Abduction is a kind of inference which is neither deduction nor induction. It is a process whereby a surprising fact is made explicable by the application to it of a suitable proposition. The formulation of abduction is attributed to C.S.Peirce:

"A surprising fact, C, is observed. But if a proposition, A, were true, C would be a matter of course. Hence, there is a reason to suspect that A is true."

Rowe (1987, p.102) quotes this and adds that,

"abduction includes the case where A and C are distinct from one another and only become related through the existence of some appropriated scheme, or 'view of the world', that has meaning for both A and C. "

For Bateson, abduction is no small matter:

"all thought would be totally impossible in a universe in which abduction was not expectable". (1979, p.157)
Seeing explanation as a kind of mapping enables Bateson to construe abduction as:
"finding other relevant phenomena and arguing that these, too, are cases under our rule and can be mapped onto the same tautology". (ibid., p.97)

The relevance of abduction to design thinking can be considered by discussing it in the contexts of problem-solving, biology, and the sociology of knowledge.

Sanford's (1985) conception of problem-solving, based on research in cognitive psychology, is as follows:

  1. initially a mapping is formed between an explicit problem-statement and relevant schemata in Long Term Memory;
  2. problem-solving begins with the manipulation of this mapping in Working Memory, which usually involves "chunking" of information so as not to overtax WM;
  3. if an information-state developed in WM matches a structure in LTM, a new structure is stored in LTM (two-way traffic between WM and LTM);
  4. the new knowledge-state which a solved problem represents can often be achieved by introducing information from sources external to the problem-statement.

This fourth phase can be equated with abduction, which is, in Rowe's terms,

"an appropriation from outside the problem space, used for its promise of providing a higher level of organization. For instance, a designer at the outset of tackling a problem in housing may decide to make use of a particular type of configuration. Furthermore, that type becomes the model through which the problem is understood and construed."

Rowe goes on to relate abduction to heuristics (p.103):

the abductive "mode of inquiry is very common in design. We often employ heuristics that allow us to import autonomous constraints into our problem spaces in order to facilitate further activity. In fact, in the case of ill-defined and wicked problems abduction is the rule rather than the exception."

Bateson writes about the presence of abductive systems in biology (p.158). The anatomy and physiology of the organism constitute one vast abductive system coherently organized, while the organism's environment is itself another, much vaster, internally coherent abductive system. Neither system is necessarily coherent with the other, unless the organism is successfully adapted to the environment, and any viable change must meet a double requirement: fitting both internal and external coherences.

Bateson argues that the social organization of an aboriginal tribe is related by abduction to their view of natural relations, such that the social system and the totemism are mutually supportive. This abductive mutuality means it can be difficult to change either system.

The concepts of mapping and abduction can be applied to modern societies as well, and can provide ways of interpreting ideas in the sociology of knowledge, such as those presented by Berger and Luckmann (1966).

There seems to be a psychological need to integrate meanings, so that the individual tends to try and provide a coherent framework for his successive life experiences. This tendency is also applicable to social structures, so that, in the words of Berger and Luckmann,

"reflective consciousness superimposes the quality of logic on the institutional order. Language provides the fundamental superimposition of logic on the objectivated social world. The edifice of legitimation is built on language and uses language as its principal instrumentality. The 'logic' thus attributed to the institutional order is part of the socially available stock of knowledge and taken for granted as such. Since the well-socialized individual 'knows' that his social world is a consistent whole, he will be constrained to explain both its functioning and its malfunctioning in terms of this 'knowledge'. It is very easy, as a result, for the observer of any society to assume that its institutions do indeed function and integrate as they are 'supposed to'." (p.64)

If we apply the concepts of mapping and abduction, we can express the "superimposition of logic on the institutional order" as, instead, the mapping of experiences of institutions onto a logico-linguistic receiving matrix. The legitimation of the social order can then be seen as the result of abduction.

This leads to the crucial concept of reification, which Berger and Luckmann define as:

"the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things, that is, in non-human or possibly supra-human terms."

Abduction is the mechanism of reification.



Paul Taylor 2001