Nursology’s Philosophical and Practical Knowledge: Unified and Interdependent

Guest Contributor: Martha Raile Alligood, RN, PhD, ANEF

A few months ago, Martha Alligood sent me (Jacquelyn Fawcett) this intriguing article: Rovelli, C. (2018). Physics needs philosophy, philosophy needs physics, Foundations of Physics, 48, 481-491. We decided to write a paper, which has evolved into this blog, about the relationship between philosophy and science in nursology. The specific purpose of this blog is to underscore the importance of the relationship between practical knowing and foundational (philosophical) knowing for advancement of nursology.

Alligood writes:

Rovelli (2018) wrote about the interrelationship of philosophy and science (physics). His discussion of practical and foundational knowing led me to think about nursology and the contemporary disciplinary shift to a practical focus from one that was dominated by general foundational philosophical questions. For example, nursological literature has evolved from a strong foundational philosophical knowledge development focus on nursology’s discipline-specific concepts, models, and theories to an equally strong practical focus on quality of practice and nursing education expansion in relation to practice, specifically, the development of the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree programs.

Time has shown the value of such shifts in focus for a discipline. Advancement of a discipline calls for recognition and valuing of the complementary relationship between practical knowing and foundational knowing, as both are essential to the development of a professional discipline, such as nursology.

Practical knowledge is–or should be–based on the results of scientific research. However, if science is essential to move the discipline ahead, then philosophy ensures that we move in the right direction. But, “a broader understanding of the interdependence of practical and philosophical matters in professional nursing is needed” (Bruce, Rietze, & Lim, 2014, p. 65). Drawing from Einstein’s discussions of the influence of philosophies and philosophers on his work, Rovelli (2018) noted, “Scientists do not do anything unless they first get permission from philosophy” (p. 484).

Rovelli’s (2018) claim of an interdependent relationship between physics and philosophy for his discipline also is relevant for nursology. That is, contemporary growth and development of nursology requires an explicit interdependent relationship between foundational knowing and practical knowing. Indeed, the re-emergence of nursology as the name for our discipline after its initial introduction in the 1970s (Fawcett, 2018) is evidence of a contemporary need for terminology at a level of abstraction to incorporate all of the discipline’s knowing–both philosophically foundational and scientifically practical.

Within nursing history there are examples of practical knowing leading to foundational knowing, such as research about the impact of patient positioning that has led to foundational knowledge, but it seems that foundational knowing has the capacity to affect practical knowing in a more powerful manner. An excellent example is the clarification of the disciplinary boundaries of nursological knowledge pertaining to human beings, environment, health, and nursing goals and processes (Fawcett, 1984; Fawcett & DeSanto-Madeya, 2013). This metaparadigmatic clarification led to expansion of nursological knowledge, practice, research, education, administration, and perhaps most importantly, a clearer understanding of the theoretical knowledge that existed at that time.  Explaining the relationship of the various models or theoretical works provided clarity and understanding to move nursological knowledge development to a new level.

Ironically, recognizing the structure within which the various conceptual and theoretical frameworks fit may be seen as both practical and philosophical. Some of the very early National League for Nursing (NLN) faculty-curriculum development work that contributed to that understanding was very practical (O’Leary, 1975; Torres & Yura, 1975). Knowledge and understanding leads to future knowledge and understanding. Thus, foundational knowing and practical knowing collectively is nursological knowing that builds on all previous knowing. That is, there is no dichotomy between philosophical and practical knowing; instead, their complementary unified interrelationship may feature one or the other at periods of growth and change in nursology. Clearly, we want to ”counter those who would discard the discipline’s theoretical traditions as irrelevant or counterproductive, we need to [position] this new generation of critical scholarship to champion the intellectually exciting and complex philosophical challenge within which nursing has been engaged throughout its ideational history” (Thorne, 2014, p. 86).

Fawcett writes:

We know from Kuhn’s (1971) classic treatise on scientific revolutions that disciplinary perspectives change over time, typically as the result of scientists’ inability to continue to find support for a previous version of the disciplinary perspective. Sometimes, the revolution is in methodological shifts and sometimes it is in philosophical paradigm shifts. An example of a methodological shift is our contemporary acceptance of mixed methods research instead of the assertion—lasting into the early 2000s–that qualitative and quantitative methods are philosophically separate and, therefore, cannot ever be combined. An example of a philosophical paradigm shift is the growing recognition and acceptance of conceptual models and theories that reflect the simultaneity world view instead of those conceptual models and theories that reflect the totality world view (Parse, 1987).

The growing interest in nursology as the name for our discipline may be the beginning of major methodological and paradigm shifts from the contemporary emphasis on practical knowledge to a fuller understanding of the vital interrelationship of foundational and practical knowledge. These shifts are evident in that acceptance of nursology as the proper name for our discipline indicate that the foundational knowledge of our discipline guides the way we view our science and our practice—always within the context of an explicit nursological conceptual model and/or theory—rather than leaving the knowledge aspect of our science and our practice to the claim of being “atheoretical” (Fawcett, 2019). As Popper (1965) pointed out, everyone has a “horizon of expectations” (p. 47), such as a conceptual model or theory that guides research and practice, and as McCrae’s (2012) noted, “the legitimacy of any profession is built on its ability to generate and apply theory” (p. 222).

Finally, as Donaldson and Crowley (1978) so wisely told us,

A key point . . . is that the discipline should be governing clinical practice rather than being defined by it. Of necessity, clinical practice focuses on the individual in the here and now who has a problem requiring relevant and appropriate action. The discipline, in contrast, embodies a knowledge base relevant to all realms of professional practice and which links the past, present and future. Its scope goes far beyond that required for current clinical practice. If the discipline were so narrowly defined, professional nursing could be limited to functioning in the realm of disaster relief rather than serving as a force in the promotion of world health. (p. 118)


Bruce, A., Rietze, L., & Lim, A. (2014). Understanding philosophy in a nurse’s world: What, where, and why? Nursing and Health, 2(3), 65-71.

Donaldson, S. K., & Crowley, D. M. (1978). The discipline of nursing. Nursing Outlook, 26, 113–120.

Fawcett, J. (1984). The metaparadigm of nursing: Present status and future refinements. Image: The Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 16, 84 87.

Fawcett, J. (2018, September 24). Our name: Why nursology? Why .net? Retrieved from

Fawcett, J. (2019, January 22). The impossibility of thinking “atheoretically.” Retrieved from

Fawcett, J., & DeSanto-Madeya, S. (2013). Contemporary nursing knowledge: Analysis and evaluation of nursing models and theories (3rd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: F. A. Davis.

Kuhn, T. (1971). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McCrae, N. (2012). Whither nursing models? The value of nursing theory in the context of evidence-based practice and multidisciplinary healthcare. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 68, 222–229. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2011.05821.x

O’Leary, H. J. (1975). Changes in community nursing service that affect baccalaureate nursing programs. In Faculty-curriculum development, Part V. The changing role of the professional nurse: Implications for nursing education. New York, NY: National League for Nursing, Pub. No. 15-1574.

Parse, R. R. (1987). Nursing science: Major paradigms, theories, and critiques. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders.

Popper, K. R. (1965). Conjectures and refutations: The growth of scientific knowledge. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Rovelli, C. (2018). Physics needs philosophy, philosophy needs physics, Foundations of Physics, 48, 481-491.

Thorne, S. (2014). Nursing as social justice: A case for emancipatory disciplinary theorizing. In P. N, Kagan, M. C. Smith, & P. L. Chinn (Eds.), Philosophies and practices of emancipatory nursing (pp.79-90). New York, NY: Routledge.

Torres, G., & Yura, H. (1975). The conceptual framework as part of the curriculum process. In Faculty-curriculum development Part III: Conceptual framework-Its meaning and function. New York, NY: National League for Nursing, Pub. No. 15-1558.