Friday, April 25, 2008

Philosophy and society

How does philosophy intersect with the social world? How does philosophical thinking contribute to better understanding of society? (At the right we see Jurgen Habermas teaching philosophy in 1960.)

It is possible that philosophy is not a well-defined discipline. But philosophers regard themselves as having something of a method, and something of a subject matter. The method, for analytically trained philosophers, anyway, is based on careful, critical analysis of ideas, concepts, and statements, and an effort to arrive at developed philosophical theories of important subjects: justice, rationality, equality, relativism, social construction, ... The subject matter is a little harder to specify. But there is an open-ended set of subjects that have drawn philosophers' attention for the past several hundred years: empirical knowledge, foundations of mathematics, the nature of the mind, moral truth, political justice, and the foundations of religious belief, for example.

So let's take this cluster of methods and topics to serve as one possible definition of philosophical thought; the question here is, how can philosophical reasoning be focused on understanding the nature of society?

One clear area of intersection is the philosophy of "knowledge of society" -- the philosophy of social science. Here the questions are epistemological -- how secure is the knowledge offered by the social sciences; methodological -- what methods of inquiry are well suited to the study of society; explanatory -- what is required for a good social explanation; and ontological -- what assumptions do we need to make about the nature of the social world in order to pursue social science research? It is fairly clear how philosophers can contribute to the development of theories and perspectives about these questions.

Another area where philosophy is relevant to society is normative social philosophy -- the theory of justice, human well-being, or communitarianism/liberalism, for example. Here the philosopher brings some organized thinking about values, ethical theory, and the messy facts of human social arrangements into the discussion. Here again, it is fairly clear how rigorous philosophical thinking can illuminate these questions; philosophy can help our understanding of these issues to progress.

But in addition to these fairly clear examples of philosophy about society, there seems to be another domain of intersection between philosophy and society that isn't as well charted. This is "empirically and historically informed study of social metaphysics". Many of the postings on this blog fall roughly into this category. Here the philosopher begins with some bits of knowledge about an aspect of the social world -- economic development, the world food system, or social contention; but then asks fairly foundational questions about how we ought to think about the components of these areas of phenomena.

A recurring subject in this blog, for example, is reflection on the question, "Social mechanisms or social regularities?". And the contributions here aren't purely conceptual, purely empirical, or purely inductive; instead, they are "theory informed by concrete examples of real social processes." And this approach to a problem seems different from all of the following -- pure methodology, pure epistemology, ethical theory, empirical investigation, or traditional social scientific theory formation. Instead, this level of philosophizing seems to deliberately call upon a synthesis of some empirical knowledge, some conceptual reflection, and some ontological reasoning. (Might we say that it looks something like a combination of Kant in his synthetic metaphysics, with Newton and Kepler in their theoretical and empirical research?)

(This approach, by the way, is exactly similar to what I want to advocate for the philosophy of history as well: philosophical reflection upon real examples of historical change and historical reasoning; and analysis of genuinely important and difficult problems that arise in both the course of history and the course of historical writing. So my view of the philosophy of history too is one that is neither purely a priori nor an exercise in direct historical scholarship.)

So the question today is -- what is the rational or intellectual standing of the assertions that are made in this synthetic form of philosophy?