photography, and the use of political and religious metaphors such as idolatry and anarchy to appreciate our active role in creating knowledge.

Dr. McWilliams, President of the Constructivist Psychology Network (CPN), will be presenting a Presidential Address on Shaking the Very Foundation: The Seduction of Certainty vs. the Menace of Meaning-Making.

Keynote Abstract: Meaning-making approaches assume that humans create knowledge in ever-changing contexts.  Their critics, however, adhere to a meaning-given perspective that nature comes with its own innate truths to which real knowledge must correspond.  Despite demonstrated incoherence of this position, it remains dominant in Western society, psychology, and the Newtonian model of science rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The notion that humans make meaning may threaten the core beliefs and deepest intuitions of those who maintain this foundationalist view.  Advancing meaning-making perspectives might benefit from appealing to those who seek alternative views through contemporary pragmatist outlooks on human agency and a process metaphysics that views phenomena as interrelated events rather than fixed entities.

Longer Version of the Abstract: Given the compelling strength of theory, research, and practice supporting our enthusiasm for meaning-making as the basis of our view of psychology, why do we remain at the fringes of our field rather than epitomizing the mainstream?  Most meaning-making approaches to psychology (e.g., existentialism, constructivism, hermeneutics, narrative) rest on an assumption that humans create knowledge in ever-changing contexts, rather than the more widely-held view that nature reveals to us its own innate, foundational “way that it is” which confers meaning to us.  Despite many effective arguments that favor the meaning-making position and demonstrate the incoherence of the notion that knowledge could correspond to independent, eternal truths, the foundationalist perspective remains dominant in Western psychology, much of science, and society in general, with deep roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition and classical science such as Newtonian physics.  Mental health professionals might view these concerns as abstract philosophical issues irrelevant to their work with clients, but how people understand the universe and their knowledge has significant implications for psychological well-being.  We might usefully understand individuals’ choices between these two views as based on intuition or temperament, and reflecting deeply held core beliefs that determine whether one accepts dominant discourses or seeks alternatives.  Acknowledging the human desire for certainty and realizing how threatening many people experience the post-modern alternative might inform our response to our critics. Advancing and fostering a meaning-based agenda might then benefit from furthering techniques to appeal to those seeking alternatives.  Two approaches might assist us in that appeal. First, we might reaffirm the value of American pragmatist philosophy, often seen as the foundation of constructivist psychology, demonstrating its current relevance, by considering second and third generation contemporary pragmatists who emphasize the active role of human agency in knowledge creation.  Second, we might actively embrace a process view of ontology that understands phenomena in terms of interrelated, changing, relationships rather than a container of fixed entities with innate permanent characteristics.  These perspectives might enable us to evade or reduce conflict and threat by offering an alternative posture toward the human situation based on asking “what should we do here and now” rather than “what is the eternal truth.”

Learning Objectives:

Learning Objectives:

Participants will be able to

  1. Elucidate the difference between realist/foundationalist and postmodern/constructivist views of the nature of phenomenal experience and human knowledge
  2. Explain reasons why adherents of each of these perspectives find them attractive and feel threatened by the alternative view
  3. Describe the central elements of a processual view of reality and ontology and how it differs from a substance/container view.
  4. Describe the fundamental components of a pragmatist perspective on human knowledge
  5. Appreciate the implications of these perspectives for enhancing human well-being