Does Interpretation in Psychology Differ From Interpretation in Natural Science?

Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 39 (1):19-37 (2009)
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Following an initial discussion of the general nature of interpretation in contemporary psychology, and social and natural science, relevant views of Charles Taylor and Thomas Kuhn are considered in some detail. Although both Taylor and Kuhn agree that interpretation in the social or human sciences differs in some ways from interpretation in the natural sciences, they disagree about the nature and origins of such difference. Our own analysis follows, in which we consider differences in interpretation between the natural and social sciences in terms of Ian Hacking's use of Elizabeth Anscombe's conceptualization of actions as intentional acts under particular descriptions. We conclude that both Taylor and Kuhn are correct to point to differences in interpretation between the natural and social sciences. We also argue that in psychology, such interpretive differences, contra Kuhn and pro Taylor, are qualitative rather than quantitative. They arise from the nature of persons as self-interpretive, reactive beings who act under socioculturally sanctioned, linguistic descriptions. The actions of psychological persons may display qualitative differences over time and across contexts as these descriptions, including social scientific and psychological findings and interpretations, change. In contrast, even when descriptions in natural science change, such changes do not spawn changes in the self-interpretations and intentional actions of the focal phenomena of natural science. We also make the point that much current confusion surrounding interpretation in science arises from the unwarranted tendency of some commentators to treat interpretation as subjective, in ways that ignore the objective grounding of interpretation within regulated social practices, including scientific practices sanctioned by scientific communities



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