Notes in Feb 2018

What is a Choice Category within Jens Mammen’s framework? In my understanding, a Choice Category is tied to two other concepts. On one hand, it is tied to the concept of identity and, on the other hand, it is tied to self-reference. You could think of identity and self-reference as two sides of the same coin. And that coin is the category of Choice (Mammen, 2016).

“… two people are perceiving one and the same object through the manifolds of appearances that each enjoys from his own perspective. Then, one of the persons draws the attention of the other (as well as his own) to the object as a whole, in its identity. He names the object and establishes a reference, for another as well as for himself. By using a name, he sets up the object as the subject, as the thing that is going to be articulated.” (Sokolowski, 2008, p. 59)

Here is an example. A student approached me after the class to let me know that I had misspelled her name. I apologized. We both smiled and said goodbye to each other. Why is our name important to us? Could it be because it signifies that we are subjects? Could it be that it signifies that we can be “predicated” in an infinite number of ways? As Jens Mammen (2016) might say, a name signifies the fact that a person belongs to an infinite number of sense categories and that, by implication, we are more than the sum of those categories.

Jean Piaget described two kinds of same-ness (von Glasersfeld, 1995). This red ball is the same as that other red ball. He called the first kind equivalence. Two objects are equivalent, in so far as they belong to a set of common sense categories, e.g., redness, roundness, solidity. There is another kind of sameness that underlies identity. This melted chocolate is the same as the solid chocolate I put into my pocket an hour ago. Identity indicates persistence through time. It indicates a Choice Category (Mammen, 2016).

It seems, furthermore, that appreciating identity rests on a subject’s ability to track things through time. I kept track of the chocolate I put in my pocket, and I am still the same subject. The melted chocolate has preserved its reference to me (or my pocket) even though it has transformed in other ways.


Mammen, J. (2016). Using a topological model in psychology: developing sense and choice categories. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science50(2), 196-233.

Sokolowski, R. (2008). Phenomenology of the human person. Cambridge University Press.

Von Glasersfeld, E. (1995). Radical constructivism. Routledge.

You Do not Stand Alone

Reflections on: Natsoulas, T. (2005). The Varieties of Religious Experience considered from the perspective of James’s account of the stream of consciousness. In R. D. Ellis & N. Newton (Eds.), Consciousness & Emotion: Agency, Conscious Choice, and Selective Perception (pp. 303-325). John Benjamins Publishing.

In a brief address, published in Psychological Review in 1943, E. L. Thorndike attempts to acknowledge the contributions of William James to psychology. On the  first page of the article, he claims that the contribution is restricted to the Principles of Psychology. Whatever was published after 1890, Thorndike claims, was either a reformulation of what was already contained in the Principles or a contribution to philosophy. He then points out the one exception: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

“Though treasured by all serious students of religion, this dealt with narrow problems of a specialized field. The influence of James on psychology means essentially the influence of the Principles of psychology.” (Thorndike, 1943, p.87)

This judgment is still with us as the dominant view of the contributions of James.

Before starting to discuss your work, let me begin on a more personal note. I’ve been reading “The Intellectual Life”, by Antonin Sertillanges (1920), after a friend recommended it to me. Among other things, I am taken by the conviction and confidence with which Sertillanges writes. When I shared this impression (mixed with a bit of envy) with my friend, he tried to explain to me some of the possible sources of this conviction. In addition to being a Dominican priest, Sertillanges stood within an immense intellectual tradition — with the central figure being Thomas Aquinas — who provided him with a collective narrative in addition to his own personal life history. Laying claim to that tradition was most likely a major source of conviction and confidence.

When you — reflecting on William James — refer to religious experiences, I think of the role of such collective cultural edifices to which Sertillanges had a clear and strong access. Or perhaps I should say edifices on which he relied and through which he navigated. I’m going to stay with this phrase “cultural edifice” because it opens up useful analogies. A physical edifice, such as the building in which I am at this moment, serves many functions. It can be a frame of reference — I am sitting in my office on the third floor of the building, next to several other Psychology offices. I know where I am, in relation to (and thanks to) the building coordinates. Further, the building is support — the floors under me prevent me from falling down and the ceiling above me protects me from the heavy rain. It can be structure and constraint — the walls prevent me and my colleagues from walking/looking into each others’ offices. Aren’t cultural edifices similar? Don’t they provide a frame of reference, support, structure, and constraint? A cultural edifice is, among other things, a system of propositions. A proposition affords belief, but it also affords support for further beliefs (by implications), similar to how the floor under me supports standing. I think this is in line with your Gibsonian reading of Varieties. What I became aware of while reading your paper is the inevitable consequences of such a cultural edifice in terms of sensory and affective experience, given that these are essential attributes of any experience. Even though those edifices themselves do not possess sensory and affective qualities, they provide support for experiencing such qualities.

While reading, I kept wondering: Should a psychologist sidestep the question of ontology when it comes to the topic of religion? Is it possible to sidestep the question? Categories of experience take their distinctions in part on the basis of our shared inter-subjective reality. Concepts such as paranoia and hallucination can help emphasize this point. And yet, we also cannot refute the sense/reference distinction (Frege). So perhaps religious experience is something we ought to explore in the sense of an experienced event, as opposed to the event itself (reference). Going back to my example of a physical edifice, perhaps it’s more important to discuss how I think of/use the building, how I actualize the potentials in the building (or the potentials that arise from myself and the building), rather than stressing the nature of the building itself.

I am unsure whether you wanted to completely sidestep the question of ontology. Perhaps, part of your intention (and James’s) is to point out that ontology may not be the only (or the most interesting) aspect of this topic.

Reflecting on your paper, Sertillanges, and cultural edifices made me think about my own motive behind building these signposts here. Since this is my first letter to you, let me elaborate on this point a little. I’m trying to discover (and claim) my tradition. A few days before leaving Toronto, I had coffee with one of my teachers and told him about my doubts about having a public and non-scholarly writing space. I said I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d be doing with it. I knew I had a goal, but the nature of the goal, or my perception of it, was fuzzy and unclear. He responded: You’ll be creating a space in which certain expressions are possible. If it wasn’t for this space, I would have never approached Fiona, Ray, or Jan. I wouldn’t have read and incorporated their works into my thinking. At the very outset of the book, Sertillanges says: You do not stand alone. Hasn’t this been one of the themes ever since I wrote that review of The Hidden Roots of Critical Psychology? The structure that I have been trying to create here is now supporting the writing of this letter to you.

In writing, I am attempting to enact the sentiment of not standing alone, as a message (meditation) for myself, to those I am writing about, and to those I am writing for. I’m trying to maintain a space in which certain expressions/experiences are possible, but I am far from being the sole source of those expressions. I attempt to point toward a set of possibility (if not a specific desirable future). Possibilities for psychologists (if not for Psychology) that are worth considering. Possibilities that are grounded in a tradition that I’m trying to better understand (and perhaps even claim as my own).

I use the word “maintain”, as in maintaining a habit, consciously. You pointed out James’s distinction between mystical and religious experiences which he made despite the similar qualities of the two kinds of experience. I believe the key to their distinction can be expressed in terms of habits. In other words, the difference between mystical and religious experiences is not in the ends but rather in the means. If the same end can be achieved both by means of inhaling nitrous oxide and by means of inheriting and maintaining a cultural edifice, the similarity of ends can only be in their sensory quality, rather than in their cognitive attributes or their meaning. I think of Raymond Bergner’s (1998) taxonomy of meaning (intrinsic, instrumental, & spiritual). For the drug user the “mystical” experience has intrinsic value, whereas for the religious person it has “spiritual” value. It stands — and acquires meaning — within an existing structure of propositions and practices. It stands, furthermore, within a community of individuals who share those propositions and practices (I think of the way Marx brought into focus the religious nature of participation in a capitalist system).

When I started reading your chapter, I expected to read a deconstruction of the religious/non-religious dichotomy of experiences. Now I don’t think that was your goal. But the deconstruction seems worth exploring, primarily because certain features run through both sides of the dichotomy: sensations and affects (qualia), about-ness (Brentano), concepts (Kant), conviction, presence/absence (Husserl), anticipation of what comes next (how what is currently absent might be disclosed after an action), sympathy (to see a hill/person is to recognize to possibility of being seen from the hill/by the person), etc. Such a deconstruction would not necessarily reduce the “spiritual” domain into the material reality, but would perhaps bring spirituality back to the everyday domain. More importantly, it might afford ways of discussing the topic that are open to both religious and non-religious people. The reason why I think you did not aim at such a deconstruction was your emphasis (based on James’s) on unique attributes of mystical/religious experience (pp.320-321). But I am not convinced whether these attributes — at least when taken individually — are uniquely religious.

Let me end this by saying that I enjoyed reading the chapter, not only because of your clear and stimulating writing, but because of the bridges to a great line of thinkers (James, Gibson, etc.). Those thinkers left behind a cultural edifice that is worth exploring, understanding, and preserving. It is, in part, by virtue of that edifice that we do not stand alone.

Interview with Raymond Bergner

Dr. Raymond Bergner is a Professor of Psychology in the Clinical and Counseling Psychology Program at Illinois State University. He received his PhD in 1973 from University of Colorado – Boulder, where he joined the movement known as ‘Descriptive Psychology’ (for an introduction to this framework, see Bergner, 2010). He has been a member of the Editorial Board of Advances in Descriptive Psychology (volumes 1-10) and the President of the Society for Descriptive Psychology (1984-2004). He has also been a psychotherapist since 1973. Dr. Bergner has published extensively, not only on clinical topics, but also on philosophy of science and conceptual questions that underlie psychology. His recent writing on the concepts of behaviour (Bergner, 2016), personhood and self (Bergner, in press) have a broad scope and an accessible style. I would highly recommend them, especially to students who are interested in philosophy of psychology.

Davood Gozli: Thank you for agreeing to this exchange, Professor Bergner. I’d like to begin by saying that I was very much struck by your 2016 paper in the Journal of Theoretical & Philosophical Psychology (“What is behavior?”).  I read it during my stay at Leiden University, very soon after its publication, and it was one of the articles that redirected my own work toward a theoretical-critical path.

Let me start by asking you about the role of philosophy in psychology. One of the oldest distinctions in philosophy is the distinction between appearance and reality (e.g., Plato’s allegory of the cave, atomism of Democritus, Kantian noumena-versus-phenomena, etc.). It seems that this distinction continues to play a role in psychology, in the sense that the first decision made, often implicitly, and the decision that has the most overarching impact on what a psychologist does subsequently, is whether he/she trusts the world as it appears. Would you agree that this question plays an important role in psychology? And where does Descriptive Psychology stand in relation to this question?

Raymond Bergner: Thank you, Davood, both for inviting me to this interview and for your kind words about my JTPP article.  Let me approach the elements of your question one at a time.

First of all, regarding the role of philosophy in psychology, there is so much to say but let me just say what for me are a few central things.  First of all, psychology has to be among the most careless (and uncaring) disciplines when it comes to conceptualizing their core subject matter.  Over and over you look at personality texts in which the authors tell you in the first chapter that they can’t tell you what personality is, and abnormal texts where they tell you they can’t define “mental disorder” or “abnormal”. And this is pandemic in the field.  Philosophy, and in particular conceptual analysis, has so much to offer but psychologists are both ignorant of this and disdainful of philosophy in general. Beyond this, and only in passing, philosophy can be so helpful in (a)  thinking logically about  empirical findings (e.g., if brain area X “lights up” when you think obsessive thoughts, what does this mean?); (b) questioning the efficient causality based “billiard ball” model present in so much experimental psychology; and (c) questioning the whole model of a person as, in the words of E.O. Wilson, a “marvelous robot…wired (neuronally) with awesome precision” (1988, p. 53).

Regarding the second part of the question, the matter of appearance vs. reality, the phenomenal world seems to me to be inescapably the world of psychology — that is, the world we act and feel in terms of.  I act on, not noumena or “things in themselves”, but on toasters and remarks and chocolate bars and jokes and red lights. I believe that most Descriptive Psychologists would share this view. 

DG: I cannot resist asking you about Peter Ossorio, the person who initiated the Descriptive Psychology movement during the mid-1960s. Could you tell us a little about him and his work? 

RB: Dr. Peter G. Ossorio was the creator and founder of the discipline of Descriptive Psychology, which he characterized as “a set of systematically related concepts designed to give formal access to all facts and possible facts concerning human behavior” (2013, p. xx). What DP primarily attempts to do is to provide the kind of precise, systematic, and comprehensive conceptual framework that is a pre-empirical requirement for the adequate conduct of psychological theorizing, research, and application. One might compare it to Newton’s creation of a new conceptual system, which was pre-empirical and necessarily preceded his formulation of empirical laws.

Ossorio joined the faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1961, where he taught psychology for over 30 years. He was renowned as a teacher and clinical supervisor and directed over 50 dissertations at the University.

His publications are extensive, and form the core conceptualization of Descriptive Psychology. It has given professionals around the world improved intellectual leverage to achieve advances in the fields of artificial intelligence, astronomy, business, computer science, education, psychology, spirituality, and elsewhere. He was invited to 18 US and foreign universities to share his discoveries and inventions. He also did cutting edge research through his various businesses, including the Linguistic Research Institute, Ellery Systems, and Global Commerce Systems.

Dr. Ossorio was born in Los Angeles on May 4, 1926 and died at his home in Boulder, Colorado, on April 24, 2007.

DG: Could you tell us a little more about your personal experience of working with Dr. Ossorio? 

RB: I had the opportunity to hear many presentations from Dr. Ossorio and to speak with him in person many times.  If there is one primary impression I derived from all of this, it was that I so often came away from these encounters with a sense of “I never thought about this topic this way, this way is so much better than what I have ever encountered in mainstream academic psychology”.

DG: A general question about the relationship between schools of thought in psychology and great thinkers. It’s often the case that a distinct school is associated with the perspective of a single individual. Is this something we have to accept about psychology? That a style of thinking is associated with a particular person (or a group of people). If so, do you think the thinkers’ biography plays a role in understanding his/her ideas?

RB: Yes, I agree that very often major schools of thought are associated with one primary founder or pioneer, but I do not see this as a problem in any way.  There is nothing in principle to prevent others from both using the framework in question and from building upon it (“on the shoulders of giants” as the saying goes). For myself, while an individual’s biography may often play a role, the most important thing for me is the ultimate product.  In the end, it is the quality of the Beethoven symphony, or of Einstein’s theory of relativity, or of Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” that is the important thing.

DG: Related to the perspective of psychologists, I previously encountered the idea that academic (scientific) and practicing (clinical) psychologists represent almost two different cultures of psychology (e.g., corresponding to two entirely different sets of problems). Given your expertise and experience in both, what is your view of this divide? And, do you see the divide as a failure of academic psychology?

RB: I do see two different cultures to a significant but not total degree.  One I would term the “science culture” that focuses on themselves as scientists and that views clinicians as individuals all too ready to draw conclusions on anecdotal evidence and too little concerned with empirical findings.  The other, the “clinical culture”, sees the science culture as hopelessly in the grips of a benighted model of persons as essentially determined organic robots, and as essentially unproductive of much in the way of useful new ways to enhance actual clinical practice.

DG: A question about your recent articles in JTPP. I sympathize with your position against the eliminative-reductive approach. You argue against the biological reductionism in your 2016 paper (“What is Behavior?”). And, in your most recent paper (“What is a Person?”), you contrast your point of view against, among others, the constructionist (which is another form of reductionism) view of the self. Nevertheless, one advantage of the reductive/eliminative approaches is their simplicity and elegance. Do you think the non-reductive method of description might result in conceptual redundancies, including multiple concepts that partially overlap, or concepts that could be derived form each other? Should this be a concern at all?

RB: Regarding eliminativist positions to begin with, to me they are nonstarters.  To make the claim that consciousness does not exist is akin to making claims such as that the world does not exist or that “I am not thinking the thought I am thinking.”  The old Chinese proverb, “If you want to know about water, don’t ask a fish”, comes to mind.  We are “swimming” in consciousness. 

Regarding other reductive positions, they may be simple, but I don’t see them as elegant. Essentially, if you can’t account for obvious evidence, you are inadequate.  You can get from the known properties of H2O to the known properties of water; this is what entitles you to make the reductive claim that water reduces to H2O.  You cannot get from the known properties of brain events qua brain events to the known properties of consciousness such as intentionality (their inherent “aboutness”), subjectivity (their experiential or “what it’s likeness” quality), and transparency. So you can scream reductionism all day long, but until you  can produce the goods, admit that you are just uttering what  at present must be considered at best a far-fetched IOU.

DG: Another possible concern regarding Descriptive Psychology is the relation between attributes (of, e.g., persons or behaviour). Outlining the set of attributes does not necessarily tell us about how the attributes might be related (or unrelated) to each other, both in a specific instance or in general. In this regard, do you consider experimentation as a complementary next step to description?

RB: No, the analysis is not of a sort that one would submit to empirical study.  To draw an analogy, doing such a study would be like a book keeper saying the following: “In the world of book keeping, to order and classify the phenomena, we need the concepts of “profit”, “loss”, “debt”, “accounts receivable”, and so forth; let’s do a study to see how these are related”.  We wouldn’t do this.  It’s a conceptual system.  We already know what distinctions these concepts are drawing and how they are conceptually related one to another. By way of a second analogy here, Newton would never have done a study to see if “forces” were capable of “accelerating” bodies.  Same for the Descriptive concepts.

DG: As a final question, I’d like to ask you about some of your recommendations (granted that these recommendations are always biased and selective), with regards to books, individual scholars, scholarly societies (for theoretical psychology), and journals.

RB: Well, I will stick pretty much here to the Descriptive world, which is what I know best.  To get a sense of Descriptive, my first recommendation would be the 2010 article cited below, “What is Descriptive Psychology?” It is designed to try to bridge to the DP point of view from a mainstream or just a commonsense point of view.  Beyond that, I would recommend the primary final book by Peter Ossorio, “The Behavior of Persons” (2006 hardback; 2013 paperback), and the works of DP authors such as Mary Roberts, Joel Jeffrey, Tony Putman, Wynn Schwartz, and Keith Davis.  Finally, going outside of DP, Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” (1953) is very helpful, as is work by philosophers such as John Shotter, P.M.S. Hacker, Rom Harre, and Stephen Toulmin.

DG: Thank you very much, Professor Bergner.


Bergner, R. (2010). What is descriptive psychology? An introduction. In K. Davis, F. Lubuguin, & W. Schwartz (Eds.), Advances in Descriptive Psychology, Vol. 9 (pp. 325–360). Ann Arbor, MI: Descriptive Psychology Press.

Bergner, R.M. (2016). What is behaviour? And why is it not reducible to biological states of affairs? Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 36, 41-55.

Bergner, R. (In press). What is a person?  What is the self? Formulations for a science of psychology.  Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology.

Ossorio, P.G. (2013).  The behavior of persons.  Ann Arbor, MI: Descriptive Psychology Press.