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Empiricism and technical rationality: Why can’t we mean what we say?

David Scott, Emeritus Professor at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society

Philosophical issues tend not to occupy a prominent place in books on learning or in accounts of research and knowledge-development. Being concealed in the research and knowledge process, they seem to be speculative and abstruse and, to a large extent, apparently unnecessary in relation to the immediate practical task of getting research and understanding going and bringing it to a successful conclusion. There seems, therefore, to be no pressing need to integrate them into the knowledge process itself. In this blog post I draw on my reflections from completing a trilogy of books on the most important epistemic concept, that of learning.

Another reason why philosophical and in particular epistemological issues are concealed is related to the power of positivism and its associated representational realist metaphysic. Even when researchers are not conscious of working within the general parameters of positivism, the latter still exerts a powerful influence; an influence which considers reflexive questions to be both undesirable and unnecessary.

There have been from time immemorial calls to adopt approaches to the study of education and the social world – this after all is what we do as educational researchers – that deny the need to address ontological and epistemological issues, however complicated these two ideas are. Advocates for empiricist approaches (for example, John Locke, David Hume, Auguste Comte, A. J. Ayer and Steven Pinker) give the impression that they are operating outside of and in opposition to philosophical framings about the nature of the world and how it can be known. These philosophers’ and many empirical researchers’ purpose is to support and strengthen a particular view of human behaviour, which favours those forms of research and judgment that can be described as empiricist and technicist. For these empirical researchers, ontological and epistemological beliefs do not underpin the development and use of strategies and methods that they employ. These methods and strategies are determined by how useful they are, and even by whether they are fit for purpose. Instrumental rationality is another example of this type of knowledge framework, that now dominates in faculties and disciplines round the world.

‘Ontological and epistemological beliefs do not underpin the development and use of strategies and methods that [empirical researchers] employ. These methods and strategies are determined by how useful they are, and even by whether they are fit for purpose.’

The trilogy of books that I have just finished writing – On Learning: A General Theory of Objects and Object-Relations; On Learning: Volume 2, Philosophy, Concepts and Practices; and On Learning: Volume 3, Curriculum, Knowledge and Ethics – argue for a reflexive dimension to the development of knowledge, with the contention that any piece of research has to be carefully monitored by those committed to some form of truthful enquiry. As you can see from their titles, they are about learning, or at least about the concept and practice of learning. What I have focused on in this trilogy are two meta-concepts – knowledge and learning – the relationship between the two, and the way these can be framed in epistemic, semantic, social, political and economic terms. Knowledge and learning, as meta-concepts, are positioned in various networks or constellations of meaning, principally, the antecedents of the concepts, their relations to other relevant concepts, and the way the concepts are used in the lifeworld.

In these books I explore a number of important concepts that are relevant to the idea of learning. These are meta-concepts such as epistemology, inferential role semantics, phenomenology and valorisation (see for example Sellars, 1997 and Brandom, 1994) and meso-concepts such as probability, averaging, training, assessment, prediction, comparison, education and curriculum. All of them have a direct relationship with learning and can be positioned in the field of learning or education, and are, or at least should be, central to the concerns of educational researchers and theorists.

This trilogy of books is a response to empiricist, instrumental and technicist conceptions of knowledge; detheorised and reductionist ideas of learning that have filtered through to the management of our schools, simple messages about learning, knowledge, curriculum and assessment that abound in disciplines and sub-disciplines such as the sociology of education, the employment of punitive forms of power in our universities and in our schools, and the denial that values are central to understanding how we live and how we should live – the normative dimension to social policy and social theorising. What I hope I have achieved in these books – and this remark applies to educational and social researchers and theorists in every part of the world – is to alert us to the need to address philosophical issues of meaning, truth and world–mind, mind–world relations in all our endeavours.


Ayer, F. (1936). Language, truth and logic (2nd edition). Gollancz.

Brandom, R. (1994). Making it explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Harvard University Press.

Comte, A. (2009 [1830-1842]). Course of positive philosophy (abridged, translated by Harriet Martineau), Cambridge University Press.

Hume, D. (2000) [1738]. A treatise of human nature, D. Norton and M. Norton (Eds.). Oxford University Press.

Locke, J. (2007) [1689]. An essay concerning human understanding. London.

Pinker, S. (2013). Language, cognition, and human nature: Selected articles. Oxford University Press.

Sellars, W. (1997). Empiricism and the philosophy of mind. Cambridge University Press.

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