Paul Watzlawick

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Paul Watzlawick (born July 25, 1921 in Villach , Carinthia , † March 31, 2007 in Palo Alto , California ) was an Austrian philosopher , psychotherapist and communication scientist .

Watzlawick lived in California, his adopted home, and worked at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto. In addition to his Austrian citizenship, he was also an American citizen. His work had an impact on family therapy and general psychotherapy and he published a number of specialist books. In German-speaking countries, he became known to a larger audience primarily through his popular scientific publication `` Instructions for Unhappiness '' , as well as highly regarded contributions on communication theory , perceptual psychology and radical constructivism . Watzlawick was a member ofAustrian PEN Club and initiator for the establishment of the PEN Club Liechtenstein , as well as culturally and socially engaged in many other contexts.


A year and a half before Watzlawick's Matura examination at the Peraugymnasium in Villach, Austria was annexed to Germany on March 12, 1938. His father became known as an opponent of the National Socialists. Father and son continued to see themselves as Austrians.

After graduating from high school in Villach in 1939, Watzlawick was drafted. He was committed to the Reich Labor Service , then to the Wehrmacht , to the anti-aircraft gun company. He qualified as an armed forces interpreter for the English language, worked as a translator during interrogations of English-speaking prisoners, felt understanding for the prisoners and began to translate incompletely. His manipulations were discovered. He was arrested and sent to the Stuttgart remand prison in early February 1945. Under favorable conditions such as the end of the war and the help of superiors, the imprisonment ended. After the war he worked as an interpreter for the English.

In 1946 he enrolled at the Institute of Economics and Commerce at the University of Venice . He took philosophy and studied new languages ​​( philology ). In 1949 he received his doctorate in philosophy. From 1951 to 1954 he completed training in psychotherapy at the Carl Gustav Jung Institute in Zurich , from which he graduated with an analyst diploma.

Then Watzlawick went to India . He wanted to open a practice there. The project failed. He got to know the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and yoga , which he practiced until his death. With Jiddu Krishnamurti he encountered a new view of things. As a result of these suggestions, he said goodbye to past- related psychoanalysis and developed a contemporary-related constructivist view .

“The root cause of suffering lies in our unwillingness to see facts as real facts and ideas as mere ideas, and our incessant mixing of facts with concepts. We tend to take ideas for facts, which creates chaos in the world. "

In 1957 Watzlawick received a call to the University of El Salvador . He held the chair for psychotherapy until 1960. In 1960, Don D. Jackson brought Watzlawick to the Palo Alto Group in Palo Alto , California , where Watzlawick was henceforth a research officer at the Mental Research Institute .

In Palo Alto, Bateson and Juergen Ruesch had already developed a communication theory from a cybernetic and psychiatric point of view as early as 1951. In 1956, Bateson, Jackson, Haley, and Weakland first described paradoxical human communications and published their results.

“This research group approached the phenomena of schizophrenic communications from a point of view that is radically different from the hypotheses that in schizophrenia are primarily intrapsychic disorders (e.g. a thought disorder, ego weakness, flooding of consciousness by primary processes, or the like ), which then have a secondary influence on the interpersonal relationships of the patient. "

In the context of the hypotheses of this research group, Watzlawick began to work on his actual research area. Communication processes and systemic family therapy were the focus of his interest. The practical experience that prompted Watzlawick to formulate his communication theory , he gained from researching the communication of schizophrenic patients who were mostly under his clinical observation or were under therapeutic treatment as members of normal or psychotically disturbed families.

He explained his systemic thinking in an interview:

“The systemic approach is based on the situation in the here and now. That means in the way in which people communicate with each other and then get into trouble while communicating. So we try to understand how the human reference system works, in which the so-called patient is part of it and contributes ... Our question is: What for? What is the function of the so-called symptom? It goes so far for me that when I do marriage therapy, for example, the patient is no longer the man or the woman, but the relationship between these two people. This is my patient. I want to work on the relationship. "

In 1976 Watzlawick also received a teaching position in the psychiatry department at Stanford University . In 1978 he co-founded the PEN Club Liechtenstein.

Watzlawick made significant contributions to radical constructivism . He also provided, with Janet Beavin and Don D. Jackson, much acclaimed reflections on theorizing about communication.

In 2001 Watzlawick received the prize of honor from the Viktor Frankl Foundation of the City of Vienna . He died of a serious illness in 2007 at the age of 85 in his adopted home of Palo Alto. He left a wife and two stepdaughters.

Watzlawick published 18 books that have been translated into 85 languages. In addition, he wrote over 150 articles and gave lectures.

2016 was in the 10th district of Vienna favorites of Watzlawickweg named after him. In his native Villach, a square between the train station and the banks of the Drau was named after him in summer 2017.

Communication theory

Watzlawick's biography suggests that the theory and pragmatics of communication based on suggestions from the ideas of researchers in the Palo Alto Group, his training at the Jung Institute in Zurich, from his exchange with Krishnamurti and Dürckheim as well as reading from many other authors - Watzlawick is supposed to have read tirelessly - and his practice as a therapist has emerged.

“We are as if woven into communication; even our self-awareness depends ... on communication. ... and [we] are - or perhaps because of that - almost incapable of communicating via communication. "

The inability to reflect on our communication or behavior is also a problem for the authors of Human Communication . The psychoanalysis referred to the unconscious , to clarify problems. Ultimately, this approach created the primacy of the past and was also conservative and culturally consistent in its effects .

In Watzlawick's constructivist theory, the present plays the main role. It is theoretically described as a system of mutually influencing relationships. “Becoming” and “growing” are the characteristic features of this present-day system. The communication scientists live right in the middle of this happening. They are not only busy collecting data, but using new linguistic points of contact and ideas to talk about the data, to evaluate it and to organize it. Others should be able to continue working with it, further develop views and descriptions, change the theory.

In the following sections, some aspects of the authors' communication theory are explained. They refer to imperfections that are subject to “growing” and “becoming”.

Axioms of the theory

One of the foundations of the formation of a theory is to reveal the prerequisites of the respective theory. The five pragmatic axioms outlined by Watzlawick, Janet H. Beavin and Don D. Jackson are the foundations of their communication theory. The axioms are applied to any situation of a communicative nature. They are:

  • "You can't not communicate!"
  • "Every communication has a content and a relationship aspect, whereby the latter determines the former and is therefore a metacommunication."
  • "The nature of a relationship is determined by the punctuation of the communication processes on the part of the partner."
  • “Human communication uses digital and analog modalities. Digital communications have complex and eclectic logical syntax, but inadequate semantics in the field of relationships. Analog communications, on the other hand, have this semantic potential, but lack the logical syntax required for unambiguous communications. "
  • "Interpersonal communication processes are either symmetrical or complementary, depending on whether the relationships between the partners are based on equality or diversity."

Communication is behavior

Watzlawick had far-reaching and comprehensive ideas about communication and its description. It included both the extended context of a situation or an issue as well as the relationships between those involved. If context and relationships are excluded, a single phenomenon or an individual or a specific group is in focus in isolation. Complex phenomena would be deprived of their context, interpreted one-dimensional, ' monadically limited'.

He reported on this, inter alia. an example from cultural anthropology . During World War II , American soldiers stationed in England said that English girls were easy to come by. English women said that American soldiers were excessively stormy. The contradiction was resolved when the mating behavior common in England and America was compared, from getting to know each other through to sexual intercourse.

In both countries, mating behavior went through about 30 different forms. The order of these forms was different. Kissing z. B. occurred with the Americans already at the 5th level, while the English women expected this much later at around level 25. If an English woman was kissed by an American, it meant that she had to decide far too soon whether to have sexual intercourse or to end the relationship. If she decided to have sexual intercourse, the American soldier felt it was too early, inappropriate and shameless. The English women missed important elements of mating behavior and felt betrayed.

Both judged the other negatively: He or she misbehaves. It can be seen from this

"... that certain phenomena remain inexplicable as long as they are not seen in a sufficiently broad context or that in this case the organism in question [i.e. the other] must be ascribed properties that it does not have."

Artificially isolating a phenomenon from the context leads to an age-old and unanswerable question about the nature of such phenomena, ultimately about the essence of the human soul. Scientists and laypeople were and are thus induced to make assumptions or assertions for which it remains open whether they are true. This impasse could be avoided if researchers turned to "the observable manifestations of human relationships".

"The medium of these manifestations is human communication."

Theoretically, these manifestations are considered from the following aspects:

  • How are linguistic signs (words and sentences) linked with one another ( syntactics )?
  • What do the characters used ( semantics ) mean?
  • How do the participants behave (pragmatics)?

For syntactics and semantics, Watzlawick followed the ideas of Morris and Carnap . Syntactics and semantics are sub-areas of semiotics. Pragmatics, behavior or communication combine both. Pragmatic aspects are therefore paramount and overarching in his theory because they include relationships between signs, their meaning and all non-verbal accompanying phenomena.

“Theoretically, a clear conceptual separation of the three areas is possible; in practice, however, they are of course mutually dependent on one another. "

Functions determine communications

Another definition in Watzlawick's theory results from the epistemological aspect of his constructivist view. So far it has been customary in psychology to localize mental functions as acts , states, experiences in humans and to describe them with terms such as sensation , perception , apperception , memory , etc. The different functions are defined by appearance or characterized as unconscious. Fatally, this suggests connections and is therapeutically relevant that cannot be observed.

"The danger inherent in all these terms is that, if they are only thought and repeated long enough, they assume a pseudo-reality, so that finally 'attitude' suddenly changes from a mere concept to a measurable dimension of the soul ..."

In contrast, Watzlawick related his theory to the observable interactions between relationships and the content of communication. Information and knowledge of the current behavior is sufficient to assess the condition. This is similar to a game of chess. A look at the position of the pieces is enough to see the score and the possibilities for further moves.

These interactions or functions have no connection with the traditionally asserted inner psychological functions. They are more like math functions. Like the latter, they are constructs and symbols. They only describe relations, i.e. only what can currently be observed in communications. They say nothing about what could possibly underlie them primarily ( substantially ). However, the relevance of mathematical functions for the descriptions of communicative functions that relate to complex behavioral structures is limited:

"We will only refer to certain areas of mathematics when they are useful language for describing certain phenomena of human communication."

This applies e.g. B. for the aspects 'digital' and 'analog', which Watzlawick uses as heuristic principles in the context of his pragmatic axioms .

Watzlawick also explained this idea of ​​function with regard to brain and perception research . Their results suggest that we only perceive relationships and relationship structures. Human eyes B. move imperceptibly when looking ( microsaccade ). This is used for sharp vision. If the eyes remain rigid, the same image is received for a long time from the same part of the retina and the eye becomes tired. You can no longer see clearly.

Similar to seeing can be observed when hearing. A tone that remains the same for a long time will no longer be heard at some point. When people want to explore an object by feeling, they move their finger back and forth. If you keep your finger still, you don't feel any other properties of the surface apart from the temperature.

From this and from other examples we can conclude: A relationship is established through perception. This is checked as far as possible. From this an abstraction is obtained and named. Watzlawick understands this abstraction analogously to the mathematical concept of function.

“... functions therefore make up the essence of our perception; and functions are ... 'Signs for a connection' ... "

If this is the case, then the person's self-experience also consists of experiences of functions or communications in which he is involved.

Construction of reality

The following example from the instructions on unhappiness became particularly well known . In it, Watzlawick describes, among other things, a man who claps his hands every ten seconds. When asked about the reason for this strange behavior, he explains: “To scare away the elephants.” When asked that there are no elephants here, the man replies: “Well, well! You see? ”With this, Watzlawick wanted to show that the consistent attempt to avoid a problem - here: confronting elephants - in reality perpetuates it.

Paul Watzlawick Ring of Honor

The Paul Watzlawick Ring of Honor has been awarded by the Vienna Medical Association since 2008 .

Previous winners were

Paul Watzlawick Prize for Lifetime Achievement

Awards (excerpt)

Works (selection)

  • with Janet H. Beavin and Don D. Jackson: Human Communication - Forms, Disorders, Paradoxes. (Original title: Pragmatics of Human Communication. A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes. WW Norton & Company, New York 1967.) Huber , Bern 1969. (13th, unchanged edition. Hogrefe , Bern 2017, ISBN 978-3 -456-85745-9 )
  • with John H. Weakland and Richard Fisch: Solutions. On the theory and practice of human change. Huber, Bern 1974, ISBN 3-456-80038-X .
  • How real is reality - delusion, delusion, understanding. Piper, Munich 1976, ISBN 3-492-02182-4 .
  • The possibility of being different - On the technique of therapeutic communication. Huber, Bern 1977, ISBN 3-456-80433-4 . (New edition 2002, ISBN 3-456-83895-6 )
  • Directions for Use for America - A Disrespectful Travel Territory. Piper, Munich 1978, ISBN 3-492-02401-7 .
  • Invented Reality - How Do We Know What We Think We Know? Piper, Munich 1981, ISBN 3-492-02581-1 .
  • Instructions on how to be unhappy . Piper, Munich 1983, ISBN 3-492-02835-7 .
  • From the bad to the good or hecate's solutions. Piper, Munich 1986, ISBN 3-492-03085-8 .
  • with Franz Kreuzer: The uncertainty of our reality - A conversation about constructivism. Piper, Munich 1988, ISBN 3-492-20742-1 .
  • Münchhausen's braid or psychotherapy and “reality”. Huber, Bern 1988, ISBN 3-456-81708-8 .
  • From the nonsense of the sense or from the sense of the nonsense. Picus, Vienna 1992, ISBN 3-85452-315-7 .
  • If you really loved me, you would like to eat garlic - About happiness and the construction of reality. Piper, Munich 2006, ISBN 3-492-04942-7 .
  • You can't not communicate. The reading book. Edited and with a foreword by Trude Trunk. Verlag Hans Huber, Bern 2011, ISBN 978-3-456-85029-0 .


  • Andrea Köhler-Ludescher: Paul Watzlawick: The biography. The discovery of the present moment. Huber, Bern 2014, ISBN 978-3-456-85412-0 .
  • Alois Huber, André Höschele: Paul Watzlawick: Man, one of us is crazy. The portrait 008, Vienna 2014, ISBN 978-3-9503749-7-1 .
  • Alois Huber, Roland Fürst: Paul Watzlawick 4.0 , Facultas 2018, ISBN 978-3-7089-1746-7 .
  • Jessica Röhner, Astrid Schütz: Essences - In conversation with Paul Watzlawick. Hogrefe Verlag: Bern, ISBN 9783456861180 .


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. General. Retrieved January 16, 2018 .
  2. Watzlawick quoted in: Daniel Krähenbühl: Review of: Paul Watzlawick - the biography. systemic
  3. ^ Jürgen Ruesch, Gregory Bateson (1951): Communication: the social matrix of psychiatry. Norton, New York 1951, OCLC 00657369 .
  4. Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, John Weakland: Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia. ( Memento from May 29, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) In: Behavioral Science. Volume 1, No. 4, 1956, p. 251.
  5. Paul Watzlawick, Janet H. Beavin, Don D. Jackson: Human Communication. Forms, disorders, paradoxes. 12th edition. Bern 2011, p. 232 f.
  6. For the biographical information see the review by Daniel Krähenbühl on: Andrea Köhler-Ludescher: Paul Watzlawick - the biography. The discovery of the present moment. and Thomas Kowalczyk. Review of October 29, 2014 to: Andrea Köhler-Ludescher: Paul Watzlawick - the biography. The discovery of the present moment. Verlag Hans Huber (Bern, Göttingen, Toronto, Seattle) 2014, ISBN 978-3-456-85412-0 . In: socialnet reviews, ISSN  2190-9245 ,
  7. Quoted from the journal Kommunikation und Seminar , Junfermann, Paderborn, June 2007 issue, p. 55.
  8. PEN Club - January 18, 2018, accessed July 21, 2021 .
  9. Janet Beavin Bavelas , University of Victoria
  10. ( Memento from September 10, 2014 in the Internet Archive )
  11. ^ Franz-Josef Hücker: In memoriam Paul Watzlawick. In: Psychotherapy Forum. Vol. 15, No. 2, 2007 (Springer Vienna), p. 104.
  12. Paul Watzlawick has died , , March 31, 2007
  13. ^ Mailath: Maria-Lassnig-Straße decided . City hall correspondence of April 8, 2016, accessed on April 8, 2016.
  14. By Eva Maria Scharf | 6:46 p.m., 03 October 2017: Villach: Watzlawick sayings should be heard in the city center. October 3, 2017, accessed July 21, 2021 .
  15. “What Watzlawick later named as the first of five 'pragmatic axioms' of human communication: 'You cannot not not communicate.' (Watzlawick et al. 1967, 53), was pronounced years earlier by Ruesch ... “Wolfram Lutterer: On the trail of ecological consciousness: an analysis of the complete works of Gregory Bateson. Hamburg 2000, pp. 68-70.
  16. Watzlawick in an interview with Spiegel in 1994: “In contrast to Jung's analytical method, for example, whose approach focuses on the past, ... I am now at the point where I ask myself: What is the problem here and now? I do not deny that these problems have their origins in the past. But I ask whether it is necessary to understand the cause in the past, to understand the development of this problem and then to bring about a therapeutic change by understanding the causes. I completely deviated from that. ”DER SPIEGEL 30/1994 There is no such thing as truth .
  17. "With a completely new perspective on the swamis, the acquaintance of Nehru and Indira Gandhi as well as a completely new concept of truth from Jiddhu Krishnamurti in his luggage he comes back to Europe."
  18. ^ Serge Sulz, Stefan Hagspiel: European Psychotherapy 2014/2015: Austria: Home of the World's Psychotherapy. Hamburg 2015, p. 101.
  19. Human communication. P. 42 f.
  20. Human communication. Pp. 33-46.
  21. Paul Watzlawick, Janet H. Beavin, Don D. Jackson: Human Communication. Forms, disorders, paradoxes. 11th, unchanged. Edition. Huber, Bern 2007, pp. 53–70.
  22. Watzlawick uses the term courtship pattern (s) in the English original .
  23. Human communication. P. 23. (Term inserted in brackets.)
  24. Human communication. P. 24.
  25. ^ Charles W. Morris: Foundation of the Theory of Signs. In: Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, Charles W. Morris (Eds.): International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. Volume I, No. 2. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1938, pp. 77-137.
  26. ^ Rudolph Carnap: Introduction to Semantics. Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1942.
  27. Human communication. P. 25.
  28. Human communication. P. 32.
  29. Human communication. P. 27.
  30. Human communication. P. 33.
  31. See on this section Human Communication. Pp. 27-56.
  32. Website of the Prize of the Vienna Medical Association
  33. Robert Pfaller receives the Paul Watzlawick Ring of Honor. In: Tyrolean daily newspaper . October 15, 2020, accessed October 20, 2020 .
  34. ^ Paul Watzlawick Ring of Honor to Stefan Thurner and Peter Klimek. In: Salzburger Nachrichten / APA. April 15, 2021, accessed April 17, 2021 .
  35. ^ New Watzlawick Prize from the Medical Association to the philosopher Agnes Heller . , February 14, 2017 (accessed March 12, 2018)
  36. ( Memento from February 12, 2012 in the Internet Archive )