We are at a critical juncture now in our attempt to understand why frameworks can cause us humans such grief. Humans learn from experience. But they learn most effectively from an experience only when that experience meets certain conditions.
In any experience humans see things in ways that allow them to think, learn, and act effectively in the experience. Objects in any experience are seen in terms of what the great psychologist J. J. Gibson called “affordances.” We orient towards a hammer, for example, in terms of what we see it as “good for” in a given situation. In one situation, we see the hammer in terms of its affordances for hammering nails; in another situation in terms of it affordances to serve as a useful door-stop, given its weight; in another situation in terms of its affordances for self-defense. A glass in one situation is seen as good for drinking, in another as good for banging on to get silence at a meeting, and in another as good for putting flowers in as a vase. How we see it is determined by our goals in the situation.
Although Gibson uses the word “affordance” in a somewhat different way, I am going use the term to describe how people see or recognize objects in terms of “action possibilities,” that is, in terms of what, in a given situation, they see these objects as useful for.
Even when an affordance is recognized, however, a human actor may or may not have the capacity to transform the affordance into an actual and effective action. A person who has lost his hands cannot use the affordances of a hammer for hammering, even though he can recognize the affordance of the hammer for hammering. Effectivities are the set of capacities for action that the individual has for transforming affordances into action. An effectivity means that a person can take advantage of what is offered by the objects in the environment.
We can now specify more deeply what constitutes an “ontological framework.” Ontological frameworks are ways of seeing the affordances of things and features in a given environment. They are composed of ways of seeing things in terms of affordances which, in turn, guide our expectations about what to expect in an experience and guide, as well, our actions toward accomplishing our goals. We can, of course, imagine situations in certain ways and not just use our ontological frameworks in actual situations of action. So ontological frameworks determine how we think about things and not just what we expect and how we act in the world.
What we earlier called “linguistic frameworks” are closely related to ontological frameworks, as we said earlier. An ontological framework—how we see things in certain situations or sorts of situations—determines how we will apply the principle of sufficient reason in regard to a given linguistic framework. That is to say that it will determine what counts as sufficiently like a set of exemplars in a given situation or type of situation to merit application of a certain word. For example, in a given situation the word “door-stop” can be applied to a hammer, though the hammer is not exactly an exemplar of a door-stop. In a given situation, a hammer can be the situational meaning of the word “door-stop.”
Now we can see how the incommensurability hypothesis arises. If two people bring different ontological and linguistic frameworks to a given situation (in imagination or in the world) they appear to be looking at different objects and giving different meanings to words. For example, a Catholic sees the wafer at Mass as the body of Christ and calls it that. A Protestant sees it as bread and calls it that. The Protestant sees the bread as a “symbol” and calls it that, but a Catholic does not see the wafer as a symbol for Christ’s body, but as that body itself. These are two different ontological and linguistic frameworks here. How could the two sides carry on a critical discussion of their beliefs? Whose words would they use? Whose affordances would they use in the discussion? Is the wafer to be seen as good for being a symbol of Christ’s body or is it to be seen as good for actually incorporating that real body into ourselves? Here we see why the incommensurability hypothesis is so tempting. It surely appears here that there could be no real critical discussion between the two frameworks, no common language, no joint way of seeing. We can ignore each other or fight it out, but it seems we cannot discuss things together in a joint search for truth.
The problem with the incommensurability hypothesis—what makes it so appealing—is that it uses a bad theory of truth, though that bad theory is common today in both everyday life and in science. That theory sees the point of a critical discussion as debating whether specific claims are true or not, claims like “The wafer at Mass is the actual body of Christ.” Our goal here is to reach truth which means that one of us must admit to being wrong.
But meaningful critical discussions across different frameworks in science, religion, politics, or culture are not about vetting individual claims. They are about testing whole frameworks (all the claims in them as inter-related claims) against different ways of talking about and looking at experience. The goal is not to reach a definitive truth, to convince someone they are wrong. The goals is to deepen our understanding of our own frameworks and other people’s frameworks, to raise new questions, and to reflect on changes we might want to make to our frameworks to allow them to work better in terms of our own lives and the lives of other people and the survival of our shared world. We can be seen as aiming at truth, but not ever really hitting it. Truth is a journey, a path, not a destination we frail humans ever reach definitively. This is as true in science as it is in religion and politics.
Let me give a specific example of what I mean when I say that we do not test our frameworks claim by claim but in only in terms of a whole set or system of inter-related claims that compose the framework. For years now one area in which I have worked is on the affordances of video games for good learning. I have made the claim that “games are good for learning” (in and out of school). But this claim is but one part of a set of claims that make up my framework (theory) here. Here is a simplified picture of my framework:
When people do research to test my claim that video games are good for learning, they often have the view that science is about testing claims one by one to see if they are “true” or “a fact.” But imagine someone claimed that they had shown my claim to be false based on evidence in research. My claim is connected to a whole set of other claims. Faced with their evidence I can change or adjust any one or more of these other claims and keep my claim that video games are good for learning. Perhaps I will say the game they tested was not a “good game.” Even if it was, I can modify my definition of “good game.” I can adjust any of my claims or their relationships in my framework in a myriad of ways.
Any statement in my framework could have been bolded as the one people wanted to test or discuss, but things would still work the same. Any one statement brings all the others with it and the results of any test can be spoken to by a myriad of different adjustments. All we can ever do—in science, religion, politics, or culture—is honestly look at our frameworks (or have critics do it), draw logical consequences from the claims in our frameworks, and then ask ourselves honestly whether these consequences are good for our purposes and for the good of others and our shared world.
The opposing research has helped me modify my framework, perhaps deepen it, at least understand or interpret it in a different, maybe better, way. It has, perhaps, raised new and deeper questions for me. The research has not tested any one simple claim and cannot do so. All we can do is test and compare whole frameworks. The goal is not to find “true facts” but to deepen frameworks, though we may never know for certain which claims in our framework are “really” true or not. All we can hope is that the framework works well for us and others in the service of good purposes and that we are all moving closer to truth even if we never really get there.
Frameworks are incommensurable if we think we have to choose whose words to use and we have to reach a common agreement on what words will mean. They are incommensurable if we think that critical discussion is about vetting claims and not frameworks; if we think the goal is a destination and not a journey.
We can critically discuss and compare frameworks as wholes and each of us can say what we mean when we look at a similar situation. I see it one way, you see it another. At worst, we can learn better what we do mean and how others understand it. At best, we can each deepen our frameworks, maybe even in ways where they begin to converge a bit in the general direction of truth. We can use such a critical discussion to deepen our understandings, interpretations, questions, and reflect on how well our frameworks are actually working for our own good and the good of others. To engage in critical discussions of frameworks requires not a common language or a shared “higher-order” framework. It requires good will.
In the next step, I will give a specific example of how two different frameworks can enter into a critical discussion even though at a claim by claim level they might seem incommensurable.