The volume starts with an orientation to Descriptive Psychology and then turns to the fundamental concepts of “Individual Persons”, “Intentional Action”, “Language and Verbal Behavior”, “Community and Culture”, and “Reality and Real Worlds”. It ends with an examination of empathic action as the behaviors that make people humane, and the construction of a person's world. It should be on sale Spring, 2019.
From the Preface:
Inauspiciously, I started graduate school skeptical about my field of study –– clinical and experimental psychology. As an undergraduate, I was impressed by the reasonably designed experiments described in my psychology classes, but the personality theories taught read like warring theologies. And making it worse, the more scientific they sounded, the less I recognized anyone I knew. Where was the person in the theory? Not alone, I remember one of my professors saying, "with so much horseshit around, there must be a pony in there somewhere".
Other than refinements in experimentation and the acknowledgment of failures to replicate classic studies, not much has changed. Except, too often, theory replaced by practices speciously prefixed with 'neuro'. Clinicians, when they bother with theory at all, still align as partisans of faith. Even today, my students interviewing for training sites are asked if their orientation is psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, or humanistic. To quell their anxiety, I suggest they answer they’ve a psychodynamic and social-learning appreciation of relationships, and a set of cognitive-behavioral tools they empathically apply. Some hear this and relax, intuitively feeling it expresses what they actually try to do. I’d like to offer their intuition explicit coherence.
What gives a subject matter coherence and integrity? Once a subject matter is identified –– in our case, the behavior of persons –– what must it account for, and what manners of observing, formulating, theorizing, explaining, etc., are compatible with the subject or violate its integrity? And, crucially, are there concepts so fundamental they must be maintained? Here’s a first reminder: As a psychologist and a behavioral scientist, all my work, all our work, is the work only persons can do. As a psychologist who practices psychotherapy my interests center on the behavior and characteristics of people, especially how we come to be the way we are and how we can change. This requires having the concept of a person in the first place. Fortunately, we already do, but it’s mostly implicit. This book is about making it systematic and explicit. Being systematic and explicit provides clarity and facilitates negotiation about where we agree, disagree, or don’t have a clue.
My introduction to the Person Concept came early fall 1972 when I read somewhere NASA had asked, "If green gas on the moon speaks to an astronaut, how do we know if it's a person?" God knows why it came up, but north of Nederland, high in the Rockies, warm around a campfire, a classmate said one of our professors had an answer.
I entered doctoral study having read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Stephen Pepper's World Hypotheses. Kuhn taught that when a scientific community encounters enough empirical facts –– important anomalies that cannot fit the established paradigm, the establishment is eventually replaced by a new paradigm. From Pepper I learned the troubling idea that most contemporary personality theories stem from incompatible 'root metaphors' grounded in ancient metaphysical assumptions that the world is a machine, or an organism, and so on. Working my way through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, its end notes especially resonated, ".... For in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion." From these texts I gathered that psychologists have significant knowledge and useful practices, but their theories aren't built on a coherent conceptual base. Fundamental concepts in one theory can mean something quite different in others. Nor, for that matter, do their theories start with a similar appreciation of what is real. One theory's thorny anomaly is another's starting point; an unquestioned given for one is treated as unreal by another.
It still seems that concepts of accountability, choice, reason, and intention –– ideas at the cornerstone of civilization and my practice of psychotherapy –– when taught along with a ‘scientific’ requirement for reductionism and determinism, reside in contradictory intellectual universes. When I read physics, chemistry, and biology, the foundational concepts in one text resemble their use in the others, and when they don’t, that fact is recognized as requiring a shared lexicon, and if the data requires, an improved paradigm. Psychology is different. Psychology lacks a common lexicon and a comprehensive foundation. And psychology is different in other ways as well.
Psychology is special. It has, at least for me, a more interesting problem than sorting out the meat and potatoes of the natural sciences. Psychology must have a place within its domain for the creation and practice of science itself. The physicist, chemist, and geologist do not have to account for their personal interests as part of their subject matter, but the psychologist must. Inescapably, every scientific theory and experiment is someone's theory and experiment. Behavioral science has to account for scientific behavior –– the sort of behavior only persons can do. Fundamentally, behavioral science has to provide an explicit and comprehensive account for the behavior of persons as persons –– and not as if we are something else.
So, I entered graduate school ambivalent about the discipline, expecting contradictory and barely relevant theory, but with faith I would learn reasonable methods for establishing facts. Sticking close to the empirical seemed a smart way to go. But being no fan of theology, what was I supposed to do with all those theories? No surprise, I ended up in my chairman's office worried I'd made a bad choice. Not smiling, he responded, "I suspect you might like Pete's stuff ", and with that I went off to meet the guy pondering the green gas problem. This book is mostly about what I learned from him and the people that formed a community around his work.
Peter Garcia Ossorio introduced me to the job of making explicit and systematic the knowledge and competence of living as a person in a world of people. He called this discipline Descriptive Psychology. By 1972 he was well into working on the Person Concept, the central concern of Descriptive Psychology. He told me to start with what I already know about people; to start with what is required to live as a person in the community of others. The work of Descriptive Psychology, he said, was to carefully and explicitly formulate concepts and rules that can systematically interconnect everything we know about people without leaving anything out. He also reminded me, "things that aren't intellectually satisfying tend to be unsatisfactory in other ways as well". Sharing this aesthetic, I began.
What I will present here is not the usual fare for the practice of behavioral science. Descriptive Psychology is not psychology in the conventional sense of a comprehensive personality theory. It is not a theory, but instead a pre-empirical conceptualization, a formulation of the essential attributes of persons and behavior that any adequate theory must encompass. The function of Descriptive Psychology's Person Concept is to provide an explicit, extensive, and systematic analysis and connection of all the 'moving parts' of what we implicitly mean by persons and behavior. To accomplish this requires a sharable lexicon and set of rules, clearly articulated and suitable for coordinating all possible facts regarding people and behavior. As such, one use of this project is a framework for comparing theories and judging their scope and adequacy. The goal is a map with a place for what is already known with room for what is yet to be found.
Why not call this a theory? Unlike a theory, a conceptualization of a subject matter attempts to establish its full possible range by identifying what it is about rather than the empirical or historically particular form it takes. The focus is the range of possibility. Finding out what really happens, on the other hand, is the empirical task. But before attempting systematic observation, it is usually wise to have some idea what you are looking for. Descriptive Psychology's mission is this sort of pre-empirical formulation. The job of theory is post-empirical to explain why out of the possibilities only certain patterns occur. Good theory can then be vindicated by predicting new observations that are found and fit. Then we face the dilemma of how to fit our theories together. Under current conditions, attempting integration can be a fool's errand.
The continued absence of a shared framework for investigation and practice has resulted in the fragmented state of current psychology and the neurosciences. As an aesthetic judgment, some find this more troubling than others. Descriptive Psychology was invented in response to those who find this difficulty troubling. To the extent the Person Concept is well-formed, its explicit conceptualization should sharpen observation and refine the ability to share and integrate what is found. I believe it has for me.
What follows is a work in progress. The essential nature of Descriptive Psychology requires room for significant distinctions yet to be recognized. Nonetheless, what is already built is nuanced, systematic, and entirely interconnected. The Person Concept has complex interdependent component concepts: Individual Persons, Behavior as Intentional Action, Language and Verbal Behavior, Community and Culture, and World and Reality. Tying these together are transition rules, The State of Affairs System, for unpacking and connecting everything.
Some words of caution. The foundational concepts are interdependent –– resemble aspects of a map –– so grasping them will be easier after they have all been filled in. The reward for effort will require patience. I have a promise for the practitioner. Descriptive Psychology is a pragmatic enterprise, its success rests on enhancing effective action. I earn most of my keep in the practice of psychotherapy. Any adequate understanding of persons and behavior necessarily involves an appreciation of how people change. If this is your interest, this book should hold some value for you. That's my intent.
Another few words before we begin. I am writing in first person. This book is my understanding, shaped by my interests. As a member of the community that developed these ideas, I believe they accurately represent Descriptive Psychology and the Person Concept. Still, this is my understanding, and the idiosyncrasies, examples, and digressions reflect my values, practices, and fascinations as an academic clinical psychologist.