Burckhardt - The Scientific Approach - A Dead End?

The Scientific Approach - A Dead End?

by Dieter M. Burckhardt, Ph.D.

Although psychology has established itself firmly in the world of science, its causal determinism and reductionist approach is being questioned by renowned professionals of all shades and colors today. The singular focus on empiristic data gathering, of quantifiable behavior and sometimes overvalued statistics have for a long time obscured the object of psychological research - the human mind and spirit in all their complexities: a systemic entity of often unknown properties.

The European author Arthur Koestler sure had a point when he stated in The Misery of Psychology 1, as early as 1975, that the dilema of modern psychology was the

"attempt to explain the irrational with rational means".


Feeble attempts to re-define a more comprehensive view with focus on the healing aspect of psychology as a holistic experience of the whole human being have usually been answered with "Quit wasting your time!" and "Get back to science!".

This is not to say that experimental empiristic psychology shouldn't have an important place in the overall order of things, and scientific psychology has been able to produce wonderful insights, valuable data, and instruments that help tremendously in our everyday therapeutic experience.

But the almost obsessive-compulsive fixation on reductionistic research (part of our own anxiety management?) has sometimes left the practitioner with a vast amount of unchartered data, of scattered results of test and trials, and it was only recently that efforts are being made to focus on the patterning of the elements.

Since Sigmund Freud and his immediate followers (Anna Freud, Karen Horney, Robert Jung, Adler et.al.), no attempt - especially since the behaviorists took over most of the departments and institutes of psychology all over the planet - to remap what he had called Psyche into a model of the mind as a dialectic, interactive system has been successful, and the few serious ones have been belittled and sneered at in the "scientific" community.

We were able to read the other day that the late Roger W. Sperry , the venerable guru of CalTech in his acceptance speech of the APA Lifetime Achievement Award about The Future of Psychology acclaimed the recent changes in perspective when he found that

"We no longer seek ultimate nature of reality within the smallest physical elements, nor in their innermost essence. Instead the search is redirected to focus primarily on the patterning of the elements, on their differential spacing and timing and the progressive compounding of patterns of patterns, and on their evolving nature and complexity." (2)

Every serious student of psychology organizing his first test arrangement becomes painfully aware of the fact that in order to deliver conscientious, reliable, and valid results in experimental psychology, the variables of the setup have to be kept in check. To achieve that goal the complexity of the human condition has to be excluded from the test array, because in "real life situations" the number of variables approaches the infinite, tending to potentially render the test data invalid. And validity is a question of definition in the first place.

The hypnotized stare at "data" mostly forgets what lies beneath the data on the meta level, i.e. what the data actually mean.  Not only are these data taken as empiristic, scientific results--which they are not, but also is the basic meaning lost.   A correlation coefficient of say .75 is taken as a meaningful statement about a person's psychological functioning--which is isn't.  It is not, because one of the crucial requirements of natural sciences is its quality to be replicated anywhere with exactly identical results. The results of the overall statistic may be the same as a mere number value, but they are by no means "identical", not by a long shot.  30 Ampere is always 30 Ampere, whereas r=.75 does not equal r=.75 with a different population and not even with the same population.

But digging deeper into test theory and the theoretical concept that underlies the "scientific approach" would take several articles in itself and surely exeed the frame of this one.

The excruciating task of the practitioners, the women and men at the frontline, remains to take the bits and pieces of the puzzle and try to reconstruct the elements into a complex whole - and sometimes the people at the frontline are simply overwhelmed. A fair amount of the therapist's frustration in everyday encounters of the first kind - the therapeutic relationship - has been the lack of help and support in this ardous task.

But is there light at the end of the tunnel?  Basically, more and more professionals realize the limitations of the traditional approach to mental illness where it actually should read mental health.  They feel, and I with them, that the old Newtonian causal model of "cause and effect - actio est reactio" as a one way street which, although valid in detail, does not apply to the system as a whole, especially to a system as complex as a human being in general and to the beautiful and sometimes threatening configuration of the human mind in particular.

Thus the reductionist causal analysis of scientific phenomena has to be suplemented by a systemic dialectic synthesis, because what we as practitioners see in our office is the synthesis of all the atomistic details.  And, no surprise, this synthesis looks complete and utterly different from what we would expect from scientific data alone.   Our task thus remains to put the pieces together and target our treatment efforts towards the whole.

I am well aware that "dialetic" is one of the dirty words in the United States of America, the home of scientific psychology, because of its Marxist connotation.   However, great philosophers like Plato and Hegel have developed the method of dialectic thought long before Marx, and thus the method can be applied today without the ristrictions and baggage imposed by the Cold War; and the end of the ideological dichotomy with the end of the "realm of evil" may make it possible even for the most astute positivistic thinker to use the term and the implied methodology in an unprejudiced and value free way.  And some have already done so, e.g. Marsha Linehan with her dialectical variation to cognitive behavioral therapy

The dialectic approach however demands heuristic and hermeneutic methods in its quest for the truth.  The humanities have arrived at their theories and models using this way for millennia and we have now the opportunity of applying their integrative and synthetic properties to develop comprehensive models and theories of mental illness and mental health as an interrelated body of internal and external elements that constitutes the human mind.

We have to finally acknowledge that removing elements - even peripheral ones - and observing them in isolation in a "clean" scientific environment may unintentionally falsify the results by not integrating them in their natural environment, and by observing the old cause and effect paradigm of the single part rather than their interaction with the whole and vice versa.  If I keep variables out--for scientific purity, any variable introduced later will skew the picture.  The alcoholic in the test lab may show significant improvements in his data. Enter the disgruntled wife/husband at home as an extrinsic variable and kaboom the test results sail out the window.

However, we will need to continue the scientific way to be able to distinguish and scrutinize the parts of the whole and understand their intrinsic function and their uniqueness in the overall picture, but we will also have to admit to the limitations of the empiristic methodology:  We have to go the dialectic way when we are trying to understand, because the human condition is not reproducible in a test environment in a laboratory in spite of the optimistic remarks of B. F. Skinner to the contrary half a century ago.  And isn't it understanding we want?

A new emphasis on understanding the whole as an intricate web of elements interacting dialetically may actually enrich psychology and allow for courageous new concepts and interpretations and may bring back those precious components of the human mind that many of us feel lacking in behaviorist and "single track" empiristic science: creativity, intuition and maybe genius.

As therapists we have to look at the system, find the dialectically interrelated "faulty" parts and try to reintegrate and readjust them as components of a wonderfully organized whole.  Thus we have to finally accept the idea that the parts (traditonal psych. science) are nothing without the system and that the "Gestalt" (holistic approach) is nothing without its components.  And as other sciences like e.g. physics had to acknowledge some time ago that they are limited to answering the question "How?" and that empiristic methodology cannot even attempt to answer the question "Why?" as so many renowned scientists have come to admit (i.e. Heisenberg, Einstein, von Weizäcker).  They also turned to heuristic models and theories of interpretation. Psychology as a science and a humanity will have to make that change or else be stuck in a meaningless mountain of data.  But if we are reading the writing on the wall correctly, we can be very optimistic about the future of a subject we have come to love - psychology.

After all Psychology remains an Art even if it utilizes scientifc methods

This is essentially the philosophical background we bring to counseling.  We are trying to be intermediates between the parts and the whole and consider an idea of balance of utmost importance for a person's mental and emotional well-being. Integration of diverging components as well as finding a healthy balance between defense mechanisms that protect and defenses that are counter-productive.


1. Koestler Arthur, Das Elend der Psychologie, Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg 1975

2. American Psychologist, Vol. 50, No 7, 506

Dieter M. Burckhardt, Ph.D.

High School: Eberhard-Ludwigs-Gymnasium Stuttgart
Universities: Eberhard-Karls Universität Tübingen, Germany; University of Kent, Canterbury, GB; Université de Genève, Geneva, CH.
Degrees: BA in History and Social Siences, MA in English Language Arts, Dipl.-Psych. in Clinical Psychology, Ph.D. in Psychology (Behavioral Sciences)

Curriculum Vitae:  (short)

Born in the last year of World War II in Germany; raised in Glengarry, Scotland and Heilbronn, Germany. Educated in Germany, Switzerland, England and the United States. Married with two sons and one daughter.

17 years employment by the State of Baden-Württemberg, Germany as a high school teacher, school psychologist and assistant professor.

Presently employed by the WA State Department of Corrections as a psychologist, performing forensic testing and assessment tasks and providing clinical services to inmates in the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) a high security maximun custody environment at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, WA, the receiving end of this correctional system.

Preferred treatment modality is a one-on-one psychodynamic approach that combines elements of many different schools from Rogerian to CBT, Jungian to EMDR. Main focus is always the individual in need of therapy and intervention and not the confines of a slavish treatment concept.