On the Nature of Psychological Science

Randal G. Tonks
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University


Contemporary philosophy of science is replete with perspectives on the appropriate nature of scientific practice. From neo-positivism and falisificationism to social constructivism and feminism, a plurality of perspectives stand as exemplary paradigms. The history of psychological praxis is also full of a plethora of paradigms that have emerged over the past century. This paper provides a cursory overview of these philosophies of science as they represent the meta-perspectives or world-views of human and natural science. By examining the philosophical underpinnings of these world-views as they are expressed by various exemplary scholars and practitioners of psychology, it is possible to make informed decisions about developing valuable ideologies of psychology for the future. Along with a consideration of the conceptions and goals of practical knowledge that followers of these paradigms hold, this paper also examines the nature and relationships of the roles that psychologists take as citizens and as scientific observers.


What is Science? What is psychological science? These questions have frequently been asked throughout the histories of both philosophy and psychology. Contemporary work in the philosophy of science provides a broad spectrum of perspectives that represent answers to this question of science (Harding, 1986). Similar diversity also exists in conceptions of psychology, where the history of psychology is replete with various forms of psychology as a science (Danziger, 1990; Leahey, 1996).

It is possible to examine this plethora of perspectives against the context of the dichotomous meta-perspectives of natural and human science, a dichotomy that is frequently found in the history of psychology. In making such an examination one can reveal the foundations to a number of disputes in psychology that have led to many crises of identity in the practice of psychology in Canada and the United States (Tonks, 1996; Leahey, 1994; Wand, 1993; Erikson, 1964). Additionally, making such a survey of philosophies of science and psychology provides students of psychology with an opportunity to actively explore these ideologies of psychology and make informed decisions about how they may form their own philosophies of psychology as a science. Philosophy of science and the history of psychology

The contemporary spectrum of stances on the nature of science ranges from the realism of neo-positivism and falsificationism to the social constructivism of Feyerabend's cosmologies and much of hermeneutical philosophy of science. In between these contrasting stances lie many other perspectives, such the various forms of feminist philosophy of science (Kimball, 1994; Benston, 1989; Tomm, 1989; Harding, 1986).

Kurt Danziger (1990) has also shown that the beginnings of contemporary scientific psychology involved at least three characteristically different orientations, ranging from 1) Galtonian anthropometrics and 2) Wundtian introspection and volkerpsychologie to 3) Freudian psychoanalysis. Since those days, many other forms of psychology have emerged which rely upon a great variety of philosophical assumptions (Leahey, 1994; Royce, 1987; Robinson, 1986).

Logical Positivism and Neo-positivism

Stemming from the philosophy of Mach (1897/1959), Logical Positivism (& neo-Positivism) have been built upon the concepts of verification and public observation (Tolman, 1992). With verification (or confirmation) as a method for unifying science based upon "objective" observations, many forms of positivism have emerged. With perspectives ranging from Mach's original phenomenalist stance (which actually represents a precursor to logical positivism) through to Carnap's (1937, 1966) reliance upon protocol statements and his desire to reduce all scientific propositions to the language of materialism, positivism can be seen as anything but unified (Staats, 1987; Royce, 1987).

While it is now thirty years since logical positivism has been declared dead (Passmore, 1967), its ghost still lives in the halls of Canadian psychology departments where widespread support for it can be found (Powell, Bhatt, Grady, Tonks & Carpendale, 1991). In Psychology, neo-positivism has exercised its influence through widespread operationism (Green, 1992) and the adoption of traditional positivist tenets (Kimble, 1989). Unlike Bridgman's (1927/1961) operational analysis, operationism in psychology, as expressed by Hull, Stevens, and Boring, has been presented as several attempts to make psychology a natural science that is as legitimate as physics (Koch, 1992). A shortfall of these attempts is that they neglect the original perspectives of the keynote physicists like Mach and Bridgman whose ideas, led to the "Frankenstein" (Bridgman cited in Koch, 1992) of operationism in psychology. Again, like the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, positivist psychologists have not been able to agree upon the principles for a science of psychology, in spite of their desire to provide a single 'paradigm' for psychology. This is clearly seen in the conflicting support of hypothetico-deductivism (Hull, 1943) and Baconian inductivism (Skinner, 1938) as methodologies for psychology.


Beginning with an overview of the problems with induction (and verification), Popper (1959) offered his alternative philosophy as a method of demarcating science from pseudo-science. Falsificationism in its various (na´ve and sophisticated) forms has risen as a challenger to neo-positivism (Lakatos, 1970). Popper (1970) admits to his support of a little dogmatism in the practice of making bold conjectures and enabling theories to be refuted (or falsified) by brute fact. Like the realism of neo-positivism, Popper's brand of science also admits to the dogma of fact-theory independence. On the other hand, unlike the potential for the accumulation of knowledge that positivism offers, falsificationism simply tells the scientist what is not true, leaving a host of conjectures standing like bowling pins waiting to fall. Lakatos adds that some form of rational choice can be made amongst scientific theories, supporting a 'horse race' model of scientific progression and degeneration, in spite of the lack of any "crucial experiments".

Social Constructivism

Popper (1970) expressed his to concern about "the myth of frameworks" that he saw in the socially constructed paradigms of Thomas Kuhn's (1962/1970) Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Others, such as Feyerabend (1970), have suggested that Kuhn did not go far enough in support for relativism in science. Paul Feyerabend (1988) proposed an "opportunist" orientation to science that encouraged the counter-inductive proliferation of scientific perspectives. According to this "anything goes" policy of scientific pragmatism, Feyerabend laid out a description of a truly broad conception of science, one that was built upon ethical and political concerns. Accepting a host of cosmologies as scientific, including witchcraft and voodoo, Feyerabend also cautioned his readers against falling into the same trap of presumed rationalism that the Aristotelians had fallen into in rejecting Galileo's assertions about the moons around Jupiter. Instead, his vision of science was of a collection of activities and perspectives that offer truths relative to their cosmologies, truths that are incommensurate to each other. This pluralistic orientation has been developed from Protagorean relativism into a pragmatic multiculturalism of science (Feyerabend, 1987).

A host of others too have followed suit with more radically relativist orientations to science, where they recognize the power imbalances evident in the practice of science. In psychology, Kenneth Gergen (1988) has spoken out for relativism in the construction of narrative accounts of psychological events. His hermeneutical stance has been variously accepted by some others, but is more frequently rejected by many others, sometimes as being "just plain nutty".


Woolfolk, Sass and Messer (1988) have outlined three characteristic orientations of a hermeneutical approach to psychology. Involving concern for methodology, ontology and ethics, they suggest that hermeneutics provides an alternative to empiricist natural science and the dogmas that it involves (Quine, 1953/1980; Stam, 1992).

Recognizing the "ready-to-hand" dialectical relationship between self and the world as an ontological stance, in conjunction with the methodological hermeneutical circle, Woolfolk, et al. (1988) provide support for Dilthey's (1883/1989) critical hermeneutics. This methodological circle involves the dictum that "there is no understanding without pre-understanding", a stance on knowledge that underscores the importance of context and historical background in the unfolding of new knowledge. Ontologically speaking, a similar circle exists where the self and world are understood as existing in a relationship of mutual construction (Sass, 1988; Dilthey, 1883/1989). Finally, holding critical self-evaluation as being central to any scientific enterprise, these human scientists also recognize a concern for the goals of knowledge production and the application of knowledge in an ethically sensitive fashion (Woolfolk, et al., 1988; Habermas, 1971).

John Shotter (1993), as a psychologist, accepts a hermeneutical stance in his work on the process of joint action that is found in the social construction of knowledge. In doing so, he also recognizes the roles of identity and belonging in the social production of knowledge. This orientation towards communal processes also reflects the concerns of Erik Erikson (1964) where one can consider personal and collective identity formation as being central to the acceptance of ideologies of science and psychology, and subsequently all of scientific practice (Tonks, 1995). This issue of identity in science will arise again in the following discussion of feminism, and also in the later discussion of teaching the history and theory of psychology.


Like many hermeneuticists, a large number of Feminists have adopted relativism in their philosophies and psychologies (Hanen, 1989; McCormack, 1989; Tomm, 1989). Feminist philosophers of science too have moved in hermeneutical circles of concern for the examination of ontological (Cook & Fonow, 1990; Hanen, 1989), epistemological (Harding, 1986; Cook & Fonow, 1990; Hawkesworth, 1989; McCormack, 1989;) and ethical-evaluative (Cook & Fonow, 1990; Harding, 1986; Benston, 1989) issues in science.

Cook and Fonow (1990) provide the following five principles of Feminist epistemology: 1) Acknowledging the pervasive influence of gender; 2) Focus on consciousness raising; 3) Rejection of the subject - object separation; 4) Examination of ethical concerns; 5) Emphasis on empowerment and transformation. Many feminist psychologists have made use of these principles in their attempts to redefine the science of psychology by getting away from traditional masculine models of natural science that represent an "impoverishment of reality" (Benston, 1989, p.65) "to anti-human ends" (p. 69). In doing so, they have moved towards a socially responsible approach that recognizes the participants in psychological studies by using their phenomenological reports and insights into psychological issues to inform the research in a cooperative and empowering style (Lips, 1989). This orientation to a scientific psychology makes use of the hermeneutical subject-object connection, where it is expected that research questions come from real community concerns. Here, research also is constructed in conjunction with the community participants and its results are given back to the community for the purposes of empowerment and social change.

Twenty years ago, the Task Force on the Status of Women in Canadian Psychology was formed and has lead to numerous publications (e.g., Wand, 1977; Pyke & Stark-Adamec, 1981; Stark-Adamec & Kimball, 1984; Kimball, 1986; Wright, 1992; Kimball, 1994) and the establishment of the Section on Women And Psychology (SWAP). Today, this section and its members continue to play a major role in the critical redefinition of the science question in Canadian psychology (Cherry, 1995).

Psychology and the Legacies of Human and Natural Science

With this brief survey in place of just a few significant answers to the science question in psychology, it is possible to examine meta-perspectives or world-views of science into which these various philosophies may be placed. The natural and human science world-views are such meta-perspectives whose legitimacy to the practice of psychology has been debated over the past one hundred years.

John Conway (1992) identified the crux of a common manifestation of this debate in the life and works of William James where James was seen as being caught in a crisis of identity between the roles and world-views of the "tough minded scientist" and the "tender minded humanist". Historians of psychology have also pointed to this debate in the form of the marriage between the pure (natural) scientists and the humanistic practitioners (Leahey, 1994; Wand, 1993; Kimble, 1989), a marriage that has been filled with many disputes and threats of divorce (Kendler, 1987). Furthermore, a recent e-mail circulated to members of this section (25) has suggested that this concern continues to play a role in the hiring of scholars of science studies (McMillen, 1997; Latour, 1997).

While it is possible to enter into a long and deep discussion about the characteristics of these two world-views of science, it might be briefly pointed out here that neo-positivism and falsificationism fall into the natural science world-view while hermeneutics and social constructivism fall into the human science world-view. Feminism, while largely falling into the human science orientation also has been embedded in the natural science perspective. This is reported by Kimball (1994), in her discussion of the 'similarities' and 'differences' traditions, and by Tomm (1989) in her discussion of the first wave of feminist research. Furthermore, while some feminists have adopted traditional empirical natural science methods they still have diverged from traditional natural science stances on the practical and political aspects of science.

As such, rather than going into great detail on how the above philosophies and psychologies stand as manifestations of these two world-views, I would prefer, with the limited time available, to direct the reader to Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1: A comparison of Natural and Human Science derived from Hesse (1973)

  Natural Science Human Science
Theories & Facts Objective Experience Subjective Interpretations
Independent facts Inseparable from Facts
Knowledge Sought Deductive Explanation
Interpretive Understanding
Language Formalizable Irreducible
Literal Expressive
Meaning   Univocal Laws Equivocal Pluralism

Here, Table 1 provides an outline of this distinction for the philosophy of science, as presented by Hesse (1973), and Table 2 provide a parallel analysis for psychology, as outlined by Staats (1987).

Table 2: Humanistic and Experimental-Behavioristic Schism from Staats (1987)

Experimental Humanistic
Objective events Subjective events
Atomistic Holistic
Laboratory Naturalistic Observation
General (nomothetic) Individual (ideographic)
Precision & Measurement Qualitative Description
Prediction & Control Understanding
Scientific Determinism Self-Determination & Freedom
Mechanistic in Causation Spontaneity in Causation
Passive Respondent Originality, Creativity & Activity
Conditioning & Modification Self-actualization & Personal Growth
Valueless Science Values in Science
Basic, Pure Science Applied to Human Concerns
Prior & Present Causation Purpose, Goals & Future Causation
Conditioning Insight & Awareness
Environmentalism Inferred Biological Mechanism
Biological Mechanisms in Explanation

Instead, I will focus on two points of contrast that stand between these world-views, practical knowledge and the role of scientists as persons, (Table 3).

Table 3: Practical Knowledge and Roles of Scientist and Person in World-views

  Natural Science Human Science
Praxis Techne Phronesis
  Power & Control Over Empowering & Emancipating
Observer Disengaged Observer Engaged Participant-Observer
Roles Separate Scientist-Person Integrated Scientist-Person
Education Technical training Bildung - Character development

First, psychologists have been searching for applied knowledge since the early part of this century. In Canada, Ned Bott started applied psychology here in Toronto back during the first world war (Myers, 1982; Ferguson, 1992), and many others have applied psychological theory in various ways to everyday concerns of Canadians ever since. During the 1950s Robert MacLeod (1955) cautioned Canadian psychologists against "premature professionalism", where he suggested that they should establish psychology as a (natural) science first (Belanger, 1992).

It can also be said that natural scientists strive for applied knowledge that takes the forms of techne or technological control over others while human scientists prefer phronesis which has an emancipatory orientation (Bernstein, 1988). In psychology, these orientations are exemplified by the works of B. F. Skinner and E. H. Erikson. Skinner, who was clearly interested in the goals of prediction and control, opted for a technology of behavior approach in spite of the fact that he, ironically, showed concern for "trying to solve the terrifying problems that face us in the world today" (1971, p. 1). In contrast, Erikson (1964) opted for the phronesis orientation of ethically sensitive emancipation by expressing his concern for playing a role in turning the passive patient into an active agent. Erikson also openly recognized ethical and evaluative concerns in his work on the eradication of pseudo-speciation (Erikson, 1968) between human groups, and on the development of a pan humanistic meta-identity (Erikson, 1964).

A related concern is the second point that I wish to make, this is the issue regarding the roles of psychologists as scientists and as human beings. Skinner (1971), in his typically natural science approach, expressed concern for the clear demarcation between the scientist as a disengaged observer (Taylor, 1988) and the person, stripping us of all human and personal qualities such as freedom and dignity. Erikson, on the other hand, accepted a more clearly human science approach by recognizing the connectedness between the psychologist as person and an observer "by engaging the fully motivated partnership of the observed individual, and by entering into a sincere contract with him [sic]" (1964, p. 29, italics original). Central to this partnership is the process of mutuality, the psychosocial inter-living or "cogwheeling" of human being. This transpersonal subject-object continuity is also central to Erikson's recognition of "disciplined subjectivity ... [where] two subjectivities join in the kind of disciplined understanding and shared insight which we think are operative in a cure" (1964, p. 53, italics original). This essential process to human identity forms the basis of the "cogwheeling" of individuals in a psychosocial sphere of meaning-making which is a parallel to Shotter's notion of "Joint-Action". Erikson further supports the practice of critical self-evaluation through historical meaning making in his situated model of identity. Here one's personal, socio-cultural, and even biological history is relevant to one's self understanding or identity.

Scientific psychology in Canada today and in the future As a teacher of the history of psychology I attempt to provide my students with the opportunity to discuss and decide upon appropriate philosophies of science as they can be applied to various practices of psychology. In doing so I believe that they will be able to make informed decisions for themselves in developing their own psychologies rather than simply accepting my perspective as truth. This is what I have asked them to do in my classes, and many of their philosophies have been published in the electronic psychology journal, Psybernetika1.

Here, I have attempted to follow Erikson's (1964) lead by recognizing that the adoption of philosophies of science and theories of psychology represents the act of establishing one's own identity as a psychologist or as a scientist (Tonks, 1996). Facing a wide variety of ideologies of science and psychology, such as those briefly outlined here, our students are given the challenge of establishing their identities through the acceptance of one or more of these world-views.

In many of the other papers presented at this congress we have seen (and will continue to see) various expressions of scientific psychology. By recognizing these philosophies and psychologies as ideologies to which each of us may or may not accept as part of our own identities, we can face the added responsibility granted to us as teachers by presenting one, some, or many such ideologies to our students. We can thus provide our students with the opportunity for a responsibly guided choice in order that they are able to make informed decisions about the identities that they choose for themselves. In doing so we can help turn the too pervasively passive student into the active philosopher of science and psychology. As teachers of the history and philosophy of psychology we have a responsibility to our students, just as parents do for their children (Tonks, 1994). We, as teachers, must choose amongst various methods of education that are available to us. On the one hand, we can choose, as did Skinner (1971), who called for the skill training of technicians of behaviour. Alternatively, we can turn, as did Erikson (1970) to bildung, or character development as our model of education. In making our choice, we might think it is important that we enable our students to make the best choices that they can for themselves about how to practice psychology as a science. In believing that it is important that our students are provided with a safe and healthy environment to find their identities as scientists and psychologists, we must also recognize the need for open dialogue over such ideological concerns. Additionally we can recognize the value that a careful examination of these issues has to the identity formation of our students as psychologists and as human beings. If we are able to do so, we may be able to provide a bit of hope for the future of the history and theory of psychology (Danziger, 1994, 1997).


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