Philosophy and the Social Sciences


Philosophy and the Social Sciences

Welcome to this discussion on philosophy and the social sciences. Our focus in this post will be on philosophy’s relationship with the social sciences in order to ascertain the soundness of the assumptions and claims made in this area of study.

To achieve this, we shall discuss this topic under three sub-headings:

1. The Notion of the Social Sciences

2. Philosophy and the Social Sciences

3. Critical Theory.

If, as emphasized in the last article, philosophy’s role in the physical sciences is crucial, perhaps its interest in the social sciences can be recognized as even greater. This is because, among other things, the social sciences concern human beings who are less predictable than the physical world and so should not be reduced to, or treated as purely mechanical.

In this article, you will have a clear understanding of what the social sciences are, the sense in which the social sciences are sciences, the subject matter and purpose of the social sciences and  the relationship between philosophy and the social sciences.


The Notion of Social Sciences

As pointed out earlier, if science is an organized body of systematic knowledge, then the social sciences would also qualify as science. 

The distinction between the social sciences and the natural or physical sciences would therefore lie in what constitutes their subject matter, for while the natural sciences study the physical world, the social sciences study human beings and their social environment.

And since the human reality is not exclusively mechanistic, it cannot be reduced to a set of physical attributes or activities which are susceptible to dependable and unvarying measurement.

As A. C. Bouquet observes, It may be questioned whether a world-view expressing itself in a habitual attitude can be deduced from scientific enquiry as commonly conceived. …the bodies of the sane man, the criminal, the lunatic, the genius and the prophet, are all equally matter for scientific analysis, but a world-view on a purely scientific basis would seem to be impossible, unless by science we mean more than physical science, and make it embrace an impartial observation of human thought, with deductions therefrom.

The social sciences became a significant branch of intellectual study during the Enlightenment period. This is because it was an offshoot of the clamor for human interests and emancipation that characterized the new mode of thinking in the Enlightenment age.

At its inception, the social science was greatly inspired by the logical positivists' position that the empirical method affects a perfect and objective study of all phenomena including the human person and the overall society in which he exists.

Social science therefore developed as a result of this new tendency and the underlying presumption that the scientific tool is appropriate and adequate for every intellectual project. The social sciences refer to those disciplines that study human society and institutions as well as the relationship of individual members within society.

In other words, it is the science of social phenomena, whose focus is the social aspects of human experience. It is the aspect of human knowledge which attempts to understand general human behaviour in terms of his social, psychological and perhaps his economic environment, in order to be able to describe and explain such behaviours and as well as to also be able to predict such social phenomena, given certain conditions.

Such disciplines include Sociology, Psychology, Anthropology, Geography, Economics, Political Science, and History.

The social sciences, therefore, differ from the natural science in several significant ways, one of which is in the application of the scientific method described in the last unit.

John Stuart Mill argues that in the social sciences the subject matter is too complex to apply the normal methods of experiment.

And Sodipo would further say: The more imaginative social scientist is of course aware that the application of the methods and the conceptual categories of the natural sciences, the employment of their ideas of causation, measurement, etc. to the study of society is problematic, and he is exercised by that problem.

He therefore realizes that there are social situations where what is needed for understanding is not a sophisticated and very complicated mathematical model but a conceptual framework in which sympathetic intuition and imaginative insight would play a crucial role.

The distinction between the natural and social sciences is also easily seen in the area of causality and prediction.

 Causal connections are not as readily established in the social science as in the natural sciences, and therefore predictions are less reliable in the former than in the latter.

For example, combining hydrogen with oxygen in the right amount gives water.

In this example, the combination of hydrogen and oxygen is the cause of water, and it is predictable that, whenever this combination is done in the right proportion, the resultant substance is always water. But in the case of human behaviour, even though there are degrees of probability, it is practically impossible to posit that, for every combination of factors, the results or consequences are definite and invariable.

At the same time, the observation of certain phenomena does not necessarily lead to conclusions that cannot vary in any way. As a very simple example, it would be unrealistic to say that, whenever an individual is observed as smiling or laughing, such an individual is happy.

This distinction is based on the fact that human beings and their actions are not as predictable as the behaviour of elements in nature.

Martin Hollis illustrates this when he argues that, if Africa suddenly becomes much colder, a whole lot of things will change, and that the social effects of this will not be as predictable as the natural effects, because a lot of human variables will intervene in determining what the social effects would be, for individuals as well as communities.

Alex Rosenberg expresses the same issue more theoretically when he asks whether human action can be explained in the way that natural science explains phenomena in its domain:

If the answer is yes, why are our explanations of human action so much less precise and the predictions based on them so much weaker than explanations in natural science?

If the answer is no, what is the right way to explain action scientifically?

If there is no adequate scientific explanation of human actions, as some philosophers and social scientists claim:

Why does human action require an approach different from that of natural science, and what approach is required?

In its quest for an acceptable explanatory model, the social sciences employ the scientific method in their investigations so as to achieve the following objectives:

1. Understanding and making more intelligible the behaviour, particularly the social behaviour, of human beings.

2. Establishing the governing laws behind most human behavior.

3. Understanding the history of human development, in order to predict in the face of given laws, the future behaviour of man.

4. Guiding the behaviour of human beings in a socially desirable way.

The extent to which they are able to achieve these goals is a different issue altogether.

At best, one can say that the social sciences offer functional explanations of social phenomena.

A functional explanation of a social feature, according to Daniel E. Little, “is one that explains the presence and persistence of the feature in terms of the beneficial consequences the feature has for the on-going working of the social system as a whole.”


Also read: Philosophy and Religion

Philosophy and the Social Sciences

Philosophy’s relationship with the social sciences is based on the former’s role in the analysis and critique of other disciplines.

Philosophy of the social sciences, just like the philosophy of science, is out to study the various goals and methods of the social science, with the aim of evaluating whether the discipline is able to live up to the expectation of humanity.

Philosophy of the social sciences ponders on certain issues inherited from the philosophy of natural science and also reflects on problems and issues generated by its own peculiar disciplinary orientation. For example, this area of philosophy reacts to the question of the appropriate methodology for the social scientific enterprise, which is an age long problem in philosophy of natural science.

As R.S Rudner says in his Philosophy of Social Science, "the philosopher of social science is ranged with the philosopher of science in that both focus their attention on problems of methodology.

Some of the central problems that philosophers of the social sciences address include:

(1) The extent to which one can say that human social life which the social sciences claim to study is, or is not similar to non-human nature which is studied by the natural science

(2) The extent to which human and social experiences can be explainable by using the scientific method

(3) The extent to which the results and findings of the social scientists can be used to predict and control future occurrences in the social world in the same way in which findings in the natural sciences are used to predict and control occurrences in the natural world

(4) The extent of to which the themes, logic and the method of the social science are distinctively peculiar as basis for differentiating the social science from the humanities and for associating the social science with the natural science

(5) The extent to which we can reduce human actions to scientific paradigm which is capable of fulfilling the four goals of science, described by Keith Webb as prediction, explanation, control, and understanding.

While describing the philosophy of the social sciences as the study of the logic and methods of the social sciences, Daniel E. Little goes on to discuss the central questions in the philosophy of the social sciences, questions similar to those enumerated in the last paragraph:

What are the criteria of a good social explanation?

How (if at all) are the social sciences distinct from the natural sciences?

Is there a distinctive method for social research?

Through what empirical procedures are social science assertions to be evaluated?

Are there irreducible social laws?

Are there causal relations among social phenomena?

Do social facts and regularities require some form of reduction to facts about individuals?

What is the role of theory in social explanation?

The philosophy of social science aims to provide an interpretation of the social sciences that answers these questions.

Discussing further the main concerns of philosophy of the social science, Alex Rosenberg explains that being clear about a discipline's philosophy is essential because at the frontiers of the disciplines….the unavoidability and importance of philosophical questions are even more significant for the social scientist than for the natural scientist.”

He goes on to explain that the only source of guidance for research in the social sciences must come from philosophical theories.

“In the end,” he says, “the philosophy of social science is not only inevitable and unavoidable for social scientists, but it must also be shaped by them as much as by philosophers.”

One major aspect of the relationship between philosophy and social science is that, while social science tries to make sense of social events and data, philosophy, as it were, tries to make sense of the sense which social science is making of social events. Philosophy interrogates the social sciences with the aim of understanding and clarifying, in general terms, the methods, claims and assumptions of the latter.

For example, even though the social sciences attempt to collect data and reach conclusions on what accounts for such human values as good, happiness, right, and so on, properly defining those notions in themselves is the function of philosophy.

Also read: Philosophy as a Second-Order Activity

Critical theory

A good example of philosophy’s role in the social sciences is seen in the commitment of the Frankfurt School to the ‘critical theory of society’.

According to James Bonham, critical theory is “any social theory that is at the same time explanatory, normative, practical, and self-reflexive.”

He also observes: Critical theory is primarily a way of doing philosophy, integrating the normative aspects of philosophical reflection with the explanatory achievements of the social sciences. 

The ultimate goal of its program is to link theory and practice, to provide insight, and to empower subjects to change their oppressive circumstances and achieve human emancipation, a rational society that satisfies human needs and powers.

Max Horkheimer, a philosopher of social science and a member of the Frankfurt School, wrote essays that focus on the relation of philosophy and social science.

Besides providing a clear definition and programme for critical social science, he proposes that the normative orientation of philosophy should be combined with the empirical research in the social sciences.

His programmatic essays on the relation of philosophy and the social sciences long provided the philosophical basis for Frankfurt School social criticism.

For him, critical theory aims at emancipating human beings rather than merely describing reality as it is now.

Read on: Political Philosophy and Social Engineering

Conclusion on Philosophy and the Social Sciences

The social sciences also lay claim to being ‘science’ based on their use of the method of science. But unlike the latter, the social sciences that deal with human behaviour within the context of man’s relationship with other humans in society.

For this reason, the social sciences deal with a subject matter that is not as straightforward or as predictable as the physical sciences, a subject matter that is much more complicated.

Thus, using the scientific method to the extent that they are amenable, the social sciences seek to better understand and explain the human being and his social environment.

Philosophy’s interest in the social sciences is to interrogate the method and logic of the social sciences. We have examined the relationship between philosophy and the social sciences in order to ascertain the soundness of the assumptions and claims made in the social sciences.

To the extent that science is described as an organized, systematic knowledge, the social sciences also qualify as science, but since the social sciences deal with human behaviour, they differ significantly from the natural or physical sciences.

Philosophy of the social sciences attempts to examine this difference by critically assessing the internal logic, assumptions, methodology and claims made in the social sciences.

knowledge, the social sciences also qualify as science, but since the social sciences deal with human behaviour, they differ significantly from the natural or physical sciences.

Philosophy of the social sciences attempts to examine this difference by critically assessing the internal logic, assumptions, methodology and claims made in the social sciences.

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