Saturday, June 28, 2008

Continental philosophy of social science


Making sense of the human world has always been a part of the continental tradition in philosophy. History, justice, and meaning are subjects that have played central roles in continental writings relevant to "understanding society" for three centuries, and dozens of philosophers have focused on these and related topics in deeply fertile ways -- Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Montesquieu, Vico, Herder, Schleiermacher, Fichte, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Dilthey, to name an important dozen. I don't think it is wrong to say that history and society have been foundational questions in this tradition in ways they have not been in the Anglo-American tradition. So continental philosophy of social science (CPS) has much to draw upon.

Several strands of thinking have been particularly important.

First is the idea that the human world is a world of meanings and relationships. Human action is meaningful for the agent, and it is meaningful for the other humans who are affected or observe it. So an important part of understanding the social world is interpretation of the created meanings of actions, expressions, and artifacts. This line of thought brings us into the hermeneutic tradition, from Dilthey to Ricoeur, and the range of efforts in philosophy, theology, criticism, and psychology to provide a basis for interpretation. (See an earlier posting on this subject.)

A second important idea is the notion that the social world is constituted by relationships, not monads. Hegel's Phenomenology provides one clear instance of this perspective -- think of the logic of defining the subject through interaction with the object, or of the Master-Slave narrative. Marx's theories of alienation and class likewise place "human beings in relationships" at the ontological center. Nietzsche too places the relational at the center of many of his philosophical theories.

A third pillar of thinking in this tradition is the crucial role of history in human affairs. History matters; it is through history that humanity makes itself, and central social creations are the product of long historical evolution -- the state, language, religion. Vico and Herder offer good examples of this approach, and Hegel offers another. The philosophy of history is core to Hegel's thinking -- not only in his lecture notes on the philosophy of history but the Philosophy of Right and the Phenomenology of Spirit as well.

A fourth important theme in CPS is the idea of knowledge through criticism. Feuerbach's transformative criticism is a case in point; likewise Marx's method of critique as an intellectual method and a conception of rigor. The phrase "a critique of political economy" recurs in numerous of Marx's subtitles; Marx's thought often proceeds through critical rethinking of the works of others. Dialectical thinking is one version of this approach, but there are other species of criticism as well.

A fifth defining characteristic of CPS is the orientation it takes towards causation in the social world. In a nutshell, CPS doesn't attach much importance to causal relationships in the social world. Causation is a feature of the natural world, but CPS draws a sharp distinction between the natural and human worlds. The "human sciences" have to do with understanding rather than explanation, meanings rather than causes.

So, CPS calls out a number of characteristics of the social -- history, meaning, hermeneutics, relationships, criticism, and dialogical thinking, to name several. What this picture does not emphasize is the set of ideas defining scientific rigor for the analytic tradition: an organized conception of theory, a theory of observation and evidence, the idea of the neutrality of scientific knowledge. This is systemic, because CPS is explicitly and implicitly anti-positivist. The implicit part is the more interesting. The continental tradition has a very different philosophical framework for epistemology and knowledge than the empiricist tradition, and a different conception about what constitutes rigorous knowledge. It is more inclined towards philosophical reasoning as a source of knowledge and generally less devoted to empirical inquiry.

We might ask, though, how these themes in the philosophy of society and history help us today in the problem of articulating better and more rationally justified theories or representations of the social world. Does CPS provide any clues about how to configure a better sociology for China or a better theory of social relationships in the Internet age? Does it improve our epistemology of social knowledge? Does it broaden the scope of our historical or sociological imaginations? Does it provide the basis for some salutary critique? Does it deepen needed critiques of positivism and naturalism? (See accursedshare for a current blog that takes this tradition and these questions seriously.)

What seems likely is that both traditions are needed as a foundation for understanding society. They emphasize different but important perspectives on the social world. And further, there are very few flat contradictions between the two traditions. So a fertile collaboration is entirely feasible.

Yvonne Sherratt's Continental Philosophy of Social Science asks us to initiate this reflection -- and she is right. Other titles I have appreciated for their treatment of Hegel's philosophy of society and history include Shlomo Avineri, Hegel's Theory of the Modern State; Joshua Dienstag, Dancing in Chains: Narrative and Memory in Political Theory, and Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. These books illustrate how continental philosophy makes a substantial contribution to understanding society and history.