How can we understand human functioning? Through facts? Feelings? Something else?
Philosophy, theology, literature, ethics, and other disciplines have their own methodologies for making sense of being human. However, Dr. Bowen took a scientific approach. This did not replace other disciplines, but rather provided a different perspective.
In his “Epilogue” to Family Evaluation (Bowen and Kerr), Dr. Bowen described his quest to “create a new theory based on facts alone.” He hoped that this would contribute to psychiatry becoming an accepted science like biology, chemistry, and physics.
The idea of a fact-oriented approach may sound simple, but it can be difficult to sustain. Here are just a few reasons.
First, there are limits on how much anyone can know or understand. Second, one’s emotional reactions and prejudgments can distort how one perceives information. Third, the opinions of significant others can lead to similar distortions. Fourth, information can be used to manipulate, which may provoke dismissing rather than examining “statements of fact” made by distrusted sources. These limits may operate automatically and outside of awareness. Thus, objectivity is a difficult goal even to approximate.
What are the alternatives to Dr. Bowen’s approach? One very different option is to take one’s own thoughts and feelings about one’s own experiences as the only realities that one can know and then to claim that these thoughts and feelings are exempt from critical examination. One can move closer to people with similar thoughts and feelings, confirm each other’s sense of things, and reject challenges from “outsiders” as inherently invalid. Both individuals and groups can do this form of togetherness.
I understand Bowen Theory to lead in a different direction. It takes a person’s thoughts and feelings as information to be understood rather than as conclusions to be accepted automatically. Thinking theory may involve listening through feelings toward facts, exploring in ways that are both respectful and skeptical, awareness of one’s own biases and filters, and advancing one’s ideas for examination rather than for compliance. Peoples’ thoughts and feelings about their experiences both are respected and are open to careful examination in a broader context. The goal is to advance one’s understanding on as factual a basis as possible, regardless of who likes or dislikes the results.
Scientific inquiry tends to consider all relevant variables, including those that may be discounted by currently prevailing opinions. Ideally, investigators who draw “unpopular” inferences are welcomed to the debate, and their research is examined on its merits. Ideas may be critiqued thoughtfully, but those who have these ideas are not attacked personally.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the conclusions of a fact-oriented approach will be accurate or that the meanings rendered by other approaches necessarily will be in error. Some scientific theories have been disproven by further evidence, and the truth of some poetry and other literature has been widely recognized as valid.
However, Bowen chose a fact-oriented approach as the most promising process for understanding human functioning. One might wonder how Bowen Theory would change if its fact-oriented basis were to erode.
One way that I try to consider current debates is to think as factually as I can and to be aware of the emotional systems and relationships that are involved. Subjectivities have histories, and socio-political arguments almost always involve goals that are quite distinct from scientific inquiry. For various reasons, it’s understandable that intense and widespread anxiety reactions form the vicious cycles that make problem solving difficult and that mark societal regression.
Bowen Theory reminds me that what is understandable is not necessarily helpful. Personally, it prompts me to go beyond my own subjective reactions and to be as objective and factual as I can be in the moment. Dealing thoughtfully with unwelcome facts and questioning my favorite ideas may increase my anxiety in the short run, but this probably will be of more use to me in the long run.
Carl A. Jensen
WPFC Faculty Member