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December 2021

A changing concept of experiment in 20th century psychology

Journal/Book: Z Psychol. 1999; 207: Im Weiher 10, D-69121 Heidelberg, Germany. Johann Ambrosius Barth Verlag. 325-338.

Abstract: The quest for a ''Newton'' of Psychology has not been successful so far. This calls attention to the fact that Psychology shows deficiencies even towards the end of the 20th century. There is no fundamental theory of Psychology, comparable to the physical gravitational law or the law of conservation of energy. What about a ''Galileo'' of Psychology? Are there results from Experimental Psychology which could serve as a basis for fundamental theorizing? Again, in the author's opinion, such search yields negative results. That there is no Galileo of Psychology in the 20th century, however, does not force the conclusion, that there was no progress in the discipline. Progress can be identified, if in proper analogy to physics, that condition is identified which enabled Newton to master theoretically Galileo's empirical findings. This condition, too, is connected with a great name: Descartes. He was the contemporary of Galileo and Newton who laid the necessary foundations for any scientific theorizing by introducing mathematical representation. Descartes realized that empirical phenomena as such are independent of mathematics, the language of science. In special suitable cases only, he showed, there exists a structural relationship between empirical data and the theoretical media of numbers. This relationship was analyzed in detail by Descartes (1701). Today we refer to Cartesian coordinates. They represent qualitative matters, like points or lines of a synthetic geometry and their relationships, by means of quantitative mappings into numerical coordinates and their relations. Seen in this perspective, Descartes' contribution is a prerequisite not only for Newton's work but already for that of Galileo. This point of view is suitable to demonstrate the progress of Experimental Psychology during the 20th century: After initial work of different groups of researchers which are characterized by names as Suppes, Luce and Pfanzagl and Narens, it became cleat in the second half of the century that it is possible in Psychology to distinguish classes of experiments. Some data can carry a theoretical load, others cannot. The former serve this purpose because their data can be shown to possess the same structure as the theoretical construct of number. This distinction marks significant progress of Psychology. The naive approach which was taken by Galileo does not lead very far outside of the traditional sciences. The phenomena of social sciences including Psychology usually do not exhibit the structural properties of numbers as do physical length, mass, time etc. The paper shows by means of examples how the reflection of structural questions affected the concept of experiment in 20th century Psychology and thus induced progress of the discipline.

Note: Article Drosler J, Univ Regensburg, Inst Psychol, Univ Str 31, Postfach, D-93040 Regensburg, GERMANY

Keyword(s): psychological experiment; natural scientific theorizing; mathematical representation


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