Dream of a Social Theory, part 2

(continued from yesterday)

What vindicates science? What makes its descriptions of the world valid?

Philosophers of science debate this question in essentializing terms. Whether it’s correspondence with an objective reality, or Bayesian confirmation, or something else, to a philosopher the idea of what validates science usually is equivalent to the question of what makes science true, as in, essentially true, and goes hand in glove with the question of what truth essentially is.

Myself, I try to turn away from essentialisms whenever I recognize them. To me, the question “what validates science?” means “what motivates people to accept the validity of science?”. That’s an empirical question; it’s a good scientific question. We could answer it with a survey. No doubt many kinds of factors would get cited: institutional prestige, the fact that we all learn it in school, Carl Sagan. But for the number one answer, both in terms of general public opinion and in terms of the people who actually pay for science, is: it gets stuff done.

I suspect that, in practice, what validates science is its contribution to practice. The natural sciences allow human beings to manipulate and control various bits of the nonhuman universe more effectively, predictably, and efficiently than otherwise. The radical praxis of science is that it makes the impossible, possible.

Social science has yet to achieve even one instance of this that I can think of. The theory I dream of would do precisely this. It would do more than just consolidate the knowledge we already have and make it easier for us to spot patterns, think of new experiments to try. It would tell us how to do something we’ve never done before.

But which something?


(Part 3 tomorrow)

14 thoughts on “Dream of a Social Theory, part 2

  1. I agree with you about science, and I also tend to agree with the view of truth it gives rise to: Truth is whatever we can come up with that seems to fit the facts most completely. In other words, essential truth may well be unknowable,and that’s fine. What we need is a truth that gets things done.

    But I disagree about social science. The problem here is that social science tends to blend with popular wisdom in a way that makes both the contributions of social science difficult to see and conflates it with old saws that are neither true nor scientific. But I think what we know about ourselves from social science has helped us to figure out how to get along with one another somewhat better and I think it has helped us find more effective responses to intense psychic pain. Psychotropic drugs are a better response to mental illness, for example, than burning at the stake. On the other hand, social science is in its infancy still, and that probably means that much of what we think of as true in this realm is probably not true. We have figured out–metaphorically–that the earth is round, but not that it rotates around the sun.


    • You make a good point. I should have written that social theory has yet to make this contribution. The applied human sciences have done better than their theory, I think.

      Part of what I’m trying to argue is that in the social sciences we have good analyses, which use theoretical concepts to help simplify and make sense of complex situations, but we don’t yet have good systemic theories which go beyond our practical experience. Does that make sense?


      • It does, and I agree with you. I also think sociology has done considerably better than some more traditional schools of psychology in terms of contributing useful theories to society. But the other problem is that social science frequently gives us theories we don’t want to hear, so we ignore it, and sound theories never make it into practical applications.

        I look forward to Part 3.


  2. I think you’ve essentialized philosophy of science. Some (e.g., Hacking) do focus both on the practices in science and the practices science makes possible. Some (maybe most?) Bayesians don’t talk about truth but rather talk about subjective confidence in beliefs. As a philosopher of science, one thing I can say with confidence is that there is no such thing as The philosophy of science.


    • I really must train myself to stay away from those kinds of broad generalizations when I’m not prepared to back them up. (Essentializing is like smoking: a hard habit to break!) Some philosophers of science do essentialize truth, or so it seems to me, and in particular the conflict between sociological proponents and philosophical opponents of the Strong Programme in the Sociology of Knowledge seemed to turn on anti-essentialism vs a defense of essentialism, so I think that is where my impression comes from. But plenty of sociologists also essentialize truth and, as you say, not all philosophers do, and it’s a mistake for me to characterize a whole field when I don’t have an argument to back up that characterization.


  3. I wonder whether essentializing is always bad. I’m thinking of this in the context of doing history. I tend to focus on the details, and when I read the broad narrative types of histories which include generalizations, they are always a bit false, but often useful anyways.


  4. So with respect to social commentary, observing trends can have both an essentializing component but also can usefully describe forces at work. I’m not expressing myself clearly since I have a cold.


    • Cool. What you’ve written raises a whole interesting set of question for me. I wonder if the type of generalizing you describe is quite the same thing as essentializing. As I imagine it, to essentialize is to ascribe a fixed set of attributes to some phenomenon and to locate those attributes outside of time and space.

      So, if that’s what we mean by the word, then to overgeneralize about a group or stereotype them at least resembles essentialism, but might not actually be identical with it; to stereotype someone is to speak as if one were essentializing, or to speak with an essentializing effect, without intentionally asserting that there is an essence.

      With respect to historical analysis, to, say, boil a complex situation down to a few key characteristics might only count as essentializing if one were to insist that those characteristics constitute the whole truth of the situation, and do so not by virtue of being historical causes but through a metaphysical relation (e.g. their abstract logic) which stands outside of history. Otherwise one is simplifying, perhaps oversimplifying, but not necessarily essentializing …

      Does this seem like a plausible use of the term ‘essentializing’ or am I off in left field, do you think?


  5. Seems plausible to me. I imagine you’d know better than I would what ‘essentializing’ means. I’ve heard it used in a variety of ways, from Aristotle’s concept of essences (which mostly fits your account, although I suspect Aristotle might have an objection to the “outside of time and space” aspect) to something that seems a bit looser. It isn’t a common term of art in my field.


    • Hm. Maybe I don’t know as much as I think I do about what it means. I would have thought that Platonic forms would be the paradigmatic case of essences. Now I’m worried that this is one of those terms that’s used negatively more often than affirmatively, like ‘political correctness’ or what have you.


  6. I don’t know about that. I’m not a Plato scholar. What I did read recently was that Plato considered his scientific account in the Timeaus a likely story (so plausible but fallible), but also that science isn’t in the business of supplying truths about the world because truths belong to forms rather than to material objects. The subjects of science participate in the forms to a greater or lesser extent, but not perfectly. So if forms are a paradigmatic case of essences, then essences don’t belong to science (at least, not on Plato’s view). My suspicion is that the historical use of the term ‘essence’ is related but not identical to the current use. I’m not sure how much that term gets used in philosophy these days (maybe in metaphysics, but that’s not my area).


    • Interesting. I’ll have to read the Timaeus one day. In any case, I’ll have to be more careful and explicit with how I use the word “essence”.

      Its use in social theory is fairly confused, I think. It seems to refer equally to clams about what I’d call metaphysical essences, e.g. claims about moral or logical truths that are held to obtain ahistorically, and claims that I’d more properly call biologically reductionist, e.g. claims about a biologically innate human rationality. The two types of claims do amount to much the same thing in practice, ie fixing the phenomenon in question and removing it from the domain of any kind of human agency or social structuration. But to me it feels messy.


  7. I like this sweeping statement a lot: “what validates science is its contribution to practice.” It gets past facticity issues with analytics and sets a higher bar (did anything come of your inquiry, other than your idea of an answer to your own question?).


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