#cck11 – The Role of Theory in the Human and Learning Sciences

This post is in response to Alan in the cck discussion forum, Learning Theories in CCK11.  It has mostly to do with how theories in learning and the human sciences differ from the natural or physical sciences.

I believe Alan’s assertions are right, that in terms of practice, theory in the social and human sciences plays a very different role than in the physical sciences. But, explaining this is getting me into the intellectual deep end of the pool – so, I’m going to fall back on the thoughts of others, specifically John Shotter, from his book: Cultural Politics of Everyday Life (1993, University of Toronto Press).

(W)e say our theories are true theories if the predictions we derive from them match  or ‘picture’ the outcomes of the processes we study.  So, although we can bring off some quite spectacular results in the sciences, it is just in terms of such results, not the whole structure of a theory . . .  Our knowledge, as Quine (1953)* said later, “is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges”. (Shotter p.74)

Two points: (1) This assertion is debatable, and although the social and the hard sciences share the problem space laid out here,  you can also say that this argument is superfluous in the hard sciences in terms of everyday normal scientific activity.  (2) But from the social or human sciences, this type of problem is much more of an issue.  In my experience, Skinner’s behavioral methods, while successful in the predictive sense, were most unsatisfying because of how dissimilar it was to normal experience.  In a sense, behavioral methods did not match with the complexity of experiential life, nor did they respond to what seemed to be most pressing in an ethical sense.

(T)he human sciences now appear to be increasingly irrelevant to our times,  to the pressing social issues of the day.  For they are quintessentially products of a moment in the history of the West, the Modern Age (Foucault, 1970), that is now passing, if not already over. (Shotter, p.1)

(A)s we begin to confront the others in the world around us as genuine others who possess an otherness worthy of our interest and respect (unlike the indistinguishable atoms in a natural science), so our ways of knowing must begin (and have begun) to diversify.  Now we need to know the nature of the backgrounds, the different forms of life from which our different ways of knowing emerge.  . . . It is to do with the fact that we have failed to grasp not only what it is that we must theorize here, but what the task of theory in this sphere is like.  Indeed as Taylor (1987:477) remarks: “We cannot turn the background from which we think into an object for us.  The task of reason has to be conceived quite differently.”  It must now be seen “as including – alongside the familiar forms of the enlightenment – a new department, whose excellence consists in our being able to articulate the background of our lives perspicuously” (Taylor, 1987: 480-1)** (Shotter, pp.2-3)

So what is the background of which he speaks.  Much of it is shared and social, such as how we use language, common social practices, shared ways of understanding and the openness of everyday life that allows us to find joint ways of creatively working together.  To a great extent, I believe that making satisfactory progress in psychology was stymied by (1) jumping to empirical explanations before adequate description had been achieved (in the behavioral period) and (2) by ascribing behavior to individual mental processes before adequate description (in the cognitive period).  In the first case the wrongly held assumption was that empirical predictive findings would lead to correct theory without having an underlying framework to organize our empirical facts.  In the second case, the wrongly held assumption was that all behavior was caused by cognition, when much behavior emerges out things like people interacting, social norms, common practices, socially based habits and the like.  In the first case facts cannot lead us to theory.  In the second case theory cannot organize our facts unless theory and facts operate in an emergent dialectical fashion, each shaping the other.  Speaking further of relationships, Shotter states:

(T)he unsatisfactory state of ‘theory’ in the understanding of what a personal relationship ‘is’, does not arise out of a continual failure to formulate ‘the correct’ theory, but that it arises out of a failure to understand what ‘theory’ in this area should be like.  . . . we can perhaps see that theory in the natural sciences and theory in the understanding and study of personal relationships must differ fundamentally (p. 184).

Shotter goes on to assert that theory in fact plays a very different role in something like the study of relationships.

(F)or we do not want ot predict (or control) behavior but to see the ‘connections’ between things, thus to understand what in the circumstances we ought to do (p. 185).

*Two Dogmas of Empiricism. In From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

**Overcoming Epsitomology. In K. Baynes, J Bohman & T. McCarthy (eds) After Philosophy; End or Transformation? Cambridge MA: MIT Press.