Is Unified Positivism the Answer to Psychology's Disunity?

Christopher D. Green
Department of Psychology
University of Toronto

(1992) American Psychologist, 47, 1057-1058

In a thoughtful and interesting article Arthur Staats (1991) offers us a new view of the way in which psychology should progress: it should recognize as its main goal the unification of its various subdisciplines and vigorously pursue that end. Unlike some other recent advocates of unification (e.g., Kimble, 1989) Staats distances himself from earlier abortive attempts to impose theoretical unity on psychology, noting that the positivistic musings of 'grand old men' like Skinner and Hull "did not set the framework for the solution of the problems of the disunified science" (p. 905). He also rejects the naïve brute empiricism to which psychologists have so often turned in times of turmoil, correctly noting that, "no matter how much they pique our interest, isolated phenomena do not constitute subject matter for long-term study unless they are woven into a general fabric of expanding knowledge" (p. 905). These are admirable tenets, and should go uncontested by any honest student of the history and philosophy of science in general, and of psychology in particular.

The program he advances in pursuit of his goal, however, is not so persuasive and, I believe, is in need of closer examination. Under the aegis of his 'unified positivism', "the process of unification is a fundamental dimension of progress in science" (p. 900), and "the value of a theory in any particular area of the extent to which it bridges phenomena, tying them together in meaningful packages" (p. 905). I believe that this is approach misses the mark in two ways: (1) it assumes a goal for science which might well not be applicable to all scientific circumstances and (2) it pursues directly a problem which is best attacked obliquely, failing to stress those fundamentals of traditional philosophy of science which we must uphold -- indeed, which must supersede the goal of unification itself -- if we hope to achieve precisely the sort of scientific success that Staats seeks.

Unification has been the outcome of centuries of work in the physical sciences. Were it achieved in psychology, given certain other conditions, it would doubtless be considered the greatest scientific victory in the history of the discipline. So desirable has this outcome become, because of the elegance it lends to a discipline, that it has come to be considered by Staats and his colleagues a goal for its own sake. I believe this to be a mistake. It is not a given, a priori, that it is the appropriate outcome of research in psychology. It is a matter for future research -- both theoretical and empirical -- to decide. It might just be, just as the four forces of physics may not ultimately turn out to be unifiable into a single force, that all the phenomena of psychology are not unifiable; that they are not all of a kind. If such be the case, the prudent course would be to allow what is now known as psychology to break into the disciplines which best suit its content areas. Surely it would not seem so remarkable if the problems of neuropsychology and of social relations turned out to have as little common language as do, say, cytology and paleontology. Just these sorts of partitions have been advocated in biology by writers such as Ernst Mayr (1982). Why should we oppose, in principle, their possibility in psychology? A dogged attempt to force the unification of phenomena which might, in fact, be naturally disparate, could only be harmful to the discipline in the long run; much as the great drive to behaviorize was through the middle of this century.

Even if there were reason to believe unification to be the evident outcome of psychological research, it is no more likely to be (legitimately) achieved by dogmatically 'valuing' work furthering its de facto achievement than world peace is likely to be achieved by 'valuing' instances of peacefulness wherever they occur. Some instances of peacefulness -- e.g., apathy, depression, coma, death, etc. -- are unwelcome for various other reasons. Perhaps more to the point, just as people who are unsatisfied with their current conditions will fight to improve them in spite of an underlying desire for peace, so scientists who believe the theory-next-door to be hooey will fight to see its eradication from the textbooks and the classroom, and so it should be. Genuine unification, if it is to come, must come of open competition among theories, some of which will offer increased unification, some of which will not. There is no point in buying unity if it is at the cost of precision at the level of the subdiscipline. The scope and probability of theories play a game against each other.

Although Staats correctly advocates the traditional philosophical goals of internal consistency at a couple of junctures, the stress he lays on unity above several other goals is disturbing and, in my opinion, ventures dangerously close to restricting hard, sometimes harsh, criticism of theoretical projects which, for all their consensus-building power, are ultimately just plain false. Surely, at the end of the day, we value truth over unity!

Rather than doctrinally setting unity at the forefront of our theoretical values, I believe the same general objectives can be furthered through other more traditional means; means which offer a better hope of accomplishing the most basic goal that Staats seeks: that of having better psychological science.

There is a nothing like a strong grounding in logic and epistemology to help people (a fortiori psychologists) distinguish good from bad theories, and until psychologists can do this, the eclectic theories Staats abhors will remain, for most, indistinguishable from the strong bridging theories that he cherishes. The laissez-faire attitude toward theory which Feyerabend, for instance, advocates and Staats rejects has failed in psychology not because psychology is, a priori, so different from other sciences, and not because, as Staats claims, axiomatic theories are, a priori, irrelevant to psychology (p. 907). These are both questions which can be answered only in the telling. The laissez-faire attitude has failed in psychology, in my opinion, simply because psychologists, on the whole, are lousy consumers of theory.

Improving the philosophical education of psychologists is the quickest way to address this problem, not changing philosophy of science to suit the educational priorities we presently -- mistakenly, I would argue -- hold. Only one of the fundamental features of strong theory construction is generality. Another is high probability. The latter is propelled at least partly by theoretical precision. Good theories will further unification if it is ours to have. Better yet, they will evade the trap of superficial or dogmatic unification if it is not.

To summarize, though unification in psychology may well seem a reasonable goal, it may not be in our stars. We must, in a sense, let unification come to us via good theory-construction practices rather than explicitly pursuing it. If we want to have a better science, we must make psychologists better consumers of theory. Without a better appreciation of the fundamentals of philosophy of science the best unification theory in the world is no more likely to achieve consensus than the worst eclectic twaddle one might imagine


Kimble, G. A. (1989). Psychology from the standpoint of a generalist. American Psychologist, 44, 491-499

Mayr, E. (1982). The growth of biological thought: Diversity, evolution and inheritance. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap.

Staats, A. W. (1991). Unified positivism and unification psychology. American Psychologist, 46, 899-912.