Value in Social Theory: A Selection of Essays on Methodology

By Gunnar Myrdal; Paul Streeten | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER TWO
THE RELATION BETWEEN SOCIAL THEORY AND SOCIAL POLICY

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1. SOME HISTORICAL HINTS

I T might be useful to recall at the start that the social sciences have all received their impetus much more from the urge to improve society than from simple curiosity about its working. Social policy has been primary, social theory secondary. This holds true, of course, for the long ages from Aristotle onwards when the social sciences were still merged into the general speculation which we have later come to call moral philosophy. It also holds true for the period of the Enlightenment, when the social sciences made the decisive leap towards their modern development into full-fledged and gradually separated empirical disciplines. Looking close, one sees that they still remained, and to a considerable extent remain today, merely branches of the two dominant philosophies of Enlightenment: natural law and utilitarianism. It is an under-statement to say that at this early stage no clear distinctions between theory and policy are observed. In fact the absence of such a methodological distinction is only a negative characterization of these philosophies: in the former philosophy there is a direct identification of what is with what ought to be in the concept 'natural'; in the latter philosophy an indirect identification is implied in the assumption that 'happiness' or 'utility' both is and ought to be the sole rational motive for human action. Social values existed as facts and could be objectively ascertained. Social theory explained reality but, as values were real, at the same time defined rational social policy.

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Opening Address at the Conference of the British Sociological Association, 1953. Reprinted from The British Journal of Sociology, September, 1953, pp. 210- 242.

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