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Philosophical Foundations of Coaching: Ontology

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While these four ontological perspectives are inherently of some interest to those who are involved with the field of epistemology (study of knowledge acquisition), they are also directly relevant to field of coaching—as Julio Olalla has so ably demonstrated in his work. Coaching is concerned with how clients define their own being—their sense of self. Each of these four ontological perspectives defines one’s sense of self in a quite different manner. These four perspectives do not simply involve different belief systems. They encompass different notions about the very nature of a belief system, and in this sense are profoundly different from one another.

Static Objectivism: Technical Rationality

In our analysis of ontology, we would propose that there are two different perspectives regarding the nature of being and, more basically, the nature of reality. One of these perspectives might best be called objectivism. The advocates for this perspective assume that there is a reality out there that we can know and articulate. There are universal truths or at least universal principles that can be applied to the improvement of the human condition, resolution of human conflicts, restoration of human rights, or even construction of a global order and community. Donald Schön (1983) suggests that this perspective emerges from and remains closely associated with a tradition that he calls “technical rationality.”

We are also witnessing a parallel emergence of what we may call “bio-centrism”—this is an objectivist perspective defining human beings as an objective and stable reality. From this static and objectivist perspective, we begin with the assumption that our identity and our decisions are “wired in” to our neurological structures and basically pre-set at birth. While we certainly should acknowledge that we are not a “blank slate” at birth (Pinker, 2002) we also must realize that much occurs after birth and the environment impacts in a profound manner even on neurological development prior to birth. Furthermore, neuroscientists (cf. Rose, 2005) are coming to realize that the level of complexity in neurological structures and processes make it very difficult, if not impossible, to equate mind with brain. There is a level of analysis that moves well beyond neural structures and well beyond the “wet-mind” (biological base of mind) to a “dry-mind” that is transcendent and perhaps even spiritual in nature.

The bio-centric, objectivist perspective has served us well for several centuries. It has enabled us to make great advances in medical and cultural science; however, this perspective has also created many problems with which we now live. From a bio-centric objectivist perspective, the human body, included the brain, was (and is) perceived as an advanced machine that can be altered and repaired. This perspective can be retraced to the central principles of modernity: determinism and progress. While there is a tendency to coach from this perspective, this is a very limited (and limiting) approach to coaching—especially when the people we are coaching base their notion of “self” and “being” on this perspective – “being” as a given, with some potential for improvement.

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