Site Map
Basic Heuristic Operations
Section › 8 Set Search Previous Next

Reservations Contents  

Archimedes saw something interesting while taking a bath.

It is said that the mathematician Archimedes jumped out of his bath tub one dan and ran naked into the streets of Syracusee one day, joyfully shouting "Eureka!" It means "I've found (it) out!" He had solved a problem.

As he had watched water slosh out of the tub, he had suddenly realized that something that weighed the same as his body but was more dense would make less water slosh out of the tub. (Abbott 2004:80)

There is a way to become better at finding out things than guessing and acting at random. It is called heuristics, and Professor Andrew Abbott at the University of Chicago has written a good book about heuristics used sociology. In short, Abbott provided fit ideas for coming up with ideas.

Heuristics . . . are general methods for solving problems that employ principles (rules of thumb) that usually lead to a solution (Schunk 2012:302)

Heuristics is good in one of the phases in basic research, as shown on another page [The Master's Thesis: Initial Steps]. Scientific inquiry starts with getting ideas. Some people get them from others, other people hatch them (bring out ideas) themselves, and in many cases we manage to import, borrow and hatch. Regardless of their source, ideas mark where scientific inquiry starts - scientific inquiry is a procedure.

Learning to find out things on one's own may be helped somewhat. One way is becoming good at observing first-hand. It can be trained, and ideas may rise on top of observations.

Ideas then need to be sifted and arranged. Hermeneutics is for such work. But this page is devoted to heuristics, which could be called the art of finding out first-hand. This "finding-art" can be trained through steps, measurements, and routines. The acronyms IDEAL PUPILS sum up cores of the processes, and are explained further down.

Working Against Heuristics: Much Fear

Fear can make conform in unfulfilling, unrewarding ways; fear may not help you to progress in life, even though there are sane sides to fear, such as proper precautions. But fears may block insights, maybe insights that could help you on and up. In order to ease the way for such insights, relaxation is advocated. Probably Rogerian councelling helps too.

In psychoanalysis the client is to lie down and relax in order to find out things. Relaxing is good for coping and seeing. Sigmund Freund found out parts of that. In Zen training relaxing is an integral part of the training itself - not getting tense and upset is vital for practical benefit.

High-strung persons who have a hard time relaxing, may find that their coping efforts breed stress, and stress can breed neuroses and physical illness. In fact, it is widespread [Link].

It helps to go against stress. And to think well, it may help too, just as suggested above.

Four Strands of One Rope

It is the heuristic aspect of science that distinguishes it in good part from engineering and technology. On the basis of a heuristic hunch, the scientist takes a risky leap. . . . Heuristic may also be called problem-solving, but the emphasis is on imaginative and not routine problem-solving. . . . Alleged established facts and bodies of information are important to the heuristic scientist because they help lead to further theory, further discovery, and further investigation. (Kerlinger and Lee 2000:9)

Jerome Bruner:

Intuitive thinking, the training of hunches, is a much-neglected and essential feature of productive thinking not only in formal academic disciplines but also in everyday life. The shrewd guess, the fertile hypothesis, the courageous leap to a tentative conclusion - these are the most valuable coin of the thinker at work, whatever his line of work. Can school children be led to master this gift? (1966:13-14)

It is rarely an easy path to tread:

Scientists may experience obstacles to understanding, a vague unrest about observed and unobserved phenomena, a curiosity as to why something is as it is. The first and most important step is to get the idea out in the open, to express the problem in some reasonably manageable form. . . . Without some sort of statement of the problem, the scientist can rarely go further and expect the work to be fruitful. (Kerlinger and Lee 2000:15)

The steps further involve forming a hypothesis. "A hypothesis is a conjectural statement, a tentative proposition about the relation between two or more phenomena or variables (ibid.)" Many persons think they know when they believe they know. Frederick N. Kerlinger suggests that man employs four methods of "knowing" (Kerlinger and Lee, 2000:6-8). However, what Kerlinger calls "methods" intertwine and cannot be separated from one another full well, so let us just call them strands of a rope. They do not exclude one another mutually, nor are they independent of each other. For example, it is possible to hold religious beliefs which are tenacious (wilful), authoritative (having respect) and reasonable (due to id associations, in part).

  1. STICKING TO IT - ADJUSTING TO SOME TRADITION: The first, and perhaps most primitive, is tenacity. Some persons think, "The truth is true, and because it is true it is true, and will ever remain true." Some persons will stick and cling to such beliefs even in the face of convincing evidence contrary to their cherished ideas. In fact, Werner Heisenberg found that tenet tenacity (obstinacy) was in full play in learned people too, and among scientists (cf. Zukav 1979: 210-23)

  2. AUTHORITIES: Some think what is held to be true is true because someone who is thought to know that insists - also on record, as in a book. Kerlinger claims that adjusting to authorities can be better than adjusting to tradition (strand 1), because some progress can be made. Present authorities might change their minds; and some new authorities can emerge. Progress may be slow, but it is possible.

  3. HAVING SOME HUNCH OR BETTER: Kerlinger calls it intuition, an a priori method, and a way of knowing. Jerome Bruner has shown that many scientists and mathematicians use hunches in their work: "Get ideas first, verify them next," is part of the sound allround program. (Bruner, The Process of Education, 1966)

    Many persons think that some insights are true because they seem to be - maybe they seem evident, even self-evident. Or perhaps certain ideas stand to reason, look plausible and reasonable. "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ." is a famours phrase about equality of men.

    However, Kerlinger worries that two good men, both employing valid reasoning, might arrive at different conclusions, and that very often happens in philosphy! It is a big problem, so mind to question: "To whom are these ideas self-evident? On what grounds? In what times?" Questioning reasonably well in such veins might help too.

  4. SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY: Kerlinger finds that science is where ideas (tentative knowledge) are tested against the real world (data), to either validate or falsify (invalidate, debunk) the ideas, and this is done in public, to enhance objectivity. Contrast the idealized openness of science with the closedness (firmness?) of tenacity and authority.

    Some go through the scientific processes for rigorously and formally than others, but there is space in the world to question, wonder, observe, and synthesize the information if we please. And we can adapt our behavior as a result of this natural incremental (gains-yielding) process: Then we learn.

    Kerlinger thinks that scientific inquiry leads to more "dependable" knowledge, because the method appears to be self-correcting. Well it seems to be up to a point.

Now let us bring the strands together again, for a unified rope of science is stronger than a single strand of it: All in all, having a hunch or better (third scenario above) marks the beginning of scientific investigations. In fact, very much depends on the ideas you come up with, or import and borrow from others for special reasons. What is more, in practice even scientists make use of the strands that are shown: Scientific inquiry is looked on as the authority, its advocates are authorities too, and they and other adherents stick to the particular methods and ways of thinking in a tradition at work - where intutively had ideas (hunches) are investigated a lot. It all unites.

Thus, much depends on profiling. Kerlinger thought of four "methods", but his thinking undermines the ideas of very separate (or mutually exclusive) ways or methods of gaining knowledge. Indeed, what is at work often looks like like strands of a rope - aspects of a process are working synergetically. Another way of putting it: The various aspects of knowing may blend. Further, one may shift back and forth between some of them and all of them, as is convenient. It is much a question of where the focuses are, how open any involved persons feel they can afford to be, etc.

Naturally, it is as should be. And learning from great men is a boon - it is fit also.

Stuck With Infirm Teachings Or Better

If you are stuck with teachings that you and others are afraid to study in depth and understand, heuristics may not help very much at first, for example due to the dependency involved. You should find out how to become penetrating too. Freud did it, and it changed his life and the lives of very many in his wake.

However, your first need could be to reduce and hopefully overcome fear and anxiety and the like - not ignoring their causes. If you have done that, you may get skilled at finding out things, that is, in heuristics. It is much used in scientific study. What is more, it can help some to get a better life by living up to its stepwise methods, if the outer conditions are not all too bad. Much depends on them.


Let us say you want to get to grips with a few tenets that are help up by some authority figure. First, gauge your circumstances and try to assess how far the authority figure is presented as mighty, or revered in your circles, how far he or she is supposed be revered as an authority by "good (obedient) guys". They are the outwardly devoted, loyal members of a "clan".

In line with that you may realize that what you have to face, is not just a problem of assessing the VALIDITY OF TENETS by someone. An even better problem could be that of coping with a somewhat totem-like figure status in the "clan", so to speak, and how it may be linked to your sense of belonging, your sense of security in a stabilized universe, and so on.

Let us say you attack basic tenets of a big authority. Some evidently "buy" (accept) his tenets wholesale without inspecting anything, perhaps without understanding all he is into and seems to cover either. That could be quite a problem for common lay members of the community if his teachings work bad, for example because they are not fit, true or apt.

Your Tenet Investigations

To arrive at different conclusions than the big guy, you have to estimate yourself: One of the things you have to do is to judge (evaluate) the essence of his tenets one by one and come up with some pertinent and very unbiased conclusions. These findings need to be very well-founded under the circumstances - for in heuristic work there are dangers of not understanding full well, of going amiss, and much else. One has to take such things into account, and these matters can be helped by being careful. TENET 1: A cheval donné, ne lui regarde pas en la bouche. (Don't look a gift horse in the mouth) (French proverb) [Mertvago 1996, No. 184]

COMMENT: Just for fun, let us assume this proverb is regarded as the utmost authority today. Below are some points to align to it, if you care.

Authoritative norms can be (1) normative or regulative on the one hand, and (2) assessing ones on the other. Here we deal with a value norm, and the citation may be used to exercise a sway or influence conduct. Maybe the tenet serves the imposing of SELF-CONTROL. But what sorts of self-control are asked for, and when, in what circumstances, and how far is that supposed to go (be valid) for anyone of us? That could be a problem to find out.

Note as well that pepping up a message by popularisation brings nothing to the VALIDITY of any unspecified norm.

The LOGIC of a tenet may not be water-tight, as much depends on interpretation, as Jesus says in the opening of the Gospel of Thomas: "he said, "Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death." [Link]. In this case too, "gift horse" may be understood figuratively. And by the way, it hardly seems sensible enough not to inspect a gift horse. The inhabitants of Troy, for example, come close to illustrating it. They took a wooden horse into town, and were killed because of it. Hence, find out what is good for you: Politeness and matters have their requirements, and precautions have theirs. In actual living one tries to strike some balance between many and in part opposing interests.

TENET 2: "I know from your eyes and I know from your smile that tonight will be fine, will be fine, will be fine, will be fine for a while." - Leonard Cohen.

COMMENT: You have to ask: Is it true (too?). How can you "make sure before you believe it?" There is a way, and it is not perfect, but it often helps: The use of statistics. It may not be easy to carry out, but simple roads can be mapped.

Making statements explicit (and nuanced enough) can help investigation. That is one of the foremost principles used in academic writing.

We should learn to inspect. It can be done, and there are levels of proficiency in it too. As for eyes and lips as message bringers and revealers of moods and intents and the like, some psychological studies exist, but they seem very crude. Therefore, advance the art of considering. How? By doing it along with sound education - [cf. Aronson et al, 2016].

TENET 3: "The evidence today is that the full evolution of intelligence came as a result of bipedalism and tool using." - Jerome Bruner (Beyond the Information Given, 1974:437)

COMMENT: Tenets may or may not be confirmed by other experts, or authorities, that may lend a ring of authority to what they "sanction", but intelligent animals such as dolphins might want him to reconsider. They don't walk on legs, for example, and might thus and otherwise suggest that Dr. Bruner's viewpoint here is too limited.

In some cases the thinking of TWO authorities may be set up against one another, - be it Dr. Bruner and a communicative porpoise - so that you may compare and contrast - it is one of the much used methods in discussing teachings. Keep your eyes open to such as consistency, that is, internally non-contradictive delivery, and study facts before you become a believer.


Many basic scientific ways of thinking and concomitant methods can assist coping in general.

If you now want to learn basic steps of investigation, two ways are shown in the following. First you have an IDEAL, and next you have the PUPIL(S) to serve you. Combine both acronyms to get IDEAL PUPILS, and try to learn what the letters serve as memory pegs for. Acronyms can make the steps much easier to learn and remember.


Bransford and Stein formulated a heuristic know as IDEAL:

I - Identify the problem.
D - Define and represent the problem.
E - Explore possible strategies.
A - Act on the strategies [when you are up to it, when conditions follow suit, etc.]
L - Look back and evaluate the effects of those activities. (see Schunk 1996, 240.)


George Pólya's list of mental operations involved in problem solving is included below as "upil" only. Two more mementos are added; they are 'P' and 'S':

P - Peruse well. (i.e. Polya's list of operations in problem solving is applied:
U - 1. Understand the problem: What is the unknown? What are the data? What are the "conditions"? Draw a figure. Introduce suitable notation. Separate the parts of the conditions." Something like Tony Buzan's mind mapping seems fit for this stage.
P - 2. Come up with (devise) a Plan: "Have you seen this problem before or something like it? Do you know another problem with the same unknown? If you have a related problem and its solution, how can you use that here? Can you restate the problem? Solve a part of it? Solve an analogous problem? Solve a bigger problem of which it is a part?"
I - 3. Implement the plan, i.e., carry it out: "Check each step. Are they really correct? Can you prove it?"
L - 4. Look back: "Can you check the result? Can you derive the result differently? Can you use the result to solve another problem?"
(S) - Solve things markedly better after listening and getting feedback [This item is added by me, and it is in line with general study and solution procedures, where you adjust or improve outputs on top of feedback etc.]. [Abbott 2004:82; cf. Schunk 2012:302-03; 1996, 240 (where Pólya's PUPIL is.]

Systematic Pursuits

Heuristic . . . gives you tools to question what has been said, transforming it into new ideas and new views. On the other hand, steady practice of heuristic will teach you rules for separating good things that could be said from bad ones. (Abbott 2004:85)

On the one hand complete freedom can be very good help for discovering things first-hand. Some progress may be made below that level (of freedom), though. Here comes:

IF OTHERS have done similar things to what you need to do, and in fields that have transfer-value to yours, study their works and learn from them, for conducting research can be very time and energy consuming, and unless you're paid it may be much costy too. So it is wise to learn to learn from others, including interesting mistakes of others.

"The central heuristic rule of normal science – science within paradigms – is simple addition." - "There are several versions of this more-of-the-same heuristic. The simplest is more data: we take the same ideas to a new place. " And, "Addition sometimes takes the form of adding a new model or methodological wrinkle or theoretical twist." (Abbott 2004:89, 90, 91)

"Heuristic is useful to all of us, each at our own levels in the social sciences . . . the basic repertoire of heuristics can be deployed in a number of ways and at a number of levels." (Abbott 2004:88)

Have "practical" aims too. (Schunk 2012:302-11; 1996, 240.)

The instructional advantage of heuristics lies in helping students become systematic problem solvers. (Schunk 2012:302-11; 1996, 240.)

A heuristic may be more systematic than our present problem-solving approaches, and can lead to better solutions. "The ultimate aim of heuristic is to improve on . . . normal science. Remember Polya's definition: 'The aim of heuristics is to study the methods and rules of discovery and invention.' Invention is what we seek [at best], not just addition. How exactly does one go about creating rules for invention? (Abbott 2004:92 cited; Schunk 2012:302-11; 1996, 240.)

HEURISTICS should help somewhat when facing unfamiliar content, but heuristics is in part built on getting experience in watching other people solving problems as well. And there is flexibility in how steps are carried out. Allow for both search heuristics and argument heuristics, as you find it fit (cf. Schunk 1996, 240; Abbott 2004:.]

HEURISTICS has been shown to help if you aim at general features in your study, too. (see Schunk 1996, 240.)  1.1.

Every argument, every generalization, every background assumption that you run into, should be scanned with this simple check: Is that really true? Could I get somewhere by regarding this as a problem rather than as something taken for granted? (Abbott 2004:126)

A final argument heuristic is reconceptualization . . . taking a familiar or taken-for-granted phenomenon and treating it as if it were an example of something quite different. . . . Sometimes reconceptualization is almost forced on one by data. (Abbott 2004:134)

Reconceptualization is always easier when one is working with . . . lists of topics or commonplaces . . . A seasoned social scientist always keeps [such] kinds of lists in mind. He or she is always rethinking things of interest. (Abbott 2004:135)

Abbott draws on lists of attributions (qualities), motives and causes. Aristotle, Kant and Kenneth Burke each contribute. (Abbott 2004, Chap. 3, passim)

Now you can go ahead and master more of the art of heuristic as you like.


Heuristics, IDEAL PUPILS, Literature  

Abbott, Andrews. Methods of Discovery: Heuristics for the Social Sciences. New York: Norton and Company, 2004.

Aronsen, Elliot, Timothy D. Wilson, Robin M. Akert and Samuel R. Sommers. Social Psychology. 9th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2016.

Bruner, Jerome: Beyond the Information Given: Studies in the Psychology of Knowing. Selected, edited, and introduced by Jeremey Anglin. Allen and Unwin, London, 1974.

Bruner, Jerome: The Process of Education. Harvard University. Cambridge. 1966.

Kerlinger, Fred: Foundations of Behavioral Research. 2nd ed. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. London, 1973.

Kerlinger, Fred Nichols, and Howard Lee. Foundations of Behavioral Research. 4th rev. ed. Andover, Hampshire: Cengage Learning, 2000.

Mertvago, Peter. Dictionary of 1000 French Proverbs. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1996.

Schunk, Dale: Learning theories. An Educational Perspective. 2nd ed. Merrill/Prentice-Hall. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1996.

Schunk, Dale. Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective. 6th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson, 2012.

Zukav, Gary: The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. Rider. London, 1979.

Heuristics, IDEAL PUPILS, To top Section Set Next

Heuristics, IDEAL PUPILS. USER'S GUIDE: [Link]
© 2000–2017, Tormod Kinnes, MPhil. [Email]  ᴥ  Disclaimer: [Link]