Finding philosophy in Social Science

Few, if any, of the social sciences have as many amateur philosophers as sociology. This is perhaps natural, since many classical sociologists wrote on philosophical topics. Durkheim, Weber and Simmel knew philosophy well, and were also capable of using their knowledge to improve their empirical studies. However, the division of labour among social scientists and philosophers is far greater today than when the classical sociologists discussed philosophical matters. What about the effects of this philosophical emphasis? Is social science better or more advanced today than it was, say, 80 years ago? Are the theories of today more adequate?

Reading Mario Bunge, one may at least hesitate as to the answers to these questions. His latest book, Finding Philosophy in Social Science, is meant as an argument for a closer connection between social science and philosophy. The book is written for both social scientists and philosophers, and it has two underlying ideas: that philosophers can learn from the inherent philosophy in empirical studies, and that social scientists can learn more about theory and improve their studies by greater insight into philosophical issues. The key argument Bunge presents is that scientific studies necessarily deal with philosophical matters. His book, which is a ‘look at philosophy through social science,’ is soon to be accompanied by a book called Social Science under Debate, which will study social science from a philosophical perspective.

Bunge’s self-defined task is to show how one may produce good (or at least better) social science by reflecting on scientific problems, and by using philosophical tools while designing and conducting empirical studies. Thus, he discusses scientific problems like the relation between theory and evidence, explanation, prediction, definition and so on. The book consists of two major lines of argument: on the one hand, an argument for rationalism, realism and systemism, and on the other, a critique of irrationality, constructivism, antirealism and all that deviates from what Bunge views as the core ideas of science and of social science. From Bunge’s perspective, these two lines of study are really one.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first of these, after concluding that science and philosophy are related, and also that they should be related more strongly than they are at present, Bunge starts a general discussion on the relation between theory and fact. The main idea is that fact is not something made up by scientists; facts are real, and they exist ‘out there’. This argument is based upon an ontological commitment, scientific realism, which is one of the three constitutive parts of Bunge’s general position. Scientific realism implies that there is an objective pattern that can be known, and to know it is the scientist’s task. This is related to his strong rational approach: there is a truth. According to Bunge, there are (seven) truth criteria for theories, for example, consistency, precision and meaningfulness. However, the rationale behind these criteria is never told, and Bunge thereby faces essentially the same problems that Lakatos and other rationalists have debated. Bunge views the scientific process as totally different from the non-scientific approaches to society’s problems. This, of course, is so only as long as science behaves as Bunge says it should.

The second part of the book deals with explanation, and here Bunge demonstrates his knowledge in both fields, sociology and philosophy. He discusses the concept of explanation in detail, and argues for mechanism-based explanations. Furthermore, he sees no difference between natural and social science, but argues that the latter has to take beliefs, interests and intentions into account. Thus ontology, epistemology, explanations, etc. are, in general, the same for all scientific disciplines. In addition, it is worth mentioning that Bunge also classifies the social sciences as ‘scientific’ or ‘non-scientific’. According to Bunge, history and demography are the most scientific, while sociology (among others, e.g. economics) is only a semi-science; humanistic sciences, for example, hermeneutic social studies, are ‘utterly non-scientific’.

In the last part of the book, Bunge addresses some issues that have been under debate among philosophers of science for a long time: individualism, holism, idealism, and materialism. This part also contains a presentation of Bunge’s own position, ‘systemism’, including a chapter on rational choice, which is the only theory honoured with a chapter of its own. What, then, is ‘systemism’? Systemism is the idea that everything is a system or a component of one. One should, Bunge says, take three aspects into account when analysing a system: composition, environment and structure. Society is an example of a system, and it ought to be analysed as such. Moreover, systemism requires that the scientist start with individuals as the prime movers of society, but that some irreducible concepts (for example, society) will be parts of the explanations. The social system is composed of four subsystems: (i) the biological or kinship system, (ii) the economic system, (iii) the political system, and (iv) the cultural system. These four subsystems work at different levels, and an individual’s actions, preferences and so on are conditioned by the system. The system is assumed to change due to changes in its environment, or due to conflicts within it.

The reader may see a certain resemblance between ‘systemism’ and the Parsonian system. As is well known, Parsons’ theory is about as dead as a sociological theory can be, but Bunge tries to save this mode of approach, for example, by allowing conflict into the system. The problem with Bunge’s theory is not that it is based upon overly strong assumptions (though one may debate these assumptions), but that the theory is meant to explain everything, and is therefore likely to end up explaining nothing, though it may be used as a point of departure for further analysis. As is the case with Parsons, one can learn from reading Bunge without necessarily agreeing with what he is saying. This is perhaps the lesson of Parsons: that when we threw the baby out with the bath water, not only did we get rid of Parsons’ theory, but also the theoretical sophistication that went with it.

In all, there are two major advantages to Bunge’s book. The first is the advocacy of a strong connection between philosophy, referring especially to philosophy of science, and the social sciences. The second is the number of topics covered by Bunge; most books in this field do not cover as many as this one, which means the reader gets an excellent overview of the field. Bunge’s book can in fact be used as a dictionary in the philosophy of the social sciences. Add to this that Bunge writes in a clear style (though he sometimes uses expressions from the discipline of logic). Furthermore, the reader does not have to know logic in order to understand Bunge’s points, because logic is only used as an alternative way of expressing the ideas presented in the text. Many distinctions are made, but the reader always has the freedom to pick those that are useful for his purposes. Generally speaking, Bunge writes with much insight, both when it comes to philosophy and social science, in particular sociology.

Finally, some problems with the book ought to be mentioned. One may criticize some of the topic presentations, which often end with a number of recommendations for how to conduct science. At one point, for example, Bunge presents a 17-step procedure for how to test the relation between theory and evidence. A more serious problem with the book is Bunge’s critique of the postmodernists, irrationalists and all those he disagrees with. It is obvious that Bunge dislikes the ideas of writers such as Fichte, Hegel and Derrida, and most notably Heidegger. The critique of Heidegger comes up every now and then, which makes it somewhat tiresome to read about it toward the end of the book. The book would have been better if Bunge had separated his general discussion of topics from his critique of various positions, and the presentation of his own position. As it is, they are all intertwined, and this makes everything less clear.


By Patrik Aspers, Stockholm University, Stockholm



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