Gregory Bateson

A few weeks ago, one of my posts received a comment that was worth a whole post:

I am also a therapist (though I’m still in training). I’m wondering if you would be willing/able to recommend some family therapy books you’ve found helpful. My program is very focused on the individual and I’m trying to fill in some gaps and find your perspective on therapy to be very resonant with my own.

I’d love to recommend some family therapy books! My program was extremely family-systems focused, which I’ve been grateful for since leaving school. If you want to see an exhaustive reading list (I can’t remember having been assigned a real dud), you can see reverse-order lists of everything I read in my first year here and my second year here.

I’ll try to create a bare-bones list for you here—much more useful for you and a good exercise for me. I should warn you before I begin that I am super nerdy when it comes to family therapy reading and I can imagine many in my cohort rolling their eyes at my “must-read” list. If you are nerdy like me, though, here goes:

Pragmatics of Human Communication: A classic and profound book by Bateson’s MRI team, the first and probably still the best attempt to apply system theory to human relationships.

Susan Johnson’s books The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy and Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Trauma Survivors. Johnson combines system-thinking, Rogers-style experiential therapy, and attachment theory, creating one of my most-used therapy models.

John Gottman’s books, especially The Marriage Clinic and The Science of Trust. Gottman has taken up the project started with Pragmatics, largely abandoned by family therapy, and is doing it in fine style, with solid science.

Metaframeworks: This book presents my favorite meta-model of family therapy, combining the best parts of the many family therapy models.

A major work by each family therapy model-builder is also important reading: Haley, Madanes, Satir, Whitaker, Minuchin, Bowen, Selvini-Palazolli/Milan group, Weakland/Fisch/MRI group, deShazer/Insoo-Berg, Epson/White, and Hubble/Duncan/Miller. Keep in mind that their books are presentations of informed opinion, not science. Every one of these folks have got some things right and some wrong. They have also advanced the field significantly, and are the largest part the conversation on how to think about families.

Finally, a couple things that I was not assigned in school, but I found extremely helpful in making sense of the flood of information. First, a grounding in systems/complexity theory: Family therapists think of themselves as system-theory experts and throw around a lot of lingo that they may or may not really understand. It’s easy to get confused in this situation. The best introduction to modern system thinking is still Capra’s The Web of Life (though we’re overdue for an update). Also, check out Bateson’s books Steps to an Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature. Second, familiarity with Wilber’s integral theory really helped me navigate the heated arguments about modernism vs. post-modernism and intervention at the level of individuals vs. family systems vs. larger systems. Check out Integral Psychology or A Theory of Everything.


My Couples and Family Therapy program has a lot to say about epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. We don’t get so much into the history of it–what various philosophers have decided gets to count as knowledge–but we do get a decent overview of what they call modernist, systemic, and post-modern epistemologies.

The basic question for someone thinking about epistemology is, “At what point can I say I know something to be true?” Here’s a super-oversimplified version of a few “epistemologies”:

Pre-modern: I can say I know something if a book or person that I believe has sufficient authority says it is true. Forever. Also, if I feel very certain about something I might consider it true.

Modern: If I observe something with my own senses, I can say that it is true, at least for that instance. If others who look at the same thing make the same observations, that gives more weight to my belief. I ideally keep the possibility open in my mind, however, that new evidence may come along and change my belief.

Post-modern: I can never really say that something is true, as I am forever limited by the perspective given me by my sense organs, my mind, and my acculturation. I will never have direct apprehension of reality. The closest I can come to real knowledge is a guess that produces useful results.

My program conflates post-modern epistemology with what they call “systemic” epistemology. “Systemic” refers to cybernetics, or systems theory, and in my view is actually an extension of modernism. Traditionally, modernism looks for linear causality and uses reductionism to learn about things. Systems theory looks at causality in terms of networks of interacting, mutually affecting/effected influences, all of which you must see, in action, to understand. It’s holistic, not reductionistic. It doesn’t rely, however on the post-modern insight about the limitation of each person’s perspective.

What I like about my program’s emphasis on epistemology, though, is that they encourage us to examine our “personal epistemology,” so that we know as much as possible how the lens that we view reality through shapes our perspective. A very post-modern idea. We are to think about how we think about reality and own our epistemology. We wrote a series of essays in this vein.

Gregory Bateson, one of the founders of the field of family therapy, said that anyone who doesn’t think they have an epistemology just has a bad epistemology. How would you describe your epistemology? What is your bar for labeling an idea “truth”? What things do you believe are certainly true? Why? Do you think your experiences tell you something directly about reality? Can you take anyone’s word about reality confidently?