A Dynamic Ecosystem: The Transactional Approach to Science (2)

Richard Vytniorgu continues his series on the transactional view of scientific development. 

In my first post exploring the transactional approach to science, I explained how twentieth-century transactional philosophy developed out of dissatisfaction with a Newtonian understanding of human existence and inquiry. Human beings don’t stand apart from their environment or their inquiry; humans shape and are shaped by their activity in the world. In this post, however, I explore the transactional approach in more detail, particularly in relation to language.

            In 1949 the philosophers John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley created a new epistemology which complemented developments in Einsteinian subatomic physics. As the literary theorist Louise Rosenblatt wrote in her 1994 essay The Transactional Theory of Reading and Writing, "Even the physicists’ facts depend to some extent on the interests, hypotheses, and technologies of the observer. The human organism, it became apparent, is ultimately the mediator in any perception of the world or any sense of 'reality'”. In Knowing and the Known, Dewey and Bentley used the term ‘transaction’ to “imply unfractured observation of the whole situation”, meaning that the scientist’s inquiry must be seen in a broader context.

            Such a broad context is filtered all the way down to the nature of experience itself. The pragmatist philosopher William James is perhaps best known among some for coining the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’ to denote a new perception of the mental activity of individuals. Modernist novelists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf famously perfected the stream-of-consciousness method in works of the 1920s such as Ulysses and To the Lighthouse. But James also developed a theory of ‘selective attention’ which, to quote Rosenblatt, denotes the way individuals are ‘constantly selecting out of the stream, or field, of consciousness’ – a phenomenon which thinkers sometimes refer to as the ‘cocktail party phenomenon’. Selective attention means that human beings are active in having an experience, at the subliminal level in the case of the mundane, and in big experiences, at a more conscious level. The transactional paradigm posits experience as something dynamic rather than fixed. Paintings such as Édouard Vuillard’s series, L’Album (1895), capture the transactional view of reality very well. In these images women peer over an album and arrange flowers, but the figures deliberately flow into one another; the activity of reading is seen as part of a ‘total situation’. There are few sharp lines. Instead, the curves create a journey for the eye, a dynamic to-and-fro between different individuals and activities happening simultaneously. The stretched nature of these paintings, moreover, adds emphasis to the panoramic effect.

            Rosenblatt applied the transactional view of reality to English education because she sought to emphasise the ways in which reading is an active process. Texts require individuals to transact with textual symbols in order to create meaning, either in an aesthetic way, by paying more attention to the private, sensuous, and affective aspects of words, or in an ‘efferent’ way, by seeking to extract information from a text which can be verified publicly. Any text can be read aesthetically or efferently, with most readings happening around the middle of the continuum.

            The transactional theory of reading takes a broad epistemological paradigm shift and applies it to one sort of inquiry. In science, the transactional approach envisages a dynamic ecosystem, whereby scientists and their ‘material’ are part of a generative process of continuous transactions, each taking into account previous ones in order to move forward.

            Those with Christian sympathies will find the transactional approach especially pertinent. Not only does it seek to describe human experience and the process of inquiry, but it also seeks to alter it. In the final post I shall talk about the relationship between the knower and the known – to see transactional inquiry as a spiritual journey. 

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