Marcelo Dascal

De-fixation of Belief*



Marcelo and Varda Dascal


Tel Aviv University





1. Introduction


In his well-known paper “The fixation of belief” (1877), Charles Sanders Peirce describes four methods for belief fixation: the method of tenacity, the method of authority, the a priori method, and the scientific method. He criticizes the first three and, although ironically pointing out some advantages they may have for certain purposes, retains the fourth as the only truly rational method for establishing the beliefs one should hold. In the course of his discussion, Peirce argues that only the onset of doubt can call into question beliefs one holds. Doubt sets in motion inquiry, which in turn is what may bring about the rejection or modification of the doubtful belief and its eventual replacement by another. He acknowledges that, although necessary for rational thinking and conduct, this is no easy matter. A significant portion of the paper is devoted, indeed, to a discussion of the doubt-preventing and similar devices through which the three criticized methods avoid the ‘de-fixation’ of belief. Since, for Peirce, this is only a propedeutic question, for his main concern is the appropriate method to fixate beliefs, he does not devote to it the systematic treatment it deserves.

However, in all likelihood the main difficulty not only of rational thinking and conduct, but also of the solution of major problems in collective and individual life, lies not in our ability of fixating adequate beliefs but rather in the capacity of de-fixating inadequate ones. This paper pursues Peirce’s inquiry by focusing on the latter issue. The questions we will raise are: why is it so difficult to modify people’s entrenched beliefs in practical as well as theoretical matters, even though there are so many reasons not to trust them, and how could such a difficulty be overcome? In conformity with our different – but complementary – professional backgrounds, we will address these questions from a philosophical and from a psychotherapeutic point of view.


2. Doubt and belief, de-fixation and fixation


According to Peirce,  “the irritation of doubt is the only immediate motive for the struggle to attain belief”; “with the doubt … the struggle begins, and with the cessation of doubt it ends” (1877: 232). Although closely interconnected, doubt and belief are characterized by profoundly different feelings: “Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief in anything else” (1877: 230). Furthermore, whereas “the feeling of believing is a more or less sure indication of there being established in our nature some habit which will determine our actions” for the achievement of our desires, “doubt never has such an effect” (ibid.). No wonder that, in order to avoid the unpleasantness of the state of doubt and the obstacles it raises for the fulfillment of our desires, “we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe” (1877: 231). Phenomenological observations such as these no doubt account for at least part of the difficulty experienced in de-fixating our beliefs.

            It would be unreasonable, however, for someone to cling to beliefs or mental habits just in order to avoid doubt, “systematically keeping out of view all that might cause a change in his opinions” (1877: 235). For, if we adopt this procedure, how can we ensure that our beliefs “be such as may truly guide our actions so as to satisfy our desires” (1877: 232)? This can be only ensured if one allows oneself doubting given beliefs and replacing them by other, better ones. “Inquiry” is the process whereby one seeks the cessation of doubt, its sole end being “the settlement of opinion” (ibid.). It does not necessarily require reaching a “true opinion”, for “as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false” (ibid.).

Even granted this much, not all methods of inquiry or of fixating beliefs are equally rational or sustainable. The “method of tenacity”, illustrated by the above doubt-avoiding procedure, is a case in point. But it cannot go far, since it does not resist “the social impulse”: “the man who adopts it will find that other men think differently from him” and will realize that “their opinions are quite as good as his own, and this will shake his confidence in his belief” (1877: 235). Society may overcome this shortcoming of individual tenacity by employing the “method of authority”. It does so by imposing upon its members strict adherence to an established list of “correct” propositions and rejection of those contrary to them. The latter are rigorously suppressed, and those who hold them are severely punished. Compared with individual tenacity, this method has the advantage of ensuring social stability and cohesion. Its inconvenient is that it is only suitable “for the mass of mankind”, i.e., for those whose “highest impulse [is] to be intellectual slaves” (1877: 237). But it does not work for all minds, because even “in the most priest-ridden states”, there will be individuals who will “see that men in other countries and in other ages” hold different opinions and will realize that “it is the mere accident of their having been taught as they have … that has caused them to believe as they do” (1877: 238). Willful adherence to a belief and forcing it upon others – i.e., tenacity and authority – must therefore give way to some better method of fixating beliefs.

Such a method must be based on (a) unimpeded access to different opinions and (b) the universality, i.e., the non-arbitrary or non-accidental nature of the beliefs it selects for fixation. The “a priori method” fulfills condition (a), but not (b). By “conversing with each other and regarding matters in different lights”, under the “action of their natural preferences”, men gradually develop beliefs that are “agreeable to reason” (ibid.). Insofar as this phrase means – as Peirce points out – “that which we find ourselves inclined to believe” (1877: 239), the result of this method may, however, merely yield beliefs that are in agreement with one’s individual preferences, i.e., beliefs that do not satisfy condition (b), for they are merely those we are pre-disposed to believe.[1] Although the satisfaction of condition (a) avoids this danger to some extent, for “the shock of opinions will soon lead men to rest on preferences of a far more universal nature” (1877: 240-1), this is still not enough to yield non-arbitrary beliefs capable to resist further doubt.

The method that fulfills this condition must be such that “our beliefs may be determined by nothing human, by some external permanency … upon which our thinking has no effect” (1877: 242). In other words, it must yield beliefs that conform to reality (1877: 243), that “coincide with the fact” (1877: 246). The “scientific method” ensures true universality, for all men who apply it will reach the same conclusion, regardless of their individual circumstances. In another well-known paper, “How to make our ideas clear” (1878), Peirce insists that this method does not exclude, initially, dissent among its practitioners. “Different minds – he writes – may set out with the most antagonistic views”. Yet, the method ensures that “the progress of investigation carries them by a force outside of themselves to one and the same conclusion” (1878: 268). He goes as far as comparing the compelling power of this force that carries the investigator “not where [he] wish[es], but to a fore-ordained goal”, to “the operation of destiny”, which inexorably leads to that opinion “which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate” (ibid.). Provided, of course, the investigators do not engage in a perverse form of debate, where each participant struggles with the others in a “spirit of combat” in order to defend and impose his opinion, i.e., “his particular stronghold” – an attitude that amounts to treating debate as nothing but a tool of the “method of authority” (1878: 267).

Although it does not occupy center stage in Peirce’s fixation-oriented account, the problem of de-fixation lurks heavily behind it. And for good reason. The “right” method for belief fixation he seeks must, on the one hand, overcome the barriers to de-fixation the other methods either use or permit. On the other, it must erect its own barriers – otherwise it would not guarantee fixation. But aren’t all barriers to de-fixation, all limits to doubting, ultimately a manifestation of wishful thinking – the expression of a desire for certainty we cannot possibly achieve? Isn’t such a certainty merely the conformity of a belief with what one’s subjective criteria of rationality expects to be true? And if so, aren’t all the methods that provide such barriers equally chimerical and unreliable?

The tenacity and authority methods actually prevent de-fixation by preventing the onset of doubt, thus protecting the established beliefs prior to their examination through inquiry. The a priori method not only permits doubt but also makes systematic use of it; but it ultimately puts doubt to rest by appealing to an ‘internal’ criterion (harmony with reason), whose obvious relativistic character is unable, according to Peirce, to grant the beliefs it recommends to fixate a non-arbitrary anti-doubt shield. The scientific method also permits doubt and makes use of it, but it is claimed to be able to cease doubt non-arbitrarily. For this purpose, it employs universal methodological procedures that allegedly lead to the same conclusion, whatever the internal or subjective stand of the investigators. In this way, it provides foolproof grounds to fixate certain beliefs. Given such solid grounds, it would be foolish or irrational to cast doubt – and, a fortiori – to attempt to de-fixate the beliefs this method supports.

In a sense, Peirce’s analysis of the four methods comes full circle, with the scientific method. And the question is indeed inevitable: just as the failure of the methods of tenacity and authority was due to our realization that other persons (or societies) hold, as tenaciously and authoritatively as we do, different beliefs, could it not be the case that there are different “scientific methods” and differently interpreted “data” or “facts” that would recommend the fixation of different beliefs? And if so, wouldn’t the protection of the results of the scientific method against doubt and de-fixation amount to just another way to justify sticking to one’s preferences, prejudices, individual “reason”, or to the authority of the scientifically trained “experts” who would determine which beliefs we should hold?


3. Can one get rid of prejudice?


Leaving aside the question of how laymen in a democratic society should deal with the phenomenon of the non-transparency of the advice provided by an increasingly specialized science,[2] let us consider how far other methods proposed to combat prejudice and retain only methodically well-grounded beliefs are likely to succeed.[3]

Descartes considered the suppression of all beliefs not critically examined to be an essential step for the building of knowledge upon solid foundations. He thought this could be achieved by presuming the falsity of beliefs that did not pass the critical tests he devised, namely: resisting to the sternest doubt and being “clearly and distinctly” conceivable. But he overlooked the fact that such criteria, based on one’s own intellectual intuition, do not ensure results that are entirely free of pre-judgments or pre-conceptions borrowed from the very intellectual tradition – in his case, Scholasticism – one is combating.

The empiricists sought to eliminate prejudice by means of another rule, namely that no idea should be accepted unless it was derived from sensory impressions. Whenever this is not the case, Hume argued, the idea in question and the propositions using it should be committed to the flames. Yet, tracing back an idea to its sensory origins or – in the language of logical positivism – to observational sentences, is far from a simple matter and, in fact, involves a process of inference or derivation wherefrom questionable metaphysical assumptions can hardly be eliminated.

In the light of these and other difficulties in eliminating prejudice, other thinkers adopted the position that they are, ultimately, non-eliminable. They are part and parcel of the formative apparatus of a person’s thought, causally produced by the individual (Freud) or social (Marx) context that gives rise to one’s personality and mental habits. At most we can become aware of such habits, and signal them as prone to yield ‘ideology’ tainted (Marx) or ‘neurosis’ induced (Freud) beliefs. Such a signaling does not ensure, however, that one is able to overcome the causal influence of such beliefs upon one’s thought.

If you cannot beat the existence of fixation of belief and the alleged human need for it, why not to take advantage of it? This idea, which has been widely used by so many ideologies, was explored systematically by philosophical hermeneutics. Since we cannot divest ourselves from prejudice, let us take it into account and use it as a tool in our interpretative endeavors. Let us abandon the naïve belief that we can interpret nature, texts, ourselves and other persons and cultures in a purely “objective”, non-prejudicial way; let us acknowledge the necessary subjectivity and context-dependency of all interpretation; let us admit that meaning is not “there”, “outside” the interpreter but is in fact the interpreter’s creation. That is to say, let us accept that there is inevitably some conceptual framework, some entrenched network of beliefs we cannot fully dispose of when addressing what is external to us. By being aware of this fact and accepting it, our understanding and interpretation may improve, although they will never become entirely “objective”. Philosophical hermeneutics, however, did not go as far as claiming that all interpretations are equally acceptable, and argued that somehow there are external constraints our interpretive freedom must respect.[4]

Both the partisans of elimination of prejudice and those of becoming aware of the ever-present prejudices, and eventually making use of them, illustrate widespread prejudices about prejudice. Both believe that prejudice, or more generally “fixated” mental habits, are essentially damaging components of our thought, whether we can get rid of them or not. Both devise methods to overcome such habits, either by trying to suppress them or by acknowledging their presence. Both, ultimately, believe that humans are such that they either inevitably have, as a matter of fact, a fixed store of beliefs they are not free to choose or else that they are free to shape and select those beliefs that are fit to belong to such a privileged store. In either case, the assumption is that fixated beliefs are essential for humans to conduct their thoughts and actions. Philosophical hermeneutics and skepticism, although adopting a less negative attitude vis-à-vis prejudice, share this assumption.

And so does Peirce. In fact, concerning prejudice, he ranges with the more optimistic group, insofar as he believes that the scientific method provides a royal way – the only one – to get rid of the grip of ungrounded beliefs and to fixate only “correct” ones. He would probably claim that the Cartesian and empiricist proposals fail precisely because they are examples of the a priori method he described. But couldn’t his acceptance of the assumption that we need to cease doubt by fixating beliefs and his faith in the scientific method as capable to deliver such beliefs be also blamed for relying ultimately upon his own intuitions regarding rationality? To be sure, his pragmatism is innovative with respect to Cartesian innatism and empiricism, as well as to the Marxian and Freudian causal accounts, for it proposes to assess the acceptability or correctness of a belief not in terms of its origin, but in term of its consequences. But this is not enough to make him modify the presumption he shares with the other thinkers discussed above, namely the superiority of fixation over de-fixation.

Skepticism has attacked the idea that there are ways to justify rationally the preference for one set of beliefs over any other, and thus that there are rational grounds to fixate any belief. According to the skeptics, for any given belief, there are reasons of equal weight for and against its acceptance. This is their doctrine of Isostheneia (equilibrium), complemented by their conception of Zetesis (inquiry) as the process whereby one seeks to adduce reasons contrary to a proposed belief in order to balance those favorable to it. Notice that, whereas Peircean inquiry is supposed to cease doubt and fixate belief, skeptical inquiry is supposed to let doubt persist by depriving beliefs from any rational basis for their fixation. In spite of this radical difference, at the end of the day the skeptics too admitted that without adopting some preferential set of beliefs it is impossible to conduct one’s life, and suggested long-standing habit or “tradition” as the best guide to follow in this respect.

The upshot of this bird-eye survey of a variety of epistemological positions shows that philosophers tend to accept the view that fixated beliefs – whether based on custom, socio-psychological contingencies, or rational choice – constitute a sine qua non of our mental and practical life.[5] They diverge widely about the reasons why this is the case and the possibility of overcoming these reasons, and consequently, about their estimate of how easy or difficult it is to de-fixate entrenched beliefs. But, curiously enough, they tend to range themselves in two polar positions: either it is relatively easy to devise a method for de-fixating unworthy beliefs or it is impossible to do so. The former under-estimate the difficulties involved in de-fixation, whereas the latter over-estimate such difficulties. On both of these views, de-fixation obviously cannot rank as a crucial task, which although difficult, is not impossible to perform.


4. De-fixation: Not so easy


In sections 2 and 3 we have already seen a number of presumable causes that account for the difficulty experienced in attempting to de-fixate beliefs. If we add to them the factors to be considered in the present section, it will become patent that de-fixation of belief is indeed far from being an easy matter and may require more sophisticated methods than commonly thought.

            Phenomenologically, we observe that many beliefs resist what might be thought to be irresistible de-fixation assaults. Doubt alone is certainly not enough to shake them; but neither strong empirical counter-evidence nor logical demonstration is sufficient. Contrary to Peirce’s belief, there is nothing comparable to the “force of destiny” in standard rational procedures, capable to compel someone to abandon or modify some cherished or entrenched belief. Contradiction and paradox hardly deter most people to stick to their beliefs, and when under critical attack, the immediate reaction is typically to reject the criticism, rather than the criticized belief. De-fixation, thus, must be not only logically and epistemically grounded: it must also be psychologically and socially acceptable for the holder of the belief to give it up.

            In most cases, people are led to seek psychotherapeutic help because they feel they have some problem (or because others persuade them they have some problem). Often their initial “complaint” turns out to be related to a whole belief-system, which they take for granted. Even in cases where beliefs belonging to this belief-system have been critically examined by the person, who realizes that some of them require modification or abandonment, the person is unable to achieve this by her own means. She feels stuck. That this frustrating feeling provides a powerful motivation for change[6] is apparent from the fact that a person in this state overcomes the usual resistance to looking for psychotherapeutic help. Yet, in spite of its power, this is not sufficient, per se, to overcome the power of fixated beliefs. The feeling of being stuck is indeed usually related to a network of beliefs and forms of behavior linked to the person’s formative phase, which she takes to be the only way for giving sense to her existence and behavior.[7] The person is in fact imprisoned in a “mental set” involving routine cognitive and emotive reactions to situations that are only apparently similar – a condition that hampers her capacity to consider alternative routes for problem solving. Such mental habits are very difficult to modify even when one realizes their inadequacy, and this may explain why feeling stuck is insufficient to go beyond the initial stage of seeking help in order to unstuck oneself and achieve the desired change.

            One may also be stuck, even without actually being aware of it, by virtue of the role one plays in a system of social inter-relations such as a family. A 14 years-old psychotic boy is brought by his parents to a family therapy session. From the beginning, he speaks and behaves bizarrely, causing anxiety in his parents. After the parents present the complaint, the following (fragment of) dialogue takes place:


            Therapist: For how long does he make you listen to this “music” each day?

            Father: All the time.

            Therapist: How many hours more or less (turning to patient).

            Carlo: It depends on them, on how much they bother me.

            Therapist: So if they nag you too much you respond with the “music”?

            Carlo: Well, it’s a matter of your point of view. When they have to talk to yours truly they say, “You always exaggerate, always the same things, you’re fixated”. But who goes to paradise? … Those who are fixated!

            Father: What’s that supposed to mean?

            Carlo: Well in paradise … justice, truth, … do you people know where you stand? (Andolfi et al. 1983: 33-34).


In this fragment, the obviously very intelligent Carlo articulates clearly the problem his family faces, namely “fixation”.  Apparently, the role of “identified patient” he occupies in the family system is his way to express his rebellion against the imposition of his parents’ values, which he considers rigid or “fixated”. Given the role he assumes and the constraints of the system, his own reaction takes the form of a fixed “music” – in the therapist’s happy wording. Once this kind of action-reaction pattern, which was functional for some time, is perceived as rather problematic for the system’s current functioning, the family seeks help. The habitual pattern, however, will not be easily abandoned, because it did guarantee the system’s functioning in the past, albeit in a sub-optimal way. The popular maxim “The better is the enemy of the good” applies in this case too, as in many others. There is a strong tendency to stick to key familiar beliefs, theories, rules, and other habits that somehow “work”, even if we are aware of their imperfections, presumably because we cannot afford the risk of replacing them by supposedly better counterparts with whose capacity to “work” we are not sufficiently acquainted.

            Another reason for the difficulty in de-fixating beliefs lies in the fact that our beliefs are not merely internal mental states: they are also directly reflected in the public image we project our ethos, “face”, or reputation. This image includes what came to be known as a person’s self-image and “body image”, which is as much a socio-psychological construct as it is based on physical givens.[8] The public image has to fulfill certain requirements (e.g., consistency, stability, a regular evolutionary pattern, reliability, etc.), and we have an obligation – towards ourselves as well as towards those who are close to us (relatives, students, colleagues) – to sustain this image.[9] This may be a source of resistance to massive de-fixation of beliefs, which – if it took place – might project an image of unreliability and even of recklessness.

Challenges to one’s beliefs in virtually all of the areas mentioned above amount to challenges to one’s identity, for entrenched beliefs in these domains and one’s position or role in key social systems define a crucial portion of one’s identity. Furthermore, these beliefs are usually viewed as closely inter-connected and therefore subject to the “domino effect”: giving up any of them leads to the crumbling of the rest. In spite of the fact that personal and collective identities are far from fixed entities, being rather in constant evolution,[10] the predominant view of identity (as well as the corresponding feeling of identity) postulates permanence and continuity as its essential requisites. To attempt to de-fixate identity related beliefs, therefore, amounts to attempt to de-fixate identity itself. Such an attempt is thus perceived as a major threat, full of personal (e.g., denial of individual autonomy, loss of grip on oneself or self control) and political (e.g., denial of collective autonomy, questionability of claims to collective self-determination) consequences, which cannot but face strong resistance.

Given the weight of the reasons to prevent de-fixation (and the ones mentioned here are just a sample), it is not surprising that there are ready-at-hand strategies available to achieve this goal. Generally speaking, they belong to Peirce’s “method of tenacity”, which is, however, a broader category than he envisaged. In addition to protecting oneself from eventual encounters with potential threats to our beliefs (e.g., “never go to a psychotherapist”, “never read books authored by X”, “never listen to Y”), these “insulating strategies”[11] include a repertoire of defensive as well as preemptive moves against common critical moves. For instance, to the charge that a proposed theory has bizarre consequences and other difficulties, one can reply that it is the only available account for the phenomena in question – “the only game in town”, as a well known philosopher of mind used to say in defense of his problematic  ‘language of thought’ hypothesis; to someone who points to beliefs different than yours, the reply may take the form of an appeal to relativism (“So what? Everyone has his own beliefs”) – which shows that relativism is not inherently tolerant, but can well serve anti-de-fixation purposes; a slippery slope (or domino effect) argument is often effectively used as a defensive move protecting a belief against the slightest proposed modification, as is the use of exclusive dichotomies (“either you are with us or you are against us”).

            Such defensive strategies can in turn become (or be grounded in) methodological doctrine. A case in point is Lakatos’s “negative heuristics” for scientific research programmes. Lakatos observes that a new “research programme can challenge a considerable bulk of accepted scientific knowledge: it is planted, as it were, in an inimical environment which, step by step, it can override and transform” (Lakatos 1970: 140). The condition for these potential transformations (which would lead to scientific progress) to materialize is to protect the research programme from the hostility of its competitors, at least at its beginnings. This is the job of the “negative heuristics”: to protect the ‘hard core’ of the programme, dodging the objections towards auxiliary hypotheses (some of them especially designed for that purpose) or to other marginal components (Lakatos 1970: 132-133). A curious dialectics is thus put in place: in order to ensure major de-fixation in the future, one is required to condone the protection of fixation in the present, at least temporarily; yet, if successful, this protection will have the more permanent effect of actually providing the core set of fixated beliefs that will replace the ones whose de-fixation it brought about.


5.... but not impossible


Facing such an impressive “protective belt”, the de-fixation of entrenched beliefs might indeed seem an impossible task. But this is not the case. In the present section we argue this point by means of selected counter-examples.

            There is no inherent impossibility in eliminating or modifying deeply entrenched beliefs, pace those thinkers who so believed. This has been demonstrated, in the collective sphere, by “revolutions” – social, political, or intellectual; and, in the personal sphere, by the radical change a person’s thought and behavior can undergo, with or without therapy. The fact is that neither society, nor human knowledge, nor individuals have crumbled through such modifications. Furthermore, the success of de-fixation in the cases in question does not seem to have been conditioned by the replacement of the old beliefs by new, “well-fixated” ones. True, the leaders of the revolution in question have usually promised such “progress”, and their followers were certainly enticed to act by such promises. But the overall result of these revolutionary massive de-fixations has been that the very success of such changes implies (and makes at least some minds aware of the fact) that the new or modified beliefs cannot be deemed immune to demise, like their predecessors. They may be, in some respect or other, “better” than the old beliefs which justifies the idea of historical progress; but they hardly can be thought to be there to stay forever.

            Consider the amazing case of Ian Waterman, described by his neurologist, Jonathan Cole (1995). Waterman, at the age of 19, was struck by a rare neurological disease that deprived him of all sensations of touch below the neck, suppressed his sense of proprioception, and rendered him unable to control with any accuracy his limbs and body posture. After initial treatment and observation in a well-equipped neurological center for several weeks, the senior neurologist told Ian that he would never walk again. He was sent home. His discharge showed that “there was no doubt that he was untreatable; the doctors, the nurses, the physios had all tried and failed” (Cole 1995: 23). His condition was described by a specialist as “the worst case of polyneuritis we have ever seen; it has damaged his sensory fibers; he never had motor weakness, but total loss of joint sense; he has not recovered very much; I do not think he is going to get much better” (p. 47). The neurological assessment was unanimous, and was not revised in the light of his astonishing recovery: “Ian had arrived [at the rehabilitation center] a ‘scrap-heap-job’… When he left, another neurological examination showed that there had been no improvement in his neuropathy, but he was able to walk, fend for himself and drive” (p. 75).

            Ian was shaken by the sudden radical change in his life. “I am a cabbage now”, he said (p. 41). He refused to go out and felt guilty for having forced his mother to abandon her work and return home to take care of him. He had been an independent and active person, and couldn’t resign himself to a life of dependence and inactivity. His “bloody pride”, as he puts it (p. 44), would not allow it. “He refused to embrace less of a life than he had known before” (p. 44). And he decided to fight. He began to explore possibilities of moving, and discovered that by focusing his gaze on a limb he could actually move it, in spite of the lack of proprioceptive feedback. In this way he developed a set of “tricks” to overcome the neurological deficit. But this was not sufficient for him: “Even when I had learned to overcome a problem, I wouldn’t show how clever I was and perform the trick in public. I was struggling for normality, and a show like that would confirm the very disability I was seeking to deny” (pp. 43-44). And normality he achieved. After a year he was standing, and later on walking, working, driving and making love. And all this was achieved through those tricks he had devised, with the help of the rehabilitation’s center staff, to bypass his organism’s failure – for his “recovery wasn’t based on any physical improvement … it was a recovery with no organic alteration”  (p. 190). These tricks required enormous cognitive effort, involving all his activities,[12] and were mainly dependent on sight.[13] As Cole points out, the glib connotation of the term ‘trick’ should not prevent us to realize “what is an important facet of neurological rehabilitation. The creation and adoption of new procedures of movement by the disabled are the means by which they regain function” (p. 186).

            Ian’s case is of interest for our discussion of de-fixation for several reasons. First, it shows that organic accidents can sweep away, along with fundamental bodily functions, equally fundamental systems of tacit beliefs that rely on such functions (“My body had looked after itself before. Why couldn’t it now?”; p. 21). Second, it shows that even such a sudden and massive de-fixation does not necessarily destroy the individual’s ability to cope, for an alternative set of beliefs, capable of restoring ‘normality’ (or a semblance thereof) can be effectively put in place. Third, it shows the limitations of “the scientific method” as a sure guide for fixating correct beliefs – especially if we recall the pragmatist principle that it is the consequences of a belief that in fact define it. The authoritative conclusion drawn by the doctors was that Ian’s neurological deficit was such that he would never be able to walk, with all the implications for treatment and rehabilitation efforts this conclusion carries with it. Ian’s non-acceptance of these consequences and his actual demonstration that they were unwarranted not only de-fixated this particular “scientific” belief, but also the much more entrenched belief in the reliability of scientific expertise. The scientific method may indeed lead all its practitioners to “the same conclusion”, as Peirce argues, but this may simply be the result of excluding a priori those practitioners who, like Jonathan Cole, take a broader view of the relevant factors that characterize the complexity of a condition such as Ian’s and must be taken into account in understanding the meaning of such concepts as ‘recovery’ and ‘normality’.[14]

            In addition to not being impossible, de-fixation is not only in the grip of powerful opposed motives, for there are also strong tendencies that support it. Paradoxical therapy, as practiced by the Milan school (see Selvini-Palazzoli et al. 1978), highlights the resistance to the formal fixation of beliefs or behavior previously adopted and performed spontaneously. One of the procedures used consists in prescribing to the patient to do exactly what he or others consider to be the symptom or the disease to be cured, the aim being to induce in this way the abandonment of the problematic behavior.[15] The success of this procedure is predicated upon the inner revolt of the individual’s autonomy as soon as s/he realizes how fixation restricts her or his freedom. What was formerly done “spontaneously” (i.e., as a result of a fixated belief or habit not perceived as such) becomes, by virtue of an explicit external imposition, a formal rule of behavior, that can no longer pretend to originate in the self’s spontaneity. It thus reveals the pretense of spontaneity of its “spontaneous” counterpart. This shows that, along with a tendency to seek fixation and fear change, humans have also a natural resistance to transforming fixation into an absolute kind of imposed ‘rule’. It is by building upon such a resistance that paradoxical therapy induces re-framing and achieves change – at least in some cases.


6. Re-framing and de-fixation


As we have seen, the difficulties to de-fixate a fixated belief have to do, to a large extent, with the filtering effect of that belief, through which it controls what one admits as one’s authoritative sources of information, acceptable innovations, standards of criticism and rationality, and the set of alternative beliefs and courses of action one envisages as possible and reasonable. The term ‘re-framing’, which refers specifically to a strategy of intervention employed by several psychotherapeutic approaches, can be generalized to cover the variety of means that contribute to removing or significantly reducing the filtering effect in question, thus permitting to overcome the crucial barrier to de-fixation that consists in restricting one’s perspective to a single ‘frame of mind’. Re-framing is a multi-level and multi-channel process, involving intra-psychic and inter-psychic phenomena at the cognitive, attitudinal, interactional, emotive, bodily, and experiential levels, as well as different channels of perception, expression and communication. Although essentially an integrative process, re-framing can focus on any of the factors above or in particular combinations thereof. A few examples will be given below.

            The main characteristics enabling re-framing can be summed up under the following rubrics.

            Innovation. The filtering effect of a fixed frame tends to exclude novelty, either by denying it, or rejecting it as irrelevant, or else by reducing it to a mere variant of the familiar. In order to enable re-framing, it is necessary to create conditions such that the possibility and impact of novelty can be acknowledged as such and put to use in leading to the emergence of new perspectives, alternatives, or evaluations.[16] It must be emphasized that the terms ‘new’ and ‘innovation’ refer here to what becomes ‘psychologically new’ as part of the awareness or experience of an individual or a group. In this sense, it can be the result of the ‘discovery’ of what was ‘already there’ (e.g., in the form of tacit knowledge or experience), without being acknowledged as such.

            Making room for innovation in the above sense requires receptivity to new information and the ability of putting it to use. For example, V. Dascal (2000: 264) describes how her interpretation of the motionless and expressionless face of her old father-in-law shifted radically. She had taken it as a sign of “lack of understanding what [she] said to him, lack of interest in what was happening around him, and even [of] inability to recognize [her]”. Once she became aware, through the new information Cole’s (1998) study of neurological face disturbances provided to her, that her father-in-law’s expressionless face was organic effect of his Parkinsonian condition, she overcame the negative effect it had upon their communication, modified her attitude, and began to explore new forms of dialogue with him. New information thus may lead to quite radical changes of perspective and attitude.

It may also lead to the emergence of new alternatives in interpersonal relations. A couple that had been married for six months sought psychotherapeutic help because, although they loved each other very much they could not have intercourse. In a therapeutic session, Varda used the technique of sculpturing (cf. V. Dascal 1995), where touching plays a key role. They were asked to sculpt each other, in turn, as if they were clay, and then both together were asked to sculpt the therapist herself. She made them pay attention to the fact that, whereas he had a rather strong – perhaps too strong – way of touching, her way of touching was rather light – perhaps too light. This remark wakened in him the memory of the pleasure associated with the positive evaluation of her mother’s strong pinching of his cheek while praising him for eating all his food. Her immediate reaction to this information was to recall that her mother used to pinch her in order to quiet her hyperactivity. The new information that emerged in this exchange cleared the ground for their understanding that what each of them believed was the best way to express their affection by touching did not match the other’s perception, and led to the creation of an alternative that would be suitable for both of them. The treatment of this case required no more than three sessions.

            Otherness. The other, the strange, the unexpected, when experienced as alien, may sometimes arouse curiosity, but it may also be felt as a threat and produce anxiety. The confrontation with this alien otherness may thus yield a reaction of closure, as a means of self-protection, which in turn reinforces the fixation of established frames and beliefs. Re-framing requires a change of attitude vis-à-vis otherness, whether it comes from an external or an internal, hitherto unknown, “other”.

This change implies, first, a suspension of evaluative judgment regarding otherness.[17] Not only it should not be seen as inherently negative, but also not as inherently good. Both attitudes are in fact fixation reinforcing. The former because it instigates the defensive move of rallying one’s forces around one’s established beliefs. The latter, because it may induce endowing of the other’s position with an aura of authority, which leads to uncritically adopting and entrenching it. Once the projection of our own evaluative judgments upon otherness is – at least provisionally – suspended, otherness can be experienced in its own terms, without subduing its eventually radical differences vis-à-vis one’s own frame of mind and beliefs. Otherness is no longer something to be merely ‘tolerated’ in spite of being bizarre or wrong, but something that must be respected as a different form of life from which one can even learn something – a source for new perspectives and alternatives.

The change of attitude towards otherness just described paves the way for a give-and-take relationship with otherness, i.e., for a real dialectical exchange where not only confrontation or imitation, but also mutual learning and acceptance, negotiation, and reconciliation can take place. In terms of the typology of debates proposed by M. Dascal (1998), this amounts to rejecting the traditional dichotomy ‘discussion’ vs. ‘dispute’, and acknowledging the existence of a tertium, namely ‘controversy’. In a ‘discussion’ the debate unfolds against the background of a shared set of basic beliefs, unquestionable data, and a decision procedure – all of which make it possible to determine which of the contenders is right, namely, which party sides with ‘the truth’. In a ‘dispute’, little or no such shared background exists, and all that matters for each of the contenders is to win the debate, by no matter what means. While ‘discussion’ presupposes belonging to a shared ‘frame’, ‘dispute’ presupposes the adoption – at least for the purposes at hand – of incompatible and, therefore, irreconcilable sets of beliefs and values. While the latter is predicated upon an unshakeable belief in one’s position and total hostility to otherness, the former accepts otherness only if conceived as a minor divergence understandable and permissible only within broad convergence. Between these two extremes, ‘controversy’ neither requires nearly complete cloning (like ‘discussion’) nor nearly complete denial (like ‘dispute’) of the other’s frame and position. Unlike ‘discussion’ it permits disagreement not only about the specific point at issue, but also about basic assumptions, data, and methods; hence, it rarely reaches a decision as to who is right. Unlike ‘dispute’, however, its basic aim is not victory in the debate, but cognitive progress, at least through the clarification of the issue at stake; hence its restriction of moves in the debate to those arguments that are not merely rhetorically effective for the moment, but seek rational persuasion.[18] In ‘controversy’, therefore, otherness is more thoroughly acknowledged and valued as a means of modifying and shaping one’s views through dialectical interaction, and thereby as contributing to re-framing.

Non-exclusivity. If re-framing involves creating the conditions for the emergence of an alternative set of beliefs and course of action, it also requires that such an alternative be not construed as excluding the extant, fixated frame. In other words, the disjunction between them must be of the ‘and/or’, rather than of the ‘either/or’ kind. Otherwise the person would be placed in the difficult and threatening situation of having to choose between abandoning a frame which is familiar, secure and at least to some extent functional and embracing a so far ‘untested’ frame, or else persisting in the former. An essential part of the re-framing process consists, thus, in overcoming the tendency to emphasize the opposition or incompatibility of alternatives characteristic of dichotomous thinking, and to make deviations of this tendency psychologically viable. Logically speaking, this means that re-framing involves not only the emergence of a second alternative, but at least of a third one as well, namely the co-existence of the two, and perhaps even a fourth, namely the rejection of both. In this way, it in fact opens up the space of viable alternatives the person or group can generate.

Jane, 38, seeks therapy because she feels torn between her husband Robert, 35, and her former boss John, 58, who courted her before her marriage. Robert is supportive, gentle and a good father, but does not satisfy her sexually and intellectually. John shares much of her intellectual interests and attracts her sexually. She feels anxiety by fear of ruining her family, which she values most. Her anxiety grew when John became her lover, so that she felt she could not give up this relationship either. In the therapeutic process, it became apparent that her dilemma prevented her from really enjoying any of the two facets of her life between which she felt divided. Her re-framing consisted in realizing that, at the present moment of her life, she didn’t actually have to opt for the one or the other, but could opt for a third possibility, namely both. This realization amounted to disarming the dilemma in which she had believed she was caught, reduced her level of anxiety, and permitted her to live more fully and enjoyably in the two contexts, at least for the time being. Confronted with a similar situation, Isabel, another patient, opted for walking out of both – husband and lover, thus creating for herself the alternative of living alone.

Alfred’s mother left home when he was a baby, remarried and had another son. Alfred grew up in another country with his father, without memories of seeing his mother and without any news from her. For fifty years he felt as an abandoned child, who was left because his mother had opted to care for her other child. Alfred’s children initiated then a search for the family’s roots, through which they found Alfred’s half-brother Oswald and his family. Oswald’s first act was to send Alfred a photograph of their mother with Alfred as a baby, which she had kept with her throughout her life, and to tell Alfred that she frequently mentioned him. He also told him that wars, immigration and other circumstances prevented them from finding each other. Under the impact of the sight of the picture and the new information he received, Alfred’s former belief was shaken, and replaced by a new alternative, namely that in the heart of the mother there had been room for both children. At the age of 50, Alfred recovered his mother, although she was no longer among the living, and for him as well as for Oswald a brother was born.

The compound effect of the main characteristics of re-framing accounts for its capacity to achieve de-fixation by both overcoming the forces that prevent de-fixation and building upon the forces that favor it. First, the threat to identity is reduced by the more dynamic (rather than static) and multi-faceted (rather than monolithic) conception of identity it allows for. The very possibility of discovering, using, and thereby integrating into one’s self alternative beliefs and forms of behavior, coming from different sources, amounts in fact to a substantive enrichment of one’s identity. Second, such an enrichment, which is ultimately the result of one’s selection, empowers one’s autonomy as a subject capable of choice and growth. Third, the process of re-framing softens the entrenched status of a fixated set of beliefs (a) by reducing the filtering power of a fixed mental set, (b) by de-blocking situations that produce the feeling of being stuck, (c) by permitting to understand the fixated frame as nothing but one of a set of non-exclusive alternatives, and therefore (d) by not requiring the total abandonment of the extant frame.


7. De-fixation and beyond


Re-framing no doubt contributes significantly to de-fixation. It also contributes not only to softening any entrenched frame but also to reduce the temptation to entrench its eventual alternatives. Nevertheless, it still operates within the presumption that one needs to opt for some particular alternative, even if it turns out to be some combination of elements from different ones. In this respect, it shares – to some extent – with the philosophical positions discussed above the presumption that the need for a preferential (albeit not necessarily “fixated”) set of beliefs is a fact of life. Even if one envisages the result of the re-framing process as being not quite re-framing in the sense of replacing one frame by another, but – more correctly put – as multi-framing, in the sense of putting at our disposal a variety of non-fixed frames,[19] each of them fit for different and varying circumstances, it is still presumed that in any given circumstance some frame or another is indispensable.

But is this the case? Can’t this presumption be called into question? Do we really need fixated, semi-fixated or circumstance-driven preferred beliefs? Arguing against this presumption can move in either of two directions: replacing it by the counter-presumption that favors de-fixation over fixation or by a non-presumption situation, where none is preferred over the other.

Reasons for a presumption favoring de-fixated beliefs could be derived from the re-framing process itself. Why to let fixation entrench itself, make people feel stuck, and only then deploy therapeutic and philosophical energies in order to combat its harmful effects? Why not to take instead a preventive course of action, combating fixation from the outset, rejecting altogether its appeal, and denying it a ‘default’ status? Isn’t this precisely what re-framing teaches, by showing that there are no reasons for viewing any frame as entitled to entrenchment? Furthermore, presuming that the default condition is non-fixation would not make it easier to propose new frames and dispose of old ones, which is what re-framing is all about?

Similar reasons could be derived from a methodological position that truly and unrestrictedly accepts the conjectural character (i.e., the “epistemologically soft” nature) of any theory and defines the scientific status of a theory not by its degree of confirmation but rather by its refutability. The full adoption of this view strongly suggests non-fixation as the default value, and it would explain the recommendation of its proponents to focus the activity of scientists in trying to de-fixate whatever temptation of fixation sticks to any theory. The fact that these proponents themselves have not resisted the temptation and divested their own methodological doctrine of fixation, nor have they ceased to appeal to the concept of truth as that to which the growth of knowledge is alleged to approximate us, should not prevent us from seeing in what direction their main proposals leads.[20]

Perhaps a more reasonable position would be to adopt a no-presumption situation, which would not prejudge in favor either of fixation or of non-fixation, and thus would not allocate the burden of proof to those attacking or to those defending a fixated belief. Reasons for a no-presumption condition can be derived from the contextualization of ‘fixation’ we alluded to with our almost oxymoronic phrase ‘circumstance-driven preferred beliefs’. By this we refer to what is perhaps indeed a fact of life, namely the need we have, hic et nunc, to rely upon reasonably stable beliefs. But the same phrase also refers to another fact of life, namely that to infer from the former fact of life that we are entitled to de-contextualize all such stable beliefs (or a large number of them) and apply them to all circumstances (or to a large number thereof), has quite often proved to be a grave mistake. Maybe some such beliefs (and it is not easy to instantiate this modest claim) are entitled to such de-contextualization, i.e., to fixation. But certainly not all nor the majority of them. Since presumptions do not involve infallibility, this observation might be taken as a reason not for non-presumption, but for presuming non-fixation. Let us be cautious, however, and retain, hic et nunc, the non-presumption option.

This option has the advantage of taking into account a factor we have so far overlooked, namely the ‘degree of entrenchment’ of a belief or a frame. The concept of ‘frame’ was in fact introduced in Artificial Intelligence (e.g., Minsky 1975, 1977; Schank and Abelson 1977) and linguistics (Fillmore 1976; Holly 2001), for one, in order to refer to particularly steady and fixed structures embedded and entrenched in thought, language, and behavior. Examples of such structures are syntactic case relations, semantic ‘selection restrictions’, and pragmatic ‘scripts’. Each of these determines the ‘well-formedness’ of sequences of morphemes or of actions. In this sense, they are constitutive rules of a linguistic system or of standard social behavior, and condition the appropriate use of such systems. Further examples of strongly entrenched frames are the seemingly unshakeable faithfulness to a football team, the loyalty to a nation, religion, ideology, or party, the identification of one’s self with one’s public image and to one’s profession, and social institutions such as the schooling system.

At the other pole, there are however less entrenched frames. For example, meteorological previsions are used by many people in order to decide what to wear, whether to join a picnic, etc., but they are not blindly trusted; the results of vocational tests may guide one in choosing a career, but most people will check these results against their own intuitive perception of their tendencies and abilities; horoscopes are, to be sure, blindly trusted by some individuals, but for the most part they are simply considered as additional, albeit suggestive information in deciding about their investments or love affairs. The characteristic of these frames is that, unlike the strongly entrenched ones, they do not function, even for many people that use them, as constitutive rules or components of belief or action.

Frames and beliefs of both kinds, as well as those along the scale that runs from one pole to the other, can and do indeed become fixated. Yet, due to their different degree of entrenchment, the ease with which they can be de-fixated may vary considerably.

We are now in a position to re-frame the questions with which we opened this concluding section, as well as to justify the answer towards we presently lean. Taking into account the different degrees and functions of entrenchment, perhaps there is no need to take a uniform stand regarding the possibility and usefulness of de-fixation and fixation. The no-presumption alternative is the one that fits this approach. For it allows to insisting on de-fixation, say, in the non-constitutive case of entrenchment (where the chances to achieve de-fixation are greater), while accepting fixation as the norm in the constitutive cases. Indeed, it turns out that there are in fact strategies for combating the limitations imposed by fixation in ways other than engaging in the nearly impossible task of de-fixating structurally embedded – hence deeply entrenched – frames. Language use offers a wealth of examples of how we can circumvent the restrictions of syntactic and semantic rules without forfeiting our ability to convey meaning and being understood, but also without calling into question the constitutive character of those rules. Think of our ability to understand metaphors that, typically, violate semantic (or, for some, syntactic) ‘selection restrictions. Even Chomsky’s stock example, Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, which violates many such conditions, can yield metaphorical interpretation(s). Does this imply that the linguistically constitutive role of semantic or syntactic rules (be they the Chomskyan ones or others) is thereby denied and that they can be de-fixated ad libitum? Certainly not. They remain in force because it is through the recognition of their violation that the process of finding an interpretation to the ‘problematic’ utterance is triggered.

Language is a paradigm case of a system defined by a set of rigorous constraints coupled with the possibility to rendering it more flexible by circumventing the very constraints that constitute it. And it is not the only system of this kind. Vis-à-vis systems like these, it is not necessary to attack head on the fixated and entrenched constraints, since they do not, ultimately, limit our ability to express and hold beliefs different from those ‘permitted’ if the constraints alone would rule. It is only vis-à-vis systems of the latter sort that one must emphasize the need of an uncompromising de-fixation strategy. Having begun with a strong emphasis on this kind of strategy, motivated by our concern over the philosophical predominant concern with the opposite strategy, fixation, and concluding with a midway alternative, what else have we done if not performing an exercise in re-framing?


* This paper is the result of blending and re-framing two communications we presented, separately, at the colloquium “The Process of Belief”, coordinated by F. Gil, P. Livet and J. Pina Cabral, at the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal, July 2002. The Portuguese version will be published in F. Gil (ed.), O Processo da Crença. Lisboa: Editora Gradiva.

[1] For a sharp formulation of the ‘relativity of reason’ as suggested by Peirce, compare this quote from Hobbes: “Lawyer: The manner of punishment in all crimes whatsoever, is to be determined by the common-law. That is to say, if then the judgment must be according to the statute; if it be not specified by the statute, then the custom in such cases is to be followed: but if the case be new I know not why the judge may not determine it according to reason. Philosopher: But according to whose reason? If you mean natural reason of this or that judge authorized by the King to have cognizance of the cause, there being as many several reasons as there are several men, the punishment of all crimes will be uncertain, and none of them ever grow up to make a custom. Therefore a punishment certain can never be assigned, if it have its beginning from the natural reasons of deputed judges...” (Hobbes [1740]: 121-122). For a discussion of this kind of relativism, see M. Dascal (1996).

[2] On this issue, see Collins and Pinch (1994) and M. Dascal (2003a).

[3] For a more detailed analysis of the paradoxical nature of the philosophical attitudes towards prejudice, see M. Dascal (1999).

[4] For a comparative discussion of philosophical hermeneutics’ and other conceptions of interpretation, see Dascal and Dascal (1996).

[5] Critical epistemology, of the variety defended by Popper and his followers, has been deliberately left out of this survey. On the face of it, it holds a position clearly opposed to the attitude that favors, in one way or another, fixation, for it contends that any scientific theory is nothing but a conjecture that scientists should try constantly to refute. On closer inspection, however, this position turns out to hold several “dogmas” not open to criticism and refutation, at the methodological, metaphysical, and political levels. See below, section 7 of the present paper. For further details, see M. Dascal (1997).

[6] We should add that this is the case in those cultures that value primarily ‘mobility’, ‘growth’ and ‘development’, seeing their opposites as forms of ‘stagnation’.

[7] One divorced patient who sought help in order to overcome her inability to develop a satisfying relationship with men reports, in the course of the therapeutic process, her perception of her parents as emotionless, strictly rational beings, who seemed to behave like automata. At home, she observed, the only mode of communication was verbal. There were only words, and everything was supposed to be explicit and literal. No room for hesitations, doubts, feelings, flexibility. No wonder, she said, that the world was perceived as “rigid, unchanging, non-breathing” (case discussed in V. Dascal 1992).

[8] “The body image is a holistic, multi-dimensional image that integrates cognitive constructions, wishes, emotional attitudes and interaction with others; it is essentially dynamic being in perpetual inner self-construction and self-destruction” (Schilder 1970: 15-16).

[9] See M. Dascal (2001) for an analysis of the trade-off between epistemological and reputation-based criteria in the assessment of academic performance.

[10] See M. Dascal (2003b) for an argument in favor of “fluid identities”.

[11] For this concept, and additional examples of its use, see M. Dascal (1989).

[12] This was not particularly pleasant for Ian: “I detest being trapped in my body and not having independence and freedom of mobility without constant thought” (p. 180).

[13] So much so that darkness was a danger he constantly avoided: “… I rarely go to the theatre or cinema because of the dark” (p. 167). Oliver Sacks, in his foreword, referring to an episode in which an electricity failure caused Ian to collapse on the floor in a nerveless heap, comments: “Even sneezing, with the momentary blinking and loss of vision it entails, is a hazardous business to a man who gets no direct information from his body but has to depend exclusively on sight” (p. xii).

[14] Ian, who up to this day is in fact a research associate of Cole (personal communication), was aware of this fact. Referring to the rehabilitation staff (to whom he was extremely grateful), he observes: “Though they appeared to understand the clinical loss, they never seemed to grasp its consequences” (p. 164), and referring to Cole, he declares: “… I feel that at last there is someone who really understands the complexity of my condition” (p. xxv).

[15] Here is another example of paradoxical intervention, this time from the Rome School: “The parents want to convince the therapist than an improvement has occurred. If the therapist accepts this view, the family’s collective effort towards improvement will probably come to a halt. The therapist does not budge from his position of incredulity. This position is paradoxically reassuring to the family and allows the system to move further in the direction of change” (Andolfi et al. 1983: 140).

[16] Some therapists speak of ‘redefinition’ as equivalent to re-framing. For example, Andolfi et al. (1983: 32ff.) speak of redefinition of the problem, of the context, of the relationship with the therapist, etc.

[17] “It becomes necessary to analyze the structure of that of which the problem is a manifestation and to redefine the relationships which cause it. If we succeed in removing the reductive and undervaluing labels and attitudes generally directed towards the ‘disturbed one’, we can then hope to connect the patient in alternative relational dimensions” (Andolfi et al. 1983: 38).

[18] While Peirce identified ‘dispute’ and described it as a perverse kind of debate leading to irrational fixation, he viewed ‘discussion’ as the kind of debate appropriate for ‘the scientific method’, obviously because of the ‘rational’ (hence ‘positive’) fixation it leads to. He entirely overlooked the tertium, ‘controversy’.

[19] “By continuously redefining the therapist prevents the family from stabilizing itself around only one definition” (Andolfi et al. 1983: 155).

[20] See note 5.







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