Sunday, November 1, 2015

Empathy, Intentional Action, and The Person Concept

1st Annual Peter Ossorio Lecture - Dr. Wynn Schwartz
October 19, 2015
University of Colorado-Boulder

Empathy, Intentional Action, and The Person Concept: An Exercise in Descriptive Psychology

“The instigation of the Person Concept was a very practical one.  It was the classic problem of how to teach students something about the interpretation of diagnostic instruments, case histories, and psychological theories, and about the conduct of psychotherapy and laboratory and field experimentation, without requiring that they give up their own conceptual and theoretical preferences in favor of those of an instructor (hence the descriptive focus).  A related goal was to accomplish this within a conceptually coherent, intellectually satisfying, and substantively adequate framework….” Peter Ossorio, Persons, 1966/1995

By the 1960’s it remained painfully clear Wittgenstein’s cautionary reminder that “…in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion…”  had not been adequately addressed. This is still the case to the extent the behavioral sciences lack a common lexicon and a shared conceptual foundation. This continues to make it difficult for researchers and practitioners to agree on meanings and accurately communicate empirical findings and useful practices. 
Facing this dilemma, Peter Ossorio, during his tenure at the University of Colorado, created Descriptive Psychology:  a pragmatic, theory-neutral map for systematically describing “the world of persons and their ways”.  He called this The Person Concept, a construction that made explicit the interdependent concepts Individual Person, Behavior as Intentional Action, Language, and Reality

The focus of my lecture is Ossorio’s “Parametric Analysis of Intentional Action”, a method and formulation designed to identify how a specific behavior is similar to or different from any other behavior. 

In an application of this analysis, I’ll operationalize empathy as involving actions in which a person demonstrates to another their immediate appreciation of the personal significance of that person’s behavior and felt state in a manner that can be affectively tolerated. I’ll demonstrate how Ossorio’s parametric analysis provides a straight-forward method, a checklist, that can be used in identifying and correcting lapses in empathic engagement. 

I started my talk pointing out the problems Ossorio confronted in the academic and practitioner communities of psychologists.

From his 1983 "Why Descriptive Psychology?":

1. Psychological theories portray persons in ways which are not merely limited  but highly distorting as well.

2.  Psychological theory and method are clearly almost entirely non-empirical, yet no satisfactory account of this fact has been available.

3.  Both psychological theories of methodology and psychological theories of behavior are inadequate to provide a rationale for clinical practice.

4.  There is no general theory in psychology which is not fundamentally inadequate to account for language as a form of behavior.

5.  Finally, there is a whole set of intractable truth issues associated with traditional theorizing.

I went on to what concerned me in 1972 when I started graduate school as his student. 

1.  Given psychology's general commitment to reductionism and determinism, how to account for the choice and responsibility themes of everyday life and the legal and cultural concerns with accountability?

2.  The major personality theories taught as theology-like schools to respect like your neighbors good-faith but mistaken religion.

3.  The confusions created by the absence of a systematic and shared lexicon of behavioral concepts. 

Ossorio's answer was The Person Concept.

Here's my lecture.  I am re-introducing Descriptive Psychology to Peter Ossorio's academic home, the University of Colorado's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. I was very happy to be doing this.