This essay outlines some of the main epistemologies, research traditions and schools of thought of the twentieth century, mainly in the Western tradition, in order to provide a framework within which to understand research methodology. The main purposes of research are to extend our knowledge of ourselves and of the world around us, and to solve specific problems. Whereas the natural sciences study various aspects of the physical world, the social sciences study various aspects of our social reality. As a result of the great achievements of the natural sciences since the eighteenth century Enlightenment, the social sciences in the twentieth century often sought to imitate the empirical and quantitative methods of the natural sciences, with varying degrees of success.

The verification principle of the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle (1920s-30s) represents an extreme position of a research tradition based on the natural sciences. In line with logical positivism (a form of empiricism), the British philosopher A.J. Ayer in his book Language, truth and logic (1936) proposed that any statement that is not tautological (deductive logic, as in mathematics) or that cannot be verified by experience (inductive logic, as in natural science) is meaningless. The principle of verifiability implies that any statement about religion, ethics or art is thus meaningless, as would be the sentences within religious, ethical or literary texts. However, since the verifiability principle is not itself tautological nor can itself be verified by experience, the principle can be said to be meaningless on its own terms.

Two philosophers of science, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, both claimed to have destroyed logical positivism. In place of the verifiability principle, Popper put forward (1935, 1958) the principle of falsifiability, not as a criterion of meaningfulness, but as a criterion for demarcating science from non-science. Empirical observation remained important to Popper, not in the positive sense of accumulating evidence to confirm a theory or hypothesis, but in the negative sense of refuting or falsifying a hypothesis. Thus, for Popper, Marxist and psychoanalytic theories are non-scientific, since they cannot, in principle, be falsified, whereas truly scientific theories can. Nonetheless, Popper accepted that Marxist and psychoanalytic theories, like myths, religions, art and literature (fiction) are still meaningful. Popper also rejected the inductive method espoused by the positivists, and propounded, in its place, his hypthetico-deductive method, which, he claimed, solved the problem of induction, namely, the basing of a scientific generalisation on a limited number of empirical observations. While no number of confirming instances (or observations) is sufficient to verify a general statement, only one counter-instance is sufficient to refute or falsify a generalisation.

Thomas Kuhn critiqued both logical positivism and Popper in his main work The structure of scientific revolutions (1962, 1970), making use of the later Ludwig Wittgenstein's concepts of "language games" and "forms of life" (language communities). According to Kuhn, there is no objective criterion of truth. Rather, all scientists operate within a paradigm which constrains and limits what they can discover and know; and "truth" is a matter of consensus within a scientific community. Thus, contra Popper, scientists ignore counter-evidence, dismissing it as anomalous, until a sufficient number of anomalies has accumulated to throw the scientists into a crisis, a revolutionary period during which they look for another paradigm to adopt, which finally results in a paradigm shift. Kuhn thus relativises and historicises scientific truth. For Kuhn, only the natural sciences have paradigms, the social sciences being in the pre-scientific stage of competing schools of thought. Nonetheless, this fact has not prevented social constructionists from seizing on Kuhn's notions of scientific revolution and paradigm shift. Steve Fuller (2003), the founder of a discipline called "social epistemology", contextualizes the debate between Popper and Kuhn, and points out how Imre Lakatos attempted to reconcile Kuhn and Popper's theories with his concept of research programmes.

American pragmatism is a tradition that considers truth to be a function of utility, or, rather, that considers usefulness rather than truth to be a more significant criterion for assessing theories. Founding figures of this tradition include William James and Charles Sanders Peirce. Besides deduction and induction, Peirce considered "abduction" to be a third form of logic, which resembles hypothetico-deductivism. Peirce also founded semiotics, the science of signs, based on a triadic model of the sign.

Semiotics should be distinguished from semiology, an influential Continental research tradition originating in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand De Saussure, based on a dyadic model of the sign. Structuralism applied De Saussure's linguistic theories to many aspects of society and involved, among others, disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, linguistics, literature and cultural studies. Structuralists endeavour to discover the deep structures that they believe determine cultural phenomena. For instance, in his book entitled Totemism, Lévi-Strauss (1964:102) argues that “Metaphor, the role of which in totemism we have repeatedly underlined, is not a later embellishment of language but is one of its fundamental modes”. Structuralism's scientific and universalising pretensions came to be challenged by poststructuralism.

In the early twentieth century, behaviourism, linked to positivism, attempted to use objective observation and experiments, the methods of natural science, to explain animal and human behaviour, without reference to subjective notions such as mind, cognition, intention, thought, the unconscious and the soul. Although behaviourism was, for a time, very influential, particularly in the United States, its limitations were soon exposed. The fatal flaw of behaviourism is that it is unable to account for the behaviour of the behavioural scientists themselves. Yet every psychological theory should be able to account for itself.

This points to a broader criticism of attempts to base social research methods on those of the natural sciences, namely, the problem of reflexivity, or self-reference. Subjectivity cannot be divorced from social research, and thus the goal of complete objectivity, pursued by the natural sciences, seems unobtainable in the social sciences. It is not only the subjectivity of the researchers that should be kept in mind but also that of human research subjects. Studies have shown how the behaviour of human test subjects changes if those test subjects are aware that they are part of the research. Although social research can be empirical and quantitative, it always has to keep in mind the subjectivity of both the researcher and the research subjects.

Cognitivism, a research tradition that takes cognition, or thinking, into account can be traced back to the philosopher Emmanuel Kant who first proposed the idea that reality is not merely objective but is at least in part constituted by subjectivity, thus launching his "Copernican Revolution" of philosophy. In fact, Kant aimed to synthesise the rationalist tradition, which holds that some knowledge is innate, and the empiricist tradition, which asserts that the human mind is a "blank slate" that passively records experience. In opposition to empiricism and its offshoot behaviourism, and hailing back to the rationalist René Descartes, the linguist Noam Chomsky maintains that knowledge of language is a creative cognitive capacity innate in and unique to humans, which is activated in childhood. He uses the term "universal grammar" to describe the capacity for language common to all human beings and the term "generative grammar" to describe the individual's creative use of language.

Popper's "evolutionary epistemology" can also be considered cognitivist, proposing that knowledge develops through conjectures and refutations. Popper considered problem-solving to be a characteristic of all living organisms, although only humans use language to do so. Jakob von Uexküll, in "A walk through the worlds of animals and men" (1934), shows how different animals constitute their Umwelten, namely, select and act on those aspects of the environment relevant to their own survival. These two thinkers manage to escape a narrowly anthropocentric (human-centred) epistemology, thereby preempting biosemiotics, ecocriticism and animal studies, which represent a "greening of the humanities".

Phenomenology is an approach that studies subjectivity itself, namely, that considers how subjects (minds) constitute the world around them. This tradition includes important thinkers such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre. Husserl proposed a method of phenomenological reduction where the question of existence, and thus "truth", is bracketed and the essential features of the phenomenon are analysed. This is related to the quality of consciousness known as intentionality, the fact that thought is always thought of something. Existentialism is an offshoot of phenomenology

Hermeneutics, which has its origins in biblical exegesis (critical interpretation), is another tradition that emphasises subjectivity, or the knowing subject. Friedrich Schleimacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer are important figures in the development of hermeneutics. The hermeneutic circle concerns the circular process of interpretation that occurs during the interaction between the subject and the object (or text). In this sense, hermeneutics is linked to an interpretivist and qualitative approach to phenomena (texts), and thus is appropriate to students of literature. In literary studies, reception theory is an approach that explicitly traces its origins back to hermeneutics. Jonathan Culler argues that semiotics offers an alternative approach to literature: "A semiotics of literature would attempt to describe in systematic fashion the modes of signification of literary discourse and the interpretive operations embodied in the institution of literature" (2001:13).

Social constructionism, or social constructivism, largely the preserve of sociologists, downplays the centrality given to the individual subject in cognitivist approaches, asserting that the individual mind is socially constructed, since each individual is born into a language and culture, and thus is almost entirely shaped by these. Social constructionism is therefore aligned with the linguistic turn of Western philosophy that characterized much of the twentieth century, some of its forms being semiology, discourse theory and cultural studies. For them, knowledge is inter-subjectively constructed or constructed through discourse. Some social constructionists go so far as to suggest that reality itself is a social construct and that the theories of the natural sciences have no more claim to objectivity and truth than any other theories, beliefs, world views or myths. As such, social constructionism is in tune with poststructuralism and postmodernism.

Marxism is an intellectual tradition originating in the nineteenth century that, like social constructionism, emphasises social context and history, and dismisses the focus on the individual subject as "bourgeois". Materialist, collectivist and practical in its approach, it is a political and economic theory that critiques capitalist ideologies and works towards the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. Following the failure of revolution as predicted by Marx, followers have had to modify Marxist theory. The Frankfurt School was one of the most important centres of neo-Marxist theorising, but other important theorists include Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser. Although critical theory was initially associated with the Frankfurt School, the term has come to include a much broader range of approaches, most of them with a leftist slant, representing a political turn in literary studies, which includes cultural materialism, new historicism and postcolonialism. In a recent critical review of the field, Neil Lazarus (2011) argues for a Marxist rather than a poststructuralist approach to postcolonial studies. Traditionally, Marxists adhere to a notion of objective truth, although they tend to see it as a dialectical process. Popper criticised Marxism for what he considered its historicism and revolutionary utopianism.

The outline above can be considered to be a Western or Eurocentric account of epistemology with its origins in the eighteenth century European Enlightenment, but going back to the philosophy of Descartes and even earlier to the ancient Greeks. Decoloniality claims to be a recent school of thought, although with a long history, that critiques "from the outside" the entire Western tradition of epistemology and research methodology to which the outline above refers. Key decolonial thinkers include Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire and Ngugi wa Tiong’o. Decoloniality differentiates itself from postcoloniality (Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2015:491), claiming that the latter derives from Western traditions, whereas decoloniality derives from African. However, it is difficult to maintain this distinction since Fanon, for instance, was a psychiatrist deriving much from psychoanalytic, existentialist and Marxist traditions. Indeed, Fanon can be considered an African Marxist, developing Lenin’s critique of colonialism and imperialism as extensions of capitalism. He differed from Marx in locating revolutionary potential in the landless peasantry rather than the industrial working class. The titles of seminal texts by African scholars, such as Césaire’s Discourse on colonialism (1955) and Mbembe's Critique of black reason (2017), allude to key philosophical texts in the Western tradition.

Popper characterised Western philosophy and science as a critical tradition following reason rather than authority, the students questioning the ideas of the teachers. Indeed, some of the most incisive critiques of the Enlightenment, modernity and instrumental rationality come from within this tradition. However, it can be argued that this critical tradition is now a global one - as testified by modern science - no longer centred in Europe and North America. Rather than reject the entire Western tradition, decoloniality can position itself as one more discourse in an ongoing, global and critical dialogue.

Click here for a synopsis of some views on truth.

Ayer, A.J. 1971. Language, truth and logic. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd.

Césaire, A. 1955. Discourse on colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Chomsky, N. 1988. Language and problems of knowledge: The Managua lectures. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Culler, J. 1976. Saussure. Glasgow: Fontana Press.

Culler, J. 2001. The pursuit of signs. London and New York: Routledge Classics.

Fanon, F. 2004. The wretched of the earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.

Fanon. F. 2008. Black skin, white masks. Translated by Charles Markmann. Sidmouth, England: Chase Publishing Services Ltd.

Fuller, S. 2003. Kuhn vs Popper: The struggle for the soul of science. Cambridge: Icon Books Ltd.

Husserl, E. 1990. The idea of phenomenology. Translated by William P. Alston and George Nakhnikian. Dordrecht, Boston and London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Kolakowski, L. 1978. Main currents of Marxism. 3 volumes. London and New York: Oxford University Press.

Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The structure of scientific revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Laverty. S.M. 2003. “Hermeneutic phenomenology and phenomenology: A comparison of historical and methodological considerations.” In International Institute for Qualitative Methodology, 2(3): 21-35.

Lazarus, N. 2011. The postcolonial unconscious. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, C. Totemism. Translated by Rodney Needham. London: Merlin Press.

Maldonado-Torres, N. 2006. “Césaire’s gift and the decolonial turn.” In Radical Philosophy Review, 9(2): 111-138.

Mbembe, A. 2017. Critique of black reason. Translated by Laurent Dubois. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni. S.J. 2015. “Decoloniality as the future of Africa.” In History Compass, 13/10: 485-496.

Ngugi wa Tiong'o. 1986. Decolonising the mind: the politics of language in African literature. Suffolk: James Currey Heinemann.

Palmer, R.E. 1969. Hermeneutics: Interpretation theory in Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Heidegger, and Gadamer. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Peirce, C.S. 1955. Philosophical writings of Peirce. Selected and edited by Justus Buchler. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Popper, K.R. 2002. The logic of scientific discovery. London: Routledge Classics.

Popper, K.R. 2002. The poverty of historicism. London: Routledge Classics.

Von Uexküll J. 1934. “A stroll through the worlds of animals and men.” In Instinctive behaviour. Translated and edited by Claire H. Schiller. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.

Watson, J.B. 1970. Behaviorism. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Wittgenstein, L. 1958. Philosophical investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Alan Northover
Department of Afrikaans and Theory of Literature
©Unisa, 2019

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