Go to Detailed Contents or return to Overview


One of the greatest enigmas of life causes questions like, "What is real and what mere appearance?', 'To what extent does my mind colour or even distort things?' or 'Can the human mind know the truth about life and the cosmos, or only what is subjective and relative?'. Put in this way these questions are philosophical, but they also arise in many ways in all kinds of daily life and human interaction where we need to distinguish fact from fantasy. The question of perception or how the mind forms impressions and ideas about the world of nature, of others and of the self is very important for the process of understanding.


A huge amount has been written, chiefly since Francis Bacon's time, about the constant need for observable proof of ideas. Unfounded theological superstitions, metaphysical extravagances, theories of all and everything and preposterous fancies do not serve the truth. In all this, and due to the success of science through technology and also latterly as a pseudo-religion, too many thinkers have overlooked the obvious datum that not all observables are external to the human mind. Our five major senses inform us about the appearances of the 'outside world' or the sensations, pains and pleasures of the body... but they do not give us access to all that we can 'observe' about ourselves or even about reality at large. It is well-known how even trained observers can be victims of misperception and malobservation of many varieties. Further, the results of physics and astronomy today should suffice to destroy any illusion that our senses do deceive us in so far as they certainly do not reveal anything directly to us the nature of reality at the micro-physical, micro-biological or macro-astronomical levels... just for a start.

The empirical methods of natural science, all variants of the general hypothetical deductive method, always have sensory observation as their first and last step and criterion of validity. This is to help test the objectivity of a hypothesis, of course. The subject has been so thoroughly dealt with in countless works on scientific theory and method that, having noted its crucial importance, it can be put aside for now.

The classical scientific idea of objectivity is wholly inadequate as a standard of truth, for it is fixated on the world of objects and, in this 'naive fixation', overlooks the world of subjects. The seer is excluded at the expense of what is seen. Any standard of truth must also allow for the subjective and inter-personal realms, which are certainly as real as matter or strings appear and, moreover, are vastly more important to the major concerns of humankind.

The classic problem of knowledge is the relation between subject and object, which can also be regarded as the 'reception-projection dilemma'. Minds can be compared both to a receiving apparati like radios or film cameras and to reproducing apparati like the playback-tape or the film projector. The dilemma is whether the mind can or does function simultaneously as both these types. In brief, 'does the mind perceive what it itself projects?' There are a variety of general possibilities that relate to this question, such as:-

1) The mind under normal conditions perceives always only what is 'given' objectively from something other than itself. (Often called naturalism or 'naive realism').

2) The mind perceives what it is given objectively, but always and only with the aid of its own 'subjective' forms or 'projections', most often as personal and/or social interpretations (Sometimes called interactionism or constructivism).

3) The mind creates all that it perceives or conceives, some representations at the relatively conscious conceptual-perceptual level others either subconsciously or 'supraconsciously'. (Sometimes termed solipsism, sometimes ontological idealism, sometimes 'mentalism').

4) The mind very largely selects and rejects data (whether consciously or habitually) according to an acquired mindset and/or depending on the environmental setting. (Sometimes called 'gestaltism', a kind of perceptual relativism).

5) The mind perceives always and only 'phenomena', meaning 'whatever representations appear to consciousness'. The phenomena are recognised to be more or less of either subjective or objective origin. (Called phenomenalism or phenomenology).


The fifth point above is an adequate standpoint from which to discuss objectivity for our present purpose because it indicates a method of investigation, while not being a meta-scientific or other doctrine. The father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, derived this methodological prescription on the way in which successful understanding of the world and ourselves is naturally carried out, prior to intellectual theorising. He saw phenomenology as a 'stricter form of empiricism' than that of science's artificially limiting or theoretical approach to reality.

Unfortunately, the literature on phenomenology is generally so full of philosophical jargon and doctrinal complexity as to make it daunting to most, not least to scientists. Yet there is a great simplicity and directness about the basics of phenomenological method, once understood. What it teaches is actually the means by which all human understanding develops when in a pristine state, that is, before it has been overlaid by false ideas such as irrelevant assumptions, superstitions, learning, prejudices, theories and so forth. A method is necessary largely to penetrate distortions due to the 'mental overlay'; inherited perceptions and ideas of most things, which we began to imbibe from our earliest years and onwards. The doctrines of science, as well as religion, often form a large part of any modern person's world-view, thus largely pre-structuring our perception of whatever we encounter.

Phenomenology starts from the insight that physical objects or events are not the only possible 'objects' of perception and knowledge. The human subject is the conscious witness of 'inner objects' (ideas, emotions, intuitions etc. etc.), including all the mental and ideal phenomena attached to selfhood or identity. The human subject is precisely not an object, though the human body it inhabits and uses obviously is. Neither consciousness nor its internal 'objects' in memory, inward sensation or imagination are material or measurable entities and are not available (to others than oneself, inwardly) in any direct form or objective observation. Even those in the forefront of neurological research are coming to realise that the brain is most likely as much an instrument of consciousness as its sole generator. All attempts to 'explain' consciousness in terms of physical events of whatever sort have proven futile and will doubtless continue to do so.

We observe ourselves chiefly through self-reflection. We can and do more or less awarely witness our feelings, thoughts, dreams, imaginings and hopes etc. This is a form of observation too, and most important to almost everything we do in life. This self-observation is the basis of our understanding of others and is where we find the motivation to conceive, plan and act in the world. It is thus more fundamental in some vital sense even than sense perception, as will be discussed later.

The most primary method of observational description, which underlies all knowledge, is called phenomenology. It is mainly a philosophical method developed to be as inclusive of all kinds of phenomena, whether physical, social, mental or emotional - including in each their manner both real and imaginary phenomena.


By the term 'phenomenon' is here meant 'whatever objects of attention appear to witnessing consciousness'. It does not claim to be a study of what has objective existence, but of exactly what appears to the mind or consciousness, whatever it may be. An 'object of consciousness' can therefore equally well be an idea, a perceived material object or an emotion. It includes any sort of datum, whether a sensory impression of a physical effect or any kind of mental representation or conception whatever. Though Husserl's phenomenological method started from the assumptions that 'appearance are reality' and 'consciousness is always intentional and thus must have an object', these need not be taken as universal truths. They are however invaluable as starting points for the method which studies phenomena as they appear and for what they appear to be. This means apprehending whatever one investigated without making conscious interpretations or judgements beforehand. This phenomenological method can be summarised in a principle of objectivity of subject matter as follows:

"Whatever 'objects' of investigation may be involved, this can only be understood through applying initially and from the outset to its inherent nature, rather than to what it may already represent to the investigator."

This principle expresses the basic assumption of all science, the need for objectivity, but in such a way that does not delimit this to sense perception or the physicalism. Nor does it limit investigation this to any particular formal standard of truth.

This standpoint counteracts the tendency to malperceive, misobserve, judge in advance or distort observation through advance ideas, 'fore-knowledge' obtained from hearsay, books and other secondary sources. The phenomena themselves means perceived as free from prejudices from traditional beliefs, speculations and theories. Phenomenology also makes a point of observing not simply a thing or a mental presentation itself, but also the manner of it appearance, to whom and in which (physical, social, mental or emotional) environment it occurs, under what precise circumstances it arose, which expectations preceeded its appearance and which aims or purposes were guiding the observer at the given time and place.

In short, all the objective and subjective concomitants are noted and described in the attempt mentally to subtract them when 'cleansing' percepts of the phenomenon of anything not intrinsic to them. Any kind of meaning that arises during observation is simply recorded for what it is, without reasoning or speculative interpretation - whether the meaningful aspect is experienced as seemingly subjective or objective. One can see that this is a form of strict empiricism, yet one which does not tie itself only to assumptions of materiality or of objective existants. This suspension of preconceived beliefs about the 'real' or 'irreal' nature of phenomena is known in phenomenological method as 'bracketing' (putting ones accompanying judgements in mental brackets or suspending judgement). This ensures a fuller description and a much more whole type of observation than any narrow and artificially-contrived experimental type. It observes wider given conditions or 'conditioning parameters' per se, also such as those within which an experiment might be contrived.

To illustrate by a simple example, consider a study of nest-flying habits of various species of bird. In observing the bird, whether in nature or in an experimental aviary, one may describe the 'object' objectively by giving the observed behaviour, its time place and suchlike measurable data. But if the observers' behaviour, experiences and initial ideas and purposes are overlooked, however, it is very likely that possible reactions to humans by the birds involved that may have altered the results and conclusions considerably will be overlooked. This means that the human purpose or general meaning of the operation is itself recorded.

Even hidden observers bring their own preconceptions with them which will affect the entire manner of observation, the interpretation of what one actually sees and hears. A movement by a bird cannot be described alone by sheer physics and chemistry etc., it must be interpreted by the observer (pecking, warning, showing anxiety, taking fright etc.) and the interpretation is often so much one's second-nature that it is not questioned or even noted. Here is a great source of potential error, as thousands of experiments in science also have shown when such minutia were not considered in the original faulty experiments.

Neither the scientists' total previous experiences of birds and other animals, the type of view of nature and general type of philosophy towards which he leans, cannot be excluded in principle from the outset. This applies all the more so in the various sciences which study human behaviour. These factors will have conditioned the entire undertaking, as will the various purposes underlying the whole enterprise also necessarily do. All the 'extra-scientific' conditions can later prove to be significant both to the validity and the meaning of research conclusions.

Phenomenological method therefore strives not to omit the facts-as-perceived and as-conceived, and thus not to overlook the selective and formative influence of the observing intelligence. The 'givens' (data) must be backed up by and analysed on the basis of the mind-selected and thought-filtered or 'taken' aspects (capta) of phenomena. Therefore, phenomenological method directs attention not only at the presumed 'objective world' of the things themselves and they appear to the everyday or natural attitude, but at the sphere of cognition where the subject-perceiving-the-object is at its focus and the attitude is itself part of interest. In other words, we focus not only on the objective pole of the sphere of cognition, but also the subjective pole, as the following diagram illustrates:-

Phenomenology calls for us to suspend our judgements about the existence or meaning of any phenomenon at the outset, like putting it is mental brackets. This so-called 'phenomenological bracketing' means reservation of judgement about the possible nature of the phenomenon and simply aims at the most perceptive and accurate of description feasible, free from as many traditional or inculcated biasses as possible. To take an example from para-psychology: when considering the words of some person who allegedly inwardly perceives extra-sensory phenomena like visions, voices, entities and so forth, the correct phenomenological attitude of an observer prohibits any judgements as to whether these reported events represent a 'real' experience or an existant entity, or whether they are imaginary, delusory or faked. The phenomena themselves are described per se as far as possible. Only later, after all relevant observational information - including the 'subjective reports' - has been analysed, generalised, compared, tested and subjected to other relevant kinds of investigation would judgements of authenticity or 'reality' possibly be justified.

This key idea of the methodology in Edmund Husserl's phenomenology involves holding in reserve all judgements as to the existence of anything studied, the better and more fully to appreciate. describe and eventually isolate their essence (i.e. their key characteristics reduced from introspective observations after a full review of the 'subjective appearances' of phenomena in all relevant and observable aspects and variations. This requirement was cardinal in Husserl's view, it being intended to counteract what he called the 'naive natural attitude' of thinking that the world consists exclusively of objective things and thus unwittingly overlooking the existence of perceptions, apperceptions and conceptions and their vital role in all human life. Thus, psychic or 'mental' objects - and also states of consciousness - become available to empirical observation as well as the objects about which the five senses somehow inform us. Through this so-called 'phenomenological reduction', one could better and more thoroughly notice, appreciate, describe and eventually isolate constant factors. Such 'essences', or the basic defining characteristics of anything towards which conscioussness is directed (i.e. 'phenomena'), are arrived at introspectively through analysis of all their observable aspects and relevant variations. This step in the investigation of phenomena aims at discovering what the chosen subject-matter has in common with other similar phenomena. As such it accords with the ideals of comparative empirical observation and hypothetical analysis in hypothetico-deductive science, aiming at the universal or unifying factors evident in and through otherwise diverse phenomena. Thus, the overall principle of unity is also seen to apply at the level of field-work and basal science.

Further to demonstrate the unavoidability of assumptions one need only consider mathematics, which relies upon axioms. Many mathematical axioms were discovered well after theories based on them were accepted as proven. The research into the axiomatic sphere itself produces new insights and stimulates to new theories. The same is true of the history of philosophical reflection.

The fuller development of our awareness requires openness towards any manner of phenomena. As Sartre says of consciousness, it must know its object both by 'conspiring with it' and with the fund of knowledge handed down through time as culture in the broadest possible sense. That is the method of phenomenological description. This does not imply uncritical observation, for the inner moment of the subject's questioning mind is crucial and is always involved. It depends upon the maturity of understanding and it improves with training in scientific methods, phenomenological philosophy and metascientific thought.


As Martin Heidegger made clear, understanding is making explicit something on the basis of what one is already implicitly aware. Even a simple empirical fact is ungraspable without the presence of a selective and pre-conditioned awareness to seek it or simply to recognise it. The motivation to understand, which is itself only a subjective experience, always implies purpose, goals and hence values. The motive is always for something (perceived to be) true and good, whether for the individual or others. Values are always involved at some phase or level of understanding.

The 'data' with which human consciousness concerns itself can be so vast in embrace of perspectives and intricacy of relationship that it cannot be handled numerically or systematically in any other way than through the intuitive capacity of the living human mind to comprehend. In short, human awareness moves ahead of and beyond information and knowledge because it is a more like a process than a product. It depends upon values that define and express all human motives, or at least all truly human ones. Philosophical anthropology can demonstrate how the same human values are sought after and respected in some fashion everywhere. Truth, goodness, beauty, peace of mind and love are admired or known in every major culture, even when not adhered to.

The idea of 'good quality' as applied to life, experience, behaviour or society etc. will always imply or express human values, at whatever the level in the hierarchy of values may apply. Values enable the human mind to relate the complexities of its mentations and speculations to life experience and to a sense of true purpose.

The preceeding outlines the phenomenological basis for a broader concept of objectivity than that of the physical sciences in respect of what phenomena can be regarded in valid observation. This can be stated concisely in the form of a principle.

Understanding in the sciences bearing most directly on human affairs let down the spirit of truth when they do not face up to the 'why' questions, which are wrapped up with far-reaching values and beliefs. Human understanding cannot deny the relevance of the great questions of life, such as the meaning and purpose of man and society. Any psychology, for example, will be rejecting the very motives of its practitioners if it stops them short of trying to discover the meaning of human problems and projects at their most vital levels.

An universal method of understanding underlies and embraces all philosophies and sciences and more besides. But to give a broad explication of it, one must draw more on those traditions that have prepared the ground best. The holistic approach described here owes much for its development to those European traditions broadly known as hermaneutical and phenomenological philosophy. Unfortunately, however, the technical jargon and abstruseness of argumentation employed frequently makes the Continental view of understanding (Verstehen) itself difficult to understand except by lifelong students. This outline is an attempt to make available in simpler language some fruitful insights of that tradition, but also in fact to extend its scope, showing how it is often a much more adequate model for understanding than science can provide.

General phenomenological method, by its very nature, includes rather than excludes other methods of investigation on a very wide range of subjects, including the sciences. This approach has in the present conception been extended and corrected by relevant insights from Vedantic and Advaita philosophy. Through their very basic insights into the essence of phenomena, they serve to give phenomenology increased philosophical substance and direction.


Rejecting the physicalist assumption that no meaning or purpose can be found in the universe, metascience starts from the opposite standpoint. The reason for this is both its greater fruitfulness as a vehicle of understanding and its non-exclusivity of the entire sphere of human relations, culture and self-understanding.

Meaning arises, is found or is also in some sense created or compounded, at many levels. The simplest of purposes - say, the satiation of hunger or thirst - represents simple meaning, universally understood. More involved or far-reaching collective purposes can be said to have wider or greater meaning. Very comprehensive structures of meaning, such as in major works of science, philosophy or spirituality, can vary in purpose from utilitarian ends to intellectual satisfaction and even that of mystical 'liberation'.

Meaning is itself a phenomenon in need of explanation. Phenomenology helps us observe how it arises, what or who sustains it and so on. We can distinguish various general kinds of meaning, such as highly personal or subjective meaning, commonly-agreed meaning and objective meaning. It is the two latter kinds that concern us chiefly. Commonly-agreed meaning is best illustrated by the meanings given for words in dictionaries. But such 'inter-subjective' meaning is also, as it were, embedded in all the objects of life, from the hammer to the bank cheque, the motorway to the man-made reservoir. Things are made for one or more purposes, and our knowing these makes them meaningful to us. Such meanings are common to many people (i.e. they have become inter-subjective) and are sustained and extended by this consensus. Further, there is 'intra-subjective meaning', which consists in all the subtle and intricate inter-connections of thoughts, emotions, theories, visions etc. that can be conveyed through language and 'understood' by some persons, who know the meaning by intra-subjective intuitions.

Whether or not one recognises purposes as being intrinsic to natural things and events will depend upon one's philosophy. Here it is assumed that such meanings are found in the natural world in the form of purpose or function towards given ends.

Humans learn from nature. By using our senses, we learn about objects, connections, relationships, causes... in short, we derive meaning from nature. We do not create the meaning, do not put the inherent connections there, so do not 'give' meaning . If the objective world can exist independently of our minds, there is no reason why meaning cannot. The human mind can be seen as actualising meaning, which is itself inherently potential in the bewilderingly compex and intricate relations of the natural world. One thinks of the mind as the repository of meaning, when it would probably be more correct to think of universal, consciousness as the source. Meaning arises - comes and goes - as consciousness directs and follows the mind's attention. The mind is a repository of memory, sensory image, while consciousness derives meaning from 'somewhere else', not only by learning from the common culture but also from nature, from imagination, intuition, dreams and other possible origins. We do not generate meaning from nothing,but rather actualise meaning through the medium of mental elements, and express it through symbolic use of the mind's cumulated 'materials'.

It would lead too far astray from the purpose here to explain this teleology sufficiently or to present all the assumptions involved and to provide sufficiently many detailed examples. An example of what is generally meant by deriving meaning from nature, however, is seen in studying any of its innumerable forms, which through time and development fulfil given functions within a greater whole or eco-system. The functions of any form whatever - say, even an imaginary triangle - are always determined within some kind of environment and are thus specific and limited such that the form cannot be said to have just any function or 'meaning' within the context of some greater whole . In short, function or articulated purpose is assumed to be inherent to all things, including human life, though this may only be partly intelligible to those without a broad enough ethical philosophy or a spiritual faith. Human beings have faculties of mind far in excess of what is required for mere survival of the species - in fact, faculties that are otherwise very often dysfunctional for mankind and could even be misused to extinguish the human species. These faculties can only be understood as having purposes that point beyond physical or biological goals and have to do with the development of the individual soul or spirit. How and why this is so, however, can only be understood by following suitable disciplines that illumine these faculties through personal practice. These questions must be the subject of quite separate studies in philosophical psychology and what could be called 'meta-theology'.

The present view of meaning is that it exists and is inherent in the cosmos; it is assumed in principle to be potentially detectable in or through all things, always remembering that the interpreting human being is equally a part of the cosmos. This view has been held by the majority of mankind throughout known history and most probably is still so held today. The agnostic or atheistic materialist view dominant among educated Westerners is so far but a brief historical exception.

The present view does not overlook the fact that meaning as such is engendered or mediated by the human mind, itself an integral part of the cosmos. The many meanings things have - or are given by us - are conditioned by the limits of thought and its accurate or complete expression. Further, meaning as expressed through symbols and preserved in books etc. is the object of learning or 'indirect understanding' and is the subject of such important and universally used disciplines as the interpretation of texts. Since texts and other symbolic artefacts are the all-important means of extending culture and knowledge, a means without which modern society would disappear overnight, the manner of their correct or 'objective' interpretation deserves separate discussion. Before dealing with this, however, an outline is needed of the radical and general method of observation and interpretation of all kinds of possible entity, phenomonology.


The 'prior synthesis' and world-view which any investigator necessarily already holds when approaching the field of study is referred to variously in the literature as 'pre-knowledge', 'fore-understanding' or even as 'prejudgements'. Such ideas are of course essential to any investigation and should be regarded as such. Part of these pre-intimations implies some purpose of the whole exercise, partly implicit and unformed as it often may yet be in some respects.

Pre-knowledge is an unavoidable fact of life. When we approach something new that we wish to investigate and understand better we bring with us whatever we have already experienced and learned, perhaps as a whole conception or perhaps as little more than impressions and hunches. The decisions about what we wish to find out and how to define it, however vague and preliminary, themselves influence what we are likely to discover. For example, a general question like 'what characterises the healthy human psyche?' already demonstrates certain assumptions. The idea that such an entity as 'psyche' exists - or somehow is known through definitive phenomena - is itself an assumption (and one that not all psychologists adopt). In developing this question we cannot help but draw upon many of our own previous ideas about the human mind or soul and about mental disorders, derangement and health or illness, which are all either 'fore-conceptions' or 'pre-knowledge' and which may often prove to be unfounded prejudgements. The level of experience and self-reflective ability brought by the investigator can thus evidently vary quite enormously.

The above illustration by no means exhausts the fore-conceptions we bring to such a matter. There will always be many assumptions previously assimilated or learned, as well as attitudes and partial opinions, much fragmentary information, vague notions and clear conceptions. Our interest in a question may have been aroused by practical problems we wish to help solve, which then usually implies strongish ideas about the matter. Or it may be more on the general and theoretical side, say as part of an educational study or of exercising a profession. All of these interests form part of the background of the various decisions we take along the way towards arriving at understanding of the subject matter.

The more general assumptions one makes are often the ones that are hardest to discover, having been in a sense 'inherited' as part of the culture and climate of opinion in which one grew up and was educated. Someone who tends to think that only matter is real and that thought, soul or spirit must somehow be based only on and be 'caused' only by the physical body will arrive at very different hypotheses to someone who is of a contrary view. Which orders of phenomena are to be considered; which approaches, methods and standards of validity of supposed knowledge will differ greatly in either case.

In the quest for 'objectivity' some scientists still claim that one must avoid all assumptions. The impossibility of this has been shown already in that fore-conceptions always tend at some point to function as premises. The best that can be done in the circumstances is to become aware of one's crucial assumptions as fully as possible and to hold them temporarily 'in abeyance' wherever feasible. This is only possible, however, in a relative and more or less temporary sense.

The phenomenological approach purposely does not overlook or remove as irrelevant the perceptions, judgements and experiences which happen to arise in our minds in connection with investigations. Thus, emotions are not eliminated, but are registered as they occur, values that happen to be asserted or appear relevant are not excluded as 'unscientific', but are included in the study as part of the data. In studying other persons, social interaction or cultural questions it is never possible simply to remove one's own particular background and culture - one's 'mental spectacles', as it were - so as to see things 'simply as they are'. The ideal aim of phenomenology to achieve greater authenticity of observation through recording the observer's subjective sensations, thoughts, ideas and reactions in the interest of making the whole investigation both more self-reflective and also as transparent as possible to others. Therefore, all arbitrary or dogmatic limitations on what one should not observe, what one should discount and omit have to be rejected if an investigation is to reveal anything as it actually appears or truly reflect the inherent character and relations of things.

Further reading: The Phenomenological Movement, Herbert Spiegelberg (The Hague, 1961)The Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty (trans. Routledge, London, 1962)

The Principle of Self-Reflection:"An observing interpreter's understanding depends upon the framework of subjective pre-acquaintance with the subject and/or object studied. The various assumptions, attitudes or interests inherent in the fore-conceptions that are brought to bear on the subject matter must be made as explicit as possible, if results and conclusions are to be sufficiently intelligible." This principle is complementary to that of 'objectivity of subject matter' in that self-reflection refers to the witnessing subject. One danger that attends any form of understanding that has been inherited whether partially or wholly - and especially any general theory - is that it unsually at the very least contains some elements that no longer bear clear relevance or application to present and changing circumstance. In this way a form of alienated perception comes about, an 'unintelligibility' arises. Whether through poor communication, changed conditions or lack of insight etc., the original relevance of an idea may be lost or distorted. If 'self-reference' is thus confused or partially lost, false ideas arise. To specify such sources of error more exactly and help correct it, the principle of self-reflection is supplemented by others; those of personal verification and intelligibility.

This principle sets an ideal requirement for the student or the researcher to reflect on whatever motives and interests may direct and govern the undertaking. This should include both the individual's personal reasons and collective interests and parties it is supposed to serve, above or beyond the usual theoretical and practical aims inherent in the investigatory work itself. (Why is this being done, and why in this manner? What interests, if any, are served and what conceivable contribution could this make to the common good or to the common good or the contrary?).

A study's goals and various other functions in society cannot be regarded as independent of the study and its contents. Theories cannot be regarded as 'ahistorically' true in principle for all times and places. Even natural scientific theories are not entirely divorcable from the individual's own horizon of understanding, that is, from the time and place wherein they become actual, as the occasional shift of paradigms and continual introduction of new main hypotheses goes on, even in physics and astronomy. The theories and conclusions in the human sciences are necessarily much more bound to historical time and place, the unique society or culture to which they apply. This is also so of the type of methods used to test hypotheses because methodological fashions change and new techniques and research-supportive technologies are always being developed.

The real significance any form of understanding has for researchers can tell much about what good their work may or may not be to society. Research work done merely for the sake of career qualifications, a better income or because it is simply part of one's job in some impersonal institution will probably lack the conviction and personal engagement in real social needs necessary to creative action and fruitful results in society. In the social sciences, pre-scientific considerations of this kind cannot be taken as irrelevant to researches and their results, for they can affect the quality of social understanding in studies at quite deep levels.

All the subjective conditioners like motives, value standpoints and a whole host of circumstances of a theoretical and practical sort act upon all human activities at some level, however scientific or neutral in approach they try to be. The whole point is that these factors should be accounted for seriously and as fully as possible as a part of the basic method of understanding. Even sense observation cannot be cleansed of fore-conceptions, or of subconscious pre-judgements or cultural and individual prejudices, any more than science can be understood without preceeding elementary education.

It is the quality of what preceeds - that is, the preliminary or pre-scientific understanding - that makes all the difference. Above all the quality of understanding depends on how well it avoids distortion due to implicit or subconscious influences. This depends very much on individual upbringing and training. Public education and socialisation hand on the prevailing cultural codes or mores of the particular society and these become largely implicit in a person's understanding. These norms then often function axiomatically in the planning and carrying out of researches.
Go to Ch. 5: Language and its interpretation
The above material is the copyright of Robert Priddy, Oslo 1999 see bibliography.