On Barry Hindess, Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences

By Shearmur, Jeremy | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, February 2011 | Go to article overview

On Barry Hindess, Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences


Shearmur, Jeremy, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Abstract

This article discusses Barry Hindess' strangely neglected Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences and, in particular, his critical engagement there with Karl Popper. It argues that while there are some minor flaws in his interpretation, Hindess raises an issue of the greatest importance. This concerns how it can be coherent to test theories on the basis of reports on observations which are taken to have theoretical content. Shearmur suggests that a response can, indeed, be offered from a "Popperian" theory of knowledge which rejects the idea that knowledge claims can be justified, and he reports briefly on what such an approach might look like.

Keywords

Popper, theory, observation statement, justification, metaphysics

The scope and quality of the work of Barry Hindess is remarkable. As other contributions to this collection testify, it is impressive just how widespread his interests are, and how suggestive his contributions have been. Hindess is, today, probably best-known for his recent work on Foucaultian themes, while those with longer memories might also recall his role, along with Paul Q. Hirst, in the constitution, exploration, and later the self-criticism of British Althusserianism.

In this short commentary, I will be largely concerned with an unjustly neglected product of this Althusserian period: Hindess's Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences. (1) Hindess' treatment of Karl Popper in this work has, as far as I know, received no attention at all. This I will attempt to remedy. While I think that some of what Hindess says is incorrect, I think that he raises a really key issue and that it and the entire volume are worth much greater attention than they have received to date.

Hindess's Critique: Some General Issues

In his Decline of Working Class Politics, Hindess refers briefly to his approach there as requiring understanding of both structure and of meaning. (1) "Here [he wrote], it will be argued that any explanation must be in terms both of the meanings ... behaviour has for the people concerned and of the social and political structure within which they act .... " With this I am in full sympathy. But if one takes such a view one needs to respond to criticism that Hindess implicitly made of it in his Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences. I will, here, be concerned with issues concerning the testability of claims about such meanings and structures, by way of a response to Hindess' discussion of Popper as a theorist of such testability. I might thus be seen as defending the early Hindess from his middle, Althusserian, self.

Hindess's criticism in that volume does not rest on Louis Althusser's ideas. Rather, it builds on Althusser's critical ideas about empiricism but in ways which are not affected by Hindess' subsequent critique of Althusser. Let us start with Hindess' description of his criticism in broad terms, in the "Introduction" to the volume.

First, Hindess--I think rightly--raises problems about the status of what is often taken to be the role that is to be played by philosophy or epistemology, as somehow able to tell us about the relationship between knowledge and the world, both authoritatively and as if from a God's-eye perspective. Hindess here raises a very important issue, to which philosophers and methodologists need to be able to offer a response. My own view would be that there is nothing wrong with offering such an account but not as a supposed justification of our approach. Rather, it would be an attempt to offer a coherent picture of what we take things to be like, which is then open to criticism and critical comparison with other views. To this I will return.

Second, Hindess complains that neo-Kantian philosophers' recourse to meaning as responsible for real-world phenomena is problematic. In part, he expresses concerns about the status of the metaphysical claims that underlie how neo-Kantians would see things. …

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