Excerpts from Sherrat’s Continental Philosophy of Social Science

December 9, 2007

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.

Normativists vs. Naturalists

November 5, 2007

Here’s another way to frame this debate: the normativists (Rouse, Risjord, and Steuber) think that normativity plays some role in the generation of human behavior, and the naturalists (Turner, Henderson, and Roth) reject all such proposals as invoking the “supernatural.”

For the sake of argument, accept the naturalists’ view, but distinguish the what, how, and why of action, and note that their causal explanations can only really get at the how. But social sciences and social theory have to be concerned with the what and the why of action as well. In many cases, “how” is the least interesting aspect of human behavior.