Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Social sciences, philosophy of


Social sciences, philosophy of

Although some of the topics and issues treated in the philosophy of social science are as old as philosophy itself (for example, the contrast between nature and convention and the idea of rationality are dealt with by Aristotle), the explicit emergence of a subdiscipline of philosophy with this name is a very recent phenomenon, which in turn may itself have stimulated greater philosophical activity in the area. Clearly, this emergence is tied to the development and growth of the social sciences themselves.

1 Historical approach

There are, perhaps, four distinct ways in which to gain an understanding of the subdiscipline. These ways are, of course, complementary. First, just as with most other areas of philosophy, one might approach the philosophy of the social sciences historically, by studying major schools or philosophers of an earlier period. There is much to recommend this approach (see Social science, history of philosophy of). There are a number of classical texts (by Weber and Durkheim, for example) of which any interested student of the philosophy of the social sciences should be aware, much as there is in epistemology or ethics. This provides an interesting contrast with the philosophy of the natural sciences; far less could be said in favour of gaining an understanding of the latter in this way.

Compared with other areas of philosophy, the history of the philosophy of the social sciences is somewhat truncated, since it can only begin properly with the earliest attempts at social science, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, first in the Scottish Enlightenment and subsequently in Germany. Prior to this period, there had been speculation about the nature of society, some of it quite rich and rewarding (Hobbes and Vico provide two examples of this), but it is only in the period of the Scottish Enlightenment and after that writers begin to reflect the first systematic attempts to study and understand society.

There is no clear line of demarcation between philosophers of social science and of society on the one hand and social theorists on the other, especially in this early period. Conventionally, to select only a few examples, G.W.F. Hegel, Wilhelm Dilthey, F.H. Bradley and T.H. Green are considered to be examples of the former, and Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber, are considered as examples of the latter, but the line is sometimes somewhat arbitrary (see Hegel, G.W.F.; Marx, K.; Dilthey, W.; Bradley, F.H.; Green, T.H.; Smith, A.; Durkheim, É.; Weber, M.).

2 Problems

A second way in which to gain an understanding of the philosophy of social science is through the study of the issues and problems that these writers, and their contemporary counterparts, address (see Social science, methodology of). Many of these problems arise in ordinary as well as in more scientific discussions of and thought about the social realm. It is not only social scientists who think about the social world; all of us do, a great deal of the time. Even in those cases in which the social scientist introduces neologisms, for example, ‘demand curves’ or ‘anomie’, they seem closely connected to, and sometimes only a refinement of, concepts already grasped by the lay person.

This nonscientific reflection arises quite apart from any specialized scientific work. It is, to a certain extent, misleading to think of the field as only the philosophy of the social sciences. Since so much of the motivation for critical discussion of the problems in this area comes from philosophical reflection on these quite ordinary modes of thought and understanding, the field should perhaps be called ‘the philosophy of society’, to reflect this nonscientific, as well as the scientific, interest in those problems.

Most of the things that social science is about, social structures (like families or society itself), norms and rules of behaviour, conventions, specific sorts of human action, and so on, are items that find a place in the discourse of the ordinary lay person who has as good a grasp of common talk about social class and purchase, voting and banking, as does the social scientist. This raises, in a direct way, metaphysical questions about the nature of these things. Are these social structures anything more than just individuals and their interrelations? Many philosophers, in the grip of the ideal of the unity of science, have held out the prospect that social science can be derived from, and is therefore reducible to, psychology (the latter eventually being reducible to chemistry and physics). For such thinkers, the world is ultimately a simple place, with only many different ways in which to speak about it. Other thinkers have been struck by the reality and integrity of the social world, and how it seems to impress itself on the individual willy-nilly (see Society, concept of; Social norms; Holism and individualism in history and social science).

What is an action, and how does it differ from the mere movement of one’s body? It seems hard to say in what this difference consists in a way that remains plausible and true to what action is like. Whatever an action is, what makes some actions social actions? One might think that an action is social in virtue of its causal consequences on others. Another line of thought holds that an action is social in virtue of its intrinsic character, quite apart from the question of its effects. Much of the philosophical discussion of action arose in the philosophy of history, over the explanation of historically important action, but has now been absorbed into a separate area of philosophy, the theory of action (see History, philosophy of; Action; Social action).

The alleged contrast between nature and convention occurs to those who think about humankind and its development, whether they be scientists and philosophers or not. Anyone who has travelled widely and noticed the social differences between peoples and cultures may have wondered whether all social practice was rational in its own terms, wherever found and no matter how apparently peculiar by our home-grown lights. Or perhaps, on the other hand, there are some universal standards of rationality, in the light of which evaluation of social practices and criticism of some of them can be mounted (see Nature and convention; Rationality and cultural relativism; Social relativism).

The relationship between scientific theory and ordinary modes of thought is, of course, interactive, since many of the concepts or issues that have become part of ordinary lore have their roots in earlier scientific theory (our modern, and by most accounts, confused, concept of race might be an example of this; see Race, theories of).

Another set of problems arise in thinking through the nature of the social scientific enterprise itself. What standards must full explanation in social science meet? Causal explanation is a mode of explanation in natural science that is, relatively speaking, well understood. Explanations of a ritual or practice in society do not appear to be causal explanations, nor do explanations of human action. The first are often functional explanations (for example, a certain ritual exists because it produces such-and-such) and this appears to be an explanation of something by its effects rather than by its causes. Explanations of human action are intentional explanations, whereby an action is explained by the goal or end at which it is directed. This also appears not to be causal. But perhaps appearances are deceptive, and these can be recast as causal explanations after all (see Explanation in history and social science; Functionalism in social science).

Natural scientists believe that their work is ethically neutral. To be sure, their work can be put to good and bad uses, but this presumably reflects on the users rather than on the content of the science itself. The relationship between social science and the values of the social scientist seems far more immediate and direct than this, and this alleged contrast has been the subject for continuing discussion and debate (see Value judgments in social science).

Is social science like natural science in important ways? In the developed natural sciences, there are controlled experiments and predictions. Neither seem available to the social scientist. Natural scientists attempt to formulate the laws that govern the phenomena they study. Is this a reasonable goal for the social scientist? Certainly, there are not many candidate laws for the social sciences one can think of. Does the social scientist use statistical evidence in the same way as the natural scientist? (See Experiments in social science; Social science, prediction in; Social laws; Statistics and social science.) Finally, in natural science, we distinguish between theory and observation in a relatively sharp way, and we believe that a rational person should accept that theory which is best confirmed by observations. It is not clear that we can make the same distinction in the social sciences, nor that theory is supported by observation in just the same way. Our observations of the social world seem even more coloured by the theory we employ than is the case in the natural sciences (see Theory and observation in social sciences.)

3 Contemporary movements

A third way in which to approach the subject is through the study of either contemporary movements and schools of philosophy, or specific philosophers, who bring a specific slant to the subdiscipline. Controversy marks the natural as well as the social sciences, but observers have noted that there seems to be even less consensus, even less of an agreed paradigm at any particular time, in the latter than in the former.

Critical reflection on society, or on social science, or both, is very different in France and Germany from the way it is in the English-speaking world. The problems are the same, but the traditions and the manner in which the discussions proceed are markedly distinctive. The hope is that each tradition may learn something from the other (see Social science, contemporary philosophy of; Behaviourism in the social sciences; Critical realism; Evolutionary theory and social science; Lévi-Strauss, C.; Naturalism in social science; Positivism in the social sciences; Post-structuralism in the social sciences; Scientific realism and social science; Sociology of knowledge; Structuralism in social science; Symbolic interactionism; Systems theory in social science; Bourdieu, P.; MacIntyre, A.; Schütz, A.).

4 Specific social sciences

Fourth and finally, one might approach the philosophy of the social sciences by studying the philosophical problems that arise specifically within each of the social sciences. Some, although not all, of the social sciences have thrown up philosophical industries all their own. Economics is the most salient example. In many ways, it is the most developed of all the social sciences, and this may be the reason why some of the best-defined controversies in the philosophy of social science arise from within it. Questions about the philosophical foundations of economics touch on the philosophically central issues of rationality, choice and the nature of wants or desires and their connection with action (see Economics, philosophy of; Social choice; Rational choice theory). But other social sciences have also given rise to specific problems, including history, psychology, sociology, and anthropology (see Psychology, theories of; Sociology, theories of; Anthropology, philosophy of).

How to cite this article:
RUBEN, DAVID-HILLEL (1998). Social science, philosophy of. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved January 16, 2022, from

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