Functional contextualism

Functional contextualism is a modern philosophy of science rooted in philosophical pragmatism and contextualism. It is most actively developed in behavioral science in general and the field of behavior analysis and contextual behavioral science in particular (see the entry for the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science). Functional contextualism serves as the basis of a theory of language known as relational frame theory[1] and its most prominent application, acceptance and commitment therapy.[2] It is an extension and contextualistic interpretation of B.F. Skinner's radical behaviorism first delineated by Steven C. Hayes which emphasizes the importance of predicting and influencing psychological events (including thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) with precision, scope, and depth, by focusing on manipulable variables in their context.


The form of contextualism from which functional contextualism emerged is the one described by the philosopher Stephen C. Pepper in his book World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence.[3] In this work, Pepper noted that philosophical systems tend to cluster around a few distinct "world hypotheses" or "world views". Each world view is characterized by a distinctive underlying root metaphor and truth criterion. Root metaphors are based on seemingly well-understood, common-sense, everyday objects or ideas, and serve as the basic analogy by which an analyst attempts to understand the world. A world view's root metaphor roughly corresponds to its ontological assumptions, or views about the nature of being or existence (e.g., whether the universe is deterministic or not). Truth criteria are inextricably linked to their root metaphors, and provide the basis for evaluating the validity of analyses. A world view's truth criterion roughly corresponds to its epistemological assumptions, or views about the nature of knowledge and truth (e.g., whether it is discovered or constructed).

The root metaphor of contextualism is the "act in context", whereby any event is interpreted as an ongoing act inseparable from its current and historical context. The truth criterion of contextualism is often dubbed "successful working", whereby the truth and meaning of an idea lies in its function or utility, not in how well it is said to mirror reality. In contextualism, an analysis is said to be true or valid insofar it as it leads to effective action, or achievement of some goal. Contextualism is Pepper's term for the philosophical pragmatism developed by Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, and others.

Varieties of contextualism

Analytic goals are vitally important to the contextualistic world view. This is because the analytic tools of contextualism—its root metaphor and truth criterion—both hinge on the purpose of the analysis, and neither can be mounted effectively without a clearly specified analytic goal. The pragmatic truth criterion of "successful working" is rendered meaningless in an analysis without an explicit goal because "success" can only be measured in relation to the achievement of some objective.[4]

Likewise, the root metaphor of the "act-in-context" is rendered meaningless in an analysis without an explicit goal because there would be no basis on which to restrict the analysis to a subset of the infinite expanse of the act's historical and environmental context.[5] Without a clear analytic goal, the contextualist could analyze the endless context of an act in perpetuity, without ever knowing when the analysis was complete or good enough to be deemed "true" or "useful". It is very difficult for a contextualist without an explicit goal to construct or share knowledge.

Contextualists can, and do, adopt different analytic goals, and the many different varieties of contextualism can be distinguished by their goals.[6] Based on their overarching analytic goals, contextualistic theories can be divided into two general categories: "descriptive contextualism" and "functional contextualism".

Descriptive contextualism

Descriptive contextualists seek to understand the complexity and richness of a whole event through a personal and aesthetic appreciation of its participants and features. This approach reveals a strong adherence to the root metaphor of contextualism and can be likened to the enterprise of history, in which stories of the past are constructed in an attempt to understand whole events. The knowledge constructed by the descriptive contextualist is personal, ephemeral, specific, and spatiotemporally restricted.[7] Like a historical narrative, it is knowledge that reflects an in-depth personal understanding of a particular event that occurred (or is occurring) at a particular time and place. Most forms of contextualism, including social constructionism, dramaturgy, hermeneutics, and narrative approaches, are instances of descriptive contextualism.

Functional contextualism

Functional contextualists, on the other hand, seek to predict and influence events using empirically based concepts and rules. This approach reveals a strong adherence to contextualism's extremely practical truth criterion and can be likened to the enterprise of science or engineering, in which general rules and principles are used to predict and influence events. Rules or theories that do not contribute to the achievement of one's practical goals are ignored or rejected. Knowledge constructed by the functional contextualist is general, abstract, and spatiotemporally unrestricted.[8] Like a scientific principle, it is knowledge that is likely to be applicable to all (or many) similar such events, regardless of time or place.


  1. ^ Hayes, S.C.; Barnes-Holmes, D. & Roche, B. (Eds.). (2001). Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Plenum Press.
  2. ^ Hayes, S.C.; Strosahl, K. & Wilson, K.G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press.
  3. ^ Pepper, S.C. (1942). World hypotheses: A study in evidence. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  4. ^ Dewey, J. (1953). Essays in experimental logic. New York: Dover (Original work published 1916)
  5. ^ Gifford, E.V. & Hayes, S.C. (1999). Functional contextualism: A pragmatic philosophy for behavioral science. In W. O'Donohue & R. Kitchener (Eds.), Handbook of behaviorism (pp. 285–327). San Diego: Academic Press.
  6. ^ Hayes, S.C. (1993). Analytic goals and the varieties of scientific contextualism. In S.C. Hayes, L.J. Hayes, H.W. Reese & T.R. Sarbin (Eds.), Varieties of scientific contextualism (pp. 11–27). Reno, NV: Context Press.
  7. ^ Morris, E.K. (1993). Contextualism, historiography, and the history of behavior analysis. In S.C. Hayes, L.J. Hayes, H.W. Reese & T.R. Sarbin (Eds.), Varieties of scientific contextualism (pp. 137-165). Reno, NV: Context Press.
  8. ^ Fox, E. J. (2006). Constructing a pragmatic science of learning and instruction with functional contextualism. Educational Technology Research & Development, 54 (1), 5-36.
Acceptance and commitment therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT, typically pronounced as the word "act") is a form of counseling and a branch of clinical behavior analysis. It is an empirically-based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies mixed in different ways with commitment and behavior-change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility. The approach was originally called comprehensive distancing. Steven C. Hayes developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 1982 in order to create a mixed approach which integrates both cognitive and behavioral therapy. There are a variety of protocols for ACT, depending on the target behavior or setting. For example, in behavioral health areas a brief version of ACT is called focused acceptance and commitment therapy (FACT).The objective of ACT is not elimination of difficult feelings; rather, it is to be present with what life brings us and to "move toward valued behavior". Acceptance and commitment therapy invites people to open up to unpleasant feelings, and learn not to overreact to them, and not avoid situations where they are invoked. Its therapeutic effect is a positive spiral where feeling better leads to a better understanding of the truth. In ACT, 'truth' is measured through the concept of 'workability', or what works to take another step toward what matters (e.g. values, meaning).

Arturo Carsetti

Arturo Carsetti is an Italian Philosopher of sciences and former Professor of philosophy of science at the University of Bari and the University of Rome Tor Vergata. He is the editor of the Italian Journal for the philosophy of science La Nuova Critica founded in 1957 by Valerio Tonini. He is notable for his contributions, also as a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, to philosophy of science, epistemology, cognitive science and philosophy of mind.

Association for Contextual Behavioral Science

The Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) is a worldwide nonprofit professional membership organization associated with acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and relational frame theory (RFT) among other topics. The term "contextual behavioral science" refers to the application of functional contextualism to human behavior, including contextual forms of applied behavior analysis, cognitive behavioral therapy, and evolution science. In the applied area Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is perhaps the best known wing of contextual behavioral science, and is an emphasis of ACBS, along with other types of contextual CBT, and efforts in education, organizational behavior, and other areas. ACT is considered an empirically validated treatment by the American Psychological Association, with the status of "Modest Research Support" in depression and "Strong Research Support" in chronic pain, with several others specific areas such as psychosis and work site stress currently under review. ACT is also listed as evidence-based by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the United States federal government which has examined randomized trials for ACT in the areas of psychosis, work site stress, and obsessive compulsive disorder, including depression outcomes. In the basic area, Relational Frame Theory is a research program in language and cognition that is considered part of contextual behavioral science, and is a focus of ACBS. Unlike the better known behavioral approach proposed by B.F. Skinner in his book Verbal Behavior, experimental RFT research has emerged in a number of areas traditionally thought to be beyond behavioral perspectives, such as grammar, metaphor, perspective taking, implicit cognition and reasoning.

Behavioral psychotherapy

Behavioral psychotherapy is a type of psychotherapy from the behaviourism tradition, and one of two streams of thought (the other being cognitive psychotherapy) that have come together to produce cognitive behavioral therapy.

Behavioral psychotherapy has a rich tradition in research and practice. From a purely behavioral perspective, behavior therapy has shown considerable success with patients from a variety of problems. Traditional behavior therapy draws from respondent conditioning and operant conditioning to solve patients problems.

Index of philosophy of science articles

An index list of articles about the philosophy of science.

Language acquisition

Language acquisition is the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive and comprehend language (in other words, gain the ability to be aware of language and to understand it), as well as to produce and use words and sentences to communicate.

Language acquisition involves structures, rules and representation. The capacity to successfully use language requires one to acquire a range of tools including phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and an extensive vocabulary. Language can be vocalized as in speech, or manual as in sign. Human language capacity is represented in the brain. Even though human language capacity is finite, one can say and understand an infinite number of sentences, which is based on a syntactic principle called recursion. Evidence suggests that every individual has three recursive mechanisms that allow sentences to go indeterminately. These three mechanisms are: relativization, complementation and coordination.There are two main guiding principles in first-language acquisition: speech perception always precedes speech production and the gradually evolving system by which a child learns a language is built up one step at a time, beginning with the distinction between individual phonemes.Linguists who are interested in child language acquisition for many years question how language is acquired, Lidz et al. states "The question of how these structures are acquired, then, is more properly understood as the question of how a learner takes the surface forms in the input and converts them into abstract linguistic rules and representations."Language acquisition usually refers to first-language acquisition, which studies infants' acquisition of their native language, whether that be spoken language or signed language as a result of prelingual deafness, though it can also refer to bilingual first language acquisition (BFLA), which refers to an infant's simultaneous acquisition of two native languages. This is distinguished from second-language acquisition, which deals with the acquisition (in both children and adults) of additional languages. In addition to speech, reading and writing a language with an entirely different script compounds the complexities of true foreign language literacy. Language acquisition is one of the quintessential human traits, because non-humans do not communicate by using language.

Philosophy of science

Philosophy of science is a sub-field of philosophy concerned with the foundations, methods, and implications of science. The central questions of this study concern what qualifies as science, the reliability of scientific theories, and the ultimate purpose of science. This discipline overlaps with metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, for example, when it explores the relationship between science and truth.

There is no consensus among philosophers about many of the central problems concerned with the philosophy of science, including whether science can reveal the truth about unobservable things and whether scientific reasoning can be justified at all. In addition to these general questions about science as a whole, philosophers of science consider problems that apply to particular sciences (such as biology or physics). Some philosophers of science also use contemporary results in science to reach conclusions about philosophy itself.

While philosophical thought pertaining to science dates back at least to the time of Aristotle, philosophy of science emerged as a distinct discipline only in the 20th century in the wake of the logical positivism movement, which aimed to formulate criteria for ensuring all philosophical statements' meaningfulness and objectively assessing them. Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was also formative, challenging the view of scientific progress as steady, cumulative acquisition of knowledge based on a fixed method of systematic experimentation and instead arguing that any progress is relative to a "paradigm," the set of questions, concepts, and practices that define a scientific discipline in a particular historical period. Karl Popper and Charles Sanders Peirce moved on from positivism to establish a modern set of standards for scientific methodology.

Subsequently, the coherentist approach to science, in which a theory is validated if it makes sense of observations as part of a coherent whole, became prominent due to W.V. Quine and others. Some thinkers such as Stephen Jay Gould seek to ground science in axiomatic assumptions, such as the uniformity of nature. A vocal minority of philosophers, and Paul Feyerabend (1924–1994) in particular, argue that there is no such thing as the "scientific method", so all approaches to science should be allowed, including explicitly supernatural ones. Another approach to thinking about science involves studying how knowledge is created from a sociological perspective, an approach represented by scholars like David Bloor and Barry Barnes. Finally, a tradition in continental philosophy approaches science from the perspective of a rigorous analysis of human experience.

Philosophies of the particular sciences range from questions about the nature of time raised by Einstein's general relativity, to the implications of economics for public policy. A central theme is whether one scientific discipline can be reduced to the terms of another. That is, can chemistry be reduced to physics, or can sociology be reduced to individual psychology? The general questions of philosophy of science also arise with greater specificity in some particular sciences. For instance, the question of the validity of scientific reasoning is seen in a different guise in the foundations of statistics. The question of what counts as science and what should be excluded arises as a life-or-death matter in the philosophy of medicine. Additionally, the philosophies of biology, of psychology, and of the social sciences explore whether the scientific studies of human nature can achieve objectivity or are inevitably shaped by values and by social relations.

Relational frame theory

Relational frame theory (RFT) is a psychological theory of human language. It was developed originally by Steven C. Hayes of University of Nevada, Reno and has been extended in research notably by Dermot Barnes-Holmes of Ghent University.Relational frame theory argues that the building block of human language and higher cognition is relating, i.e. the human ability to create bidirectional links between things. It can be contrasted with associative learning, which discusses how animals form links between stimuli in the form of the strength of associations in memory. However, relational frame theory argues that natural human language typically specifies not just the strength of a link between stimuli but also the type of relation as well as the dimension along which they are to be related. For example, a tennis ball is not just associated with an orange, but can be said to be the same shape, but a different colour and not edible. In the preceding sentence, 'same', 'different' and 'not' are cues in the environment that specify the type of relation between the stimuli, and 'shape', 'colour' and 'edible' specify the dimension along which each relation is to be made. Relational frame theory argues that while there are an arbitrary number of types of relations and number of dimensions along which stimuli can be related, the core unit of relating is an essential building block for much of what is commonly referred to as human language or higher cognition.

Several hundred studies have explored many testable aspects and implications of the theory such as the emergence of specific frames in childhood, how individual frames can be combined to create verbally complex phenomena such as metaphors and analogies, and how the rigidity or automaticity of relating within certain domains is related to psychopathology. In attempting to describe a fundamental building block of human language and higher cognition, RFT explicitly states that its goal is to provide a general theory of psychology that can provide a bedrock for multiple domains and levels of analysis.

Relational frame theory focuses on how humans learn language (i.e., communication) through interactions with the environment and is based on a philosophical approach referred to as functional contextualism.

Situated cognition

Situated cognition is a theory that posits that knowing is inseparable from doing by arguing that all knowledge is situated in activity bound to social, cultural and physical contexts.Under this assumption, which requires an epistemological shift from empiricism, situativity theorists suggest a model of knowledge and learning that requires thinking on the fly rather than the storage and retrieval of conceptual knowledge. In essence, cognition cannot be separated from the context. Instead knowing exists, in situ, inseparable from context, activity, people, culture, and language. Therefore, learning is seen in terms of an individual's increasingly effective performance across situations rather than in terms of an accumulation of knowledge, since what is known is co-determined by the agent and the context. This perspective rejects mind–body dualism, being conceptually similar to functional contextualism, and B. F. Skinner's behavior analysis.

Theory of mind

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc. — to oneself, and to others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own. Theory of mind is crucial for everyday human social interactions and is used when analyzing, judging, and inferring others' behaviors. Deficits can occur in people with autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cocaine addiction, and brain damage suffered from alcohol's neurotoxicity. Although philosophical approaches to this exist, the theory of mind as such is distinct from the philosophy of mind.

Werner Leinfellner

Werner Leinfellner (January 27, 1921 – April 6, 2010) was professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and at the Vienna University of Technology. After recovering from life-threatening wounds during World War II, he studied chemistry and physics at the Universities of Vienna and Graz, eventually turning to the study of the philosophy of science, and receiving his Ph.D. in 1959. He moved to the United States in 1967, in part, because of problems faced by empirically oriented philosophers in obtaining academic positions in Austria and Germany. He is notable for his contributions to philosophy of science, as a member of European Academy of Sciences and Arts, for founding the journal Theory and Decision, for co-founding Theory and Decision Library, and for co-founding the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society and International Wittgenstein Symposium.

William C. Wimsatt

William C. Wimsatt (born May 27, 1941) is professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy, the Committee on Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science (previously Conceptual Foundations of Science), and the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago. He is currently a Winton Professor of the Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota and Residential Fellow of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science. He specializes in the philosophy of biology, where his areas of interest include reductionism, heuristics, emergence, scientific modeling, heredity, and cultural evolution.

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