The Need for a New Ontological Foundation of Addiction

I believe one of the central problems in addition studies is that research and theories are based on “outdated” ontological assumptions about human nature. In philosophy the term ontology is often used within the context of metaphysics, and refers to what exists or what can exist in the world. Epistemology refers to the nature of human knowledge and understanding that can be obtained through various types of investigation (Slife, 2005).

Ontological and epistemological questions often concern what is referred to as a person’s Weltanschauung or worldview. Philosophers and theoretical psychologists point out that all theories have ontological and epistemological ancestry or foundational assumptions, whether implicitly or explicitly stated (Bishop, 2007; Polkinghorn, 2004; Slife, 2005). Consequently conceptions of addiction, like conceptions in any science, are based on certain philosophical assumptions, which influence the trajectory of the development of the concept (Richardson, 2002; Bohman, 1993). In addiction science these initial assumptions often go unnoticed and consequently are uncontested once treatment methodologies are employed and made the objects of research (Hill, 2010).

For example, Ribes-Inesta (2003) commented “…psychologists have paid little attention to the nature of concepts they use, to the assumptions that underlie their theories, and the ways such concepts are applied in the study of behaviour”. Within the field of psychology there exists various ontological worldviews and hidden assumptions (Hill, 2010).Hill (2010) points out that theories about and definitions of addiction and treatment methodologies may in the same manner been influenced by ontological assumptions which often remain implicit. In his PhD dissertation, An ontological analysis of mainstream addiction theories, Hill (2010) says that there are certain (often unrecognised) ontological assumptions made by those who study addiction (or any human behaviour), and he points out that most of these assumptions are abstractionist or positivist, which he believes is problematic. The popular biopsychosocial model of addiction is such an example.

In the last ten years the field of addictionology has seen a progressive movement toward compound models of addiction (DiClemete, 2003). The integrated or compound approach to addiction is an attempt to integrate the divergent and often conflicting philosophical foundations of the biomedical, psychological, and sociological perspectives of human behaviour (Graham et al., 2008; Levant, 2004; Pilgrim, 2002; Wallace, 1993).Although the BPS model approach could be viewed as approximating a comprehensive integrated approach, there are still considerable positivistic, ontological and epistemological underpinnings and assumptions which hinder a comprehensive conceptual framework. It has been argued that the BPS model does not provide an adequate integrative conceptual framework for the many antecedent variables that it acknowledges, and for which it provides a semantic linking, at best (DiClemente, 2003; Hill, 2010; Alexander, 2008).

I proposed that that an adequate foundation can be found for addiction studies by developing an integrative meta-approach, a unifying approach – a pluralistic ontological and epistemological foundation for the study of addiction (Du Plessis, 2012, 2013, 2014). I will expand on this proposition in other blog posts.

References to this blog post can be found in my articles as indicated on my Publications and Research page of my website