The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences

The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences

The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences

The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences


In this captivating yet troubling book, Ian Shapiro offers a searing indictment of many influential practices in the social sciences and humanities today. Perhaps best known for his critique of rational choice theory, Shapiro expands his purview here. In discipline after discipline, he argues, scholars have fallen prey to inward-looking myopia that results from--and perpetuates--a flight from reality.

In the method-driven academic culture we inhabit, argues Shapiro, researchers too often make display and refinement of their techniques the principal scholarly activity. The result is that they lose sight of the objects of their study. Pet theories and methodological blinders lead unwelcome facts to be ignored, sometimes not even perceived. The targets of Shapiro's critique include the law and economics movement, overzealous formal and statistical modeling, various reductive theories of human behavior, misguided conceptual analysis in political theory, and the Cambridge school of intellectual history.

As an alternative to all of these, Shapiro makes a compelling case for problem-driven social research, rooted in a realist philosophy of science and an antireductionist view of social explanation. In the lucid--if biting--prose for which Shapiro is renowned, he explains why this requires greater critical attention to how problems are specified than is usually undertaken. He illustrates what is at stake for the study of power, democracy, law, and ideology, as well as in normative debates over rights, justice, freedom, virtue, and community. Shapiro answers many critics of his views along the way, securing his position as one of the distinctive social and political theorists of our time.


In medieval England there was a curious gap between the study and practice of law. From the thirteenth century to the seventeenth, the main language used for pleading in common law courts was Law French. It seems to have developed because Latin, the language of formal records, carried too much historical freight from Roman law for the peculiarities of English circumstances, whereas medieval English was insufficiently standardized for official use. Law French was a hybrid dialect, owing more to Picard and Angevin influences than to Norman French, in which French vocabulary was combined with the rules of English grammar. The common lawyers developed it for their pleadings in the courts, passing it down from generation to generation.

This evolving vernacular of the common law courts had little, if any, impact on the academic study of law. Latin was the language of jurisprudence in Oxford and Cambridge, and, although Law French could reportedly be learned in ten days or fewer, the professors of jurisprudence appear not to have thought it worth their while. This might have been, as Fortescue said, because Latin was the language of all scientific instruction. It might have been, as Blackstone claimed, because the civil law—taught and studied in Latin—was embraced in the universities and monasteries after the Norman Conquest but resisted in the

See J. H. Baker, “The Three Languages of the Common Law,” McGill Law Journal, Vol. 43 (January 1998), pp. 5–24.

Sir John Fortescue, De Laudibus Legum Anglie, S. B. Chrimes, ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1942 [c. 1460]), p. 114.

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