Philosophical roots

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Functional Contextualism

ACT is rooted in the pragmatic philosophy of functional contextualism, a specific variety of contextualism that has as its goal the prediction and influence of events, with precision, scope and depth. Contextualism views psychological events as ongoing actions of the whole organism interacting in and with historically and situationally defined contexts. These actions are whole events that can only be broken up for pragmatic purposes, not ontologically.

Because goals specify how to apply the pragmatic truth criterion of contextualism, functional contextualism differs from other varieties of contextualism that have other goals. ACT thus shares common philosophical roots with constructivism, narrative psychology, dramaturgy, social constructionism, feminist psychology, Marxist psychology, and other contextualistic approaches, but its unique goals leads to different qualities and different empirical results than these more descriptive forms of contextualism, seeking as they do a personal appreciation of the complexity of the whole rather than prediction and influence per se.

ACT itself reflects its philosophical roots in several ways. ACT emphasizes workability as a truth criterion, and chosen values as the necessary precursor to the assessment of workability because values specify the criteria for the application of workability. Its causal analyses are limited to events that are directly manipulable, and thus it has a consciously contextualistic focus. From such a perspective, thoughts and feelings do not cause other actions, except as regulated by context.

Therefore, it is possible to go beyond attempting to change thoughts or feelings so as to change overt behavior, to changing the context that causally links these psychological domains.

Further information on functional contextualism is available here



I'm trying to understand the relationship and influence of enactivism on functional contextualism. The middle-ground and a-ontological stance of Varela, et al., seems to complement the pragmatic, not-concerned-with-ontology position of functional contextualism and ACT.

Anyone have insight into enactivism/Varela's influence and relationship to the contextual science body of work? I've dug around and have turned up nothing.


Enactivism with respect to FC

Hi there,

This is an interesting question. For starters there is a a major categorical difference between the two: enactivism is a philosophy of mind and a theory of cognition and functional contextualism (FC) is a philosophy of science. While the former attempts to explain the phenomenon of consciousness, and the latter attempts to create a philosophical basis for scientific investigation. I would hazard that relational frame theory corresponds more closely to enactivism categorically, although the scope of the latter seems more circumscribed than the former. Varela and Thompson are philosophers by trade, and Rosch is a cognitive psychologist (Thompson and Rosch are coauthors of _The Embodied Mind_ (EM) with Varela). Generally, the folks responsible for FC are behavior analysts or behavioral psychologists by trade, and not philosophers. So, while your question is far from an apples-and-oranges problem, motivations for the seminal publications don't seem trivial.

Also of note is the direct influence on Varela and co. of both Piaget and Vygotsky: from a grand-theory point of view, this is in strong opposition to the radical behaviorism of Skinner, which is strongly at the root of FC. Skinner and other behaviorists (Hull, Watson, Thorndike, etc.) were deeply suspicious of introspection and mentalism. However, Varela has expressed sympathy for introspection and bracketing (phenomenological reduction) in his work.

I'm also not finding any obvious common influences between Varela and the scholars generally regarded as defining FC (S. Hayes, L. Hayes, Reece, Sarbin, Morris, etc.). EM was published two years before _Varieties of Scientific Contextualism_, and it's, I think, quite reasonable to see harmonies between the two theories, but I'm not seeing any common antecedents of note. The FC folks generally harken back to the American pragmatists (Pierce, James, Dewey, Bergson, Mead) while the enactivists seem to make reference more to the European phenomenologists (Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, etc.)

The FC folks trace their philosophical roots to Stephen Pepper's _World Hypotheses_ (WH), in particular to his explanation of contextualism as a philosophical world view. WH is still an amazing read sixty-odd years on, and that might be a good starting place if you wanted to root out common threads. You might investigate the distinction between descriptive (DC) and functional contextualism that Pepper proposes: I believe that the purposes of DC enactivism are more closely aligned that FC and enactivism. Eric Fox has an interesting paper that contrasts FC with constructivism, which might also be of use to you (noting that there are meaningful differences between the epistemological positions of the enactivists and the constructivists).

That said, consider evolution science and theory as a possible intellectual antecedent to both enactivism and FC. Evolution theory is explicit in the works of Varela and co., and it is rapidly becoming of interest in behaviorist circles.

Hope it helps, and please keep us posted if you investigate this further.

All the best,


Fox, E. J. (2006). Constructing a Pragmatic Science of Learning and Instruction with Functional Contextualism. Educational Technology Research & Development, 54(1), 5–36.

Hayes, S. C., & Nevada Conference of the Varieties of Scientific Contextualism (Eds.). (1993). Varieties of scientific contextualism. Reno, NV: Context Press.

Pepper, S. C. (1942). World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence. Berkely: University of California Press.

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind: cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Thank you


Thank you for your thoughtful, detailed reply.

Prior even to “The Embodied Mind,” Varela and Maturana, a biologist, wrote “The Tree of Knowledge.” This book is solidly grounded in evolution science and argues that the root of consciousness in humans is language. The larger point is that ontology fails because it fails to discern the nature of knowledge. The purpose of knowledge isn't to exist as information, or representations, but as a “linguistic trophallaxis … which allows for limitless recursions in the coupling of behavioral capabilities of social individuals.” Or essentially, language is a means of creating infinite human phenomenon with no absolute reference to anything truly objective.

In my current analysis of functional contextualism and enactivism; evolution science, the central role of language in cognition, consciousness, and behavior, and the lack of concern for ontology, place these two bodies of work very close together on the bookshelf.

I’ve yet to read “World Hypothesis,” (only the summaries), but once I have, I can make a more detailed analysis of it compared with “The Tree of Knowledge” and “The Embodied Mind.”


MATURANA, H. R., & VARELA, F. J. (1992). The tree of knowledge: the biological roots of human understanding. Boston, Shambhala. (First edition published in 1987 preceding EM)



Does ACT necessarily involve a commitment to pragmatism? As a philosopher I wonder if the useful aspects of ACT can be separated from pragmatism. I myself am not a pragmatist, it's very controversial within philosophy, and I think it suffers from serious theoretical defects, two related problems are regarding its definitions of truth and meaning. First, it seems to prove itself false - would a pragmatist claim that the truth of the principle "There is no truth independent of goals, utility, etc." is true for everyone, regardless their goals or assignments of utility? What if some people/communities find a correspondence theory of truth more useful to them given their goals in the long run (I can see this being true of third-world communities, particularly religious ones (such as Arab nations))? Does pragmatism then imply an incompatible correspondence view of truth? The second is that it seems self-referentially incoherent (How does pragmatism as a principle of meaning assign meaning to itself?). These problems remind me of the difficulties logical positivism suffered (logical positivism was abandoned about 40 years ago, partly because of its self-defeating nature). It also seems to lead to relativism regarding truth, another very, very controversial view.

Yet it seems that ACT therapy, from what little I've seen, is at least an interesting if not promising approach to therapy. I wonder what to do with it. Also, my religious beliefs commit me to transcendent truth and reality, and I find rationalism (the belief in knowledge independent of sense experience, a priori knowledge with content) more persuasive than empiricism, views that pragmatism cannot accommodate. Is there something in ACT for me?

Relativism problem

Well - this is a pretty decent post. I gotta start off by saying that I don't see the problem with relativism in truth. Is there only one truth? /Maybe/ in the larger scheme of things, yes, but on every minor level, truth is relative to a number of things. If two people define happiness in two different ways, they can feel differently but both say that they're feeling "happy". Truth is linguistically relative. It's also time-relative, IMO, and it's relative in a various different ways. About the "large scheme", though, should we really be taking this psychological discussion down to the quantum level, just now?

When you speak of pragmatism and contextualism, you rely on their relation to truth, but in all actuality, pragmatism is about value, not truth. 'The practicality of an action (or what-have-you) determines the value of said action,' in brief. This is one thing which ACT deals with, of course: What determines value; how do we change values, without harming the "client"; what do value changes effect; etc.?
Pragmatism is adaptable, depending on how it is viewed. If you look at pragmatism and say it's only based on crystallized knowledge of practicality, pragmatism is more of a style of thinking than anything else. If you look at pragmatism as being underlined by the dyad between which crystallized and fluid knowledge interact, I'd say you would have something significant with which to begin working.

I think that contextualism and pragmatism are capable of alignment, but I'm not sure if they need to be permanently fused to one another. I do know that RFT deals with contextualism, and I believe that ACT is very strong in this, as well. Some might differ. But hey: "functional contextualist theory" - how does our environment effect our psychological events?
I'd say that there's plenty in this for you, but you need to sit down and commit to the theory for a while. Try to find holes and fill them in. The main reason why I like reading about this stuff is because in all the different sections of psychology I've seen, RFT, etc, has been the most open to logical criticism. There are fewer values and desired outcomes getting in the way of real research. I feel like it is really developing into something strong and good.


Run like the wind;
sting your eyes.

This is who I am:
For a resistant soul.
This is who you are:
You've lost control,
And the joke's on you.