The History and Philosophy of Social Science

The History and Philosophy of Social Science

The History and Philosophy of Social Science

The History and Philosophy of Social Science

Excerpt

Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that ‘A science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost.’ Daniel J. Boorstin tells us that ‘An ample account of the rise of the social sciences would be nothing less than a survey of modern European history.’ If I shared these views without reserve, this book would not have been written, for, according to Boorstin, it would be well beyond my capacities and, according to Whitehead, it would constitute academic malpractice.

But perhaps Whitehead may be interpreted as meaning to say that ‘a science which worships its founders is lost’. With this I can wholly agree. A large part of the history of social science (and, for that matter, natural science as well) is a record of theories and inferences that we now believe to be wrong. To admire John Locke and Adam Smith, or Aristotle and Newton, for what they succeeded in doing in their time is warranted; to worship them uncritically as promulgators of eternal truths is not. This book has been written with the conviction that something of contemporary value can be gained from a study of the efforts of our forefathers to understand the nature of social life, even when they failed; and, indeed, we can learn more from their successes if we are aware of the weaknesses and limitations of theories that we regard, for the nonce, as true.

Daniel Boorstin’s remark is more difficult for me to cope with, for this book does not even approach being ‘a survey of modern European history’. Though I emphasize the strong orientation of social scientists to the economic, social, and political problems of their own times and places, I do not devote more space than is minimally necessary to considering the historical context of their work. Nor do I discuss the empirical work of social scientists, despite its prominence in the modern practice of these disciplines. My principal objective has been to maintain a strong focus on the flow of theoretical ideas in the history of social science, and to connect that history with issues in the philosophy of science. This book, long as it is, is only meant to be an introduction to a very large subject on which there are already many books and articles, and room for more.

Some readers who accept the pragmatic necessity of concentrating on theoretical ideas may nevertheless be surprised to find some things missing that

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