The human sciences


Nomenclature isn’t everything — but it is important nonetheless. What we call the areas of research that examine history, action, and social life makes a difference to how we carry out those inquiries. The label “social science” itself is not a neutral one. And alternatives like “behavioral science” have even more baggage.

The phrase that was favored in nineteenth century German philosophy for these areas of research was “human sciences” (Geisteswissenschaften), the term used by thinkers like Dilthey and Windelband. And French thinkers like Bourdieu and Foucault used the synonym, “les sciences humaines.” (Here is an earlier post on Dilthey; link. And here is a good article on Dilthey in the SEP; link.) 

Here is a formulation provided by Dilthey in Introduction to the Human Sciences: An Attempt to Lay a Foundation for the Study of Society and History in 1883:

Since Bacon’s famous work, treatises which discuss the foundation and method of the natural sciences and thus serve as introductions to their study have been written for the most part by natural scientists. The most famous of those treatises is by Sir John Herschel. It seems necessary to provide a similar service for those who work in history, politics, jurisprudence, or political economy, theology, literature, or art. Those who dedicate themselves to these sciences usually get involved in them because of practical requirements of society, which wants to supply occupational training to equip leaders of society with knowledge necessary to do their work. But this occupational training will enable an individual to achieve outstanding success only to the extent that it goes beyond mere technical training. One can compare society to a great machine workshop kept in operation by the services of countless persons. One who is trained in the isolated technology of a single occupation among those activities, no matter how thoroughly he has mastered his trade, is in the position of a laborer who works away his entire life in one solitary phase of this industry: he has no idea of the forces which set the industry in motion, no conception of its other parts or their contributions to the purpose of the whole enterprise. He is the servile instrument of the society, not its consciously cooperative organ. (77)

So what is involved in the concept of the human sciences? Most centrally, the idea was that there was a fundamental difference between the sciences of nature and the sciences of human action and interaction, because the former had to so with causation whereas the latter had to do with the interpretation of meaning. The human sciences were thought to be interpretive or hermeneutic at their core. A key task for the systematic study of human affairs was to make sense of the actions and expressions of the people involved. We understand a social fact when we understand the intentions, meanings, and self-understandings of the people involved. The tradition of the “human sciences” brings along with it the ideas of hermeneutics, verstehen, and critical theory.

A second important characteristic of the human sciences is the importance of history. Human beings have histories, and they make histories; and history consists of a fabric of meaningful human actions. At a larger scale, thinkers like Dilthey believed that larger historical movements and outcomes were meaningful as well; so history requires interpretation (link). And attention to history pervades the research and choice of topics of practitioners of the human sciences. As Yvonne Sherratt puts the point in Continental Philosophy of Social Science, “continental philosophy is usually a text-centred, historically sensitive tradition” (2).

A third characteristic is the importance of the skills of the humanist scholar within the exercise of the human sciences. “Science” and”humanities” are not sharply separated when it comes to understanding human affairs. Interpretation is one of the core activities of the humanities — the interpretation of literature, art, or symbols — and these facilities are equally valuable when it comes to interpreting actions, symbolic rituals, and history.  Sherratt emphasizes the centrality of the methods and sensibilities of the humanities in the continental tradition of thinking about the social world. Here is a particularly interesting observation about the humanist roots of the continental tradition of thinking about the social sciences:

Continental schools have their own canon of thinkers, pose their own questions, set their own agendas and have a rich, deep history stemming back to Ancient Greece, Rome and early Christendom. In fact, it is this connection to its Ancient past, let us say, its humanism, that defines the continental schools of thought apart from Anglo-American philosophy of social science. … My contention is that continental philosophy of social science is best understood as emergent from humanism. (2)

Finally, the approach taken by advocates of the “human sciences” is decidedly anti-positivist. These social thinkers are not looking for general laws of human behavior; they are not concerned to identify a non-theoretical range of empirical data that would confirm or disconfirm their assertions; and they are not interested in “falsifiability” of hypotheses and theories. The hypothetico-deductive method of confirmation and explanation has no appeal to this tradition. Likewise, this tradition is not particularly receptive to quantitative studies of social behavior; researchers in this tradition are not likely to provide statistical generalizations about a range of social phenomena.  This doesn’t mean that research efforts in the human sciences are not based on evidence and argument; but rather that what counts as evidence for an interpretation has as much to do with the overall plausibility of the reading as a particular range of empirical observations. 

Philosophers and historians in the German tradition continue to favor the approach identified as the “human sciences” methodology, including Gadamer and Husserl. I would also put Ricoeur, Foucault, and Bourdieu within the general scope of this approach.  And Sherratt also includes the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School within this tradition as well.

Conversational implicatures and presuppositions

There was in the 1960s a theory of the understanding of language that portrayed the process as a formal act of decoding. Language was described as a system of syntax and semantics, and understanding a sentence involved beginning with the meaningful elements (words), applying the generative rules of syntax and semantics, and arriving at a formal representation of the meaning of the sentence as a formal object. Jerry Fodor and Jerrold Katz perhaps went furthest down this road. (Katz’sSemantic theory laid out the perspective well in 1972.)

What John Searle contributed to this picture in Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language was what we would now call a pragmatist twist. Understanding a sentence is not simply a formal algorithmic process. Rather, it is an ongoing social process, in which the listener actively forms interpretations of the utterance on the basis of a number of cues from the social environment. In particular, Searle emphasized the importance of “conversational implicatures” — the tacit understandings that the listener and speaker bring to the linguistic exchange. Absent those forms of background knowledge, the exchange would be unintelligible.

So comprehension is a social and pragmatic act. And here is a consequence: when a population know on the basis of widely different presuppositions, there is a deep possibility of radical mutual misunderstanding. And when those differences in presuppositions are importantly socially valenced, those misunderstandings may be of great social significance.

These kinds of misunderstandings are most evident when it comes to stylized interpersonal behavior. (This is the arena studied by GoffmanGarfinkel, and other micro sociologists.) Each party to an interaction comes with a framework of ideas of what the situation is and means; what kinds of behavior are called for and which are not; what counts as a joke, an insult, or an insensitive gaffe; etc. Take as an example the Super Bowl quarterback meeting the distinguished university expert on global economic crisis. Each comes to the interaction with a sense of his own importance and a reduced sense of the significance of the accomplishments and station of the other. And each may offend the other by making light of something the other takes with solemn seriousness. If the scholar starts off with a joke about golf, the conversation may be off on the wrong foot. And if the quarterback opens with a comment about what idiots economists are, likewise.

But how do these examples of the cognitive-practical background of action and interaction show any similarity to the example of attempting to understand the speech acts of another? How do implicatures and presuppositions come into the process of reconstructing the meaning proffered by the other?

Consider this stretch of dialogue from The Great Gatsby between Nick (the first-person narrator) and Gatsby (chapter 5):

“Your place looks like the World’s Fair,” I said.
“Does it?” He turned his eyes toward it absently. “I have been glancing into some of the rooms. Let’s go to Coney Island, old sport. In my car.”
“It’s too late.”
“Well, suppose we take a plunge in the swimming-pool? I haven’t made use of it all summer.”
“I’ve got to go to bed.”
“All right.”
He waited, looking at me with suppressed eagerness.
“I talked with Miss Baker,” I said after a moment. “I’m going to call up Daisy tomorrow and invite her over here to tea.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” he said carelessly. “I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“What day would suit you?”
“What day would suit you?” he corrected me quickly. “I don’t want to put you to any trouble, you see.”
“How about the day after tomorrow?” He considered for a moment. Then, with reluctance:
“I want to get the grass cut,” he said.

This is of course fictional dialogue. But it makes clear how much background knowledge and presupposition are required for the two participants to make sense of each others’ speeches. We get a few clues from the narrator: “reluctance,” “absently,” “suppressed eagerness,” and “quickly” give the reader some idea of the emotional timbre of the conversation. But the sense of each sentence requires reconstruction based on background knowledge; and the “why” of the conversation needs yet another level of shared knowledge. What is Gatsby’s interest in having Daisy produced for tea? This is the point of the interaction; and if one or the other party doesn’t get it (or the reader sticks to closely to an effort at literal reading) then the passage will have been misconstrued and misunderstood.

Here are some of the factual bits of knowledge that are needed:

  • The World’s Fair was a garish, wild location.
  • A “sport” is a pal, not a game or contest.
  • Gatsby emphasizes his own car to flaunt its opulence or as a gesture of hospitality.
  • Coney Island is a place with an amusement park, not a hot dog restaurant.
  • The swimming pool has water in it suitable for swimming.
  • “I don’t want to put you to any trouble …” is a social lie.

The listener needs these bits of knowledge to even make sense of the words. But the meaning of the interaction, including the speeches, goes beyond this level. Beyond the more or less literal meaning of the utterances, we need to understand what the speeches are intended to convey to the other. This is a bit of meaning intermediate between straight semantics and speech act analysis. For example, what is the function of “I want to get the grass cut.”? Semantically we understand what Gatsby is saying: but what move is he making in the emotional-practical interaction with Nick? Is it coyness, second thoughts, insecurity, practical concern about the state of the lawn, etc.?

(If one wants to get seriously lost in an ocean of presuppositions, try this speech at the beginning of chapter 4:

“He’s a bootlegger,” said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. “One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to Von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil. Reach me a rose, honey, and pour me a last drop into that there crystal glass.”

What in the world do the young ladies mean?

W. H. Walsh’s philosophy of history

English-speaking philosophers have often made a hash of the philosophy of history. Either they have had such disdain for continental philosophy that they could not get their minds around the thoughts of a Hegel or a Dilthey, or they became pre-occupied with certain minor linguistic or logical issues and therefore couldn’t get to the more serious problems. W. H. Walsh was a surprising exception in the British environment of the 1950s. His Philosophy of History. An Introduction, first published in 1951 and revised in 1960, is an open-minded and very well grounded effort to provide an in-depth presentation of the field.

The book attempts to treat both major aspects of the philosophy of history: the nature of historical knowledge and the possibility of gaining “metaphysical” knowledge about history. An Oxford philosopher evidently trained in modern philosophy, Walsh was strongly influenced by Collingwood and was well aware of the European idealist tradition of philosophical thinking about history, including Rickert, Dilthey, and Croce, and he treats this tradition in a serious way. He draws the distinction between these traditions along the lines of “critical” and “speculative” philosophy of history. Walsh’s goal for the book is ambitious; he hopes to propose a framework within which the main questions about history can be addressed, including both major traditions.  I find the book to be an excellent piece of work on the subject, and very enjoyable to work through.  Here are a couple of large groups of questions that he poses in the book in order to formulate a structure for thinking about the philosophy of history.


Walsh lays out the field of the philosophy of history along the following lines.

First, he offers some ideas about the subject matter and knowledge content of history.  He describes the goal of historical inquiry in these terms:

[The historian] aims … at a reconstruction of the past which is both intelligent and intelligible. (32)

What every historian seeks for is not a bare recital of unconnected facts, but a smooth narrative in which every event falls as it were into its natural place and belongs to an intelligible whole. (33)

The historian is present with a number of events, actions, and developments during a period.  How do they hang together?  The process of cognition through which the historian makes sense of a set of separate historical events Walsh refers to as “colligation“:

Colligation: to locate a historical event in a larger historical process in terms of which it makes sense (23). This process of reasoning serves to establish the “inner connections between certain historical events” (24).

Walsh fundamentally accepts Collingwood’s most basic premise: that history concerns conscious human action.  Collingwood’s slogan was that “history ist the science of the mind,” and Walsh appears to accept much of this perspective.  So the key intellectual task for the historian, on this approach, is to reconstruct the reasons or motives that actors had at various points in history (and perhaps the conditions that led them to have these reasons and motives).  This means that the tools of interpretation of meanings and reasons are crucial for the historian — much as the hermeneutic philosophers in the German tradition had argued.


One of the central questions that Walsh identifies is whether history is a part of “science,” or whether it is a sui generis kind of knowledge.  Here is Walsh’s summary definition of the key features of a field of scientific knowledge:

We may sum up the results of this brief attempt to bring out the main features of the common conception of science and scientific knowledge as follows. We apply the term “science” to knowledge which (i) is methodically arrived at and systematically related; (ii) consists of, or at least includes, a body of general truths; (iii) enables us to make successful predictions and so to control the future course of events, in some measure at least; (iv) is objective, in the sense that it is such as every unprejudiced observer ought to accept if the evidence were put before him, whatever his personal predilections or private circumstances. (36)

And he argues that history satisfies (i); probably not (ii); not (iii); and qualified yes to (iv). In other words, according to Walsh, history is not a science in the paradigmatic sense of physics or chemistry.

If history is not “science,” then what kind of knowledge is it?  The main alternative is what Walsh characterizes as the idealist conception of historical knowledge.  Here is what Walsh refers to as the “standard idealist account of historical knowledge“:

History, because it offers a body of knowledge methodically arrived at, is a science; but it is a science of a peculiar kind. It is not an abstract but a concrete science, and it terminates not in general but in individual truths. 43

Nature we must look at from the outside, but thoughts and experiences are accessible to us from within.  We can grasp them in a unique way because we can re-think or re-live them, imaginatively putting ourselves in the place of the persons, past or present, who first thought or experienced them. (44)

The idealist theory of history, we may begin by remarking, consists in essentials of two propositions. First, that history is, in a sense which remains to be specified, properly concerned with human thoughts and experiences. And second that, just because of this, historical understanding is of a unique and immediate character. (48)

These characteristics recall German historicism and interpretivism.  (See this post on the methodological crisis in German thought around 1900; link.)


Walsh suggests that the philosophical content of the philosophy of history falls naturally into two different sorts of inquiry, parallel to the distinction between philosophy of nature and philosophy of science.  The first has to do with metaphysical questions about the reality of history as a whole; the latter has to do with the epistemic issues that arise in the pursuit and formulation of knowledge of history.   He refers to these approaches as “speculative” and “critical” aspects of the philosophy of history.  And he attempts to formulate a view of what the key questions are for each approach.

Speculative philosophy of history asks —

  • What is the meaning and purpose of the whole historical process? (25)
  • Can we “write such an account of the detailed course of historical events that its ‘true’ significance and ‘essential’ rationality are brought out?” (25)
  • What is the main driving factor in history? (Marx: economics) (26)
  • “We may summarize by saying that if the philosopher can be said to have any specific concern with the course of history, it must be with that course as a whole, i.e., with the significance of the whole historical process.” (27)

Walsh take a supportive or or at least agnostic position on these questions; he asserts that they are meaningful questions and can meaningfully be considered. This is in contrast to the position of the verificationist end of the analytic philosophy spectrum, which would deny the meaningfulness of these questions (and proposed answers).

Critical philosophy of history asks these four key sets of questions:

  • “What sort of thing is history and how does it relate to other studies?” (16)
  • Are there “facts” in history? What makes a historical statement “true”? (18)
  • Is historical knowledge “objective”? (19) [historian’s bias; rational decidability]
  • What is the nature of a historical explanation? (22)

Critical philosophy is what we now refer to as “analytic” philosophy; it is the equivalent for history of what the philosophy of science is for nature.

The book is divided into two large discussions.  Chapters II-V treat these four major groups of questions for critical philosophy of history.  Chapters VI-VIII focus on the issues and theories offered by Kant, Herder, Hegel, and a few others on “metaphysical” questions about history.


It is interesting to consider the intellectual origins of innovative philosophical insights.  So where did this philosophical perspective and methodology come from in Walsh’s own development?  Walsh is plainly an expert on the history of modern philosophy, including especially German philosophy.  This means that he has read, and thought about, the tradition from Kant and Schleiermacher and Herder to Hegel and Dilthey, and is able to make philosophical sense of their theories.  He authored a number of articles on Kant, Hegel, and other German philosophers, and was the author of a book on Kant’s metaphysics (Kant’s Criticism of Metaphysics).  What does this imply about his training and his development within British philosophy?  He entered Merton College, Oxford, in roughly 1930, and took his first professional post as a philosopher at Merton College in 1947 through 1960.  The bulk of his academic career was spent at the University of Edinburgh as a professor of logic and metaphysics.  So here is the interesting question for me: to what extent was Walsh an analytic philosopher, in the mold of Russell, Ayer, and Ryle, and to what extent was he an idealist philosopher, in the pattern of Collingwood or Bradley? (He refers several times to Ryle’s The Concept of Mind.) His comments in the first chapter of the book suggest that he positions himself separately from both camps, while understanding the philosophical perspectives and methods of both.  The evidence of this book suggests that he had an admirably pluralistic approach to the problems of philosophy.

Here is a bibliography of some of Walsh’s published articles and reviews (link), and here is a reconsideration of his philosophy of history with regard to “facts and truth,” published in 1977 in History and Theory as a review of Leon J. Goldstein, Historical Knowing (Austin, Texas and London, University of Texas Press, 1976).  In the course of the review he considers how the discipline of analytic philosophy of history has developed since 1951, and he finds that three of his four questions have come in for very extensive discussion.

(I discovered along the way, an amazing bargain as a Kindle book, Marnie Hughes Warrington’s Fifty Key Thinkers on History, Second Edition ($14).  The book has 3000-word discussions of fifty important historians and philosophers — Bloch, Collingwood, Dilthey, Hempel, Obsbawm, Oakeshott, Ricoeur, Vico — and is well worth having on the Kindle. The essays are concise and informative, and they generally raise the big issues that were important to the various thinkers.  There is an entry for Walsh as well.)

Dilthey on the human sciences

Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) maintained that the human sciences were inherently distinct from the natural sciences in that the former depend on the understanding of meaningful human actions, while the latter depend on causal explanation of physical events. Human life is structured and carried out through meaningful action and symbolic expressions. Dilthey maintains that the intellectual tools of hermeneutics—the interpretation of meaningful texts—are suited to the interpretation of human action and history. The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences takes the hermeneutic approach to understanding history a step further by exploring the idea of “objectification” – the specific ways in which persons establish their persona in the world through concrete actions and relations.

Here is how he introduces his approach in The Formation of the Historical World:

The human sciences form an epistemic nexus that strives to attain objectively engaged and objectively valid conceptual cognition of the interconnectedness of lived experiences in the human-historical-social world. The history of the human sciences shows a constant struggle with the difficulties encountered here. … The investigation of the possibility of such objective conceptual cognition forms the foundation of the human sciences. In the following, I present some contributions to such a foundation. (23)

The human-historical world as it confronts us in the human sciences is not a copy, as it were, of a reality existing outside it. The cognitive process cannot produce such a copy. It is and remains bound to its means of intuiting, of understanding, and of conceptual thinking. Nor do the human sciences want to produce such a copy. Rather, they refer what happens and what has happened — the unique, the contingent, the momentary — to a system of value and meaning.  As it progresses, conceptual cognition seeks to penetrate this system ever more deeply. It becomes ever more objective in its grasp, without ever being able to surpass its own essence, namely, it can experience what is only through re-feeling and re-construing, through connecting and separating, through abstract systems and a nexus of concepts. (23-24)

Such conceptual cognition of the processes themselves in which the human sciences develop is at the same time the condition for the understanding of their history.  On that basis, one recognizes the relation of the particular human sciences to the coexistence and sequence of lived experiences upon which they are founded. (24)

And one last point becomes intelligible. The development of the human sciences must be accompanied by a logical-epistemological self-reflection, that is, by the philosophical consciousness of the way in which the intuitive-conceptual system of the human-socio-historical world is formed on the basis of the lived experience of what has happened. (24)

These are dense, difficult paragraphs, and they are worth spending time on unravelling.  What is Dilthey saying here? What is the philosophy of society, history, and cognition that he is expressing?

The first sentence defines two domains: the knowledge system of the human sciences and the dense reality of the social world. Through the knowledge systems of the human sciences we arrive at representations of the social-historical world.  The social-historical world is characterized in terms of the inter-connected lived experience of human beings; this implies communication, interaction, and subjectivity as crucial features of social life.  The knowledge systems of the human sciences are characterized as being “objective” and “conceptual”.  The objectivity in question has to do with the fact that there is a reality associated with social life that serves as the object of knowledge; the conceptuality has to do with the fact that it is necessary to arrive at categories in thought in terms of which to organize and represent that reality.

This interpretation of the first sentence sounds rather Lockean or Cartesian; knowledge represents the world.  The first sentence of the second paragraph, however, unsettles that naive realism, because here Dilthey insists upon the distinctness of representation and reality.  Our knowledge of the social world is not a “copy”; it is an abstract representation. This observation seems to be analogous to the obvious point that a verbal description of an apple is not similar to the apple; rather it is a syntactic construction that attributes characteristics to the features of the apple.  The next several sentences in the second paragraph seem to change the subject slightly; Dilthey distinguishes between “copying or representing” and “interpreting and locating in terms of a meaning system.” This point is understandable in terms of the hermeneutic method: discover the meaningful relationships among elements of the text (or ensemble of actions).  The “re-feeling and re-construing” seems to be an expression of the method of verstehen: to reconstruct the meaning of an action by placing oneself as fully in the position of the actor as possible.  And the final two sentences seem to suggest a refinement of knowledge through the discovery of finer detail in the interconnections among events and their connections to a system of meaning in the world of lived experience.

There seem to be three high-level features of this conception: first, that human reality is relational and meaningful; second, that the knowledge of human reality involves refined interpretation of actions and interactions in terms of the meanings attributed to them by the actors; and third, that the knowledge enterprise itself is a meaningful activity that requires critical self-reflection. And, finally, there is a respect in which Dilthey’s method is empirical rather than idealist. The objectivity that he seeks in these paragraphs seems to have at least in part to do with the idea of evidence-driven discovery.

New modes of historical presentation

Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 and Strange Parallels: Volume 2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 represent about 1000 pages of careful, dense historical prose extending over two volumes. As previously discussed (linklink), the book reviews a thousand years of history of the polities of France, Kiev, Burma, Japan, and China, it documents a significant correlation of timing across the extremes of Eurasia, and it offers some historical hypotheses about the causes of this synchronicity. It is a long and involved story.

My question here is perhaps a startling one: Is it possible that some alternative modes of presentation would permit the author to represent the heart of the historical findings much more efficiently in the form of a complex animated visual display? Could the empirical heart of the two volumes be summarized in the form of a rich data display over time? Is the verbal narrative simply a clumsy way of representing what really ought to be graphed? What would be gained, and what would be lost by replacing the long complex text with a compact series of graphs and maps?

This thought experiment is possible because Lieberman’s argument lends itself to a quantitative interpretation. Essentially he is focusing on factors that can be estimated over time: degree of scope of a regime, degree of integration of institutions, economic productivity, agricultural intensity, rainfall, temperature, population level and density, mortality by disease, and transport capacity, for example. And he is looking for one or more factors whose temporal variations can be interpreted as a causal factor explaining correlations across the graphs. So we could imagine a master graph representing the factual core of the research, with six groups of graphs over time, representing the chief variables for each region over time.  Here is Lieberman’s initial effort along these lines, graphing his estimate of “scope and consolidation” of the states of SE Asia and France.  And we can imagine presenting different data series representing his findings about agricultural productivity, mortality, population, climate change, etc., arranged around a single timeline.

We might imagine supplementing these superimposed data series with a series of dated maps representing the territorial scope of the states of the various regions, arranged along a timeline:

France T1

France T2

France T3

(A similar series would be constructed for the states of SE Asia.)

What this coordinated series of graphics represents, then, is the core set of facts that Lieberman has synthesized and presented in the book.  By absorbing the social, political, and economic changes represented by this graphical timeline, the reader has gained access for the full set of empirical claims offered by Lieberman.  And, one might say, the presentation is more direct and comprehensible than the verbal description of these changes contained in the text.  Moreover, we might expect that patterns will emerge more or less directly from these graphic presentations — for example, the synchrony between state crisis and accumulating climate change.

As for what is lost in this version of the story — several things seem clear. First, much of the narrative that Lieberman provides is synthetic. He attempts to pull together a wide variety of sources in order to arrive at a summary statement such as this: “The Capetian state increased dramatically in scope and administrative competence between 1000 and 1250.” So the narrative serves to justify and document a particular inflection point in the long graph of “French polity”. It provides the evidentiary basis for the estimate at this period in time.

Second, of course, the packet of graphs I’ve just described lacks the eloquence and vividness of the prose that Lieberman or other talented historians are able to achieve in telling their stories. It represents only the abstract summary of conclusions, not the nuance of the reasoning or the drama of the story. The prose text is inherently enjoyable to read, and it engages the reader to share the historical puzzle. But, one might argue, the epistemic core of the book is precisely the abstract factual findings, not the prose style. And the reasoning can be captured as a hypertext lying behind the graph — a sort of annotated hyper-document.

Finally, this notion of arriving at an abstract, schematic representation of a history of something doesn’t work at all for many kinds of historical writing. Michael Kammen’s Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture is an inherently semiotic argument, working out the ways that public ceremonies and monuments work in the consciousness of a population. Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History is a deft interpretive inquiry, arriving at a complex interpretation of a puzzling set of actions. These examples of great historical writing are evidence-based; but they are not designed to allow estimation of a set of variables over time. And I don’t see that there is the possibility of a more abstract and symbolic representation of the historical knowledge they represent.

One might say that what we have encountered here is an important fissure within contemporary historical writing, between “cliometric” research and knowledge (Reflections on the Cliometrics Revolution: Conversations with Economic Historians) and hermeneutic historical knowledge (Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting). The former is primary interested in the processes of change of measurable human of social variables over time, whereas the latter is concerned with interpreting human actions and meanings. The former is amenable to quantitative representation — graphs — while the latter is inherently linguistic and interpretive. The former has to do with estimation and causal analysis, while the latter has to do with interpretation and narrative.

Often, of course, historians are involved in both kinds of interpretation and analysis — both measurement and interpretation.  So when Charles Tilly describes four centuries of French contention in The Contentious French, he is interested in charting the rising frequency of contentious actions (cliometric); but he is also interested in interpreting the intentions and meanings associated with those actions (hermeneutic).

Concrete sociological knowledge

Is there a place within the social sciences for the representation of concrete, individual-level experience?  Is there a valid kind of knowledge expressed by the descriptions provided by an observant resident of a specific city or an experienced traveler in the American South in the 1940s?  Or does social knowledge need to take the form of some kind of generalization about the social world?  Does sociology require that we go beyond the particulars of specific people and social arrangements?

There is certainly a genre of social observation that serves just this intimate descriptive function: an astute, empathetic observer spends time in a location, meeting a number of people and learning a lot about their lives and thoughts.  Studs Terkel’s work defines this genre — both in print and in his radio interviews over so many years.  A particularly good example is Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  But Studs is a journalist and a professional observer; does he really contribute to “sociological knowledge”? (See this earlier post on Studs.)

Perhaps a better example of “concrete, individual-level experience” for sociology can be drawn closer to home, in Erving Goffman’s work.  (Here is an earlier discussion of some of Goffman’s work; link.)  Here are the opening words of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956):

I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organised within the physical confines of a building or plant. A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial. 

The perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance; the principles derived are dramaturgical ones. I shall consider the way in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before them. In using this model I will attempt not to make light of its obvious inadequacies.  The stage presents things that are make-believe; presumably life presents things that are real and sometimes not well rehearsed. More important, perhaps, on the stage one player presents himself in the guise of a character to characters projected by other players; the audience constitutes a third party to the interaction — one that is essential and yet, if the stage performance were real, one that would not be there. In real life, the three parties are compressed into two; the part one individual plays is tailored to the parts played by the others present, and yet these others also constitute the audience. Still other inadequacies in this model will be considered later.

The illustrative materials used in this study are of mixed status: some are taken from respectable researches where qualified generalisations are given concerning reliably recorded regularities; some are taken from informal memoirs written by colourful people; many fall in between. The justification for this approach (as I take to be the justification for Simmel’s also) is that the illustrations together fit into a coherent framework that ties together bits of experience the reader has already had and provides the student with a guide worth testing in case studies of institutional social life. (preface)

 Goffman’s text throughout this book relies on numerous specific descriptions of the behavior of real estate agents, dentists, military officers, servants, and medical doctors in concrete and particular social settings.  Here are a few examples:

[funerals] Similarly, at middle-class American funerals, a hearse driver, decorously dressd in black and tactfully located at the outskirts of the cemetery during the service, may be allowed to smoke, but he is likely to shock and anger the bereaved if he happens to flick his cigarette stub into a bush, letting it describe an elegant arc, instead of circumspectly dropping it at his feet. (35)

[formal dinners] Thus if a household is to stage a formal dinner, someone in uniform or livery will be required as part of the working team. The individual who plays this part must direct at himself the social definition of a menial. At the same time the individual taking the part of hostess must direct at herself, and foster by her appearance and manner, the social definition of someone upon whom it is natural for menials to wait. This was strikingly demonstrated in the island tourist hotel studied by the writer. There an overall impression of middle-class service was achieved by the management, who allocated to themselves the roles of middle-class host and hostess and to their employees that of maids — although in terms of the local class structure the girls who acted as maids were of slightly higher status than the hotel owners who employed them. (47-48)

[hospitals] Thus, if doctors are to prevent cancer patients from learning the identity of their disease, it will be useful to scatter the cancer patients throughout the hospital so that they will not be able to learn from the identity of their ward the identity of their disorder. (The hospital staff, incidentally, may be forced to spend more time walking corridors and moving equipment because of this staging strategy than would otherwise be necessary.) (59)

[hotel kitchens] The study of the island hotel previously cited provides another example of the problems workers face when they have insufficient control of their backstage. Within the hotel kitchen, where the guests’ food was prepared and where the staff ate and spent their day, crofters’ culture tended to prevail, involving a characteristic pattern of clothing, food habits, table manners, language, employer-employee relations, cleanliness standards, etc. This culture was felt to be different from, and lower in esteem than, British middle-class culture, which tended to prevail in the dining room and other places in the hotel. The doors leading from the kitchen to the other parts of the hotel were a constant sore spot in the organization of work. (72)

So Goffman’s sociology in this work is heavily dependent on the kind of concrete social observation and description that is at issue here.  Much of the interest of the book is the precision and deftness through which Goffman dissects and describes these concrete instances of social interaction.  This supports one answer to the question with which we began: careful, exacting and perceptive description of particular social phenomena is an important and epistemically valid form of sociological knowledge.  Studs Terkel contributes to our knowledge of the social world when he accurately captures the voice of the miner, the hotel worker, or the taxi driver; and a very important part of this contribution is the discovery of the singular and variable features of these voices.

At the same time, it is clear that Goffman goes beyond the concrete descriptions of restaurants, medical offices, and factory floors that he offers to formulate and support a more general theory of social behavior: that individuals convey themselves through social roles that are prescribed for various social settings, and that much social behavior is performance.  (This performative interpretation of social action is discussed in an earlier post.)  And this suggests that there is a further implicature within our understanding of the goals of sociological knowledge: the idea that concrete descriptions should potentially lead to some sort of generalization, contrast, or causal interpretation.

Ideal types, values, and selectivity

I’ve never really understood why the exposition of one of Max Weber’s most important methodological ideas, his theory of ideal types, occurs in the context of an essay that is primarily about the role of values in the social sciences.  This is his essay, “‘Objectivity’ in Social Science and Social Policy” in The Methodology of The Social Sciences.  The central thrust of the essay is to attempt to spell out the ways that objectivity and truth relate to partisanship and values within the course of social science research and teaching.  And Weber draws a sharp distinction between what can be known and demonstrated (empirical facts and causal relationships) and what can be internally tested for consistency but not demonstrated (fundamental value commitments).  Here is how Weber puts the point early in the essay:

What has been the meaning of the value-judgments found in the pages of the Archiv regarding legislative and administrative measures, or practical recommendations for such measures? What are the standards governing these judgments?  What is the validity of the value-judgments which are uttered by the critic, for instance, or on which a writer recommending a policy founds his arguments for that policy?  In what sense, if the criterion of scientific knowledge is to be found in the “objective” validity of its results, has he remained within the sphere of scientific discussion? We will first present our own attitude on this question in order later to deal with the broader one: in what sense are there in general “objectively valid truths” in those disciplines concerned with social and cultural phenomena? (50-51)

The theory of ideal types is an important contribution to the specification of the nature of concepts in the human and historical sciences.  But why is this subject particularly relevant in the context of a discussion of values and social policy?

One reason for the conjoining of ideal types and values is the unavoidable fact of selectivity in the social sciences.  Weber makes the point repeatedly in this essay that there is an infinite depth to social phenomena — even to a single phenomenon or event — and therefore it is necessary to select a finite representation of the object of study if we want to approach a problem scientifically.  But how do we select a specific aspect of a phenomenon for study?  We do so on the basis of a judgment of what aspects are important — and this is a value judgment, either directly or indirectly.  In a very specific sense, our interests (material and intellectual) guide the formation of our social-science research projects.  “The quality of an event as a ‘social-economic’ event is not something which it possesses ‘objectively.’ It is rather conditioned by the orientation of our cognitive interest, as it arises from the specific cultural significance which we attribute to the particular event in a given case” (64).  And a few pages later: “Social economic problems do not exist everywhere that an economic event plays a role as cause or effect — since problems arise only where the significance of those factors is problematical and can be precisely determined only through the application of the methods of social-economics” (66).

Or in other words: what constitutes an economic situation as a “problem” is the fact that it has consequences that intersect with things we care about — or our fundamental scheme of values.  So the subject matter of “social-economics” is doubly dependent on our interests: our cognitive interests in how things work, and our practical interests in how to promote “good” outcomes and avoid “bad” outcomes.

This is where the issue moves into connection with the theory of ideal types.  Weber makes it clear that he regards the formulation of a scientific research topic as being generated by a set of interests — cognitive and practical.  And this is where the idea of an ideal type is relevant.  Because an ideal type is a selective, one-sided representation of an aspect of social life.  Here is the foundational description that Weber offers in conjunction with the idea of a “commodity-market”:

This conceptual pattern brings together certain relationships and events of historical life into a complex, which is conceived as an internally consistent system.  Substantively, this construct is itself like a utopia which has been arrived at by the analytical accentuation of certain elements of reality.  Its relationship to the empirical data consists solely in the fact that where market-conditioned relationships of the type referred to by the abstract construct are discovered or suspected to exist in reality to some extent, we can make the characteristic features of this relationship pragmatically clear and understandable by reference to an ideal-type.  It is not a description of reality but it aims to give unambiguous means of expression to such a description.  It is thus the “idea” of the historically given modern society, based on an exchange economy, which is developed for us by quite the same logical principles as are used in constructing the idea of the medieval “city economy” as a “genetic” concept. … An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct. In its conceptual purity, this mental construct cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality. (90)

This specification of the concept of an ideal type links back to Weber’s discussion of the value of specialization in the social sciences: “the justification of the one-sided analysis of cultural reality from specific ‘points of view’ — in our case with respect to its economic conditioning — emerges purely as a technical expedient from the fact that training in the observation of the effects of qualitatively similar categories of causes and the repeated utilization of the same scheme of concepts and hypotheses offers all the advantages of the division of labor” (71).  In other words, the specialization of research methods and training that is implied by the establishment of disciplines in the social sciences is justified pragmatically rather than epistemically — it is the practical advantage in research productivity rather than the nature of the social world that justifies the establishment of disciplines.

There is no absolutely “objective” scientific analysis of culture — or put perhaps more narrowly but certainly not essentially differently for our purposes — of “social phenomena” independent of special and “one-sided” viewpoints according to which — expressly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously — they are selected, analyzed and organized for expository purposes. (72)

This locates the role and justification of the “ideal type” very precisely.  An ideal type — of a market economy, of a university, or of a banking institution — creates a selective model of social organization that can then be explored analytically and empirically by specialists.  The ideal type is not intended to be a general representation of a category of phenomena; but rather as a heuristic model that permits exploration and extension of some of the characteristics of the concrete social institutions and behaviors that it partially represents.

Throughout this discussion is woven the methodological debate between advocates of nomothetic and idiographic interpretations of the social sciences (link).  Weber indicates his own understanding of the crucial importance of the individuality and particularity of historical phenomena — without abandoning the viability of discovering limited generalizations and regularities.

Laws are important and valuable in the exact natural sciences, in the measure that those sciences are universally valid.  For the knowledge of historical phenomena in their concreteness, the most general laws, because they are most devoid of content are also the least valuable.  The more comprehensive the validity — or scope — of a term, the more it leads us away from the richness of reality since in order to include the common elements of the largest possible number of phenomena, it must necessarily be as abstract as possible and hence devoid of content.  In the cultural sciences, the knowledge of the universal or general is never valuable in itself. (80)

Here again, the historically detailed ideal type is a better basis for historical and social analysis.

Here is one additional qualification that Weber offers that is very important to his understanding of social-scientific knowledge:

We have designated as “cultural sciences” those disciplines which analyze the phenomena of life in terms of their cultural significance.  The significance of a configuration of cultural phenomena and the basis of this significance cannot however be derived and rendered intelligible by a system of analytical laws, however perfect it may be, since the significance of cultural events presupposes a value-orientation towards these events.  The concept of culture is a value-concept. (76)

This makes a final important connection between the two themes of the essay, objectivity and values.  Values come into the social science at the stage of defining and examining social-economic-cultural problems; they come into the choice of subject matter by establishing the framework in terms of which a phenomenon is a “problem”; and they must be invoked in our interpretations of the phenomena when we attribute cultural meanings to the participants.  The construct of the ideal type provides conceptual resources for each of these zones of intersection between social-science inquiry and the schemes of values that we humans endorse.

The German debate over method

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:

  • Positivism =====> science seeks to discover universal laws 
  •                   =====> science offers causal explanations

    Historicism =====> the historical and human sciences study particular human institutions in specific historical settings 

  •                    =====> the human sciences proceed through systematic interpretation of the subjective meanings and intentions of individual actors

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.)

The historian’s task

What are the intellectual tasks that define the historian’s work? In a sense, this question is best answered on the basis of a careful reading of some good historians. But it will be useful to offer several simple answers to this foundational question as a sort of conceptual map of the nature of historical knowing.

First, historians are interested in providing conceptualizations and factual descriptions of events and circumstances in the past. This effort is an answer to questions like these: “What happened? What was it like? What were some of the circumstances and happenings that took place during this period in the past?” Sometimes this means simply reconstructing a complicated story from scattered historical sources – for example, in constructing a narrative of the Spanish Civil War or attempting to sort out the series of events that culminated in the Detroit race riot / uprising of 1967. But sometimes it means engaging in substantial conceptual work in order to arrive at a vocabulary in terms of which to characterize “what happened.” Concerning the disorders of 1967 in Detroit: was this a riot or an uprising? How did participants and contemporaries think about it?

Second, historians often want to answer “why” questions: “Why did this event occur? What were the conditions and forces that brought it about?” This body of questions invites the historian to provide an explanation of the event or pattern he or she describes: the rise of fascism in Spain, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the great global financial crisis of 2008. And providing an explanation requires, most basically, an account of the causal mechanisms, background circumstances, and human choices that brought the outcome about. We explain an historical outcome when we identify the social causes, forces, and actions that brought it about, or made it more likely.

Third, and related to the previous point, historians are sometimes interested in answering a “how” question: “How did this outcome come to pass? What were the processes through which the outcome occurred?” How did the Prussian Army succeed in defeating the superior French Army in 1870? How did Truman manage to defeat Dewey in the 1948 US election? Here the pragmatic interest of the historian’s account derives from the antecedent unlikelihood of the event in question: how was this outcome possible? This too is an explanation; but it is an answer to a “how possible” question rather than a “why necessary” question.

Fourth, often historians are interested in piecing together the human meanings and intentions that underlie a given complex series of historical actions. They want to help the reader make sense of the historical events and actions, in terms of the thoughts, motives, and states of mind of the participants. For example: Why did Napoleon III carelessly provoke Prussia into war in 1870 (David Baguley, Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravaganza)? Why has the Burmese junta dictatorship been so intransigent in its treatment of democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi (Nicholas Farrelly, Burma’s General Objectives)? Why did northern cities in the United States develop such profound patterns of racial segregation after World War II (Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit)? Why did young men in the 1910s and 1920s prefer dangerous, noisy internal combustion automobiles to safe, quiet electric vehicles (Gijs Moms, The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age)? Answers to questions like these require interpretation of actions, meanings, and intentions – of individual actors and of cultures that characterize whole populations. This aspect of historical thinking is “hermeneutic,” interpretive, and ethnographic.

And, of course, the historian faces an even more basic intellectual task: that of discovering and making sense of the archival information that exists about a given event or time in the past. Historical data do not speak for themselves; archives are incomplete, ambiguous, contradictory, and confusing. The historian needs to interpret individual pieces of evidence; and he/she needs to be able to somehow fit the mass of evidence into a coherent and truthful story. So complex events like the Spanish Civil War present the historian with an ocean of historical traces in repositories and archives all over the world; these collections sometimes reflect specific efforts at concealment by the powerful (for example, Franco’s efforts to conceal all evidence of mass killings of Republicans after the end of fighting); and the historian’s task is to find ways of using this body of evidence to discern some of the truth about the past.

The photo above gives a small glimpse of the challenges the historian faces. In order to interpret the photo as “a moment in the Spanish Civil War”, the historian needs to provide a careful interpretation of its provenance and content. Who are these soldiers? Where is the fighting taking place? Was the photo staged? What, if anything, does it tell us about the social conflicts and military circumstances of the Civil War? How can it help the reader of history to come to a better understanding of the experience of civil war?

In short, historians conceptualize, describe, contextualize, explain, and interpret events and circumstances of the past. They sketch out ways of representing the complex activities and events of the past; they explain and interpret significant outcomes; and they base their findings on evidence in the present that bears upon facts about the past. Their accounts need to be grounded on the evidence of the available historical record; and their explanations and interpretations require that the historian arrive at hypotheses about social causes and cultural meanings. Historians can turn to the best available theories in the social and behavioral sciences to arrive at theories about causal mechanisms and human behavior; so historical statements depend ultimately upon factual inquiry and theoretical reasoning. Ultimately, the historian’s task is to shed light on the what, why, and how of the past, based on inferences from the evidence of the present.

MacIntyre and Taylor on the human sciences

There is a conception of social explanation that provides a common starting point for quite a few theories and approaches in a range of the social sciences. I’ll call it the “rational, material, structural” paradigm. It looks at the task of social science as the discovery of explanations of social outcomes; and it brings an intellectual framework of purposive rationality, material social factors, and social structures exercising causal influence on individuals as the foundation of social explanation. Rational choice theory, Marxian economics, historical sociology, and the new institutionalism can each be described in roughly these terms: show how a given set of outcomes are the result of purposive choices by individuals within a given set of material and structural circumstances. These approaches depend on a highly abstracted description of human agency, with little attention to deep and important differences in agency across social, cultural, and historical settings. “Agents like these, in structures like those, produce outcomes like these.” This is a powerful and compelling approach; so it is all the more important to recognize that there are other possible starting points for the social sciences.

In fact, this approach to social explanation stands in broad opposition to another important approach, the interpretivist approach. On the interpretive approach, the task of the human sciences is to understand human activities, actions, and social formations as unique historical expressions of human meaning and intention. Individuals are unique, and there are profound differences of mentality across historical settings. This “hermeneutic” approach is not interested in discovering causes of social outcomes, but instead in piecing together an interpretation of the meanings of a social outcome or production. This contrast between causal explanation and hermeneutic interpretation ultimately constitutes a major divide between styles of social thinking. (Yvonne Sherratt provides a very fine introduction to this approach; Continental Philosophy of Social Science.) Max Ringer, one of Weber’s most insightful intellectual biographers, places this break at the center of Weber’s development in the early twentieth century (Max Weber’s Methodology: The Unification of the Cultural and Social Sciences). (See earlier discussions of two strands of thought in the philosophy of social science; link, link, link.)

On this approach, all social action is framed by a meaningful social world. To understand, explain, or predict patterns of human behavior, we must first penetrate the social world of the individual in historical concreteness: the meanings he/she attributes to her environment (social and natural); the values and goals she possesses; the choices she perceives; and the way she interprets other individuals’ social action. Only then will we be able to analyze, interpret, and explain her behavior. But now the individual’s action is thickly described in terms of the meanings, values, assumptions, and interpretive principles she employs in her own understanding of her world.

Most of the arguments in support of interpretive approaches to the human sciences have come from the continental tradition — Dilthey, Ricoeur, Gadamer, Habermas. So let’s consider two philosophers who have made original contributions to the historicist and interpretivist side of the debate, within the Anglo-American tradition. Consider first Alasdair MacIntyre’s discussion of the possibility of comparative theories of politics (“Is a science of comparative politics possible?” in Alan Ryan, ed., The Philosophy of Social Explanation). MacIntyre poses the problem in these terms: “I shall be solely interested in the project of a political science, of the formulation of cross cultural, law-like causal generalizations which may in turn be explained by theories” (172). And roughly, MacIntyre’s answer is that a science of comparative politics is not possible, because actions, structures, and practices are not directly comparable across historical settings. The Fiat strike pictured above is similar in some ways to a strike against General Motors or Land Rover in different times and places; but the political cultures, symbolic understandings, and modes of behavior of Italian, American, and British auto workers are profoundly different.

MacIntyre places great emphasis on the densely interlinked quality of local concepts, social practices, norms, and self ascriptions, with the implication that each practice or attitude is inextricably dependent on an ensemble of practices, beliefs, norms, concepts, and the like that are culturally specific and, in their aggregate, unique. Thus MacIntyre holds that as simple a question as this: “Do Britons and Italians differ in the level of pride they take in civic institutions?” is unanswerable because of cultural differences in the concept of pride (172-73).

Hence we cannot hope to compare an Italian’s attitude to his government’s acts with an Englishman’s in respect of the pride each takes; any comparison would have to begin from the different range of virtues and emotions incorporated in the different social institutions. Once again the project of comparing attitudes independently of institutions and practices encounters difficulties. (173-74)

These points pertain to difficulties in identifying political attitudes cross-culturally. Could it be said, though, that political institutions and practices are less problematic? MacIntyre argues that political institutions and practices are themselves very much dependent on local political attitudes, so it isn’t possible to provide an a-historical specification of a set of practices and institutions:

It is an obvious truism that no institution or practice is what it is, or does what it does, independently of what anyone whatsoever thinks or feels about it. For institutions and practices are always partially, even if to differing degrees, constituted by what certain people think and feel about them. (174)

So interpretation is mandatory — for institutions no less than for individual behavior. So MacIntyre’s position is disjunctive. He writes:

My thesis . . . can now be stated distinctively: either such generalizations about institutions will necessarily lack the kind of confirmation they require or they will be consequences of true generalizations about human rationality and not part of a specifically political science. (178)

Now turn to Charles Taylor in another pivotal essay, “Interpretation and the sciences of man” (Philosophical Papers: Volume 2, Philosophy and the Human Sciences). Taylor’s central point is that the subject matter of the human sciences — human actions and social arrangements — always require interpretation. It is necessary for the observer to attribute meaning and intention to the action — features that cannot be directly observed. He asks whether there are “brute data” in the human sciences — facts that are wholly observational and require no “interpretation” on the part of the scientist (19)? Taylor thinks not; and therefore the human sciences require interpretation from the most basic description of data to the fullest historical description.

To be a full human agent, to be a person or a self in the ordinary meaning, is to exist in a space defined by distinctions of worth. . . . My claim is that this is not just a contingent fact about human agents, but is essential to what we would understand and recognize as full, normal human agency. (3)

Thus, human behaviour seen as action of agents who desire and are moved, who have goals and aspirations, necessarily offers a purchase for descriptions in terms of meaning what I have called “experiential meaning”. (27)

One way of putting Taylor’s critique of “brute data” is the idea that human actions must be characterized intentionally (34 ff.) in terms of the intentions and self understanding of the agent and that such factors can only be interpreted, not directly observed.

My thesis amounts to an alternative statement of the main proposition of interpretive social science, that an adequate account of human action must make the agents more understandable. On this view, it cannot be a sufficient objective of social theory that it just predict . . . the actual pattern of social or historical events. . . . A satisfactory explanation must also make sense of the agents. (116)

Taylor’s discussion of ethnocentricity is important, since it provides a way out of the hermeneutic circle. He believes it is possible to interpret the alien culture without simply covertly projecting our categories onto the alien; and this we do through meaningful conversation with the other (124-25). This is a point that seems to converge with Habermas’s notion of communicative action (The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society).

It isn’t entirely clear how radically Taylor intends his argument. Is it that all social science requires interpretation, or that interpretation is a legitimate method among several? Is there room for generalizations and theories within Taylor’s interpretive philosophy of social science? What should social science look like on Taylor’s approach? Will it offer explanations, generalizations, models; or will it be simply a collection of concrete hermeneutical readings of different societies? Does causation have a place in such a science? (He says more about the role of theory in “Neutrality in political science”; Philosophical Papers: Volume 2, Philosophy and the Human Sciences, 63.)

Both MacIntyre and Taylor are highlighting an important point: human actions reflect purposes, beliefs, emotions, meanings, and solidarities that cannot be directly observed. And human practices are composed of the actions and thoughts of individual human actors — with exactly this range of hermeneutic possibilities and indeterminacies. So the explanation of human action and practice presupposes some level of interpretation. There is no formula, no universal key to human agency, that permits us to “code” human behavior without the trouble of interpretation.

This said, I would still judge that the “rational, material, structural” paradigm with which we began has plenty of scope for application. For some purposes and in many historical settings, it is possible to describe the actor’s state of mind in more abstract terms: he/she cares about X, Y, Z; she believes A, B, C; and she reasons that W is a good way of achieving a satisfactory level of attainment of the goods she aims at. In other words, purposive agency, within an account of the opportunities and constraints that surround action, provides a versatile basis for social action. And this is enough for much of political science, Marxist materialism, and the new institutionalism.

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