The Observance and the Breach: Rom Harré on Life and its Rules

Horace Romano Harré: a memorable name, the kind that sticks to the neurons. But it’s also that I saw it everywhere—nabbed for citations, wedged into bibliographies, calling out from book spines in obscure library corners. Reading philosophy is largely a lonely activity, yet simultaneously it’s also like being a ravenous gossip or diligent socialite, always alert to a significant surname, attentive to who’s around, who owes what to whom, who despises whom, what they believe, what they no longer believe, what their shortcomings are…

The first time I came across Rom Harré, as he’s more commonly known, was in philosophy of emotion, pegged to the pivotal book The Social Construction of Emotions. The gist of this edited collection is that emotions aren’t things we evolved biologically to have, like limbs or eyeballs. They are words and concepts we learn, tools we acquire to understand ourselves, to help us with living.

Next I saw the name in the adjacent literature of discursive psychology, a field that—to put it very crudely—treats mind not as a soft machine but as a text. Our way of talking about ourselves—in terms of faculties, beliefs, ideas, and wills—is really just that: a way of talking about ourselves that succeeds on those terms.

Then I found Rom Harré in the philosophy of science, a stalwart of realism: the idea (yes, it needs defending) that there is a material world out there that we can produce true knowledge about. But Rom’s scientific realism came with caveats, most importantly that the social world is not a world like this, that social objects are things that exist the way they do only because of the way we speak about them.

And then—irresistible to a political theorist like me—was his work in sociology, his denial of both mental events and social structures as causes. “Agency belongs to people”, he argues, “not their parts nor to those pseudo-entities of which they are parts, such as clubs, crews and societies.” A brain does not think. A neuron does not remember. A class does not hanker after some different state of affairs. It is persons that think, persons that remember, persons that hanker. Moreover, once such apparently pedantic quibbles have been “put right”, in Harré’s words, “genuine projects of human emancipation become possible… All we have to do is to show people that they are trapped in the silken but fragile shrouds of a pattern of discourse conventions. Yet how deeply they resist these demonstrations!”

This is hardly the start of it. A scan through recent publications—authored and co-authored—uncovers a polyphony of themes: “Mereologies as the Grammars of Chemical Discourses”, “The Siren Song of Substantivalism”, “Gender Positioning: A Sixteenth/Seventeenth Century Example”, “The Social Construction of Terrorism”,[i] “Narratives from Call Shop Users: Emotional Performance of Velocity”, “Psychology of Music: From Sound to Significance”, “What is Love?: Discourse About Emotions in Social Sciences”...

More intriguing still, Harré’s supervisor, as I came to discover, was J. L. Austin, the famously fussy Oxford philosopher whose idea of speech acts, of utterances as a kind of performance, was an important inspiration for the linguistic turn in European philosophy early last century. By taking this turn, philosophers came to see linguistic statements not simply as true-or-false representations of reality, but as a form of social action that can have diverse intentions and produce real-world effects. To make a promise, for example, or to consent to sex isn’t just to tell it how it is, but how it’s going to be. Likewise, a declaration of war can be—as PJ Harvey put it—the words that maketh murder.

Austin inspired post-structuralist philosophers like Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler to extend and radicalise his ideas about language and identity. Harré, meanwhile, stayed closer to the linguistic turn’s Oxbridge foundations in Austin and Ludwig Wittgenstein, using their ideas to illuminate scientific understanding and, eventually, the methods of social sciences too. Thus, like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Harré surreptitiously appears throughout the history of modern social understanding—the inventor of ethogenics, a pioneer of social constructionism, a navigator for positioning theory, a scolding godfather for critical realism—a humble yet ubiquitous figure who carried the torch for the linguistic revolution.

What’s more, when I finally googled him, my curiosity spilling online, I discovered that Horace Romano Harré, with that fabulous name, was from Apiti in the Manawatu. (It’s less of a surprise to discover, from there, that he’s uncle to Laila and Niki Harré.) Could this be the Manawatu’s own Michel Foucault, the post-structuralist philosopher with whom Harré shares unexpected affinities despite their obvious differences in style and temperament?

Born December 18th, 1927, Harré graduated from the University of New Zealand (now the University of Auckland) with a BSc in mathematics (1948) and an MA in Philosophy (1952). He taught mathematics at the University of Punjab in Lahore, Pakistan, from 1953–4, then read for a B.Phil at University College, Oxford, where he’s kept links ever since. , although not without various stints elsewhere including the University of Leicester, London School of Economics, George Mason University in Virginia, Aoyama University in Tokyo, Universidad Santiago de Compostella in Spain, Universidad Caetano in Peru, Free University in Brussels, and Aarhus University in Denmark. He still teaches and writes to this day, dividing his time between Georgetown University in Washington D.C. and Oxford.

And this is how it came to pass that, one late-summer’s day, in the midst of finishing up my own doctoral dissertation, I cycled down to Linacre College, the Oxford college he helped establish in 1962, for lunch and a chat.


On Beginnings

DH: I thought it would be helpful to start with the linguistic turn in philosophy. You came here—in the mid-1950s—at a pivotal point. Elizabeth Anscombe was publishing her translation of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. And J. L. Austin published How To Do Things with Words at roughly the same time as he supervised your B.Phil. So I’d like to hear you say something about what the linguistic turn was trying to achieve in relation to what came before.

RH: The first thing to say is that the linguistic turn came out of a long running discussion about what analytic philosophy ought to be doing.

One strand came from Bertrand Russell and ultimately from [German logician Gottlob] Frege: the idea that philosophical problems could be solved by translating the ordinary language in which they were expressed into logical symbolism. It was thought that this would give you a clear structure, that you would see where a mistake of translation led to. The famous example is the theory of descriptions, where Russell tries to show that statements which are about non-existent things can be true or false.

The other strand started with Wittgenstein who repudiated his own adoption of [logical positivism] in the Tractatus.[ii] He realised that really deep-seated, endlessly repeated philosophical problems came from misunderstandings about ordinary language. And this wasn’t just the ordinary language of everyday life; it was the ordinary language of physics and chemistry as well.

Misunderstanding the grammar of these languages would generate philosophical problems. So you had to reveal the grammar of the ordinary language, compare that [grammar] with the grammar of your philosophical analysis, and you would see that they didn’t mesh. Since the ordinary language was the one that you were using to construct life, or your cyclotron, that must be the correct working language— because it works.

The battle goes on until this day. A lot of American philosophers still love to do this logical analysis stuff. In philosophy of science, it’s still quite prominent. Then there are the people like myself who think this is a complete waste of time because it simply bypasses the really interesting and serious problems, and leaves everything as it is. That’s the core of the story.

DH: I'm also trying to get a sense of the culture of the time. Was there a sense, then, that the linguistic turn would have as far reaching implications as it has for social explanation?

RH: Oh, yes. When I came [to Oxford] in 1954 it was a hotbed of activity. It was amazing, really, what was going on.

It wasn’t just Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein became known in Oxford, but all this stuff started just after the Second World War. Gradually a lot of very smart people accumulated here. There were 110 philosophers at one time; each college had two or three.

[Oxford philosopher Gilbert] Ryle was influenced by Wittgenstein, but he was a bit disingenuous about this. So far as I know he used to go for walking trips with Wittgenstein, so a lot of the stuff in those famous writings of Ryle’s—the famous “concept of mind” and “systematic misleading expressions”—comes from Wittgenstein, I think. But [J. L.] Austin was entirely sui generis; he thought it all up by himself. And he was saying much the same sort of thing.

The optimism was that if we perceived this honestly and rigorously, then this was the end of academic philosophy in the old traditional sense. You could tackle problems and show that they had a finite solution. They weren’t going on endlessly, not for Russell’s reason, but for the reason that there was a language which was pragmatically successful. That’s what we had to focus on.

DH: You came from more of a science background, didn't you?

RH: I started in chemical engineering [in New Zealand]. I was doing mathematics and chemical engineering in parallel—mad!—and I ran out of money. The chemical engineering course was an extra two years, so I had a mathematics degree and got a job as a mathematician.

My B.Phil [at Oxford] was on a mathematical topic. Only gradually did I become fascinated by the linguistic side of things. Because I was a trained mathematician, the logical analysis stuff held a certain initial attraction—I did a lot of work on modal logic, published papers, and so on—until gradually I began to see that this wasn’t getting me or anybody else anywhere. So I abandoned it and came to the other side.

DH: Similar to Wittgenstein’s personal transformation.

RH: Exactly. And he was a clarinetist as well.

DH: I heard somewhere that J. L. Austin used to run seminars with tea and crumpets?

RH: Well, he didn’t have tea and crumpets, but he had something rather spiritually similar. He would wander in carrying the three volumes of [the American pragmatist] C. S. Pierce’s collected works, he’d put them down on the table, he’d flip the page over and he'd look at it, and an expression of astonishment would come over his face. He’d read out a bit and then we’d all get to work on it. It was quite by random chance.

I also remember Austin coming in at the beginning of his Sense and Sensibilia lectures, and he had this book with him. He looked around, with his narrow smile, and held the book up like he would hold a dead rat, and said, “This is a work by Professor Ayer [another logical positivist]. I don’t propose to refute it, I shall shred it.”

DH: Ouch!

RH: That was style, it really was style

DH: I'm curious as well about your New Zealand connection, because we entertain this self-image as a rather pragmatic people, and I wondered whether this helped you to see things in a particular way.

RH: That’s an interesting question I’ve never asked myself. Maybe the existence of the Māori culture. I did actually do Māori at university. I got an A for it but I’ve forgotten it now. It’s very hard to say, the complex lines of influence on one’s life…

DH: When I moved to this part of the world, I found myself having conversations about language more than ever before. If I’m in Germany, for instance, I find myself constantly talking about how the German language works. If I’m in France, the same. It becomes a constant source of conversation and it occurred to me, at one point, it’s no wonder that the philosophy here is so fixated on the contingencies of language. It’s a regional obsession, itself a contingent philosophical concern.

RH: Yes, the very moment you set foot in Europe, you’re confronted by it. I did French at school, because my family is, ultimately, French. I struggled through Latin, but I passed it. But, in the European context, I got more and more interested in all this language around us, this cultural difference.

I teach in Spanish in South America and I’ve written a book in Spanish, so Spanish became very much a part of my life. I began to realise that the Spanish conception of what is right and proper—the Spanish ideas about social relations—are quite distinct from the English ones, and even more so than the New Zealand ones. This is all, somehow or rather, incorporated into linguistic choices.

I don’t believe in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its very strong form: I don’t think language determines thought. But it certainly exerts a gentle pressure on it to go in a certain way. If you are brought up learning in Spanish celoso (jealous), it applies almost exclusively to sexual matters. If it’s about cars, though, you have a different word. So the Spanish language is making easy a distinction which you have to work on more exactly if you’re trying to enter into that culture from outside.

On the Rules of Life

DH: So your work emphasises the role of rules in social explanation?

RH: Yes: if you want to understand how a social situation evolves or how a social institution operates, then it’s no good looking for causes. Because it isn’t entirely clear what you’d be looking for if you were looking for causes.

Nevertheless, you can see that people live in a world dominated by the norms that they and other people presume to operate a particular situation. The idea, then, is to look for something you can call “rules”—which, of course, is a metaphor because people are not actually following rules unless they are foreigners being told how to behave. Most of the time, Wittgenstein's notion of a “hinge” is probably the best notion to have: a deeply buried presumption about how to act. When I wrote that book, Social Being, I hadn’t fully understood what Wittgenstein was getting at—but I do now.

So C. Gordon and I [the sociologist Chad Gordon], as well as others with our way of thinking, we would ask ourselves: What set of rules, if they were deliberately followed by people, would result in a social situation, or social institution, working a certain way? Then we would say that this is an overt expression of a tacit body of knowledge which everybody who is in that situation has acquired in a Vygotskian way—that is, by growing up in a family, in a school, in a certain milieu.[iii] So it is not so much that people are deliberately rule-following, but that “rule” is the best metaphor, because it contains the idea of a normative structure. Of course, rules have their boundaries. The rules of hockey are different from the rules of basketball, say, but each constitutes a game. Thus we are back to Wittgenstein, his “language games”, the same idea.

So, “rule” became a very powerful idea for organising what one has found out about the body of knowledge that a certain group of people are managing seamlessly without trouble.

DH:It’s interesting that you say that rule is the best “metaphor” because I guess one objection people might make is that rule is just another hypothetico-deductive symbol that’s being used to explain people’s behaviour, another attempt to locate causation. But you’ve already obviated that line of critique by insisting that rule is a metaphor, not pure description.

RH: I think you need an intermediate concept which C. Gordon and I tried to develop that is habit. So “rule” is the most formal way of expressing the idea of a taken-for-granted social norm. The best psychological version of that is habitual behaviour. This is exactly what Wittgenstein talked about as acting within a framework of “hinges”: these are habits.

So, how do you inculcate a habit? Quite often it’s simply by Vygotskian means of copying each other, but sometimes you have to instruct someone. [For example] I meet an American and they say, “I'm going to go to England in the summer.” So I say, “One important thing to remember drive on the left.” I've given an instruction, a rule, and it’s going to become habitual. When I first started driving on the other side of the [English] Channel, the first two or three years I was always having to tell myself the rule. Now it’s completely habitual; I drive on the right-hand side of the road without a single thought. So this is transitionary. “Rule” has a part to play, but the operative notion is social or habit, teaching someone how to use a saw, how to play the piano.

DH: This is related to the distinction that Wittgenstein made between following a rule and acting in accordance to a rule.

RH: Yes, exactly. Following a rule is the initial business when someone tells you what to do. As for acting in accordance with the rule, a person may have acquired that habit entirely by imitation, but, if required to, they might nevertheless be able to formulate it as a rule.

We were a bit careless when [Paul] Secord and I first put this forward [in The Explanation of Social Behaviour, 1972]. We didn’t make these sorts of distinctions. In a way, we thought they were obvious—but they never are obvious. Of course, discovering [Lev] Vygotsky was a really big excitement as far as I was concerned. Here was someone who was doing all this with such elegance in the 1930s. All my students have to study Vygotsky.

RH: Another worry is that by turning to rules you turn to another form of determinism, a kind of social determinism. So I wonder how closely related you think rules and action are?

“Rule” is a term of art. I think habits and actions are closely related. But rules are how someone looking in from the outside, either as a teacher or researcher, is going to express what they have realised about norms. It is certainly not the point that “rule” is the explanatory content, any more than F = Gm1m2/r² explains why something drops according to that. That’s a description of the pattern. The explanation is the gravitational force.

This is a very important point. Writing down a rule is not the same as writing down the cause for how this happened. So people who think that’s what we said, they’ve just got it wrong. Partly the excuse is we didn’t make it crystalline clear in Secord’s and my book that started all this off.

RH: Because sometimes an explanation for an action might be that the agent failed to act in accordance to a certain rule, so that would be how the rule and action relate to one another—in a paradoxical relation.

Exactly! It might be anything from an earthquake to the flu: What you do in an earthquake is partly motivated by the hot rocks rolling down the hill, and partly by your conception of what bravery is.

RH: At the moment, in cultural theory especially, there is this “turn to affect”, an attempt to differentiate a domain of affective phenomena as pre-linguistic, pre-personal feeling. I was wondering if you have any thoughts about this, especially how it relates to your more constructionist notion of emotion as essentially social.

Yes, I’ve come to a fairly settled conclusion on [emotion]. There is no doubt that ethologists have identified four or five fundamental reactions that the human being, as an organism, has in relation to the situations it finds itself in. Even babies exhibit this: if you put a baby on a glass floor, the baby gets upset by [what it perceives as a] cliff.

But when you see the way emotional lives are led by people—what upsets them, what pleases them, how they react with other people, and so on—then you begin to see that there is a very powerful set of cultural paradigms which are involved in it. And part of that, of course, is copying, but part of it is learning the language, learning the words.

So, if you are learning the word “anger”, you’re learning the criteria to pick out somebody who is angry, so you can then use the word to properly characterise it. Ira in Spanish and anger in English don't mean quite the same thing. You have to learn different criteria, so if you’re a Spaniard learning ira or if you’re an English kid learning anger, then you are picking up on different things. Come to the Japanese, of course, and the difference is enormous.

Also, Catherine Lutz’s wonderful book on the Ifaluk [Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and Their Challenge to Western Theory, 1988]. There are things the Ifaluk vocabulary teaches you how to identify—such as song which is “justified anger”—that we don’t quite have exactly. Or the old story about schadenfreude among the Germans. Sometimes we have to borrow a word because we have that phenomenon.

DH: Yes, I learned another one in Singapore recently, kiasu, which translates roughly as “afraid of missing out”, this gnawing hunger to always be at the front of the line. It forced me to think about that line of yours: “Nothing exists in the mind that doesn't already exist in the conversation”. Because even though Singaporeans seem to regard kiasu as distinctively Singaporean, it seemed at least familiar to me, having spent time living in a consumerist culture.

So let me put this another way… It is possible to take social constructionism to imply a kind of rephrasing of Cartesian dualism, where it’s the word and the body that are somehow disconnected, rather than mind/body dualism. Yet isn’t it plausible for certain physical responses, such as primitive affective reactions or hungers or desires, to anchor language in some way, to restrain the conceptual possibilities?

RH: One thing that ought to be emphasised is that, when you become dissatisfied with a dichotomy, you usually become dissatisfied with one half of it. If you become dissatisfied with Cartesianism, you become dissatisfied with the idea of mind as a substance. If you chuck that out, then you’re left now with body as a substance. But Wittgenstein's message is, “Look, you should abandon the whole dichotomy and study another dichotomy.” What about living and dead, what about conscious and unconscious, what about person and rock.

So person becomes the key concept. And persons are embodied centres of cultures, skilled in all kinds of things—in making soufflés and in speaking Vietnamese. So it’s just a mistake to start tearing a person up into little bits and try to assign one skill to one bit of the person, another to another bit of the person. [Gilbert] Ryle used to love talking about Stanley Matthews, a great English footballer, and his “clever feet”. How can that be? Because Stanley is a person we’re talking about.

DH: This is the mereological fallacy, the fallacy of confusing the part with the whole, especially by misattributing some competence to the part that only truly belongs to the whole

RH: Exactly. It all fits with this point of view: Don’t divide people up into minds and bodies. They’re persons.

DH: These days, of course, there’s ever greater scope for making the mereological fallacy because of developments in neuroscience, especially the invention of fMRI scans. Distinctions can be drawn at ever more sophisticated levels, so that different parts of the brain can be [fallaciously] assigned responsibility for the various activities of the mind.

RH: I think there is a way of dealing with that. If you're thinking of persons as the ultimate metaphysical unit, then the bodies of persons and their brains are devices which the person uses for accomplishing the task set to them by the culture. So, the pre-frontal lobes do this, that, and the other thing.

I’ve been arguing with Peter Hacker [one of Wittgenstein’s best-known interpreters in the analytic vein] about this in a gentlemanly way. We had a couple of pieces in Journal of Philosophy. I think there is nothing wrong with the idea of the brain and hands as tools for tasks.

Yes, I discussed this with Peter at one point [in his seminar at St John’s College, Oxford]. He was very much against the idea of using “brain talk” in a metaphorical sense because, as he put it, it didn’t recommend itself as a method. Yet there is a tradition that comes through people like Hans Vaihinger (fictionalism), Bas van Fraassen (constructive empiricism), or the pragmatists who accept that metaphors can or must be used in science, just that one should be conscious about it being a metaphor. [In other words, when we say “our brain thinks” or “our hippocampus remembers”, we make the mereological fallacy and therefore speak conceptual nonsense; however, such phrases might nevertheless succeed in communicating something useful that other phrases don’t.]

Exactly. You have to work with this metaphor carefully, to see that it doesn’t run off into some unacceptable moves. But, by and large, it does work quite nicely. Persons are the unit and if we’re thinking about what persons do, what persons accomplish, what the characters of the person are, then we don’t need to be afraid of falling back into Cartesianism again. If we want to know how the hippocampus works, we can get on with it.

I’m not going to give into Peter by any means. But he’s such a nice guy, a really nice guy…

On Changing the Rules

DH: In regards to social transformation, it follows from the social constructionist point of view that reforming the language, reforming the rules, is where our attention should be focused. As you’ve written before, “All we have to do is show people that they are trapped in the silken shrouds of a pattern of discourse conventions, yet how deeply they resist these demonstrations.” Why do they resist these demonstrations, these emancipatory attempts to change language and discourse?

RH: Well, I think the answer is, at once, banal and deep.

Once people have acquired a certain way of going on, it’s very, very uncomfortable to start shifting. A simple example is metrication. I don’t know how long ago we officially adopted metrication [Ed’s note: the Confederation of British Industry formally endorsed the metric system in 1965], yet all over the place there are still inches, pounds, and so on. I remember in France after they adopted the “heavy franc” [in 1960], everybody would still talk about 10 francs as a meal, yet they meant 50 francs. So, there’s this resistance of people. So much of life is habitual, even though we know it’s conventional.

That’s the banal explanation, but underlying it is something quite deep. It’s this Wittgensteinian “hinges” idea, where most of the time we never explicitly formulate the tacit conventions by which we live. [Danièle] Moyal-Sharrock has a nice way of expressing it: for every hinge that underlies a tacit practice, there is a “propositional doppelgänger” and that is what you very rarely ever formulate. You can’t address the tacit underlying of the practice unless you can formulate its doppelgänger—then you’ve got your proposition.

To give an example: I watch people in the street. When I was in New Zealand recently [Harré was awarded an honorary doctorate from Massey University in 2012], I was astonished to see people walked on the left-hand side of the pavement. Come back here [to the UK] and people walk all over the place. Yet I bet if I were to say to someone in New Zealand, “What side of the pavement do you walk on?”, they would be completely baffled. Yet I could say, “As a matter of fact, you all walk on the left-hand side.” That’s a propositional doppelgänger of this practice.

Another example: We shake hands right-handed. It never occurs to us that there might be something strange about it, something artificial or conventional. Also, I remember when we began differentiating between a man meeting a woman and a man meeting a man. Now, in England, a man meeting a woman is always a French double kiss. Americans are picking it up too. They aren’t getting it quite right—every now and then an American gets it all wrong and gives you the full smack on the lips! But all this illustrates the fact that, in general, we don’t formulate in a propositional form—in a way that can be addressed linguistically—what it is we’re doing.

So that’s the deep reason why it’s very hard to bring about [social change]. Interestingly, when Ali [Moghaddam] and I wrote about what remains after a revolution [in “Psychological Limitations to Political Revolutions: An Application of Social Reducton Theory”, 1996], I didn’t see clearly the link with “hinges” and hinge propositions. I’d write it somewhat differently now, but it’s the same point.[iv]

At this point, of course, the political theorist often wants to turn to “class” or some thing by way of explanation...

I’m not adverse to that provided we say: “How is this worked out? What is this in the realities of conversational practices amongst a group of people?” It seems to me what happened in the nineteenth century in the Industrial Revolution was a whole new way of talking about life, quite different from the way the aristocrats and their peasants talked.

There is a very interesting article [see Tony Collins, Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History, 2013] about why there was no revolution in England when the French Revolution was on. And the answer was cricket. You couldn’t have a village cricket team that consisted entirely of the landowners; you had to have some “oiks” as well. Traditionally, the blacksmith would be the fast bowler. If you’re going to have cricket, you couldn’t have revolution. I can’t remember who wrote it, but I thought it was very shrewd. No doubt there’s a million other reasons why there wasn’t [a revolution], but there was one little pointer to all these unformulated norms in a social practice.

On the Academy

DH: A lot of people orientate themselves in philosophy—or, more commonly, situate others—by reference to the continental/analytical divide. One of the things I find interesting about your work is that it resonates with ideas on either side of that divide. Your understanding of poverty, for instance, resonates far more with the performative, post-structuralist conceptions of Foucault or Butler than with the rationalist conceptions of agency that we might expect from the Oxford analytic tradition. It’s really an illustration of why the continental/analytical divide is so forced, so distracting. Bernard Williams had a pretty good line on this: “This classification always involved a quite bizarre conflation of the methodological and the topographical, as though one classified cars into front-wheel drive and Japanese.”

The other problem is that, by sweeping certain ideas over to the “continental” side of the divide, a whole range of important insights are dismissed as irrelevant to those who remain on the “analytic” side, even though some of those insights emerged from within analytic philosophy in response to its own shortcomings. It seems that blinkered attitude has migrated into psychology, especially North American psychology, which has this strongly positivist, rationalist, scientific self-image. It lets them off the hook; it allows them to push on as if none of this had really happened.

RH: Yes, it was very unfortunate that when social psychology began to develop—a little bit in the 1930s but mostly in the 1950s—that, even though the philosophical establishment had abandoned positivism, it was still the visible thing in philosophy of science. Yet they were ten years behind the times. People like Mary Hesse, Mario Bunge, and myself advocated models as the basic cognitive device by which scientists work, not logical inferences. Still, these psychologists thought that, in order to be scientific, they had to follow this resilient pattern. Consequently, of course, they got stuck in it. “How do you make all those words?” they would say. “Probability. Statistics.” It’s a total disaster.

So, they made a bad choice and it was very difficult to get out of. In America, everything became routinised very quickly. You had to do A, B, C, and D to get your PhD, to get your tenured post, and so on. The best way [to succeed] is to copy the work of the person who is one step ahead of you. The whole thing became completely institutionalised and still is to some extent.

The APA [the American Psychological Association] has began to change its mind a bit. Some of us have been selected for a “living legends” seminar in August [2014]. Here we are, an aging bunch, holding views far in advance of the mainstream. So let’s hope that it’s going to be populated by mainstream people who say, “Ah yes! Now I see!” Fat chance of that, I think.

DH: Do you think the departmentalisation of modern universities has anything to do with this? You’re often described as a polymath, as someone who’s competent in a range of disciplines: philosophy, psychology, social science. But it could also be said that you study just one topic—social explanation—and that it’s the academy that has splintered around you, drawing boundaries through what should be a unified subject area.

RH: American universities are particularly prone to departmentalisation. If you went to somewhere like Wisconsin, where I worked for a while, absolutely rigid. Nobody from A visited B, let alone listened to what someone from B had to say. Georgetown is very atypical in this. We have strong relations with the linguistics people. Deborah Tannen is a very close friend of mine, a very famous person in the linguistic world. She gives talks on our side and I give talks on her side—and so it goes. But it’s very unusual.

The problem is, once psychologists got stuck into their paradigm and they were getting PhDs, getting jobs, paying the mortgage, et cetera, it’s very difficult to tell them to look over the fence to see that other people in other departments are tackling problems that they’re also interested in—and tackling them in a much more effective fashion. In fact, it’s not that they don’t want to see this, they can’t see it, because the situation is so structured that they can’t move across disciplines. Even interdisciplinary projects involve a kind of summation, but not subsumption, of discipline.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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