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Naturalism in social science

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R011-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 14, 2024, from

Article Summary

Naturalism is a term used in several ways. The more specific meanings of ‘naturalism’ in the philosophy of social sciences rest on the great popular authority acquired by modern scientific methods and forms of explanation in the wake of the seventeenth-century scientific revolution. For many of the thinkers of the European Enlightenment and their nineteenth-century followers the success of science in uncovering the laws governing the natural world was used as an argument for the extension of its methods into the study of morality, society, government and human mental life. Not only would this bring the benefit of consensus in these contested areas, but also it would provide a sound basis for ameliorative social reform. Among the most influential advocates of naturalism, in this sense, was the early nineteenth-century French philosopher Auguste Comte.

The authority of the new mechanical science, even as an account of non-human nature, continued to be resisted by romantic philosophers. However, the more limited task of resisting the scientific ‘invasion’ of human self-understanding was taken up by the Neo-Kantian philosophers of the latter part of the nineteenth century, in Germany. Followers and associates of this tradition (such as Windelband, Rickert, Dilthey and others) insist that there is a radical gulf between scientific knowledge of nature, and the forms of understanding which are possible in the sphere of humanly created meanings and cultures. This view is argued for in several different ways. Sometimes a contrast is made between the regularities captured in laws of nature, on the one hand, and social rules, on the other. Sometimes human consciousness and self-understanding is opposed to the non-conscious ‘behaviour’ of non-human beings and objects, so that studying society is more like reading a book or having a conversation than it is like studying a chemical reaction.

Citing this article:
Benton, Ted. Naturalism in social science, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R011-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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