Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Stephen P. Turner and Paul A. Roth, eds.: The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of the Social Sciences

This review was originally published in Philosophy in Review 23:6:412-13, Dec. 2003.

STEPHEN P. TURNER and PAUL A. ROTH, eds. The Blackwell Guide to the Social Sciences. Oxford: Blackwell 2003. Pp. viii + 382.
$50.00 (ISBN 0-631-21537-9); $12.9514.99 (Paper: ISBN 0-631-21538-7)

This book contains a collection of important, newly commissioned essays that is intended to represent the current state of the art in various areas of interest in the philosophy of the social sciences. Anyone acquainted with the canonical anthology of the 1990s, M. Martin and L. C. McIntyre’s Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science (MIT Press, 1994), will immediately sense that the Blackwell Guide is built around a very different list of issues in the field. Law-based and functional explanations, and the debate over methodological individualism vs. holism, are out. Critical theory, practice theory, standpoint theory, mathematical modeling, decision theory and rhetorical analysis are among the topics afforded individual chapters. Phenomenology and the analytic tradition share equal billing in the discipline’s history.

The book opens with the editors’ useful introductory chapter, which lays out the historical background for their vision of the field. Three sections of essays follow: ‘Pasts’, which offers historical overviews of the field, ‘Programs’, which deals with the contemporary situation in a number of leading social sciences research programs, and ‘Problematics’, whose essays discuss important critiques of the social sciences.

The ‘Pasts’ section begins with Stephen Turner’s impressive essay on causality and teleology. No mere catalog of doctrines, this essay charts the course of its subject starting with Aristotle and mentioning (among others) Hobbes, the Enlightenment thinkers, Comte’s positivist project, Durkheim, Weber, all the way to G. A. Cohen’s functionalist reading of Marx, weaving them all into a comprehensible intellectual conversation.

Next comes Brian Fay’s chapter, which situates Schutz, Heiddeger, Merleau-Ponty, and ethnomethodology within the long struggle to overcome the solipsistic and overly abstract character of Edmund Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. A final dialectical twist points back to the earlier Phenomenology of Hegel, and its demand that forms of consciousness must not only be described, but also criticized.

Thomas Uebels’s chapter on the analytic tradition begins with a useful, if somewhat unenthusiastic, overview of post-war developments on the Anglo-American scene. The real heart of this chapter is its extensive discussion of Otto Neurath, whose pre-war work, Uebel convincingly argues, foreshadowed the latest advances of postpositivist philosophy of the social sciences.

The book’s ‘Programs’ section opens with James Bohman’s chapter on critical theory. Bohman both describes and champions the development of the critical program from a search for a liberating and scientifically objective theoretical critique of society to a free-wheeling dialogical inquiry, prepared to learn from all standpoints and methodologies. This new style of critical social science is not in the business of establishing eternal sociological truths, but rather in serving as a practical tool for making people, ‘more aware of the circumstances that restrict their freedom and inhibit their practical knowledge’ (107).

Peter Rawlings makes a heroic effort to summarize the major results and controversies of philosophical interest in decision theory, including the work of (among others) von Neumann, Morgenstern, Ramsey, and Savage, as well as celebrated topics of discussion such as the ‘Prisoner’s dilemma’, ‘Dutch books’ and the ‘Constant Act Problem’. Quite understandably, Rawling makes use of mathematical nomenclature and concepts that do not appear elsewhere in this book.

Lars Udehn’s chapter on ‘The Methodology of Rational Choice’ takes a different tact, eschewing mathematical technicalities and instead concentrating on the fundamental question of whether and to what extent rational choice explanations can really be said to explain social phenomena. He charts the development and deployment of rational choice theories from classical economics through recent work in ‘public choice’, and also explains the opinions of Weber, Friedman and Popper on their legitimacy. Udhen argues that the applicability of rational choice explanations is an ‘empirical’ question that can only be determined on a case by case basis.

Paul Humphrey’s accessible chapter discusses the pros and cons of three basic styles of mathematical modeling in the social sciences: theory-based models, which translate social-scientific theories into mathematical systems, data-based models which are created by applying statistical analysis to empirical data, and computational models, which calculate the emergent behavior of a group of individual agents who interact with each other in accordance with a specific set of rules. Well aware of the modest degree of success achieved by mathematical models up to now, Humphrey holds out some hope for future applications of computational models.

David G. Stern’s balanced essay on practice theory concentrates on Heidegger (especially as interpreted by Hubert Dreyfus) and Wittgenstein (as interpreted by Peter Winch and Saul Kripke) as the two main inspirations of this popular family of strategies for avoiding the traditional conceptual oppositions of subject and object, individual and society, represented and representation, and so on. Stern also gives sympathetic hearings to Ernest Gellner and Stephen Turner’s objections to practice theory.

Steven Fuller’s chapter takes ‘Science and Technology Studies’ to task for not being sufficiently ‘critical and transformative’ (207) of the role of the science and of the scientific community in contemporary Western societies, especially in the U.S.A. He argues that contemporary Science Studies promote a view of the scientific community which serves state interests in a manner similar to the way Oxford anthropology produced a way of thinking about indigenous societies that served British interests. Touching upon the work of Karl Mannheim, Karl Popper, and Ian Hacking (among others), Fuller develops his theme into a thorough-going critique of the state of contemporary sociology of science.

The ‘Problematics’ section opens with Hans Kellner’s chapter on the rhetoric of the social sciences. Kellner first discusses the rise of the social sciences as defined disciplines concerned with the establishment of ‘facts’. He then reviews several important examinations of social scientific rhetoric, including the work of Charles Brazerman, Richard Harvey Brown, John Nelson, Deirdre McCloskey, and Hayden White. Kellner believes that such studies do not necessarily function as agents of a corrosive nihilism. Rather, they may serve to gradually transform the self-understanding of the social sciences in the direction of both greater sophistication as well as an appropriate epistemic modesty.

Lynn Hankinson Nelson offers a level-headed, accessible, and apolitical critique of the use of evolutionary explanations in the social and behavioral sciences. She reminds the reader that the bare fact that some behavioral trait may increase fitness does not constitute a complete demonstration that its presence results from a process of evolutionary adaptation. She further points out that although some aspect of human behavior across cultures may be described in terms of a universal rule, that does not prove that human behavior is actually guided by some genetically programmed version of that rule. Nelson also complains that such evolutionary explanations fail to develop convincing accounts of the historical environments and processes involved in the alleged developments of he behavioral traits in question.

Although Sandra Harding’s chapter appears in the book’s ‘Problematics’ section, she is no less keen to defend the validity of standpoint methodologies than she is to demonstrate how such methodologies may be used to criticize traditional social scientific endeavors. In a crucial endnote (306, no. 21) she concedes that we must avoid considering view-points of non-dominant groups when these do not reflect a progressive political program. Readers who are not already sympathetic to this school may well find Harding’s faith in the inevitably ‘progressive’ consequences of the conscious mix of science and politics proposed by standpoint methodology na├»ve, or even dangerous.

Paul Roth’s chapter’s largely restates his influential criticisms of ‘meaning realism’, i.e., the notion that human behaviors and artifacts reflect particular and definable social meanings. In this connection, he criticizes both Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere for assuming that some ‘nonnatural meaning’ stands behind the Hawaiian behavior whose interpretation was the subject of great controversy between them through the 1990s (317). Roth’s chapter concludes with a discussion of the debate surrounding Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s work on the Nazi Holocaust, which, although of intrinsic interest, may not be the best example to illustrate his general thesis.

All-in-all, the Blackwell Companion is required reading for anyone working in the philosophy of the social sciences. While all of its chapters are of high quality, their accessibility and comprehensiveness vary widely, so that some care must be exercised when assigning the book to students, especially undergraduates.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College, Israel

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