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Articulating accounting principles: Classical accounting theory as the pursuit of “explanation by embodiment”

Brian A. Rutherford (Kent Business School, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK)

Journal of Applied Accounting Research

ISSN: 0967-5426

Article publication date: 9 May 2016




The purpose of this paper is to provide a soundly based epistemological underpinning for the kind of theorisation in which many classical financial accounting researchers engaged and thus to support a renewal of this programme.


The paper draws on pragmatist philosophy and, in particular, on Jules Coleman’s theory of “explanation by embodiment”. The applicability of this theory to the world of financial reporting is discussed. Various theorists and schools within classical accounting theory are examined from the perspective of Coleman’s ideas, focusing particularly on A.C. Littleton’s Structure of Accounting Theory.


The paper finds that classical accounting research works such as Structure of Accounting Theory can be interpreted as the search for Colemanian explanation by embodiment and that this provides them with a soundly based pragmatist underpinning for their theorisation.

Research limitations/implications

This paper supports the resumption by academics, qua academics, of work to contribute to accounting standard-setting by offering argumentation that addresses accounting principles and methods directly, rather than only via the social scientific investigation of behaviour in the accounting arena.

Practical implications

Such a resumption would contribute positively to future standard-setting.


This paper contributes to the defence of classical financial accounting research from the charge of lacking theoretical rigour.



Rutherford, B.A. (2016), "Articulating accounting principles: Classical accounting theory as the pursuit of “explanation by embodiment”", Journal of Applied Accounting Research, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 118-135.



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