Mario Bunge´s philosophy of social science

Philosophy of social science is not widely considered a crucial or even indispensable implement in the toolbox of practicing sociologists, economists, political scientists, and others. Among the good reasons for this absence is the fact that much philosophy of social science is not particularly relevant for the working social scientist. It is in many cases just another highly specialized field that is only tenuously connected to the concerns of those whose practice it purports to study. The three books reviewed in this essay represent notable exceptions to this rule.

Mario Bunge is a scientist’s philosopher of science. His works are not distant reflections of a philosopher who is far removed from the problems encountered by scientists in the field. Rather, in his studies, which also cover an astounding range of disciplines in the natural sciences, his approach is to describe and analyze scientific research, and identify and criticize its philosophical presuppositions. See Bunge’s Philosophy of Physics (Dordrecht: Riedel, 1973); with Martin Mahner, Foundations of Biophilosophy (Berlin/Heidelberg/New York: Springer, 1997); with Ruben Ardila, Philosophy of Psychology (New York: Springer, 1987). Unlike most philosophers of science, he works from the “inside out, ” taking as his point of departure the practice and problems of the disciplines he investigates.

At the same time, however, Bunge is also a philosopher’s philosopher of social science. His eight-volume Treatise on Basic Philosophy, (published between 1974 and 1989 by Reidel) his early work on causality, his later work on Scientific Materialism and The Mind-Body Problem, taken together constitute perhaps the most comprehensive and systematic philosophy of the twentieth century. Bunge’s philosophical mission is to help restore the unity of knowledge in an age when much of academic philosophy is divorced from the sciences, or has even turned against them, and when the unity of the sciences is threatened from within by their fast-paced growth and increasing specialization. In Bunge’s work, philosophy and science are part of the same project, and it is this that makes his philosophy of science of such general significance for the working scientist.

Bunge’s forays into the social sciences in the three books reviewed here should be placed in this larger context. Finding Philosophy in Social Science is a systematic application of his general philosophy of science. See Bunge’s Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, From Problem to Theory; Vol. 2, From Explanation to Justification, rev. ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1998). It starts by mapping out the various relationships between social science and philosophy. The first two parts of the book, “From Fact to Theory” and “From Explanation to Justification, ” could well serve as core reading for any foundation course in the social sciences. The first part explores, in Bunge’s usual compact and precise fashion, basic concepts such as pattern, causation, chance and chaos, social fact, concept and proposition, fuzziness and exactness, ideal type, approach and paradigm, problem, hypothesis, theory and model, reduction, and reductionism, to mention a few.

The second part explores basic concepts such as description, explanation, Verstehen, social indicator, reality check, applied science, technology, pseudo-science, and ideology, as well as the role of values and morals in social science. The third part of the book examines a large number of fundamental philosophical problems in social science, including individualism and holism, idealism and materialism, subjectivism and realism. It is also in this part that he presents his own systemic approach to social science, on which more below. In addition, this part contains powerful criticisms of many contemporary approaches in the social sciences, such as vulgar empiricism and crypto-empiricism, pragmatism, social constructivism, and relativism.

The final chapter is devoted to a brilliant and devastating critique of rational choice theory. Bunge leaves no doubt about his own position on all these fundamental problems. His is neither individualist nor holist but systemist. He defends an emergentist materialism against idealism and various forms of reductionist materialisms; ratio-empiricism against intuitionism, vulgar empiricism and pragmatism; and scientific realism against subjectivism, conventionalism and relativism. Notwithstanding the relevance of this book for social science, philosophers may generally feel more at home with it than social scientists. This is where the second book under review comes in.

Social Science under Debate surveys and assesses the entire range of major social science disciplines–sociology, economics, political science, cultural science, and history. The sheer scope of the literatures the author attempts to cover is brazenly ambitious and audacious, as most social scientists who struggle to keep up with the developments in their field will agree. Bunge’s highly critical discussion of major schools and approaches in the five disciplines is unlikely to make him new friends among the many social scientists who follow one or the other of the approaches he criticizes. No Kuhnian reassurances of “normal science” here. Nor will his roughly 40-page per discipline treatment make it difficult for opponents to dismiss his attempt as superficial and distorted. Yet Bunge pursues a particular purpose in his critical survey of the social sciences: to work towards a unified social science, and one that is better linked to its potential applications, that is, to social technology. Accordingly, the second part of the book takes on the applied disciplines devoted to sociotechnologies: action theory, law, management technology, normative economics, and large-scale social planning. As Bunge states in his Preface (p. x): “This book is not an impartial description and dispassionate analysis of the current state of the social sciences and sociotechnologies. Far from gloating over accomplishments, it focuses on flaws likely to be rooted in either mistaken philosophies or ideological dogmas.” Like his general philosophy of science, systematically applied and elaborated in Finding Philosophy in Social Science, Social Science under Debate is based on a systematic, coherent, and lucid philosophy. In fact, the author conveniently manages to sum up his “master ideas” in a dozen statements at the end of the Preface (p. xiii).

The third of Bunge’s books under review, The Sociology-Philosophy Connection, is somewhat narrower in scope. It combines elements of both works already discussed, but contains a number of previously published contributions that cannot be found in either. Of particular importance are the two chapters that introduce Bunge’s conception of mechanismic explanation, a crucial part of his social philosophy that is further discussed below. A third chapter is a discussion of quantification and measurement that is a gem for those of us too easily intimidated by social scientists wielding apparently sophisticated mathematical methods. Bunge’s report on instances of “pseudoquantitation” includes examples from the work of Vilfredo Pareto, Samuel Huntington, Gary Becker, and James Rosenau. In addition to another critique of rational choice theory, he takes to task Popper’s social philosophy, critical theory, phenomenology, ethnomethodology and interpretive anthropology, as well as the constructivist-relativist sociology of science. Fittingly, his final chapter is entitled “In Praise of Intolerance toward Academic Charlatanism.”

All three books reviewed here could individually serve as an introduction to the philosophy of social science and to the social philosophy of Mario Bunge. However, each offers specific elements not to be found in the others. Finding Philosophy in Social Science provides a systematic introduction to basic concepts used in all social sciences, as well as a survey and critique of widely held philosophical doctrines and assumptions. Social Science under Debate surveys five major social science disciplines and five types of social technologies. This book is particularly useful for those interested in problems of theory and practice, policy issues, and the relationship between ideology and science. Finally, The Sociology-Philosophy Connection is a general introduction to explanation in the social sciences, as well as a critique of some major social philosophies, approaches, and methods.

Bunge’s books on social science are chock-full of ammunition for anyone who wants to expose the philosophical fallacies in the work of intellectual opponents. To be sure, Bunge mercilessly exposes weak and erroneous assumptions in all philosophies, approaches, and disciplinary traditions. This alone constitutes an immense contribution to social science, yet would likely elicit the justified response from the criticized that demolition is always easier than construction. Bunge would agree. While his philosophy shares a great deal of common ground with the critical rationalism of Karl Popper (which Bunge dubs “logical negativism”), he is adamant that criticism, refutation, and falsification should not be overrated. “[E]xaggerating the importance of criticism at the expense of creation and analysis, or of observation and experiment, comes dangerously close to both scholasticism and skepticism, as well as to the fashionable view that all research is just discussion. After all, negative truths are more plentiful and thus cheaper than positive ones” (Sociology-Philosophy Connection, p. 127). It is one of the great strengths of Bunge’s philosophy of social science that in addition to powerful criticism, it offers a variety of constructive proposals for how to do better. By way of illustration, two of his fundamental ideas in this respect will be briefly discussed–systemism and mechanismic explanation.

A longstanding and unresolved philosophical debate in the social sciences is over the primacy of individualism or holism. Rational-choice theorists, for instance, are strict methodological individualists, whereas structural-functionalists are methodological holists. Their disagreements stem in part from fundamentally different conceptions of social reality. Is a society a whole transcending its members, or is a society simply an aggregate of persons? The methodological implications of this basic ontological disagreement are the source of unfruitful division and unfortunate confusion in the social sciences. Bunge’s solution to this problem, implicitly practiced by many who intuitively sense the inadequacies of both positions, is to reject yet affirm both. His dialectical solution is called systemism.

Systemism is an alternative to both individualism and holism. It accounts for both individual agency and social structure. It postulates that everything is a system or a component of one. It models every system in terms of composition, environment, and structure. It breaks down society into four major subsystems–biological or kinship system, economic system, political system, and cultural system. It can be applied at sub-national, national, and transnational levels of analysis. Above the level of societies organized within nation-states, there are regional “supersocieties” (e.g. the European Union) as well as the world social system. It is important to note that, unlike Parsonian systems theory, systemism is not a theory but only a framework or approach, “just a skeleton to be fleshed out with specific hypotheses and data” (Finding Philosophy in Social Science, p. 265). As such, it is not “static” or blind to processes of conflict and change. “[A]doption of the systemic approach will avoid the pitfalls and tunnel vision which the narrow specialist invariably falls into, incapable as he is of taking into account any features that are not studied in his field. In other words, systemism favors interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity. By the same token, it helps to avoid the costly mistakes made by the specialist–scientist or technologist, policymaker or manager–who overlooks most of the features of the real system he studies, designs, or steers” (Ibid., p. 266).

Mechanismic explanation, Bunge‘s second major contribution to the social sciences to be discussed here, should not be confused with mechanical explanations. “Whereas a few of the mechanisms studied by contemporary science and technology are mechanical, most are not. Indeed, there are mechanisms of many kinds: electromagnetic, nuclear, chemical, cellular, intercellular, ecological, economic, political, and so on. For example, inclusion and exclusion, conflict and cooperation, participation and segregation, coercion and rebellion, are conspicuous social mechanisms. So are imitation and trade, migration and colonization, technological innovation and the various modes of social control. … Any explanation involving reference to a mechanism may be said to be mechanismic” (The Sociology-Philosophy Connection, p. 18-19).

Mechanismic explanation differs from most standard modes of explanation employed in the social sciences: the neopositivists’ “covering law” model of scientific explanation, the interpretive approach of the hermeneutic or Verstehen school, as well as functional and teleological modes of explanation. “We define a social mechanism as a mechanism in a social system. Since every mechanism is a process in some system, a social mechanism is a process involving at least two agents engaged in forming, maintaining, transforming, or dismantling a social system. There are many types of social system: think, for example, of childless couples and extended families, streetcorner gangs and informal social networks, schools and churches, factories and supermarkets, economies and polities, and local governments and multinational blocs. Correspondingly, there is a large variety of social mechanisms” (Ibid., pp. 56-57).

The concept of mechanism should not be confused with the concept of system. “Note that our definition presupposes a distinction between system and mechanism: the latter is a process in a system. This distinction is familiar in natural science, where one is not expected to mistake, say, the cardiovascular system for the circulation of the blood or the brain with mental processes. But it is unusual in social studies…” (Ibid., p. 57). “Mechanism is to system as motion is to body, combination (or dissociation) to chemical compound, and thinking to brain” (Ibid., p. 58). In the systemic view, “agency is both constrained and motivated by structure, and in turn the latter is maintained or altered by individual action. In other words, social mechanisms reside neither in persons nor in their environment–they are part of the processes that unfold in or among social systems” (Ibid., pp. 57-58). “All mechanisms are system-specific: there is no such thing as a universal or substrate-neutral mechanism” (Ibid., p. 59).

There will be much to disagree with for social scientists from various disciplines and paradigms, if only because Bunge leaves virtually no stone unturned. More important, here is a philosophy of social science that is at once critical and constructive, unified and systematic, rooted in a thorough and deep understanding of contemporary science in general and the specific philosophical problems of social scientific research in theoretical and applied disciplines in particular, clear on the distinctions between social science and social technology, and explicit about the indispensable role of ideology, politics and morals in social studies. In short, Bunge’s work constitutes a landmark contribution to the social sciences.


Bunge, Mario. Finding Philosophy in Social Science. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996.

Bunge, Mario. Social Science under Debate. A Philosophical Perspective. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Bunge, Mario. The Sociology-Philosophy Connection. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1999.


By Andreas Pickel, Society


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