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.

References:

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.