Ideas on the Nomothetic vs. Idiographic Distinction

 In Phenomenology and Science

I want to share some ideas on the nomothetic vs. idiographic distinction.  The term “nomothetic” refers to research about general principles or generalizations across a population of individuals.  This is based on a tendency to generalize, and is typical for the natural sciences.  In general, this describes the effort to derive laws that explain types or categories of objective phenomena.  In contrast, the term “ideographic” describes the effort to understand the meaning of contingent, unique, and often cultural or subjective phenomena.  It is based on a tendency to specify, and is typical for the humanities.  This distinction should not be seen as absolute and binary.  Instead, some epistemes can involve the interplay between these two.  The description of particular streams of consciousness and symbolic interpretation of stories can sometimes be relatable for other people and this can lead to a certain mutual understanding.  In some cases, these might be so particular to the author’s personal experience that there simply isn’t any way for anyone else to relate.

A major influence for me and one of the greatest minds of our time, Gregg Henriques, has said that ideographic aspects of reality are not amenable to scientific study, since, he figures, quantification and reproducibility are just not possible.

With regard to science and ideographic knowledge, I would say it depends on how those terms are defined.  If we take a generalized definition of science, it can apply to the shared or relatable aspects of conscious experience that have correlates to objective behavior patterns.  This is how we can relate to each other and get a good sense of the inner world of the people we interact with.  There is always ideographic uniqueness, but if there are patterns that can be studied within groups then I think we can have reliable ways of building knowledge based on reproducible evidence.  Now, all sciences need to be anchored into reproducible evidence, but it is also scientific if the interpretation of the data extends into phenomena that are not reproducible.  This is why evolutionary biology and astronomy are sciences.  Those involve phenomena that are not reproducible in themselves but stand in this clear relation to things that are (we can reproduce tests on fossils and movements of stars in the sky, for example).  I figure any ideographic knowledge has to have some elements that are universal to the inner experience of consciousness, and we can reproduce our mindfulness of those phenomena and also the correlations to patterns of behavior for ourselves an for others.  Thus some ideographic knowledge can stand in relation to reproducible evidence and thus it can be somewhat scientific.

There are phenomenological experiments one can do, some of which take the form of “do this with process or procedure X your mind and you’ll get Y result”.  There are mindfulness practices that can allow people to more accurately assess their own consciousness.  If enough people agree on the results, then these can be considered to have consensus evidential support.  The findings can then be used, in conjunction with psychology and sociology, to help interpret the common threads of ideographic data.  What I’m describing here is only the paradigm and the methodology that we’re working on refining.  I think what you’re describing could be considered within a similar vein.  What might make something scientific is if it is driven by evidence (usually objective but perhaps also intersubjective) and there is some sort of methodology to drive it and the conclusions ultimately succeed or fail on the basis of reproducible experiments.  If what I’m describing is not scientific, then at least is it adjacent to science and we’d need a new word to describe it, since it is not merely speculative, there are not infinite ways that the data could be interpreted, and it does succeed or fail based on reproducible tests.

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