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 Theoretical Psychology

What Is It and Who Needs It? Daniel N. Robinson


A BSTRACT . It remains unclear as to just what a ‘theoretical psychology’ might be or might claim as a mission. This is distinct from various and ad hoc psychological theories (e.g. Hullian learning theory, the opponent- process theory of color vision) which admit at least in principle of empiri- cal tests of adequacy. The example of theoretical physics is offered heuristically to test the different senses of ‘theoretical psychology’.

K EY W ORDS : central theories, civic development, culture of grant-getting, mainstream, metaphysics, morality, theoretical psychology

Psychological Theories and Theoretical Psychology

The history of psychology, contemporary and remote, includes any number of theories subject to tests of adequacy and coherence. Hullian learning theory, Freudian psychoanalytical theory and Ewald Hering’s opponent-process the- ory of color vision are illustrative. They are also indicative of the diversity of models and formulations plausibly subsumed under ‘psychological theo- ries’. Note that the three I’ve cited differ considerably in their generality. Psychoanalytic theory would seek to reach nothing less than culture itself, whereas the opponent-process theory is designed to account for such restricted phenomena as complementary after-images, small-field dichroma- tism and the dichromat’s ability to see yellow. What all three have in common is the articulation of a model of presumed processes or mechanisms on which observed outcomes are assumed to depend. Clearly, there are theories of many other and various psychological findings. If all that is meant by ‘theo- retical psychology’ are accounts of the factors reliably associated with the

T HEORY & P SYCHOLOGY Copyright © 2007 Sage Publications. V OL . 17(2): 187–198 DOI: 10.1177/0959354307075042

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188 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 17(2) observed main effects, then the specialty is exhausted by such models and by standards of coherence and adequacy now more or less conventional in sci- ence. Note that one might acknowledge the (alleged) under-determination of theory by data but still accept that, for example, normal ‘yellow’ perception by deuteranopes is a challenge to Helmholtz’s trichromatic theory of color vision, whereas it can be accommodated by versions of Hering’s opponent- process theory (Hurvich & Jameson, 1957).

Again, if all that is meant by ‘theoretical psychology’ is of this nature, then there is no need for theoretical psychologists to ‘engage’ the mainstream, for the theoretical psychologists (Hull, Freud, Hurvich and Jameson, et al.) sim- ply are mainstream. On this understanding, there is no distinct specialty of theoretical psychology, for the theories emanating from research are no more than reasonable implications that investigators draw from their findings. It would be doubtful in the extreme that some body of specialists in ‘theory’ would have done more with the available data than did Newton, Galileo, Darwin, Freud and Breuer, Hull. It is certainly arguable, then, whether there is or ought to be a ‘theoretical psychology’ (or, at any rate, theoretical psy- chologists) distinct from the mainstream.

Less debatable, I should think, is the need for some sort of meta-psychol- ogy devoted to conceptual examinations of the logical or psychological char- acter of research and of the theories putatively warranted by the findings. Illustrative of the better work in this area is Bennett and Hacker (2003) in their examination of the explanatory misfeasance so common in ‘cognitive neuroscience’. They are entirely successful in exposing the mereological (part-whole) fallacies at the bottom of reductionistic modes of explanation, as well as the reification of biological events into the very psychological reali- ties for which explanations are sought. It is doubtful that Bennett and Hacker would describe themselves as ‘theoretical psychologists’ or would even regard their significant contribution as a contribution to ‘theory’. It is, rather, a contribution to clear thinking, which, one would presume, is as available to the researcher as to the theorist in any field of inquiry.

A meta-psychology is, itself, beholden to conceptual and linguistic rigor, for its mission is nothing less than identifying the proper subject-matter of the discipline and the constraints and potentialities of various candidate methods. Consider the alleged tension between ‘idiographic’ and ‘nomo- thetic’ approaches to the study of personality (Allport, 1937). As Allport understood it, there is a conflict between accounts of the unique life lived by the actual person and the search for laws sufficiently general to encompass whole aggregates. Granting that in one sense every life is ‘unique’—which is the basis on which it can be identified as a given life—one might nonethe- less ask whether this requires abandoning the search for general laws through the study of collectives.

Much confusion surrounds this very issue. The problem is not that N = 1 must be an unreliable guide to the general state of things. The history of

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ROBINSON : THEORETICAL PSYCHOLOGY 189 medicine is replete with general laws unearthed through the exhaustive study of individual cases. All one needs to know about the Krebs Cycle in relation to carbohydrate metabolism can be gleaned from the examination of one healthy digestive system. In this case, the ‘idiographic’ approach serves the ‘nomothetic’ end. The sense in which each person is numerically unique may or may not bear upon the extent to which one person may be taken as a model of the collective.

I should expand this point. Suppose one had a hundred thermometers placed on buildings in 100 chosen towns and cities of the US for the purpose of discovering the ‘average temperature’ in the US. It is true but trivial that the average temperature does not help one determine the temperature in, say, Arizona or Alaska. The statistical average is misleading if used to describe or characterize the particular city. If one wishes to know how hot it is in Scottsdale, one must take readings in Scottsdale. What is important to keep clear on here is the difference between the failure of averages to describe indi- vidual cases, and the adequacy of thermometers in the task of assessing tem- peratures. One might say that the same modes of inquiry and measurements are validly applied both to the individual case and to collectives, but the aver- aging of results may be useless for the individual case. It is neither the meas- uring instrument nor the data that can settle questions regarding the aptness of a description or an explanation. It would be a mark of innocent incompre- hension if, after being told that the average temperature for the nation did not describe Scottsdale, the meteorologist were to conclude that something was wrong with the thermometers.

Perhaps in some sense what I’ve sketched above exemplifies ‘theoretical psychology’, though the more traditional subject of ‘philosophy of science’ seems to cover just this very terrain. Accordingly, if the aim of this volume is to host engagement with the mainstream by scholars in philosophy of psy- chology, one must applaud the mission, hope for its success and—with hope tamed by reality—expect little. There is scant evidence that the discipline has been especially attentive to important developments within philosophy of sci- ence. That more attention might be reserved just in case other psychologists are the bearers of the message seems implausible. In the following sections, I shall lightly work the grounds of my pessimism.

Metaphysical Considerations

According to the somewhat old-fashioned taxonomy, metaphysics has two interrelated sets of issues: issues regarding what there is and issues regarding how we know . Thus does textbook metaphysics arise from the twin-subjects of ontology and epistemology. I begin this brief section with a reflection on the most developed of all scientific thought, that which is subsumed under the heading physics.

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190 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 17(2) Consider the quite remarkable field of theoretical physics. It exists owing to the fact that there actually are physical entities and also theories about them and their interactions. It is possible to have theories about such entities and interactions because they are either subject to direct or aided observation or because an as-of-now successful theory requires them. What makes theoreti- cal physics so respectable—as in worthy of the respect of all who take physics itself seriously —is that it has generated a set of ultimately confirmed predic- tions and a set of relevantly related explanations that account for success at the level of prediction. It is in these respects that astrology is, alas, not respectable. So, the answer to the question ‘What is theoretical physics?’ would thus be something along these lines: theoretical physics is that domain of scientific inquiry in which models of what we take to be physical reality are constructed, and are framed in such a way as to allow (at least in princi- ple) specific experiments or observations sufficient to reveal the defects of these very models.

There are apparent similarities between the theoretical psychologists cited at the beginning of this essay and theoretical physicists. Note, however, that the latter frame theory to account for physical phenomena that are widely accepted as such. This is assuredly not the case with, for example, Freud, Hull and (even) specialists in color vision. For even in the last of these, there is such a dearth of realistic context that the theoretical disputes are less about color vision (as in seeing colors) than about the visual process. Freud and Hull, of course, were both guilty of importing theory terms directly into observation statements. The congruence between their efforts and those expended in the productive world of the theoretical is more at the level of appearance than substance.

The answer to the second question raised in connection with theoretical physics, ‘Who needs it?’, is simply: ‘Anyone seeking to avoid false or mis- leading or incoherent accounts of this very physical reality.’ If more is needed here, there may also be tacked on one or another version of the ‘inference to the best explanation’ qualifier. Thus, the best explanation we have for our send- ing persons to the moon and back is that the scientific laws and theories on which the project was based are sound. The best explanation for Raymond’s infection clearing up is that antibiotics function in the manner studied and asserted within the relevant fields of science. For theoretical psychology to avail itself of this sort of support, there would have to be clear evidence of successful predictions and modes of control that would be entirely unexpected in the absence of the theories that explain them.

It is useful to stay with theoretical physics a moment longer. Within its pro- ductive domain three different categories of theory are found. There are, first, what are referred to as central theories , such as classical mechanics, field the- ory and general relativity. It is here that one finds the most rigorously tested models, constructed in ways compatible with prevailing standards of scien- tific explanation, prediction and methodology. However, physics does not

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ROBINSON : THEORETICAL PSYCHOLOGY 191 wear this as a strait-jacket, for there is also ample space given to what are called proposed theories , which have not been subjected to observational modes of confirmation and, at a given time, might be beyond the possible. Here one finds M-theory, loop theory and, yes, the theory of everything. Finally—and most speculative of all—there are those fringe theories which occupy a limbo between the decisive dead end and the ultimately credible productive theory. Luminiferous aether theory is illustrative. Before Einstein, it seemed essential that light have some sort of aether-like medium for its propagation, a theory made otiose by relativity physics.

Against this background, we now might ask: What is theoretical psychol- ogy ? Following the model of theoretical physics, we would be inclined to say that it is the domain of inquiry in which models are constructed of what we take to be (some sort of) ‘psychological reality’. Further, we might say that the models are framed in such a way as to generate experiments and observa- tions of the sort that would reveal the defects of the models themselves. We might go on to liberate the theoretical enterprise by admitting not only cen- tral theories but also proposed and fringe theories not yet amenable to empir- ical and quantitative tests if only provisionally passed by the central theories. This much stated, we would then conclude that this aspect of inquiry is of fundamental importance to anyone hoping to avoid false, misleading or inco- herent accounts of psychological reality. And, by way of parity, we might then add the ‘inference to the best explanation’, noting that the best explanation of our success in predicting the color-naming behavior of dichromats is that our theories and laws of color vision are adequate.

It should be obvious by now, however, that the broader translation of the theoretical physics model into psychological terms does not work. First, color vision aside, there is no settled position regarding the contents and boundaries of ‘psychological reality’. As there is no settled ontology, there is no settled position on the nature of the interactions that might obtain between and among whatever ‘entities’ there may be. There is much talk of ‘processes’, but very little clarity as to just what renders events a ‘process’. Typically, the word merely reifies some data-set. Persons failing to recall briefly presented stimuli when stripped of possibilities for rehearsal may be said to have lim- ited ‘short-term memory’, but this, after all, merely summarizes the finding itself. To say that what is operating here is a short-term memory process adds nothing, explains nothing and predicts nothing.

It might be asserted in defense of process notions that they are the important ingredients of analogical models (a species of proposed theory) that might well rise to the level of central theory. The temporal range over which an observer retains briefly presented stimuli, considered now as a form of ‘buffer storage’, might be incorporated into a more general model of information- processing analogous to physical information-processing systems. This line of reasoning was advanced by George Sperling in his pioneering studies of visual short-term memory and proved to be productive (Sperling, 1960). Nonetheless,

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192 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 17(2) such carefully conducted research and credible explanation did not give rise to or prove to be grounded in a more general theory of psychological reality itself . It is important to be clear on this point. There is no area of psychological research and theory as developed as that of visual perception. Such journals as Vision Research and the Journal of the Optical Society of America rou- tinely include basic research and contributions to central theories by experi- mental psychologists at the leading edge of empirical and conceptual work. How revealing, then, that neither the specific studies nor any compilation of them as yet yields a coherent and general ontology of what is really seen . I refer here not to an account of, for example, alterations in the brightness of colored flowers as seen in sunlight and moonlight, or the waterfall illusion, or even why the sky is blue. I refer instead to the fundamental difference between (a) electromagnetic radiation falling in the range of wavelengths

from 360 to 760 millimicrons and (b) the psychological reality of the seen . Readers will be reminded here of Goethe’s famous Farbenlehre of 1810, which chided the Newtonians for thinking that the physics of light had much to say about the perception of color (Goethe, 1840). Although wrong in his appraisal of Newton’s physics, Goethe was sound in his distinction between the passive reality of light striking physical bodies and the active reality of percipients who introduce every variety of complexity into the equation. This fact raises but does not at all settle the fundamental ontological question. The robust development of vision science, to which psychologists have made core contributions, offers support for the claim that psychology’s central theories should be at the level of basic processes. The enduring near-independence of perceived reality in relation to these very processes offers support for the claim that psychology’s central theories should be at the level of global and richly contextualized experience and activity. It will not be the data and meth- ods of the vision sciences that resolve the conflict here, for the conflict is

conceptual—I dare say ‘philosophical’.
In the spirit of a pax philosophica it might be argued that the two

approaches are both valid, that different investigators have different interests, that studies of basic processes have always been the launching pad for more general theories, and so on. It might even be contended that physics itself is plagued by the inability to frame a totally unified theory incorporating both microcosm and macrocosm. One might applaud so liberal an outlook but one might also note the danger of enhancing a field of view by wearing blinders. Consider illustratively the jolt delivered to the well-developed and seemingly settled field of psychophysics with the advent of signal detection theory. Once the latter’s paradigm became more widely known, along with the empirical results of its application, it was obvious that any number of core assumptions in psychophysics had to be reconsidered, beginning with the very notion of a ‘threshold’ (Swets, 1964). It is simply (or not so simply) in the very nature of a creature with various and shifting interests and values, various and interacting motives and sentiments, and various and ontogenetically

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ROBINSON : THEORETICAL PSYCHOLOGY 193 dynamic psychological resources that any process-based strategy will explain all but the lived life itself. In a word, just in case there were to be a fuller appre- ciation of this, it would be necessary to invent a psychology adequate unto the task. The striking inadequacies of the current version are recorded monthly in the major journals.

It is in the nature of the interplay between ontology and epistemology that, lacking a settled a defensible ontology, there is no rational basis on which to choose a mode of inquiry. In order to establish what there is it is necessary to have the right sort of method, but then the right sort of method already pre- supposes at least a provisional answer to the question of what there is . Psychophysical research is predicated on a physicalistic ontology such that all the relevant participating entities are physical: quanta collide with molecules of photopigment at the receptor level, and so on. The psychophysical observer in this arrangement is something of a meter or measuring rod whose verbal or behavioral reports signal the presence or absence of a physical event or change in a physical event. Once the inquiry must take into account the over- all context, the payoff matrix, the subjective criteria of certainty, ands so on— once the rationale of signal detection theory is added—the previously settled ontology is transformed. No longer is the ontological domain of psychophysics limited to quanta and photopigments. Now included are entities with inter- ests, values and aims. This does not militate against orderly data and system- atic inquiry, but it does require us to incorporate into the narrow realm of inquiry more and more of the realm of reality.

This all confers on psychophysical investigation an enlarged ontology, a metaphysical foundation different from the purely physicalistic. As a result, there are fundamental epistemological consequences. Among these is the recog- nition that the ‘reality’ surrounding even the most basic perceptual events is not readily reducible to the physics of electromagnetic radiation. This is less an invitation to have the ghost enter the machine than a willingness to accept that the ghost is less mechanical than once thought.

To mention to psychologists the interplay of different factors in shaping a given outcome is to excite within most of them the nearly sacred image of the analysis of variance design. To go on to note that this sort of statistical manip- ulation is quite uncommon in science at large—used mostly by those working with, for example, X-ray scatter—is to find them undaunted. I recall a graduate student some years ago, liberated enough to accept that what he was interested in studying was likely to depend on just what persons are actually dealing with in life outside the laboratory, devising this strategy: the subjects would be instrumented in such a way as to hear an alarm, stop whatever they were doing, and then answer a set of questions. At no point did the student or his mentor understand the cause of the laughter confined to one or two witnesses to this proposed strategy. There seemed to be no thought about how such an arrange- ment would relegate ways in which research participants conducted themselves, given that their conduct would likely be distracted and shaped by the mode of

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194 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 17(2) inquiry itself. Bad science is such serious business as to leave its practitioners woefully deficient in witty but incisive self-criticism.

It will take a generation or longer for psychology-at-large to come to grips with the difference between statistics and measurement; between knowing the incidence of ‘ X ’ and the nature of ‘ X ’. Something is learned, of course, when we know the frequency with which events occur or the degree of coincidence between and among them. Insurance companies traffic in this sort of informa- tion all the time. But to assess how often something happens is not to know its magnitude, its place within the larger ontological framework of what there is, the ‘whatness’ of an event. When the psychophysicist constructs a frequency- of-seeing curve, the ordinate is indeed rendered as ‘percent seen’. But this is related to the physical magnitude of the stimulus. Moreover, ‘percent seen’ is, at least in principle, a figure that can be translated into, for example, ‘percent photopigment bleached’, itself subject to translation into, for example, ‘optic nerve discharge rate’, and so on. The measures are not ‘statistical’ as such, and the paradigm is assuredly not that of ANOVA.

Merely to invoke such a point of comparison is to stand too close to the threshold of foolishness. Multivariate statistical designs are mechanical approaches to problems already stripped of their realistic features. They offer the fool’s gold of confidence levels which pertain not to the confidence we might have that we’re on to something real, but only to the confidence we might have that, if we keep doing things this way, we’ll keep getting this as a reward for our efforts. That ‘everybody’s doing it’ should, of course, be alarming. It is sufficient to note that, before it died, the field of phrenology could boast more than a score of journals, most of them ‘peer review’.

In cynical and patronizing moments—lengthy or transient, depending on one’s choice of colleagues—the right answer to the question of what one might contribute to ‘the mainstream’ is: drain it . Then, with its minions finally having their feet on terra firma , lead an orderly march toward libraries and life. The libraries are the repository of failed attempts to settle once and for all the abiding questions; the repository of utterly successful attempts to trivilialize reality to such an extent as to make it seem simple; the repository of those few successful attempts to render the affair clearer and approachable.

If the diagnosis thus far is at all on target, something should be said of the aetiology which, in this case, is the very schooling of psychologists. What psychology’s mainstream provides by way of training is ultimately at the for- feiture of educating . Much of ‘higher education’ today would have been regarded as trite by junior high school students a half-century ago, and the discipline of psychology surely offers no counter to this. At the doctoral level in psychology, the already poorly instructed are now paced through ‘fields’ so intellectually barren as to render the product of it all ill-suited to an academic life. I have more to say on related matters in the following section.

On the verge of a rant, I had best return to the core ontological question: for there to be a discipline or field replete with theory and research and

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ROBINSON : THEORETICAL PSYCHOLOGY 195 denominated ‘psychology’, we should be clear as to what entities or events comprise it. To put it another way, is there any natural kind of entity properly conveyed to psychology for study? It is profitable for psychologists to ask with persistence just what sort of being or creature is the object of their inter- est, and whether such a creature might have a nature that may flourish or become degraded under broad and definable cultural and political conditions. As regards this question, cultural relativists need not apply, for if all things ‘psychological’ vary with local norms and long tradition, we’re back to the fads and fashions of history and surely not a systematic and scientific inquiry into psychological reality. The weather, too, is fickle, but meteorology is nonetheless a scientific undertaking, in possession of predictive and explica- tive laws. Psychology stands as a discipline only to the extent that it is pre- pared to accept something foundational and then to examine the conditions that find it flourishing or failing. If there is a visible obstacle to the attainment of this perspective and this degree of maturity, it is the traditional departmen- tal organization of thought to which I now turn, again all too briefly.

Institutional Considerations

On the whole, departments were among the damaging bequests of the 19th- century German model. The departmentalization of thought, including its narrowing by doctoral programs of research, would come to yield scholarship and scientific discovery of a very high order. Much of Newton’s best thinking was done on granny’s farm and in the solitude of his rooms at Cambridge. But the world of science and scholarship as we know it is not the product of the occasional and eccentric genius. It arises from the very institutionalization of research, the creation of scientific guilds, the designated roles of apprentices and masters, and the ever-growing number and variety of individual, corpo- rate and national patrons.

On the whole and at the practical level, the effects here have been dramatic and positive. At the cultural level, the story is more subtle and the progression of outcomes rather more worrisome. Science and technology yield tools. Their use falls into many hands, some horrifically skillful in their destructive agility. The limitations of space are especially frustrating here, and brevity will certainly convey what is not intended. I wish to say that, for all its faults and its false starts, a higher level of civilization includes and seeks to install a higher level of moral sensibility, a heightened respect for the other, aware- ness that powers entail duties, and that vulnerabilities create protective rights. Chivalry, recall, gave Europe a gentility, an etiquette, a gracefulness that did not eliminate evil but surely tamed its vulgarity.

Civilization is the product of forces that are civilizing , which means forces rendering one ever more fit for a life that is civic . When the ancient Greeks declared, Polis andra didaske —that we are taught and shaped by the city—they

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196 THEORY & PSYCHOLOGY 17(2) were recording their awareness of the extent to which the psychological depends on the civic. Of all disciplines, therefore, it is psychology that pays the heaviest price for abandoning that reality in which the psychological dimensions of life are most fully expressed and most fully shaped. This is not an invitation to expand course offerings in ‘cultural psychology’ (typically a buffet of fashion and fable). It is instead a warning about ‘course offerings’ per se and the culturally and intellectually narrowing effects of departmental modes of teaching and study.

Consider today’s psychology departments and their curricular offerings. Pick any college or university; they’re all pretty much the same. Examine what is now on offer and then try to get hold of the programs that were dom- inant, say, thirty years ago. Where Freud and Skinner once dominated, we now find ‘cognitive neuroscience’, which, oddly, makes even less contact with lived life than did Freud and Skinner. Say what you will about Walden Two , there’s more to it than functional neuroanatomy. Granted that the over- all level of civilization sustained by Skinnerian ‘token economies’ would soon bore even the lower primates, there is still an element of shared life, social interaction, and at least the possibility of a breakout.

To this must be added a word about money, for this is, alas, what preserves the institutionalization of thought. But aren’t grants wonderful? Do they not liberate serious scientists from the burdens of teaching? Doesn’t that gener- ous ‘indirect cost’ category allow academic institutions to enhance the facili- ties for study and research? It was Henry Louis Mencken who defined Puritanism as ‘the haunting feeling that someone, somewhere, may be happy’. I do not wish to rob today’s psychologists of the comforts created by grants, or the happiness and exhilaration they seem to experience when learn- ing that their grant applications have been approved. Nor would I strip doc- toral students of the subsidies made possible by these grants. I would, however, offer these observations which may apply to a greater number of instances than we would wish to believe:

1. The ‘culture’of grant-getting and grant awards tends to reward the pre- dictable, the safe, the mundane and the trite. In order to win grants and then renewals, investigators must be ‘productive’, meaning they must publish reg- ularly in peer-review journals. The expected rate of publication guarantees that the publications themselves will seldom rise higher than the predictable and will seldom add much to what was published earlier.

2. The collegial bonds forged by the culture of grant-getting is such that research specialists are more closely associated with those working in the same ‘field’ than those in their own departments, let alone those in their own colleges and universities. There is little by way of shared allegiances, common cause, mutual intellectual influence. Thus is today’s academic an essentially entrepreneurial type, able to pay for his/her own upkeep and ready to move the operation to a more congenial (‘supportive’) venue. Undergraduates? Oh, they’re everywhere; not to worry.

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ROBINSON : THEORETICAL PSYCHOLOGY 197 3. Persons eager to be liberated from the burdens of teaching should really be liberated from academic life. Those needing additional space, staff, facili- ties and subventions should understand that their needs and demands may be serving nothing grander than their own ambitions.

4. To institutionalize a practice is inescapably to bureaucratize it. Where large sums of mo


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