18 August 2008

Empirical Psychology as a Language

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 8:41 am

That the knowledge base of empirical psychology is built, study by study, on the interplay between cumulative mean and individual deviation (1); that collectively the field consists of a vast Matrix of variables and their statistical intercorrelations having indeterminate relationship both to the Real world of phenomena and to pure Theory intended to explain these phenomena (2) — together these observations suggest that empirical psychology is something like a language. The variables are the nouns; the statistical associations are the verbs linking subject and predicates; the research methodology provides the grammatical rules for generating well-formed sentences.

In a structuralist construal, the language of empirical psychology would be a self-contained system, insulated from the Real, imposed from the top down on the society of psychologists and those who pay attention to their work. There would be no basis for asserting that psychology signifies anything about the Real; rather, network of constructs and variables derive their meaning only from one another. E.g., “depression” and “altruism,” “numeracy” and “effort justification” make sense only with respect to the other psychological variables in the matrix. Unlike natural language, the empirical language of psychology quantifies the strengths of the connections among the elements of the language, but the idea is the same. In natural language the strengths of interconnections could in principle be quantified by analyzing patterns of word use among networks of language-speakers or strength of neural connections in the brains of individual language-speakers — in other words, by subsuming natural language within the language of empirical psychology.

From the structuralist perspective, the language of empiricism speaks the psychologist. The specific sentences the researcher generates — i.e., what studies s/he conducts, on what variables, using what data collection and analysis methods — are determined by the structure of the Correlational Matrix itself. And certainly this is true to a considerable extent: the accepted theoretical paradigms and the array of relevant variables to which these paradigms might apply together suggest fruitful lines of future inquiry. One could imagine building an AI program which would, by systematically traversing the Correlational Matrix, spit out lists of research studies likely to generate statistically significant results, much as pharmacological AI programs identify specific molecules that might offer greater-than-random likelihood of proving clinically efficacious.

Even more distinctively than in its formal and quantitative structure, the language of empirical psychology differs from natural language by virtue of its rapid expansion. Virtually the entire vocabulary and grammar of the Correlational Matrix came into existence within the last hundred years. And while from the outside empirical psychology may seem static and self-enclosed, researchers are continually adding new variables to the Matrix. To an extent the Matrix expands itself: variable A always tacitly contains its opposite, a synthesized variable that combines A with X also suggests combining A with Y and Z. But for the most part researchers expand the Matrix consciously. One psychologist wants to extend Theory into previously unexplored territory; another becomes conscious of some aspect of the Real that hasn’t yet been subjected to the sort of systematic operationalization required for plugging it into the Matrix. The language of empirical psychology is continually expanding outward from the surface of contemporary use, creating an ever-broader platform from which to extend itself ever farther.

In its dynamism, empirical psychology illustrates something that structuralist accounts often fail adequately to acknowledge: languages grow. To say that languages “evolve” is to ignore their intentionality. People use language to describe something about the world to others. New linguistic elements may catch on in a spontaneous emergent way that looks like evolution, but they catch only when language users use them while communicating intentionally with one another. If the intent were merely to keep the conversation going, to sustain the interpersonal matrix without regard to the Real, then there might be no need to add words to the vocabulary. But if communicators want to talk about something, then it’s important to get the words right. And if they want to talk about something new, they’ll need to come up with new words. In a dynamic, usage-based context, all language maintains contact with the Real. And it’s in attempting to expand this contact within the intentional interpersonal realm of empirical psychology that the Correlational Matrix maintains contact with the Real of human experience.



  1. Given that there is not only one psychological paradigm, could we also think of many intersecting (or not) matrices?


    Comment by samlcarr — 22 August 2008 @ 5:15 am

  2. Yes indeed. I think, though, that multiple paradigms attempting to explain the same kinds of phenomena occupy part of the same terrain on the Matrix. Other aspects of human experience call for entirely different sorts of paradigms; e.g. social psychology versus neuropsychology. I think these fairly impermeable partitions in the Matrix are determined not by the theoretical paradigms but by the phenomena in the World for which the paradigms are invoked. So the Matrix is directly strapped to the Real in this way, rather than floating free of the world in some virtual ideational space like in Matrix the movie.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 August 2008 @ 8:38 am

  3. […] to really analyze any dream symbol in any meaningful way, especially given the legacies of empirical psychology which make these meaning-making systems dependent on the individual dreamer. There are some […]


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