Friday, April 7, 2017

A Preface to a Work in Progress: Descriptive Psychology and the Person Concept


My introduction to the Person Concept came early fall 1972 when I learned NASA had asked, "If green gas on the moon speaks to an astronaut, how do we know if it's a person?"  High in the Rockies, keeping warm around a campfire, a classmate said one of our professors had the answer.

I started graduate school in clinical and experimental psychology skeptical whether I'd find psychology satisfying. In college, the well-designed experiments I had been taught were compelling, but the personality theories that held my interest seemed more akin to warring theologies than science. The experiments and theories made different sorts of sense, but how they fit together or were about the same thing was a mystery.

I entered doctoral study having read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Stephen Pepper's World Hypotheses, so was attuned to the history of empirical anomalies eliciting new paradigms and the troubling idea that most contemporary personality theories stem from incompatible "root metaphors" grounded in ancient metaphysical assumptions.  Working my way through Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, its end notes especially resonated, ".... For in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion." Psychologists might have significant knowledge and useful practices, but their theories aren't built on a coherent conceptual base. Nor, for that matter, do they have all that much in common. Fundamental concepts in one theory can mean something quite different in others. One theory's thorny anomaly is another's starting point; an unquestioned given for one is treated as unreal by another.

As I write this not much has changed except for an ongoing refinement in experimentation.  Even today my students interviewing for training sites are asked if their orientation is psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, or humanistic.  It still seems that concepts of accountability, choice, reason, intention, and cause, concepts at the cornerstone of civilization, and the scientific necessity for reductionism and determinism reside in contradictory intellectual universes. At least when I read physics, chemistry, or biology, the foundational concepts in one text resemble their use in the others; not so in psychology.

But psychology is special.  It has, for me, a more interesting problem than sorting out the meat and potatoes of the natural sciences. Psychology must have a place 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, is part of the practice of people doing science.  Ad hominem.  (In a following chapter, I will manage this dilemma with a recursive and reflexive formulation of deliberate action.)

So I decided to become a psychologist expecting interesting but contradictory theory and with faith I'd learn reasonable methods for establishing facts. Sticking close to the empirical seemed a smart way to go; still, I remained ambivalent about the discipline.  I ended up in my chairman's office worried I'd made a bad choice.  He responded, not smiling, "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 competently acquired but implicit knowledge about the behavior of people explicit and systematic.  He called this discipline Descriptive Psychology. By 1972 he was well into working on the Person Concept, the central concern of Descriptive Psychology.  Unlike anything I had encountered, it required thinking about science in ways new to me. (But later, when he asked me to revisit Wittgenstein, the family resemblances in their approach to rule following and reminders became clear). 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 a 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 will take. The focus is the range of possibility. Finding out what really happens 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. We then 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 this difficulty. To the extent it is successful, the explicit conceptualization of behavioral science's common ground 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 since the essential nature of Descriptive Psychology is a construction with room for significant distinctions yet to be recognized. Nonetheless, what has been built is nuanced, systematic, and entirely interconnected. Made explicit, the Person Concept has complex constituent elements, but none that stand alone without reference to the others: the interdependent concepts of Individual Persons, Behavior as Intentional Action, Language and Verbal Behavior, Community and Culture, and World or Reality.  Tying these together are a set of transition rules, The State of Affairs System, formulated for unpacking and connecting everything. 

Some words of caution. The foundational concepts are interdependent, resembling 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 also 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.