27 August 2008

Linking Empirical and Philosophical Psychologies

Filed under: Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:25 am

In a prior post I contended that empirical psychology is continually constructing a vast and intricate Correlational Matrix that occupies a middle ground between the Real and the Theoretical. The Matrix is a sort of language composed of variables linked together by statistical associations. Psychological researchers operate inside this Matrix, traversing it, extending and tightening it, talking about it as if it were an autonomous structure of signifiers having no reference outside of itself. However, it’s possible to subject the Matrix to systematic transformations that move it closer either to the world of raw phenomena or to the realm of ideas for understanding phenomena. The Matrix of empirical signifiers, seemingly suspended in midair, is anchored on both sides of the divide between the physical and the mental.

But what does the Correlational Matrix tell us about human psychological phenomena? How are we to interpret the information it contains? For example, a section of the Matrix might show statistical correlations of varying strengths between children’s verbal ability, age, social role-taking, parents’ responsiveness to children’s attention, parents’ intelligence, and school success. Are these variables connected to one another in a deterministic and causal fashion, like the Law of Gravity? No: the connections are probabilistic. Typically in psychological research the statistical correlation between variables is a weak one, exceeded by the unexplained and apparently random variation between individuals. Also, the causal directionality of the statistical associations between variables isn’t always direct or easily demonstrable. Rather than a tight and elegant construct, the Correlational Matrix is a loose and complex tangle held together by a multitude of weak and tenuous connections.

Does the seemingly haphazard state of the Correlational Matrix reflect the haphazard state of empirical psychology? Is it a sign of immature theorization or inadequate methodology that the Matrix doesn’t tighten itself up? Or does the Matrix accurately describe the messy and indeterminate Real of psychological phenomena? If so, is it possible that the Matrix needs to get even bigger and more intricately interconnected than it already is? I’d say that’s the general historical trend in empirical psychology. Broad general paradigms and simple causal relationships rarely serve as well as specific, complex, multivalent explanations. Here again the Matrix is like a language: the vocabulary, grammar and syntax don’t gradually lead to a convergence onto a smaller and smaller number of sentences that people speak to one another; instead, the elements and rules of structuration afford an ever-increasing divergence of what people potentially can and actually do say.

Because empirical psychology functions as a language, enabling researchers to think and to talk to one another about phenomena, it should be possible to translate this language into terms that non-psychologists can understand. After all, the theory of gravity can be stated as a mathematical equation linking precisely-defined constructs describing physical reality, but the theory can also be stated in ordinary English sentences. Shouldn’t we expect as much from scientific psychology?

Suppose a psychologist were to say that children’s social role-taking ability accounts for 50 percent of the variance in the age at which they first recognize their own reflection in a mirror. How would a non-psychologist make sense of this assertion? Is it that role-taking causes self-recognition? Not necessarily — both might be caused by some other variable, and even so the connection between the two variables is far less than 100 percent. Is it that role-taking plus one or more other variables fully predicts age of self-recognition? Not that either: the other causal variables may not be known, and they probably intercorrelate with each other, so that no matter how many causal variables are added, the statistical model never really approaches 100% explanatory power. Even if it did, how would we understand the unique contribution of one predictive variable among many? Are they directly additive, such that role-taking plus a few other abilities combine into the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror? No: the statistical relationships are usually much more intricate than that. Not only that, but the specific relationships among variables differ from one individual to the next, both in their statistical interconnections and in their combined predictive power.

Perhaps the best one can do is to assert that, say, the age at which any given child is able to recognize itself in a mirror is an idiosyncratic combination of a variety of other competencies that can be identified, in varying degrees and combinations, in all children. The psychological variables account both for individual differences and for common features across humanity, but in a complex and non-deterministic way. One could regard the variables as immanent vectors flowing within each human and between all humans. These vectors intertwine complexly with countless and probably uncountable other vectors, serving simultaneously as sources of individuation and as strands that link people together to a greater or lesser degree. It’s possible to trace the trajectories of these psychological vectors as they flow within and between us, combining with one another in ways that add structure to individual and collective experience. At the same time this structuration is immanent and indeterminate and complex, manifesting itself in any number of ways that might not have been anticipated and that might not be readily accessible to conscious awareness.

Further, because we’re talking about human psychology, we acknowledge that some of these immanent vectors combine in a way that generates sentience and agency. As a consequence, humans can become aware of the vectors flowing through them and can willfully deflect and channel those vectors to some degree, further confounding any attempts to develop fully deterministic scientific models.

Considering the Correlational Matrix in this way — as a specialized language for describing the immanent vectors of individuation and commonality, and for tracing their trajectories and complex interconnections within and between people — it’s easier to see the correspondences between empirical psychology and the more philosophically-oriented psychologies of Freud and Lacan and especially of Deleuze and Guattari.


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