Person-Centred Porridge

(Published in Person-Centred Practice, 6(2): 110-112, Autumn 1998)


Ivan Ellingham



Within the field of counselling/psychotherapy, certain authors with varying degrees of allegiance to the person-centred approach show signs of having over-indulged in the avant-garde porridge of ideas known as ‘postmodernism’. Individuals I have in mind in this regard are Hazel Johns (1996), John McLeod (1993) and Pete Sanders (1996). Here I am not going to attempt to explicate in any great detail what is meant by postmodernism, nor am I going to point up exactly where and how counsellor educators Johns, McLeod and Sanders gobble up too much of the postmodernist agenda--I pass on such a task as an opportunity for discovery learning. Rather my aim is simply to encourage those associated with the person-centred approach to become conversant with postmodernist ideas and to develop a critical--not an unconditionally positive--regard for them.


For if, like me, you accept Carl Rogers’ concept of a universal formative tendency as a creative principle functioning at all levels of the cosmos--body, mind, spirit, etc.--, a holistic force impelling all aspects of reality towards increased consciousness and further growth, then you can’t be a postmodernist pure and simple. Because postmodernist thinkers exercise a fundamental ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ (Lyotard, 1984, p. xxiv). They balk at overarching explanatory principles, at global theories, ‘paradigms’, that can explain everything. Rightly horrified by the atrocities perpetrated in the twentieth century by so-called civilized and superior cultures, postmodernists eschew the modernist Enlightenment faith that science and reason can bring about increasing progress for humankind in the manner implied by the concept of the formative tendency. Particularly hard for the postmodernist to stomach is the notion that knowledge possessed by one culture is any better or more advanced than that possessed by any other. In consequence, postmodernists speak of knowledge being a local phenomenon specifically generated by the narratives and discourse of the local culture. In their view, there is no overall truth beyond that of the different cultures; different understandings of reality are simply different. Which leads  postmodernists to consider the Western view of self--the ‘separate, self-contained, independent, consistent, unitary and private’ self (Wetherell & Maybin, 1996, p. 221) as presumed in person-centred theory--to be merely one notion of self, one local truth, which is different from and in no way superior to the alternative conceptions of self intrinsic to other cultures. Further, postmodernist aficionados treat the ‘different relational settings’ of the individual as akin to different cultures when they speak of each ‘one’ of us being a ‘saturated’ or ‘distributed’ self. We are not one self, they say, but a ‘number of contextual selves, the people we are in different relational settings’ (ibid.).


Now it cannot be denied that there isn’t some truth in postmodernist ideas, that its emphasis on difference in contrast to monolithic sameness is indeed a useful complement to modernist uniformity. However, in coming to terms with postmodernist ideas from a person-centred perspective I would suggest we be clear (a) that postmodernism is more an anti-modernism than a post-modernism: that without modernism it is simply the sound of one hand clapping; (b) that to assert that metanarratives should be dispensed with is itself to assert a metanarrative; (c) that belief in only local and not overall truth or knowledge leads to epistemic relativism and ultimatelynihilism--the notion that anything goes, that no counselling theory is better than any other, only different--even when produced by a Bernard Manning; (d) that growth of any kind, creative change, whether of cultures or in the counselling client, becomes difficult if not impossible to conceptualize; (e) that distinguishing between the distributed self and multiple personality disorder becomes a similarly daunting task.


Books and articles which helped clarify for me the nature of postmodernism are listed in the references below, especially that of Ernest Gellner (1992) for whom ‘ a fad which owes its appeal to its seeming novelty and genuine obscurity’, one which ‘will pass soon enough, as such fashions do’ (p. 71).




Burr, V. (1995) An Introduction to Social Constructionism. London: Routledge.

Gellner, E. (1992) Postmodernism, Reason and Religion. London: Routledge.

Held, B. (1995) Back to Reality: A Critique of Postmodern Theory in Psychotherapy. New York: Norton.

Johns, H. (1996) Personal Development in Counsellor Training. London: Cassell.

Jones, M. (1996) ‘Person-centred theory and the post-modern turn’. Person Centred Practice. Vol. 4. No. 2.

Lyotard, J-F (1984) The Postmodern Condition. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

McLeod, J. (1993) An Introduction to Counselling. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Sanders, P. (1996) First Steps in Counselling (2nd ed.). Manchester: PCCS Books.

Wetherell, M & Maybin, J. (1996) ‘The distributed self’. In R. Stevens (ed.) Understanding the Self.  London: Sage.