The practice of Human Science is a way of questioning, interpreting, and understanding human experience. But what means are used to conduct such a process? Is the “standard” or (“received”) view of science, based on empirical knowledge and embodied in a Positivist model, useful for Human Scientists? Or is the process better served through the development of additional methods more aptly suited to comprehending the range and depth of human experience?
Traditionally, a distinction is made between epistemological information upon which so-called “certainty” can be established, and doxa, indicating a belief or opinion. Historically, Positivist scholars believed that the latter should be excluded from what counted as knowledge. Teleological, theological, and metaphysical explanations of phenomena were rejected by scientists because they were based upon that could not be observed. The focus of empirical methodology was to describe and categorize, not offer moral prescription.
Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) criticized this standard view of science, by questioning Positivist assumptions demonstrating the circularity of of Positivist logic. For example, it seems reasonable to conclude that most people are aware of their own mental state at any given time, however, this is not verifiable by science and therefore not trustworthy. What, then, is the basis for knowing anything externally (since the scientist cannot be sure of anything internally)? The attempt to arrive at knowledge collapses under the weight of circular logic.
An additional challenge came with the publication of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. Up to that point, most scientists and philosophers of science considered knowledge to be built upon past precedence, in linear fashion. Kuhn, on the other hand, developed the idea of mutually exclusive paradigms, or different ways of viewing the scientific world that were incompatible. One paradigm would overtake its predecessor, and thinking would shift. When this shift, or revolution, happened, the “knowledge” that had been gained according to the methodology of the previous paradigmatic model was then rendered unsubstantiated. Scientific development goes according to stages. If there is a problem that arises that cannot be solved within the given paradigmatic framework, eventually a new paradigm emerges.
An empirical approach known as post-Positivism – the model most closely aligned with Human Science at Saybrook – maintains that a syncretic understanding of knowledge might be the most helpful, in contrast to the mutually exclusive paradigmatic approach put forth by Kuhn. Human Scientists propose that modes of inquiry other than that of natural science – modes that reflect the nature, complexity and subjectivity of being human – are necessary for psychologists and other behavioral scientists seeking an understanding of the human experience. In today’s world, the Human Science tradition provides an increasingly valuable critique of the predominant Positivist paradigm.
But how, then, do Human Scientists, having chosen to incorporate and validate non-traditional methodologies, develop rigorous standards for their work and prevent it from becoming completely relativistic? Saybrook provides an academic environment where scholars are encouraged to critically consider answers to this question and work them out in practice. The methodological flexibility of post-Positivism is only sustainable if it is grounded, and I would assert that community wisdom can help provide that context.
Human Scientists – at Saybrook and elsewhere – can look forward to the future, as new space is created for alternative methodologies that are increasingly relevant to the specificity and complexity of today’s world.