What is Theory-ladenness?

Theory-ladenness, in the ordinary sense, means that observations cannot be made without some influence from a presupposition, which thus means observations cannot be neutral. For example, if a man were to take of an apple a rather large bite and then subsequently feel as though he were on a voyage across a body of water, ready to vomit from sea sickness, then said man will come to acquire an entire set of negative contexts from which to view the essence of apples. So, if the man who ate the apple were to now take to a laboratory of nutritional science and study the nutritional value of apples, his observations will be made from biased foundations, effectively tainting all the data. That is what is meant by theory-ladenness.

The information we have gathered about something will be viewed from the perspective which has developed from our past-experiences; we shall rely on already established suppositions to understand our observations. When a war veteran glances at a gun, they see something quite distinct than when a child glances at a gun, despite their having similar visual conditions.

However, a problem quickly arises with the ordinary conception of theory-ladenness; namely, the ordinary conception fails to encapsulate all the alternative meanings of theory-ladenness, and some of those alternative meanings are adopted by proponents of theory-ladenness. That is why the ordinary meaning has problems.

So, we have an ordinary meaning for the term theory-ladenness, but we likewise have less than ordinary meanings; some of us believe presupposed beliefs have influence on how we conceptualize the world, while others of us believe presuppositions are built into perception itself.

Thus, we shall herein try to carve and delineate the different views on theory-ladenness, and then provide some commentary on auxiliary problems involving the different perspectives of theory-ladenness.

What Are The Different Views On Theory-Ladenness?

  • Perception is theory-laden (1)

With the first view, perception itself is laden with theory. When we make an observation, we have more than one possible way to make said observation, and the differences between these possible perceptions is a presupposition: theory.

To elaborate, if I were shown the letter “E” 1000 times, I would come to expect that the next letter in the sequence will likewise be an “E”. Put otherwise, if the first 1000 letters were “E,” then the next letter I am shown ought also be an “E”. But suppose I were instead shown an “F” rather than an “E” on letter 1001. In this case, a proponent of our first view, that perception itself is theory laden, will argue that I would have perceived an “E,” even though the presented letter was an “F”; only because my perceptions have become, in a metaphorical sense, laden with the theory that, “all letters in this sequence are going to be ‘E'”.

But that above example would be a more moderate instance of the theory-ladenness of perception; in the case of the letters, we are only saying some perceptions are laden with theory, not that perception itself is entirely laden with theory. What happens in a specific, isolated context need not be the case for all contexts; and so, the example with the letters is, at best, an isolated incident which demonstrates that some and only some perception is theory-laden. However, there are more extreme examples available for the theory-ladenness of perception view.

Consider, for a more extreme example of the first view, a skilled-painter. A painter can look at the same, ordinary scene as a non-painter and see far more detail. Because the painter practiced for such a long-time the act of visually analyzing the world, he or she has implicit biases in the process of perception which the non-painter lacks. The non-painter simply cannot see shadows, colour, or depth in the same manner as the painter; and so, we can extrapolate that experts have a degree of theory-ladenness that is unlike the theory-ladenness of non-experts. What it is like to perceive as an expert is dis-similar to what it is like to perceive as a non-expert.

We are then left with the following quantifiers to characterize the first view on theory-ladenness: some, all. For some proponents of theory-ladenness, some perceptions are theory-laden due to previous experiences and expectations; and for other proponents of theory-ladenness, all perceptions are laden with theory. These are the two idealized versions of perceptual theory-ladenness belief.

  • Perception and Reason are Theory-Laden (2)

Our second view in fact expresses many different nuanced views about two of the same variables. In essence, the second view attempts to establish between rationality and perception a relationship of sorts, but the details of this relationship come in varied forms.

We can call upon four idealizations to, in an approximate sense, characterize the second manner in which theory-ladenness occurs. We have, firstly, a theory-laden intention, where the theory is the biases of our perceptions; secondly, a theory-laden perception, where the theory is the biases from our intentions; thirdly, a theory-laden concept, where the theory-ladenness comes from the biases of our perceptions; and fourthly, a theory-laden perception, where the theory-ladenness comes from the biases of our concepts. These are the four idealized approximations of the second view, and we shall speak a bit about each.

  • Perception biases intention (2.1)

When we have an intention, ipso facto, we are having an experience of something in specific. For example, when I listen to a clock tick for a longtime, the tick eventually goes silent; not because I am physically incapable of hearing the clock, but because I have pushed the noise into the unconscious aspects of my mind. And I have done so only because the clock’s repetition would otherwise consumes the limited resources of conscious attention. Thus, I have remove from my conscious attention the repetitive ticks, which means I have no intentions about the clock, even if I am unconsciously experiencing it.

So, intentions are not just an experience of something, but they also require some form of highlighting by conscious attention. But what informs that process of highlighting is debated, and our second view purports to have an answer, just consider the following:

Imagine we were given the task to judge someone’s attractiveness. A task like that would require us to highlight different features of someone’s personality and body. Now imagine being exposed to various insufferable odours while trying to judge someone’s attractiveness.

In that case, according to the second view, the strong smell of odour will lead us to highlight negative rather than positive aspects of someone’s personality and body. Put otherwise, the unpleasant reactions to the smell have lead us to have unpleasant intentions: our intentions are laden with perceptual presuppositions.

So, our second view holds that perceptions themselves can cause our intentions to become theory-laden. The perceptions we have can determine the conscious process of experiential highlighting.

  • Intentions bias perceptions (2.2)

The idea that intentions bias perceptions is essentially the main subject in gestalt psychology; that is, whether we perceive a whole or constituent parts depends upon the intentions we have toward the scene. Consider the images below:


These are all instances where what is seen depends upon our intention toward the scene, despite the information available to us not changing. For example, with multistability, the intention changes from the foreground to the background, and as a result, so too does the presentation of the image before us. So, herein, one can argue that perception itself becomes laden with the influence of intentions, such that intentions bias perception. What we see is determined not by the information presented to our senses, but instead is determined by our intentional states toward said information.

  • Concepts influence how perceive (2.3)

Another variant on the second view relates to concepts and their impact upon perception; that is, concepts can laden our perceptions, such that we have a biased view. For example, the concept of a delusion impacts how we perceive certain sets of behaviours; whereas, others who suppose delusions do not exist see those same sets of behaviours in another light.

When a psychologist notices a man swinging his arms wildly in the air, proclaiming to have just achieved immortality, the probability of said man being subject to delusion is rather high, from the perspective of the psychologist. Comparatively, for someone who has no concept of a delusion, such a series of behaviours will be interpreted differently. Maybe, for the non-psychologist, the man has indeed reached immortality, or perhaps is simply lying; however, the probability of them realizing the that person proclaiming to be immortal is subject to a mental health condition is ostensibly lower.

And so, in this case, the concepts we have influence precisely how it is we interpret the data within our senses, much like the ordinary meaning of the term theory-ladenness. The degree to which the world fits to one concept or another determines how we interpret perceptual information.

  • Perception influences our concepts (2.4)

With this variant of the second view, concepts cannot be formed independent of the presuppositions of perception. Our concept of red, for example, has laden in it the biases of our colour perception; our concept of space has laden in it our perception of space. None of our concepts are formulated independently of perception.

In accordance to such a view, whenever I speak of, for instance, mathematics, I am implicitly relying upon the features of my perceptual experiences in an abstract domain.  When I suppose 1+1 = 2, I am really relying on my memory of placing two objects next to one another, not some rule of rationality or apriori cognition.

This view is essentially known as something called embodied cognition, which seeks to collapse the distinction between rationality and perception, or put otherwise, deny the existence of such a distinction. For embodied cognition, knowledge is synonymous with perception.

So, to sum up our second view, as we can see, there are four similar, yet distinct, ways to conceptualize the second view. They are similar because in each instance, we have some form of relationship between the variables of perception and abstraction, yet they are distinct because the placeholder for abstraction varies in each instance; and varying the placeholder for abstraction effectively commits someone to a different ontology of the mind, which means we have to keep these claims distinct. But overall, the views are quite similar.

  • Language is theory-laden (3)

The last view, our third view, can be related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language influences the way we think about reality. Essentially, our third view argues that certain terms are laden with theory, and so can only identify specific referents in the environment; and as a result, proponents of certain theories cannot think outside of their theories because the terms they use limit their ability to think differently.

For example, if we have a social psychologist and a neuroscientist debate the causation of behaviour, according to our third view, the two scholars will always talk-past one another. When the neuroscientist tries to explain why everyone watched some sporting event, he or she will explain things in terms of brain activity because their language forces them to focus on that aspect of reality, whereas the social psychologist will explain things in terms of group behaviour because their language forces them to focus on that aspect of reality; both parties cannot view reality in a neutral fashion, since the terms both parties rely on for explanation have a direct referent to different viewpoints within reality.

Analogously put, imagine trying to discuss a movie scene with someone, and you spoke about the chemistry of image rendition, while another person spoke of film theory; one person tries to explain the changes in imagery via chemistry, and the other via the principles of film theory. It is reasonable to see how the two would never understand one another because their focus on the referents is different.

So, with the third view, language effectively determines which aspects of reality we pay attention to. The theory-ladenness of language influences what we perceive.

What we are now left with for the meaning of theory-ladenness are the following views:

Red denotes viewpoints which are theory-laden, blue entails viewpoints that are neutral (not theory-laden).

Commentary on Theory-Ladenness

  • Confusion About the Term Theory.

Throughout this paper, I have used the notion of theory-ladenness as it has been used amongst scholars; however, I have an issue with the term itself. I believe the term is overly confusing, not because the term itself is difficult to grasp but because the usage of “theory” is metaphorical, with respect to theory-ladenness.

When I am asked what I mean by the term “theory,” I am going to eventually appeal to a supposition of sorts; that is, I shall say “theory’ denotes a supposition about something: i.e., personality theory is a series of suppositions about human behaviour, beliefs, and emotions. Which means, “theory” denotes something produced by my reason or rational faculties. Simple enough.

But when I then use the term “theory” to describe features of perception, and suppose “perception is theory-laden,” I have introduced a confusion that can only be made clear by supposing the usage of theory is metaphorical. More thoroughly put, I do not mean, in the literal sense, that perception is, as though it were some kind of agent, making suppositions. Only agents, in accordance to the method used to derive the meaning for the notion of “theory,” can make suppositions. And so, we then have to re-interpret the phrase, “perception is theory-laden,” as: perception has features which disallow for a neutral observation.

In order for the phrase to make sense, we have to reapply the phrase in a metaphorical sense, and then essentially adopt a meaning that is entirely different from the literal and ordinary meaning of the original utterance. It seems to me that this phrase, “theory-ladenness” is a confused one, and that we should adopt something similar to “non-neutral perception”.

  • Caution About Mutual Exclusion and Theory-Ladenness

We have presented a moderately extensive account of different viewpoints on theory-ladenness; however, those viewpoints are not all mutually exclusive and can thus be synthesized to create even more viewpoints on theory-ladenness.

For example, someone can suppose all perceptions are neutral; that is, perception itself is completely neutral in its ability to represent information, it has no biases. In addition, they can likewise suppose some language is theory-laden, as well as some intentions; which is to say, although perception is neutral, how I interpret those neutral perceptions is theory-laden, and the language used to speak about those perceptions is also theory-laden.

So, although we have presented the views independent of one another, such circumstances fail to necessitate mutual exclusion. We could adopt two or three views rather than just one.

My Views on Theory-Ladenness

I agree with the premise that all knowledge is laden with theory, where theory simply means presupposition. The only means available to humans to develop knowledge, in accordance to skepticism, are axioms and presuppositions. So, theory-ladenness is a given for me. However, I do not agree with some of the views underneath the term theory-ladenness.

My disagreements shall stem from what I think is the norm amongst people; that is, if one of the above views seems to be contrary to how people ordinarily behave, then I shall take the view to be incapable of describing what is actually the case. For example, someone could, by means of axioms, postulate that, “tree’s do not exist,” but whether I opt to believe that or not depends upon whether the average person references some normative category named “tree,” or not.

Because the foundations of knowledge are established by arbitrary axioms, I only seek to accept what is commonly used amongst other agents; to explain further, there is no utility to use a language that I and only I know and speak when my goal is to communicate. Likewise, when my goal is to understand axiomatic systems of knowledge, then I will point out assumptions which seem to neither understand nor accurately characterize the axiomatic system which they are aimed at; because inaccuracies fail to benefit my ability to explain what is actually the case.

So, if the above views, one through three, are meant to characterize human knowledge and theory, which I shall presume to be the case, then my disagreements will pertain to whether the above views accurately characterize the axioms of the many or not.

  • Argument From Demarcation

Although I have thus far, on grounds of skepticism, accepted theory-ladenness, there is yet another argument for theory-ladenness.

Theory-ladenness, to me, seems undeniable if we accept demarcations; only because there is indeed a meaningful demarcation between neutral and non-neutral observations. Which is not to say, there exists, in the literal sense, a neutral observation, but that we can artificially declare something as neutral.

To explain, consider the apple example. With that example, our subject had negative experiences which influenced their observations of the apple. However, we can easily imagine a case where there is someone who had never seen an apple before, or someone who has neither had a negative experience with, nor is particularly enthusiastic about, apples; given such a case, we can see a clear distinction, and so could then create our categories of neutral and non-neutral observation; where neutral corresponds to no negative experiences or overly positive experiences, and non-neutral refers to those who have had negative experiences.

As to whether this demarcation is empirically accurate or not is beside the point that, namely, such a method of demarcation can be utilized to establish the premises of theory-ladenness. And so, for that reason, I see no reason to deny theory-ladenness, and I likewise see no tenable way to deny theory-ladenness, given the axiom of demarcation.

  • Argument Against Linguistic Determinism

Our third view, language is laden with theory, means the usage of certain terms fixates our thoughts to the referent of the language we use. This view can be broken into a strong and weak claim.

In example, if I could only speak in the terms of materialist metaphysics, then, according to the strong version of this view, I would likewise think in terms of materialist metaphysics; I could not think like a platonist or non-materialist, since I am missing the language todo so. Here, language determines all thought.

I believe the strong view is wrong, because people routinely misspeak. Consider someone who is thinking about their friend, and then calls out to a stranger standing nearby by using their friends name. In such a case, we would not suppose the stranger has suddenly become their friend, and so clearly the thought of their friend has influenced the language they used.

Similarly, if I see a black pen but accidentally say, “that is a red pen,” I have again experienced a distinction between my thoughts and my utterances, and my utterances have not determined what I am thinking.

These kinds of accidents are routine in the daily speech of people, and so clearly the strong claim that terms determine all thoughts cannot be supported. However, the weak claim that some language influences some thought is more tenable.

Suppose I were only speaking in materialist metaphysics terms for the last hour; in such a case, I can see how I could be primed to more readily think of things in terms of materialism rather than platonism. But my doing so wouldn’t necessarily be because of a deterministic relationship between language and thought, but rather because of the semantic associations between materialist language and materialist thought; pondering the meaning of materialist language has simply primed my mind to think of materialism.

That means, I can still think outside of the terms of materialism, even while I am speaking materialist language; and, I can even make associations to materialist language which are not directly referred to by materialist language; that is, I might think of various philosophers rather than materialism, when I hear materialist language, simply because materialism reminds me of my philosophy studies in university, for instance.

So because our third view fails to align with ordinary speech behaviour when in its stronger form, I reject it. But our third view, when presented in a weaker form, seems perfectly tenable to me, since it is perfectly compatible with ordinary speech behaviour; namely, using some kinds of language leads to specific kinds of semantic associations to be more likely than not, in some cases.

  • The Incommensurability Problem and Theory-Ladenness

The incommensurability problem takes on different forms depending on the discipline; in economics the problem is different than in linguistics. Likewise, the incommensurability problem has its own meaning within philosophy as well.

In philosophy, the incommensurability refers to the inability of scientists who defend different paradigms than one another to understand each other. For example, a behavioural psychologist will not understand a cognitive psychologist, because the two paradigms have no common medium to discuss through. They lack the same concepts, language, and theories; hence, they cannot understand one another.

So, here, because people’s viewpoints are laden with theory, they are unable to communicate effectively with each other. One could even suppose the perceptions these two scientists are having lead to different qualitative models of reality, but the general point is the same.

On some level, that this occurs is undeniable. People talk past one another quite frequently, and will attribute false arguments to their interlocutors during a conversation; and some of that is more than likely due to theory-ladenness. However, we cannot be too extreme with this point.

Although some conversations are futile due to theory-ladenness, there are examples of proponents of different views sufficiently understanding one another’s views, but simply thinking them to be wrong. And then there are even times where one side indeed understood the other, but it was only one side that understood the other.

For example, Watson, a well-known behaviourist, understood quite well the nature arguments, even though he was quoted, out of context, as a radical behaviourist:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. (1930)” – John Watson

Watson went on in the paragraph right after that one to say that such a statement is clearly false, and that he was only speaking like this for rhetorical purposes. Watson not only understood the importance of genetics, but was also a supporter in both genetic and environmental influences.

And a similar instance has happened where people believed Ivan Pavlov was a behaviourist, even though he accuses the behaviourists of bastardizing his method, and that behavioural psychology need not be a discipline; rather, we should only have applied physiology (see Pavlov’s essays). Pavlov understood behaviourism, but failed to see how it was anything but applied physiology mixed with the language of philosophy.

The point being, clearly, the language of different theories does not stop scientists from being able to grasp different perspectives; instead, it seems that some people are just unable, due to biases or lack of effort, to understand others in general. We do not have a incommensurability problem between theories, we have a person problem.

  • The Unsolvability of Theory-Ladenness and What Todo About it

Since we cannot adopt a third-person-perspective of our own theories, then we cannot truly know whether we have theory-ladenness or not. I agree that all knowledge for humans starts with axioms, which entails theory-ladenness; however, someone could argue that their axioms are accurate about a mind-independent environment, which entails a correspondence to a real world. Given such a case, they would not suffer from theory-ladenness.

So, essentially, since we cannot step beyond our own perspectives to verify our axioms, we have no means to solve the problem of theory-ladenness. The notion of theory-ladenness is itself contingent upon axioms.

And so, on grounds of pragmatism, I encourage the reader to seek only those combinations and conceptions of theory-ladenness which help reach some sort of goal, a pursuit of epistemic certainty on theory-ladenness shall be as unachievable as a dog catching its tail.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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