Continental philosophy of social science

Making sense of the human world has always been a part of the continental tradition in philosophy. History, justice, and meaning are subjects that have played central roles in continental writings relevant to "understanding society" for three centuries, and dozens of philosophers have focused on these and related topics in deeply fertile ways -- Kant, …

Tributaries of the philosophy of the social sciences

The philosophy of the social sciences is largely focused on questions about the nature of our knowledge, representation, and explanation of social phenomena. There is an ontological side to some of the questions in this field -- for example, what is the nature of social phenomena? But many of the questions are epistemological, having to …

Social science history and historical social science

Social science methods and historical explanation seem to come together in several different ways; what can we say about the differences of approach between “history using the tools of the social sciences” and “social science research that pays close attention to history”? E. P. Thompson treats the making of the English working class. His work …

New angles on French history

In teaching an undergraduate seminar on the philosophy of history, I tried to come up with some readings that would stimulate some genuinely new thinking on this subject. Several things worked well, including simply reading some talented contemporary historians carefully. But the most truly innovative and stimulating twist was a week spent reading and discussing …

Philosophy and society

How does philosophy intersect with the social world? How does philosophical thinking contribute to better understanding of society? (At the right we see Jurgen Habermas teaching philosophy in 1960.)It is possible that philosophy is not a well-defined discipline. But philosophers regard themselves as having something of a method, and something of a subject matter. The …

Retreat of the Elephants

Mark Elvin's title, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China, is brilliantly chosen to epitomize his subject: the human causes of longterm environmental change in China over a four-thousand year period of history. How many of us would have guessed that elephants once ranged across almost all of China, as far to …

China’s cultural revolution

What is involved in understanding China's Cultural Revolution? The question comes to mind for several reasons -- but most vividly because of a recent interview in France in the le nouvel Observateur with Song Yongyi. Song's personal itinerary is historic -- he was a "rebel Red Guard" in 1967, a political prisoner in China from …

Marc Bloch’s history

One of the historians whom I most admire is Marc Bloch. He was one of France's most important medieval historians in the first half of the twentieth century, and he died at the hands of the Gestapo while serving in the Resistance in Paris in 1944. (Carole Fink's biography is an outstanding treatment of his …

Technological inevitability?

Some historians imagine that new technologies force other kinds of social changes, or even that a given technology creates a more or less inevitable process of development in society. Marx is sometimes thought to offer such a theory: "the forces of production create changes in the relations of production." This view is referred to as …

Koestler’s twentieth century

Arthur Koestler is most celebrated for his historical novel about the Moscow show trials, Darkness at Noon. And the book is indeed a deeply revealing look at the heart of totalitarianism in the twentieth century -- the more so if you do a side-by-side reading of the trial of the fictional Rubashov and the transcripts …

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