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November 2013

Methodology of the Human Sciences

Smith presents an overview of the philosophy of the human sciences.

As explained in last week’s essay, by “human sciences” I mean those specialized cognitive disciplines that are devoted to a sustained and systematic study of some aspect of purposeful human action. The human sciences may be divided into two broad categories. Using the standard terminology of Wilhelm Windelband (1848-1915), we have nomothetic disciplines, such as economics, that attempt to establish general laws; and idiographic disciplines, such as history, that deal with non-recurrent particulars.

I previously distinguished the human sciences from the natural sciences, on the one hand, and from philosophy, on the other hand. The distinction between the human sciences and the natural sciences is (as I shall argue in a later essay) necessitated by crucial methodological differences between the two kinds of inquiry, whereas the distinction between the human sciences and philosophy is largely as a matter of convenience.

I also use the term social science. By this I mean those nomothetic human sciences, such as economics and sociology, that attempt to formulate general concepts and principles that can be applied to a broad range of particular facts. The social sciences are theoretical disciplines, in contrast to the historical sciences, which seek knowledge of concrete human actions that occurred in the past. This is simply the distinction between nomothetic (or generalizing) sciences and idiographic (or individuating) sciences. This classificatory scheme has its problems, to be sure, especially since we find a good deal of overlap and fuzzy boundaries among the human sciences. (Moreover, it may seem odd to classify history as a “science” of any kind, but I must postpone discussing this problem until a later essay.)

The human sciences do not represent airtight compartments where each is insulated from the others by solid, prefabricated barriers. These disciplines were not designed as mutually exclusive categories or constructed according to a master plan. Rather, they developed over time, spontaneously and bit by bit, and were sometimes in conflict, as the champions of one discipline challenged the conclusions and supremacy of their competitors.

For example, Karl Marx (1818-1883) called on sociology and history to refute the widely accepted theories of classical economics. Descartes (1596-1560), a founder of modern philosophy, dismissed history as little more than story-telling, a product of the imagination that cannot yield reliable knowledge. Hegel (1770-1831), in contrast, treated history as a philosophical discipline of fundamental importance, one that enables us to discover the universal laws of historical development. When Auguste Comte (1794-1859) coined the word “sociology,” he offered it as the supreme human science, the pinnacle of man’s intellectual development; and he christened himself the Galileo of that science. Moreover, in his famous classification of the sciences, Comte failed to include economics (which he despised for its individualistic bias) and psychology (which he dismissed as unscientific because of its reliance on introspection). Little wonder, then, that many social philosophers greeted Comte’s universal human science with less than enthusiastic acclaim.

If we understand that the human sciences developed gradually, over many years, and sometimes in a competitive environment, we can appreciate why these disciplines do not exhibit neat logical structures in which the subject matter of each science is clearly delimited from the others. The human sciences, as they evolved historically, were piled on top of one another, so to speak, rather than developing alongside one another. And this piling-on resulted in a good deal of overlap, which in turn has led to a good deal of confusion and debate over their respective cognitive boundaries.

Let us now turn to an overview of methodology.

The Greek word for “method,” which appears to have been coined by Plato, suggests a path that leads to a desired destination. Similarly, Immanuel Kant defined “method” as “procedure according to principle.” A method in this sense is normative rather than descriptive. It prescribes how the practitioners of a given discipline ought to proceed if they wish to achieve their cognitive goal of attaining knowledge.

Methodology is the study of method—a systematic investigation of the subject matter, point of view, explanatory principles, epistemological ideals, and basic concepts of a given discipline. This suggests a broader concept of method than the one I just cited, which referred to rule-governed procedures. Indeed, “methodology,” as the term is used today, rarely concerns itself with the technical procedures of a particular science; such matters are wisely left to the collective judgment of specialists within that science. Nor is methodology restricted to the investigation of means, as if more fundamental issues, such as the type of knowledge appropriate to a given discipline, have already been established beyond reasonable doubt. The human sciences are rife with controversies over matters of fundamental importance, and those controversies fall within the jurisdiction of methodology. In short, methodology, or the philosophy of method, is concerned with the philosophical presuppositions and implications of a particular cognitive discipline, or science.

Methodology, therefore, is a philosophical undertaking, not a scientific one. One needn’t be an expert in the technical features of a science in order to reflect philosophically upon that science. Some of the best philosophers of method have been non-scientists, and technical proficiency in a particular science does not guarantee excellence or even competence in the field of methodology.

Here I must caution against a possible misunderstanding. In maintaining that methodology falls within the domain of philosophy rather than science, I am not suggesting that scientists should seek the advice, assistance, or approval of philosophers before they proceed with their business. It would be absurd to elevate professional philosophers to this imperious station. Any confusion here is caused by a failure to distinguish between philosophy as a professional discipline and philosophy as a cognitive discipline. The institutional division of intellectual labor, as we find in the modern university, assigns the label “philosopher” only to those who specialize in that field of study. But this does not mean that only certified academics are competent to engage in philosophical reasoning. Far from it. Every person may philosophize, more or less, to the degree that he or she thinks systematically about fundamental issues.

Hence the distinction between a science per se and a methodological analysis of that science, which is a philosophical undertaking, is by no means the same as the distinction between science and philosophy qua academic disciplines, or between the scientist and the academic philosopher. We are here concerned with the cognitive division of labor, and this pertains to different intellectual perspectives that may occur within the same person at different times. This is why the scientist need not defer to the professional philosopher when investigating the methodological problems of his science; the scientist need only step out of his role as scientist and view his specialty from a broader philosophical perspective.

It is often said that scientists can get along quite well without consulting what philosophers of science have to say about their disciplines. There is a good deal of truth in this statement, at least as it pertains to the natural sciences. A natural science (such as physics) normally operates within an established paradigm that has gained nearly universal acceptance among its practitioners—a dominant paradigm, to use Thomas Kuhn’s label. This is sometimes not true of the human sciences, however, which are frequently divided into conflicting schools of interpretation. Methodological disputes have been far more prevalent in the human sciences than in the natural sciences. Those debates often reflect profound disagreements over fundamental issues—such as whether there exists a distinct social entity (“society”) that is something more than the individuals who comprise it (methodological holism), or whether social entities are ultimately reducible to the actions, beliefs, etc., of individuals (methodological individualism). I shall discuss some of these controversies in subsequent essays.

According to the sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003), the prevalence of methodological debates in the social sciences “reflects the growing pains of an immature discipline.” Only the practitioners of a “fledging discipline” that is “haltingly moving toward scientific status” find it necessary “to laboriously spell out the logical grounds of their procedure.” A focus on methodology implies that an immature discipline is seeking “full status in the fraternity of the sciences.”

Essentially the same point has been made many times. The mathematician Henri Poincare’ (1854-1912) sarcastically remarked that natural scientists discuss their results, whereas social scientists discuss their methods. The economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) repeatedly insisted that methodological arguments have contributed nothing to the advance of economic science. The great Catholic scholar and historian Etienne Gilson (1884-1978) suggested that no true science ever began by wondering whether or not it is an authentic science. And the philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009) dubbed the social sciences (with the possible exception of economics) “would-be disciplines” that have yet to attain the credibility of the natural sciences.

The implication of such remarks is clear: Only an immature or a counterfeit science will be plagued by methodological disputes. Here we encounter the problem—or pseudo-problem—of what constitutes a legitimate science. This pseudo-problem evaporates when we agree to bestow the title of “science” on any specialized cognitive discipline. (This is the approach I took in my last essay.) The value of a cognitive discipline, by whatever name we call it, depends on its ability to generate knowledge, not on whether it can mimic the procedures of the natural sciences.

Methodological issues, as I said before, are fundamentally philosophical in nature. A specialized discipline, such as history or economics, cannot justify its own existence, nor can it delimit its sphere of inquiry, nor can it establish its relation to other sciences, nor can it vindicate its presuppositions. These are philosophical issues.

Thus, contrary to the tribe of critics, methodological controversies in the human sciences are not necessarily symptoms of immaturity. Rather, such controversies indicate that the human sciences, far more than the natural sciences, are closely related to philosophy. Fundamental disagreements in the human sciences reflect the lack of agreement that has always existed (and will always exist) in philosophy.

If the human sciences tend to focus on methodological issues, this is because they have close epistemological ties to philosophy itself; they are far more dependent on philosophical concepts than are the natural sciences. The human sciences investigate various aspects of human action, and our understanding of human action is inextricably linked to the idea of meaning. When we seek to analyze and understand the complex phenomena associated with meaning we enter the domain of philosophy. To the extent that the various human sciences concern themselves with the meaning of human action, they may be described as applied philosophical reasoning.

It may of course be said that a human science, such as economics, can arrive at justified conclusions without the aid of philosophy. Even if we grant this, however, such conclusions must be interpreted in the light of other knowledge pertaining to human action, and this is a distinctively philosophic enterprise. The human sciences focus on the same subject matter (human action in the broadest sense), but they do so from different perspectives. No single science can explain human action in all its complexity, so each science necessarily abstracts some features, focusing on them while omitting others. Only philosophy can integrate these diverse perspectives into a unified body of knowledge.

The economist (or sociologist or psychologist) who believes that his discipline can explain all that is worth knowing about human affairs suffers from a professional conceit, a cognitive myopia that often breeds a disdain for methodology. The academic who lives comfortably in his professional enclave, secure in the belief that his corner of the cognitive world is the entire universe, has little need for philosophy, which he regards as a descent into idle speculation. Philosophy, for this academic, is an irritating enterprise, one that might call into question his most cherished assumptions.

Methodology demands that we move beyond the narrow confines of a science and question the assumptions on which that science depends. This can be an unsettling enterprise, but it is essential if we wish to determine when social “scientists” are speaking nonsense—a fairly common occurrence, I am sorry to say.