A young client I have been seeing for several months who is enrolled in an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment program admitted in a session that he saw himself drinking again when he completed the program. His rationale was that he needed to know for sure whether he could drink responsibly or not and did not want to accept what he felt was being shoved down his throat through AA on authority. From my previous work with the client I knew that he was very intelligent and prone to rationalizing. On the surface his reasoning made perfect sense (it even had a certain degree of phenomenological purity I had to admire), but to be caught up in the surface sensibility of his experiment would be to miss that the client was merely disguising a rationalization in phenomenological clothing. This was not a case of intellectual or academic purity, but rather an intellectual maneuver to justify drinking. The surface statement being made was that the only way to know for certain whether I can drink responsibly or not is to test it on the most concrete level- by picking up the bottle, pouring myself a glass, and drinking it. This framework is honest and valid for a scientific experiment, but we are here dealing with a person, not an object of scientific study. Where the logic goes wrong is in wresting addiction and recovery from the murky realm of the human person and placing it in the lab of the research scientist.

If we stick with the surface, rationally pure and valid as it is, we have lost the possibility of framing the conversation therapeutically. What is important therapeutically is not the efficacy of an objective experiment, but the realm that precedes experimentation. The psychologist looks at the scientist and is curious not only about the data and methodology, but the motives of that particular scientist that led to the formulation of the research question and hypothesis to begin with. This is the data which is of importance therapeutically. In the case of this particular client the motives were quite obvious, he wanted to drink. The therapeutic aim thus became considering these motives rather than debating the efficacy of his drinking experiment.

Rollo May (1969) referred to this realm of motives in terms of intentionality which he defined as “an assertive response of the person to the structure of his world.” In our session the client was attempting to convince both of us that he was truly concerned with his experiment and its results, but when we entered the realm of intentionality it became quite obvious that this idea was not created in a vacuum, but had been formulated by a recovering addict who was not yet ready to give up a good bottle of red wine. In drawing his attention from the surface rationality of his experiment to the intentions that led him to formulate it to begin with and labeling it as primary and the experiment as secondary I was making an ontological assertion that is helpful to clarify.

The assertion being made was that reality is not formed by an objective observer, but by a self that filters, organizes, blocks, and directs perception in a way that orients it around a prior conception. This is a radical shift from a Newtonian/Cartesian worldview in which the person is understood as having senses which, when working properly, feed information into the brain. In such a paradigm the person is understood to be a passive receiver of reality. This paradigm was challenged by Immanuel Kant who claimed that we do not perceive reality as reality, but reality as it appears to us. There is a gap between what we see and what is. Parallel discoveries have been made in modern physics which have demonstrated that the observer does not objectively observe, but actually has an effect on what is being observed. The therapeutic importance of this paradigm shift is that we no longer see ourselves as passive observers, but as active participants in the reality we see. To put it another way, conception precedes perception. May (1969) offers the example of Captain Cook’s exploration of the New World in which the native tribes were unable to see Cook’s ship because they had no concept for a ship of that magnitude. What they perceived it to be is unknown, but they lacked the conceptual framework to see that what passed in front of them was in fact a ship. Understood in this light, the battle to be waged is not over surface reality, but over what the client intends to see to begin with. It does no good to argue with him over the reality he sees, this is a battle that will surely be lost. But when the framework is moved to an inquiry into intentionality the conversation shifts, becoming much more personal and much more fundamental to who the client understands himself to be. The shift is from an argument over the efficacy of his experiment, which plays into the rationalizing tendencies of an intellectual client, to a call to the practice of self-reflection and self-awareness with a commitment towards brutal honesty at what enters his awareness field. What are your motives? What is it you intend? And when you become aware of the answers to these questions can you acknowledge to yourself that this is the data which is really important to you? By making this shift the conversation moves from an intellectual or academic game to a consideration of existential motivations, questions of meaning, values, and telos (purpose). Games become much more real when one is thrust into the middle of them and the decisions and answers to be made are no longer abstract concepts, but fundamental statements as to how the client will live and orient his existence. The stakes are suddenly much higher, and in that moment the client is exposed and confronted by both the therapist and his own self-awareness. The awareness alone is not enough, with it there must be an honesty and decision to let the discovered truth hold and come to define and transform the client’s reality. The beauty is that in therapy this exposure comes in an environment that is safe with a person whose intention is not to demean or humiliate, but to call the client to something more and assist him in the process of coming to terms with what that more is.