When an irresistible epistemology meets an immovable ontology

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The human sciences’ ontology of meanings and quantitative epistemology are at odds. Quantitative methods, although superior for demonstrating validity and generalizability, are not well suited for the reconstruction of meanings, which have been considered the essence of the mind since the cognitive revolution. However, qualitative methods, although effective for studying meanings, do not currently possess adequate validity and generalizability to yield professionally reliable knowledge. There is nothing in the recent surge of literature on qualitative methods, including two new books, that shows how to resolve this dilemma. Radical behaviorists failed in their attempt to solve the problem by reconstructing social science without its meanings. The postmodernist solution that truth and validity do not exist and can be ignored is self-defeating and undermines social work’s aspirations and claims of competence. The roots of the qualitative quantitative quandary can be traced to two opposed Greek philosophical visions of human science that emphasize number (Pythagoras) and meaning (Socrates) as the essence of mind, and we may yet have something to learn about improving qualitative validity from the idiographic question-andanswer method of studying meaning systems pioneered by Socrates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9-17
Number of pages9
JournalSocial Work Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1995


  • Epistemology
  • History
  • Onthology
  • Qualitative methods
  • Quantitative methods

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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