The Linguistic Fore-Structure Of Psychological Explanation

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Published In

Respect For Thought: Theory And History In The Human And Social Sciences


This chapter extends the early work of Smedslund on the common sense underpinnings of hypothesis testing in psychology. As Smedslund argued, experiments do not test hypotheses about the relationship between psychological process and behavior because any failure to verify would defy cultural understanding. Here I propose that the intelligibility of psychological explanations does not rest so much on cultural understandings as tautological language use. The reliance on tautology is born of the impossibility for ostensively defining the states of mind presumably giving rise to action. The result is reliance on a logic of originary resemblance, that is, explaining a given behavior in terms of a “miniaturized” form of itself, displaced within the mind. Further, because each definition of a mental term relies on another mental term for its meaning, we enter a condition of semiotic slippage. It is thus possible to account for psychological explanations far removed from simple or transparent tautology. By drawing on extended definitional sequences, we find that any given behavior (or its negation) can be explained by virtually any randomly drawn motive or trait. This includes otherwise counter-intuitive or paradoxical explanations. These developments bear importantly on the potentials of psychological research, mental and diagnostic testing, and psychotherapy.


Psychological explanation, Semiotic slippage, Tautological explanation, Originary resemblance, Hypothesis testing, Psychological measurement

Published By



T. Lindstad, E. Stänicke, and J. Valsiner