Transcending myopia for a fuller understanding of human development

 Lerner (2002) argues that "pure" contextualism does not provide an adequate foundation for building a workable theory about human development, saying contextualism is a "diversive paradigm" that fails to connect the parts of the whole within itself or across time. "In pure contextualism, there is simply no prediction possible from one point of life to the next" (p. 72). A worldview that stresses only "the dispersive, chaotic, and disorganized character of life" does not lend itself to a workable theory of human development (p. 73). This hardly means that contextualism is without value. Lerner felt similarly about "pure" mechanism and organicism, saying each model alone is insufficient for building a workable theory of human development.

This presents a conundrum; both Goldhaber and Lerner say that key philosophers consider the three models to be mutually exclusive. If the models are each insufficient on their own and mutually exclusive of the other, then a new model is required. Before tossing all three, however, there is another option to consider. Viewing the world exclusively through a single lens may blind the observer to truths available through the other lenses. Merging ideas from all three may provide a more accurate perspective on human development; but may result in just another lens.

As far as humans are creatures of habit, the mechanistic perspective seems to serve as an acceptable model to understand human behavior. Likewise, as far as humans can shape themselves and their environment toward potential, the organismic model provides acceptable insights into the human being. In addition, as far as humans behave differently depending on the situation, the contextual model helps understand the human within the context of history and society. If the human being dynamically integrates tendencies that are simultaneously machine-like, organismic, and contextual, why should mechanism, organicism, and contextualism be mutually exclusive?

Overton (1984) seemed to address this question when he proposed merging organicism and contextualism to form a new philosophy called, appropriately, contextual-organicism. Lerner's (2002) preferred term for the merger is "developmental contextualism" (p. 74), as long as the user understands "developmental" refers to the organismic roots of the emerging philosophy. Developmental contextualism is more broadly know as "developmental systems theory" and represents "a synthesis between organismic processes and changes and contextual ones" (p. 74).

Goldhaber (2000) proposes that integrating all three lenses will put researchers in a position to understand better the human condition. He says that Pepper seemed contradictory when he first insisted the philosophical models are mutually exclusive, then took a stand for "reasonable eclecticism in practice" (Pepper, 1942, 1970, p. 330). However, Pepper (1970) actually proposed that each of these theories offered "relatively adequate world theories," which together provide a more accurate perspective than one could provide by itself. Calling this varied perspective "post rational eclecticism" (p. 330), Pepper said:

If there is some difference of judgment, we shall wish to make our decision with all these modes of evidence in mind, just as we should make any other decision where the evidence is conflicting. In this way we should be judgment in the most reasonable way possible—not dogmatically following only one line of evidence, not perversely ignoring evidence, but sensible acting on all the evidence available (pp. 330-331).

Pepper seemed to be proposing that theoreticians and philosophers draw from the best available information from a variety of perspectives to get a better understanding of human development.

Explaining how this eclecticism would work, Goldhaber (2000) returns to the questions each philosophy asks to explore why humans are the way they are.

  • Mechanism asks how people are different, answering the question "by looking at different schedules of reinforcement or different characteristics of the models we try to emulate or different gene frequencies or different short-term memory capacities" (p. 381).
  • Organicism asks what makes people the same, answering the question by exploring "those qualities that we have in common by virtue of being members of the same species… ultimately the question of what it is that makes us human" (p. 381), distinct from any other species.
  • Like the mechanists, contextualism starts by asking the question of what makes humans different, but focus on the content of people's lives to find answers in their experiences.

Asking which of these perspectives is most important for gaining an understanding of humans makes little sense. Each perspective provides important insights into human development. As Goldhaber (2000) says:

We recognize that we are different from one another and that the meaning of these differences is not necessarily either obvious or universal. To argue, however, that one question is ultimately more important than another… is like arguing that hydrogen is more important in the formation of water than oxygen (p. 382).

In other words, seeking answers to the questions answered by all three perspectives provides a fuller understanding of human development. However, each philosophy remains only reasonably accurate; "they need to be better integrated, in terms of both level and analysis and the questions each asks" (Goldhaber, p. 383). This integration seems to be emerging outside of academia in a form that not only combines the three perspectives, but that also attempts to acknowledge and apply the wisdom of humanity with science.


Next: Toward "reasonable eclecticism in practice"