What is philosophy-of-science? And why is this needed?
Press release in PDF-Version
In every research discipline, there are various schools of thought
that rely on different basic assumptions and different theories and
– thus, on different paradigms. But the basic assumptions
underlying a given paradigm are not always made explicit. This complicates
collaborations between scientists from different traditions and
disciplines. In her new research trilogy, Jana Uher explored the “theories
underlying the theories and methods”
– the metatheories and methodologies – that are used to
study individuals in various fields. This abstract level of exploration is
referred to as philosophy-of-science. She demands that scientists make
explicit their most basic assumptions and critically reflect on possible
biases that they themselves may have introduced into their research. In
research on individuals, this is particularly important because scientists
are always individuals themselves; therefore, scientists studying
individuals are not independent from their objects of research. This
profound problem is often not well considered.
The times during which each scientific discipline built its own ivory
tower are long over—but these towers still cast their shadows. Exploring
the complex phenomena that are still not well understood and finding
answers to the real-world problems that we face today requires the joint
expertise of multiple disciplines. But putting multi-disciplinary
collaborations into practice has turned out to be quite difficult.
Theories and methods often cannot be easily combined across disciplines,
and findings often cannot be directly compared across different fields.
Research on individuals is one example. Experts from many different
sciences, such as psychologists, biologists, physicians, social
scientists, economists and political scientists, to name just a few,
contribute to our knowledge about individuals. But they have all developed
their own theories and methods. Moreover, a Babel of scientific languages
has evolved in the city of ivory towers, making communication between the
disciplines quite difficult at times (see the
Science Blog “When biologists and
psychologists talk at cross-purposes”).
Therefore, Jana Uher explored the “theories behind the theories and
methods” – the meta-theories and methodologies – that researchers in
different disciplines have developed about individuals (see the
Science Blog “A new scientific
paradigm for research on individuals”). This abstract level of
consideration is referred to as theory and philosophy of science.
Philosophy-of-science explores the most basic assumptions that researchers
make about what they consider an object of research and how they can gain
knowledge about it.
The majority of scientists are primarily concerned with creating
knowledge in their particular field and with finding answers to specific
research questions. To achieve this, they rely on research paradigms that
are established in their fields. Paradigms are frameworks that comprise
interrelated sets of hypotheses, models and theories and the sets of
methods needed for their exploration. Every paradigm is built on
particular world views, basic assumptions and ways of doing science. But
these most basic ideas need not be expressed directly. Rather, they are
built into the theories and methods used in a given research tradition.
Now, in any given discipline, there is never just one single paradigm.
Instead, different groups of scientist use different paradigms and thus
different theories and methods – even within the same field of research.
In psychology, for example, various paradigms have been established for
studying human individuals. Each of these paradigms builds on very
different ideas of human nature. For example, some groups of psychologists
see humans as driven by subconscious inner urges and conflicts. Others
consider individuals to be influenced by their genes and environmental
conditions. Still other groups of psychologists understand humans as
actively striving for knowledge, personal growth and self-fulfilment.
These different basic assumptions result in very different ways in which
individuals are studied in each paradigm.
Thus, within any given discipline, different groups of scientists
already make different basic assumptions about individuals. Across
disciplines, even more diverse assumptions are made, such as in the
paradigms of biology, medicine, the social sciences and economics.
Consequently, very different theories and methods are used to explore
particular aspects of individuals’ lives from particular viewpoints. But
putting the big picture together is often difficult because competing
paradigms can be contradictory and are sometimes even irreconcilable with
one another because they are based on different basic assumptions.
This is the point at which philosophers-of-science can make meaningful
contributions because they are concerned with scientists’ basic
assumptions and the ways in which scientists make science. This special
field of science is a part of philosophy – as its name already reveals.
But the issues explored in philosophy-of-science are often discussed on
levels of consideration that are too remote from the actual research
problems with which most scientists are concerned. Therefore, scientists
and philosophers-of-science often work quite independently of one another.
“That’s a great pity”, as Jana Uher finds, “because every science depends
on a sound philosophy-of-science and, vice versa, the purpose of
philosophy-of-science is to advance science. Each cannot be without the
Therefore, she argues for strengthening the connections between these
fields and demands: “Scientists should think more often about the most
basic assumptions on which their theories and methods are built because
these are the tools that they use for making science”. This also applies
to research tools that have been used for some time already, she
emphasises. “In our everyday lives, we also renew our tools such as
household devices and we update our mobile devices from time to time. New
developments are always possible.” Philosophers-of-science, in turn,
should consider actual and even applied research problems more strongly in
their work. “This is where their expertise is most urgently needed”, she
Jana Uher explains: “It is a bit like connecting the expert who studies
the grammar of foreign languages with the tradesperson who is active in a
multi-lingual business world”. It is clear how these two areas of
expertise are connected, but why intensify this connection? Their
different aims and different ways of thinking and talking about foreign
languages could make an exchange of ideas quite difficult. And yet, it is
also clear that our knowledge of foreign languages can be best advanced if
the two kinds of experts combine their knowledge.
Such collaborations are of utmost importance in science because it
explores phenomena and problems that are highly complex and that cannot be
easily understood and solved. Mastering this complexity requires the joint
expertise of many fields. Moreover, scientific knowledge is targeted
toward enhancing the well-being of individuals and societies all around
the globe. Improving and testing the ways in which scientific knowledge is
created is therefore of particular importance.
In her new research trilogy, published in the international journal
Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, Jana Uher, shows
how the connections between philosophy-of-science and the specific
sciences can be strengthened. “Sometimes, scientists seem to avoid the
philosophy-of-science perspective because it puts their own thinking and
their own beliefs under the microscope”. In research on individuals, it
seems to be particularly difficult for scientists to become aware of the
ways in which their own personal ideas also influence their scientific
ideas and ways of thinking about their objects of research.
Jana Uher explains why: “Scientists exploring individuals are always
individuals themselves with their own personal viewpoints and ideas about
the world. Therefore, they can never be independent from their objects of
research – unlike physicists and chemists, for example”. She emphasises:
“We can never fully avoid this problem. Ultimately, we are all human
beings. But an awareness of this problem can help us put our own theories
and methods into perspective and to critically reconsider them from time
to time to identify possible biases.”
In her research trilogy, Jana Uher explored the most basic assumptions
underlying the different paradigms that are used to study individuals in
various fields and identified commonalities and differences. On the basis
of this and of established philosophy-of-science concepts, she developed
research frameworks and novel concepts that are applicable to all sciences
and that are integrated in her Transdisciplinary Philosophy-of-Science
Paradigm. This paradigm provides tools that researchers can use to make
explicit their most basic assumptions, to critically analyse their
established theories and methods and to develop novel ones (see the
Science Blog “A new scientific
paradigm for research on individuals”).
Jana Uher showed how this novel paradigm can be applied by the example
of “personality” research. First, she explored the basic assumptions
underlying the different definitions of “personality” that are used in
psychology and identified why there are so many different definitions and
the consequences this has for the “personality” theories that researchers
develop (see the
Science Blog “What is ‘personality’?”).
Then she critically analysed the theories and methods that are used to
develop models of human “personality”. The philosophy-of-science analyses
revealed serious biases in the ways in which some of the most widely used
“personality” models, such as the Big Five Model and the Five Factor
Model, were developed and in how they are interpreted (see the Science
Blog “How were the Big Five Model and the Five Factor Model actually
Jana Uher highlighted that these models were developed on the basis of
everyday language and people’s assessments of themselves and of others.
Therefore, these models capture people’s everyday knowledge about
individuals. But contrary to frequent assumptions, these models cannot
reflect how individuals actually behave, feel and think. This fallacy is
derived from our everyday thinking because we often believe that our words
are directly related to the things that they denote. But this is possible
only for concrete things that we can directly perceive; it is not possible
for abstract ideas such as those about “personality”.
The Transdisciplinary Philosophy-of-Science Paradigm provides tools
that scientists can use to critically analyse their basic assumptions,
theories and methods and to identify possible biases and fallacies. It
also provides tools that enable scientists to select methods that are
appropriately matched with their particular objects of research and to
develop new ones.
Uher, J. (2015a). Conceiving "personality": Psychologists’
challenges and basic fundamentals of the Transdisciplinary
Philosophy-of-Science Paradigm for Research on Individuals.
Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 49, 398-458.
Uher, J. (2015b). Developing "personality" taxonomies: Metatheoretical
and methodological rationales underlying selection approaches, methods of
data generation and reduction principles. Integrative Psychological and
Behavioral Science, 49, 531-589.
Uher, J. (2015c). Interpreting "personality" taxonomies: Why previous
models cannot capture individual-specific experiencing, behaviour,
functioning and development. Major taxonomic tasks still lay ahead.
Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 49, 600-655.
Uher, J. (2013). Personality psychology: Lexical approaches, assessment
methods, and trait concepts reveal only half of the story. Why it is time
for a paradigm shift. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science,
Last update: 20.09.2015
Keywords: method, theory, model, science, philosophy-of-science,
theory of science, methodology, metatheory, philosophy, knowledge,
personality, individual, psyche, behavior, physiology, morphology,
individual differences, neuroimaging, brain, body-mind problem,
language, signs, body, mind, comparative, questionnaires,
assessments, ratings, judgments, transdisciplinary
philosophy-of-science paradigm for research on individuals,