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Nov 5, 2013

What are the Human Sciences?

Defending freedom requires an interdisciplinary approach, so in this column George H. Smith turns to the “human sciences”—and also to a definition of science itself.

My series on “Excursions into the History of Libertarian Thought” has officially come to a close, so I am now free to write essays on a broader range of topics. Future essays will sometimes focus on philosophical rather than on strictly historical issues. The present essay is a general introduction to the human sciences; subsequent essays will deal with a number of methodological issues and debates in the human sciences, and may eventually discuss the contributions of various social theorists, such as Max Weber, Alfred Schutz, Ludwig von Mises, and F.A. Hayek. Details will depend on the mood I happen to be in when I sit down to write.

I write these essays on the human sciences in the firm conviction, which was impressed upon me decades ago by Walter E. Grinder (then Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Institute for Humane Studies), that a satisfactory understanding and defense of freedom require an interdisciplinary approach.

What we now call the human sciences (economics, sociology, etc.) were traditionally known as the moral sciences. “Moral,” in this context, referred to man’s rational agency—i.e., to his ability to reason, to formulate general principles, and to act upon those principles in pursuit of chosen goals. The fact that human action is purposeful and volitional was seen as crucial to the distinction between the moral sciences and the natural sciences (such as physics), which investigate the deterministic behavior of physical phenomena. In this classificatory scheme, physiology, anatomy and similar disciplines, though they include human beings as part of their subject matter, are natural sciences rather than moral sciences because they focus on man as a physical organism rather than as a rational agent.

The label “moral science” has not been used much since the nineteenth century, mainly because “moral” now suggests a normative discipline, such as ethics, in which actions are evaluated as right or wrong. It is to avoid potential confusion between prescriptive and descriptive disciplines that “moral science” has been largely abandoned by modern theorists, and I shall follow their lead. In this and in subsequent essays I shall usually refer to any discipline that studies purposeful human action as a “human science.”

The term “human sciences” was popularized, if not actually coined, by the brilliant German philosopher and social theorist Wilhelm Dilthey. In his Introduction to the Human Sciences (1887), Dilthey wrote:

What is contained in the concept of science is generally divided into two subdivisions. One is designated by the name ‘natural science,’ while for the other there is, curiously enough, no generally accepted designation. I shall follow those thinkers who refer to this second half of the globus intellectualis by the term Geisteswissenschaften.

According to Dilthey, the word Geisteswissenschaften, which is usually translated into English as “human science,” became popular in Germany after the extensive circulation of John Stuart Mill’s A System of Logic, which contains a classic discussion of the methodology of psychology and the social sciences. It is interesting to note that Mill used the traditional term “moral science” as a general label for these fields of study, but this English expression was translated into German as Geisteswissenschaften, which in turn was retranslated into English as “human science.”

Dilthey was not altogether happy with this label, because the Geist in Geisteswissenschaften means “spirit” or “mind,” so a literal translation would read “the science of mind.” And this conveys an unduly narrow conception of what is studied by the human sciences, which are concerned with the totality of human action and its social manifestations. Nevertheless, Dilthey decided to accept this expression as the “least inappropriate” among the others available to us, including “social science,” “sociology,” “moral science,” and “cultural science.” Again quoting Dilthey:

All of these designations suffer from the same fault of being too narrow relative to their subject matter. And the name chosen here has at least the advantage of appropriately characterizing the central sphere of facts in terms of which the unity of these disciplines was actually perceived, their scope outlined, and their demarcation from the natural sciences established, no matter how imperfectly.

The human sciences evolved as they did historically, and were contrasted with the natural sciences, because it was believed that man’s consciousness endows him with unique characteristics and powers that set him apart from other physical and biological entities. And it was further believed that man’s ability to reason and to choose among alternatives generates the need for a unique method, one distinct from the natural sciences, in formulating a science of man and society. Therefore, the literal translation of Geisteswiffenschaften as “science of mind” properly refers, not merely to the study of human consciousness (which is the domain of psychology), but rather to its many implications for the study of human beings in general, especially in the realm of social interaction. And this broader meaning of Geisteswiffenschaften is captured in its customary translation as “human science.”

(Aside from the antiquated “moral science,” the closest competitor to “human science” as a satisfactory label is “cultural science”—a term that was used by the celebrated sociologist Max Weber, among others. “Culture,” in this context, signifies anything that results from human ingenuity and effort, that realm of the natural world that has been modified and transformed by human action.)

The division of science into two broad categories, the human and the natural, depends upon, and presupposes, certain philosophical views about human beings and their similarities and differences with the rest of nature. Why should we differentiate the human sciences from the natural sciences in the first place? If man is a part of nature—as Dilthey and other champions of the human sciences freely admitted—then why drive a methodological wedge between the study of man and the study of nature? Why not simply speak of the natural sciences and subsume the study of human beings under this general heading?

These and similar questions have been debated for many decades, and I shall deal with some of them in subsequent essays. For now I wish to note that such questions are methodological in character. They fall within the domain of the philosophy of science, a discipline that subjects the concepts and procedures of the special sciences to philosophical analysis.

Every science can be viewed from a philosophical perspective, or point of view. This perspective may be illustrated by picturing a number of circles, each of which represents a particular human science. Suppose that we are situated somewhere on the circumference of the circle that represents economics. If we look into the circle—i.e., into the special subject matter of economics—then we are functioning as economists. If, however, we turn around and look outside our circle, in an effort to see where economics is located relative to other circles, and whether there is any overlap between the circle of economics and the other sciences, then we are functioning as philosophers.

A scientist, therefore, is a person with his face turned inward, focusing on the subject matter of his science. A philosopher of science is a person with his face turned outward, focusing on the relationship and connections between his science and other sciences. The difference between a scientist per se and a philosopher of science is a matter of intellectual perspective.

Thus far I have used the word “science” without attempting to define it. This is a tricky subject, because “science,” as used today, has strong value connotations. It is an honorific term, a label with social prestige. Scientific knowledge carries greater authority than our everyday opinions based on common sense. Scientific knowledge presumably has been tested and retested for accuracy by objective procedures, known collectively as “the scientific method.”

Though many people associate the word “science” with the natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry, the Latin word scientia originally referred to any organized body of knowledge. Thus philosophy and its various branches, such as ethics, were regarded as sciences.

Largely for the sake of convenience, I shall adopt a definition of “science” that is at once narrower than the classical conception and broader than the modern conception. I shall define “science” as any specialized cognitive discipline. In this context, “cognitive” means “knowledge-yielding,” while “discipline” refers to a kind of inquiry that is sustained and systematic. Thus a science is a sustained and systematic effort to acquire knowledge— but it is more. It is also specialized. A science has a delimited field of inquiry—a particular subject matter and/or point of view that sets it apart from other sciences.

As here defined, science differs from philosophy. Although philosophy is a cognitive discipline, it does not deal with a specialized subject matter. Philosophy does not section off part of the world, whether natural or human, and study it to the exclusion of everything else. Philosophy is the most fundamental kind of human inquiry and, consequently, it is also the most generalized. Philosophy deals with fundamental concepts, such as existence, causality, and value. As it pertains to the sciences, philosophy investigates the meaning of scientific concepts, the nature of the scientific method, the definitions of particular sciences, and how those sciences are related one to another.

A similar view of philosophy and its relationship to the sciences was expressed by Henry Sidgwick, an eminent nineteenth-century British philosopher. In Philosophy: Its Scope and Relations, Sidgwick argued that philosophy takes all of human knowledge for its province; and it attempts to integrate the knowledge acquired by the special sciences into a comprehensible system of thought. This view, which was probably influenced by the work of Herbert Spencer, was put by Sidgwick as follows:.

[I]f we conceive the sciences as sets of connected knowledge, and imagine them as rising from the particular to the general, we may consider these sets in their turn as connected by Philosophy at the higher end. Philosophy, therefore, deals not with the whole matter of any science, but with the most important of its special notions, its fundamental principles, its distinctive method, its main conclusions. Philosophy examines these with the view of co-ordinating them with the fundamental notions and principles, methods and conclusions of other sciences….

The important distinction is that the Sciences concentrate attention on particular parts or aspects of the knowable world, abstracting from the rest; while it is, in contrast, the essential characteristic of Philosophy that it aims at putting together the parts of knowledge thus attained into a systematic whole; so that all methods of attaining truth may be grasped as parts of one method; and all the conclusions attained may be presented, so far as possible, as harmonious and consistent.

John Stuart Mill, whose writings on the methodology of the human sciences still repay close study, held a position similar to that of Sidgwick and Spencer, but he put it somewhat differently. The philosophy of science, Mill believed, is concerned with the logic of science, that is, with establishing the methodological principles that link one science to another. Quoting Mill:

The proper meaning of philosophy we take to be, what, in the main, the ancients understood by it—the scientific knowledge of Man, as an intellectual, moral, and social being. Since his intellectual faculties include his knowing faculty, the science of Man includes everything that man can know, so far as regards his mode of knowing it; in other words, the whole doctrine of the conditions of human knowledge. The philosophy of Science thus comes to mean the science itself, considered not as to its results, the truths which it ascertains, but as to the processes by which the mind attains them, the marks by which it recognizes them, and the co-ordinating and methodizing of them with a view to the greatest clearness of conception and the fullest and readiest availability for use; in one word, the logic of the science.

In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon, a pioneer in the philosophy of science, used the metaphor of a tree and its branches to illustrate the connection between philosophy and the sciences. The sciences, according to Bacon, do not intersect at a common point but are like branches of the same tree—the tree in this case being philosophy. It is through philosophical reasoning and analysis that we impart a logical structure to the various sciences, establish their similarities and differences, interpret their conclusions, and locate their positions in the total universe of human knowledge.