Hubris to humility: Tonal volume and the fundamentality of psychophysical quantities

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Psychophysics measures the attributes of perceptual experience. The question of whether some of these attributes should be interpreted as more fundamental, or "real," than others has been answered differently throughout its history. The operationism of Stevens and Boring answers "no," reacting to the perceived vacuity of earlier debates about fundamentality. The subsequent rise of multidimensional scaling implicitly answers "yes" in its insistence that psychophysical data be represented in spaces of low dimensionality. I argue the return of fundamentality follows from a trend toward increasing epistemic humility. Operationism exhibited a kind of hubris in the constitutive role it assigned to the experimenter's presuppositions that is abandoned by the algorithmic methods of MDS. This broad epistemic trend is illustrated by following the trajectory of research on a particular candidate attribute: tonal volume.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)99-111
Number of pages1
JournalStudies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A
Early online date26 Jul 2017
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2017


  • operationism
  • multidimensional scaling
  • perceptual attributes
  • psychophysics
  • measurement


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