An ecological approach to psychology. (7/19)

Article 7 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, Harry Heft; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 162-167.

My own conviction that EP can be used in a unified psychological discipline had to take a back seat here. Perhaps one thing that this article cleared up for me, is its place in such a unification. I have begun to build a taxonomy for how such a combined psychological discipline would look. It is for now only a perception to me, but I am going to, after devouring all the articles, paint it out and share. I am beginning to understand the value of combination through Eric Charles’ special issue, it is what will characterise my own solution.

“…Psychological inquiry begins with the adoption, often tacitly, of a frame by which its core concerns are bracketed. The standard frame used in psychological inquiry brackets the individual. As a result, at different points in its history, experimental psychology has been defined as the study of the conscious contents of mind, of behavior, of mental processes, of the brain, of the genetic and biological basis of behavior and thought, and so on…” (p. 163). I find this an important statement because it showcases that even though we can agree on “the individual” as our subject matter, it is where we find “the individual”, due to our underlying theoretical conviction, that determines what and how we research psychology.

One of the core strengths of EP comes from it being a ‘relational’ perspective, as opposed to putting the isolated individual in our central focus. However we may like the idea of being separate, autonomous entities, we cannot escape being a part of a world and perceiving an umwelt that affects what we do. This is, by the way, how, amongst others physics and biology, have evolved in the past and EP does a fantastic job to keep to the rigour demanded of a science but allowing for both individuating and generalising approaches to research. “A relational frame gains considerable momentum many centuries later from two 19th century advances in science: the development of field theories in the physics (e.g. , electromagnetism) and, especially, the theory of evolution by natural selection in the life sciences. From the latter standpoint, it is recognized that the characteristics of living things are best understood historically in relation to changing environing circumstances. The starting point for the life sciences now becomes the individual organism in a field of relations.” (p. 163).

The article itself makes a good case for why EP is one of the strongest candidates to keep central in a unified psychology, it lacks however in its discussion of this theme. Unfortunately also, it joins a few of the other articles in that it demotes other areas of inquiry, however, the actual criticism is justified (I use the same arguments when comparing to other theories -this is by the way not the reason for why it is justified, this is) and I am beginning to wonder if not there will have to be collateral damage regardless of how we decide to unite our discipline.

Pragmatic case studies as a source of unity in applied psychology. (6/19)

Article 6 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, Daniel Fishman and Stanley Messer; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 156-161.

A very interesting perspective put forward here, and from an angle that I have little insight into but am fascinated by.

To exemplify that pluralism benefits all involved perspectives, four different therapeutic processes/techniques are discussed. It is clear that they have benefits and drawbacks and that they complement each other and are appropriate situationally. A parallel can be drawn here to the different philosophical backdrops used in psychology; social constructionism is an excellent diplomat in that it takes into consideration all opinions, critical realism is humble in its acknowledgement that we may not be perceiving reality for what it is and so on, and so forth. It thus forms valuable insight into the perspective from applied psychology.

“Thus, as mentioned above, treating theories as complementary conceptual tools, rather than as competitors for a single truth, can enhance the effectiveness of applied psychological interventions, like psychotherapy.” (p. 158).  This is a neat idea for the unification of applied psychology. I would be very interested to read about how it would relate to basic psychology. Simply multiple-theory-based perspectives? The danger I think is that it might be more clear cut in applied psychology.

“It emerges from a search for a third way out of psychology’s present “culture wars” between modern/positivist and postmodern/constructivist visions of psychology. These culture wars undermine unity in applied psychology and draw resources away from practical problem-solving (i.e. , directed toward today’s pressing psychological and social issues)” (p. 158). Well this certainly applies to basic psychology also, considering for example quantitative and qualitative psychology (an example of this can actually be found in the previous article).

It is proposed that “the ultimate purpose of applied psychological knowledge is to improve the condition of actual clients within the complexities of their reality” (p. 159) and that case studies in applied psychology should form a large database and knowledge be built up inductively. I can’t help but think here that in medical science this works great, how would it fare in a discipline with few agreed upon tenets? Also, how does this suggestion apply to less clearly practically applied psychological areas? Those interested in the most basic theoretical work in psychology can only by several steps come down to a practical level and if focus is pragmatist, will they be able to pursue their interest? It is however a fantastic idea and I hope this last concern could be adressed.

The only other issue I can think of is that I believe we still need a shared ontological basis, otherwise the keywords in the database will confuse when one concept has several definitions. How could this be controlled for? Agreed upon?

“The long journey to unity in applied psychology (and perhaps in basic psychology also) starts with a single, individual case.” (p. 160) I can understand that this most definitely could work in applied psychology, it mimics the medical science recipe in part. Can we have this in basic psychology? Single cases count for little because of the types of questions asked, methodology used and statistics applied -how would basic psychology have to change?

The Fragmented Object: Building Disciplinary Coherence Through a Contextual Unit of Analysis (5/19)

Article 5 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, Joshua W. Clegg; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 151-155.

There are some very interesting perspectives on unification in this article, for one, it is proposed that there are three approaches to unification; reductionism, pluralism and specialisation. This is a valuable categorisation, as is the later proposal, to combine pluralism and reductionism, however, I disagree with what the solution to a unified psychology would be: One of the arguments in the article “is that fragmentation is written into our discipline at the most basic level, -namely, in our objectivist unit of psychological analysis- and so, any hope for a coherent approach to psychological knowledge must begin with a move toward a more contextual way of framing our phenomena.” (p. 151). Dr. Clegg makes the point that we can’t understand without context and that the current, decontextualised, unit of psychology doesn’t do the job. The opposite argument has been proposed for quite some time now (that we have to be as objective as possible to do science) and it is not the best argument, neither is the opposite..

There are other curious quotes and ideas that I agree or disagree with, but it is outside the scope of unifying psychology, so I will leave the article with the above reflection.

Radical embodied cognitive science. (4/19)

Article 4 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, Anthony Chemero; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 145-150.

I agree with Chemero’s theoretical perspective, and I believe rECS built on top of Gibson’s Ecological Psychology complements the latter. I believe it does so because questions asked in EP seem to me to be more about the absolute basis on how animals exist in the world (why, is answered by evolution), questions in rECS ask more specifically how we interact with stuffs in the world and why. Neat.

However, specific to the article, I only have one point of disagreement. The last paragraph. “Is Radical Embodied Cognitive Science the Right Way to Do Psychology?” (p. 149). I don’t understand the question.

“It seems prudent to adopt a pluralistic stance toward theorizing in psychology.” “The mind, I submit, is just as complicated as the Mississippi River, and it would be shocking if just one style of explanation could account for all of it.” I am partly stumped for words. Where is the full avant garde against representations and that we can do just as well without them? I’m not advocating dismissing a perspective outright, and while I agree that there are issues calling things right and wrong, it can impossibly be correct both to stipulate the non-existence of representations to be a core value and also state that it is an alternative to use in psychology. Ontologically even, it cannot both be and not be (unless representations are Schrodinger’s cat). On the other hand, it may be easier to explain more complex cognitive experiences with representations, but here I believe empiricism has to supercede pragmatism. How else can we become a unified paradigm?

It seems to me that Dr. Chemero has come to the conclusion that all we have in psychology are perspectives, different ways of seeing the same thing.. I am not ready to concede to this quite yet.

Psychology: The empirical study of epistemology and phenomenology. (3/19)

Article 3 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, Eric Charles; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 140-144.

Already in the abstract I realised something that has felt like a missing puzzle piece since I began reviewing literature for my Master Thesis on the philosophical backdrop of representationalism. Why is language so important to claim for themselves ontologically? Well, it struck me that current cognitive psychology hasn’t come very far away from behaviourist ideas after all. They still base experiments off of observable behaviour, the only difference is that it is used as inferences towards assumed, unobservable, inner entities. It is not an excellent assumption (although it has to be said that it is an utterly brilliant and ingenious step by, amongst others, Fodor). No wonder then that language became so central to claim, it can be seen as a bridge between inner stuff and observable stuff. Descartes’ ideas about the pituitary gland being the place where matter and non-matter interacted pales in comparison. Representationalists needs language to be inner stuff so that representations gain a tangible, corporeal basis. It is necessary to be able to call representations a monist/realist, and not a dualist/idealist, assumption. This fails however when seeing language as verbal behaviour.

Apologies for the side-tracking.

Eric Charles’ article also evoked another line of thought, what does it actually mean to unify psychology? What is it that needs to be shared between all divisions? Methodology? Concepts under study? It seems to me to need a discussion on a meta-level of what we think needs and wants uniting. My own answer to this is relatively simple, we need to share ontological assumptions, the rest is a matter of individual interest (but admittedly, I am constantly questioning this idea also). This is where Eric Charles’ article comes in.

The title aptly captures what is argued for to be the overarching goal of psychologists and I can’t help but wonder if a goal on this level of philosophy is exactly what is needed. As Eric Charles argues for in the article, it allows psychologists to pursue their individual interests, but under one overarching goal.

Although I will not give specific examples here (read the article!), my opinion is that Eric Charles arguments support his conclusion strongly. The conclusion I come to is that having “The empirical study of epistemology and phenomenology” as a unifier can become very productive as a top-down definition for a future unified field. This is one of the parts that needs to be in place for us to have one paradigm at all.

The only snag I feel worth mentioning, is essentially a very basic one. Dividing epistemology and phenomenology into two concepts, has the possibility to misguide. Phenomenology, or experience of the world, has historically led to dualistic concepts and ideas and while I understand that this is most definitely not the intention with this division, it may perpetuate that undertone. This is of course easily remedied by clarifying the definition of experience, just that, given as a question to different fields of study, we will end up with different definitions. This is why I believe we need a common ontological basis to stand on, but, I have already mentioned that the top-down definition is one of several parts that need to be in place and so is not to blame for other areas of inquiry.

A Natural Science of Behaviour (2/19)

Article 2 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, A. Charles Catania; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 133-139.

Catania argues strongly for “Treating language as verbal behavior [because that] brings it within the purview of a unified account of human action.” (p. 133) and “My argument here is that psychological science cannot survive other than as a science of behavior; further, if it is a science of behavior it must be intimately tied to the biological sciences.” (p. 134). One of the reasons believed to be why we are reluctant to see language as a behaviour is that “We are all so immersed in language that we find it difficult to treat it as a variety of behavior, and yet the functions of verbal behavior are crucial to our understanding of human behavior.” (p.137), and I fully agree. It is often argued that psychology cannot be studied like other sciences because we have a “subjective” view of our subject matter, I just don’t believe that to be the case. What I do accept however is that since we are humans and are accustomed to being humans, it is easy to oversee assumptions we make about ourselves due to this very subjective perspective. I therefore agree in full that a large reason for many different criticisms against language as a behaviour, stems from an unwillingness to realise that we are creatures of habit, and as such can oversee the “simple” assumptions that shape the way we see ourselves.

A central argument in why we should view language as a behaviour is that it enables us to draw parallels to biology; “The verbal behavior that survives within the members of a group is part of that group’s culture, but the sharing of cultural elements need not be correlated with genetic relatedness; one need not be closely related to Darwin or to Skinner to repeat their words. Viewing verbal behavior as selected has the advantage of involving units with measurable dimensions comparable to units selected at the other levels.” (p. 137). This is to me a strong reason to use such a perspective. It puts a framework around verbal behaviour that is parallel to the mechanics of evolution -Catania makes a convincing empirical case for the successes of this perspective.

Lastly, I am unsure if I misunderstand or not, but at times there is a very strong push on behaviour as a central focus. Coming from an ecological background, it seems to me to make less sense to focus on one part of a process spanning environment, body and brain. At other places in the article however, it seems as though the author would agree to this. I believe that this perspective is brilliant to use if you want to study behaviour over phylogenetic, ontogenetic and cultural perspectives as reinforced/extinct/etc. The specific questions answered by this perspective seems to be defined by the timeframe you are seeking to adress, very interesting indeed!

In light of the previous article in the series (and my previous blogpost), are they compatible with each other? The focus in Anderson’s article is on a specific process, one that is a part of many different psychological divisions. My conclusion was that it is less of a unifier but universally applicable. I fear that Catania’s perspective seems to join it, because, although behaviour is a central concept regardless of which perspective is taken, it will most probably always be claimed as a part of a larger process. With that said, Catania’s perspective on behaviour aligns it very nicely with biology, something it has in common with ecological psychology and embodied cognition, very useful.

Unified Psychology Based on Three Laws of Information Integration (1/19)

Article 1 of 19 in Eric Charles’ Special Issue of Review of General Psychology
Author, Norman Henry Anderson; in Review of General Psychology, 2013, 17(2), p. 125-132.
The first concern I have of the three laws of information integration, is that it seems to me to make the same assumptions Titchener (1895) made and that Dewey (1896) criticised. Benefit 2 (p. 126) uses almost identical language to Titchener; “The observable R is a true (linear) measure of unobservable p”. This in turn reminded me of the criticism lobbied against representations, in that unobservables can be found by observables. This topic is returned to on page 131 and I can’t help but feel that we have to leave this line of thinking to get anywhere. Like representations, we have to resort to Entity Realism and this works well in disciplines where measurement is extremely specific (like the use of “gravity” in physics). In psychology however, I just do not believe we are specific enough to know what it is we are actually positing to exist that we cannot observe. I am not saying we should ignore the brain or stuff we cannot observe, but language used in the article portrays it’s tenets to be quite exact, but do not seem to be very exact when looking at the presented graphs. An example of this is found on p. 130 “The parallelism of these four curves supports an adding-type model, one of many ingenious experiments on IIT in India by Ramadhar Singh (see Singh, 2011).” This quote accompanies Figure 4, which by the way appears to be a very clean piece of research, I enjoy it. Acquiring unobservables by use of observables is a very neat idea, but I do not think we understand human enterprise enough to make any concrete claims.
My second concern about this area is that it does indeed seem as if it could study it’s subject matter under a unified paradigm, however, can it actually unify it?
Ending on a positive note; “Judgement and decision operate in every field of psychology. They are universal cognitive activities. Judgement–decision theory can thus provide a unifying influence for our field.” (p. 131) Just because a specific process can be found in all areas doesn’t mean it can unite those areas, it can however account for results in all those different areas, which obviously is awesome! The surface knowledge I have of the theory leads me to assume that it is compatible with Ecological Psychology and Embodied Cognition, and if it indeed can do what the author claims it can, then it will be a very valuable addition to the new psychological paradigm.

Issue Editor’s Foreword in Rev. of Gen. Psy. 2013, 17(2), p.124

“Most readers will readily accept and value conclusive research.” is what I took to heart today, something I know is true for myself as well, but perhaps is easily forgotten in a sometimes near-chaotic discipline. In the foreword to a series of “manifestos, vision statements and wishlists”, Eric Charles, explains the motivation behind gathering them. The focus is usually on criticising dogmatic theories, then explaining theory and lastly the, often exciting, empirical findings. I wish I could say I was an exception to the rule. My whole Master Thesis holds that exact structure. The shame. Eric Charles is entirely correct in his reflections surrounding why the opposite order of presentation is much, much, more productive. This is however not a day of shame, because, I enjoy the feeling of being proven wrong, or having my ideas and methods contested and criticised (indirectly, well, directly too, but admittedly indirectly is a more pleasant encounter). Instead then, the series of articles focus on empirical accomplishments with positive tones and forward-looking. Will most likely be a fascinating read.

[The following 19 blogposts will reflect the 19 approaches represented in this review.]