Social Philosophy

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American sociology, with the significant exception of symbolic interactionism, generally has turned to Europe for a philosophical grounding. The years after World War II, when Talcott Parsons at Harvard and Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton at Columbia dominated the field, were no exception. Parsons had studied in Germany and had translated Weber; Lazarsfeld brought to the United States an Austrian philosophical heritage; Merton was a specialist in the philosophy and sociology of science. Under the guidance of these three men, American sociology was strongly influenced by the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, especially Carnap and Popper, and to a lesser degree by British logical positivism.

The common ingredient in this philosophical heritage was the notion that there were few obstacles to the creation of a science of human behavior modeled on the natural sciences. A great deal of attention was paid to hypothesis testing, criteria for evidence, and the nature of statistical proof. Most important, this way of thinking assumed that there was a social reality that would prove to have the same nature as physical reality. A predictive science of human behavior was possible because the social world was assumed to work in lawlike ways. The problems of the social sciences lay in discovering reality, not in the nature of reality.

This assumption would be shaken from two different directions. On the one hand, in many cases sociologists would lose their faith in the natural science model as the most appropriate way to think about society. In part as a result of the political upheavals of the 1960s, adherence to the patient accumulation of facts to verify what Merton called "middle level" theories about the world was difficult to maintain. On the other hand, philosophers increasingly came to question the epistemology associated with the natural science model. Kuhn's thesis that scientific insight resulted from a new paradigm had a stunning effect on social science, while Polanyi argued for a more "artistic" and "sociological" conception of scientific inquiry (Kuhn 1970; Polanyi 1968). As epistemological skepticism invaded the natural sciences, its implications for the social sciences became even more serious.

One of the first consequences of this increasing skepticism was the discovery in America that the European philosophical heritage was far broader than it first had appeared. Weber, for example, had been influenced strongly by Nietzsche, yet Parsons's interpretation of Weber downplayed the significance of heroism, irrationality, and cultural pessimism and presented Weber as an American pluralist. The two philosophers who perhaps had the greatest influence in Europe during and after Parsons's visits to Germany were Heidegger and Husserl, and neither played a significant role in Parsons's outlook. The late Wittgenstein was discovered to be quite different from the earlier one, who had been convinced that pure logic would make philosophy unnecessary. French existentialism would become prominent in the 1960s, yet its dominance would not last, and its influence on American sociology was minimal. What had been a selective and partial reading of European philosophy by American sociologists could no longer last.

Even during the years when Parsons was the leading American sociologist, alternatives had existed. Husserl's phenomenology was one. As brought to the United States and applied to sociology in the work of Schutz (1967), phenomenology argued for the importance of the "life-world," the everyday events out of which people's understanding of the world around them becomes possible. Schutz was unable to convince Parsons of the importance of phenomenology (Schutz 1978), but he did influence one of Parsons's most brilliant students, Garfinkel (1967). Ethnomethodology became the most important alternative to structural functionalism in the 1960s and 1970s. The legacy of phenomenology also could be seen in the work of other sociologists, such as Berger and Luckman (1967). Other alternative traditions, such as the influence of Wittgenstein, also existed during this period, especially in Great Britain. Finally, among Marxists, the traditions of the Frankfurt School and the legacy of Lukacs constituted an important basis for social science theorizing (Arato and Gebhart 1977).

As the wide variety of ideas associated with European philosophy became increasingly known to sociologists, confidence in the natural sciences as a model for the social sciences gave way to far more nuanced approaches. No theorist in contemporary sociology was more aware than Habermas (1987) of the necessity of incorporating insights from a wide variety of philosophical traditions. Not only did Habermas bring to the task of sociological theorizing his background in Frankfurt School Marxism, plus a far more realistic reading of Weber than the one offered by Parsons, he also grounded his work in British linguistic philosophy, the Schutzian life-world, and American pragmatism. To read Habermas was to learn about those whom Habermas had read, bringing wide swaths of European philosophy to the attention of many American readers. Habemas was not alone in trying to synthesize philosophical traditions with the social sciences. Bourdieu (1984) in France was equally influential in sociology; his combination of theoretical insight, empirical investigation, and concern with how knowledge is produced made him a major figure in American sociology (Bourdieu and Waquant 1992; Lamont and Fournier 1992).

Habermas in particular argued for the importance of modernity, for the possibility of using rationality as a standard by which communicative utterances could be judged, thus making possible a social order held together by norms that lay outside the purely subjective preferences of the individuals who constituted that social order. This belief in reason would lead others to criticize Habermas as excessively rationalistic and therefore too close to the assumptions of a nonproblematic reality that had guided Parsons (Lyotard 1984). Postmodernism would become the most radical challenge imaginable to the earlier Parsons's faith in a scientific model for the social sciences.

With postmodernism, the philosophers once ignored by American social science became the most important ones to read. Foucault (1971), under the influence of Nietzsche, argued that knowledge is the product of a general episteme that in itself is not a reflection of a reality in the world but the product of a particular historical period and its self-understanding. Lyotard (1984), borrowing from Wittgenstein, viewed science as a "language game" preoccupied with strategy and tactics, anything but a dispassionate and objective search after truth. Derrida (1978), under the influence of Heidegger, argued for the indeterminacy of concepts such as truth, justice, and morality. Philosophers could not seek fixed universals; they were engaged in the practice of rhetoric, defending or attacking contingent, local, and socially constructed practices that defined truth, justice, and morality in the interests of certain groups and against the interests of others.

Postmodernism has not had the impact in sociology that it has had in literary criticism, history, and law. Numerous sociologists continue to study the empirical world by testing various hypotheses on the basis of evidence collected through surveys, demographic data, and other essentially quantitative methods. However, the postmodern challenge to normal science is likely to prove to be significant. Postmodernism is the culmination of all the challenges to the Parsonian consensus that once existed in the field; it represents what seems to be an end point to the process of questioning the existence of a nonproblematic social reality that can be understood by an observer standing outside that reality.

The question raised by the varieties of epistemological skepticism currently prevalent in the humanities is whether any science, let alone a social science, is possible. Just as some scientific fields seek to reduce the laws of one field, such as biology, to those of another, say, biochemistry, postmodernism argues that all fields of inquiry can be reduced to the study of rhetoric. In a perhaps unintended fashion, the implication of this argument is a hegemonic one: The rhetorical methods associated with literary criticism will become the model for all inquiry, just as science was once understood to be.

The rhetorical issues involved in social science theorizing have been analyzed in the case of economics by McCloskey (1985). In addition, some work in the sociology of science has made it clear that scientists have strategies by which they present themselves to the world and hope to gain acceptance (for an example, see Latour [1987]). However, does it follow that there is no grounding for social science, no Durkheimian facts in the world to which one can appeal to resolve disputes about knowledge? There is, of course, no way to answer such a large question satisfactorily in a brief article, but it is possible to offer the hope that both science and rhetoric can play a role in the sociological enterprise.

Sociology began, as Lepenies (1988) has argued, "between science and literature." Its most important theorists were attracted to positivistic understandings of knowledge, but they were also essayists dealing with some of the most significant issues in the moral philosophy of their time. One could argue that this "ambivalence" between fields has consistently characterized sociology at its best (Merton 1976). Merton, for example, though engaged in what he called the "systematics" of theory, was also a historian of science, wrote with reference to the entire Western tradition of philosophy and literature, and was very much part of the milieu of the New York intellectuals of his day (Merton 1967, pp. 1–37).

The fate of sociology may lie in finding a balance between a scientific grounding in fact and an appreciation of how rhetorical strategies affect the ways in which scholars argue about facts. Unlike earlier sociologists, sociologists today cannot be confident that there will exist a one-to-one relationship between social reality and its representations; we must always be skeptical about the likelihood that the indicators we use actually measure the real world. But this does not mean that sociologists should give up collecting evidence, testing hypotheses, or trying to establish facts. It means only that the truths uncovered by these methods are not universals that exist for all time but are contingent on historical periodization and location.

From this perspective, the question becomes one of the length of the historical periods and the width of the locations by which we can judge the truths we discover. If we could determine that it is possible to discover regularities in, for example, the way liberal democracies have organized themselves over the past 200 years, that would be a significant and important accomplishment. It would mean neither that we had discovered an unchanging reality nor that our discoveries are simply part of a rhetorical strategy. A sociology that modeled itself neither on physics nor on literary reading, but combined elements of both would be a sociology more chastened than Parsonianism but more hopeful than postmodernism.

(see also: epistemology; human nature; marxist sociology; postmodernism; pragmatism)


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Alan Wolfe

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Social Philosophy

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