Here is a short guide to some key figures that have influenced thinking about research.
Plato (427–347 BC) and Aristotle (348–322 BC) – these represent the two contrasting approaches to acquiring knowledge and understanding the world (epistemology). Plato argued for deductive thinking (starting with theory to make sense of what we observe) and Aristotle for the opposite, inductive thinking (starting with observations in order to build theories).
René Descartes (1596–1650) – provided the starting point for modern philosophy by using a method of systematic doubt; that we cannot rely on our senses or logic, and therefore he challenged all who sought for the basis of certainty and knowledge. His famous maxim is ‘I think, therefore I am’, that is – I can only be sure of my own existence, the rest must be doubted.
John Locke (1632–1704) – made the distinction between bodies or objects that can be directly measured, and therefore have a physical existence, and those abstract qualities that are generated by our perceptions and feelings.
George Berkeley (1685–1753) – argued that all things that exist are only mental phenomena. They exist by being perceived. This is ‘our’ world.
David Hume (1711–1776) – made a distinction between systems of ideas that can provide certainty – e.g. maths – and those that rely on our perceptions (empirical evidence) which are not certain. He recognized the importance of inductive thinking in the advancement of scientific knowledge, but highlighted its restrictions in finding the truth.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) – held that our minds organize our experiences to make sense of the world. Therefore ‘facts’ are not independent of the way we see things and interpret them.
Karl Popper (1902–1994) – formulated a combination of deductive and inductive thinking in the hypothetico-deductive method, commonly known as scientific method. This method aims to refine theories to get closer to the truth.
Auguste Compte (1789–1857) – maintained that society can be analysed empirically just like any other subjects of scientific enquiry. Social laws and theories are based on psychology and biology.
Karl Marx (1818–1883) – defined moral and social aspects of humanity in terms of material forces.
Emil Durkheim (1858–1917) – argued that society develops its own system of collectively shared norms and beliefs – these were ‘social facts’.
Max Weber (1864–1920) – insisted that we need to understand the values and meanings of subjects without making judgements – ‘verstehen’ was the term he coined for this which is German for ‘understanding’.
Thomas Kuhn (1922–1995) – revealed that scientific research cannot be separated from human influences and is subject to social norms.
Michel Foucault (1926–1984) – argued that there was no progress in science, only changing perspectives, as the practice of science is shown to control what is permitted to count as knowledge. He demonstrated how discourse is used to make social regulation and control appear natural.
Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) – stated that there is no external or fixed meaning to text, nor is there a subject who exists prior to language and to particular experiences. You cannot get outside or beyond the structure. This approach led to the movement called Deconstruction.