Self and World: The Transactional Approach to Science (1)

billiard balls in motion

Richard Vytniorgu introduces a way of thinking about scientific work by rooting it in its social context.

This is the first in a series of three posts in which I introduce the transactional approach to doing science – an approach which encourages us to position scientific work within a broader matrix of beliefs and values. Although I’m not a scientist, my work in literary theory has brought me into contact with the transactional approach via its American advocate in literary studies and English education, Louise Rosenblatt.

For Rosenblatt, the transactional philosophy of science developed by the twentieth-century American philosophers John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley represented an important shift in beliefs about how humans engage with the world, including how they do science. Away went static conceptions of human life and naïve ideas about objectivity, and in came a vision which saw the knower affecting the known. In other words, a certain element of relativism and social constructionism was admitted as part of the scientific method. Beliefs and values were seen to actively shape what was ‘discovered’.

In this first post, I’m going to outline why the transactional approach came to be seen as a valuable alternative to what went before it. The second post will explore the dynamics of the transactional approach, and the third and final post will look at some of its implications, particularly for people of faith in science.

In philosophy the transactional approach was properly developed for the first time in 1949 by Dewey and Bentley in their book, Knowing and the Known. In this work these thinkers tried to present life as dynamic, shifting, and generative. Human beings were not fixed entities which interacted with the world like billiard balls bouncing off each other, unchanged by the interaction. And scientists certainly didn’t look at the world as impartial observers. What was needed was an admission and exploration of the ways in which we as humans change and are changed by our transactions with our environment, including with our various inquiries. Because if experience and inquiry is seen to be dynamic and something which impacts us more than we previously thought, then our ideas about life and our scientific ‘conclusions’ have to be treated as provisional rather than final. Indeed, we ourselves as persons have to be treated as provisional too, subject to change.

For Dewey especially, the provisional and tentative nature of inquiry was absolutely important to stress. Society only grows and humans only change if the provisional and tentative is seen to be at the crux of life. In light of such a reality, people would need to talk with one another more about their inquiries, to be ready to revise opinions based on new knowledge. Only such a way of life would guarantee the maintenance of a democratic system.

Dewey of course worked out his thought in a secular context; for him democracy was effectively positioned as a secularised Kingdom of God – the ideal to work towards. The transactional approach was developed at a time in history when democracy was threatened by authoritarian regimes which repudiated a dynamic view of life and inquiry. By emphasising the transactional alternative, Dewey and Bentley were pushing the human into the foreground. According to Rosenblatt, along with Einsteinian theory, the transactional approach ‘opened the way to increasing recognition that the observer must always be taken into account in any observation, that human beings are the mediators in perception of their world’. This meant that when coming to consider scientific inquiry, the human beings involved in transacting with their world would have to be considered much more seriously. Who were they? What did they believe? What were their assumptions about life, the world, the process of scientific inquiry, and so on?

In the past these questions were superfluous. Now they weren’t. They were crucial. Scientific inquiry was much more than an interaction between impartial observer and a stimulus. Scientific inquiry is in fact a transaction between the knower and the known – a dynamic process in which the human’s mediation is crucial. This transactional process will be the subject of the next post.

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