A prior post described a major debate around 1900 in the French academic world over the terms of exchange among history, geography, and sociology. The debate also involved disagreements among France’s academic elites over the structure of the future French university system. This was sometimes referred to as the “new Sorbonne” debate, and it had important implications for future developments in French social and historical thinking (post on French sociology).
Germany underwent its own debates about similar issues at about the same time. At stake was the fundamental question, how should the human sciences be construed? The central axes of these debates were positivism and the search for general causal explanations, and historicism and the search for hermeneutic understanding of specific individuals and historical moments. The several schools of thought offered very different ideas about how best to understand the social world. A central point of debate was the famous distinction drawn by Wilhelm Windelband between nomothetic and idiographic sciences. Fritz Ringer formulates Windelband’s distinction (1894) in these terms:
Methodologically, the empirical disciplines in fact fall into two groups: the Gesetzeswissenschaften pursue “nomothetic” knowledge of the general in the form of invariant “laws”; the Ereigniswissenschaften strive for “idiographic” knowledge of singular patterns or events. (Ringer, 32)
Within the terms of this distinction, the historicists were offering idiographic knowledge, whereas the natural scientists were offering nomothetic knowledge. And the more positivist theorists of the human sciences argued that the social sciences should aspire to the kind of generality and universality that is required by nomothetic science.
These German debates played key roles in the development of twentieth-century sociology. Just as Durkheim played centrally in the French debate, Max Weber was a key actor in the German debates. His own treatment of the historical school is contained in several essays in Roscher and Knies and Critique of Stammler, and his later development was deeply influenced by his engagement with these controversies. (G. H. von Wright’s Explanation and Understanding provides a philosopher’s analysis of the two traditions.)
Fritz Ringer’s Max Weber’s Methodology: The Unification of the Cultural and Social Sciences is a good source on the content and importance of the German methodology debate about the cultural sciences. Ringer attempts to understand the logic of Weber’s conception of methodology and theory in sociology through his responses to historicism, positivism, and verstehen theory. Weber was committed to contributing to a scientific study of society; but what does science require when it comes to human society? These strands of historical and social thought in German intellectual life imply rather different answers to this question. And Ringer argues that Weber’s methodology is designed to make sense of the valid insights of each current of thought. Ringer holds that Weber’s approach is both causal and interpretive; both general and particular.
Another important study of this set of debates is Woodruff Smith’s 1991 book, Politics and the Sciences of Culture in Germany, 1840-1920 (Google Books link). Here is how Smith describes his subject:
In the nineteenth century, there appeared a new group of academic disciplines that took culture as a primary object of scientific study. These included anthropology in its many varieties, human geography, culture history, and branches of psychology that focused on culture. In other fields, the concept of culture became a significant part of the apparatus of interpretation. Bodies of theory about culture emerged, often overleaping the boundaries between disciplines. The development of these “cultural sciences” was an international phenomenon to which people of all major European nations and the United States contributed. But distinctive national approaches also revealed themselves, each largely shaped by the public context of intellectual life in a particular country.
This book is concerned with the cultural sciences in Germany between the 1840s and about 1920. During those years, German academia exercised its most profound influence on the rest of the world — an influence that is generally acknowledged in some cultural sciences, for example geography, but to which rather little attention is paid in others, such as cultural anthropology. In the German intellectual setting, Kulture and Kulturwissenschaft came to have many meanings. Here we shall concentrate on cultural scientists who believed that they were practicing a nomothetic science (i.e., searching for the laws of human society as revealed in culture) and who regarded culture itself mainly in its anthropological sense. (3)
Ringer is writing as an historian of ideas, and he borrows an important concept from Bourdieu as an intellectual framework for his analysis — the idea of an intellectual field. He explains the idea in these terms:
I have elsewhere drawn upon Pierre Bourdieu’s writings to define the “intellectual field” as a constellation of positions that are meaningful only in relation to one another, a constellation further charactrized by differences of power or authority, by the opposition between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and by the role of the cultural preconscious, of tacit “doxa” that are transmitted by inherited practices, institutions, and social relations. Specifying the vague notion of “context” in this way, one can see that individuals may stand in a variety of specific relationships to their intellectual and social environment. (5)
This concept works well for Ringer’s purposes, because it permits analysis of both the intellectual and the institutional settings of the debates that shaped Weber’s thinking about the human sciences. The structure of the university and the relations of power that existed within the academic world are relevant — as was equally true in the case of the French debate; and the inherent logic and rational force of a given school of thought is determining as well for the formation of the young investigator’s understanding of “sociology.” To borrow a metaphor from Marx, “intellectuals make their own thoughts, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” So the concept of intellectual field works well as a framework for the sociology of knowledge.
The historicist tradition included writers such as Ranke, Roscher, Knies, Schmoller, and Sombart. (Joseph Schumpeter offers some notes on the historicist school in his massive volume on the history of economics, History of Economic Analysis (IV:4); Google Books link.) Historicists reject the idea that the social sciences (or economics) should aspire to the discovery of universal laws of society or universal and unchanging human institutions. The concrete study of specific economic institutions of the past — economic history — is a more insightful way of understanding the workings of economies than pure mathematical theories of competitive equilibria that are intended to apply in all times and places. Johann Gustav Droysen was a particularly articulate critic of the positivist strand of thought. “[Droysen’s] main argument had to do with the divide between the search for regularities and the historian’s predominant concern with the interpretive understanding of the unique and particular” (Ringer, 12). Instead of general laws and uniform structures, the historicists argue that human society illustrates historical particularity and individuality — in structures and institutions as well as persons.
Often this insistence on historical particularity converged with the hermeneutic view that social understanding always involves the interpretation of meaningful human action and motivation. (Here is an earlier post on interpretation theory, and here is a post on the ways in which Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor have adapted these ideas.) Wilhelm Dilthey (1883) argued that the human sciences were profoundly different from the natural sciences because they involved interpretive understanding of human action rather than mechanical explanation of a system of causes. Ringer observes, further, that another of the founders of modern sociology, Georg Simmel, arrived at a very similar theory of verstehen in the 1890s, and that Simmel’s influence on Weber was greater than that of Dilthey. Even more important for Weber, though, was a book by Heinrich Rickert, The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science: A Logical Introduction to the Historical Sciences (1902). Rickert’s theories reconsider the distinction proposed by Windelband, proposing that the distinction between nomothetic and idiographic knowledge does not correspond to the distinction between natural and social knowledge.
The positivist framework became important in German intellectual life in the middle of the nineteenth century, though Ringer observes that “positivism” in the Comtean sense had virtually no advocates in German intellectual life prior to the Vienna Circle (post). But there was a current of thought in Germany in the late nineteenth century that took its lead from the logic of the natural sciences and attempted to apply this model to the human sciences. Mid-century philosophers such as Friedrich Albert Lange advocated for a philosophy that combined the methods of the natural sciences with a neo-Kantian metaphysics (19). Ringer singles out a stratum of what he calls “scientist-philosophers” — Rudolf Virchow, Wilhelm Ostwald, Friedrich Ratzel, Adolf Bastian, Karl Lamprecht, and Wilhelm Wundt, as a group of intellectuals who brought the epistemic values of the natural sciences into an effort to construct the human sciences (20). If there is to be such a thing as a social science, positivism maintains that it should have the same logical characteristics as natural sciences like physics and chemistry; and this was taken to mean that it should seek out lawlike generalizations that are independent of space and time.
One important voice representing a broadly naturalistic perspective on the social sciences was Carl Menger. His critique of the historicist school from the point of view of pure economic theory is an important stage in the debate.
Our cognitive interest is directed either at the concrete phenomena in their position in space and time and at their concrete interrelationships, or else … at the recurrent patterns in which they appear. The former research direction aims at knowledge of the concrete or, more correctly, the individual, the latter at knowledge of the general. (Investigations into the Methods of the Social Sciences, quoted in Ringer, 16)
It appears that we could summarize the development of the two traditions as including a few branching streams of thought:
The two major ideas associated with historicism can certainly be separated; one can accept the point that institutions are historically variable without accepting the unavoidably hermeneutic nature of social knowledge; and one could be a thorough-going hermeneutic without committing to the point about the historical boundedness of institutions or human nature. And there is a similar disconnect on the side of positivism; as Ringer points out, it is possible to be a causalist without assuming that causes are ahistorical and universal. One might take the view that a given kind of cause has a set of social powers within the context of one set of institutions but not another — in the context of the Roman empire but not in the context of British colonialism. So both schools of thought have important distinctions collapsed within them.
Fundamentally we might say that these debates raised a small number of key questions: Is there a sharp distinction between the natural and social sciences? Is causation relevant to the interpretation of human affairs? Is there a distinctive method of interpretation of human action that underlies the scientific study of society and culture? Are there laws that govern social phenomena? Should the social sciences make use of universal concepts that apply in all times and places, or should its concepts be tailored to specific historical settings? In what ways are “history” and “nature” distinguished? Taking positions on these topics also sets the parameters for the kind of research and knowledge the social scientist will pursue.
From the vantage point of the present, it seems that we can provide some fairly compelling answers to these questions. Social institutions are plastic, heterogeneous, and contingent; so the historicists were right about this point. Human action and human nature are historically conditioned as well, in the concrete and ordinary sense that “character,” “motivation,” “knowledge,” and “identity” are all historical products; once again, the historicists were right. The social sciences do not need to discover universal, timeless laws of society; such a quest is futile and inspired by a bad philosophy of science. So the positivists and naturalists were wrong on this point, and the historicists were closer to the truth.
But this doesn’t mean that we are forced to conclude that the social sciences are idiographic and particularistic. Rickert was right in doubting the sharp distinction between human action and the natural world; it is entirely coherent to assert that human mentality and action are natural phenomena. And there is plenty of room in the human sciences for a causal analysis of social change and social persistence. But we should not understand these causal judgments as resting on an as-yet unknown set of causal laws. Instead, we are better off working with an ontology of causal mechanisms, embodied in institutions and actions of persons. And, finally, we are not forced to choose between idiographic and nomothetic science; instead, the social sciences should aspire to an empirical analysis of the world that is sensitive to the particularity of social institutions and identities, while at the same time discovering the limited generalizations that are made possible through the discovery of common social mechanisms. In a sense, we might say that current historical sociology represents the resolution of these debates that took place in Germany in the 1870s through 1920s. Researchers such as Tilly, Moore, Steinmetz, Adams, and Skocpol have made a great deal of progress in defining the balance between the particular and the general in their studies of complex historical processes.
(These historicism debates have also been of interest in recent Japanese social science research. An interesting pair of contributions from a Japanese perspective are Yuichi Shionoya’s The Soul of the German Historical School: Methodological Essays on Schmoller, Weber and Schumpeter and The German Historical School: The Historical and Ethical Approach to Economics.)