The Data/Theory Dialectic: The Nature of Scientific Progress
Hayne W. Reese West Virginia University
Kant ( 1781/ 1896) said, "Thoughts without contents are empty: intuitions without concepts are blind" (p. 41). Thoughts, for Kant, can be called ideas, conceptions, concepts, or the like, and intuitions are sense impressions. Thus, Kant's "celebrated dictum" ( Cassirer, 1954, p. 56) means that concepts are empty of empirical content unless they refer ultimately to sense impressions; and sense impressions are literally meaningless unless they refer to concepts, that is, in information-processing terms, unless they are encoded conceptually. This proposition is widely generalized. For example, in a manual on Marxism-Leninism published in the former Soviet Union: "Divorced from practice, theory is barren. Unguided by theory, practice is doomed to grope in the dark" ( Fundamentals, 1961, p. 114). In other words, theory without data is groundless, and data without theory are uninterpretable. This proposition is tautological because its truth is given by the definitions of the terms it contains; but it provides a model for analyzing the nature of scientific progress. The purpose of this chapter is to examine this model.
Discussion of the relation between data and theory might begin with the question of which came first, the data or the theory? Before this question can be answered, both "data" and "theory" need to be defined.