Against the Technical Rationality of Positivism LO26930

From: Artur F. Silva (
Date: 07/02/01

Linked to LO25939 (A Search for LO's and Metanoia)

Part I Introduction

I.2. Against the Technical Rationality of Positivism


Except in some very special occasions, we are used to analyzing personal,
professional or social problems with the lens that society and namely
school have created in us, that have been introjected at an early age and
persist in us as powerful (mental) models for thinking, feeling and

It is true that there are many different such models but, on the
epistemologycal side, the majority of these models accept that theory is
somehow separated from practice, that theory dominates practice, and that
theory must be applied in practice.

This is due to the fact that we have been educated to believe in the
Technical Rationality of Positivism mainly by the universities, directly
or indirectly (through the fact that universities have great prestige - at
least they have educated and 'certified' the teachers of the other levels
of the school system).

When we have problems in understanding ourselves, interpersonal relations,
organizations, or society at large, our normal attitude is to look for
professionals and, if that doesn't work, to look back to universities and
professors to obtain help to solve our problems. They then apply even more
rigorous 'research' based on the same technical rationality and give us a
'solution'. We try to apply the solution and many of us are burned in the
process. After some time we then decide that we have a new situation with
different (sometimes worse) problems and so we call again for help from

In all this process there is a 'paradigm' that we almost never question:
given a problem, university research will find a solution; some are good,
some not so good but they will always improve the situation (at least,
they will change it :-)

Suppose for a moment that universities are not a part of the solution,
but, due to the dominance of the referred Technical Rationality, are
indeed part of the problem (exactly like politicians, by the way). If this
is true, then we cannot get any real solutions for any of our
organizational or social problems, until we have been able:
 - to question the paradigm of the Technical Rationality
 - to question the main producer of that paradigm the
     universities, themselves
 - to change the conditions that created and maintain that

To try to understand and solve the problems that affect our organizations
and society at large with methods that accept the current Technical
Rationality, eventually 'improving' those methods will not solve the
problems. The solution cannot be found 'improving' that Rationality, but
criticizing and abandoning it.

The Technical Rationality of Positivism has been criticized from many
perspectives: in this series of posts I will refer to some of them and add
one or two criticisms of my own.

But I would like to begin with the criticism made by Schon, in his 'The
Reflective Practitioner' (RP, 1982), not only because it's a powerful one,
but mainly because it is based on a reevaluation of what it is to be a
professional and why professionals do reflect on their practice in a way
that is in part similar and in part different from what is done by
researchers. The Concept of Reflective Practice is Schon argues, and I
agree a powerful way to criticize the Technical Rationality of Positivism
and, at the same time, begin understanding an alternative. Indeed one of
the chapters has the title 'From Technical Rationality to

So, after discussing Polanyi's 'tacit dimension' as a first pre-requisite,
I will end my introduction with Schon's ideas (except when I quote Schon
directly, I will speak for myself, even if I think that what I will say is
close to what he wrote).

Let me finish this introduction saying that I am profoundly in debt with
Schon, which I never met, and only read in the end of the 90's; and not so
much as I agree with him in most point, but mainly because he 'showed' me
that I have been a 'Reflective Practitioner' all my life, but didn't know
that and had no words to describe it.

Schon's Purpose

I think the double purpose of Schon in 'The Reflective Practitioner' is
immediately stated in the beginning of his Preface.

'This exploration of professional knowledge stems directly from my working
life as an industrial consultant, technology manager, urban planner,
policy analyst, and teacher in a professional school. Because of these
experiences, the question of the relationship between the kinds of
knowledge honored in academia and the kinds of competence valued in
professional practice has emerged for me not only as an intellectual
puzzle but as the object of a personal quest. I have become convinced that
universities ARE NOT devoted to the production and distribution of
fundamental knowledge in general. They are institutions committed, for the
most part, to a particular epistemology, a view of knowledge that fosters
selective inattention to practical competence and professional artistry.
This is not, of course, n unfamiliar point of view. Many people use the
term 'academic' in its pejorative sense...' (pg. vii).

And he continues 'We are in need of inquiry into an epistemology of
practice. What is the kind of knowing in which competent practitioners
engage? How is professional knowing like and unlike the kinds of knowledge
presented in academic textbooks, scientific papers, and learned journals?
In what sense, if any, is there intellectual rigor in professional

In this book I offer an approach to epistemology of practice based on a
close examination of what some practitioners - architects,
psychotherapists, engineers, planners, and managers - actually do. I have
collected a sample of vignettes of practice, concentrating on episodes in
which a senior practitioner tries to help a junior one learn to do
something. In my analysis of these cases, I begin with the assumption that
competent practitioners usually know more than they can say. They exhibit
a kind of knowing-in-practice, most of which is tacit. Nevertheless,
starting with protocols of actual performance, it is possible to construct
and test models of knowing. Indeed, practitioners themselves often reveal
a capacity for reflection on their intuitive knowing in the midst of
action and sometimes use this capacity to cope with the unique, uncertain,
and conflicted situations of practice.

The heart of this study is an analysis of the distinctive structure of
reflection-in-action. I shall argue that it is susceptible to a kind of
rigor that is like and unlike the rigor of scholarly research and
controlled experiment. I shall also consider the question of its limits,
some of which derive from myths about the relation of thought to action,
while others are grounded in powerful features of the interpersonal and
institutional contexts that we create for ourselves.' (pg. viii-ix)

The Technical Rationality of Positivism

Schon uses the word professions to refer to the professional activities to
which a higher level degree is needed; he refers to major professions
(medicine, law, engineering and management) and minor professions
(education, social work, librarians, town planning, etc.). Professions
claim an 'extraordinary knowledge' (granted by degrees) and,
correspondingly, rights, privileges and high salaries.

He states that 'the professions have become essential to the very
functioning of our society. We conduct society's principal business
through professionals specially trained to carry out that business... But
although we are wholly dependent on them, there are increasing signs of a
crisis of confidence in the professions'. He refers to scandals, misuse of
autonomy, illegitimate private gains, failures of professional action, a
'professional conceived and managed war (that) has been widely perceived
as a national disaster', 'disparate and conflicting recommendations',
professional solutions to problems that fail to correct them, or make the
problems worse, or even solve the problems, but create bigger ones; he
argues that professions are at least in part responsible for social crisis
like growing poverty, the pollution of the environment, the shortage of
energy, etc... Hence, 'the professions are in the midst of a crisis of
confidence and legitimacy... first because professionals do not live up
the values and norms that they espouse, and second because they are
ineffective'. (pg.11)

The most prominent professionals and teachers recognize this crisis and
their assessment is that 'professional knowledge is mismatched with the
changing character of situations of practice (complexity, uncertainty,
instability, uniqueness, value conflicts, etc.) and recognize an
unprecedented requirement for adaptability'. Some request a less
'mechanical' and more systemic orientation of the curriculum, others
request that education gives more attention to basic theoretical
principles and (even) less to cases and practice. All these suggestions
normally accept the system 'as it is' and don't question its

Schon quotes E. Schein who recognizes 3 components in the professional
 - An underlying discipline of basic science
 - An applied science or engineering component
 - A skills and attitudinal component

and that curricula are organized:
 - to teach first the 'core science'
 - later the 'applied science(s)'
 - and lastly skills, via a 'practicum' or living situation

Schon criticizes this distribution and the resulting organization of
schools and universities that exist to 'impart knowledge' in measurable
units and to evaluate (quantitatively and 'objectively' , if possible) the
knowledge that students have obtained.

That distribution of the curricula corresponds to a division of labor
where research is separated from practice. Research provides the basic and
applied science from which are created the techniques that are applied by
professionals. Professionals act in the real situations and solve them;
when they find problems they send them back to researchers and later will
test the research results. Professionals don't directly do research and
researchers / professors don't directly practice - at best (but not
always) they will eventually act as consultants to the practitioners in
real situations.

When the crisis arose, universities became even more theoretically
oriented. For instance 'schools of engineering have been transformed into
schools of engineering science; the engineering scientist tends to place
his superior status in the service of values different from those of the
engineering profession' (pg. 27).

Origins of the Technical Rationality (TR)

'It is striking that the dominant model of professional knowledge seems to
its proponents to require VERY LITTLE JUSTIFICATION. How comes it that in
the second half of the twentieth century we find in our universities,
DOMINANT VIEW of professional knowledge as the application of scientific
theory and technique to the instrumental problems of practice?'

'The answer to this question lies in the last 300 years of the history of
western ideas and institutions. Technical Rationality is the heritage of
Positivism... Technical Rationality is the Positivist epistemology of
in the late nineteenth century, when Positivism was at its height, and in
the professional schools which secured their place in the university in
the early decades of the 20th century.'

'...Since the Reformation the history of the West has been shaped by the
rise of science and technology... As the scientific world-view gained
dominance so did the ideas that human progresses would be achieved by
harnessing science to create technology for the achievement of human ends.
This Technological Program which was first vividly expressed in the
writings of Bacon and Hobbes, became a major thesis for the philosophers
of the Enlightenment in the 18th century and by the late 19th century had
been firmly established as a pilar of conventional wisdom' (pag.30-31).

Please note the capitals are mine. The capitalized words describe a
'Mental Model' that is 'conventional wisdom' in our society. That Mental
Model is institutionalized in the Modern University (that, on one hand,
results from that Model and, on the other, every year REPRODUCES the same
model in society and in the heads of students the professionals of
tomorrow). Thirdly, this model lives in institutions that have been
created by movements - namely, the Reformation and the Enlightenment
Period - and schools of thought, namely Positivism. The later was 'clearly
expressed in the 1st half of the 19th century by Comte in 3 dominant
doctrines of positivism':
 - 'first, EMPIRICAL SCIENCE was not just a form
      of knowledge but THE ONLY source of positive knowledge
      of the world';
 - 'second, ... (science must) clear men's mind of mysticism,
     superstition and OTHER FORMS of pseudo-knowledge'
     (including the tacit knowing that, during the last part
     of the medieval Age, masters used to pass through practice
     to their trainees and apprentices...);
 - 'third, ... extending scientific knowledge and TECHNICAL
    CONTROL to human society, to make technology,
    as Comte said, «no longer exclusively geometrical,
    mechanical or chemical but also and primarily political
    and moral»' (pg.32).

Please note the last point. First, it justifies, in Comte's words, that
the same methods used for research and application in the natural sciences
can also be applied to organizational and social matters. But, second,
that is not a 'scientific proposal', its a matter of faith (positivist
faith in this case).

We can see now the long term results of this program: the political system
including the election of the political leaders of today's world is one of
the faces of a coin; the other face of the same coin is the prestige of
the professors and researchers of our universities. And the coin itself
can be called 'Technical Rationality of Positivism'. Poverty, social
exclusion, pollution, etc. are consequences of both faces - not only of
one of them. Back to Schon...

'In the light of such Positivist doctrines... practice appeared as a
puzzling anomaly. Practical knowledge exists but it does not fit neatly
into Positivist categories...'. While science will define the ends,
'practical knowledge was to be constructed as knowledge of the
relationship of means to ends and craft and artistry had no lasting place
in rigorous practical knowledge'

'From the perspective of TR, professional practice is a process of problem
solving' (pag.31). This presupposes that:
 - ends have been previously defined, either by science, by
     political choice, or by a combination of both; and
 - problems are clearly defined, 'well formed', in such way
     that known techniques of problem solving can be applied.

Positivist Technical Rationality implies that professionals must apply
techniques derived from science to find ways to solve problems, in
relation with ends that have been defined by others (politicians,
managers, etc.). And those problems must be clearly defined so that
techniques of 'problem solving' can be applied. But in real situations
problems are not 'stated'; we don't have problems, but 'messes', as Ackoff
puts it. From those 'messes', problems have to be extracted and framed.

But professionals have studied at school the techniques of 'problem
solving'; they have not studied how to set or frame problems from

Limits of the Technical Rationality

 From the 60's, both the general public and the professionals have become
'increasingly aware of the importance to actual practice of phenomena
complexity, uncertainty, instability, uniqueness and value-conflict which
do not fit the model of Technical Rationality' (pg.39).

This is even more true in the domain of social and organizational
disciplines, that «have been modeled upon the medical and engineering
models. Terms like 'measurement', 'applied science' and 'rigorous
research' are in good currency in such 'soft' disciplines». And the
principles derived from 'mechanical systems' (planning and control,
feedback, etc.) have, mainly through cybernetics, been applied to human
social 'constructions' organizations and society at large.

Indeed in organizational and social settings, ends are not pre-defined,
they are 'socially constructed' and questionable. On the other hand,
technically oriented problem solving is not the right solution when, like
in organizational and social matters, problems are not previously defined,
and must be set and framed in the course of practice. Finally, in
organizational and social problems, the ideas and principles are also part
of the reality one must understand and act on. They are frequently part of
the problem, especially when the application of Positivist Technical
Rationality is in itself one of the reasons why questions are badly set
and the 'solutions' are worse than the original problems which is
frequently the case even if we are not usually able to 'quantify' it - we
only know that the organization or society was sick before and is sick
after the technically oriented intervention; but whether it is less sick
or more sick is not easy to know for sure.

'We can readily understand, therefore, not only why uncertainty,
uniqueness, instability, and value conflict are so troublesome to the
Positivist epistemology of practice, but also why practitioners bound by
this epistemology find themselves caught in a dilemma. Their definition of
rigorous professional knowledge excludes phenomena they have learned to
see as central to their practice. And artistic ways of coping with these
phenomena do not qualify, for them, as rigorous professional knowledge.

This dilemma of 'rigor or relevance' arises more acutely in some areas of
practice than in others. In the varied topography of professional
practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make
effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is a
swampy lowland where situations are confusing 'messes' incapable of
technical solution. The difficulty is that the problems of high ground,
however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant
to clients or to the larger society, while in the swamp are the problems
of greatest human concern. Shall the practitioner stay on the high, hard
ground where he can practice rigorously, as he understands rigor, but
where he is constrained to deal with problems of relatively little social
importance? Or shall he descend to the swamp where he can engage the most
important and challenging problems if he is willing to forsake technical
rigor?' (RP, pg.42).

 From those words one could think that Schon criticizes science; that is
not the case:

'Among philosophers of science no one wants any longer to be called a
Positivist, and there is a rebirth of interest in the ancient topics of
craft, artistry, and myth topics whose fate Positivism once claimed to
have sealed. It seems clear, however, that the dilemma which afflicts the
professions hinges not on science per se but on the Positivist view of
science. From this perspective, we tend to see science, after the fact, as
a body of established propositions derived from research. When we
recognize their limited utility in practice, we experience the dilemma of
rigor or relevance. But we may also consider science before the fact as a
process in which scientists grapple with uncertainties nd display arts of
inquiry akin to the uncertainties and arts of practice.

Let us then reconsider the question of professional knowledge, let us
stand the question on its head. If the model of Technical Rationality is
incomplete, in that it fails to account for practical competence in
'divergent' situations, so much the worse for the model. Let us search,
instead, for an epistemology of practice implicit in the artistic,
intuitive processes which some practitioners do bring to situations of
uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflict.' (RP, pg.48-49).

Indeed, Schon's criticism of the epistemology of 'after the fact science'
in favor of 'before the fact science... that display arts of inquiry' is
very similar (as we will see) to Khun's criticism of the 'continuist
epistemology of science' that accounts only for 'puzzle solving' ('normal
science') and not for 'scientific revolutions' and 'paradigm shifts'.

It is based on this criticism of the Positivist Technical Rationality that
Schon will try to present an 'epistemology of practice', based in the
concept of reflection-in-action that some practitioners ('reflective
practitioners') seem to apply. He asks how do practitioners reflect in
action and if this reflection-in-action exhibits (or not) a kind of rigor
that is like and unlike rigorous research and technical problem solving.

That will be the subject of the next post.



Schon, Donald 'The Reflective Practitioner', 1983, Basic Books, Inc.


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