Laws and Explanation in the Social Sciences: Defending a Science of Human Behavior

Laws and Explanation in the Social Sciences: Defending a Science of Human Behavior

Laws and Explanation in the Social Sciences: Defending a Science of Human Behavior

Laws and Explanation in the Social Sciences: Defending a Science of Human Behavior


The first full-length defense of social scientific laws to appear in the last twenty years, this book upholds the prospect of the nomological explanation of human behavior against those who maintain that this approach is impossible, impractical, or irrelevant. By pursuing an analogy with the natural sciences, McIntyre shows that the barriers to nomological inquiry within the social sciences are not generated by factors unique to social inquiry, but arise from a largely common set of problems that face any scientific endeavor. All of the most widely supported arguments against social scientific laws have failed largely due to adherence to a highly idealized conception of nomologicality (allegedly drawn from the natural sciences themselves) and the limited doctrine of "descriptivism." Basing his arguments upon a more realistic view of scientific theorizing that emphasizes the pivotal role of "redescription" in aiding the search for scientific laws, McIntyre is optimistic about attaining useful law-like explanations of human behavior.


Are there laws in social science? If so, can they be used for the explanation of human behavior? This issue has been at the heart of the philosophy of social science since its inception. the emulation of the models of explanation drawn from natural science has long framed the aspirations of social scientists. in the philosophy of natural science, Carl G. Hempel and others have made a case for the role of laws in the explanation of scientific phenomena. of course, there has been controversy over the adequacy of specific accounts. But in the philosophy of social science what has been most controversial is the attempt to extend nomological models to explanation in the social sciences.

The status of laws in the explanation of human behavior is the methodological question in the philosophy of social science. To what extent can social science make use of laws in the explanation of social events? Are there barriers preventing such laws? Can they be overcome?

These issues have been much discussed (though little developed) in the literature. For it is usually antecedently believed that social science cannot use laws, and the nature of the debate about them has largely—in recent years—consisted of disagreement over the adequacy of each attempted inference to the best explanation for why there are in fact no social scientific laws. the issue, therefore, doesn't seem to be whether there are or could be laws. Rather, the debate is over finding the right peg upon which to hang the failure of social scientists to produce them. the concern is whether we have isolated the correct reason for why they could not be given. So the argument about the barriers to nomological explanation in the social sciences comes for the most part after the fact and is concerned with justifying an antecedent belief that laws are either impossible, impractical, or irrelevant. and no matter what the outcome of this debate, many believe the result will be the same: Laws will not be forthcoming.

By and large, since roughly the time of John Passmore's announcement of the "death of positivism" in his article in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a defense of social scientific laws has been out of fashion; we have stopped believing in the feasibility of social scientific laws, and it has become an academic exercise to find the cause of their failure. the Doctor of Philosophy arrives too late to save the patient, but he is happy to perform the postmortem.

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