Applying laws of causality to personal possibility

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … predetermined possibilities
  • Knowing is … acting and interpreting within predetermined frames
  • Learner is … a pawn (individual)
  • Learning is … being determined
  • Teaching is … participating in determination


Ancient (entrenched in the language)


Determinism refers to any belief system founded on the assumption that what will be is completely determined by what has been. The future entirely predetermined by already-existing causes. Several Determinisms have been proposed, varying according to what is taken as the source of the causes and what the futures controlled by those causes. Subcategorizations of Determinisms include:
  • Hard Determinism – the conviction that all human activity is causally determined – that is, one can exercise no meaningful control in one’s life (i.e., there is no free will)
  • Soft Determinism – the position that all events have causes – but even though that includes human activity, it does not preclude some level of free will
Some Determinisms that have direct relevance to theories of learning include:
  • Biological Determinism (BiologismGenetic Determinism) asserts that one’s intelligence, dispositions, and behaviors are controlled by one’s genes.
  • Behavioral Determinism (sometimes equated with the category of Behaviorisms) – is founded on the notion that all behavior can be traced to either reflexes or environmental triggers.
  • Cultural Determinism asserts that one’s culture determines who one is by defining one’s tastes, habits of interpretation, and so on.
  • Deterministic Psychology – an umbrella notion that encompasses any psychology that assumes Determinisms, including most Behaviorisms
  • Linguistic Determinism asserts that one’s language influences (or, in more extreme versions, determines) what is thinkable, perceivable, and knowable. (Contrast: Linguistic Relativity, under Structuralism.)
  • Psychological Determinism asserts that one is driven according to one’s perceived best interest. (Another version asserts that humans are compelled by reason, but few subscribe to this belief.)
  • Social Determinism asserts that one’s behavior is determined by social phenomena such as education, relationships, group affiliations, and expectations.
In terms of consequential constructs, Determinisms are perhaps most evident in perspectives that assume or assert mechanistic dynamics:
  • Mechanistic Theory (Mechanical Concept of Mind; Mechanistic Approach; Mechanical-Man Concept) – the notion that human functioning, including consciousness and sociality, can be understood in terms of mechanical processes – that is, that physics is sufficient for making sense of human activity


The diversity of Determinisms reveals not just a shared assumption, but a common conceptual flaw across all of them – namely, that Determinisms search for, posit, and/or desire singular, direct causes for complex phenomenon. In effect, they represent attempts to apply Newtonian mechanics to understand complex emergent phenomena. This point is critical, because uses of such adjectives as “social” and “cultural” have fooled some commentators into thinking that more complex causes are posited.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Not all Determinisms are theories of learning. However, some explicitly are (e.g., Behaviorisms), and all have something to say about learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Determinisms are, in general, not theories of teaching. However, some – and especially Behaviorisms – speak directly to matters related to influencing learning.

Status as a Scientific Theory

As a class of perspectives, Determinisms fall well short of meeting the standards of scientific theories.


  • Behavioral Determinism
  • Biological Determinism (Biologism; Genetic Determinism)
  • Cultural Determinism
  • Deterministic Psychology
  • Hard Determinism
  • Linguistic Determinism
  • Mechanistic Theory (Mechanical Concept of Mind; Mechanistic Approach; Mechanical-Man Concept)
  • Psychological Determinism
  • Social Determinism
  • Soft Determinism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Determinisms” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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