2018 Presidential Theme: Explanations of Psychologists’ Ways of Knowing

Explaining how psychologists know is an epistemological task that is crucial to the discipline and central to theoretical and philosophical psychology. If we don’t have a defensible way or ways of knowing, the entire Psychology endeavor fails, devolving into conflicting claims, potential harm and injustice, loss of credibility, and a failure to make progress in understanding human persons, behavior, and cognitive processes. Division 24 welcomes a broad range of presentations addressing diverse explanations of psychologists’ ways of knowing.

A review of most psychology textbooks might lead one to believe that psychologists employ a singular way of knowing—scientific—whose character is well-known and uncontroversial. However, a careful examination of psychologists’ practices and products suggests a much more complicated picture. Scientific practices are psychologically rich and culturally complex; psychologists’ emotions, intuitions, values, cultures, narratives, interpretations, group dynamics, subjectivity, reward and incentive structures, and traditions all shape what we do and how we know. Explaining how psychologists know is thus not only epistemological; it is also psychological, sociological, and anthropological.

Some argue that ways of knowing that go beyond the scientific (especially if science is construed narrowly) are valid. They affirm a range of ways of knowing—intuition, subjectivity, relationships, narratives, intensive understanding of individual persons, clinical and other forms of expertise, interpretation, and so forth. Some also contend that, in explaining how psychologists know, or claim to know, it is crucial to identify the roles of power, identity, experiencing, social dynamics, class, race, values and ethics, political perspective, and culture; they may also strive to redirect psychological practices so we can know in these extra-scientific ways.

Other psychologists and philosophers acknowledge that psychologists exhibit those psychosocial “ways of knowing,” but see them as sources of bias that need to be reduced, to the extent possible. A chief candidate for eliminating psychologists’ biases is science. As Carl Rogers put it, “Scientific methodology is … a way of preventing me from deceiving myself in regard to my creatively formed subjective hunches.”[1]

To complicate matters, however, we lack complete consensus among philosophers or psychologists about fundamental philosophy of science issues, including what differentiates science from other ways of knowing. The demise of logical positivism has not led to a new dominant perspective, so psychologists engaged in scientific research pursue science for a variety of reasons, and understand how science produces knowledge in different ways. Although psychology purports to be united in that it is based on science, the lack of epistemological agreement about science means we have not yet achieved that unity. Some psychologists continue to function as logical positivists, while others adopt neo-Popperian, Kuhnian, Lakatosian, critical realist, and other understandings of science. Many simply see science as a way to reduce errors in our understandings of persons or are implicit pragmatists, practicing on the basis of more or less sophisticated understanding of pragmatism. Scientific methods may be used for a variety of ends. Science may be one way, but not the only way, to know.

Claims that psychologists “know,” or that psychologists employ uniquely veridical ways of knowing (esp. scientific), are viewed with deep suspicion in some circles. Indeed, some question whether we can “know” anything. Critiques of psychological theories and ways of knowing—long a hallmark of theoretical and philosophical psychologists—may aim at reform or revolution in relationship to such dominant claims. Some contend that these critiques should eventually be formulated in ways that result in new, more adequate ways of knowing. Others focus on critique.

Two other reasons for the differences in understanding how psychologists know is that knowledge claims are tied to different (good, ethical) goals for psychology and tied to different (metaphysical) understandings of what it is, ultimately, that psychologists are striving to understand. Some psychologists adopt an ethical and/or political stance in which they aim to know in order to further justice or contribute to the general welfare; others adopt the ethical stance that knowledge is a good end in and of itself. Metaphysical differences also lead to different understandings of how psychologists know; those holding an exclusively materialistic metaphysical position, for instance, are far more likely to see science as the best (or only) way to know and to reject claims that we can know through subjectivity. More broadly, ontological/ metaphysical positions are often inextricably tied to epistemological accounts of how psychologists know.

The different perspectives on how psychologists know—and our failure to acknowledge and wrestle with those differences—can make it very challenging to explain to the general public and legislators why they should pay attention when psychologists claim to possess psychological knowledge. Many reject scientific findings, thinking better those psychological understandings that come from common sense or their own moral, political, cultural, or religious traditions. Others affirm science, but define it very narrowly; they find neuroscientists’ explanations more convincing than psychologists’.

The diversity of understandings of how psychologists know and the lack of any strong epistemological consensus may thus produce disunity, conflicting knowledge claims, and a lack of confidence in what psychologists claim to know. Alternatively, some celebrate the diversity of ways of knowing, asserting that employing different perspectives and different methods produces richer, more adequate psychological understandings.

Whether, or under what circumstances, diverse ways of knowing contribute optimally to psychology requires discussion. Unfortunately, claims about how psychologists know often remain implicit, with dialogue occurring only among those of like mind, not with those holding divergent perspectives.

I want 2018 Division 24 programming to address those challenging issues—and related issues not mentioned in this description—in wrestling with this question: How can we develop the best possible explanations of ways of knowing in psychology?

Alan Tjeltveit, May 24, 2017

[1] Rogers, C. R. (1955). Persons or science? A philosophical question. American Psychologist, 10, 267–278.

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