Re: The scientific status of PCP

Gary Blanchard (
Thu, 13 Jun 1996 01:33:11 -0700

Dear Brian-

I appreciate the time and trouble you have gone to in order to respond to
my question concerning where Prof. Kelly's work fits as between religion
and science.

I trust that we can carry this conversation on in a frank and
straightforward way. I have no wish to alienate or offend. But I do
insist on rigor and clarity. And I accept that effective communication is
other-focused, not self-focused; hence what matters in my communications
with you and others is what you conclude, not what I intend. If that
standard is acceptable to you, please let me know.

In the meantime, my one question to you is: given what you have said in
your post, where do you come out on my question of whether Prof. Kelly's
work is rooted in science or in belief (cum religion)?

Thanks again. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes, Gary

Gaines wrote:
> The question of the scientific status of any form of psychology is a very
> interesting one with rich philosophical and psychological literatures over
> some 2,500 years. It is a question that has perturbed experimentalists --
> Brindley's book on the eye and Poulton's on skills both devote a massive
> initial section to explaining why studying peoples' perception and behavior
> is virtually impossible -- then go on to do it.
> One problem is that one is dealing with a system whose physical basis is still
> not well understood, and also where a reduction to the physical may still
> leave most questions unanswered.
> Research on chaotic systems in the last twenty years has developed an
> understanding that psycho-social systems are like the weather -- the unfolding
> of their behavior is not determined by the initial conditions, and within
> the constraints of boundary conditions many possible unfoldings are possible.
> Our folk psychologies see this nondeterministic behavior as "free-will".
> One interesting question is why we ascribe this to ourselves but not to
> the weather. "Primitive" cultures may well ascribe it to the weather also
> but the influence of "science" in popular culture is now such as to make
> this unfashionable. However, it might be more perspicuous to note that
> we cannot empathize with the weather or talk to it, so that ascribing it
> intentions helps little in predicting or persuading it.
> A complication with human psychology is that our folk psychologies
> are part of our social interactions. How we model one another influences
> how we behave to one another and hence our models may become reified.
> Levis gives a beautiful analysis of how this is exemplified in Greek
> myths and legends. Luhmann sees it as a way in which we simplify a potentially
> very complex world by agreeing on conventions. Garfinkel makes it the
> foundation of ethnomethodology.
> The current prevalent philosophical position is Dennett's
> "Intentional Stance" -- that we impute goals and intentions to others
> because this is a useful stance in accounting for their behavior.
> The arguments noted above suggest that this stance might be predictive,
> even if it corresponds to no physically determined process, because
> it is an implicit social convention.
> Newell has used arguments like this to explain what he calls the
> "knowledge level" -- an ideational level with no physical grounding.
> His analysis is similar to Ashby's cybernetic analyses of black boxes
> in terms of their behavior -- the models we obtain may be predictive
> but they tell us little about the internal structure -- and they do not
> tell us to what extent the behavior is determined by the internal structure
> or by the external environment.
> This is the scientific background from which to evaluate Kelly's personal
> construct psychology. Kelly discusses these issues himself in his first chapter
> which is remarkably fresh and in step with the thinking of 40 years later.
> He sees his work as gnosiology (systematic analysis of conceptions
> interpreting the world), positivist because of its emphasis on the
> constructs through which the world his interpreted, pragmatically
> empiricist, rationalist but not realist.
> Pragmatic empiricism is probably the key to evaluation. He arrived at PCP
> through his clinical and educational studies, and was frustrated by
> psychologies that attempted to use "motivation" as a causal variable
> and "learning" as something other than a descriptive term for the
> phenomena of change. PCP was Kelly's basis for explaining his clients'
> behavior to them in terms which they could use for the active management
> of that behavior -- to see themselves not as beings to whom life was
> happening but rather as beings who had made many implicit choices
> and to whom those choices were still open.
> There is obviously a personal value system involved is seeing this
> approach as being attractive -- choice rather determinism -- control
> situated in the individual, not the therapist or teacher -- any manipulation
> of behavior being overt and in the hands of the person owning the behavior.
> However, a value system behind a theory does not make it unscientific.
> One lesson of structuralism, e.g. Foucault's "archeological" studies of the
> notion of "mental illness," has been that there are value systems behind all
> our sciences and that, if we do not recognize them, we may use them to
> justify morally unacceptable practices.
> Kelly's model for a principled analysis was Euclid's geometry which commences
> with a few primitive definitions and then develops corollaries which
> are a working out of those definitions applied to particular circumstances.
> His fundamental postulate is definitional -- instead of a gnosiology based
> on motivation, habit, learning, etc, he will build one on the way in which
> people anticipate events. PCP interprets behavior in terms of anticipation
> leading to a rational teleological model of human activity.
> All the corollaries are also definitional. For example, the construction
> corollary defines what is meant by the term "to construe." It does not
> impute behavior to being the outcome of construction. It defines what the
> the term construing will mean when applied to human activity.
> One test of a definitional system is whether it provides a useful framework
> within which to describe the world -- for Kelly, useful meant one that
> was effective in therapy and teaching. If one explains a clients' problems
> to them in terms of their anticipations being the source of those problems,
> and they accept this, does it help them to resolve those problems?
> Another test of a definitional system is whether it provides a
> generative foundation for commonly adopted ontologies. Kelly's
> system is very elegant. It is a natural successor to Hegel's logic
> which had very similar presuppositions and argument form, and a
> natural predecessor to modern intensional logics which formalize
> the definitional structure.
> If one wishes to go beyond this and ask whether PCP is the "best" psychology
> available in some sense then one has to compare it with the competing
> paradigms, behaviorism, exchange theory, cognitive science, symbolic
> interactionism, and so on. None wins out -- all have some interesting
> insights -- all can be interpreted in terms of one another. The PCP
> interpretation of the others might seem particularly valuable because it
> delineates the different constructs involved, but a social constructionist
> might not find that meaningful and prefer to delineate the different
> stories being told.
> Thus, we inevitably return to a pluralist, post-modernist position.
> There is no one correct approach to modeling the psycho-social world,
> and this may be intrinsic to the chaotic, reflexive nature of that
> world. There can be wrong approaches that are either out of step with
> current society, or could never be in step with any human society that
> we can contemplate. However, writers have invented possible worlds of social
> behavior which are incredibly different and yet plausible, so what we
> can contemplate goes far beyond what we have experienced.
> In conclusion, it seems to me that one should read Kelly as he asks
> to be read and explains very clearly in his first chapter. It would
> be completely against his intentions to reify personal constructs
> as being some kind of physically embodied psychological reality
> that lead to behavior. It would be consistent with his statements
> to see anticipation as a perspective from which to describe human
> behavior, and constructs as terms in a vocabulary for that description.
> It would be consistent to ask anyone who uses the PCP vocabulary
> why they have found it useful in their activities, and where they
> have not, and where they have modified it and extended it, and so on.
> The PCP literature reflects all these issues and is by no means a
> monolithic endorsement of Kelly's position. The Journal of Constructivist
> Psychology has been very eclectic from the start in encouraging
> submissions that are negative to aspects of PCP. The community
> delights in debate. A highlight at NAPCN96 was the opening debate
> between Hank Stam and Jim Mancuso which pitted social constructionism
> against PCP. If a science is defined in terms of its open debate in a
> reflective critical community then PCP qualifies.
> However, I wonder whether the list server is a vehicle well-suited to
> such a debate. This note is very short as a paper but very long as
> email, and yet it would be difficult to say what has been said in
> fewer words without leaving out essential steps in the argument.
> We need to develop web sites also where more detailed arguments
> can be made available for public scrutiny so that the list can
> be effective with the shorter messages that are more normal and
> socially acceptable for the medium.
> b.
> Ashby, W.R. (1952). Design for a Brain. London, UK, Chapman & Hall.
> Dennett, D.C. (1987). The Intentional Stance. MIT Press, Cambridge,
> Massachusetts.
> Foucault, M. (1962). Maladie Mentale et Psychologie. Paris, P.U.F.
> Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, New
> Jersey, Prentice Hall.
> Kelly, G.A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York, Norton.
> Levis, A.J. (1977). The formal theory of behavior. Journal of Social
> Psychiatry 23(2).
> Luhmann, N. (1979). Trust and Power. Chichester, UK, Wiley.
> Newell, A. (1982). The knowledge Level. Artificial Intelligence 18(1) 87-127.