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. Some versions that have direct relevance to theories of learning include:
  • Biological Determinism (Genetic 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.
  • 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.
  • Linguistic Determinism asserts that one’s language influences (or, in more extreme versions, determines) what is thinkable, perceivable, and knowable.
  • Cultural Determinism asserts that one’s culture determines who one is by defining one’s tastes, habits of interpretation, and so on.


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
  • Cultural Determinism
  • Linguistic Determinism
  • Psychological Determinism
  • Social Determinism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Determinisms” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List