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In The Case for Pragmatic Psychology, Daniel Fishman of Rutgers proposes a bold and innovative solution to the dilemma of deciding "what works best." His solution could be applied to any psychological or social intervention, in any setting. Explicitly based upon the philosophy of pragmatism, Fishman's approach is thoughtful and coherent, and it should be welcomed by a broad range of psychologists, from experiential psychotherapists to laboratory psychologists. It is just the sort of book that would be of interest to a member of the Division of Theoretical Psychology of the American Psychological Association.
Like John Dewey, who proposed to reconstruct philosophy, Fishman proposes to reconstruct what psychologists use in making decisions within practical contexts. These applications can occur at a range of levels -- progressing from a person to a dyad, family, community, or nation.
The dualism Fishman tackles is a variation of the fact-value opposition so insightfully questioned by the pragmatists and post-analytic philosophers. In particular, Fishman's analysis centers on the logical-positivism versus hermeneutics debate. Fishman suggests we abandon (or at least put aside for the most part) practical decisions based upon the hypothetico-deductive method of logical positivism or the personal, interpretative stance of hermeneutics. In place of this division, The Case for Pragmatic Psychology argues for the development of databases composed of individual cases containing normative data (e.g., responsiveness to treatment as measured by standardized tests) and ethnographic "thick" descriptions. (We should once again note that the individual case may be broadly defined.) In turn, these databases could be made available to appropriate professionals and policy makers.
Written for the general reader with some background in philosophy (and perhaps a little more background in psychology), The Case for Pragmatic Psychology is an exciting book, full of promise, and it deserves to be appreciated as the vanguard of a new approach. Tracing his intellectual ancestry through the works of Peirce, James, and Dewey, Daniel Fishman systematically outlines the history and importance of pragmatism and its relation to positivism and hermeneutics. Following an informative analysis of these philosophical influences, Fishman addresses what practitioners actually do as opposed to what they say they do. For this analysis he relies on the work of authors Donald Peterson and Donald Schon. In particular, Fishman notes that the practicing professional often takes into account his or her own experiences with individual cases. This line of thinking parallels the educational practice of teaching with cases (as in the Harvard Business School) and research in the areas of cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. Within the constraints of this model, problem solvers rely on past experiences of "what worked" in order to make new decisions. To improve what we do by capitalizing upon what we are already doing, Fishman proposes that we construct systematic databases of individual cases.
Fishman does not provide an exact description of such databases. However, this lack of specificity is a plus because it opens up the possibility of greater creativity and experimentation by others. Further, Fishman does not address many of the ethical issues that surely would arise from the construction and use of such databases, and these concerns will have to be addressed by professionals and consumers. No doubt, when the cases are of individual persons, such databases will risk the accusation of being cold and mechanical and will be viewed by many as a serious infringement on privacy and confidentiality. This point is ironic because the rationale for the use of such databases rests upon many of the strengths of the hermeneutic approach, especially the benefits of a "thick" description to understanding the human situation.
Many of the difficulties arising from Fishman's method, especially when the cases are of individual persons, could be handled if the databases were limited to problems within specific contexts rather than to the creation of "grand" and "universal" databases of cases freely available to professionals and students. If practical, some cases could be described with limited personal information. Databases could be developed locally and restricted to local use or to small cohesive groups.
From a pragmatic perspective, it would be beneficial to explore the consequences of such an approach. This approach will be surely controversial, but despite the controversy, the profession and science of psychology should consider the benefits of Fishman's method to individuals and society. Appropriately conceived, the benefits should far outweigh the costs.
(More information on his approach can be obtained from the electronic journal of the American Psychological Association, Prevention and Treatment, which devoted its May 3, 2000 issue to Fishman's case-based approach. You may view the entire issue at http://journals.apa.org/prevention/.) Elson M. Bihm is an associate professor at the University of Central Arkansas. He received his Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Texas Tech University (TTU) in 1982 and has been employed at the Research and Training Center in Mental Retardation at TTU, the Acadiana Mental Health Center in Lafayette, Louisiana, and the Conway Human Development Center in Conway, Arkansas. Among his published papers are those in Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, Journal of Mental Health Counseling, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, and the American Journal on Mental Retardation. His professional interests are in the fields of counseling psychology, pragmatism, and behavior analysis.