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 …

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 …

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 …

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 …

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 (link, link), the book reviews …

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 …

Ideal types, values, and selectivity

image: cover of Max Weber, The History of Commercial Partnerships in the Middle AgesI'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 …

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 …

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. …

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 …

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