The blog takes as its title a phrase that was briefly current in American philosophy early in the 20th century, following the publication of William James’s essays on radical empiricism. In James’s terminology, knowing is not merely a private activity carried out in the head; it is, rather, the process by which an animal establishes relations between itself and the objects that it encounters in its environment.
This conception of knowing makes possible an approach to psychology that differs radically from the standard cognitivist approach. Cognitivism assumes that behaviour results from the manipulation of unobservable mental representations. The task of the cognitive psychologist is then taken to be the attempt to understand how these representations might be created and processed. Radical empiricism assumes instead that when an animal acts on an object in the world a direct relation exists between the two entities, actor and object. On this account, the need to assume the existence of mental representations does not arise. Furthermore this account allows that the subject matter of psychology is in principle directly observable by a third-party analyst. The task for the radical empiricist psychologist is to identify specific features of the structure of a situation that explain how some particular behaviour arises. This approach has been pursued most successfully by James Gibson in his work on visual perception.
My motivation for writing this blog is to explore how the spirit of radical empiricism might be applied to understanding behaviour in social settings, that is, behaviour that takes place not merely in an environment that contains objects, but in an environment that is populated with other animals who are themselves engaged in the activity of knowing their own surroundings. There is prima facie good reason to explore this idea as an alternative to representational views of social behaviour: if radical empiricism allows that knowing is a matter of establishing relations in the world that are publicly observable, then this in itself avoids some of the standard pitfalls of social psychology. It means that acting with others need not involve any kind of uncertain hypothesizing about ‘other minds’, it need not involve any infinite regress of assumptions that I might make about your intentions about my intentions (and so on). Instead, social activity can be grounded in my perception of the relations that you establish with your environment, which overlaps with my own.
I intend to explore these ideas by discussing specific behavioural phenomena such as playing soccer or navigating busy streets. I will also discuss work by other researchers who may not themselves be working in the radical empiricist tradition. This discussion may be quite critical, but will be critical with a purpose. The objective will be to provide a robust test of the radical empiricist conception of social behaviour. A standard objection to the radical empiricist approach will be that it is naive and that it cannot deal with some particular phenomenon or other which has been well studied within a competing tradition. It will be necessary, then, to confront these phenomena head on, clearly identifying those areas that the approach is well equipped to deal with and those where there is room for improvement.
As I start writing this blog I’m finishing up a PhD that I’ve been working on at the University of Edinburgh. My thesis tries to develop a way of talking about and studying social phenomena that is fully consistent with Gibsonian principles of psychology. Some of the results of this work can be found on the publications page.