It’s About Our Needs
Pilate said to him, "What is truth?" And when he had said this, he went out again to the Philosophers and said to them, “Now don’t pull me into one of your a priori arguments!”
- John 18:38 (Unauthorized Version)
From neopragmatism to what I call indigentology
If truth is not the goal of inquiry then what is the aim of inquiry? If it is justification of our beliefs with one another, as Rorty (1998) suggests, what underscores such justifications? If it is our interests, as pragmatists assert, then what helps us determine their persuadability, their legitimacy? If counselors abandon the idea of truth then what, if anything, is to take its place? After all, what is truth? For this word and its ascribed definitions along with connotative meanings are also constructs.
It is not lost on me how this philosophical exploration flows from privileged white men debating Westernized constructs of “truth.” It is not only language that limits the scope of their inquiry but also their sociopolitical histories. As a reaction to the history of modernism (Polkinhorne, 1995), postmodernism presents some historical baggage in what is meant by the word “truth.” A Western definition is not exactly culturally universal.
While I appreciate postmodernists’ and pragmatists’ contributions to human understanding, I also appreciate the array of epistemologies in other human cultures, each with their own relation to a concept of truth” or similar word. The colonial era risked erasing these diverse epistemologies, including those of this land’s first inhabitants.
Long before postmodern neopragmatists like Rorty emphasized the relational, Native American epistemology anchored itself in being relational. Understandably, their understanding or “relational” is devoid of a history underscoring postmodernists’ constructs. By comparison, I find Western philosophies often being so reductive they are rendered specious.
In postmodernist pragmatism, I see opportunity to integrate this indigenous perspective of the relational. Similar to postmodern thought, this indigenous epistemology did not attach itself to a construct of fixed truths in nature, since parts of nature are known to change. “It’s not about right and wrong,” I learned years ago, “but about right relations.”
James (1904) application of Peirce helps us appreciate the pragmatism of these constructs. Pulling back from absolute idealism, we can see our beliefs serving as constructs providing rules for action, similar to Native American epistemologies. Beliefs not only produce actions, this Native view informs us, but our ideas of truth are constructed to serve our needs. It is impossible to hold onto a belief and attendant action which goes against our need for survival, lest we cease to exist to hold any beliefs or do any actions.
It is not merely language we can never escape, it is the experience of our needs. Language appears to have evolved largely for communicating needs, especially those needs requiring cooperation from others (Richerson and Boyd, 2010). And to this I add a key observation: our tools of communication are more arbitrary than our experience of needs. While our beliefs are relative to language, our use of language is relative to our experience of needs.
With the experience of needs being key to pragmatism, and for much of what we do as counselors, I think it would help to wrap our minds around it by giving it a name. So I did. Using the Latin root indigentia, indigentology is the study of need. Within this study of need I am suggesting its first school of thought: that need-experience is basically homeostatic.
Homeostatic indigentology summary
Three postulates summarize this epistemology.
1. There is no good or bad except for need. Pragmatism points to this when noting what we consider as good as serving some purpose for our interests. Taking this a step further, our purpose stems from what we experience as requiring some attention for easing our needs. Our basic purposes are the need for self-preservation and the need to be in some semblance of balance with whatever environment is providing for our needs. These are the complementary and sometimes competing purposes for all life forms.
Whether it is food or a job or some abstract philosophical precept, we categorize as “good” only when it either helps us to relieve some need or to help us to evade experiencing some avoidable need. (What we regard as aesthetically good points back to a functional good, but this is another discussion.) We categorize as “bad” what is either creating an avoidable need or prevents us from relieving a need at hand. Beyond these experiences of need the labels of good and bad lose their utility.
2. There is no need except for homeostasis. Literally speaking, I do not need water. What my body requires is optimal regulation of its homeostatic fluid and temperature levels. Water is merely the substance reliably providing for my bodily functioning. If another abundant resource could deliver this result then I would never need water again. At the root of what we mean by need is this optimal functioning level, and not the things we utilize for restoring this homeostatic level.
When some homeostatic area in my life drops below its optimal level I experience it as some form of desire. In response to dehydration, I thirst. In response to losing connection with my mother while she’s on a business trip, I yearn for her return. In response to feeling incompetent to provide for myself, I crave new proficiencies.
I am prompted by the need-communication of emotions to draw in something to bring that level back up to its preferred functioning level. I drink enough water to satiate my thirst. I write messages to my mother till her affectionate reply draws us closer together. I learn some new skills to boost my self-efficacy. Rules for action indeed.
When some homeostatic area in my life rises too high for its optimal functioning level I experience it as some form of discomfort, or pain. I urinate, I seek solitude from others, I take a break from learning. Until the level once again drops too low, and the cycle continues.
3. There is little homeostasis except for resources. Water is a resource. My mother’s reliability is a resource. A new skill is a resource. These are items utilized for restoring homeostatic equilibrium. Resources are some concrete or abstract external thing we rely upon for homeostatic equilibrium restoration. To say “I need some water” is a rhetorical shortcut: I require the resource of water to restore my homeostatic fluid and perhaps temperature levels in order to stop feeling thirsty or too hot. I require my mother’s affection to restore my psychosocial homeostasis in the direction of relatedness. I require new skills to restore my psychosocial homeostasis in the direction of individuation.
Note how this time I state “little” instead of “no.” Resources are only necessary for open systems, for those aspects of life interacting with the external environment. The cardiovascular system is normally a closed system, only requiring interaction with something external when it’s damaged. Internal systems do not require any evolutionary mechanism for us to actively regulate, since these systems are typically self-regulating and on autopilot. Hence, we do not sense a drop in blood pressure, or a brief drop in the amount of oxygen reaching the brain, until the body warns of damage. Those systems interacting with the external environment, by contrast, organize our attention to seek requisite resources. We are in the habit of calling them needs.
There are internal resources and external resources. We apply internal resources toward an independence of self-preservation, but also toward interdependence with our trusted environment. We likewise plug into available external resources first for self-preservation, but also for environmental interdependence. These are the complementary life purposes in tension with each other. A tension that expresses itself cyclically, which is another discussion.
Indigentologically informed counseling
Here are a few implications for counseling from this indigentological paradigm.
Suffering is neither inherently good nor bad. The goal for counseling is often thought of in terms of reducing client suffering, despite a plurality of meaning in the construct of “suffering” (Ponton, 2011). An indigentological perspective aims for a more ambitious target: to fully resolve the underlying need. The arbitrary aim for pain reduction may not help restore a client to their optimal functioning, which risks normalizing the recurring suffering of this reported imbalance.
Suffering some problem in living is not necessarily bad, if one can still adequately function. Immediate relief from suffering is not necessarily good, if all the sessions are done and yet the underlying problem has not yet been addressed. Too much symptom relief may undercut requisite motivation to commit to need-resolving change.
Another implication is the near universality of underlying homeostatic needs. Just as we all need fluid and temperature equilibrium, we all generally require an optimal level of security when with others, an optimal level of experiencing ourselves as valued, an optimal level of space to assert our autonomy, and so forth.
A corollary to this is our diversity in need relieving resources. How we find security or what being valued feels like is culturally relative, dependent in many ways upon the contexts of our environments and our relations with it. Multicultural counseling indeed. Limited resources delimit the experience of need relief, and this has further implications.
We also need psychosocial equilibrium. This indigentological perspective suggests we all seek some balance between available internal and available external resources. When one is more accessible than the other, we tend to compensate by generalizing how to access that which is experienced as most absent. This speaks to how we may arrive to our political leanings, but that is another discussion.
The more urgent a felt need the more we tend to generalize resources for its relief. By contrast, a less urgent need tends to be afforded more space for reflection and resolution of its underlying need. Urgent needs tend to consume our focus, biasing our attention and decisions toward need relief. This too has a place in a larger discussion about political leanings.
The modernist moralization of bias may be misplaced. Biases stemming from poorly addressed needs are potentially more distorting of cognitive processes than common heuristics developed from effective need responses. It is the scientist who is not overwhelmed from suffering some attention consuming need that is able to formulate hypotheses with remarkable reproducibility. As an element of human heuristics, biases are not inherently good or bad. It is their salient impact upon our needs that warrant such categories.
The more one's suffering is reduced through some resource, the more that resource tends to be categorized as "good" and "true." Or the more a resource fails to result in expected relief, that resource is prone to be categorized as "bad" and not adequately "true."
Distortion creeps in when such relief is merely temporary or not generalizable, not actually helping to resolve the underlying need. What was deemed “true” is only true so far it was associated with temporary relief. For someone desperate to escape suffering—at least in the short run—it is true enough in the now.
But for those intent upon deeper resolution, this can hardly be true enough. Especially if by not resolving the underlying need the problem recurs frequently, requiring further resources and attention for mere relief—perhaps taking resources away from attending to other needs. By contrast, striving to consistently resolve needs before they lead to suffering allows more attention to the nuances and ambiguities of life. If I am not suffering from any overwhelming need then nothing must be true for me in the moment.
Our concepts of truth, therefore, are inescapable from our experience of needs. The more tenuous my reliance upon a resource (e.g., remembering how to use a piece of software I suspect I'll never use again) the less committed I am to categorize it as "good" or regard its relief potential as "true." The more a resource is experienced as the only means for relieving an otherwise painful need (e.g., economic security), the more inclined to regard it as definitively "good" and certainly "true"—with greater cash-value. And the more life itself is filled with suffering unresolved needs as a crystallized norm the more inclined I am to find some meaning, some foundational certainty, some gold-value, for enduring such a painful existence. Will such a client expect me to live up to such value?
As counselors we may abandon the modernist idea of a priori truth as an artifact of history when uncertainty reigned supreme. With greater access to basic resources (nutritious food, potable water, stable shelter, etc.), we as counselors may find it easier to negotiate with our clients a relatively "good" and "true" response to their problems in living. Together we can aim to resolve underlying needs, to strategically avoid distracting symptoms from recurring.
With fewer needs competing for their limited resources, it tends to be easier to tolerate other uncertainties. Life then does not depend upon some Platonic ideal form to be reached, but points to a pragmatic approach that sees need experience as fueling what we co-create as our shared goals. Because everything we humans have ever declared about truth has always been in the service of needs, however remote. In my service as a counselor, I believe, this is truth enough.
Polkinghorne, D. (1992). Postmodern epistemology of practice. In S. Kvale (Ed.), Psychology and postmodernism (pp. 146-165) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Rorty, R. (1998). Truth and progress; philosophical papers, volume 3. New York: Cambridge University Press. Chapter One: Is truth a goal of inquiry? Donald Davidson versus Crispin Wright (pp. 19-42).