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Needing to Relate for Relating to Needs

| #011 | THEORY > cns687 | 864 words |

Modernism contends that phenomena have certain objective truths. As an observer, the way to ascertain these truths is to observe as objectively and dispassionately as possible. Once the subjective biases of the observer are overcome, the truth about phenomena can be understood.

Postmodernism, alternatively, posits that the observer is always constructing what is being observed. What is observed, then, can never be objective truth, but must always be some combination of the observer and the observed.

- Hansen (2002)

While I have much to learn about post-modernism, I have yet to encounter its account for how need experience (via emotions) shapes our constructs. The more one’s needs are satiated, so as not to prioritize focus toward relief, the more easily one can ascertain what exists independent of oneself.

This appears to be an essential distinction between indigenous and Western epistemologies. Indigenous epistemology aims to orient life toward ongoing full need resolution. Nature is largely perceived and appreciated as it exists relationally, independent in part from thought or affect. “The more I drink of the river’s water the less thirsty I feel, and the better I function for others. Once no longer thirsty I start to see the river in more of its own terms.”

River in Autumn

Stock image

Western epistemology presumes with its discrete “limited resources” that ongoing full need resolve is unrealistic and therefore beyond reach. Humans are then viewed as generally untrustworthy, biased toward easing their own needs. “The more I say this is this or that, the more of what I feel I need it to be for relieving my needs will inevitably distort my perceptions and blind me from what actually exists.” This too is a product of a culture’s history.

The objectivism of modernist epistemology and the constructivism of postmodernist epistemology are two sides of a non-indigenous coin. Both presume a striving to know against the tide of “limited resources.” It is a construct of modern civilization that creates its own limits to full need resolve, which in turn normalizes the shared experience of interpreting reality through the distorting lens of mounting need strain. A reality that exists outside of oneself is then readily presumed as unknowable in its own terms. Their left hand ties down their right.

From this indigenous epistemological perspective, the dichotomy between modernism and postmodernism is itself constructed. When presented as a mutually exclusive binary, it tends to erase the actual experiences of diverse knowers. Understandably, this modalities approach provides illuminating comparisons to unpack such phenomena, albeit from a familiar modernist perspective.

Could truth be both constructed and discovered, in a dialectical process? Could what I observe be both something independent in nature and something I then attach constructed meaning relative to my need experiences? Could my perception then wax and wane between these modalities? Could careful reflection tease out one from the other? Moreover, could my capacity to differentiate the two relate to how well my needs are being resolved?

It’s not that one can never know what independently exists outside of one’s perceptions but that how much is grasped falls along a subjective-objective continuum. And what one perceives tends to be influenced mostly through the filter of one’s need experiences. The more one’s needs are fully resolved the more aligned one’s perceptions can be with what exists outside of one’s need experiences. In this indigenous approach to epistemology, affect is then more accordant with one’s environment.

This is largely because an indigenous approach emphasizes relational qualities. When this goes up that goes down, or goes correspondingly up, or nothing appreciably happens at all. In this indigenous approach, all needs are relational in quality. What is considered worth knowing—as valued in indigenous cultures—is therefore anchored in relational understandings of one another’s internal and external environments.

Here is where indigenous knowing accords with the variables of social science. While more challenging to isolate social science variables (Hanson, 2002), the impact of these elusive variables remain relevant to the personally shared experiences of treatment outcomes. Their ascribed meanings within current sociocultural contexts express more variables of rising and falling homeostatic need experience levels. Shared and contested meanings for treatment outcomes provide more social science variables. Perhaps their susceptibility to social trends and cultural fads is a key point.

Instead of looking at how these elements are expected to function within the isolated context of the counselor-client dyad—which limits itself to such Western values as individuation and privacy—we could look into how counseling theories and practices contribute to our shared narrative of how best to individually and collectively deal with our ongoing needs. Instead of thinking about controlling variables for study, we could reflect on how these variables are controlling us and perhaps keeping us from fully resolving our needs and then distorting our normalized perceptions.

Because at the end of the day what we truly want to know is how we are doing at providing for our own and one another’s needs. Modernism and postmodernism are two among many filters for understanding our approach to knowing. What we experience as “knowing” is inextricably tied to our experience of needs. Since needs are relational, knowing is relational. Essentially, to know is to relate. Everything else is commentary.


Hansen, J. T. (2002). Postmodern implications for theoretical integration of counseling orientations. Journal of Counseling & Development, 80, 315-321.

Steph is a self-described transspirit, which is a kind of sacred misfit. By transcending conventional limits—gender norms, religious identities, political polarities, and more—Steph experiences a unique connection in life. And suspects others do as well. This blog shares that spirituality, and affirms others of a similar state of being.

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