Sunday, August 18, 2013

People Make Sense: Foundations for a Human Science

127.  The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.
128. If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them.
        Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

By the early 1960’s it was clear to many that the intellectual foundations of psychology were in shambles.  Psychology looked like a collection of separate antagonistic systems. At best, theories and practices coexisted the way people respect their neighbor’s different but incorrect religion. Worse, what should be basic concepts: person, behavior, language and world were without systematic explication or interconnection. Psychology had experimental methods and conceptual confusion. It was a mess.  In many ways, it still is.

Descriptive Psychology was created as a way out akin to Wittgenstein's aim to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.

How can we achieve the necessary sorting out without tossing the baby with the bathwater?

What does a coherent psychology require? First, a conceptual foundation. Theory comes second.  We need a clear and sufficiently elaborate conceptualization of the subject matter before we can organize empirical data and before we can systematically compare the theories that exist or might follow. We need to know if we are arguing about the same thing or trying to understand something else. Without shared concepts, we are clueless. 

We need common ground seldom achieved through shared definitions, since most of the significant concepts defy definition and invite disagreement.  We need something else.

Peter Ossorio recognized this confusion and decided, “Sometimes it is better just to make a fresh start.” Starting over involved clarifying and organizing concepts rather than building new theory. It required establishing a framework that would allow all empirical possibilities a place.  The goal was to be precise and systematic while not foreclosing on the full range of what actually happens or possibly could.   The fresh start involved replacing a self-defeating concern with definition with the methods of Paradigm Case Formulation and Parametric Analysis. It also involved a rigorous adherence to a set of policies implemented through explicit reminders in the form of maxims to direct and maintain descriptive clarity and logical coherence.

Here’s four slogans and nine maxims that can help orient a coherent psychology. They come from Place (1998/2012) and The Behavior of Persons (2006/2013).

Four Slogans:
1. The world makes sense, and so do people. They make sense now.
    (They already make sense to begin with.)
2. It's one world. Everything fits together. Everything is related to everything else.
3. Things are what they are and not something else instead.
4. Don't count on the world being simpler than it has to be.

Let’s start with a raw fact.  If we didn’t generally understand people, life would be chaotic. We could not cooperate.  You could not understand this sentence. Understanding people is the central competence involved in being a person.

Misunderstanding is the exception, not the rule.  It has to be.  Misunderstanding only makes sense in contrast to things being ordinarily understandable.  Before disagreement and misunderstanding can be identified there has to be a shared means of negotiation based on a common appreciation of what understandable action looks like in a coherent world. We have to know how to adequately get along and communicate before we can identify its absence.  

We have the potential to understand the stranger we don't yet grasp. We can find shared social practices.  We can recognize shared opportunities and vulnerabilities. 

Another assertion. The world consists of objects, processes, events, concepts and states of affairs that we recognize, more or less,  in common. We demonstrate that recognition through a competent use of these distinctions.  Our common ground is that we know how to act on these distinctions and how to do so together. If we had no shared relationship to these states of affairs, we would have nothing to say. They have a place in our lives because we can act on the differences they make. Their meanings and significance  follows from their effective use. 

If, "all is maya", then maya is a distinction we could not make. (But that is different than insisting we have it right).

Another Wittgenstein reminder: Concepts are tools judged by their use in action. Effective action follows from basic competence and requires a complicated toolbox to construct different things. Things differ irregularly. Actions vary in an irregular fashion. So must description. The “essence” of all this is expressed through the careful use of an adequately complex grammar. Our descriptive and scientific resources must be up to this task. They often haven't.

More considerations: Everything does not boil down to the same thing. Persons, languages, actions, and worlds are not really just machines, organisms, contexts, or formulations.  The world, although entirely inter-connected, varies in an irregular manner.  This is reflected in the range of expression that our natural ordinary language attempts. A vast collection of concepts is already available to construct a sensible understanding.

Sometimes we need to invent new concepts, and action and speech will get technical.  

The range of required tools for description will vary from simple to enormously complex.  The devil is in the details. Reasons for action range in complexity. If this is not acknowledged, motivation will not be understood.  Reductionism has been a pox on psychology. The world and our actions are as potentially differentiated as the composer or decomposer can imagine.

Our competence in becoming a person requires a vast array of conceptual tools in the service of understanding people, their actions, languages and worlds. Somehow, normal infants growing into adults, supported by family, community and culture, acquire these competencies.  People acquire them by engaging in each other's practices.

There is a natural grammar we implicitly employ when recognizing something makes sense. It's natural, so there's nothing else to notice, we just keep on doing what we're doing. This is part of the intrinsic competence required for speech and action.  The job of Descriptive Psychology is to make this competence explicit, to explicitly identify the central concepts and formulate the implicit rules.

Whether acknowledged or not by our religions, philosophies and sciences, people live in significant accordance with these slogans.  Bear in mind, “living in accordance” is not constrained by what we say. We say all sorts of strange things.

Nine maxims, part of the early history of Descriptive Psychology, make explicit some of the rules for a reasonable account of behavior.  They are explicit reminders of how to make sense. The following nine are a fraction of the current collection but they provide a good orientation.  And, like a well-formed formula, they are tautological.

Nine Maxims:
1.  A person takes it that things are as they seem unless he has reason to think otherwise.

Maxim one provides the reminder that people act on how it seems to them.  It requires building a case if they are to be dissuaded.

2.  If a person recognizes an opportunity to get something she wants, she has a reason to try to get it.

Maxim two is the reminder that behavior follows not just from motive but also from opportunity. The behavior occurs now because the opportunity, correctly or incorrectly identified, is occurring now.

3.  If a person has a reason to do something, he will do it unless he has a stronger reason not to.

Maxim three is the reminder of the multiple perspectives that go into the appraisal of what a situation or circumstance calls for.  There may be reasons not to pursue an otherwise desired course of action.

4.  If a person has two reasons for doing X, she has a stronger reason for doing X than if she had only one of these reasons.

Maxim four holds for any number of additional reasons and is the reminder of the multiple reasons people often have for doing what they do.

5.  If a situation calls for a person to do something he can't do, he will do something he can do.

Maxim five reminds us that behavior is an expression of a person’s current values, knowledge and competencies and not what an observer believes ought to be the case.  People may not always do the best they can, but their action is always based on their appraisal of themselves and their circumstances. Not ours.

6.  A person acquires facts by observation (and thought).

How could it be otherwise?

7.  A person acquires concepts and skills by practice and experience in some of the social practices that involve the use of the concept or the exercise of the skill.

Maxim seven reminds us that skill, competence or know-how has a learning history and requires the opportunity to practice. In the absence of such practice a person may know what is called for but be unable to effectively act on that knowledge. 

8.  If a person has a given person characteristic, she acquired it in one of the ways it can be acquired, i.e., by having the prior capacity and an appropriate intervening history.

Where maxim seven refers to the development of competence, maxim eight provides the logical structure for the development of personal characteristics and individual differences.

9.  Given the relevant competence, behavior goes right if it doesn't go wrong in one of the ways it can go wrong.

Maxim nine simply restates what it means to be competent. Once competence has been acquired, successful behavior requires no explanation but failures do.

These maxims are components of a pre-empirical structure for behavioral science and offer guidance for sound description.  If a description is adequate, as Wittgenstein pointed out, there may be no need for further explanation. But there might.  When more explanation is needed, theory might serve the purpose.

Another basic introduction is found in the posting: A Short Course in Descriptive Psychology.  The Person Concept, Peter Ossorio's  grounding for the behavioral sciences, the interdependent  concepts of Individual Person, Behavior, Language, and World can be found here: The Person Concept

The previous posting, Intentional Action, Empathy and Psychotherapy, provides a Parametric Analysis of Intentional Action. The posting, The Problem of Other Possible Persons, provides a Paradigm Case Formulation of persons.

Further thoughts on People Make Sense regarding motivation and money can be found in a November posting.

For a collection of Descriptive Psychology resources and discussion please visit our Facebook page.

(To say people are understandable is not to deny that in the absence of enough shared social practices other people seem strange.  The solution is to not be a stranger.)


  1. I am not sure that I fully agree with the idea that we generally understand people. I agree that we know how to communicate with one another and get along in the world together, but I would not say that I understand a perfect stranger that comes into my office. Perhaps I am interpreting this concept incorrectly, but the reason I chose to psychology when I was in high school was that I did not understand people. I wanted to study them and learn why people do what they do so that I could make sense of the world. Maybe it is just that understanding "people" is different from understanding "the person"? Or is it that the "we" in the assertion that we generally understand people only applies to psychologists? Coming from a small, economically depressed farm town, the general consensus there is that the world is a messed up and difficult place, and that people do not make sense. The world itself does not make sense to people that can't make ends meet. To make the assertion that people understand one another does not seem to hold much weight for people outside of large, affluent cities. Even on the basis of language, this is usually not the case, because people in rural areas most times only speak English, and they do not understand anything about people from other cultures. I would be interested in discussing this idea more in class. -Hannah M

  2. I think you are recognizing that understanding requires shared social practices and with the stranger, especially the "strange" stranger, we may not trust that we have enough in common. Clearly understanding has a "more or less" quality to it. But all humans share basic fundamental interests, vulnerabilities and desires. This is not to suggest we don't often get it wrong. Perhaps I should say, people are inherently potentially understandable to each other and begin with enough in common to negotiate a better understanding.

    Consider, that although there is much we don't know about any given person or group of people, "meeting a stranger on the street is not like coming face to face with a little green man from Mars, nor is it like chancing upon a complex mobile artifact without having the slightest idea of what might ensue. And having lunch with my Uncle Ben is not like meeting a stranger on the street. With persons, one might say, it is I to Thou." (Ossorio, p.2, The Behavior of Persons)

    Harry Stack Sullivan put it this way:

    “I now want to present what I used to call the one-genus hypothesis, or postulate. This hypothesis I word as follows: We shall assume that everyone is much more simply human than otherwise, and that anomalous interpersonal situations, insofar as they do not arise from differences in language or custom, are a function of differences in relative maturity of the persons concerned. In other words, the differences between any two instances of human personality--from the lowest grade imbecile to the highest-grade genius--are much less striking than the differences between the least-gifted human being and a member of the nearest other biological genus...I have become occupied with the science, not of individual differences, but of human identities, or parallels...I try to study the degrees and patterns of things which I assume to be ubiquitously human” (1953, The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, pp.32-33).

  3. "If a situation calls for a person to do something he can't do, he will do something he can do. Maxim five reminds us that behavior is an expression of a person’s current values, knowledge and competencies and not what an observer believes ought to be the case. People may not always do the best they can, but their action is always based on their appraisal of themselves and their circumstances. Not ours."
    This reminds me of the central premise of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which is that in any given moment people (patients/clients/us) are doing the best they can and they can do better. Thus interventions are based on the balance of acceptance and change approaches. I think it is important to remember that if a person could “do better” in a given situation, he or she would. However, something in the circumstance could be getting in the way of their ability to act optimally. Maybe a lack of skill, or a skill they cannot access given the present moment (ie in a time of emotional dysregulation or due to appraisal of the self) or the environment they are in doesn’t promote their skillful/adaptive behavior. As therapists, part of our role, I believe is to curiously explore with clients what could be getting in the way. I agree that our appraisal and theirs in a given situation may likely not be the same.
    Maxine K.

    1. Hmm, so what do you make of my being too lazy at the moment to look up a word I've misspelled? Sometimes I can try harder, look more carefully, think it through again. I think it makes sense to give people the benefit of the doubt, but if I send out this response without careful revision it will not be the best I can do. To say people are doing the best they can would conceptually be no different than saying,"They did what they did. They could not have done better and they could not have done worse".

      "The Best" drops out as a meaningful distinction if people are always doing the best they can.

      But you are making another point that I think is a useful therapeutic policy, namely "Treat people as if they are doing the best they can until or unless you have sufficient reason to treat them otherwise." Such a policy helps avoid degrading the client and is part of the rationale behind the DBT approach.

  4. I actually find the concept of having a common ground in understanding others a very interesting one. Prior to reading your blog, I had never really conceptualized the idea that before one can disagree with someone, the complete opposite must occur: establishing a common ground.

    I was particularly enlightened by your statement of “Before disagreement and misunderstanding can be identified there has to be a shared means of negotiation based on a common appreciation of what understandable action looks like in a coherent world. We have to know how to adequately get along and communicate before we can identify its absence.” This comment clearly resonates with what was said in class that things have to make sense first before one can talk about how they don't make sense. It is true that "without shared concepts, we are clueless".
    ~ G. Cruz

  5. I am also intrigued by Maxim 5 "If a situation calls for a person to do something he can't do, he will do something he can do." This reminds me of a conversation I had with my host-mother while I was studying in Costa Rica. She used to work for the United Nations. She told me about the indigenous groups she used to visit and how there was often quite a gap in understanding, both linguistically and culturally. She always managed to get her point across and they always managed to communicate effectively with her. We arrived at the conclusion that people will always find a way to communicate. I believe this is important to remember in clinical work especially since people's histories, behaviors, perceptions, artwork, and pains all communicate (possibly unspeakable) truths about who that person is, who that person was, and possibly who that person wishes to be. These actions may be the only way that the person finds he CAN communicate, possibly because he is unaware, too anxious, or unwilling to go there. Our job as clinicians, therefore, is to listen to AND observe what the person is trying to communicate to us.
    Laura Z.

  6. Wynn,

    Obviously, you have organized an awesome amount of material on conceptual underpinnings, and done an exemplary job.

    Given my background with Ossorio and language analysis, I feel I understood why you chose the material you chose to include and how we might benefit from it. And yet so much compacted information might easily overwhelm newcomers, who would not be expected to have a sufficient background in conceptual analysis.

    Surely, we need the precise and highly informative flavor of summations such as yours. Yet I sometimes feel like a simpleton, because I can only absorb so much in any series of paragraphs and I too can be overwhelmed or simply worn out by spans of highly concentrated information.

    Ossorio holds that "A person acquires concepts and skills by practice and experience in some of the social practices that involve the use of the concepts or skills." Broadly, the point is that we learn our general ways of doing things not so much by definitions or detailed instructions, but by emmersing ourselves in the various activities.

    I would like to see some of the highly intelligent writers such as yourself take the time to flush out the DP principles, to apply, to illustrate, so that the more average readers such as myself can emmerse ourselves in the practice and feel more at home with it.

    Richard Driscoll, Ph.D.

    1. Toastmasters has a working model of practicing basic concepts. The speeches are presented in order of importance of performing a competent speech. Practicing Courage, Being in Earnest, Organizing Your Speech (Purposefulness), etc. What would be the first skill that one would practice here?

    2. Bruce, please let me know a bit more about what you're asking. What do you mean by "practice here"? What is the subject matter of "here"?