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Social science, history of philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

Article Summary

The history of social science can conveniently be divided into four uneven periods, starting with the beginnings of both western science and philosophy in the ancient Greek polis (city or state). It is fair to say, with qualifications, that the debate generated by the so-called Sophists, professional teachers of rhetoric in fifth-century Athens, established what would become the central questions for the future. The fundamental issue could be put thus: is society ‘natural’ or is it ‘conventional’, a historical product of human activities which vary across time and space? The Sophists, often abused in our standard histories, supported the conventional view. They held that even if it was anthropologically necessary that Homo sapiens live in societies, nature was silent about the character and ends of society. They thus defended what might be called ‘cultural relativism’. By contrast Aristotle argued that some men were ‘naturally’ slaves and that all women were ‘naturally’ inferior; therefore slavery and patriarchy were dictated by nature, a view that prevailed well into the early modern period.

Beginning in the sixteenth century we find a host of thinkers who reconceived the problem first raised by the Sophists. Many of them, for example, Hobbes, Rousseau and Adam Smith, held that ‘by nature’ humans had similar capacities and powers. Inequalities of power were ‘artificial’, wholly the result of historically established conventions. These writers also rejected the idea that society was a kind of natural community. For many of them, society existed by consent, the result of a contract.

The rejection of Aristotelianism was inspired by the Copernican revolution and the new physics of Galileo and Newton. This produced a self-conscious effort by early modern writers to articulate the idea of human science, modelled on the new physics. This critical idea was well put by the physiocrat Francois Quesnay: ‘All social facts are linked together in the bond of eternal, immutable, ineluctable, inevitable laws, which individuals and government would obey if they were once known to them’ (Randall 1940: 323).

The third period, roughly the nineteenth century, is then a battleground over both the idea of science and the idea of a human science. The paradigm provided by celestial mechanics was nearly overwhelming; even so, there was disagreement as regards its character, especially as regards the question of causality and explanation. Until very recently, ‘positivists’ have tended to prevail. That is, writers have followed Auguste Comte, who gave us the terms ‘positivism’ and ‘sociology’, and who held there were social laws which were to be analysed as ‘relations of invariable succession’: whenever this, then that.

As regards the possibility of a human science, consciousness and the problem of a free will raised the biggest questions. Materialists found nothing special about either; idealists did. Indeed a surprising amount of the most recent debates in the philosophy of the social sciences have their roots in these issues. If, as positivists insist, activity is governed by law, then what of human freedom? On the other hand, if humans have collectively made society and thus can remake it, then what is the nature of a human science?

Citing this article:
Manicas, Peter T.. Social science, history of philosophy of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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