Psychological Science within a Three-Dimensional Ontology
Psychological Science within a Three-Dimensional Ontology
Lars-Gunnar Lundh 0
0 Department of Psychology, Lund University , Lund , Sweden
The present paper outlines the nature of a three-dimensional ontology and the place of psychological science within this ontology, in a way that is partly similar to and partly different from that of Pérez-Álvarez. The first dimension is the material realities, and involves different levels (physical, chemical, biological, psychological, etc.), where each level builds on a lower level but also involves the development of new emergent properties, in accordance with Bunge's emergent materialism. Each level involves systems, with components, structures and mechanisms, and an environment. This dimension can be studied with natural scientific methods. The second dimension is the subjective-experiential realities, and refers to our subjective perspective on the world. In accordance with Husserl's phenomenology, it is argued that this subjectivity does not exist in the world (i.e., should not be reified as an object among other objects), but represents a perspective on the world that we enter in our capacity as conscious human beings. Essential characteristics of this subjectivity (such as intentionality, temporality, embodiment, and intersubjectivity) can be explored by phenomenological methods. The third dimension is the social-constructional realities, and includes social institutions, norms, categories, theories, and techniques. It is argued that psychological science spans over all three dimensions. Although almost all psychological research by necessity starts from a problem formulation where the subjective-experiential dimension plays an essential role (either explicitly or implicitly), most of present-day psychological research clearly emphasizes the material dimension. It is argued that a mature psychological science needs to integrate all three dimensions.
Ontology; Psychological science; Materialism; Emergentism; Phenomenology; Social constructionism
In his article BPsychology as a science of subject and comportment, beyond the mind and
argues for a reconceptualization of psychological
science within a three-dimensional ontology. This is the starting-point for the present paper.
How can we understand psychological science within a three-dimensional ontology, and
how are these three dimensions to be defined? The paper has five parts. In the first part, it is
argued that ontological questions are essential to the development of psychological science.
In the three following sections, the ontological dimensions are outlined. The fifth and final
part contains a discussion of some similarities and differences between the present version
of a three-dimensional ontology and that of Pérez-Álvarez.
Ontology and Psychology
Ontology is that part of philosophy which deals with questions about the nature of what
exists, and how different aspects of being are related to each other. Examples of ontological
questions directly relevant to psychology are: What is the nature of consciousness,
sensation, perception, memory, thinking, feeling, intention, expectation, will, desire, hope,
fear, joy, sadness, love, anger, empathy, etc.? Or, to turn to more theoretical concepts: What
is the nature of human information processing, personality, personal identity, interpersonal
relations, etc.? And how are all these things related to each other, and to the
nonpsychological (physical, chemical, biological, social, etc.) world? Traditional questions in
this area are formulated in terms of how the Bmind^ is related to (1) external reality, (2) the
body, (3) the brain, (4) language, and (5) human society and culture.
One classical philosophical position, often traced to Descartes, is that of mind-body
dualism. According to dualistic thinking, mind and body represent different kinds of
realities (Bsubstances^, in Descartes’ thinking).
against dualism, and in favor of pluralism. A pluralistic ontology, he says, Bdoes not
reduce reality to two substances (dualism) or to one (monism). Realities have many forms:
experiential (pain, feelings, thoughts), physical (electrons, atoms, cells, organisms,
typewriters, planets), institutional (languages, cultures, family relationship systems, collective
imaginaries, world views) and abstract (mathematics, theorems, theories, geometry).^
The position in favor of pluralism that is first taken by
qualified in at least two different ways: (1) first by abandoning Bstrong pluralism^ in favor
of a Btripartite^ ontology, which implies a reduction of a potentially pluralistic universe into
three different Bworlds^, and then (2) by qualifying this tripartite ontology by a streak of
monism, in the sense that one of these Bthree worlds^ (i.e., physical reality) is seen as more
basic than the others (materialism). In both of these aspects he follows Bueno’s
philosophical materialism, which involves three Bgenres of materiality^: (1) the physical world,
including all kinds of material bodies from electrons to planets (M1); (2) the subject with its
subjective experiences and behavioral activity (M2); and (3) abstract entities, such as
concepts, mathematics, social institutions, and cultural things (M3).
Basically, I find the notion of a three-dimensional otology appealing, although don’t
want to call it Btripartite^, because this suggests the idea of three different Bparts^ of
reality that are somehow disconnected. The notion of Bthree-dimensional^ rather
suggests an analogy with three-dimensional space, in which three parameters (i.e.,
width, height, and depth) are required to determine the position of any element. In this
paper I will discuss such a three-dimensional ontology in slightly different terms than
Pérez-Álvarez, by labeling the three dimensions material, subjective-experiential, and
social-constructional. Also, rather than referring to the three dimensions as different
Bworlds^, I will choose a more Bpluralistic^ discourse by referring to them as three
different realities. Because each of these three dimensions can be assumed to be
characterized by a certain degree of ontological pluralism, I will use Brealities^ in
plural also to characterize each dimension.
This also means that I don’t subscribe to seeing these three dimensions as Bgenres of
materiality^, or identifying the subject of psychology specifically with the second
does). In the following, I will argue (1) that only the first
dimension (the material realities) is strictly material, and (2) that psychological science
cannot be restricted to only one of these dimensions but spans over all three of them.
Dimension 1: The Material Realities
This ontological dimension refers to the realities that can be studied by the natural
sciences, and could also be referred to as the Bphysical-natural^ dimension. In the
following exposition, this dimension is approached from the perspective of Bunge’s
(1977, 2010) emergent materialism.
In this model, the material realities are differentiated into physical, chemical, biological,
psychological, and sociological levels, where each level builds on a lower level but also
involves the development of new emergent properties. Simply put: Physics involves the
level of atoms. Chemistry involves the study of molecules, which are composed of
atoms but have emergent properties that atoms do not have. Biology in turn involves
the study of cells, which are composed of molecules, but yet have new emergent
properties that are not found in molecules, etc.
Two basic assumptions in Bunge’s emergent materialism are that (1) each system has
emergent properties that are not found in its components, and yet (2) Beach emergent
property of a system can be explained in terms of properties of its components and of the
couplings amongst these^
(Bunge 1977, s. 503)
. In other words: even if the emergent
properties of a system are new in the sense that the components of this system do not have
these properties, it is nevertheless the case that these emergent properties can be explained
in terms of properties of these components and the relations between these.
Methodologically, this means that each system as a rule should be studied at two levels, both a macro
level and a micro level (i.e., the level of the components).
To illustrate: At their macro level physical objects have a number of emergent
properties, such as temperature and entropy, which their components at the micro level
(e.g., molecules, atoms, elementary particles) do not have. Molecules, for example, do
not have temperature, and yet the temperature of physical objects can be explained in
terms of properties of the molecules that they consist of. The temperature of a physical
object depends on how much the molecules in this object are moving; the more they
move, the higher the temperature.
Important here is that no new Bsubstance^ is added at any of these levels of material
reality. For example, although living matter has a number of emergent properties, such as
cellularity, metabolism, homeostasis, cell division, heredity, mutation, morphogenesis,
evolution, sickness, and death, all of these are possible to explain in terms of the material
building bricks that are involved. The same is, according to Bunge’s psychoneural identity
theory, true of psychological processes (such as thought, emotions, conscious awareness
and free will), which are seen as emergent properties of Bpsycho-systems^ that are based on
processes in the central nervous system of living organisms.
Among these emergent properties are self-control and free will. Bunge describes
evolution as being Bin part a liberation process: one of decreasing dependence on the environment
(thanks to improvements in homeostasis) and increasing empowerment (ability to do),
thanks to improvements of the brain and its social uses^
(Bunge 2010, p. 220)
increasing independence is seen not only in the fact that the brain is continuously active,
even during sleep, and that Bmost brain processes are spontaneous or self-generated rather
than responses to external stimuli^ (p. 220), but also in the fact that Bself-control, which is a
necessary condition for free will, is a learnable function of the prefrontal cortex, the
phylogenetically newest area of the brain. So much so, that people with serious damage to
that brain region lack free will: they are swayed by the stimuli impinging on them^ (p. 220).
According to Bunge, an important implication of emergentism is that psychological
processes by necessity rely on biological processes, which makes it impossible for
computers to develop consciousness, feelings, and free will. The mental functions,
according to this model, cannot be decoupled from the living body which they are part of.
Another important part of Bunge’s emergent materialism is that each system
involves not only components, but also an internal structure, internal mechanisms and an
(Bunge and Ardila 1987)
. This means that the system cannot be defined
apart from its environment. Each system has its specific kind of environment, the nature
of which depends on the properties of the system in question. An interesting
implication of this is that environments also exist at different levels. To take an example: Water
is an essential part of our environment, without which life would not be possible. A
common reductionistic mistake is to assume that water can be reduced to the chemical
molecule H2O. But water has emergent properties, that are essential to life, but are not
found in the chemical H2O molecule:
To state that the composition of a body of water is a set of H2O molecules is not to
state that the former is nothing but the latter… a body of water is a system, hence
something with a structure, not only a composition. And that structure includes
the hydrogen bonds among H2O molecules. The result is a system with emergent
properties such as fluidity, viscosity, transparency and others, which its molecular
(Bunge 1977, p. 506)
These emergent properties are what makes water^ drink-able^. This reasoning is
consistent with biological notions of an BUmwelt^
(Von Uexküll 1957)
(1979) theory of affordances, which also point to important holistic aspects of
Functions, Not Experiences
An important limitation is that Bunge’s emergent materialism stays strictly within the
material dimension, and has nothing to say about what
calls Bthe hard
problem of consciousness^. This is seen, for example, in Bunge’s way of formulating
empirically testable hypotheses derived from his theory in functional terms. As he
formulates it: From the assumption that Bfor every mental function F there is a brain
system B that performs F^ it follows that, BIf B is injured or absent, F is disturbed or
fails to occur^
(Bunge 2010, p. 162)
. This is an empirically testable hypothesis because
Bit is possible to alter neural systems through pharmacological or surgical means, or
else TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), and measure the resulting changes in
(Bunge 2010, s. 163)
. More generally, research on neural plasticity shows
that the brain undergoes neurophysiologically measurable changes as the result of new
learning (e.g., in connection with language learning or successful psychotherapy).
According to Bunge, consciousness belongs to the emergent properties of
, however, argues that consciousness is an ambiguous term,
which covers a number of different problems, of which some are Beasier^ and others
are more difficult. If by Bconsciousness^ we merely mean merely the ability to report
about one’s inner mental states, it would be possible to define it in terms of a
mechanism that performs this function, and would therefore fit neatly into Bunge’s
emergentism. What Chalmers is primarily interested in, however, is not this relatively
Beasy^ problem but the considerably more difficult problem of explaining how and
why we have conscious, subjective experiences. Easy problems, he argues, can be
solved relatively easy because all that they require is a mechanism that can perform a
particular function. The hard problem of conscious experience, on the other hand, will
persist even when the performance of all relevant functions is explained.
Levels are Not Dimensions
It is important not to mix the levels in emergent materialism with ontological
dimensions. These levels (whether physical, chemical, biological, psychological or
social) are all part of the material dimension. Chalmers’ Bhard problem of
consciousness^, however, is not a problem of how psycho-systems are related to
lower-level systems, but a problem of how the subjective-experiential dimension
is related to the material dimension.
This is an important distinction. For, although it is in principle possible to find
cognitive or neural mechanisms that perform all kinds of information processing, this
still does not explain the conscious experience that is involved.
The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we
think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a
subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there is something it is like to be a
conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for
example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the
experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences
go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell
of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental
images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the
experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is
that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.
(Chalmers 1995, p. 201)
As Chalmers points out, what makes the hard problem of conscious experience difficult
is that it cannot be reduced to problems about the performance of functions. The problem is
to explain why the performance of certain cognitive functions is accompanied by subjective
experiences. He refers to this as Ban explanatory gap^, and says that we need an
Bexplanatory bridge^ to cross it: BA mere account of the functions stays on one side of
the gap, so the materials for the bridge must be found elsewhere^
(Chalmers 1995, p. 203)
His suggested solution is to see conscious experience as a fundamental non-reducible
property of the world, at the same level as other fundamental non-reducible entities such as
mass, charge, and space-time. This leads him to a speculative double-aspect theory, similar
to that of the seventeenth century philosopher Spinoza, with the implication that everything
has an experiential aspect.
According to the three-dimensional ontology that is argued for in the present paper,
Chalmers’ mistake is that he objectifies subjective experience. An alternative to this is
to see subjective experience in terms of Husserl’s phenomenology, which offers another
kind of ontological perspective.
Dimension 2: The Subjective-Experiential Realities
This dimension refers to those realities that are subjectively experienced, and can be
made a focus of study by turning our attention to conscious experience as such, while
putting the external world Bwithin brackets^. This is the task that Husserl (1938/1970)
set for the science of phenomenology, which he regarded as essential for laying the
conceptual framework of a psychological science.
The basic starting-point for Husserl’s phenomenology is that all objective
knowledge about the world by necessity involves a subjective perspective on these objective
realities. There is no way to access any objective realities without going via our
subjective perspective – yet, we seldom focus on this subjective perspective as such.
The phenomenological method is based on a change in perspective, so that attention is
now turned directly to our subjective experience, while disregarding the realities of the
external world – this change of perspective is referred to by Husserl as an epoché.
Setting his phenomenology into a historical context, Husserl (1938/1970)
differentiates between the natural attitude, the theoretical attitude, and the phenomenological
attitude. It is our natural attitude to engage in the world around us for practical
everyday purposes, without focusing directly on our subjective perspective as such,
but treating it rather as a kind of transparent medium for our access to the objective
world. This has been equally true of the natural sciences. Although the development of
science from ancient Greece onwards, as Husserl describes it, has involved the
development of a theoretical attitude, in addition to our original natural attitude, this
has seldom involved any attention given to our subjective perspective, but has mostly
involved a theoretical refinement of the natural attitude into a naturalistic attitude
(which reduces all of reality to the material dimension).
Although Husserl expressed great admiration for the developments that had occurred
in the natural sciences, he emphasized that this progress had been one-sided in the sense
that theoretical reflection had been applied only to the object of these sciences, and had
forgotten to focus on the subject without which no objective knowledge would be
possible. The phenomenological method is needed to Bdo justice to the subjectivity
which accomplishes science^
(Husserl 1938/1970, s. 295)
, and involves the taking of a
The Phenomenological Attitude
The phenomenological method is based on a change in perspective (an epoché), so that
attention is now turned directly to our subjective experience. Husserl points out that this
leaves everything just as it is (i.e., the existence of the external world is in no way
questioned). The only change is a change of perspective: Bthrough the epoché a new
way of experiencing, of thinking, of theorizing, is opened to the philosopher; here,
situated above his own natural being and above the natural world, he loses nothing of
their being and their objective truths^
(Husserl 1938/1970, p. 78)
What Husserl describes here can be compared with a number of concepts from
modern psychology, such as Bdecentering^, Bself-distant perspective, Bcognitive
distancing^, Bmeta-cognitive awareness^, Bcognitive defusion^, and Bmindfulness^.
Common to all of these concepts is that they refer to the Bcapacity to shift experiential
perspective—from within one’s subjective experience onto that experience^
et al. 2015, s. 599)
. One difference, as compared with Husserl’s epoché, is that these
concepts have arisen within a psychotherapeutic context rather than a philosophical one
and therefore emphasize the potentially therapeutic effects of acquiring this attitude,
rather than its importance for philosophical or theoretical purposes. What is added
specifically by Husserl’s phenomenology is that this phenomenological attitude to
experience can be used for theoretic-analytic purposes.
It is important to remember here that our conscious experience represents our view of
the world, and should not be reified as some kind of entity in the world, as is done by
. The purpose is to analyze our subjectivity, but not as something
which exists in the world (an object among other objects), but as essential
characteristics of our subjective perspective on the world.1 In other words, the purpose is to study
human subjectivity (conscious awareness) Bfrom within^, by observing and analyzing
the perspective on the world that we enter in our capacity as conscious human beings.
Some of the most important of Husserl’s analyses focus on the following characteristics
of our subjective perspective: intentionality, temporality, embodiment, and
intersubjectivity. One aspect of these can be referred to as Bindexicality^.
Indexicality The subjective perspective can be defined in terms such as BI^, Bhere^,
and Bnow^. These terms have been referred to as indexical terms
they don’t point to specific physical places, moments and individuals, but to places,
moments and individuals that vary depending on where, when and by whom the terms
are used. In other words, these terms do not refer to objective physical or natural
realities, but to a subjective perspective on these realities.
1 The characterization of this as not in the world, but as a condition for the experience of the world, is
expressed by the term Btranscendental^. The subjectivity involved is referred to by Husserl as Bthe
transcendental ego^ (as distinct from an empirical ego), and its study as Btranscendental phenomenology^.
The subjective perspective is closely connected with our body. As Husserl (1938/1970)
formulates it, the living body is a center for our experience of the world, and an organ of the
will. BIn a quite unique way^, he says, Bthe living body is constantly in the perceptual field
quite immediately, with a completely unique ontic meaning… as the ego of affection and
action^ (p. 107). One aspect of this is that the body is Bthe zero point^ for our experience of
time, space, orientation and movement, from which all directions (Bhere^, Bthere^, Bup^,
Bdown^, Bleft^, Bright^, near^, Bfar^, etc.) get their sense. In other words, the position of
our body determines our perceptual perspective on the world.
It is also part of our immediate experience that we can move our body, change
position, actively explore the environment, and influence our surroundings in various
ways, by an effort of will. Husserl (1938/1970, p. 217-218) speaks about this in terms
of an experience of Bholding sway^ over the body, and of the body as Ban organ of the
will^. In addition to the experience that our body, like other physical objects, is subject
to physical causality (e.g., gravitation), the experience of Bholding sway^ over the
body, according to Husserl, indicates another kind of causality. Here it is important to
bear in mind that this is an attempt to describe essential aspects of our subjective
perspective, which is not the same as arguing that free will exists in a material sense. As
emphasized by Husserl, the purpose of phenomenology is to describe experience, while
putting the objective world Bwithin brackets^ – which means that questions about the
physical or material status of free will are not posed here. (Still, these are real questions
that need to be posed from the perspective of a three-dimensional ontology.)
Husserl regarded time as the most difficult phenomenological problem, and devoted much
work to this topic. Basic to his analysis of temporality is a differentiation between (1)
natural occurrences with a beginning, duration and an end, that can be located in the
physical world, and (2) the temporal structure of our subjective experience, which cannot
be reduced to a sequence of separate moments, but is Blayered^ in the sense that it
essentially involves not only a now moment, but also retention (of previous moments)
and protention (of anticipated moments). As emphasized by Husserl this does not involve
memory or expectations in the strict sense, but rather implies that perception takes place
over time. Consider, for example, our experience of a melody; if our subjective experience
was simply a series of separate moments we might be able to experience one tone at a time,
but we would not be able to experience any melody. What makes us able to experience the
melody as a whole is that our consciousness is constructed in such a way that we are able to
integrate temporal occurrences into larger unities.
This basic integration is seen by Husserl as the most fundamental form of
synthesis. An example of a more complex form of temporal synthesis is the Bego
synthesis^, in which the past, the present and the future are woven together into a
historical unit that may cover a whole life-time (an Bidentity^ in present-day
terminology), and which shows a certain type of continuity in spite of change.
Common to both of these kinds of syntheses, however, is that they are what Husserl
(1931/2001) refers to as passive syntheses – as distinct from more active syntheses
that involve conscious thinking and judgment.
This illustrates an important thing about Husserl’s phenomenology: to analyze
subjective experience here goes far deeper than merely describing conscious experience
– it involves analyzing the necessary conditions for the psychological phenomena
involved.2 For example, without the ability to synthesize time (i.e., passively integrating
the now moment with retention and protention), it would not be possible for us to
perceive a melody, or to read and comprehend a complete sentence, or to follow an
argument that proceeds over time. What is referred to by Husserl as Bpassive
syntheses^ (unlike active syntheses) are not represented in our subjective experience,
but represent necessary conditions for it.
Intentionality refers to the fact that most of our experiences (with some exceptions such
as pain, which does not refer to anything else beyond the pain itself) are directed to
some kind of Bobject^ beyond the experience itself. Although this object may
sometimes be quite imaginary (as, for example, when we think of a centaur), an important
part of our engagement with the world around us is aimed at getting a correct
apprehension of it. Husserl (1938/1970, p. 163) describes this in terms of our strivings
for Bontic certainty^ in the form of Ba harmony in the total perception of the world^,
which needs sometimes to be Bsustained through correction^. This, again, refers to a
kind of synthesis, although an active synthesis in this case, rather than a passive one, to
the extent that we actively and consciously strive to correct our perceptions.
An alternative formulation that is used by Husserl in some of his writings is to make
this contrast in terms of active versus passive genesis. This is specifically developed in
his genetic phenomenology, where the purpose is to analyze the historical conditions for
the development of a subjective perspective with its particular intentionality
Basic to our subjective perspective is that we perceive ourselves as one subject among
other subjects – each with a separate body that defines a center of experience, with its
subjective perspective on the world, and its specific intentionality. According to
Husserl, we tend to understand the subjectivity of other individuals on analogy with
our own. Just as our experience of the world takes it starting-point from the here
(embodiment) and the now (temporality), our understanding of others’ subjectivity
takes its starting-point from the ego (our own intentionality).
Our basic experience that there are other individuals around us, each with their specific
subjectivity, leads to an experience of intersubjectivity. In our communication with these
others, we learn to know some of them more than others, and through Breciprocal
correction^ we reconcile our subjective perspectives on the world, so as to arrive at some
kind of intersubjective consensus. As a result, new syntheses are formed, from a simple
BIyou synthesis^ (based on connecting with another person on the basis of partly overlapping
2 Analyzing the necessary conditions for something has been referred to as a Btranscendental argument^ or
Btranscendental deduction^ by various philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Husserl speaks about
Btranscendental logic^ and Btranscendental phenomenology^ in this context.
intentionalities) to Bthe more complicated we-synthesis^
(Husserl 1938/1970, p. 172)
which may involve larger groups of people with more or less similar interests and
perspectives. More generally, Husserl concludes that in this way the world is
intersubjectively constituted, as the result of a synthesis of individual intentionalities:
All the levels and strata through which the syntheses, intentionally overlapping as
they are from subject to subject, are interwoven form a universal unity of
synthesis; through it the objective universe comes to be… In this regard we
speak of the Bintersubjective constitution of the world^… out of elementary
intentionalities. (Husserl 1938/1970, p. 168)
The intersubjective constitution of the world is important to the understanding of the
scientific status of phenomenology as a method. When Husserl advocates a
phenomenological analysis of how the world appears to us, he refers to something we all have access
to, in our capacity as human beings. In other words, we are dealing with realities that are
intersubjectively available. This makes it possible to conduct meaningful discussions of
these analyses, where different arguments are advanced, criticized, corrected and developed
in various ways. Even if this is not an empirical method in the traditional sense, it is
nevertheless the case that conclusions on the basis of these analyses are provisional and
hypothetical, and possible to test by means of new arguments based on experiences which
we all have potential access to. This is important in view of the requirement for
intersubjectivity in science – in order for knowledge to qualify for a scientific status it has to be the
result of methods that make it possible for different researchers to replicate the same
investigation and see if they get the same results.
Further, if the understanding that is arrived at through this intersubjective process
achieves the status of socially accepted conceptualizations, it will have received the
status of social constructions. This brings us to the third ontological dimension.
Dimension 3: The Social-Constructional Realities
This ontological dimension refers to everything that is socially constructed by human
beings, including social institutions, norms, art, literature, concepts, categories, theories,
and techniques. The study of these things is a focus within various social sciences, cultural
sciences, and human sciences. Here the social-constructional dimension will be discussed
briefly under five subheadings: Social facts, norms, categories, theories, and techniques.
Social Institutions One of the early examples of a scientific focus on these kinds of
sociocultural realities is found in
/1982) definition of sociology as the
empirical study of Bsocial facts^, such as kinship and marriage, currency, language,
religion, political organizations, and other social institutions that play a role in everyday
interactions with other members of the society we live in. What characterizes such
social facts, as distinct from natural facts, is that they have no separate existence apart
from the individuals who take them as facts; in this sense they are social constructions.
Still, they are there Bobjectively^ as realities to explore by means of various methods.
) terminology, such institutional social facts are Bepistemologically
objective^ – that is, they are there for us to study and gain knowledge about – while at
the same time being Bontologically subjective^. Searle’s use of the term Bsubjective^,
however, is likely to mislead, and is not consistent with the present perspective where
the term Bsubjective^ is used specifically to refer to conscious experiences, which
belong to the second ontological dimension. A better formulation might be that social
constructions are ontologically intersubjective – that is, they require some degree of at
least implicit intersubjective Bagreement^ for their existence (cf.
arguments against the possibility of a private language).
In general, the social reality includes a large variety of social constructions which,
although they exist only by virtue of the fact that we treat them as real, affect our lives
in a number of different ways. A classical expression of this in sociology is the Thomas
theorem:^ If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences^
(Thomas and Thomas 1928)
Norms What is true of social facts in general is also true of norms, defined as beliefs of
what Bought^ to be. That is, although norms have no separate existence apart from the
individuals who take them as norms, they still are there as Bobjective^
socialconstructional realities to be explored by various methods. Norms can be more or less
specific to various social groups – from the family and other small-scale groups, over
scientific disciplines and religious groups, to entire societies and cultures. Norms may
refer to what is seen as acceptable or unacceptable conduct, but they may also refer to
ideals to strive for.
Categories All kinds of categorizations are social constructions, created by human
beings for the purpose of bringing some kind of order in the multiplicity of things that
exist. An important difference between categorizing human beings and categorizing
physical matter, however, is that the former type of categorizations can affect the
realities that they aim to describe in a way that the latter cannot.
describes this by referring to the former as interactive categories. To illustrate:
Classifying certain entities in physics as Bquarks^ does not affect the quarks. Classifying an
individual as a Bman^ or a Bwoman^, however, affects both the individual in question
and his or her environment. Assigning a medical or psychiatric diagnosis to an
individual similarly can affect the individual who is thus categorized in a number of
different ways. The question here is not whether the diagnosis is likely to lead to
stigmatization and other negative effects or rather to a new liberating self-understanding
(both positions have been argued for), but that the categorization itself somehow affects
those who are categorized in this way.
Although all categorizations are social constructions, this means that it is important to
differentiate interactive categories from other categories. Both kinds of categories are there
for us to explore the meaning of, by various methods – including conceptual analysis and
hermeneutical investigations. Interactive categories, however, have a special status in view
of their capacity of having social effects – it is primarily the interactive kind of categories
that have been made a critical focus by social constructionists.
Theories It is important to note that all scientific theories, even within the natural
sciences (including quantum physics, cellular biology, and the theory of evolution) are
social constructions, which have been created by researchers and acquired the status of
scientific theories by gaining intersubjective recognition in the scientific community. In
this capacity they can be made the object of study by researchers within the social
(e.g., sociologists and historians of science; e.g., Bloor 2005)
Techniques Techniques represent an important part of human culture. Different kinds
of techniques can be found in all areas of goal-directed human activity, including house
building, agriculture, industry, transport, medicine, communication, and psychotherapy.
Based on the
) writings on tacit knowledge, and
suggested the following general definition:
techniques are defined as (a) procedures designed to reach a certain goal as
efficiently as possible, which (b) exist in the form of orally, textually, and/or
practically transferrable knowledge, (c) that is made accessible to people by
various kinds of training, education, and apprenticeship. At the psychological
level this means that an individual may (d) become more or less skilled in such
techniques by training and experience, and (e) thereby also acquire specific
(Lundh 2017, p. 60)
According to this definition, techniques exist socio-culturally as Borally, textually,
and/or practically transferrable knowledge^ – that is, they represent
social-constructional realities, products of human creativity, which are available for new generations of
individuals to acquire. As this learning takes place, the individual acquires new
technical skills and ways of thinking (attitudes). This psychological learning process
spans over all three ontological dimensions: To learn a technique (which exists as social
constructions in the form of texts or other transferrable knowledge) is to develop
personal skills (which belong to the material dimension, as more or less automated
behaviors and information-processing routines) and attitudes (which belong to the
A Separate Dimension, Not a Level in the Material Dimension
Finally, it is important to differentiate between the social-constructional dimension and
the sociological level in Bunge’s emergent materialism, which he refers to as Bsocial
(Bunge 2010, p. 84)
and illustrates with sexual pairings, parenting, political
fights, and work conditions. All these examples belong to the material dimension, and
the same is true of such things as Bdemocracy^, Bsocial classes^, and Bmode of
production^ – they belong to a sociological level in the material dimension, and not
to the social-constructional dimension. In other words, sociology cannot be reduced to
a study of social constructions, but also includes studies of complex human interactions
that are describable in the material dimension.
The three-dimensional ontology that has been outlined in this paper is partly
similar to Perez-Alvarez’, but it also differs in several ways. There are differences
both in relation to philosophical materialism, and as to the place of psychology in
a three-dimensional ontology.
Whereas Perez-Alvarez’ version speaks about three Bgenres of materiality^, the present
version regards only the first dimension as material, and the other two as non-material.
Still, it is seems reasonable to combine the present three-dimensional ontology with a
cosmology where the material dimension is seen as the first dimension to develop (in
the Bbig bang^), whereas the two other dimensions are seen as later developments. The
subjective-experiential dimension may be assumed to develop in several steps during
biological evolution, in connection with the development of living organisms with
increasingly more complex sensory organs and nervous systems. As to the
socialconstructional dimension, it seems reasonable to assume that it appears later, in
connection with the development of language.
Although in this view only the first dimension is material, the other two dimensions
depend on the material dimension for their existence. In this sense, the present
threedimensional ontology might be referred to as a kind of developmental materialism.
The Place of Psychology within a Three-Dimensional Ontology
The main difference between the present model and that of Perez-Alvarez concerns the
place of psychology within this scheme. In Perez-Alvarez’ version, psychology is
identified with the second dimension, whereas in the present version psychology spans over all
three dimensions. That is, psychological science essentially involves not only the
subjective-experiential dimension, but also the material dimension (in the form of
situations, behaviors, brains, mental functions, information processing, etc.) and the
socialconstructional dimension (in the form of psychological concepts and theories which do not
only aspire to describe our psychological functioning, but also affects it in various ways).
Although almost all psychological research by necessity starts from some kind of problem
formulation where subjective-experiential realities play an essential role (either explicitly or
implicitly), most of present-day psychological research clearly emphasizes the material
dimension, and makes use of phenomenological data merely in a subordinate role. The need
to be more explicit about the phenomenological starting-point for psychological research is
sometimes expressed in the slogan BBack to phenomena^
(e.g., Magnusson 1992)
Here it may be a relevant question to ask if psychological research may benefit from
some kind of phenomenological training in the observation of experiences. Wundt and
other pioneers in nineteenth century experimental psychological research used research
participants who were trained in the introspective observation of their conscious
experience. Although this kind of methodology fell into disrepute during the twentieth
century, partly due to its basis in questionable philosophical assumptions, several
groups of researchers have recently argued for new and more refined ways of training
the observation of subjective experience.
Weger and Wagemann (2015)
, for example, advocate a rigorous form of introspection,
where the observations are described in such a detailed way that they should be possible to
replicate later (both by the same observer and other observers).
meditation can be used to train our attention to make it into a tool not only for increased
self-knowledge and personal development, but also for a deeper understanding of the mind
and its place in the world, as part of a Bcontemplative science^. And, probably most
important for the development of psychological science, Husserl’s phenomenology
involves the learning of a new phenomenological attitude focused on essential
characteristics of our subjective perspective. That is, unlike introspection, which is focused on an
individual’s particular experiences, Husserl’s phenomenology is focused on general
characteristics of our subjective perspective, which have an intersubjective status in view of the
fact that we all have such a subjective perspective on the world.
The attempts to develop an empirical phenomenological psychology based entirely
in the subjective-experiential dimension
(e.g., Giorgi 2009)
, however, is not likely to
succeed. In the present perspective, a mature psychological science should be able to
integrate phenomenology with both natural science (e.g., neuroscience, cognitive
science, behavioral science) and social constructionism. This would amount to an
integration of psychological science across the material, subjective-experiential and
One implication of this three-dimensional ontology is that a number of fundamental
questions of relevance to psychological science may be seen in a new light. For
example, although the subjective perspective belongs to the subjective-experiential
dimension and should not be reified as something in the material world, it is
nevertheless the case that human beings and other animals with subjective perspectives on the
world do exist in the world. We therefore need a theoretical framework that allows us to
describe the level of Bpsycho-systems^ (if Bunge’s term should be used) in a way that
does justice to this essential characteristic of our way of being in the world.
One possibility is that meaning, seen as a core aspect of human psychological
functioning, can serve as a bridging concept here. In the subjective-experiential dimension,
meaning can be approached in terms such as Bintentionality^
; in the social-constructional dimension it can be referred to in
terms of linguistic or semantic meaning, and in the material dimension it can be approached
in terms of theories of Bspreading activation^ in semantic networks
(e.g, Collins and Loftus
and meaningful aspects of the environment
(e.g., Baffordances^; Gibson 1979)
) theory of the human mind considered as a system of meaning structures
represents a theoretical attempt to locate the phenomenon of meaning equally firmly in the
subjective-experiential, the social-constructional, and the material dimensions.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.
Ethical Approval This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed
by the author.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a
link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
Lars-Gunnar Lundh is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Lund University, Sweden. His main interest is
philosophical, theoretical and conceptual issues in psychological science and in psychotherapy research. In his
doctoral thesis, he argued for a theory of the human mind considered as a system of meaning structures. He has
engaged in empirical research on deliberate self-harm, insomnia, anxiety, depression, aggression, emotional
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