Philosophy:Nomothetic and idiographic

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Short description: Philosophical terms used by Windelband

Nomothetic and idiographic are terms used by Neo-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband to describe two distinct approaches to knowledge, each one corresponding to a different intellectual tendency, and each one corresponding to a different branch of academia. To say that Windelband supported that last dichotomy is a consequent misunderstanding of his own thought. For him, any branch of science and any discipline can be handled by both methods as they offer two integrating points of view.[1]

  • Nomothetic is based on what Kant described as a tendency to generalize, and is typical for the natural sciences. It describes the effort to derive laws that explain types or categories of objective phenomena, in general.
  • Idiographic is based on what Kant described as a tendency to specify, and is typical for the humanities. It describes the effort to understand the meaning of contingent, unique, and often cultural or subjective phenomena.

Use in the social sciences

The problem of whether to use nomothetic or idiographic approaches is most sharply felt in the social sciences, whose subject are unique individuals (idiographic perspective), but who have certain general properties or behave according to general rules (nomothetic perspective).

Often, nomothetic approaches are quantitative, and idiographic approaches are qualitative, although the "Personal Questionnaire" developed by Monte B. Shapiro[2] and its further developments (e.g. Discan scale and PSYCHLOPS[3]) are both quantitative and idiographic. Another very influential quantitative but idiographic tool is the Repertory grid when used with elicited constructs and perhaps elicited elements.[citation needed] Personal cognition (D.A. Booth)[full citation needed] is idiographic, qualitative and quantitative, using the individual's own narrative of action within situation to scale the ongoing biosocial cognitive processes in units of discrimination from norm (with M.T. Conner 1986, R.P.J. Freeman 1993 and O. Sharpe 2005).[full citation needed] Methods of "rigorous idiography"[4] allow probabilistic evaluation of information transfer even with fully idiographic data.

In psychology, idiographic describes the study of the individual, who is seen as a unique agent with a unique life history, with properties setting them apart from other individuals (see idiographic image). A common method to study these unique characteristics is an (auto)biography, i.e. a narrative that recounts the unique sequence of events that made the person who they are. Nomothetic describes the study of classes or cohorts of individuals. Here the subject is seen as an exemplar of a population and their corresponding personality traits and behaviours. It is widely held that the terms idiographic and nomothetic were introduced to American psychology by Gordon Allport in 1937, but Hugo Münsterberg used them in his 1898 presidential address at the American Psychological Association meeting.[5] This address was published in Psychological Review in 1899.[6]

Theodore Millon stated that when spotting and diagnosing personality disorders, first clinicians start with the nomothetic perspective and look for various general scientific laws; then when they believe they have identified a disorder, they switch their view to the idiographic perspective to focus on the specific individual and his or her unique traits.[7]

In sociology, the nomothetic model tries to find independent variables that account for the variations in a given phenomenon (e.g. What is the relationship between timing/frequency of childbirth and education?). Nomothetic explanations are probabilistic and usually incomplete. The idiographic model focuses on a complete, in-depth understanding of a single case (e.g. Why do I not have any pets?).

In anthropology, idiographic describes the study of a group, seen as an entity, with specific properties that set it apart from other groups. Nomothetic refers to the use of generalization rather than specific properties in the same context.

See also


  1. Windelband, Wilhelm (February 1, 1998). "History and Natural Science". Theory and Psychology 8 (1): 5–22. doi:10.1177/0959354398081001. 
  2. Shapiro, M. B. (1961). A method of measuring psychological changes specific to the individual psychiatric patient*. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 34(2), 151–155.
  4. Evans, C., Carlyle, J., & Paz, C. (2023). Rigorous idiography: Exploring subjective and idiographic data with rigorous methods—The method of derangements. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 1007685.
  5. Hurlburt, R. T., & Knapp, T. J. (2006). Münsterberg in 1898, not Allport in 1937, introduced the terms idiographic and nomothetic to American psychology. Theory & Psychology, 16, 287-293.
  6. Münsterberg, H. (1899). Psychology and history. Psychological Review, 6, 1-31.
  7. Millon, Theodore, with Roger D. Davis. (1995). Disorders of Personality: DSM-IV and Beyond, 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN:978-0471011866

Further reading

  • Cone, J. D. (1986). "Idiographic, nomothetic, and related perspectives in behavioral assessment." In: R. O. Nelson & S. C. Hayes (eds.): Conceptual foundations of behavioral assessment (pp. 111–128). New York: Guilford.
  • Thomae, H. (1999). "The nomothetic-idiographic issue: Some roots and recent trends." International Journal of Group Tensions, 28(1), 187–215.