What is abductive thought?

The answer to this question highlights both the ‘reason for’ and the ‘findings from’ my Doctoral research. I asked a question not often asked and found by its uncommon asking the reason we don’t often ask it.

I was reflecting on my PhD Thesis conferral recently. For me the undertaking of this doctoral program was completely satisfying and at the same time gently humbling. In my jurisdiction, doctoral research is a remarkably challenging process designed to enable the mature learner in their learning of how to autonomously discover. It was an opportunity that fulfilled my anticipations.

On completing my Masters research ten years ago  (Varey, 2001: Developmental Theory in Generative Learning Dynamics) I knew I wanted to complete a doctorate – and yet actively turned down invitations to commence the research at that time. I had a sense that there were many parts to a larger puzzle and, only when collecting them all, would I be able to phrase a question appropriate to the level of inquiry that was respectful of that single-event opportunity. While I did complete my Doctorate in the time challenge I set myself, being four years (to the day, if not the hour), I did have the advantage of ten years of prior seeking and proactive preparation.

To illustrate the ‘humbling’ part of the process, one of the final administration steps in the PhD labyrinth of tasks and trials is to reduce the entirety of your work into seventy words, in plain English, in a form able to be read at graduation. My thesis is summarised thus:

Thesis Title: “Abductive Theory for Thought-Ecologies: Depicting Systems of Conceptions”

Thesis Statement: “This thesis answered the question how can we show the capacity for thought in sustainable social systems. By using over a hundred conceptions of health, the dynamics of a healthy ecology of minds were identified. This finding enables the three-dimensional depiction of landscapes of thought. It establishes the study of thought-ecologies as a field of inquiry. The significant result of this work is the enhanced capacities for social learning by sustainable societies.”

The 470 word version is also available in the Thesis Abstract (the full text being in temporary moratorium to allow intellectual property registration).

What is this Thesis actually about? 

My previous Thesis title at candidature was: “Panoply and Panarchy: Disclosing the psychodynamic capacity of sustainable social systems.” The premise held from experience was that the panoply of thinking in a collective societal inquiry reflects back at the researcher the glint of the evidence of structure, form and formations in dynamic relations hidden within. This type of inquiry reflected my desire to see past the reflections and projections of sustainability discourse into the collective capacity of the social mind to enact its own sustainable futures. If you like, a first-principles inquiry into developing an fMRI for the health of the sustainable city.

What is the contribution? 

In the PhD result actually achieved, there were three primary contributions to knowledge within the one form:

The first is development of an abductive method ~ taking an inquiry into the unknown and approaching it knowingly. Using Peirce’s (1839-1914) abductive theory, this counterpart to deduction and induction moves us from the open question to testable pragmatic verification. The abductive thesis ends with a hypothesis as a proposition. The contribution is in the quality of that resulting proposition, not as theory, but in a form beyond ‘guess and test’ for the elimination of over two thousand non-correlations. For this to occur, I developed a nine phase process of abductive inquiry generating dimensions of emphasis for each phase – to form an archway of known unknowing. This involved nine research questions, nine methods, nine research fields and nine findings as a completed sequence of inquiries. This is the contribution in ‘mind’ – a mental modelling of a repeatable process manifested.

The second is the more prosaic contribution ~ deriving a means to depict the psychodynamic capacity of sustainable social systems with a view to enable social learning outcomes. What was interesting in the outcome was not the ‘what’ of its enaction but the ‘why’ of its evocation. In the abductive method the ‘solution demand’ within defined ‘problem constraints’ provides more than simply another answer; it insists on an open answering to a specific and unanswerable (but required) question. Being ever practical, pragmatism was key in the design solution. The path, is the practice, is the contribution. This result is the contribution in ‘speech’ – a  communication of the invisible in the landscapes of thought in a means that is tangible (and perhaps, one day, visceral).

The third is more subtle in its appreciations ~ being the embodiment of the research as a personal testing of the underlying premises. If we think about the ecology of thought as system of opportunities and constraints, the belief about the capacity for alterations and innovations may be clearly informed and intensely naive. When we consider the evidence for developmental levels of consciousness and their individual and societal expressions, the systemic capacity to think about thought might even be seriously questioned. The act of embodied abductive inquiry in this thesis committed the discovery to that process of inquiry. Failure was completely an option. Yet, as I have often experienced in facilitating changes into transitions unimagined, the process of emergence can be much more than magical. It can be consciously enabled, provided the initiating projections and predictions are sufficiently humbled. This is the contribution in ‘body’ – a retroductive apithological inquiry formed in embodied action. The evidence of the possibility of ‘doing’ is found in its ‘done-ness’.

In body, speech and mind – the work is now complete (and its merit completely dedicated).

What was done?

And … if this talk about theory (about theory) and ‘thoughts about thought’ is simply too abstract, there is instead the simple reduction into the empirical as a set of statistics representing the entirety of the meaningful:

Word Count/Pages:

Thesis Text Body: 99,323 (349 pages)
Thesis Appendices A-L: 22,699 (52 pages)
Thesis Complete: 131, 537 (414 pages)
Total Thesis Document: 155,224 (466 pages)
Thesis (Alternative) Theoretical Version: 156,000 (506 pages)
Annotated bibliography: 67,160 (121 pages)
Thesis Journal: 157,803 (332 pages)
Total Thesis Production: 535,200 (1425 pages) (excluding all drafts and working papers)
Thesis Body: 671 citations
Conceptions of Health: 135 (92 sources)
Measurement Methods: 100 (61 non-duplicated)
Total Cited in Final Text: 824 works
Total References Cited in Research: 1555 texts
Percentage Cited in Edited Final Draft: 53%
Quote: “We research the unknown using what we know, rather than the potentially knowable by knowledgeable unknowing.” – willvarey