Excerpts from Sherrat’s Continental Philosophy of Social Science

Yvonne Sherrat’s 2006 volume Continental Philosophy of Social Science: Hermeneutics, Genealogy, and Critical Theory from Greece to the Twenty-First Century has some passages the resonate interestingly with the naturalist-normativist debate. The core of her position is that the continental philosophies of social science are distinct from their analytic counterparts principally in having a humanitist orientation rather than a natural scientific one.

“…humanists hold that knowledge works through transmission. Understanding and knowledge are composed by the accumulation of voices handed down from the centuries. This contrasts with science’s ‘creative destruction’ approach where voices from the past are seen as holding false meanings, which need to be destroyed in order to allow new, objective knowledge to flourish…progress for humanists would be the accumluation of the knowledge from the past, not the transcendence or destruction of it. Science meanwhile holds the idea that the past contains undeveloped, primitive and indeed often false forms of knowledge” (p. 9).


“…humanism…holds a distinct notion of meaning from science. The human world is substantively meaningful for humanists and this includes the idea of ethical, aesthetic and even spiritual meanings…Society thus for humanists would be an intrinsically purpose-laden, ethically, aesthetically and spiritually valuable entity. This contrasts with a scientific notion of meaning, which is purely technical and pertains only to bare empirical facts. All other forms of human meaning are external, and maybe ‘tacked’ on as an ethical, aesthetic or indeed subjective addition” (p. 9)

This is a nice way of framing the issue, albeit one that might be too “supernaturalist” for at least some of the normativists (this seems very close to what Rouse himself says, at little less so to Risjord’s position, still less to Steuber’s). Let’s use this frame to look again at what’s at stake in the naturalist-normativist debate. The focuse for all participants seems to be on clarifying and grounding proper methodologies for the social sciences. It’s not clear to me that the naturalists consider it a criterion for this project that the resulting methods and implied ontologies be even consistent with other programs (scientific, philosophical, and “folk”) for understanding and explaining human behavior. I have in mind here, for instance, the broad sorts of conversations and disputes concerning right behavior (many of which occur in Western cultures under the headings “ethics” and “politics”) that seem to be part of the natural history of the human species across cultures, as well as the institutional practices of law-making, law enforcement, and trials that play such vital and prominent roles in most contemporary societies. In each sort of case not only do the people involved make normative claims, the clarification, justification, and rejection of such claims seems integral both to the specification of what sort of actions these people are engaged in and to the carrying out of those actions. But what can the naturalists say about such claims?

It seems to me that TRH simply don’t take such questions up. Perhaps they strike them as unscientific, and perhaps they are. It strikes me as essential to the task of philosophy, however, at least as I understand it, that such questions be addressed, if only to lead to a reductivist answer, i.e. that the discourses of ethics and the law are epiphenomenal to the flow of natural causality, a sort of illusion of social reason. TRH seem to feel that they’ve got RSR stuck on the horns of their dilemma, demanding that RSR clarify whether normativity is or is not causal — either way, the naturalists win. But TRH’s embrace of this dilemma seems to me to lead to absurdity.

So, perhaps the task here is simply to frame things so that this dilemma for the naturalists is made perfectly clear. I suspect that, forced to choose, they accept the epiphenomenalist charge, and like lies, this testimony will make baby Jesus cry. But forcing the issue this way seems to be the best way to advance the discussion. Otherwise, we’re just fighting on the naturalists’ chosen turf, and I question whether it’s the right turf.


5 Responses to Excerpts from Sherrat’s Continental Philosophy of Social Science

  1. Obiwanky says:

    Several points. First,the key paragraph is the second to last. But I don’t understand why this is the dilemma for the naturalists; why isn’t it the dilemma for the normativists?

    Second, the idea of causality you discuss seems very Humean to me. Hume notes that we have laws and ethics as causes to people’s behavior. And this certainly makes sense of motivation. Motivation is a cause. But it is also normative. (See my latest post on http://nicholasphilosophy.blogspot.com/) But Hume is also the key to understanding the positivists. So if the naturalists are Humeans this leads credence to the idea of your last post that nothing separates THR from the positivists.

    Third, it seems to me that this discussion needs to be broader. Sorry, but to me the discussion of practices should not and cannot adequately take place outside of a discussion of tradition. Practices occur within traditions. If THR don’t see this, then they cannot give an adequate account sociologically or scientifically of what a practice is, IMHO.

  2. mrsaturdaypants says:

    The dilemma in the next-to-last paragraph is the point that’s akin to the one you drew from Taylor in your previous comment. The naturalists are left, it seems to me, having to consider all normative talk (including that which occurs in everyday life) as epiphenomenal to the causal operations that generate human behavior. The normativists see a role for norms in the causation of behavior, so this isn’t a dilemma for them.

    I think you’re probably right about Hume. I’ll check out your post.

    As for your other claim: what’s a tradition?

  3. Obiwanky says:

    A tradition is what I say it is….

    Oh wait, you want a serious answer. A tradition is a set of arguments with insiders and outsiders about fundamental agreements in a socio-historical context. Not much help, is it, but that’s the best one I’ve seen.

    It might be easier to say that a traditions consists of a cosmology, key terms and concepts, standards of reason, practices, and a conception of the good or values. Everything is inter-related. So you understand the concepts through the practices and the practices through the concepts. I can’t really understand transubstantiation without understanding the practice of communion among Roman Catholics.

    Or perhaps an example more akin to you: in the (fantastic) movie Blast from the Past, Brendan Frazer’s character had been raised in a sealed off time capsule for 30 years. His dad explains baseball to him, but Fraser doesn’t understand what a forced out is. Until he sees the game being played! A forced out — key term — is only understandable within the practice of baseball.

    Here’s where, I think, MacIntyre gets a little loosey-goosey, because he told me that fly-fishing was a tradition. But I would consider fly-fishing a practice.

  4. Tiepolo says:

    An excellent excerpt, thank you. It touches rather nicely upon the erklarung-verstehen distinction that is forgotten by so many who try to squeeze the social sciences through the methods of physics and chemistry.

  5. mrsaturdaypants says:

    Thanks Tiepolo. I’m making my way slowly through Alison Wylie’s Thinking Through Things now, and she makes the case for grounding the philosophy of social science in actual social sciences such as archaeology (her own preference) rather than natural sciences such as physics and chemistry. I couldn’t agree more.

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