A plan for philosophy of social science circa 1976

image: Imre Lakatos


My Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy was written between 1974 and 1977 and was accepted in 1977. The topic was Marx’s theory of science as embodied in Capital, and it was one of the early attempts to join an analytical philosophical perspective with careful study of Marx’s ideas. The title of the dissertation was Marx’s Capital: A Study in the Philosophy of Social Science. The dissertation proposed a different way of attempting to understand Marx, and it also proposed a different approach to developing the philosophy of social science — an approach that gives greater attention to the details and history of social-science research. This part of the introduction to the dissertation describes the view I then had of the purposes and current deficiencies of the philosophy of science.

The image of Imre Lakatos is used above because his work from the early 1970s was part of the inspiration for the more contextualized and historical view of the philosophy of social science described in this introduction. I found Lakatos much more stimulating than Kuhn in the early 1970s.

The full introduction is posted here. The full dissertation is posted here.

The philosophy of social science
The philosophy of social science is not a particularly strong area within contemporary philosophy. To some degree it suffers from the division between continental and analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophers have stressed the positivist theory of science, and have consequently come to social sciences with some distrust, while continental philosophers have been preoccupied with the relation of social science to philosophy, rather than the more central question of the defining characteristics of social science. Neither approach has been conducive to the project of constructing a viable, systematic, and sympathetic theory of social science. More importantly, however, the philosophy of social science suffers from its proximity to the philosophy of natural science. The analytical theory of science took shape in the hands of philosophers whose primary training was in natural science, and consequently, whose chief examples were drawn from the natural sciences. Philosophers of social science have all too often shown a tendency to merely import into their field the categories and questions formulated with respect to natural science, rather than posing questions and categories more closely tailored to the real outlines of typical social sciences.{6} It may eventually turn out, of course, that all sciences have the same epistemological structure; but that issue ought not be prejudged. The philosophy of social science needs, therefore, to develop a theory of social science which is not parasitic upon theories of natural science.

Ideally, a philosophy of social science ought to contain an analytical theory of social science which directs attention at the particular trouble spots of social knowledge. It ought to include a discussion of the peculiar nature of the subject matter of social science, an account of the characteristics of social explanation, an account of the relation between empirical evidence and theory in social science, and so forth; and more generally, it ought to consist of a set of questions and categories specifically suited to the special problems confronting social explanation and social theory. Contemporary philosophy of social science fails to come forward with such a theory, in large part because it formulates its theory of science in terms of concepts suggested by the philosophy of natural science.

This diagnosis of the weakness of philosophy of social science indicates that the philosophy of natural science bears a large responsibility for that weakness; happily, however, it is now able to provide the beginnings of a method of philosophical inquiry which can begin to undo that damage. For in the past two decades the philosophy of natural science has witnessed an important transformation in its method of inquiry. It has been transformed from an attempt to provide high-level abstractions concerning the basic concepts of explanation, confirmation, empirical significance, theory choice, and the like, to an attempt to provide a more detailed theory of scientific practice through detailed studies of particular examples of scientific inquiry. Historians of science have argued that the philosophy of science will benefit from greater attention to particular scientific theories and programmes of research, and increasingly philosophers have accepted this judgment. And this shift of attention has already begun to pay off in the form of theories of science which correspond more closely to the actual nature of science, and which thereby come closer to explaining science as a form of human knowledge.

I suggest that the philosophy of social science can benefit from the application of this historical method: its theory of social science can be enriched and corrected through closer attention to actual case studies drawn from the history of social science. Such studies have the potential of suggesting new categories and new questions concerning the nature of knowledge about society and history, and they provide the means by which the analytical theory of science itself may be assessed.

We may get a better idea of the logical relations between case studies of that sort and the formulation of a more general theory of science by working out a rough taxonomy of the logical structure of the philosophy of science.{7} The philosophy of science is (at least in part) a meta-level theory of the epistemological, methodological, and structural characteristics of science. If all scientific theories share certain epistemological characteristics in common, these certainly ought to be part of that theory of science; and if there is diversity, the theory of science ought to indicate the dimensions around which such diversity occurs. The theory of science ought to answer questions like: What is scientific explanation? How are scientific theories organized? How are scientific hypotheses given empirical justification? The theory of science, in other words, attempts to codify the most general characteristics of scientific knowledge.

On this account the theory of science stands at the greatest degree of abstraction: it attempts to make assertions which are true of all or most sciences. At the opposite end of the spectrum stands the particular scientific hypothesis or system: Darwinian evolutionary theory, Newtonian mechanics, Piaget’s psychological theory, and so forth. Each such theory is an attempt to apply empirical rationality to the problem of explaining some complex domain of phenomena; and each advances a theory to the scientific community for some form of evaluation or acceptance. The crucial point to note, however, is that each such theory is an extended and complex argument, in which the principles of inference are almost always left unstated. The scientist engages in a complex form of empirical reasoning, but he does not codify that process of reasoning. For each such example of an empirical hypothesis and explanation, therefore, it is possible to attempt to unravel the implicit standards of empirical rationality, or the implicit conceptions of scientific explanation, inference, evidence, and so forth. This process is in large part the domain of the history of science; however, its results are of plain importance to the general theory of science described above. For if we suppose that any scientific theory rests upon a complex and unstated “grammar” of scientific inference and argument, we may sensibly ask whether there are any regularities among those implicit. theories of science. These particular theories of science embody the set of standards of empirical rationality which guide and regulate the particular scientist, and they constitute part of the raw material for the analytical theory of science. They are what the analytical theory of science is a theory of.

Using this basic taxonomy of the philosophy of science, it is possible to restate the innovation in the practice of the philosophy of science which was described above as having occurred of late: historically minded philosophers of science have argued that we ought to make more explicit the relationship between the two levels of theories of science, and ought to pay more attention to the concrete theories of science implicit in particular scientific systems when formulating and criticizing the analytical theory of science. We ought, that is, to formulate an analytical theory of science which is more sensitive to the particular details of the actual practice of scientific explanation and justification, rather than relying on a priori and unsystematic arguments about science in general.


1. Consider social theorists like Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, Lucio Coletti, and Maurice Godelier; empirical sociologists like Tom Bottomore, Ralph Miliband, and J. H. Westergaard; economists like Paul Sweezy, Maurice Dobb, and Ernest Mandel; and historians like E. P. Thompson, Eugene Genovese, Eric Hobsbawm, and Albert Soboul.
2. For a description of a similar project in the biological sciences, consult David Hull, Philosophy of Biological Science (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974), pp. 5-7. Consider also Norwood Hanson, Patterns of Discovery, An Inquiry into the Conceptual Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965, p. 2.
3. Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1970), pp. 30-1;Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1969), pp. 34-5.
4. David McLellan, Karl Marx (New York: Viking Press, 1975), pp. 303-305; Albrecht Wellmer, Critical Theory of Society (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971), Chap. 2; Carl Boggs, Gramsci’s Marxism (London: Pluto Press,·1976) Chap. 1.
5. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. ·(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Norwood Hanson, Patterns of Discovery; Imre Lakatos, “Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes,” Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. Imre Lakatos & Alan Musgrave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); David Hull, Philosophy of Biological Science. These works share a commitment to constructing a theory of science based on a close reading of some specific scientific theory.
6. Cf. Richard Rudner, Philosophy of Social Science (Englewood Cliffs., N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966). This is a good example of such studies.
7. Consider Israel Scheffler, The Anatomy of Inquiry (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), pp. 3-15, for a similar discussion and taxonomy of the philosophy of science.

Social structures and causal powers

The idea of a causal power has been appealing to the realist tradition within the philosophy of science, and especially so for the philosophy of social science. Proponents of this idea include Nancy Cartwright (Nature’s Capacities and Their Measurements), Margaret Archer (Realist Social Theory: The Morphogenetic Approach), and Dave Elder-Vass (The Causal Power of Social Structures). Elder-Vass provides a succinct description of the tradition:

Bhaskar offers us an alternative way of understanding causality, a causal powers theory. This draws on a different, realist, tradition of thinking about cause, one that goes back at least as far as Aristotle, but one that has been less influential than the covering law model in twentieth-century social science. As [Ruth] Groff puts it, ‘realists about causality think, contra Hume, that causal relations are relations of natural or metaphysical necessity, rather than of contingent sequence’ — and that this necessity arises from the nature of the objects involved in those causal relations (Groff 2008:2-3). (43)

Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum’s Getting Causes from Powers is an important contribution to this debate. Here are several useful comments from Mumford’s contribution to the The Oxford Handbook of Causation, “Causal Powers and Capacities”:

Where it is most radical, the powers ontology proposes a major reconceptualization of causation. Hume, as traditionally interpreted, understood the world to consist of distinct and discrete, unconnected existences. If this is accepted, then the best that can be made of causation is that it is a contingent and external relation between such existences. The powers ontology accepts necessary connections in nature, in which the causal interactions of a thing, in virtue of its properties, can be essential to it. Instead of contingently related cause and effect, we have power and its manifestation, which remain distinct existences but with a necessary connection between.

One such tradition was based in Britain and came from the work of Rom Harré (1970; 2001, and with Madden 1973; 1975), which seems to have been an influence on Roy Bhaskar (1975) and Nancy Cartwright (1983; 1989; 1999). In Cartwright, the commitment is to capacities, which in her account differ from dispositions in that they ‘are not restricted to any single kind of manifestation … [but] can behave very differently in different circumstances’. (1999: 59)

Putting the point simply, the assertion that an entity has a causal power comes down to a claim about the nature of the entity and the strong dispositional properties that this nature gives rise to. Sugar has the causal power to stimulate the taste of sweetness in typical human subjects; this power derives from the chemical structure of the sugar molecule and the micro-organization and functioning of taste receptor neurons. A magnet has a power to attract a piece of iron, in virtue of its microstructure. In each case we have identified a real feature of the entity, and this feature is a consequence of real properties of its microstructure.

This approach makes sense with regard to social structures and institutions as well. If paramilitary organizations have a propensity to create young adherents who are easily mobilized in support of fascist politics (as argued by Michael Mann in Fascists), then we can make reference to this causal power in our explanation of the rise of Italian fascism. University X’s tenure system produces a teaching environment in which students get little attention from their faculty, as a consequence of the incentives and habits it cultivates in young faculty. This means something fairly straightforward: given the specific arrangements associated with this tenure system, the interactions that individuals have within this institution inculcate patterns of behavior that bring about the consequence. On this story, “producing a faculty climate that gives little priority to undergraduate students” is a causal power of this institutional arrangement. Change the internal arrangements and you get different causal properties.

In the case of the social world, however, the fundamental constituents of social powers are the constrained and developed actions of persons who act within the context of a given set of institutions and structures. Unlike the iron magnet, whose powers derive from identical iron atoms arranged in certain geometries, a tenure institution or a safety organization derives its properties from the structured actions of the individuals who compose it.

The rationale for asserting necessity in either the natural or the social realm — the idea that the power is a real property of the thing — is the theory of scientific realism: things actually have the causal powers we observe because they have an inner constitution that propels their interactions with other entities. So the causal relation is a kind of necessary relation, not just a brute fact about regularities. Metals conduct electricity because of the chemical-physical structure of the copper wire. And universities have the properties they possess because of the institutional arrangements they embody and the actions of individuals within those arrangements.

So the theory of causal powers doesn’t have to presuppose an objectionable form of metaphysical essentialism. Instead, it can be a defensible framework for embodying the idea of causal realism: things have the causal properties and dispositions they have in virtue of their micro-composition.

Why is it useful to use the language of causal powers? Because we can encapsulate a large amount of the pertinent causal properties of an entity into a fairly simple set of expectations. If iron is magnetic (a causal power) we can derive a large number of expectations about its behavior in a variety of circumstances; and we can explain those circumstances based on the powers we have empirically or theoretically established. If a certain kind of regulatory organization is observed to have the causal power of “contributing to an abnormal number of accidents” — then one part of an explanation of a particular accident may be the fact that it occurred within the scope of that kind of regulatory organization. (Charles Perrow offers an argument along these lines in Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.)

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