Kurt Lewin

LEWIN: On The Pure Case

Arguing from the contrast between Aristotelian and Galilean modes of doing physics, Lewin proposes a program whose primary themes are three: the assumption that psychological phenomena are fully lawful; the advancement of an apt representation; and a commitment to the analysis of the concrete case in full detail [note 1]. He begins with an appreciation of Galilean physics:

Galilean physics tried to characterize the individuality of the total situation concerned as concretely and as accurately as possible. This is an exact reversal of Aristotelian principles. The dependence of an event upon the situation in which it occurs means for the Aristotelian mode of thought, which wants to ascertain the general by seeking out the like features of many cases, nothing more than a disturbing force…. The step from particular case to law, from “this” event to “such” an event, no longer requires the confirmation by historical regularity that is characteristic of the Aristotelian mode of thought. This step to the general is automatically and immediately given by the principle of the exceptionless lawfullness of physical events. What is now important to the investigation of dynamics is not to abstract from the situation, but to hunt out those situations in which the determinative factors of the total dynamic structure are most clearly, distinctly, and purely to be discerned. Instead of reference to the abstract average of as many historically given cases as possible, there is a reference to the full concreteness of particular situations….

The increased emphasis upon the quantitative which seems to lend modern physics a formal and abstract character is not derived from any tendency to logical formality. Rather, the tendency to a full description of the concrete actuality, even to that of the particular case, was influential, a circumstance which should be especially emphasized in conjunction with present-day psychology…. It was the increased desire, and also the increased ability to comprehend concrete particular cases, and to comprehend them fully, which, together with the idea of the homogeneity of the physical world and that of the continuity of the properties of its objects, constituted the main impulse to the increasing quantification of physics.

The concept formation of psychology is dominated, just as was that of Aristotelian physics, by the question of regularity in the sense of frequency. This is obvious in its immediate attitude toward particular phenomena as well as in its attitude toward lawfulness. If, for example, one show a film of a concrete incident in the behavior of a certain child, the first question of the psychologist usually is: “Do all children do that, or is it at least common?” And if one must answer this question in the negative the behavior loses for that psychologist all or almost all claim to scientific interest. To pay attention to such an “exceptional case” seems to him a scientifically unimportant bit of folly…. The individual event seems to him fortuitous, unimportant, scientifically indifferent…. that which does not occur repeatedly lies outside the realm of the comprehensible.

The field which is considered lawful, not in principle but in the actual research of psychology – even of experimental psychology – has only been extended very gradually. If psychology has only very gradually and hesitantly pushed beyond the bounds of sensory psychology into the fields of will and affect,it is certainly due not only to technical difficulties but mainly to the fact that in this field actual repetition, a recurrence of the same event, is not to be expected. And this repetition remains, as it did for Aristotle, to a large extent the basis for the assumption of the lawfullness or intelligibility of an event…. It is evidence of the depth and momentum of this connection (between repetition and lawfullness) that it is even used to define experiment, a scientific instrument which, if it is not directly opposed to Aristotelian physics, has at least become significant only in relatively modern times….

The fact that lawfullness and individuality are considered antitheses has two sorts of effect on actual research. It signifies in the first place a limitation of research. It makes it appear hopeless to try to understand the real, unique course of an emotion or the actual structure of a particular individual’s personality. It thus reduces one to a treatment of these problems in terms of averages…. This conviction that it is impossible to wholly comprehend the individual case as such implies, in addition, a certain laxity of research: it is satisfied with setting forth mere regularities. The demands of psychology upon the stringency of its propositions go no farther than to require a validity “in general” or “on the average” or “as a rule”. The “complexity” and the “transitory nature” of life processes make it unreasonable, it is said, to require complete, exceptionless, validity. According to the old saw that “the exception ‘proves’ the rule”, PSYCHOLOGY DOES NOT REGARD EXCEPTIONS AS COUNTER-ARGUMENTS SO LONG AS THEIR FREQUENCY IS NOT TOO GREAT….” Emphasis of K. Lewin.

Two points stand out: in the field of theory and law, the high valuation of the historically important and the disdain of the ordinary; in the field of experiment, the choice of processes which will occur frequently (or are common to many events). Both are indicative in like measure of that Aristotelian mixing of historical and systematic questions which carries with it for the systematic the connection with the abstract classes and the neglect of the full reality of the concrete case….

The thesis of exceptionless validity in psychological laws makes available to investigation, especially to experiment, such processes as do not frequently recur in the same form…. When lawfulness is no longer limited to cases which occur regularly or frequently but is characteristic of every physical event, the necessity disappears of demonstrating the lawfullness of an event by some special criterion, such as its frequency of occurrence. Even a particular case is then assumed without more ado, to be lawful. Historical rarity is no disproof, historical regularity is no proof of lawfulness. For the concept of lawfullness has been quite detached from that of regularity; the concept of the complete absence of exception to laws is strictly separated from that of historical constancy…. Since Law and individual are no longer antitheses, nothing prevents relying for proof upon historically unusual, rare, and transitory events, such as most physical experiments are.

A Galilean view of dynamics…derives all its vectors not from single isolated objects, but from the mutual relations of the factors in the concrete whole situation, that is, essentially, from the momentary condition of the individual and the structure of the psychological situation. The dynamics of the process is always to be defined from the relation of the concrete individual to the concrete situation, and so far as internal forces are concerned, from the mutual relations of the various functional systems that make up the individual…. The carrying out of this principle requires, to be sure, the completion of a task that at present is only begun: namely, the providing a workable representation of a concrete psychological situation according to its individual characteristics and its associated functional properties, and of the concrete structure of the psychological person and its internal dynamic facts….

The accidents of historical processes are not overcome by excluding the changing situations from systematic consideration, but only by taking fullest account of the individual nature of the concrete case. It depends upon keeping in mind that general validity of the law and concreteness of the individual case are not antitheses, and that reference to the totality of the whole concrete situation must take the place of reference to the largest possible historical collection of frequent repetition….It means for psychology, as it did for physics, a transition from an abstract classificatory procedure to an essentially concrete constructive method.

Lewin’s analysis is profound. The specific representations he advanced for the psychological situation have not been accepted,
FOOT See the extended citation, Langer: Against Physicalism.
but his specification of the requirements for a scientific psychology with concepts appropriate to the arena of human concerns can now advance using the representational techniques developing in the engineering discipline of Artificial Intelligence.

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