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Traditional Science in a World of Change

  • Kenneth J. Gergen
Part of the Springer Series in Social Psychology book series (SSSOC)

Abstract

The contrasting experiences of permanence and change, of stability and flux, have furnished continuing challenges to human understanding since the origins of intellectual life. For over two thousand years, philosophers, theologians, poets, and scientists have struggled with the implications of this dichotomy. For the most part, treatises devoted to this topic have been characterized by a strong and consistent evaluative stance. The fluctuating and the ephemeral have typically emerged as problematic aspects of human experience, to be overcome by intellectual ingenuity or spiritual transcendence. In contrast, the search for permanence has often been invested with sanctity, whether it be in philosophy, science, religion, or the arts. In John Dewey’s words, “The conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature and knowledge for two thousand years ... rested on the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and the final; they rested upon treating change and origin as signs of defect and unreality. (They laid) hands upon the sacred arc of absolute permanency” (1910, p. 46).

Keywords

Natural Science Stimulus Condition Receive View Logical Empiricist Scientific Conduct 
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References

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    It is this problem that also confounds the numerous attempts to catalogue cultural universals. For example, in his attempt to enumerate cultural universals, Fox (1971) argues that all cultures, even if wholly isolated from one another, would be found to have language, laws about property, incest rules, myths, neuroses, and dancing. Such activities would be found, “because we are the kind of animal that does these things” (p. 284). Murdock (1945) lists seventy-three universal items, including bodily adornment, joking, family, trade, dream interpretation, and so on. Westcott (1970) offers a list of forty-eight human traits that are also shared by animals; Malinowski (1944) calls for “seven cultural imperatives” and Goldschmidt (1966) asserts that there are three essential universals of human cultures. It would appear that such lists may either be expanded indefinitely (in all cultures people use their index fingers, look into the air, do not remain forever in the same spot, etc.) or contracted, depending on one’s skills in search and conceptualization. In the case of search, a single instance of an event could presumably qualify the culture as “in possession” (if the performance were solely that of a one-legged tap dance, the culture might be said to possess dance), and presumably, one could discount the vast percentage of the culture and the vast share of time in which the event was not in evidence.Google Scholar
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    In the search for universals, much has been made of the distinction between emic constructs (those of a culture under study) and etic ones (those used by the scientist to make generalizations across cultures). The emic constructs are thus viewed as culture bound, while the etic are employed to build universal theories (cf. Brislin, 1980). Yet, from the present perspective, the distinction may be viewed as spurious. Etic is essentially another name for the emic distinctions of the scientist. To argue that they are more functionally valuable in the building of science runs the danger of ethnocentrism.Google Scholar
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    Some might wish to point to universals of language as grounding evidence for transhistorical lawfulness in human activity. To cite a major example, Greenberg (1966) lists 45 language universals. Among them, we find that, “In declarative sentences with nominal subject and object, the dominant order is almost always one in which the subject precedes the object” (p. 77), and, “If there are any gender distinctions in the plural of the pronoun, there are some gender distinctions in the singular also” (p. 96). Yet as these examples suggest, such uniformities are but poor support for a belief in the necessary patterning of human activity. In the first instance above we find not a true universal but a statistical tendency. Further, one rapidly recognizes the historical contingency of such universals by considering languages (either artificial or contrived) in which the rule is violated but communicative competency is retained. (In German one might make exclusive use of the S-O-V form as opposed to the more universally favored S-V-O sentence form and retain full linguistic efficacy.) As suggested by the second instance above, many of the so-called universals also seem to represent common modes of problem solving and not genetic necessities. People in virtually all climes may simply find certain solutions to practical problems more effective than others, and their languages thus acquire a family resemblance. To suggest that such resemblances were indicative of genetic programming would be similar to arguing that it is human nature for persons living near the water to employ means of flotation, or for all persons living in frigid zones to build shelters or dress warmly. People must surely share certain innate capacities in discerning classes of problems and reaching common solutions. In this case it seems clear that the innate mechanisms facilitate a broad array of possibilities, but fail to demand the endpoint. For a useful critique of Chomsky’s (1968) concept of innate knowledge of language, see Cooper (1975).Google Scholar
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    Murdock (1945) properly contends, “Universals are not to be found in a search for exactly the same habits around the world” (p. 142).Google Scholar
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    The position adopted within this section is far more congenial to philosophic nominalism than to realism, insofar as the former is committed to the existence of particulars while holding universals to be second order constructions. In effect, the present arguments place the burden of proof on those wishing to establish universals as matters of fact (cf. Armstrong, 1978). However, the present position is not to be equated with any form of nominalism that views person descriptors as standing in a one to one relationship with particulars, a point that will be clarified in the following chapter.Google Scholar
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    Schlenker’s (1974) argument for solution through abstraction holds that theories should be stated in sufficiently abstract terms that they can incorporate the particulars of any given historical period. However, theories of this sort are without empirical content. They fail to have predictive power, and remain essentially empty of implication until tied operationally to the specifics of a given era. One might, for example, imagine sets of alegebraic equations as forming the content-free abstractions. Such equations in themselves are unpredictive and uninformative. They gain power in each count only when tied to particulars, and it is on this level that the argument for historical dependency rests. For further criticism and commentary of Schlenker’s position on abstraction see Godow (1976) and Hendrick (1976). For a general analysis of the incompatibility of seeking both generality and predictability in the same theory, see Thorngate (1976).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlarg New York Inc. 1982

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kenneth J. Gergen
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologySwarthmore CollegeSwarthmoreUSA

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