Tuesday 18 October 2016

Crotty's account of constructionism #2

In a previous post, I suggested that Michael Crotty makes two daft claims about constructionism and its opposite objectivism (I am ignoring subjectivism). Despite protesting against idealism, he is drawn on behalf of constructionism to say that the contingent history of concepts infects the ‘meaningful reality’ they enable us to articulate itself. Second, in characterising constructionism’s objectivist opposition, he assumes that it too must take meanings and concepts to be central but then locates them in the world. This reminds me of a premodern view of the world, the episteme in which, for example, the cure for impotence is a root that looks like testicles and hence naturally means potency etc. The more obvious way to think about objectivism is as holding that the natural world itself is devoid of meaning rather than containing meanings that have nothing to do with human minds and practices.

Despite the fact that these both seem unhappy – daft even – things to say about constructionism and objectivism, there are motives for them both.

Consider objectivism. Crotty takes it to ascribe to worldly objects meanings that are wholly independent of human subjectivity. I suggested that a more obvious version would have it take the world to be free of meanings. But the former view has a rationale. One motive would be sympathy with McDowell’s objection to a view of nature as disenchanted [McDowell 1994: **]. He argues that this view – a view which looks like the account of objectivism I have suggested – is the result of a misunderstanding of the methodological success of construing the physical world in meaning-free terms. It does not follow that the world in general is meaning-free. One reason to wish to deny this is to think that the world is a world of values too. (This is McDowell’s ‘partial re-enchantment’ of nature.)

There is another – related – line of thinking in favour of Crotty’s version of objectivism. It has to do with the coherence of the idea that meanings might be tied closely to human decisions. Consider the connection between rules of logical inference and the meaning of logical connectives. On a broadly constructionist view, the meaning of such connectives is fixed by convention and hence the forms of inference they permit. But now imagine that a system of logic has been adopted by such conventions. What of the particular inferences it permits? Is accord of a particular inference with a general rule (itself adopted by the convention that fixes the meanings of connectives) itself adopted by convention? Or is it fixed by the meanings so adopted, autonomously? The former looks unhappy because it replaces the sense of constraint in reasoning in accord with logical principles with freely adopted decisions: a kind of logical jazz. The latter requires thinking that logical inferences are fixed by a kind of action at a distance which seems to require the kind of objectivism about meaning that Crotty describes. Meanings are not wholly up to us. So there is a rationale for holding Crotty’s objectivism even if it is already a kind of intermediate position and hence not the best way to chart the logical geography.

There is also a rationale for Crotty’s constructionism even though his description of it isn’t happy: ‘It is the view that all knowledge, and therefore all meaningful reality as such, is contingent upon human practices, being constructed in and out of interaction between human beings and their world…’
No one should rush to say that reality is contingent on human practices. But it is hard to avoid saying this. Consider McDowell’s sympathy with the idea that the world is everything that is the case, the world of facts not of things. McDowell also connects this conception of the world with the set of true thoughts though stressing a contrast between thinkable contents and acts of thinking. The world isn’t the set of acts of thinking; it is what can be truly thought. But there is some difficulty – it seems to me – in stopping an awareness of the contingency of human concepts escalating via the apparently innocent idea that the world is the set of true thoughts, themselves conceptually articulated, into the idea that the world itself is contingent on human concepts and their history. It would be easy if one could help oneself to a distinction between conceptual scheme and extra-conceptual content. The former could be the locus of contingency. But with the death of that dualism, it becomes much harder to apportion the contingency safely.

So I don’t think that Crotty’s descriptions of the options are unmotivated. They are just a bit rash, not the sort of thing that sober researchers should assert without an ironic smile, at least. Copying them into a PhD makes the PhD worse rather than better, etc.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Paul Crowther on McDowell’s objectivism

I’ve been dipping into Paul Crowther’s book Philosophy after Postmodernism looking at what he says about McDowell, a little in chapter 6 and more in a short appendix which is quite compressed. (Thanks as often to David Yates for the suggestion.) I don't think I have the hang of his concerns yet and so the following thinking aloud may be quite mistaken.

Crowther sets out two broad metaphysical positions with respect to the world and conceptual rationality. Crowther’s preferred position is mediated objectivism and the one he thinks McDowell may slip into subscribing to is absolute objectivism.

Mediated objectivism:
it is only insofar as there are rational subjects to connect mind-independent sensible material that we can talk of an objective world of facts. Such perceptible facts exist independently of the particular subject of perception, but not wholly independently of that horizon of rational connections which is the basis of subjective receptivity in general. This horizon is, in part, constitutive of objective factuality. [ibid: 218]

Absolute objectivism:
As I read McDowell, these remarks suggest that there is an objective order of facts – the ‘layout of reality’ – which exists over and above the epistemic conditions of our receptivity to it. The horizon of rational connections is our only means of experiential access to such an order, but its function is to register or receive the facts. It is in no sense constitutive of their objectivity. [218-9]

What might suggest that McDowell subscribes to the former is the fact that:

McDowell argues that the requisite rational justifications are available only insofar as our receptivity to mind-independent reality involves conceptually mediated experience. What we articulate in judgement and belief is always situated in a broader horizon of rational connections acquired as an ‘ongoing concern’ through our initiation into language and social forms of life. [ibid: 218]

Further Crowther commends McDowell’s use of the word ‘shaping’ to describe how concepts play a role in experiences such that ‘the rational connections of the concept enter into shaping the content of the appearance, so that what appears to be the case is understood as fraught with implications for the subject’s cognitive situation in the world’ [218].

I suspect – though it seems Crowther does not – that this last point has to be taken in conjunction with a further thought to make sure that it isn’t merely read as saying that concepts shape just a subjective ‘take’ on the world with no implication for how the world itself actually is. Mediated objectivism says that (perceptible) facts are not wholly independent of rational connections. So we need to add in – I think – something that we do indeed find in McDowell: that experience is essentially experience of the world, an openness to reality. (McDowell got quite cross when my friend Ian Lyne called this – merely – a ‘conjecture’.)

But then I get confused because Crowther has two bits of evidence to suggest that McDowell supports absolute objectivism rather than mediated objectivism, the first of which I think we need for ascribing to McDowell even mediated objectivism. He quotes McDowell twice over:

the idea of conceptually structured operations of receptivity puts us in a position to speak of experience as openness to the layout of reality.


The thinkable contents that are ultimate in the order of justification are contents of experience, and in enjoying an experience one is open to manifest facts, facts that obtain anyway, and impress themselves on one’s sensibility.

But surely this idea is necessary to get even a partial constitutive role for concepts in the world via discussion of shaping experience?

The second bit of evidence is that McDowell thinks, in Crowther’s phrase, that ‘if we are to give due acknowledgement to the independence of reality, what we need is a constraint from outside thinking and judging’ [219]

It surprises me that he doesn’t provide a bit more context for this. McDowell contrasts 'thinking' meaning act of thinking with 'thinking' meaning thinkable contents. Equating reality with the former slights its objectivity, he thinks, but not the latter:

If we say that there must be a rational constraint on thought from outside it, so as to ensure a proper acknowledgement of the independence of reality, we put ourselves at the mercy of a familiar kind of ambiguity. "Thought" can mean the act of thinking; but it can also mean the content of a piece of thinking: what someone thinks. Now if we are to give due acknowledgement to the independence of reality, what we need is a constraint from outside thinking and judging, our exercises of spontaneity. The constraint does not need to be from outside thinkable contents. It would indeed slight the independence of reality if we equated facts in general with exercises of conceptual capacities- acts of thinking-or represented facts as reflections of such things; or if we equated perceptible facts in particular with states or occurrences in which conceptual capacities are drawn into operation in sensibility-experiences-or represented them as reflections of such things. But it is not idealistic, as that would be, to say that perceptible facts are essentially capable of impressing themselves on perceivers in states or occurrences of the latter sort; and that facts in general are essentially capable of being embraced in thought in exercises of spontaneity, occurrences of the former sort. [McDowell 1994: 28]

I think that I want rather a more objective picture of the world than either Crowther or McDowell offers but this contrast seems crucial to understand McDowell’s worry about slighting the independence of reality. Having rejected the potentially idealist connection of the world to acts of thinking, McDowell is happy with its connection to thinkable contents. So it seems surprising when Crowther goes on to say:

The horizon of rational connections is, as McDowell admits, the basis of our knowledge of a world of objective facts. To suppose in addition that the objectivity of this world can exist independently of the condition of our knowing it is merely an assumption – and one for which McDowell offers no justification over and above his unwarranted worries about idealistic ‘slights’ to the independence of reality. He offers us, in other words, no positive grounds for the acceptance of absolute objectivism. To vary his parlance slightly, where we wanted justifications we get a leap of faith instead. [219]

It seems a perverse misreading to think that McDowell offers an account of the objectivity of the world as a kind of further assumption lying behind what he thinks is given (small g!) in experience: a glimpse of the objective world where world just is the set of true Fregean Thoughts and hence essentially rationally structured.

This reminds me – though I admit the analogy is not close – of an exchange between Michael Friedman and McDowell. Friedman argues that McDowell’s account is idealist because the difference between inner states such as sensations and worldly facts depends merely on what subjects do with their experiences. McDowell’s reply is to stress that the phenomenology of outer sense shows it to involve glimpses of the world. The further connection to the reflective role of reason is a transcendental condition on such glimpses. But it does not explain how neutrally described experiences gain their worldly content. That isn’t the right starting point. Friedman says:

[T]he distinction between passive experience (concerning which we are simply “struck” one way or another, as it were) and active judgment (concerning which we have free choice) is not at all the same as the distinction between that which expresses constraint by an independent objective world and that which does not. The crucial question, in this regard, concerns rather how we distinguish between “inner” and “outer” sense. And McDowell’s idea here, if I understand him correctly, is that passively received impressions become experiences of an objective world (and thus impressions of outer sense) only by being taken as such by the active faculty of understanding: by being subject, that is, to the perpetually revisable procedure through which the understanding integrates such impressions into an evolving world-conception. [Friedman 2002: 34-5]

McDowell responds.

But this does not fit the conception of experience I recommend. In my picture, actualizations of conceptual capacities in receptivity are already, in conforming to that specification, at least apparently revelatory of an objective world, and, when all goes well, actually so. They do not need to be turned into experiences with objective purport by being so taken. The point of invoking the perpetual obligation to rethink a world-view is to help make it intelligible that these “passively received impressions” already have objective purport - not to indicate a way in which intellectual activity can somehow make experiences of an objective world out of items that are in themselves less than that. [McDowell 2002: 273]

What I take from the analogy is that McDowell does not think that in avoiding slighting the independence of reality he is postulating something that needs faith: a world beyond our knowledge. A mundus absconditus. (It is worth comparing this with his criticism of Rorty.) Rather, that experience is of something independent of us when it comes to outer sense needs no argument. (What might need an argument is how philosophical positions that make this impossible can be dissolved.)

I am not at all sure that I am happy with the balance that McDowell attempts to strike between the idea that experience is simply a form openness to the world with the role that concepts play in constituting that same world. I’m worried by such comments as: ‘thought and reality meet in the realm of sense’ [McDowell 1994: 180]. It’s the balance between a disjunctivist account of experience in which, when all goes well, experiences stops nowhere short of the fact and the shared conceptual structure – in Mind and World if not more recently – of thought, experience and world. But it seems bizarre to have an opposite worry: that McDowell offers a mere leap of faith to an account of the world beyond our capacity – when all goes well – to know it. That seems utterly alien to his thinking.

To repeat, however, perhaps I’m just not getting the dialectic.

Crowther, P. (2014) Philosophy after Postmodernism: civilised values and the scope of knowledge, London: Routledge

Values and the singular aims of idiographic inquiry

A very draft version of a paper for a conference in Italy in a couple of weeks.


In response to the concern that criteriological psychiatric diagnosis, based on the DSM and ICD classifications, pigeon-holes patients, there have been calls for it to be augmented by an idiographic formulation. I have argued elsewhere that this is a mistake [Thornton 2008a, 2008b, 2010]. If ‘idiographic’ judgement is construed as essentially individualistic then it is in tension with the aim of such judgement also being valid. Looking back to its original proponent Wilhelm Windelband yields no clear alternative account of idiographic judgement. But in this paper I will argue that Windelband just provide a helpful clue in his remark that ‘every interest and judgement, every ascription of human value is based upon the singular and the unique... Our sense of values and all of our axiological sentiments are grounded in the uniqueness and incomparability of their object’ [Windelband 1980: 182]. This suggests a role for the idiographic not as the content of a particular kind of judgement but rather as characterising its aim. I will argue that this connects to the issue of the generalisability of small scale qualitative social science research and to the critique of ‘looking away’ in moral philosophy.

Key words

Causation, explanation, idiographic, interventionism, nomothetic, understanding,


The idea that psychiatric diagnosis or, more broadly, psychiatric formulation should include an idiographic element is explicit in publications by psychiatrists working on the WPA initiative Psychiatry for the Person. It forms part of the explicitly broad conception of diagnosis called a comprehensive model or concept of diagnosis. The Idiographic (Personalised) Diagnostic Formulation closely connects a comprehensive model with an idiographic component:

This comprehensive concept of diagnosis is implemented through the articulation of two diagnostic levels. The first is a standardised multi-axial diagnostic formulation, which describes the patient’s illness and clinical condition through standardised typologies and scales... The second is an idiographic diagnostic formulation, which complements the standardised formulation with a personalised and flexible statement. [IDGA Workgroup, WPA 2003: 55]

The role of the idiographic aspect is to complement and contrast a general approach through ‘typologies and scales’ with something personal and individual. The psychiatrist James Phillips makes this individual focus explicit: ‘In the most simple terms, a[n] idiographic formulation is an individual account’ [Phillips: 2005: 182 italics added].

But this raises the following question. If an idiographic element is to be a genuine complement to general typologies and scales, what kind of understanding of an individual does it comprise? How is it different from criteriological diagnosis, for example? Although the term ‘idiographic’ has a settled use in psychological research to refer to small scale qualitative studies, that use does not explain how an idiographic element would be a genuine complement to criteriological diagnosis in psychiatry.

Windelband and individuals

The distinction between idiographic and nomothetic forms of understanding was first introduced by Wilhelm Windelband in his rectoral address of 1894. Windelband, as a post-Kantian philosopher, was familiar with the debate about the relation of the human and natural sciences called the ‘Methodenstreit’, a debate which shaped, for example, psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers’ views of the importance of empathy for understanding psychopathology [Thornton 2007: 90-2]. That distinction is usually thought of as a distinction between explanation and understanding. Jaspers contrasts explanation in terms of causal connections with understanding of meaningful connections (and further subdividing understanding into phenomenology and empathy for example) [Jaspers 1974]. This has in turn led modern philosophers, especially those in the Wittgensteinian tradition, to characterise understanding as a form of intelligibility suited for the meaning-laden actions and utterances of rational animals hence stressing its rational and normative character that ‘finds no echo in physical theory’ [Davidson 1980: 231].

In his address, however, Windelband stresses instead that the difference between nomomethetic and idiographic, whilst still a distinction in method or form of knowledge rather than subject matter, concerns the difference between general and particular.

In their quest for knowledge of reality, the empirical sciences either seek the general in the form of the law of nature or the particular in the form of the historically defined structure. On the one hand, they are concerned with the form which invariably remains constant. On the other hand, they are concerned with the unique, immanently defined content of the real event. The former disciplines are nomological sciences. The latter disciplines are sciences of process or sciences of the event. The nomological sciences are concerned with what is invariably the case. The sciences of process are concerned with what was once the case. If I may be permitted to introduce some new technical terms, scientific thought is nomothetic in the former case and idiographic in the latter case. Should we retain the customary expressions, then it can be said that the dichotomy at stake here concerns the distinction between the natural and the historical disciplines. [Windelband 1980: 175-6]

Windelband remarks that the distinction he is attempting to frame is not based on a distinction of substances: sciences of nature or natural science [Naturwissenschaften], versus the sciences of the mind [Geisteswissenschaften]. Such a distinction is hostage to the fortunes of that dualism. If the reductionist project of explaining mental properties in physical terms were successful then that contrast would be undermined.

Even with these characterisations in play, however, the distinction as so far introduced is not clear. Consider the contrast between ‘what is invariably the case’ and ‘what was once the case’. There are three problems with using this contrast to characterise a notion of ‘idiographic’. First, it threatens to slip back from a methodological distinction of how a subject matter is approached to the underlying nature of the events in question (whether, as a matter of fact, they are invariant or unique). Second, a substantive distinction does not explain in what way an idiographic understanding differs from any other sort. Third, the uniqueness of its subject matter cannot separate the idiographic and nomothetic. The gravitational forces on a mass, for example, depend in principle on a vector sum of its relation with every other object in the universe and thus some of the events described by physics are likely to be unique.

One of the clues Windelband himself offers is to suggest that history is a paradigm of idiographic sciences which ‘provide a complete and exhaustive description of a single, more or less extensive process which is located within a unique, temporally defined domain of reality’ [Windelband 1980: 174] However, this does not explain how historical explanation differs from physics, say. Windelband’s further comments about historical judgement are unhelpful. He says:

[H]istory seeks structural forms… [Windelband 1980: 178]

[I]n the historical sciences,… [thought] is devoted to the faithful delineation of the particulars… [ibid: 178]

The historian’s task… is to breathe new life into some structure of the past in such a way that all of its concrete and distinctive features acquire an ideal actuality or contemporaneity. His task, in relation to what really happened, is similar to the task of the artist, in relation to what exists in his imagination. [ibid: 178]

But the task of ‘describing structure’ is shared by some nomothetic sciences like chemistry. ‘Delineation of particulars’ is also the common aim of both idiographic and nomothetic sciences. The physics of a particular mass concerns that individual. Talk of ‘ideal actuality’ may be uniquely appropriate for the idiographic sciences but hardly sheds light on what this amounts to.

It might be assumed that using history as a paradigm suggests a connection to the other broad way of construing the Methodenestreit mentioned above as marking a distinction between explaining natural events and understanding meaning-laden events or rational subjects. But Windelband offers an example of historical understanding that is of a merely biological process, which show that this is not what he has in mind.

Consider… the subject matter of the biological sciences as evolutionary history in which the entire sequence of terrestrial organisms is represented as a gradually formative process of descent or transformation which develops in the course of time. There is neither evidence nor even a likelihood that this same organic process has been repeated on some other planet. In this case, the science of organic nature is an idiographic or historical discipline. [Windelband 1980: 176]

In summary, although Windelband coins a distinction between idiographic and nomothetic, stresses that it is a distinction of a form of understanding rather than of types of subject matter and offers history as an example of idiographic understanding, it remains unclear what the distinction amounts to.

Elsewhere I have suggested that the appeal of idiographic judgement stems from a recoil from subsuming human individuals under conceptual categories – from pigeon-holing people – and hence instead attempting to understand them in other ways or other terms, a kind of ‘individualising intuition’ [Thornton 2008a, 2008b, 2010]. The problem is then to explain what novel form of judgement would address this task. If judgement in general takes a subject predicate form – s is P – then there are two elements to consider: the referential element and the predicational element.

The referential element does not seem to be a hopeful place to look to draw a distinction between nomothetic and idiographic. Consider the traditional deductive-nomological model of explanation as an example. This contains general laws (hence the name). But it also refers to the particular circumstances of the explanans. Whether an adequate formal model of explanation or not, since the DN model of explanation is designed to fit paradigmatically nomothetic sciences, mere singular reference to particular circumstances is not sufficient to distinguish a different form of intelligibility.

But ‘individualising’ the predicational element seems equally unpromising albeit in a different way. Such a predicate would have to be designed for a particular single element carrying with it no possible application to, and hence comparison with, other individuals. What could such a predicate be? What property would be picked out such that it could not possible apply to other cases? The closest idea seems to be a kind of name designed for specific individual (person or event). But that collapses this proposal back into the referential element of the judgement. In neither way can the ‘individualising intuition’ be satisfied through a novel form of judgement.

Singular causation

I suggested earlier that Windelband’s distinction between idiographic and nomothetic is a distinct variant of a broader discussion of the difference between human and natural sciences that in more familiar forms concerns understanding and explanation. Such a distinction plays a key role in the thinking of Karl Jaspers. Christophe Hoerl suggests that Jaspers contrast has both an epistemic and ontological dimension [Hoerl 2013]. Epistemically, the distinction runs as follows:

Explaining, Jaspers thinks, requires repeated experience – it is achieved by “observation of events, by experiment and the collection of numerous examples” (GP, 3 p. 302), which allow us to formulate general rules and theories. Understanding, by contrast, is achieved (if it is achieved) directly upon confrontation with a particular case. As Jaspers also puts it, “[p]sychological understanding cannot be used mechanically as a sort of generalized knowledge but a fresh, personal intuition is needed on every occasion” (GP, p. 313). We might thus say that Jaspers subscribes to a form of epistemic particularism regarding understanding. Understanding is not achieved by bringing certain facts under general laws established through repeated observation. Rather, the grasp it delivers of how one psychic event emerges from another in a particular case strikes us “as something self-evident which cannot be broken down any further” (GP, p. 303). [Hoerl 2013: 108]

Ontologically, understanding and explanation chart different aspects of reality: meaningful psychic connections and rules of causality, respectively. Hoerl points out that Jaspers suggests that the former are not causal. (In this, he resembles 1970s Wittgensteinian philosophers.) But Hoerl objects both that this makes it ‘quite obscure what genuine epistemic gain understanding could deliver’ [ibid: 109] and also that Jasper’s talk of events ‘emerging’ from others seems to be a causal notion [ibid: 110]. The difficulty here is a dilemma. If understanding is construed as non-causal then it risks epistemic obscurity. But if it is causal, it risks collapsing into explanation.

Hoerl suggests a reconciliation via the distinction between singular and general causation.

When he talks about (mere) causal explanation, what he has in mind are general causal claims linking types of events. Understanding, by contrast, is concerned with singular causation in the psychological domain – i.e. with the particular way in which one psychic event emerges from or arises out of another on a particular occasion. [ibid: 111]

This suggestion raises a question, however. Given that since Hume, a dominant approach to causation has stressed a connection between causal relations and constant conjunctions, what account of singular causal relations can be given?

Following John Campbell, Hoerl suggests that an interventionist approach fits the bill. Campbell’s discussion of interventionism within psychology and psychiatry starts by rejecting two connections which philosophers find natural: between non-mental causal connections and mechanisms and between mental causal connections and rational relations.

Campbell suggests that:

there is an analogy between: 1 the idea that propositional attitude ascriptions depend on the ascription of rationality to the subject, and 2 the idea that all causal interactions between pieces of matter must be comprehensible in mechanistic terms. Both ideas express an insight – that we find it extremely puzzling when we encounter causal relations among propositional attitudes that are not broadly rational, just as we find it extremely puzzling when we encounter causal interactions between physical objects that are not mechanistic, and that involve spooky ‘action-at-a-distance’. Both ideas express a natural impulse of philosophers – to elevate this kind of point into a kind of synthetic a priori demand that reason makes on the world. This impulse has to be resisted. [Campbell 2009: 142]

Campbell suggests that, in both cases, there is a genuine insight. As a matter of custom and habit, we find an absence of material mechanisms and an absence of rational connections between mental states puzzling. But in both cases it is a characteristic philosophical error to promote this natural expectation into a justified a priori claim that the world must respect. Mere custom and habit cannot rationally sustain any such demand on how the world must be.

Campbell rejects the necessity of both physical mechanisms and rational connections in favour of an interventionist approach to causation. With respect to the latter, he argues:

Suppose you believe: 1 that this man is stroking his chin, and 2 that this man believes you need to shave. What is it for the first belief to be a cause of the second? On the interventionist analysis, it is for the intervention on the first belief to be a way of changing whether you have the second belief. So if some external force changed your belief that this man is stroking his chin, you would no longer believe that he believes you need to shave. There is no appeal to rationality here, no appeals to mechanism. [Campbell 2009: 143]

The causal connection between one state and another is underpinned in interventionist terms based on the idea that if intervening on the first belief is a stable way of bringing about a change in the second then this is sufficient for there to be a causal connection between them.

For propositional attitudes to count as causes of other propositional attitudes such as delusions, Campbell suggests two conditions have to be met. There should be ‘systematic relations between cause variables and the subsequent delusion’ and there should be a correlation between a change of the cause and a change of the effect [Campbell 2009: 146]. More generally for the causal explanation of mental states, the causal variables, which he calls ‘control variables’, should have large, specific and systematic correlations with their effects akin to the way the controls of a car systematically control its behaviour. These conditions do not require a rational connection, however.

The classical philosophical approach has been to regard propositional attitudes as part of a ‘conceptual scheme’ that we bring to bear in describing the ordinary world. This conceptual scheme is taken to have strong a priori constraints on its applicability. In particular, as we have seen, rationality is taken to be a norm with which the scheme has to comply... The appeal I have just been making to the notion of a control variable is intended to replace this invocation of rationality... [I]t is the fact that we have control variables, not the fact that we have rationality, which means that we are ‘at the right level’ to talk of beliefs and desires. [Campbell 2009: 147]

Taken together, Hoerl’s and Campbell’s accounts suggest a recipe for idiographic judgement. Hoerl suggests that understanding charts singular psychological causal relations and that singular causal relations can be construed on interventionist terms. Campbell argues, also on interventionist grounds, that the assumption that causal connections between psychological states must presuppose rational relations between them is mistaken. The combination suggests an austere view which is not tied to the psychological realm. Hence the possibility that this might offer substance to Windelband’s emphasis on the particular rather than the meaningful. Perhaps idiographic judgement trades in singular causal relations shorn of rational relations?

I do not think that this will work, however. Consider Campbell’s example of the deluded man who thinks that someone else believes he needs to shave in virtue of the fact that that other person is stroking their chin. Campbell suggests that this can be given an interventionist account without presupposing rationality. But in doing this, Campbell simply assumes the correct interpretation of the two beliefs of the deluded person. Whence this interpretation? It does not seem to be a matter of brute causation. If it is not, then Campbell’s claim that articulating the causal connections does not require rationality is misleading. Identifying the causal connections may not but identifying the mental states themselves may do.

What of non-mental cases such as Windelband’s example of merely biological evolutionary event where there is ‘neither evidence nor even a likelihood that this same organic process has been repeated’? The problem in such cases is that mere non-repeatability of subject matter is not sufficient to ensure its study is not nomothetic. It seems for example an empirical question whether the Big Bang was a one off event or whether a collapsing universe will, in the future, lead to a repetition of an event of that general kind. Hence whether the physics and cosmology of the early universe – which is continuous with physics in general – counts as nomothetic or idiographic in this sense is an open empirical question. But such a view of idiographic will not serve the purpose set for it by the felt need not to pigeon hole individuals.

In summary, the idea in this section was the following. It might be possible to spell out a notion of idiographic judgement by looking at one version of the related distinction within the Methodenstreit between understanding and explanation. According to Hoerl’s interpretation of Jaspers, understanding concerns singular causation in the psychological domain. Such causation is, on one model at least, underpinned by the idea of intervention rather than nomological generality. Further, according to Campbell, even in the psychological domain, such singular causation need not trade in rational relations. At this point in the combination of ideas, the analysis offered may no longer be an account of Jasperian understanding but seems, partly for that very reason, to be a promising match for Windelband’s emphasis on particularity within and without the mental realm. (That is why idiographic judgement is not simply the same as understanding.) However, moving away from the connection between understanding and rationalisation also undermines the substance of the potential account of idiographic judgement that remains. Had an antecedent variable been changed then a consequent effect would also have changed. But such reasoning cannot be based on laws of nature at risk of collapsing back onto the nomological and cannot be based on rational relations without collapsing back into a narrower version of understanding.

Values and the singular aims of idiographic inquiry

So far I have suggested that two broad approaches to filling out Windelband’s account of idiographic understanding have failed. Attempting to articulate a form of judgement that eschews implicit comparison between individuals undermines the content of the putative judgements. Stressing singular rather than general causation either assimilates the idiographic to rational understanding – with its own distinctive form of generality – or does not sufficiently distance it from nomothetic judgement.

In this final section I will sketch a different approach. The clue comes from another passage in Windelband’s rectoral address in which he again stresses the importance of the contrast between the general and specific to his distinction of nomothetic and idiographic.

[T]his distinction connects with the most important and crucial relationship in the human understanding, the relationship which Socrates recognized as the fundamental nexus of all scientific thought: the relationship of the general to the particular. [Windelband 1980: 175]

The commitment to the generic is a bias of Greek thought, perpetuated from the Eleatics to Plato, who found not only real being but also real knowledge only in the general. From Plato this view passed to our day. Schopenhauer makes himself a spokesman for this prejudice when he denies history the value of a genuine science because its exclusive concern is always with grasping the specific, never with comprehending the general... But the more we strive for knowledge of the concept and the law, the more we are obliged to pass over, forget, and abandon the singular fact as such… [ibid: 181]

So far these passages repeat the importance of the singular over the general that has already been discussed. But in explaining why this is important, Windelband introduces a further element:

In opposition to this standpoint, it is necessary to insist upon the following: every interest and judgment, every ascription of human value is based upon the singular and the unique... Our sense of values and all of our axiological sentiments are grounded in the uniqueness and incomparability of their object. [Windelband 1980: 182]

Now in one respect this does not help since it merely stresses the the uniqueness and incomparability of the objects of idiographic judgement and, as the discussion above has suggested, this does not help single out a form of judgement or intelligibility to stand in opposition to the nomothetic. But there is a further idea: that what we as subjects value in judgement and sentiment is tied to uniqueness and incomparability.

This is a contentious claim and it is far from obvious that it is true. The Categorical Imperative implies, to the contrary, that love of the good has an essential generality. More mundanely, one might value a piece of industrial design – a car, bicycle or cutlery – despite its mass production. But there are some cases where value seems to be tied to uniqueness: feelings of love and friendship directed to particular individuals – by contrast with a generalized love of humanity – being paradigmatic.

This suggests a different way of thinking about idiographic not as a novel form of judgement or intelligibility but rather as pertaining to the nature of interest taken in its subject matter. In some cases, one is interested in individuals because they are instances of generalities. In others, the interest is in them as individuals.

Here is a mundane example of the contrast. In 2009, UK members of parliament (MPs) were found to have taken part in widespread abuse of their expenses system to augment their incomes. UK newspapers investigated many such cases and every day printed new instances of the absurd financial claims made. But the focus seemed to be to use each new instance to justify the general claim that MPs as a whole were a corrupt group rather than having an interest in any previously obscure MP. The reputation of politicians as a class of people was the target. By contrast, in 1997 Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash provoking much newspaper coverage. One particular newspaper – the Daily Express – continued, for a decade afterwards (!), to favour for its front cover any story about the late princess. But the claims advanced were not intended to shed light on royalty, or even princesses, in general. Rather the focus was relentlessly on Diana herself. The interest was, in the sense I have suggested, idiographic.

One consequence of moving the conception of idiographic from a form of intelligibility to the nature of the interest taken in individuals is that it places no constraints on the kind of intelligibility in play. Materials from either side of the traditional explanation versus understanding distinction, for example, could be deployed for idiographic purposes. No attempt need be made to frame descriptions that could only fit one individual.

Given this, however, it may seem that the contrast between idiographic and nomothetic as proposed does not amount to very much. What does it matter with what interest or value the subject matter of idiographic inquiry is approached if the actual judgements offered are as they would be in nomothetic inquiry?

In response to this question I will finish with two general consequences. The first is that idiographic inquiry – so understood – can simply escape one of the conceptual challenges of small scale qualitative social science research. This is the question of whether and how the results can be generalised. By contrast with large scale often quantitative research, a narrow deep focus may not be based on a statistically significant sample and hence may not reliably generalise to other individuals or populations. But if not, what is the point of the inquiry? Idiographic inquiry, however, can bit on this bullet because has no interest in other individuals or populations. Like the Daily Express’s interest in Diana, its focus is on the particular for the sake of the particular.

The second is that idiographic inquiry is naturally resistant to a source of error that Jonathan Dancy calls ‘looking away’ [Dancy 1993]. This is a virtue he claims for particularism over generalism in moral philosophy. Generalism claims that moral judgements can be codified in context-independent principles. Particularism opposes this and insists that small differences in a particular situation can reverse their moral valence. Hence Dancy argues from his particularist commitments for the importance of scrutinising particular situations with great care rather than being distracted by a premature comparison of that situation with others.

Particularism claims that generalism is the cause of many bad moral decisions, made in the ill-judged and unnecessary attempt to fit what we are to say here to what we have said on another occasion. We all know the sort of person who refuses to make the decision here that the facts are obviously calling for, because he cannot see how to make that decision consistent with one he made on a quite different occasion. We also know the person (often the same person) who insists on a patently unjust decision here because of having made a similar decision in a different case. It is this sort of looking away that the particularists see as the danger in generalism. Reasons function in new ways on new occasions, and if we don’t recognize this fact and adapt our practice to it, we will make bad decisions. Generalism encourages a tendency not to look hard enough at the details of the case before one. [Dancy 1993: 64]

Although the motivation differs, idiographic inquiry ‘sees’ its subject matter not primarily as interesting because it instances generalities but interesting for being the particular individual it is. And hence, whilst any subject matter will instance generalities – and such is the content of the any judgement made about it – the focus is bottom up: from individual to general characteristics rather than top-down from generalities to instances.


Recent calls for psychiatry to augment criteriological diagnosis with a more individualistic element have glossed this as an idiographic element. But this prompts the question of what the idiographic could amount to. Windelband’s various characterisations do not yield a distinct account of a form of judgement to contrast with nomothetic judgement. Nor is the use of singular causation an appropriate fit for this purpose.

Instead, Windelband’s suggestion that there is a connection between a focus on individuals rather than generalities and what is of value suggests a distinct response. On this suggestion, idiographic inquiry does not have a different form of intelligibility of its subject matter but rather has a particular kind of interest in it. It is an interest in the individual as such. This helps sidestep a worry about how to generalise small scale qualitative research and to avoid an epistemic bias of ‘looking away’: prematurely looking away from the individual to generalities. It is in such differences rather than the form of judgement taken that the difference between idiographic and nomothetic lies.


Campbell, J. (2009) ‘What does rationality have to do with psychological causation? Propositional attitudes as mechanisms and as control variables’ in Bortolotti, L. and Broome, M. (eds) Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 137-150

Dancy, J. (1993) Moral reasons, Oxford: Blackwell

Davidson, D. (1980) Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Hoerl, C. (2013) ‘Jaspers on explaining and understanding in psychiatry’ in Fuchs, T. and Stanghellini, G. (eds.) One Century of Karl Jaspers’ General Psychopathology, Oxford: Oxford University Press

IDGA Workgroup, WPA (2003) ‘IGDA 8: Idiographic (personalised) diagnostic formulation’ British Journal of Psychiatry, 18 (suppl 45): 55-7

Jaspers, K. ([1913] 1974) ‘Causal and “Meaningful” Connections between Life History and Psychosis’, trans. by J.Hoenig, in S.R.Hirsch and M.Shepherd. in Hirsch, S.R., and M. Shepherd, Themes and Variations in European Psychiatry, Bristol: Wright: 80-93

Phillips, J. (2005) ‘Idiographic Formulations, Symbols, Narratives, Context and Meaning’ Psychopathology 38: 180-184

Thornton, T. (2007) Essential Philosophy of Psychiatry Oxford: Oxford University Press

Thornton, T. (2008a) ‘Does understanding individuals require idiographic judgement?’ European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience 258 Suppl 5:104–109

Thornton, T. (2008b) ‘Should comprehensive diagnosis include idiographic understanding?’ Medicine, Healthcare and Philosophy 11: 293-302

Thornton, T. (2010) ‘Narrative rather than idiographic approaches as counterpart to the nomothetic approach to assessment’ Psychopathology 16: 284-291

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Parallel-serial memoing

One of the benefits of being a philosopher at large in a college of health is unpredictable involvement with other people's ideas and research. I was very tenuously involved - though kept well away from the coal face of the research: the interviewing and data - over some weeks with one of Caroline Watkins' projects which was looking at the effects of motivational interviewing techniques on stroke survivors.

I understand that the intervention produced an improvement in mood without the obvious mechanisms that occurred to me - increasing the motivation to undertake necessary physiotherapy, for example - being in play. It seems to be an example of the kind of causal connection John Campbell discusses in psychology and psychiatry: causation without intervening mechanism.

Anyway, I have been kindly credited by Kulsum Patel with the role of 7th author in a methodological paper that resulted.

The mechanisms by which talking therapies exert their beneficial effects are largely unknown. In exploring the process of a talking therapy, motivational interviewing (MI), when used to treat and prevent low mood in stroke survivors, we developed, what we believe to be, a novel approach to analyzing transcripts. We illustrate the method using qualitative data from MI sessions with 10 stroke survivors. The approach, drawing on grounded theory, incorporated processes of parallel and serial memoing among a team of researchers to allow a process of validation. This enabled us to describe session content and to develop theoretical interpretations of what was occurring in and across MI sessions. We found that this process can be used to integrate different perspectives in theory building, allowing for a richer description and more robust theoretical interpretation. Others can use and adapt this approach to develop insights into their own inquiry.

Patel K, Auton MF, Carter B, Watkins CL, Hackett M, Leathley MJ, Thornton T, Lightbody CE. Parallel-serial memoing: A novel approach to analyzing qualitative data. Qualitative Health Research 2016, 26(13): 1745-1752.
DOI: 10.1177/1049732315614579

Monday 10 October 2016

Crotty's account of constructionism

In my bit of my university, Michael Crotty’s textbook on social science research methods The Foundations of Social Research is widely used. I can see that his attempt at house cleaning is attractive [Crotty 1998]. I like his appeal to different levels.

It is not uncommon to find, say, symbolic interactionism, ethnography and constructionism simply set side by side as ‘methodologies’, ‘approaches’, ‘perspectives’, or something similar. Yet they are not truly comparable. Lumping them together without distinction is a bit like talking about putting tomato sauce, condiments and groceries in one basket. One feels compelled to say, ‘Hang on a moment! Tomato sauce is one of many forms of condiment. And all condiments are groceries. Let’s do some sorting out here’. [Crotty 1998: 3]

But I have never got on with the book. It seems to me to be dangerous to a reputable social science PhD to insert some of the claims that he seems happy to make. The problems mainly pertain to his account of constructionism which, alongside objectivism and subjectivism sits at the top of his hierarchy of increasingly abstract ways of thinking about approaches to research. Constructionism is at the level of ‘epistemology’ which he thinks of as the most general way of construing knowledge. In fact, the description of objectivism and constructionism (he and I, it seems, have less time for subjectivism so I’ll ignore it here) rely on quite bald claims about metaphysics and ontology but perhaps there is no harm if it turns out that these are not really epistemological positions.

At the start of the book, there’s a first, preliminary contrast between objectivism and constructionism.

Objectivist epistemology holds that meaning, and therefore meaningful reality, exists as such apart from the operation of any consciousness. That tree in the forest is a tree, regardless of whether anyone is aware of its existence or not. As an object of that kind (‘objectively’, therefore), it carries the intrinsic meaning of ‘tree-ness’. When human beings recognise it as a tree, they are simply discovering a meaning that has been lying there in wait for them all along. Another epistemology-constructionism-rejects this view of human knowledge. There is no objective truth waiting for us to discover it. Truth, or meaning, comes into existence in and out of our engagement with the realities in our world. There is no meaning without a mind. Meaning is not discovered, but constructed. [Crotty 1998: 5-9 bold added]

This might be a more elegant post if I collected some quotes first and only then said what I thought was wrong with the picture expressed. But it will be easier to give the game away. This passage seems to go awry from the third sentence: ‘As an object of that kind (‘objectively’, therefore), it carries the intrinsic meaning of ‘tree-ness’. When human beings recognise it as a tree, they are simply discovering a meaning that has been lying there in wait for them all along.’

This talk of meaning seems completely misplaced. In the following chapter, Crotty illustrates objectivism by appeal to positivism using Comte and the Vienna Circle to characterise this. Given that, it seems bizarre to think that they subscribed to the view that natural objects carry intrinsic meanings that await finding. They did not. The more obvious characterisation of objectivism is that there are no natural meanings, what McDowell calls the ‘disenchantment’ of nature arising since the scientific revolution in the C17. The idea that nature carries a store of meanings is part of a pre-modern view of nature, described by Foucault in the Order of Things, that modern science, including positivistic science rejected. So the version of objectivism to which Crotty will oppose constructionism is a straw man, or at least a position which predates the rise of modern science. If constructionism were an opposition to a pre-modern view of the world with, perhaps, platonic fully objective meanings with no connection to human practices added in, then it will have an easy ride.

Constructionism opposes this view: ‘There is no meaning without a mind. Meaning is not discovered, but constructed’. This, however, is what I think most (non-Crotty-style) objectivists would hold. The world which serves as an objective standard against which knowledge claims are compared is meaning-free. Meanings come in on the human side of things. So far it seems that these are the wrong way round.

But there may be something in the other aspect of constructionism: ‘There is no objective truth waiting for us to discover it. Truth, or meaning, comes into existence in and out of our engagement with the realities in our world.’ That first claim is the one that makes me suspicious that this is going to be an expensive philosophical view for scientists (social or natural) to take. It almost sounds as though he is saying that there are no objective truths to find out (which rather puts science out of business). However, if 'truth' is deliberately singular this may be an advertisement for the next claim. Modulo a worry about the action at a distance of meaning (to which I’ll return) I can cope with that claim in the following sentence. If truth is an intra-linguistic property as a minimalist, deflationist philosophical view might hold then truth and meaning arise together. (One philosophical view is that truth is simply a way of moving between using a sentence as an assertion and quoting the sentence and endorsing it.) But it would be odd if Crotty were putting forward a particular (philosophical) account of the concept of truth here.

A little later in a section on ontology there’s a passage which closes with a comment implying that this is asserted in propria persona and as consistent with constructionism:

True enough, the world is there regardless of whether human beings are conscious of it. As Macquarrie tells us: ‘If there were no human beings, there might still be galaxies, trees, rocks, and so on-and doubtless there were, in those long stretches of time before the evolution of Homo sapiens or any other human species that may have existed on earth’. But what kind of a world is there before conscious beings engage with it? Not an intelligible world, many would want to say. Not a world of meaning. It becomes a world of meaning only when meaning-making beings make sense of it. From this point of view, accepting a world, and things in the world, existing independently of our consciousness of them does not imply that meanings exist independently of consciousness… The existence of a world without a mind is conceivable. Meaning without a mind is not. Realism in ontology and constructionism in epistemology turn out to be quite compatible. [ibid: 10-11]

‘The many would want to say’ is a Donald Trump style spreading the blame device but it sounds as though Crotty too holds what follows. The world was not even intelligible before humans. Not just that it had not been made sense of. But it couldn’t have been. ‘Not a world of meaning. It becomes a world of meaning only when meaning-making beings make sense of it.’ The phrase ‘world of meaning’ isn’t a commonly used one so it is up to Crotty to define it if he so wishes but it seems likely to make trouble to turn the fact of actual sense making or not into a feature of the world: a sign of the idealism in his thinking. The rest is fine. It is only Crotty’s eccentric objectivists who think that that meanings exist independently of consciousness.

In a later chapter devoted to constructionism, Crotty defines it in the following way.

What, then, is constructionism? It is the view that all knowledge, and therefore all meaningful reality as such, is contingent upon human practices, being constructed in and out of interaction between human beings and their world, and developed and transmitted within an essentially social context… Accepting that the world we experience, prior to our experience of it, is without meaning does not come easy. What the ‘commonsense’ view commends to us is that the tree standing before us is a tree. It has all the meaning we ascribe to a tree. It would be a tree, with that same meaning, whether anyone knew of its existence or not. We need to remind ourselves here that it is human beings who have construed it as a tree, given it the name, and attributed to it the associations we make with trees. [ibid: 42-3]

The line that gets me is ‘all knowledge, and therefore all meaningful reality as such, is contingent upon human practices’. One possibility is that ‘meaningful reality’ isn’t the Tractarian world – everything that is the case – but rather only those elements of the world that pertain to meaning, to social science, perhaps. Perhaps the human or social world? But I don’t think it does mean that because it follows the phrase ‘all knowledge’ rather than, say, all knowledge of meanings. Now all knowledge is indeed contingent on human practices. But from this Crotty’s constructionist infers that the world so known is itself contingent. And that just looks like idealism.

The passage continues with Crotty’s odd obsession with putting meanings into the world. The common sense view is – he says – that a tree would have a tree’s meaning independently of us. But that isn’t the common sense view at all! The common sense view is that a tree would have no meaning. There is a copse of trees beside the M6 which resembles a heart. The local story goes that this was planted to express – to mean – a farmer’s love for his wife. Using trees to represent love depends on a human symbolism (in which eg heart shape turns out not at all to be the shape of hearts). As in the story Putnam tells, had such a copse occurred randomly, it wouldn’t have any such meaning. But one needs something like the surrounding narrative to begin to talk of the trees’ meaning. Trees considered in themselves can have such properties as mass, length, density etc but not meaning, on a more naturally objectivist view. Meanings are not part of the objective world, on this view. So Crotty's contrast is eccentric.

‘We need to remind ourselves here that it is human beings who have construed it as a tree, given it the name, and attributed to it the associations we make with trees.’ Humans have made trees the meaning of the word ‘tree’. There may be an interesting history of how the extension of that concept has been determined. But this does not yield the headier stuff Crotty also wants.

Crotty cites Nicholas Humphrey approvingly:

What constructionism claims is that meanings are constructed by human beings as they engage with the world they are interpreting. Before there were consciousnesses on earth capable of interpreting the world, the world held no meaning at all. You may object that you cannot imagine a time when nothing existed in any phenomenal form. Were there not volcanoes, and dust-storms and starlight long before there was any life on Earth? Did not the sun rise in the East and set in the West? Did not water flow downhill, and light travel faster than sound? The answer is that if you had been there, that is indeed the way the phenomena would have appeared to you. But you were not there: no one was. And because no one was there, there was not-at this mindless stage of history-anything that counted as a volcano, or a duststorm, and so on. I am not suggesting that the world had no substance to It whatsoever. We might say, perhaps, that it consisted of ‘worldstuff’. But the properties of this worldstuff had yet to he represented by a mind. (Humphrey 1993, p. 17) From the constructionist viewpoint, therefore, meaning (or truth) cannot be described simply as ‘objective’. [ibid: 43]

I think that the key claim here is this one: ‘The answer is that if you had been there, that is indeed the way the phenomena would have appeared to you. But you were not there: no one was. And because no one was there, there was not-at this mindless stage of history-anything that counted as a volcano, or a duststorm, and so on.’ And the decisive moment in the conjuring trick here is the use of the word ‘counted’. No one was there to judge, of an object, whether it counted as a volcano, whether it had the features of a volcano. But that is not to say that there were no objects that counted as our concept ‘volcano’. The misleading element in this is that past tense. No one actually counted the volcano a volcano. But that does not imply that a now long past volcano would not have been counted by us a volcano and hence did count or counted as a volcano. The key point is that when we describe the past we use our language. We describe now dead Greeks using English, for example. And the same goes for those long past volcanoes.

The chapter on constructionism ends by attempting to head off a worry about idealism.

Accordingly, those who contrast ‘constructionism’ and ‘realism’ are wide of the mark. Realism should be set, instead, against idealism. Idealism, we have already noted, is the philosophical view that what is real is somehow confined to what is in the mind, that is, it consists only of ‘ideas’ (to use the word employed by Descartes and his contemporaries). Social constructionism does not confine reality in this way. Secondly, we should accept that social constructionism is relativist. What is said to be ‘the way things are’ is really just ‘the sense we make of them’. Once this standpoint is embraced, we will obviously hold our understandings much more lightly and tentatively and far less dogmatically, seeing them as historically and culturally effected interpretations rather than eternal truths of some kind. Historical and cross-cultural comparisons should make us very aware that, at different times and in different places, there have been and are very divergent interpretations of the same phenomena. A certain relativism is in order, therefore. We need to recognise that different people may well inhabit quite different worlds. Their different worlds constitute for them diverse ways of knowing, distinguishable sets of meanings, separate realities. At the very least, this means that description and narration can no longer be seen as straightforwardly representational of reality. It is not a case of merely mirroring ‘what is there’. When we describe something, we are, in the normal course of events, reporting how something is seen and reacted to, and thereby meaningfully constructed, within a given community or set of communities. [ibid: 64]

It is interesting that having just rejected idealism, Crotty says: ‘What is said to be ‘the way things are’ is really just “the sense we make of them”.’ Note the use of ‘just’. Without that, this would not be so heady. (That is, it would be possible to think of this as a bit of bad writing meaning to say that our only take on the way things are is our take on the way things are.) But with it, it seems to be saying that the ways things are, the facts, are just our construal of them. And that is simply idealism.

He goes on to say sensible if obvious things about diverse views having been held in the past but concludes utterly untrivially: ‘We need to recognise that different people may well inhabit quite different worlds. Their different worlds constitute for them diverse ways of knowing, distinguishable sets of meanings, separate realities.’ The key question is whether he means this literally. If so, it does not follow from the social history of error. Nor does the next idea follow: that from the fact that we have been wrong in representing the world, that representation cannot be the aim of the activity: ‘description… can no longer be seen as straightforwardly representational of reality’. Why not? Just because we have sometimes got representation wrong does not show that it is incoherent as an aim. But then this is glossed trivially: ‘When we describe something, we are… reporting how something is seen’. Well obviously! (This is what makes non-philosophers who make philosophical claims hard to deal with. They say something outrageous but then gloss it in the very next sentence in truistic terms. Which is meant? Are they being trivial or obviously daft?)

Here’s what seems to me to be happening. Concepts have histories. That’s the beauty of the history of science. Crotty is interested in the way that our contingent concepts enable us to carve up the world in particular, and contingent ways. Other people at other times and places have done this differently. But then he makes two further daft claims. The fact that we rely on contingent concepts to carve up the world shows that the world itself depends on the contingent history of human concepts. I can see why one would be pushed in this direction but the claim is obviously not a happy outcome but shows a misstep. Second, in trying to characterise his objectivist opponent, Crotty is almost too nice to them. No one could miss the importance of the conceptual in framing descriptions of the world so the objectivist must accept this but then - being an objectivist - she places the concepts or the meanings in the world itself. Perhaps because he himself likes constructionism, the more obvious objectivist assumption that the world itself is meaningless simply passes him by.

The second bit where I am nicer to Crotty is here.

Crotty, M. (1998) The foundations of social research, London: Sage.