rationalism v. phenomenology v. activity theory

I started to think about how different theories constrain and open up the space for design but got caught up in trying to sort out how exactly these theoretic traditions (rationalism/cognitive science, phenomenology, activity theory) are similar and different. It would be nice to have some sort of philosophical foundations of HCI cheat sheet. Here is an attempt at an oversimplified (and very likely incorrect or unforgivably incomplete) summary of the basic distinctions between the three theories…

The rationalist/cognitivist perspective has nice, clean distinctions between mind and body and between thinking and action. It’s highly reductionist.

Phenomenology rejects the rigid distinction between mind and artifact and between thinking and action. Tools mediate meaningful human experience. Pheneomenology also considers a multiplicity of thoughts/actions. There is no objective reality that we are capable of knowing. Instead, knowing is highly subjective.

Activity Theory builds on phenomenology but takes a more holistic view. It diminishes the role of the individual by emphasizing the social nature of the mind as well as the unity of consciousness and activity.

All three approaches assume an actor with intention.

rationalism phenomenology activity theory
………………………………………………………………………………………..

objective <—> subjective/pluralistic ”

mind/world<—> mind&world ”

individual consciousness <–> social/distributed consciousness

micro<———————-> macro*

reductionist<————————–>holistic

*Activity theory seems like more of a macro theory compared to phenomenology in that it considers whole ecologies within which the individual acts, but it also seems to be trying to hold on to the micro perspective by considering the conscious intentional goals of individuals.

What did I get it wrong? What am I missing?

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5 Responses to rationalism v. phenomenology v. activity theory

  1. jimmypierce says:

    damnit, why can’t blogging software format spacing the way it appears on the editing view… now my already confusing table is impossible to understand. There are supposed to be three columns: rationalism, phenomenology and activity theory. Below, are characteristics of each theory… “” represent shifts, e.g. the shift from the mind/body dualism of rationalism to the mind&world unity of phenomenology and activity theory. Hopefully the diagram below will make more sense.

    rationalism phenomenology activity theory
    ……………………………………………………………………………….

    objective subjective/pluralistic ”

    mind/world mind&world ”

    ______________ individual consciousness social/distributed consciousness

    ______________micro macro*

    reductionistholistic

  2. jimmypierce says:

    I guess not. Oh well.

  3. laurabrunetti says:

    Agreed! Maybe you could sketch the table out and scan it or take a photo and upload that as part of a post. I like the whole idea of organization into tables and formulas and such but it doesn’t end up pretty in a blog post.

  4. You can also use HTML to format a table. You know, using the and tags. I’ve done that in a few posts and it worked fine.

  5. lol. WordPress deleted the tags, even though i put spaces in them. At any rate, I was referring to the TABLE, TR, and TD tags.

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