Social sciences, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R047-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 18, 2020, from

1. Historical approach

There are, perhaps, four distinct ways in which to gain an understanding of the subdiscipline. These ways are, of course, complementary. First, just as with most other areas of philosophy, one might approach the philosophy of the social sciences historically, by studying major schools or philosophers of an earlier period. There is much to recommend this approach (see Social science, history of philosophy of). There are a number of classical texts (by Weber and Durkheim, for example) of which any interested student of the philosophy of the social sciences should be aware, much as there is in epistemology or ethics. This provides an interesting contrast with the philosophy of the natural sciences; far less could be said in favour of gaining an understanding of the latter in this way.

Compared with other areas of philosophy, the history of the philosophy of the social sciences is somewhat truncated, since it can only begin properly with the earliest attempts at social science, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, first in the Scottish Enlightenment and subsequently in Germany. Prior to this period, there had been speculation about the nature of society, some of it quite rich and rewarding (Hobbes and Vico provide two examples of this), but it is only in the period of the Scottish Enlightenment and after that writers begin to reflect the first systematic attempts to study and understand society.

There is no clear line of demarcation between philosophers of social science and of society on the one hand and social theorists on the other, especially in this early period. Conventionally, to select only a few examples, G.W.F. Hegel, Wilhelm Dilthey, F.H. Bradley and T.H. Green are considered to be examples of the former, and Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and Max Weber, are considered as examples of the latter, but the line is sometimes somewhat arbitrary (see Hegel, G.W.F.; Marx, K.; Dilthey, W.; Bradley, F.H.; Green, T.H.; Smith, A.; Durkheim, É.; Weber, M.).

Citing this article:
Ruben, David-Hillel. Historical approach. Social sciences, philosophy of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R047-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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