Hempel after 70 years

Carl Hempel published his sole contribution to the philosophy of history in 1942, almost exactly 70 years ago. The article is “The Function of General Laws in History” (link), and it set the stage for several fruitless decades of debate within analytic philosophy about the nature of historical explanation. Hempel argued that all scientific explanation has the same logical structure: a deductive (or probabilistic) derivation of the explanandum from one or more general laws and one or more statements of fact. Explanation, in Hempel’s view, simply is “derivation of the explanandum from general laws.” Here is the opening paragraph of the essay.

It is a rather widely held opinion that history, in contra-distinction to the so-called physical sciences, is concerned with the description of particular events of the past rather than with the search for general laws which might govern those events. As a characterization of the type of problem in which some historians are mainly interested, this view probably can not be denied; as a statement of the theoretical function of general laws in scientific historical research, it is certainly unacceptable. The following considerations are an attempt to substantiate this point by showing in some detail that general laws have quite analogous functions in history and in the natural sciences, that they form an indispensable instrument of historical research, and that they even constitute the common basis of various procedures which are often considered as characteristic of the social in contradistinction to the natural sciences. (35)

And here is the logical structure of such a “covering law” explanation, according to Hempel:

(1) a set of statements asserting the occurrence of certain events C1, . . . C, at certain times and places,
(2) a set of universal hypotheses, such that
(a) the statements of both groups are reasonably well confirmed by empirical evidence,
(b) from the two groups of statements the sentence asserting the occurrence of event E can be logically deduced. (36)

He is emphatic, moreover, in insisting that valid explanations in history must have this form:

We have tried to show that in history no less than in any other branch of empirical inquiry, scientific explanation can be achieved only by means of suitable general hypotheses, or by theories, which are bodies of systematically related hypotheses. (44)

Hempel concedes the point that few existing historical explanations actually look like this, with explicit law statements embedded in a deductive argument; but he argues that this shows only that existing explanations are elliptical, incomplete, or invalid. And often, he finds, what is offered as a historical explanation is in fact no more than an “explanation sketch” (42), with placeholders for the general laws.

What kinds of general laws does Hempel think that historians have in the back of their minds when they offer elliptical explanations? He refers to regularities of individual or social psychology (40), regularities of collective behavior (“groups migrate to regions which offer better living conditions”), or at the macro level, regularities linking growing discontent to the outbreak of revolution (41). Further:

Many of the universal hypotheses underlying historical explanation, for instance, would commonly be classified as psychological, economical, sociological, and partly perhaps as historical laws; in addition, historical research has frequently to resort to general laws established in physics, chemistry, and biology. (47)

This set of assumptions leads to big trouble for historical explanation if we accept Hempel’s account, however, because it is hard to think of a real historical research question where there might be a set of social or individual regularities sufficient to deductively entail the outcome. Bluntly, the social and behavioral sciences have never produced theories of individual or collective behavior that issue in statements of general laws that could be the foundation for a covering law explanation. And given that social phenomena are formed by actors with a range of features of agency and decision-making, we have very good reason to think that this lack of regularities is inherent in the social world. The social world is simply not governed by a set of social or individual laws. Let’s look at that point at several levels.

Individuals. The social sciences provide a good basis for advancing theories of agency, which in turn support certain generalizations about action. For example: People act out of self interest. People act morally. People pay attention to the example of others. People care about their families and friends. People follow charismatic leaders. People follow the precepts of their religious beliefs. People are emotional and short-sighted. People make decisions based on specific heuristics and rules-of-thumb. Each of these statements takes the form of a generalization. And each is true — of some delimited groups of agents some of the time. But there is no generalization about agency that is true of all agents all the time. Rational choice theory attempts to provide a single theory of agency and decision making that replaces all of these variant grounds of action. But rational choice theory has proven notoriously unsuccessful as a foundation for explanation of a large and complex event — war, revolution, economic crisis. 

Groups. Here too we can identify some partial regularities: Groups tend to coalesce in action when they have prominent shared characteristics.  Groups are more prone to panic than individuals. Groups tend to fail to accomplish collective purposes. Groups are hyper-sensitive to racial and ethnic markers.  And so forth. It is evident that these are partial, tendential, exception-laden, and inexact; not at all like the generalizations that characterize metals, liquids, or proteins.

Organizations and institutions. What about mid-level social arrangements like labor unions, congregations, and terrorist cells? It’s not that there aren’t any generalizations to be had concerning items at this level; it is that there are too many, and they are highly contingent, conditioned, and contradictory. Certain types of organization are more prone to accidents than others. This is true; but we have more confidence in our analysis of the most important features of the high-safety organization than we have in the corresponding generalization.  So there isn’t a stockpile of laws that might be produced to apply to a social situation and then turn the crank and derive the deductive consequences. 

Finally, what about large-scale events and structures — wars, revolutions, civil conflict? Here too there are some generalizations that social scientists have asserted. For example: Democracies don’t go to war with each other. War is made more likely when two powers have conflicts of interest over important resources. Wars create propaganda.  Revolutions don’t happen when the general population is satisfied. But generalizations about these sorts of social entities too are bounded and unreliable. They are conditional, we recognize immediately that they have exceptions, and they don’t permit prediction.

So the strong, governing generalizations that would be needed for a covering law explanation do not exist. As I argued a number of years ago, social regularities are phenomenal, not governing (link); they reflect characteristics of the actors rather than governing the behavior of the ensembles.  Does this mean that historical explanation is impossible?  No.  But we need to turn our attention from regularities to causal mechanisms and powers in order to see what a good historical explanation looks like.  A good historical explanation identifies a number of independent mechanisms and processes that are at work in a particular circumstance, and then demonstrates how these mechanisms, and the actions of the actors involved, lead to the outcome.

Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Chuck Tilly advanced a boldly different approach to analyzing and explaining complex historical phenomena, with special application to social contention.  They rejected the idea that there might be “laws” of revolution, civil unrest, or ethnic cleansing. They argued instead that there are a number of recurring “social mechanisms” of contention that can be identified in many instances of contention, and whose influences can be traced out to result in the observed outcomes.  Here is how McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly proceed in Dynamics of Contention.

We begin with a question: What led normally accepting accepting African-Americans both in Montgomery and throughout the South to risk their livelihoods and their lives in support of civil rights? Recall from Chapter I that in the “classical social movement agenda” the following factors come into play:

  • Social change processes initiate a process of change and trigger changes in the political, cultural, and economic environments.
  • Political opportunities and constraints confront a given challenger. Though challengers habitually face resource deficits and are excluded from routine decision making, the political environment at any time is not immutable; the political opportunities for a challenger to engage in successful collective action vary over time. These variations shape the ebb and flow of a movement’s activity.
  • Forms of organization (informal as well as formal) offer insurgents sites for initial mobilization at the time opportunities present themselves and condition their capacity to exploit their new resources. Despite some evidence to the contrary (Piven and Cloward 1977), a large body of evidence finds organizational strength correlated with challengers’ ability to gain access and win concessions (Gamson 1990).
  • Framing, a collective process of interpretation, attribution, and social construction, mediates between opportunity and action. At a minimum, people must both feel aggrieved at some aspect of their lives and optimistic that acting collectively can redress the problem (Snow, et al. 1986; Snow and Benford 1988). Movements frame specific grievances within general collective action frames which dignify claims, connect them to others, and help to produce a collective identity among claimants.
  • Repertoires of contention offer the means by which people engage in contentious collective action. These forms are not neutral, continuous, or universally accessible; they constitute a resource that actors can use on behalf of their claims (Traugott, et al. 1995). The use of transgressive forms offers the advantages of surprise, uncertainty, and novelty, but contained forms of contention have the advantage of being accepted, familiar, and relatively easy to employ by claimants without special resources or willingness to incur costs and take great risks.

That classical agenda made three enduring contributions to the study of social movements. First, it made strong claims regarding the close connection between routine and contentious politics, helping to reframe the study of social movements as the proper province of both sociology and political science. Second, calling attention to the role of “mobilizing structures,” it represented a powerful challenge to the stress on social disorganization and breakdown in the older collective behavior paradigm. Third, it produced a credible picture of mobilization into social movements that was supported by a good deal of empirical evidence correlating the factors outlined above with increases in mobilization.

There are low-level generalizations offered throughout this series of statements. But all those generalizations are soft and exception-laden.  What MTT are interested in doing when they attempt to explain what they call “episodes of contention” is rather to identify the occurrence and interaction of a number of common mechanisms of contention.  And in fact, they explicitly repudiate the covering law model:

Our emphasis on recurring mechanisms and processes does not mean that we intend to pour all forms of contention into the same great mold, subjecting them to universal laws of contention and flattening them into a single two-dimensional caricature. On the contrary, we examine partial parallels in order to find widely operating explanatory mechanisms that combine differently and therefore produce different outcomes in one setting or another. To discover that third parties influence both strikes and ethnic mobilization by no means amounts to showing that the origins, trajectories, and outcomes of strikes and ethnic mobilization are the same, any more than identifying similarities in memory processes of mice and men proves mice and men to be identical in all regards. To discover mechanisms of competition and radicalization in both the French Revolution and in the South African freedom movement is not to say that the Jacobins and the African National Congress are the same. We pursue partial parallels in search of mechanisms that drive contention in different directions. Only then, and in Part III, do we examine how mechanisms combine in robust political processes.

Sixty years after Hempel’s classic article, the covering law theory is now generally regarded as a fundamentally wrong-headed way of thinking about historical (and social) explanation.  Logical positivism is not a convenient lens through which to examine the social and historical sciences.  There is too much contingency in the social world. Rather than being the result of law-governed processes, social outcomes proceed from the contingent and historically variable features of the actors who make them.  So the attention of many people interested in specifying the nature of historical and social explanation has focused on social mechanisms constituted and driven by common features of agency.

(Renate Mayntz’s discussion of causal mechanisms represents one of the best current treatments of the subject; link.)

Feyerabend as artisanal scientist

I’ve generally found Paul Feyerabend’s position on science to be a bit too extreme. Here is one provocative statement in the analytical index of Against Method:

Thus science is much closer to myth than a scientific philosophy is prepared to admit. It is one of the any forms of thought that have been developed by man, and not necessarily the best. It is conspicuous, noisy, and impudent, but it is inherently superior only for those who have already decided in favour of a certain ideology, or who have accepted it without having ever examined its advantages and its limits. And as the accepting and rejecting of ideologies should be left to the individual it follows that the separation of state and church must be supplemented by the separation of state and science, that most recent, most aggressive, and most dogmatic religious institution. Such a separation may be our only chance to achieve a humanity we are capable of, but have never fully realised.

Fundamentally my objection is that Feyerabend seems to leave no room at all for rationality in science: no scientific method, no grip for observation, and no force to scientific reasoning. A cartoon takeaway from his work is a slogan: science is just another language game, a rhetorical system, with no claim to rational force based on empirical study and reasoning.  Feyerabend seems to be the ultimate voice for the idea of relativism in knowledge systems — much as Klamer and McCloskey seemed to argue with regard to economic theory in The Consequences of Economic Rhetoric.

This isn’t a baseless misreading of Feyerabend. In fact, it isn’t a bad paraphrase of Against Method. But it isn’t the whole story either.  And at bottom, I don’t think it is accurate to say that Feyerabend rejects the idea of scientific rationality.  Rather, he rejects one common interpretation of that notion: the view that scientific rationality can be reduced to a set of universal canons of investigation and justification, and that there is a neutral and universal set of standards of inference that decisively guide choice of scientific theories and hypotheses.  So I think it is better to understand Feyerabend as presenting an argument against a certain view in the philosophy of science rather than against science itself.

Instead, I now want to understand Feyerabend as holding something like this: that there is “reasoning” in scientific research, and this reasoning has a degree of rational credibility.  However, the reasoning that scientists do is always contextual and skilled, rather than universal and mechanical.  And it doesn’t result in proofs and demonstrations, but rather a preponderance of reasons favoring one interpretation rather than another.  (Significantly, this approach to scientific justification sounds a bit like the view argued about sociological theories in an earlier posting.)

Here are a few reasons for thinking that Feyerabend endorses some notion of scientific rationality.

First, Feyerabend is a philosopher and historian of science who himself demonstrates a great deal of respect for empirical and historical detail.  The facts matter to Feyerabend, in his interpretation of the history of science.  He establishes his negative case with painstaking attention to the details of the history of science — Newton, optics, quantum mechanics. This is itself a kind of empirical reasoning about the actual intellectual practices of working scientists. But if Feyerabend were genuinely skeptical of the enterprise of offering evidence in favor of claims, this work would be pointless.

Second, his own exposition of several scientific debates demonstrates a realist’s commitment to the issues at stake. Take his discussion of the micro-mechanisms of reflection and light “rays”. If there were in principle no way of evaluating alternative theories of these mechanisms, it would be pointless to consider the question. But actually, Feyerabend seems to reason on the assumption that one theory is better than another, given the preponderance of reasons provided by macro-observations and mathematical-physical specification of the hypotheses.

Third, he takes a moderate view on the relation between empirical observation and scientific theory in “How to Be a Good Empiricist”:

The final reply to the question put in the title is therefore as follows. A good empiricist will not rest content with the theory that is in the centre of attention and with those tests of the theory which can be carried out in a direct manner. Knowing that the most fundamental and the most general criticism is the criticism produced with the help of alternatives, he will try to invent such alternatives. (102)

This passage is “moderate” in a specific sense: it doesn’t give absolute priority to a given range of empirical facts; but neither does it dismiss the conditional epistemic weight of a body of observation.

So as a historian of science, Feyerabend seems to have no hesitation himself to engage in empirical reasoning and persuading, and he seems to grant a degree of locally compelling reasoning in the context of specific physical disputes.  And he appears to presuppose a degree of epistemic importance — always contestable — for a body of scientific observation and discovery.

What he seems most antagonistic to is the positivistic idea of a universal scientific method — a set of formally specified rules that guide research and the evaluation of theories. Here is how he puts the point in “On the Limited Validity of Methodological Rules” (collected in Knowledge, Science and Relativism). 

It is indubitable that the application of clear, well-defined, and above all ‘rational’ rules occasionally leads to results. A vast number of discoveries owe their existence to the systematic procedures of their discoverers. But from that, it does not follow that there are rules which must be obeyed for every cognitive act and every scientific investigation. On the contrary, it is totally improbable that there is such a system of rules, such a logic of scientific discovery, which permeates all reasoning without obstructing it in any way. The world in which we live is very complex. Its laws do not lay open to us, rather they present themselves in diverse disguises (astronomy, atomic physics, theology, psychology, physiology, and the like). Countless prejudices find their way into every scientific action, making them possible in the first place. It is thus to be expected that every rule, even the most ‘fundamental’, will only be successful in a limited domain, and that the forced application of the rule outside of its domain must obstruct research and perhaps even bring it to stagnation. This will be illustrated by the following examples. (138)

It is the attainability of a universal, formal philosophy of science that irritates him. Instead, he seems to basically be advocating for a limited and conditioned form of local rationality — not a set of universal maxims but a set of variable but locally justifiable practices. The scientist is an artisan rather than a machinist.  Here is a passage from the concluding chapter of Against Method:

The idea that science can, and should, be run according to fixed and universal rules, is both unrealistic and pernicious. It is unrealistic, for it takes too simple a view of the talents of man and of the circumstances which encourage, or cause, their development. And it is pernicious, for the attempt to enforce the rules is bound to increase our professional qualifications at the expense of our humanity. In addition, the idea is detrimental to science, for it neglects the complex physical and historical conditions which influence scientific change. It makes our science less adaptable and more dogmatic: every methodological rule is associated with cosmological assumptions, so that using the rule we take it for granted that the assumptions are correct. Naive falsificationism takes it for granted that the laws of nature are manifest and not hidden beneath disturbances of considerable magnitude. Empiricism takes it for granted that sense experience is a better mirror of the world than pure thought. Praise of argument takes it for granted that the artifices of Reason give better results than the unchecked play of our emotions. Such assumptions may be perfectly plausible and even true. Still, one should occasionally put them to a test. Putting them to a test means that we stop using the methodology associated with them, start doing science in a different way and see what happens. Case studies such as those reported in the preceding chapters show that such tests occur all the time, and that they speak against the universal validity of any rule. All methodologies have their limitations and the only ‘rule’ that survives is ‘anything goes’.

His most basic conclusion is epistemic anarchism, expressed in the “anything goes” slogan, but without the apparent relativism suggested by the phrase: there is no “organon,” no “inductive logic,” and no “Scientific Method” that guides the creation and validation of science.  But scientists do often succeed in learning and defending important truths about nature nonetheless.

(Here is an online version of the analytical contents and concluding chapter of Against Method.  And here is a link to an article by John Preston on Feyerabend in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Kuhn’s paradigm shift


Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) brought about a paradigm shift of its own, in the way that philosophers thought about science. The book was published in the Vienna Circle’s International Encyclopedia of Unified Science in 1962. (See earlier posts on the Vienna Circle; post, post.) And almost immediately it stimulated a profound change in the fundamental questions that defined the philosophy of science. For one thing, it shifted the focus from the context of justification to the context of discovery. It legitimated the introduction of the study of the history of science into the philosophy of science — and thereby also legitimated the perspective of sociological study of the actual practices of science. And it cast into doubt the most fundamental assumptions of positivism as a theory of how the science enterprise actually works.

And yet it also preserved an epistemological perspective. Kuhn forced us to ask questions about truth, justification, and conceptual discovery — even as he provided a basis for being skeptical about the stronger claims for scientific rationality by positivists like Reichenbach and Carnap. And the framework threatened to lead to a kind of cognitive relativism: “truth” is relative to a set of extra-rational conventions of conceptual scheme and interpretation of data.

The main threads of Kuhn’s approach to science are well known. Science really gets underway when a scientific tradition has succeeded on formulating a paradigm. A paradigm includes a diverse set of elements — conceptual schemes, research techniques, bodies of accepted data and theory, and embedded criteria and processes for the validation of results. Paradigms are not subject to testing or justification; in fact, empirical procedures are embedded within paradigms. Paradigms are in some ways incommensurable — Kuhn alluded to gestalt psychology to capture the idea that a paradigm structures our perceptions of the world. There are no crucial experiments — instead, anomalies accumulate and eventually the advocates of an old paradigm die out and leave the field to practitioners of a new paradigm. Like Polanyi, Kuhn emphasizes the concrete practical knowledge that is a fundamental component of scientific education (post). By learning to use the instruments and perform the experiments, the budding scientist learns to see the world in a paradigm-specific way. (Alexander Bird provides a good essay on Kuhn in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

A couple of questions are particularly interesting today, approaching fifty years after the writing of the book. One is the question of origins: where did Kuhn’s basic intuitions come from? Was the idea of a paradigm a bolt from the blue, or was there a comprehensible line of intellectual development that led to it? There certainly was a strong tradition of study of the history of science from the late nineteenth to the twentieth century; but Kuhn was the first to bring this tradition into explicit dialogue with the philosophy of science. Henri Poincaré (The Foundations of Science: Science and Hypothesis, The Value of Science, Science and Methods) and Pierre Duhem (The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory) are examples of thinkers who brought a knowledge of the history of science into their thinking about the logic of science. And Alexandre Koyré’s studies of Galileo are relevant too (From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe); Koyré made plain the “revolutionary” character of Galileo’s thought within the history of science. However, it appears that Kuhn’s understanding of the history of science took shape through his own efforts to make sense of important episodes in the history of science while teaching in the General Education in Science curriculum at Harvard, rather than building on prior traditions.

Another question arises from the fact of its surprising publication in the Encyclopedia. The Encyclopedia project was a fundamental and deliberate expression of logical positivism. Structure of Scientific Revolutions, on the other hand, became one of the founding texts of anti-positivism. And this was apparent in the book from the start. So how did it come to be published here? (Michael Friedman takes up this subject in detail in “Kuhn and Logical Positivism” in Thomas Nickles, Thomas Kuhn (link).) George Reisch and Brazilian philosopher J. C. P. Oliveira address exactly this question. Oliveira offers an interesting discussion of the relationship between Kuhn and Carnap in an online article. He quotes crucial letters from Carnap to Kuhn in 1960 and 1962 about the publication of SSR in the Encyclopedia series. Carnap writes,

I believe that the planned monograph will be a valuable contri­bution to the Encyclopedia. I am myself very much interested in the problems which you intend to deal with, even though my knowledge of the history of science is rather fragmentary. Among many other items I liked your emphasis on the new conceptual frameworks which are proposed in revolutions in science, and, on their basis, the posing of new questions, not only answers to old problems. (REISCH 1991, p. 266)

I am convinced that your ideas will be very stimulating for all those who are interested in the nature of scientific theories and especially the causes and forms of their changes. I found very illuminating the parallel you draw with Darwinian evolution: just as Darwin gave up the earlier idea that the evolution was directed towards a predeter­mined goal, men as the perfect organism, and saw it as a process of improvement by natural selection, you emphasize that the develop­ment of theories is not directed toward the perfect true theory, but is a process of improvement of an instrument. In my own work on in­ductive logic in recent years I have come to a similar idea: that my work and that of a few friends in the step for step solution of prob­lems should not be regarded as leading to “the ideal system”, but rather as a step for step improvement of an instrument. Before I read your manuscript I would not have put it in just those words. But your formulations and clarifications by examples and also your analogy with Darwin’s theory helped me to see clearer what I had in mind. From September on I shall be for a year at the Stanford Center. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to get together and talk about problems of common interest. (REISCH 1991, pp.266-267)

Against what Oliveira calls “revisionist” historians of the philosophy of science, Oliveira does not believe that SSR was accepted for publication by Carnap because Carnap or other late Vienna School philosophers believed there was a significant degree of agreement between Kuhn and Carnap. Instead, he argues that the Encyclopedia group believed that the history of science was an entirely separate subject from the philosophy of science. It was a valid subject of investigation, but had nothing to do with the logic of science. Oliveira writes,

Thus, the publication of Structure in Encyclopedia could be justified merely by the fact that the Encyclopedia project had already reserved space for it. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that the editors commissioned Kuhn’s book as a work in history of science especially for publication in the Encyclopedia.

Also interesting is to consider where Kuhn’s ideas went from here. How much influence did the theory have within philosophy? Certainly Kuhn had vast influence within the next generation of anti-positivist or post-positivist philosophy of science. And he had influence in fields very remote from philosophy as well. Paul Feyerabend was directly exposed to Kuhn at UCLA and picks up the anti-positivist thread in Against Method. Imre Lakatos introduces important alternatives to the concept of paradigm with his concept of a scientific research programme. Lakatos makes an effort to reintroduce rational standards into the task of paradigm choice through his idea of progressive problem shifts (The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Volume 1: Philosophical Papers). An important volume involving Kuhn, Feyerabend, and Lakatos came directly out of a conference focused on Kuhn’s work (Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge: Volume 4: Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London, 1965). Kuhn’s ideas have had a very wide exposure within the philosophy of science; but as Alexander Bird notes in his essay in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there has not emerged a “school” of Kuhnian philosophy of science.

From the perspective of a half century, some of the most enduring questions raised by Kuhn are these:

  • What does the detailed study of the history of science tell us about scientific rationality?
  • To what extent is it true that scientific training inculcates adherence to a conceptual scheme and approach to the world that the scientist simply can’t critically evaluate?
  • Does the concept of a scientific paradigm apply to other fields of knowledge? Do sociologists or art historians have paradigms in Kuhn’s strong sense?
  • Is there a meta-theory of scientific rationality that permits scientists and philosophers to critically examine alternative paradigms?
  • And for the social sciences — are Marxism, verstehen theory, or Parsonian sociology paradigms in the strong Kuhnian sense?

Perhaps the strongest legacy is this: Kuhn’s work provides a compelling basis for thinking that we can do the philosophy of science best when we consider the real epistemic practices of working scientists carefully and critically. The history and sociology of science is indeed relevant to the epistemic concerns of the philosophy of science. And this is especially true in the case of the social sciences.

Reference
Reisch, George (1991). Did Kuhn Kill Logical Empiricism? Philosophy of Science, 58.

Neo-positivist philosophy of social science


The 1960s witnessed the development of a second generation of analytic philosophy of science inspired broadly by logical positivism and the Vienna Circle (post, post). The “received view” of the 1950s and 1960s, as expressed by philosophers such as Carl Hempel, Ernest Nagel, and Israel Scheffler (and others pictured above), presented a view of scientific knowledge as consisting of theories, general laws, observational predictions, and a logic of confirmation according to which theories are evaluated by their observational consequences (Patrick Suppes, The Structure of Scientific Theories). There was a largely unquestioned assumption that all scientific theories have the same logical structure (the unity of science doctrine; post); so physics, economics, or evolutionary biology could equally be represented as a system of theoretical terms and statements, a set of general laws, and a set of observational or experimental consequences that can be empirically evaluated. Here is an illustration of the idea in the natural sciences; the black line is the theoretical calculation of ferromagnetic properties, and the colored lines are the observed behavior of metals under difference conditions.

This general view of the logic of scientific knowledge was applied to the social sciences by some philosophers of science, and the result was a neo-positivist philosophy of social science. Richard Rudner was an important player in the formation of the received view in the 1960s, and he served as editor-in-chief of the core journal, Philosophy of Science, from 1959 to 1975. (His collected papers are held at Washington University, and the breadth of his correspondence gives some idea of his centrality in discussions of neo-positivist philosophy of science.) His 1966 textbook, Philosophy of social science, represents the high-water mark of neo-positivist philosophy of social science. So let’s review the main features of Rudner’s representation of social-scientific knowledge. (May Brodbeck’s 1968 Readings in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences is a fairly direct complement to Rudner’s book, in that it provides a fairly definitive representation of the philosophy of social science in the late 1960s.)

Several core assumptions about the social sciences are advanced in Rudner’s book.

  • unity of science and naturalism; all sciences should resemble physics
  • emphasis on the distinction between the context of discovery and context of justification
  • insistence on the symmetry of explanation and prediction
  • insistence on the essential role of lawlike generalizations in explanation
  • fundamental reliance on a strict distinction between observation and theory
  • advancement of “formalizability” as a desirable characteristic of a theory

Here is Rudner’s definition of a theory:

A theory is a systematically related set of statements, including some lawlike generalizations, that is empirically testable…. Accordingly, to the extent that a theory has been fully articulated in some formulation, it will achieve an explicit deductive development and interrelationship of the statements it encompasses. (10-11)

This formulation doesn’t yet make explicit the notion that “theory” is non-observational, or that theoretical concepts lack direct criteria of application to observational experience. Rather, Rudner emphasizes the characteristic of formalizability and deductive consequences. And this takes him in the direction of non-observational concepts; they are the concepts that are introduced into a scientific system as formal “place-holders” without explicit definition. Instead, their meaning is determined by the deductive consequences that the sentences in which they appear give rise to. The intended analogy here is with the axioms of geometry; the concepts of “point,” “line,” and “plane” are introduced as primitives without further definition, and their meaning is defined simply by the role they play in the full deductive system of geometry. So, notably, Rudner treats the problem of theory formation in the sciences as entirely analogous to the problem of creating a formal mathematical system — number theory or topology, for example. All concepts are either primitive — introduced without definition; or defined — introduced with strict logical definitions in terms of other concepts that already exist in the theoretical vocabulary. (It is interesting to note that Carl Hempel’s contribution to the Vienna Circle International Encyclopedia of Unified Science is on this subject; Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science (International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol 2 No 7) .)

Notice how foreign this approach is to actual theoretical work by social scientists. Weber or Durkheim do not attempt to strip away “connotation” or ordinary associations from their theoretical concepts; rather, they make full use of the complexity and open-endedness of concepts like capitalism or solidarity as a way of allowing them to describe and theorize complex social realities. Rudner’s approach seems to reflect the program of logical positivism, attempting to utilize the apparatus of formal logic to clarify scientific reasoning. But it misses the mark in application to the actual reasoning of path-breaking social thinkers such as Durkheim, Weber, Tocqueville, or Marx.

Rudner turns to the observation-theoretic distinction in short order. First, he describes observational concepts or predicates in these terms: “One set of primitives should be comprised of observational, or as we shall sometimes say, experimental terms (i.e., that such predicates should refer to observable features of the universe)” (21). And second, he introduces theoretical concepts: “The latter refer to nonobservable or nonmanifest characteristics of nonobservable entities. Thus, theoreticals include terms such as ‘electron,’ ‘superego,’ ‘institutional inertia,’ ‘cultural lag,’ which do not or are not (when the appropriate theories come to be formulated) likely to apply to observable entities at all” (23).

This is the standard view of the observation-theoretic distinction within the “received view” of neo-positivist philosophy of science. It was recognized that it is not possible to achieve the scientific goals of physics or chemistry if we are restricted to a purely observational vocabulary. We evidently need to refer to hypothetical entities and forces if we are to be able to explain observable phenomena. So hypothetical constructs must be permitted. But their “empirical content” is exhausted by their observational consequences.

Rudner attempts to provide a positivistic interpretation of Weber’s concept of ideal types. He writes, “Our concern is with the logical character of idealizations and their methodological uses. In this latter respect, concepts that happen to be idealizations have, as we shall see, no special methodological role–regardless of the heuristic or suggestive value they may have in leading theorists to form hypotheses or frame theories about related phenomena” (56). This is a surprising exercise, since it involves the requirement that the social scientist provide a precise specification of the scope and implications of the term. I’ve always understood Weber’s emphasis to be on the open-endedness of ideal-type concepts; and certainly Weber’s use of ideal-type concepts did not remotely resemble the axiomatic, formalistic use that Rudner attributes to scientific concepts generally.

So what is the logic of scientific explanation in the social sciences, according to Rudner? His answer is straight from Hempel’s covering law theory:

The formal structure of a scientific explanation of some particular event has three parts: first, a statement E describing the specific event to be explained; second, a set of statements C1 to Cn describing specific relevant circumstances that are antecedent to, or otherwise causally correlated with, the event described by E; third, a set of lawlike statements L1 to Ln, universal generalizations whose import is roughly ‘Whenever events of the kind described by C1 through Cn take place, then an event of the kind described by E takes place.’ (60)

Perhaps the key philosophical assumption that Rudner defends is the idea that the logic of science is everywhere the same. Concept formation, deduction, confirmation, and explanation all involve the same formalizable operations. A theory should be formalized as a first-order deductive system with primitive terms and defined terms; some of its terms should have criteria of application to observable outcomes; explanation proceeds by deriving a description of the explanandum from the theory; and the theory should be tested by evaluating the truth or falsity of its observational consequences.

In addition to these extended discussions of the putative logic of social-science reasoning, Rudner also addresses the topics of “objectivity” in social-science research and the concepts of functionalism and teleology in the social sciences.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach to the philosophy of the social sciences? The strength of the book is also its debilitating weakness: it is an exceptionally clear exposition and development of the central ideas of logical positivism in application to social-science theorizing. Unfortunately, this approach proves to be singularly unhelpful when it comes to actually understanding and criticizing the social sciences as they actually exist. It has the effect of attempting to force a style and form of reasoning onto social researchers that deforms the ways in which they attempt to theorize and explain the social world.

Key weaknesses include these points.

First, this formulation pays virtually no attention to the actual content and methods of existing social science disciplines. The foundational premise is that all sciences have the same fundamental logic. So it isn’t necessary to examine sociology, political science, or economics in detail in order to trace out the particular characteristics of inquiry, explanation, and theory in these disciplines. Either the social-science disciplines conform to the received view, or they do not and for that reason show themselves to be defective as science. So the philosophy of a special science is simply the special case of the more general theory of scientific knowledge represented by the received view. This is a bad way of beginning the philosophical study of any science, whether the social sciences or the biological sciences.

Second, by highlighting the issues that are central to the exposition of the received view — for example, the observation-theoretic distinction — the neo-positivist philosopher of social science is drawn away from consideration of other, more substantive problems to which philosophers could make a useful contribution. For example, the assumptions of purposive rationality underlie many explanations in areas of political science and economics; and it turns out to be very productive to examine the intricacies that arise when we try to give a careful explanation of the concept of rationality and to link this assumption to particular areas of social explanation. The intellectual disposition created by the neo-positivist view is to reduce this question to a simple matter of “concept formation.” “Rationality” becomes simply another theoretical construct to be introduced into scientific theories. But as Sen, Harsanyi, Margolis, and dozens of other philosophers and social scientists have demonstrated, we need to spend quite a bit of intellectual energy to the task of unpacking the theory of rationality if it is to be of use in the social sciences.

Third, this approach imposes an inappropriate simplification on the social sciences when it comes to empirical evaluation of social-science hypotheses. It presupposes the comprehensive generality of the hypothetico-deductive model of confirmation theory. Once again, the intellectual error derives from the assumption that the logic of scientific reasoning must be the same in every area of science. The social sciences sometimes involve the sorts of theoretical systems that are found in physics; but more commonly a social science analysis is comprised of a number of relatively independent models and mechanisms — theories of the middle range — that are amenable to piecemeal evaluation. Social science analyses are not generally not unified theoretical systems along the lines of the theory of thermodynamics or genetics. And there are other ways of providing empirical evaluation and support for these sorts of analyses — for example, process-tracing, piecemeal empirical evaluation, and applying the logic of comparative causal analysis.

In hindsight, the neo-positivist paradigm for analyzing the social sciences just didn’t go very well. It pushed an esoteric theology of logical analysis onto the enterprise of understanding society that really didn’t conform very well to the reasoning and explaining that talented sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists were creating for themselves. And it did not succeed in focusing productive attention by philosophers on the difficult problems of theory construction and explanation that social scientists really confronted.

Neurath on sociology


Otto Neurath was one of the central figures in the Vienna Circle in the 1930s and 1940s. And he was the most important figure in the group to consider the social sciences within the “unified sciences” of the twentieth century. As noted in an earlier post, the Vienna Circle set the stage for a powerful tradition of “logical empiricism” as the received view in the philosophy of science in the 1950s and 1960s; and many of these ideas played back into the explicit methodologies of various areas of the sciences as well (physics and behaviorist psychology, for example).

Here I want to focus on the assumptions that some of the Vienna Circle thinkers made about the social sciences. Neurath contributed an article to the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science on the foundations of the social sciences (Foundations of the Social Sciences; 1944), and this is the most extensive commentary on social science methodology that was issued by Vienna Circle thinkers. So it warrants a close reading. Neurath was trained in political economy, and he served as a centralized economic planning official in the German Social Democratic Party in Munich. He was also a key member and leader of the Vienna Circle, and his writings and editorial work for the group were highly influential.

So how does Neurath understand the social sciences? And what does he recommend by way of methodology? Neurath begins by treating the subject matter of sociology empirically rather than definitionally: what do social scientists actually study?

I shall speak of sociological statements as members of one big family of statements which may be found in volumes filled with results of research on the behavior of tribes, on the behavior of customs and languages as they spread through mankind, on the behavior of whole nations, on the growing-up of the fine arts in human societies, on the behavior of human groups and representative individuals (e.g., of artists, priests, statesmen, pirates, peasants, workers, and other people in various societies), on the patterns of cities, on the behavior of markets and administration, and on the various ways of personal life within various societies. (1)

In other words, Neurath is taking the content of a wide range of existing social-science studies of human behavior and society as constituting the domain of “social science” — rather than beginning with an abstract or theoretical definition of the scope and methods of the social sciences. This approach is consistent with the over-arching Vienna Circle attitude of respect for the content and conduct of the various areas of science as they were currently practiced.

And what does he take to be the scientific goal of such research? He isn’t entirely explicit, but here is a preliminary statement:

All the techniques for making well-arranged descriptions, finding correlations, and preparing predictions belong to the field of scientific practice with which I have to do here. … Up to now we have met an overwhelming number of expressions dealing with social matters. (1-2)

So a fundamental goal of social-science research and thinking, on this approach, is providing a conceptual system — a vocabulary — in terms of which to describe social matters. Social scientists then use those concepts to describe the social data that they discover, and they attempt to discover correlations and make predictions based on the statements they have arrived at. Along the lines of Vienna Circle thinking about “criteria of significance,” Neurath suggests that sociological concepts need to have clear and specific criteria of application to observable behavior. He refers to this kind of work as “terminological analysis.” And the goal, evidently, is to create a uniform and logically specified language for the conduct of social science research and analysis: “Not only the unification of the sociological language is at stake, but a much more comprehensive unification and orchestration, which leads us to a lingua franca of unified science” (2). The resulting concepts need to have “observation content” — that is, the researcher needs to be able to specify the connection the concept has to the observation of behavior. It is necessary to provide criteria of application based on observation.

But this is where Neurath’s criticisms come in. Not all writings in the social or historical sciences conform to this ideal of conceptual clarity and empirical applicability. Neurath offers as a negative example of a social concept, the idea of the “spirit of nations.” He suggests that this concept appears to be incapable of being connected to specific observable facts about social behavior; it functions as a speculative postulate of something inherently unobservable; and it should be avoided. “I suggest that it would be better not to discuss these remarks further within logical empiricism, because I see no way of transforming them into physicalist statements” (4). This corresponds to a very basic prescription for sociologists: make sure that the concepts one uses are logically clear and have explicit connections to observation.

We see how perplexing anthropological and historical analyses sometimes appear to be, because the phraseology is anything but consistent. It will not bolster up any argument to add that something belongs to the “mental world” or that there are “motives behind an action” instead of using a simple correlation phraseology. Generalities, such as “factors of social change,” even when they are connected with empiricist statements, do not seem to further descriptions or predictions; they often serve as a kind of healing balsam.” (17-18)

Several points in this passage warrant comment. First, there is the requirement of “consistency” of language. Here Neurath is reaffirming the goal of arriving at a universal language for social science research. Second is the rejection of mentalistic vocabulary. The point, I believe, is that the scientist cannot provide any observational criteria for applying the mental term to the individual. He/she may be able to provide behavioral criteria for the mental term; but in that case the mental term can be eliminated in terms of a feature of behavior. Instead of: “Berty broke the glass because he was angry,” we can replace the sentence with: “Berty broke the glass; Berty displayed a, b, c features of angry-behavior; angry-behavior is commonly associated with things like breaking glasses.” This leads us immediately to behaviorism as a methodological requirement for psychology. And the problem with “factors of social change,” evidently, is that the phrase is entirely abstract and vacuous — and therefore does not help with description or prediction. If, on the other hand, the “factor” were specified more concretely — say, “rising population density as a factor of social change” — then presumably Neurath would be satisfied. It would then be possible to study a number of societies; evaluate them for population density and social unrest; and arrive at testable statements about the correlation between the two factors.

Consider an example that I think will illustrate Neurath’s point here. Suppose we say that “capitalism exists because of a pre-existing spirit of Calvinism.” (Neurath begins to consider this example, understanding both concepts in terms of a set of “human attitudes”; p. 16. His use of the example obviously indicates that he is thinking of Max Weber, but he doesn’t explicitly mention Weber.) Neurath would require that we be able to answer a series of questions: what are the criteria by which we apply the concept of capitalism to a specific society or group? What are the criteria by which we apply “Calvinism” to a population of people? And what observations and deductive arguments exist that would allow us to assess the truth or falsity of the claim of causation? If we are unable to answer any of these questions, then the statement is not yet an acceptable sociological assertion. Ultimately Neurath argues that we should refrain from making causal claims (21); but if we have clear criteria of application for C and P, then we can arrive at acceptable statements like “All C societies are P societies” or “Some P societies are not C societies”. In other words, we can discover observational correlations in the occurrence of C and P across a range of societies or groups.

Neurath gives attention to the topic of “corroborating and supporting hypotheses” (25 ff.) — what he refers to as “assaying” the statement (19). Here he takes a Duhemian view (Pierre Duhem, The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory), according to which a scientific account of a phenomenon consists of a network of hypotheses that jointly (not singly) have implications for observation. “We look at a network of hypotheses only, and we cannot say from which hypotheses certain difficulties arise.” He denies that “crucial experiments” exist that permit the scientist to refute a single hypothesis based on a single experimental outcome. Instead, the system of hypotheses as a whole gains empirical support through positive findings, and loses empirical credibility through negative findings. “I should therefore say we may ‘shake’ or ‘corroborate’ the assertion of a hypothesis and finally prefer some hypothesis; but I should not suggest saying that we may ‘confirm a sentence more and more,’ because even this ‘weak’ statement deals at least with some ‘limit'” (25).

What I do not find in this essay is a clear conception of a “theoretical construct” or theoretical concept — that is, a scientifically useful concept that does not have criteria of empirical application. Theoretical concepts in physics are thought to be “non-observational” — that is, there are no direct criteria for applying the concept of a quark to a specific observable thing in a specific time-space location. Instead, theoretical terms are employed in theoretical hypotheses along with “bridge laws” that permit us to relate the theory to the range of observable evidence. The observation-theoretic distinction becomes a crucial one in later analytic philosophy of science; but it doesn’t seem to be explicit here in Neurath’s essay. (He does refer to the Newtonian concept of gravity; but he doesn’t specifically describe the logic of this concept and how it relates to observation; 26.)

Neurath also advocates caution in the search for predictions about social behavior and social processes: “As social scientists, we have to expect gulfs and gaps everywhere, together with unpredictability, incompleteness, and one-sidedness of our arguing, wherever we may start” (27). He reinforces this point with a strikingly modern-sounding point about the non-linearity of social processes: a small deviation at one end can lead to a major deviation at the other end (28).

So the main elements of a logical empiricist philosophy of sociology are here, in the form of a number of prescriptions:

  • logical specification of concepts
  • specification of empirical criteria of application of concepts to observations
  • description of social phenomena in terms of this conceptual system
  • observational assessment of statements
  • discovery of regularities among descriptive statements
  • avoidance of claims of causation
  • disregard of theoretical concepts

And these prescriptions, in turn, seem to lead to a particular model of sociology research — one that appears to have guided the conduct of quantitative-statistical sociological research for several decades at mid-century. This is a variant of positivist philosophy of science that most strongly encourages general descriptive concepts, strong empirical procedures, and the discovery of statistical regularities among variables. It is what Andrew Abbott refers to as the “variables” paradigm.

Did the Vienna Circle view of the social sciences have any influence on working sociologists in the 1940s and 1950s? Or, more generally, did the writings of logical positivism influence the development of the methodologies and theories of sociology? One direct form of influence can be traced through the priority that behavioral scientists gave to “concept formation” and operationalizability — for example, Carl Hempel’s Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science (International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol 2 No 7) (1952) or P. W. Bridgman’s The logic of modern physics (1927). The requirement of testability certainly recurs throughout much methodological writing by sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s. The insistence on discovering regularities among social facts plays directly into more sophisticated efforts to understand sociology as a statistical/quantitative science. The idea that the social sciences should avoid using “cause-effect” vocabulary seems to resonate with methodologists who insist that “we discover regularities but cannot assess causal relationships.” So there does appear to be a fairly high degree of fit between the views that Neurath advances concerning sociology, and the content of positivist sociological methodology a few decades later.

A final question is this: how should science and philosophy interrelate? Do philosophical findings about scientific method imply that the scientific enterprise needs to start over? In response to this question, the book closes with one of Neurath’s most famous passages — the description of what is now known as “Neurath’s raft”.

Imagine sailors who, far out at sea, transform the shape of their clumsy vessel from a more circular to a more fishlike one. They make use of some drifting timber, besides the timber of the old structure, to modify the skeleton and the hull of their vessel. But they cannot put the ship in dock in order to start from scratch. During their work they stay on the old structure and deal with heavy gales and thundering waves. In transforming their ship they take care that dangerous leakages do not occur. A new ship grows out of the old one, step by step — and while they are still building, the sailors may already be thinking of a new structure, and they will not always agree with one another. The whole business will go on in a way we cannot even anticipate today. That is our fate. (47)

This is his metaphor for the reconstruction of the sciences along the lines of logical empiricism and terminological empiricism: gradual reconstruction of the enterprise while underway in the business of performing scientific research.

John Stuart Mill as a social science founder


John Stuart Mill was Britain’s leading thinker when it came to issues having to do with logic and scientific knowledge in the mid-nineteenth century. His System of Logic was first published in 1843 and was reprinted in numerous editions, and it constituted a comprehensive treatment of scientific knowledge and inference within the empiricist tradition. The book devoted an entire section to the logic of what Mill referred to as the “moral sciences” (Book VI, published separately as The Logic of the Moral Sciences). He defined the moral sciences as those areas of study having to do with human dispositions, character, and action, extending from psychology to social science. The conception of social science knowledge that he presents has had a deep impact on subsequent thinking about “scientific” social analysis and is worth examining again. (Here is a link to the Gutenberg etext edition of the System of Logic.)

Mill developed a general vision of science that was derived from the best current examples of progress in the natural sciences, and he then applied this vision to the effort to understand human and social phenomena scientifically. Putting his vision simply, science consists of the discovery of general causal laws based on systematic empirical observation. It lays the framework for a positivist conception of social science, and it prepares a charge of “Not scientific!” to social scientists who deviate from these central positivist tenets.

The social sciences barely existed in 1843; so it is intriguing to see how Mill thought about the task of creating a social science. For one thing, he had virtually no good examples to work with; political economy was just about the only significant piece of rigorous social analysis that existed. The topics considered by modern sociology were only beginning to gain rigorous attention, and political science took the form of analysis of the interests and policies of specific nation states. Mill was very much interested in the work of Auguste Comte — the thinker who introduced both “sociology” and “positivism” into the philosophical lexicon, and Mill wrote a critical essay about Comte’s philosophy in 1865 (Auguste Comte & Positivism). But Comte’s writings did not provide good examples of detailed empirical study of social phenomena. One of Comte’s central goals was to discover laws of development for civilizations — a far cry from the way we would define the focus of sociology today. Here is a summary definition of the science of society that Mill offers:

Next after the science of individual man comes the science of man in society–of the actions of collective masses of mankind, and the various phenomena which constitute social life. (Book VI, chap. VI, sect. 1)

In several earlier postings I’ve referred to the important role that philosophical ideas played in defining the aims and goals of the social sciences. Mill’s writings certainly fall in the category of foundational, guiding ideas. So let’s see what guiding ideas are expressed in the System of Logic for the social sciences.

Prediction. Mill opens his discussion of the social sciences by quoting a passage from Condorcet with evident approval on the role of prediction in the sciences and history. Condorcet draws an explicit parallel between the predictive capacity of some of the natural sciences (e.g. astronomy) and the development of history; if history is made by men, then we should be able to learn the laws of behavior and use them to predict history (Book VI). This captures Mill’s conception of social science: social developments are the result of individual actions and behaviors; individual actions are subject to laws that can be discovered in psychology and ethology (the science of human development); and therefore, in principle, historical outcomes are governed by these laws as well. So the goal of the social sciences is to discover the laws of behavior that permit us to predict behavior and social outcomes.

Laws and regularities. Mill firmly believed that science involves the discovery of laws and regularities. A body of observations that lacks organizing regularities cannot be considered to be a science. So for Mill, social science research too must involve the discovery of laws of social behavior and social dynamics. “Are the actions of human beings, like all other natural events, subject to invariable laws? Does that constancy of causation, which is the foundation of every scientific theory of successive phenomena, really obtain among them?” (Book VI, chap. I, sect. 2) Mill’s answer, ultimately, is affirmative: there are such laws of individual behavior and choice. In reflecting on the status of weather phenomena he writes:

Yet no one doubts that the phenomena depend on laws, and that these must be derivative laws resulting from known ultimate laws, those of heat, electricity, vaporization, and elastic fluids. (Book VI, chap. III, sect. 1)

He distinguishes between exact sciences (where a few general laws govern virtually all variation) and inexact sciences (where we need both fundamental laws and secondary influences in order to explain observed behavior). His example of an inexact science is tidology.

By combining, however, the exact laws of the greater causes, and of such of the minor ones as are sufficiently known, with such empirical laws or such approximate generalizations respecting the miscellaneous variations as can be obtained by specific observation, we can lay down general propositions which will be true in the main, and on which, with allowance for the degree of their probable inaccuracy, we may safely ground our expectations and our conduct. (Book VI, chap. III, sect. 1)

And this model seems to capture his entire conception of scientific understanding: we understand a phenomenon when we have identified the primary causes that bring it about (and the laws that correspond to these); and the secondary influences that disturb or modify the workings of the primary causes (with their laws as well).

The science of human nature is of this description. It falls far short of the standard of exactness now realized in Astronomy; but there is no reason that it should not be as much a science as Tidology is, or as Astronomy was when its calculations had only mastered the main phenomena, but not the perturbations…. (Book VI, chap. III, sect. 2)

The subject, then, of Psychology is the uniformities of succession, the laws, whether ultimate or derivative, according to which one mental state succeeds another, is caused by, or at least, is caused to follow, another. (Book VI, chap. IV, sect. 3)

So Mill believes that a science of behavior is possible, issuing in a set of regularities of behavior. And he believes that we can also arrive at a science of development, which he refers to as “ethology”; this is a description of the ways in which circumstances influence individual character. Ethology too issues in laws and regularities, according to Mill.

A science is thus formed, to which I would propose to give the name of Ethology, or the Science of Character, from ἦθος, a word more nearly corresponding to the term “character” as I here use it, than any other word in the same language. (Book VI, chap. V, sect. 4)

This leads to a general conception of how social change works:

All phenomena of society are phenomena of human nature, generated by the action of outward circumstances upon masses of human beings; and if, therefore, the phenomena of human thought, feeling, and action are subject to fixed laws, the phenomena of society can not but conform to fixed laws. (Book VI, chap. VI, sect. 2)

Methodological individualism. So laws govern individual actions. What about social phenomena? Mill sees social phenomena as the combination of multiple individual actions. And he believes that it is self-evident that the laws of the compound derive from the workings of the laws of the parts.

The laws of the phenomena of society are, and can be, nothing but the laws of the actions and passions of human beings united together in the social state. Men, however, in a state of society are still men; their actions and passions are obedient to the laws of individual human nature. Men are not, when brought together, converted into another kind of substance. (Book VI, chap. VII, sect. 1)

So social laws and regularities ought to be explained on the basis of individual-level laws and regularities. This is a pretty clear statement of the principle of methodological individualism.

Parallel to the assumption of methodological individualism is a strong inclination on Mill’s part towards the idea of inter-theoretic reduction: the laws of the compound should be reducible to the action of the laws of the composing entities. So social laws should be reducible to laws of psychology, combined with factual descriptions of the particular circumstances that surround given societies.

Methods of agreement and difference. Quite a bit of attention has been directed to Mill’s methods of agreement and difference within the field of comparative historical sociology. It is startling, therefore, to realize that Mill himself felt that these families of methods were not relevant or applicable to social phenomena. Appeal to these methods in the social sciences, Mill maintains, is to succumb to the fallacy of the “chemical or experimental method” in the social sciences (Book VI, chap. VII, sect. 1). The problem is that the conditions for the application of these methods are impossibly stringent when we come to consideration of the causes of complex social events like revolutions or civil wars. There are always innumerable differences between the cases; so the methods of difference and similarity cannot direct us to the unique differentiating causes.

The Method of Difference in either of its forms being thus completely out of the question, there remains the Method of Agreement. But we are already aware of how little value this method is, in cases admitting Plurality of Causes; and social phenomena are those in which the plurality prevails in the utmost possible extent. (Book VI, chap. VII, sect. 4)

Mill offers an alternative preferred method, the deductive method. “However complex the phenomena, all their sequences and co-existences result from the laws of the separate elements” (Book VI, chap. IX, sect. 1). The deductive method involves identifying these separate elements; discovering their fundamental properties and regularities; and deducing the interactions that occur among them to produce the complex outcome.

The Social Science, therefore (which, by a convenient barbarism, has been termed Sociology), is a deductive science; not, indeed, after the model of geometry, but after that of the more complex physical sciences. It infers the law of each effect from the laws of causation on which that effect depends; not, however, from the law merely of one cause, as in the geometrical method but by considering all the causes which conjunctly influence the effect, and compounding their laws with one another. (Book VI, chap. IX, sect. 1)

The plurality of causes that is explicit in the deductive method leads Mill to qualify the scope of prediction that is possible in the social sciences. Because it is not possible to precisely determine the joint effect of multiple causes, predictions are generally approximate rather than exact.

It is evident, in the first place, that Sociology, considered as a system of deductions a priori, can not be a science of positive predictions, but only of tendencies. We may be able to conclude, from the laws of human nature applied to the circumstances of a given state of society, that a particular cause will operate in a certain manner unless counteracted; but we can never be assured to what extent or amount it will so operate, or affirm with certainty that it will not be counteracted. (Book VI, chap. IX, sect. 2)

(Daniel Hausman gives a good exposition of this method of explanation in “The Deductive Method” (Essays on Philosophy and Economic Methodology).)

The aim of sociology. Mill believes that the most fundamental aim of sociology is to derive a set of governing laws for the whole of society from the laws of individual action and ethology, and to permit the scientist to explain the particular features of the total state of society. He describes the “state of society” in these terms:

In order to conceive correctly the scope of this general science, and distinguish it from the subordinate departments of sociological speculation, it is necessary to fix the ideas attached to the phrase, “A State of Society.” What is called a state of society, is the simultaneous state of all the greater social facts or phenomena. Such are: the degree of knowledge, and of intellectual and moral culture, existing in the community, and in every class of it; the state of industry, of wealth and its distribution; the habitual occupations of the community; their division into classes, and the relations of those classes to one another; the common beliefs which they entertain on all the subjects most important to mankind, and the degree of assurance with which those beliefs are held; their tastes, and the character and degree of their aesthetic development; their form of government, and the more important of their laws and customs. (Book VI, chap. X, sect. 2)

This sounds pretty much like what we might call “macro-sociology” — an effort to describe and explain the large-scale features of a given society. So the goal of sociology is to discover laws of behavior at the individual level that permit deduction of the features of society in which these individuals live, given the current circumstances. Sociology should provide a theory providing an understanding of the broad sweep of history, the totality of human individual and social actions.

The doctrine which the preceding chapters were intended to enforce and elucidate–that the collective series of social phenomena, in other words the course of history, is subject to general laws, which philosophy may possibly detect–has been familiar for generations to the scientific thinkers of the Continent, and has for the last quarter of a century passed out of their peculiar domain, into that of newspaers and ordinary political discussion. (Book VI, chap. XI, sect. 1)

A sociological imagination? In spite of Mill’s evident interest in the foundations of a science of society, he shows little evidence of possessing a lively sociological imagination. He does not seem to have paid much attention to the actual social processes and changes underway in Britain in the beginning of the nineteenth century. There is almost no description or comment concerning the social circumstances of nineteenth-century Britain — subjects that were of great interest to Mill as a reformer. It is striking to compare his writings with those of Tocqueville, who observes and conceptualizes a wide range of concrete social activity and behavior. Mill remains on a highly abstract plane: are there social laws? How do social laws relate to individual laws? How does evidence support or undermine various social hypotheses? (See an earlier posting on Tocqueville.)

So here we find almost all the elements that came to define the framework of positivist social science: the doctrine of the unity of science, the insistence on the primacy of the discovery of laws and regularities, the doctrines of methodological individualism and reductionism, and the assumption that the natural sciences provide a regulative guide to the social sciences (naturalism). Mill’s writings about the social sciences set the stage for the development of a positivist paradigm that impaired the disciplines from adopting the fluidity and pluralistic viewpoints that they would need.

The shortcomings of Mill’s philosophy of social science derive from his most basic assumptions. He treats the creation of a science of society as primarily a methodological and epistemic problem; he takes it for granted that the “phenomena” of the social world are entirely analogous to the phenomena of the natural world. But this is an error of social ontology. Social phenomena are not relevantly analogous to natural phenomena. “States” are not like “metals”, and social processes like contention are not like physical processes of mixing and heating. And if Mill had devoted more of his analytical intelligence to the problem of discovering, analyzing, and explaining the actual social phenomena of contemporary Britain, he might well have been drawn to a less positivist construction of sociology.

(Here are several earlier postings that are relevant to this topic:

  • philosophical frameworks of the social sciences link
  • how does philosophy help guide the social sciences? link
  • why a philosophy of social science? link
  • proto-social inquiry link
  • components of positivism link
  • a non-naturalistic approach link

The unifying thread to these posts is the question, to what extent did philosophical presuppositions influence the development of the social sciences?)

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 do with the conditions of knowledge and representation that obtain when it comes to social facts. I think it is useful to sketch out a map that indicates the topography of some of the fundamental questions and approaches that have contributed to a better understanding of social science. And this effort will demonstrate that there is no single, coherent field that is the “philosophy of social science”; instead, there are overlapping and intertwined efforts by several traditions to arrive at better and more justified representations of social knowledge.

The fruitful ideas in this field derive from several separate tributaries, it seems to me. One important source is the group of “founders” of the social sciences who themselves thought very hard about the question of the conditions of establishing a social “science”. Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, William Thomas, and George Herbert Mead all had original and insightful ideas about what a scientific study of social reality might consist in. And, in most instances, these ideas were driven by their acquaintance with the richness of social life rather than by philosophical presuppositions. So these founders forged a philosophy of social research along the way as they constructed their models of what theory and research ought to look like in the study of the social world.

Another important source for current philosophy of social science is the tradition of empiricism that led to twentieth-century analytic philosophy of science. Here we can highlight John Stuart Mill, Moritz Schlick, Carl Hempel, and Ernest Nagel as philosophers who brought the machinery of positivist epistemology to a conception of what the social sciences ought to look like. As suggested in an earlier posting, there are profound problems with some of these ideas; but there is no doubt that they have been influential. And this influence shows up very explicitly in social science writings concerned with the logic of quantitative social research.

There is another source for contemporary philosophy of social science that has something in common with both these but is nonetheless distinct. This is the impulse that comes from rational choice theory and the idea that social patterns are the expression of individual rational choices. Mill’s writings suggest this idea, and it is a very strong component of the classics defining microeconomic theory as well (Walras, Pareto, the Austrian school). The effort to bring decision theory and game theory into play in explaining concrete social developments is a manifestation of this approach — for example, Samuel Popkin’s work on peasant rebellions (The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam). What makes this framework philosophical is the implicit idea of reductionism that it offers as a strategy of explanation: high-level social facts need to be decomposed into logical compounds of lower-level facts at the level of individuals. (This is the doctrine of methodological individualism.)

The intellectual framework of “scientific realism” is also an important tributary to contemporary philosophy of social science. Against the instrumentalism associated with positivism, this approach maintains that the social or natural worlds possess an objective set of characteristics, and it is possible to know the approximate outlines of these characteristics. When brought into contact with the social sciences, realism leads us to expect that there are real social structures, conditions, and causes, and that it is one of the functions of social science to describe those real circumstances and their relationships with each other. The recent emphasis on “social-causal mechanisms” is a version of scientific realism in application to the social world — for example, Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory.

There are two other tributaries that are important contributions but that have been less influential for analytic philosophers of social science, one deriving from Marx and the other from thinkers like Dilthey and Gadamer. The first is materialism and an emphasis on social structures, and the other is the hermeneutic tradition. The materialist tradition attempts to organize social reality around a set of structures with causal properties (modes of production, property relations, forms of technology). The hermeneutic tradition takes “social action” as the fundamental social fact, and looks at the challenge of interpreting social action as the fundamental problem in social research. Yvonne Sherratt’s Continental Philosophy of Social Science is a very useful study of the influence of these traditions, and I will return to her discussion in a later posting.

Components of positivism

Many of us agree that “positivist” social science isn’t a good idea. But what is encompassed by “positivism” in this setting?

First, the favorable part of the story: positivism puts forward two ideas about conceptual clarity and empirical rigor that surely need to be a part of any intellectually sound effort to understand society, or to contribute to social science. Our concepts need to make sense (by some criterion of sense-making), and our assertions need to be supportable by some combination of empirical evidence and logical inference. These amount simply to the requirement that science should be rationally articulated and rationally justified. These are aspects of the epistemology of science advanced by the progenitors of positivism — for example, Mill, Comte, the Vienna Circle, Schlick, Carnap, Hempel — that I, for one, do accept. And if this were the full extent of positivism, then it would be hard to be anti-positivist.

But positivist social science makes several additional assumptions about social knowledge that are untenable, in my view.

First is naturalism — the idea that the social and behavioral sciences should have the same structure and logical characteristics as the natural sciences. Chemistry and physics — especially the classical versions of these sciences — have a unified hypothetico-deductive structure; they discover laws of nature; and they derive the observable features of the domains of phenomena they encompass. Naturalism postulates, therefore, that sociology, economics, or psychology should have the same logical structure, because that is what “science” requires. John Stuart Mill clearly presupposed this assumption in his discussion of the “moral sciences.”

Second, relatedly, is the unity of science — the idea that ultimately all scientific theories should be subsumable under one “most fundamental” master theory. This assumption brings with it the idea of reductionism; higher-level sciences (psychology) should be reducible to lower-level sciences (neurophysiology). And “reducible” means “derivable from given suitable bridge definitions and laws”. (This topic was central for the Vienna Circle logical positivists.)

Third is an assumption about methodology, to the effect that measurement and quantification are essential aspects of scientific knowledge. So quantitative statements and theories are preferable to qualitative or descriptive statements; and the goal of a social science should be to discover a set of variables within the domain of investigation that can be observed, measured, and counted. This is a different aspect of the unity-of-science doctrine: the idea that there should be one privileged method of discovery and presentation for the social sciences. Where does this assumption come from? In part, it seems to derive from the physics-envy associated with naturalism; but perhaps there is also a Platonic dimension as well — a preference for mathematics over descriptive or interpretive language.

Fourth is an assumption about explanation, regularities, and laws. The assumption here is that explanation requires the discovery of law-like generalizations about the domain of phenomena encompassed by the scientific field. This assumption has two components: the idea that a well-defined domain of investigation must somehow embody a set of regularities, perhaps disguised by the noise; and second, that explanations within the domain of individual events or patterns of events must take the form of a derivation of the explanandum from the general laws mentioned in the explanans. Carl Hempel and J.S. Mill agree about this premise.

Fifth is an assumption about causation — that causation is a feature of statistical relationships among variables rather than a feature involving causal necessity or causal mechanisms. This is a Humean approach to causation, and it leads positivist social scientists to restrict their attention to causal regularities rather than looking for real causal mechanisms.

Finally, there is a sixth premise that has also created debate but seems less intrusive to the practice of innovative social science — the insistence on the fact-value distinction. “Positive” science has to do with the discovery of facts, whereas ethics or policy stidies have to do with values.

Do these assumptions necessarily travel together? Not necessarily, though there are some internal logical connections among them that make it more difficult to imagine them standing completely independently. But it appears to be a characteristic of the observed sociology of science for an important stream of twentieth-century social science research, that these features are clustered together. And many critics argue that these assumptions have created blinders for social-science researchers, limiting their originality in theories, concepts, and explanations of the social world.

Critics of positivist social science ask us to consider a broader space of possibilities for research and theory formation in the social sciences. Taking the premise of scientific rationality as a given, what would a philosophy of social science look like that questioned the other premises on this list? What is a “post-positivist realism” for the social sciences?

  • It is realist about causation; it affirms the scientific validity of seeking for real social mechanisms.
  • It advocates for a conception of scientific explanation that hinges on the discovery of real causal connections among features of the social world.
  • It is pluralistic about method; it acknowledges that there are multiple rationally supportable methods of inquiry in the social sciences, and multiple forms that social-science knowledge can take.
  • It is even-handed among quantitative, qualitative, comparative, and narrative approaches to social inquiry and social explanation.
  • It is anti-reductionist and anti-naturalistic: it does not presuppose that various areas of the social sciences should be reducible to some other, more fundamental scientific theory; and it does not presuppose that the social sciences should resemble the natural sciences.
  • And, finally, it is fully committed to the positive features of rationality that were mentioned above: the scientific virtues of conceptual clarity and empirical-rational justification for scientific beliefs.

This set of alternatives opens up the space of the social sciences quite dramatically; it permits a wide and pluralistic range of inquiries to proceed, without the requirement of theoretical or methodological unity. And this frees researchers to arrive at accounts of their domains of research that are well suited to the particulars of these domains.

In a later posting I will come back to an important contribution to this debate, George Steinmetz’s The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and Its Epistemological Others.

A simple sociology

What is involved in providing a scientific study of society–a scientific sociology?

Several features of science are crucial. Scientific claims are intended to be true and rationally supportable. Scientific knowledge is based on empirical research and rigorous reasoning. Science provides a basis for explaining the phenomena it considers. And science depends upon the idea of critical research communities: peers and collaborators who challenge, test, evaluate, and extend a set of results. In addition to these core features, positivist philosophers have added a few features drawn from the experience of the natural sciences. These observers hold that science involves the discovery of strong generalizations and laws that describe and govern empirical phenomena; that explanation means subsumption under some of these laws; and that natural phenomena constitute a law-governed, interconnected system.

Positivism is a poor theory of the social sciences, because the phenomena of social life do not conform to the law-governed ontology stipulated for natural phenomena. But let us stick with the minimal set of features and consider what kind of science is possible for social life.

First, sociology involves description. Social phenomena are observable, and it is straightforward to design rigorous research efforts aimed at establishing the facts about a particular domain. This aspect of sociology involves rigorous empirical study of social phenomena. Examples of descriptive research include ethnographic research and micro-sociology along the lines of the Chicago School. But large-scale description is feasible as well, including empirical description of large social patterns and institutions.

Descriptive findings often take the form of statistical estimates of the frequency of a feature within a group–for example, rates of suicide among Protestants (Durkheim). Properties may be correlated with one another within a given population; variation in one variable may be associated with variation in another variable. Descriptive research can thus sometimes reveal patterns of behavior or social outcomes–for example, patterns of habitation and health status. And patterns such as these invite efforts to find causal relationships among the characteristics enumerated.

Second, sociology involves discovery of social causation and mechanisms. Is there such a thing as social causation? What does social causation derive from? What is the ontology of “social necessity” (analogous to natural necessity)–the way in which one set of circumstances “brings about” another set of outcomes? In general we can begin with an ontology grounded in purposive social action by agents within institutional settings and environments. Social causation derives from the patterns of behavior that are produced in this setting. (For example, we can explain the degradation of environmental quality of a common resource as the consequence of free-riding behavior.)

Third, sociology can provide explanations of some social outcomes as a causal consequence of proposed social mechanisms. Once we have a generic idea of what social causal mechanisms look like, we can turn to specifics and try to discover the processes through which behavior
is created and constrained. So we can try to discover or hypothesize the mechanisms through which tropical agriculture tends to under-serve farmers (Bates). Social theories are hypotheses about social causal mechanisms; so theories provide a basis for explanation of social phenomena.

Research and explanation along these lines creates major and visible limitations on the degree of systematicity, interconnection, and determination that sould be expected of social phenomena. The social world is highly contingent, the product of many independent actors. So we should only expect a weak degree of systematic variation among social phenomena.

Finally, the epistemic setting provided by the disciplinary institutions offers a basis for estimating the rational credibility of social science knowledge: journals, peer review, tenure evaluation. Social research and explanation remains fairly close to the level of the facts. Researchers in the disciplines and sub-disciplines are charged to test and explore the empirical and theoretical claims of their peers.

The results of a science including these components will be empirically disciplined, theoretically eclectic, and systemically modest. The goal of providing an over-arching theory that demonstrates the systematic integration of the social is abandoned.

(It is worth noting that there is a period in the history of sociology when the epistemic values of the discipline were most consistent with this view. That was the period of the Chicago School. See Andrew Abbott’s Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred).

Positivism and social science

There is a strong current of positivism in contemporary sociology –in fact, one might say this is the dominant paradigm. Other paradigms exist — feminism, Marxism, comparative historical sociology, and ethnographic sociology, to name several. But the claim of science is generally couched in terms of a positivist theory of science and inquiry. This is unsurprising, in that several of the founders of sociology (Comte, Mill, and Durkheim in particular) were most emphatic in asserting the necessary connection between the two ideas, and Comte invented both “positivism” and “sociology” as modern terms.

The core assumptions of positivism include these: that social science is identical in its logic to natural science; that science involves the search for general laws about empirical phenomena; and that discovery and explanation depend upon a rigorous empirical scrutiny of the phenomena under question. Positivism is doubtful about the role of theory, preferring instead to make do with empirical observations, classes of empirical phenomena, and generalizations across classes of phenomena. Finally, positivism is dubious about the reality of causal connections between empirical phenomena.

It is true that science requires rigorous empirical inquiry. But much of the rest of the positivist program turns out to be badly suited to social science research and explanation. This is so for several reasons. First, social phenomena do not fall into fixed and distinct “types”, in which the members of the type are homogeneous. We can generalize about “water”, but not about “revolution”, for the simple reason that all samples of pure water have the same structure and observable characteristics; but not so for all “revolutions”. The category of “revolution” is not a “kind”, and we should not imagine that we can arrive at a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in this group.

Second, there are few lawlike generalizations about social entities and processes (if any at all!). Each revolution, for example, proceeds according to a historically specific set of causes and circumstances. And there are no genuinely interesting generalizations across the whole category.

Third, it is important in social science to formulate hypotheses about unobservable mechanisms of causal interconnectedness. So “theory” is an important component of social-science thinking and the sociological imagination.

Finally, explanation in the social sciences requires that we identify the causal mechanisms that connect one kind of social circumstance with another. If we believe that improved transportation causes a change in habitation patterns, then we need to be able to provide a hypothesis and analysis of what the social mechanisms are that create this result.

Positivism is a poor guide for social science inquiry. Instead, we need to approach social science research with a readiness to find contingency, heterogeneity, path-dependence, and particularity among the phenomena that we study–corresponding to the plasticity of human institutions and human agency.

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