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Psychology's Interpretive TurnReview - Psychology's Interpretive Turn
The Search for Truth and Agency in Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology
by Barbara S. Held
American Psychological Association, 2007
Review by Isabel Gois, Ph.D.
Feb 5th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 6)

Barbara Held's Psychology's Interpretive Turn is a timely and welcome assessment of a recent influx of theories in psychology seeking to occupy a middle ground between what some perceive as the excesses of both postmodernism and conventional scientific methods in Psychology. Held aptly calls them Middle-Ground Theorists (MGTs), and her patient and detailed demolishing of such hopes for a middle-ground should leave no one in doubt that the middle is the wrong place to be. The book is by no means an 'easy' read, but constitutes an invaluable resource for the academically minded researcher with an interest in the philosophy of psychology.

To give a better idea of the issues involved, let me briefly summarize the main argument of the book. According to Held, MGTs want to formulate a form of psychological inquiry that accommodates both realism and truth in psychological inquiry (thus avoiding the self-defeating claims of postmodernists), whilst at the same time safeguarding a place for human agency -- a place supposedly denied by conventional scientific theorizing, with its love of mechanisms and deterministic causal laws. They purport to satisfy both aims by rejecting the possibility of objective psychological knowledge, i.e. the claim that our beliefs and theories are justified independently of what anyone believes about their truth. Their view is that there really are true psychological kinds (as opposed to arbitrary categories) but these are at once constituted and constrained by the cultural and historical contexts that give rise to them. Accordingly, they continue, 'real' and 'true' should not be equated with 'objectively known' since knowers themselves at once constitute and are constituted (constrained) by the contexts in which they carry their inquiries (in other words, epistemic warrant is always relative to context). What they effectively offer, however, as Held carefully demonstrates, is a rather hazy ontology that borders on (although one suspects that it properly falls into) the inconsistencies of postmodernism, and an epistemology that has no hope of grounding the possibility of rational self-determination. For, in denying agents the possibility of attaining objective (non-relativistic) knowledge of their situatedness, MGTs are in effect undermining their capacity to transcend that very same situatedness via rational deliberation and action. Held is thus right to conclude that MGTs are far from having succeeded in giving us a (moderately) realist ontology of psychological kinds, and positively wrong in their strategy to uphold the possibility of human agency.

Although I have no great disagreement with Held's critique of the MGT strategy, there is nevertheless an aspect of her discussion that I would like to comment on. Throughout the book, Held manifests some sympathy with the MGTs rejection of conventional scientific approaches to psychological phenomena. Like them, she seems convinced "of the dangers that biological forms of reductionism pose to agency's place in psychological inquiry" (p.361), and applauds the "strong antireductionistic impulse" (idem) that leads them to reject the search for mechanistically deterministic causal laws in psychology. Unfortunately, Held never really elaborates on her reasons for thinking that determinism is in fact incompatible with freedom of the will (i.e. agency), or why reductionism should threaten the reality of human agency. Such an explanation, however, seems all the more lacking since nothing she says about psychological kinds (and in particular, rationality's ability to transcend its own particularity; see chapters 8, 9 and 10) precludes them from being further illuminated by their biological/material roots. In fact, one would expect, for example, that an evolutionary explanation of our cognitive/reasoning abilities would rather strengthen the case for realism in psychology, not undermine it. Perhaps Held is thinking that all reductionism must be 'greedy' (Dennett 1995) and, thus, dissolve or eliminate all that comes the way of its grinding-mill. If that is the case, then Held herself is laboring under the misconception that 'to reduce is to explain away'. However, as Dennett puts it: "This cannot be a sound fear; a proper reductionist explanation of these phenomena would leave them still standing but just demystified, unified, placed on more secure foundations. We might learn some surprising or even shocking things about these treasures, but unless our valuing these things was based all along on confusion or mistaken identity, how could increased understanding of them diminish our values in our eyes?" (idem, p. 82)

© 2008 Isabel Gois

Isabel Gois has recently gained her Doctorate from King's College London, and is currently affiliated with the University of Nottingham (UK). Her research interests include Philosophy of Mind, Neuropsychology, and Mental Disorder. She has articles published on Emotions, Computationalism, and Consciousness.    

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