Validity, utility and reality: explicating Schaffner's pragmatism

Peter Zachar

in Philosophical Issues in Psychiatry II

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print April 2012 | ISBN: 9780199642205
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754777 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Validity, utility and reality: explicating Schaffner's pragmatism

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Distinguishing between the meanings of technical terms is important to an academic discipline. Examples of such distinctions in psychiatry include those between reliability and validity and between validity and utility. Although conceptual definitions of abstract terms have an inherent fluidity, it is crucial to not use this fluidity to obscure distinctions, as might be done in claiming that reliability is a type of validity or that clinical utility is validity.

As I have argued elsewhere in this volume, reliability can be a consideration in assessing comparative validity, but it is only one factor. The various kinds of reliability (e.g., inter-rater or test-retest) are asking whether the measurement of a construct is consistent and stabile. The various small “v” validities (predictive, explanatory, content, etc.) are asking different and distinct questions about constructs.

One effective way to keep the reliability versus validity distinction clear is to focus on the meaning of reliability—which is well demarcated. Validity is not as well demarcated. It is both a conceptual abstraction (a big “V” notion of validity such as “the disorder really exists”) and a composite of more or less explicit definitions (the little “v's”). Because utility is relative to goals, purposes and values, it is also not well demarcated. Because the two constructs overlap where some fuzziness occurs, the validity versus utility distinction, although important, is not clear cut across the board.

In this commentary I will explore the complicated validity and utility relationship from the standpoint of Schaffner's claim that utility constitutes what we think of as reality. I also talk about the very difficult philosophical issue of reality, and how Schaffner's pragmatism skirts the line between instrumentalism and scientific realism. Finally, I round out Schaffner's pragmatism by exploring his notions of prototype models and multiple levels of reality.

Chapter.  3499 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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