Home > Uncategorized > Social science — a plaidoyer

Social science — a plaidoyer

from Lars Syll

One of the most important tasks of social sciences is to explain the events, processes, and structures that take place and act in society. But the researcher cannot stop at this. As a consequence of the relations and connections that the researcher finds, a will and demand arise for critical reflection on the findings. To show that unemployment depends on rigid social institutions or adaptations to European economic aspirations to integration, for instance, constitutes at the same time a critique of these conditions. It also entails an implicit critique of other explanations that one can show to be built on false beliefs. The researcher can never be satisfied with establishing that false beliefs exist but must go on to seek an explanation for why they exist. What is it that maintains and reproduces them? To show that something causes false beliefs – and to explain why – constitutes at the same time a critique.

bhskThis I think is something particular to the humanities and social sciences. There is no full equivalent in the natural sciences since the objects of their study are not fundamentally created by human beings in the same sense as the objects of study in social sciences. We do not criticize apples for falling to earth in accordance with the law of gravity.

The explanatory critique that constitutes all good social science thus has repercussions on the reflective person in society. To digest the explanations and understandings that social sciences can provide means a simultaneous questioning and critique of one’s self-understanding and the actions and attitudes it gives rise to. Science can play an important emancipating role in this way. Human beings can fulfill and develop themselves only if they do not base their thoughts and actions on false beliefs about reality. Fulfillment may also require changing fundamental structures of society. Understanding of the need for this change may issue from various sources like everyday praxis and reflection as well as from science.

Explanations of social phenomena must be subject to criticism, and this criticism must be an essential part of the task of social science. Social science has to be an explanatory critique. The researcher’s explanations have to constitute a critical attitude toward the very object of research, society. Hopefully, the critique may result in proposals for how the institutions and structures of society can be constructed. The social scientist has a responsibility to try to elucidate possible alternatives to existing institutions and structures.

In a time when scientific relativism is on the march, it is important to keep up the claim for not reducing science to a pure discursive level. Against all kinds of social constructivism we have to maintain the Enlightenment tradition of thinking of reality as something that is not created by our views of it and of the main task of science as studying the structure of this reality. Ontology is important. It is the foundation for all sustainable epistemologies.

The problem with positivist social science is not that it gives the wrong answers, but rather that in a strict sense it does not give answers at all. Its explanatory models presuppose that the social reality is closed, and since social reality is fundamentally open, models of that kind do not explain anything of what happens in such a universe.

  1. Ikonoclast
    June 17, 2020 at 1:27 am

    Thank you, Lars Syll. That is a brilliant short essay and entirely correct in its pleading, in my opinion.You make several salient points of which two of the most important are:

    (1) “The social scientist has a responsibility to try to elucidate possible alternatives to existing institutions and structures.”

    This amounts to a plea for a “comparative social science of future possibilities” not just comparative studies of extant or historical socioeconomic systems. All comparative possibilities will remain hypotheses until tested but will exist as platforms for debate and taking testing, exploratory or initiating actions. This process is absolutely necessary as otherwise we remain condemned to being entirely reactive as rolling crises assail our socioeconomic system. The reality of feed-back lags everywhere in large complex systems, both social and biophysical (in the climate system as an example of the biophysical) mandates proactive action based on prediction.

    (2) “Ontology is important. It is the foundation for all sustainable epistemologies.”

    Absolutely! This is spot on! One can make pleas to conventional economists to reconsider or at least explicitly expound and justify their implicit ontology. These pleas land on deaf ears. One gets ignored or pilloried by the orthodox (and sometimes even parts of the heterodox) economic community for making for such pleas and/or for attempting to advance an ontological critique of economics.

    An inability to begin a discussion on agreed grounds comes down to differences in adopted ontology. The economic ontologies of different schools, as sets of ontological assumptions, impliciit or explicit, are often antithetical. As I see it, a simple definition of an ontology is that it is a set of assumptions about what is real and what is not real. If we cannot agree what is real and not real, at base, then we cannot get anywhere in intellectual debate or empirical investigation. There are of course nuances and gradations to a binary judgement of real / not real but more of that later.

    Specifically, a developed ontology deals with what it asserts are realities fundamental to a given discipline, These fundamental building blocks, processes and observed regularities as fundamental laws, are taken to be the grounds which allow us to build a knowledge system or asserted knowledge system about the subject area; one with explanatory power, predictive power and finally pragmatic power to manipulate things via the cause and effect model.

    As one example, the periodic table is a now “settled” part of the ontology of physics and chemistry. As another example, the humors theory of disease was a pre-modern theory of disease and it did not permit genuine progress in fighting many diseases because it was wrong about base object existents relevant to medicine as a research and applied discipline. The germ theory of disease was made possible by advances in optical instrument design and then by empirical research of the microscopic world. The germ theory of disease (developed as an ontology) permitted advances in reseaching and then treating diseases of pathogenic origin.

    A rule of thumb is that if one does not get the ontology of a discipline correct, then no real progress will ever be made. The discipline will remain a mess. Conventional economics is such a mess. And it’s not even a “hot mess” except to those practitioners enamored with its elegant mathematics of false quantification. In its defense, economics is a particularly difficult discipline with an unresolved and difficult to resolve ontology. Consequently it is done particularly badly. Economics is a difficult discipline because it involves multiple complex interactions, including multiple feed-back interactions of the real and the notional in a way that the hard sciences do not.

    The hard sciences use word explanations (at times and at least for explanatory purposes ) and mathematical models but the rules or axioms of math and math models do not enter into the reactions and interactions of the fundamentals and their fundamental law relation, in the theory and practice of the hard sciences. You noted this with the apple example in your essay. Good scientific models remain entirely descriptive (seeking to explain and systematize empirical observations and to discover fundamental laws). Economics uses word explanations and also mathematics and mathematical models but in a different manner. The words and math are both prescriptive and descriptive. Economics both prescribes and describes.

    The difference is seen in that economics prescribes some rules for the subject matter of its “operational field” or its objective disciplinary arena. The hard sciences do not and cannot prescribe rules for the subject matter of the “operational field” or objective disciplinary arena. Both disciplines do prescribe “rules of method” (methodology) for their discipline but prescribing rules of method is not the same as prescribing rules for the subject matter of the objective disciplinary arena itself. Modern hard science prescribes a large set of scientific measurement standards, methods, experimental design principles, observation standards and peer review rules. Modern science does not tell the fundamental realities of its objective disciplinary arena to behave in a certain way. It does not and cannot tell sub-atomic particles to stop behaving in a non-classical manner, for example.

    Economics however makes both methodological rules and fundamental rules (not fundamental laws) for its objective disciplinary arena or field of investigation. Economics prescribes the field before it describes the field. An extant economy is an outcome of both fundamental laws, meaning the fundamental laws of the physical (or monistic) real world, as affecting the real economy, and of human rule sets as legal laws, regulations, customs, institutions, ethics and mores. Certainly, modern economics did not make all these latter “items”. Much of that list has evolved historically and socioeconomically. But modern societies have become ever more self-reflective about their legal laws, regulations, customs, institutions, ethics and mores (their rules in other words) especially through the comparative disciplines like comparative religion, comparative ideology, comparative sociology, comparative economics, gender studies and so on. In terms of what is “socially imaginable” the arena widens for modern socioeconomics (along with the other “soft science” disciplines) to innovate new rules of human social and economic conduct.

    The evolution of money and our rules about money is a case in point. As we change our rules about money (prescribe new rules) this changes the economy itself. The formal and nominal (ownership rules, financial rules and the numéraire itself interact with the real world to generate new forms of the real economy. Extant rules and novel rules enter into the subject field to condition it and mutate it. Money is not neutral, financial rules are not neutral and so on. The interaction of the formal and/or nominal with the real is mediated by agents of course, meaning by real human beings who are rule-obeyers and rule-disobeyers (called making up your own rules). In full, humans, as agents, can be regarded as rule-makers, rule-takes and rule-breakers.

    This larger conception of what human agents do and can do is still complex system science and information science based and it stands in contradistinction to the cruder conception of humans as agents who only act as rank dependent expected utility maximizers through market operations. The rank dependent expected utility model might still prove useful (I believe but I don’t any expertise in that area) but it must be applied not only to market theory but also to rule-innovation theory which crudely we could call anything from “moral entrepreneurship” to “legislative capture” or “regulatory capture” (as humans operate as rule-innovating. rule-evolving, rule-mutating and rule-ssubverting agents). This reintroduces the political and gives us back political-economics or political economy as the true subject arena.

    In a future post on this or another topic, I will get back to the money, markets and finance obsession of orthodox and some heterodox economics. My critique lies in squarely in the arena of criticizing money and market economics for its obsession that the nominal is somehow “more real than the real” and that manipulation of its nominal quantities is the way to measure and manage the real, the real society of real people and the real environment.The accelerating collapse of the environment and climate is the clear empirical proof that conventional and money and market economics is a false system, based on false beliefs, and propped up by a false ontology. It is demonstrably wrong at every level; empirically provably so.

    • June 17, 2020 at 10:57 am

      So Lars says “Explanations of social phenomena must be subject to criticism, and this criticism must be an essential part of the task of social science”. Ikonoclast says ““The social scientist has a responsibility to try to elucidate possible alternatives to existing institutions and structures.” Two sides to the same story, though I myself incline towards the second.

      Ike also says: “This larger conception of what human agents do and can do is still complex system science and information science based”. This what I’ve been saying, but I’ve struggled to get across the point that computing science is not just about programming but about the programming rearranging the wiring. Perhaps if we can agree on the fundamental difference between physics (energy-based) and information (message- rather than sometimes false meaning -based) we could agree that complex system science is about both?

      • Ikonoclast
        June 18, 2020 at 9:38 am

        Actually that was a quote of Lars Syll. He wrote that and I quoted him… wiv propa quotes and everyfink, m8! Didjya miss ’em? ;)

      • Ikonoclast
        June 18, 2020 at 9:47 am

        Actually, I was interested in this piece of your wisdom, davetaylor1: “programming rearranging the wiring”. I think that’s a good insight and I take it to mean that the development of computer science and programming fed back into circuitry design considerations and informed that field. It made me think of the “plastic brain” or neuroplasticity.

        “Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, or neural plasticity, is the ability of the brain to undergo structural or physiological changes.[1][2][failed verification – see discussion] Neuroplasticity was once thought to only occur during childhood, but research in the latter half of the 20th century showed that many aspects of the brain can be altered (or are “plastic”) even through adulthood. However, the developing brain exhibits a higher degree of plasticity than the adult brain. Wikipedia.

        Some of that article is disputed apparently but I have seen other claims that early childhood learning plays a role in “wiring the brain”.

      • June 18, 2020 at 11:02 am

        Ike, what you take me to mean is the converse of what I did mean. The way electronic computers turned out began with Shannon making circuits and then seeing the circuits were performing logic. That ties in more with the Frege/Whitehead and Russell attempt to base arithmetic on logic than on leaving the machinery out of account in Turing’s tape recorder.

        Russell almost solved his own paradox with his theory of types, but the types turned out not to be apples or bananas but any type of object, references (names of typed variables), modes of interpretation of the variables (which could represent various processes as well as the apples or bananas) and the actual processes (static procedure definitions representing the actions performed by the processes).

        What you are seeing was there from the beginning, but applied to the architecture of computers rather than their circuitry, i.e. a distinction between high speed (cache) and background memory. This was necessary for Shannon’s error correction by negative feedback, which had to complete checks and corrections before results were committed to main memory.

        What has become more obvious recently is that our split brain architecture is organised the same way. So far as I can see the art-trained G K Chesterton was the first to realise this in 1904, but it is a common-place now, nicely explained by artist Betty Edwards in “Drawing on Both Sides of your Brain”. The plasticity of the brain is more like what is called Read Only memory, which cannot be erased but can be suppressed by being switched off, as in not energised by chemical motivation.
        A really curious thing happened to me in a dream a few days ago: I remembered the name of the landlady of a holiday flat we rented fifty years back. I was so surprised it woke me up!

      • Ikonoclast
        June 19, 2020 at 3:26 am

        I am intrigued by your reply. We need a blog where we can discuss such ideas. The RWER blog would be seen as the wrong place, I imagine. Are there any other easily accessible blogs you frequent where such ideas are discussed? I have long thought that computer science reflects on both neuroscience and what I identify as and call the real system/formal system ontological issue. Yet, at the same time, I know too little of computer science to pursue these reflections properly.

  2. Robert Locke
    June 17, 2020 at 10:58 am

    “One of the most important tasks of social sciences is to explain the events, processes, and structures that take place and act in society. But the researcher cannot stop at this. As a consequence of the relations and connections that the researcher finds, a will and demand arise for critical reflection on the findings.”

    In 1953, when the “social sciences” were developing rapidly in the UCLA curriculum, I became a political science major in the university enrolling in two courses, US Foreign Policy and Colonies in World Politics, in my naivete I thought I would learn something about actual US foreign policy and decolonization in the courses. I didn’t. I learned about explaining events through grasping processes and structures (e.g. how foreign policy is formulated). I also took a history course, European Diplomatic History 1848-1914, in which we studied events. In my political science courses I became conscious of the fact that everything was being rigged for the Cold War, the structures and processes being discussed, so I became a history major. Already in 1953 I knew there was nothing scientific about these new social sciences.

    • June 17, 2020 at 11:27 am

      Agreed. What I didn’t get round to saying to Lars was that the point of the critical thinking is to “provoke thinking outside the cage”. Anyway, you’ve just proved him right. I suppose there is, though, a true science of how to tell lies and get away with it?

  3. Craig
    June 17, 2020 at 5:32 pm

    Knowledge is nothing but “filthy rags”, unless it is informed by wisdom.

  4. June 19, 2020 at 9:42 pm

    “One of the most important tasks of social sciences is to explain the events, processes, and structures that take place and act in society.”

    I suppose I’ve said many times that economics is best explained as a control system, but economists haven’t kept up with developments in these, though Keynes almost did. In view of the deafening silence in response to my outlines here’s a fuller history of the development:
    from F.L.Lewis at https://www.uta.edu/utari/acs/history.htm.

    “System Theory

    “It is within the study of systems that feedback control theory has its place in the organization of human knowledge. Thus, the concept of a system as a dynamical entity with definite “inputs” and “outputs” joining it to other systems and to the environment was a key prerequisite for the further development of automatic control theory. The history of system theory requires an entire study on its own, but a brief sketch follows.

    “During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the work of A. Smith in economics [The Wealth of Nations, 1776], the discoveries of C.R. Darwin [On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection 1859], and other developments in politics, sociology, and elswehere were having a great impact on the human consciousness. The study of Natural Philosophy was an outgrowth of the work of the Greek and Arab philosophers, and contributions were made by Nicholas of Cusa (1463), Leibniz, and others. The developments of the nineteenth century, flavored by the Industrial Revolution and an expanding sense of awareness in global geopolitics and in astronomy had a profound influence on this Natural Philosophy, causing it to change its personality.

    “By the early 1900’s A.N. Whitehead [1925], with his philosophy of “organic mechanism”, L. von Bertalanffy [1938], with his hierarchical principles of organization, and others had begun to speak of a “general system theory”. In this context, the evolution of control theory could proceed.

    “Mass Communication and The Bell Telephone System

    “At the beginning of the 20th century there were two important occurrences from the point of view of control theory: the development of the telephone and mass communications, and the World Wars.

    “Frequency-Domain Analysis

    “The mathematical analysis of control systems had heretofore been carried out using differential equations in the time domain. At Bell Telephone Laboratories during the 1920’s and 1930’s, the frequency domain approaches developed by P.-S. de Laplace (1749-1827), J. Fourier (1768-1830), A.L. Cauchy (1789-1857), and others were explored and used in communication systems.

    “A major problem with the development of a mass communication system extending over long distances is the need to periodically amplify the voice signal in long telephone lines. Unfortunately, unless care is exercised, not only the information but also the noise is amplified. Thus, the design of suitable repeater amplifiers is of prime importance.

    “To reduce distortion in repeater amplifiers, H.S. Black demonstrated the usefulness of negative feedback in 1927 [Black 1934]. The design problem was to introduce a phase shift at the correct frequencies in the system. Regeneration Theory for the design of stable amplifiers was developed by H. Nyquist [1932]. He derived his Nyquist stability criterion based on the polar plot of a complex function. H.W. Bode in 1938 used the magnitude and phase frequency response plots of a complex function [Bode 1940]. He investigated closed-loop stability using the notions of gain and phase margin.

    “The World Wars and Classical Control

    “As mass communications and faster modes of travel made the world smaller, there was much tension as men tested their place in a global society. The result was the World Wars, during which the development of feedback control systems became a matter of survival.

    “Ship Control

    “An important military problem during this period was the control and navigation of ships, which were becoming more advanced in their design. Among the first developments was the design of sensors for the purpose of closed-loop control. In 1910, E.A. Sperry invented the gyroscope, which he used in the stabilization and steering of ships, and later in aircraft control.

    “N. Minorsky [1922] introduced his three-term controller for the steering of ships, thereby becoming the first to use the proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller. He considered nonlinear effects in the closed-loop system.

    “Weapons Development and Gun Pointing

    “A main problem during the period of the World Wars was that of the accurate pointing of guns aboard moving ship and aircraft. With the publication of “Theory of Servomechanisms” by H.L. Házen [1934], the use of mathematical control theory in such problems was initiated. In his paper, Házen coined the word servomechanisms, which implies a master/slave relationship in systems”.

  5. Ikonoclast
    June 20, 2020 at 2:31 am

    It would seem the whole text of the book davetaylor1 refers to is here:

    Click to access applied%20Optimal%20control%2030.pdf

    I won’t be attempting to read it as I am at least five PhD’s short of the requirements to read it with respect to incorporating its insights into a political economy critique: a maths PhD and a computer systems science PhD at least, plus I suspect a physics, an economics and a philosophy PhD.

    This indicates a serious problem for all of us. Even for the greatest geniuses of our species, let alone mere near-average persons like myself, one lifetime is not enough time to learn enough, let alone implement that learning. Our society and its systems are too complex for any individual to understand and default silo-ing (specialization) occurs where people only understand matters in their own specialty and all other matters only from the knowledge-incomplete perspective and bias of their own specialty. This seems to indicate that the highest order goal we are looking for in this context, which is “civilizational agency”, is more than ever beyond our reach due to the increasing complexity of our civilization and all the machines, systems and institutions in it.

    By “civilizational agency” I mean the ability to decide and then direct the trajectory of our global civilization. If we had functional civilizational agency we would have decided and already implemented a trajectory to stay under 1.5 degrees C global warming, to give an example. We have failed to do so. Much as we want to do these things, we do not have the civilizational agency to do them, or at least have demonstrated no ability to do them yet. Rather, the system continues to show extensive characteristics of growing out of control.

    This condition we might term runaway hypercomplexity. Rather than this being a condition we can endogenously bring under control, it represents a system which may only be brought under control by exogenous limits, for example limits to growth and even perhaps limits to complexity. The only feasible course, which might reduce our complexity without harm to scientific or technological development (which would still seem necessary as we all, for example, would like to see a vaccine developed for COVID-19) would be a reduction in formal system complexity and consumer system complexity in our economy.

    While knowledge, scientific and technological complexity ought to be permitted to increase, “rule-complexity” and consumer product range and consumption would need to be reduced for sustainability reasons. Rule complexity reduction especially needs to occur in the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) sector. Rule complexity reduction does not equal de-regulation. On the contrary, a few inviolable rules provide stronger system control (and system simplicity) than many weaker rules with special exceptions and loop-holes.

    In morality and under legalism, that which is not proscribed is permitted. This “liberal” principle tends to be extended to commerce. However, this gives rise to multifarious forms of commerce and financial instruments which require ever more complex legal and administrative rule sets (as well as control systems) to run, leading to complexity gridlock. Rather, the permissible operations and limits of commerce must be strictly set by a small rule-set of inviolable laws. The principle for commerce (not personal behavior) must be “that which is not expressly permitted is proscribed”. Innovation of financial instruments would be strictly controlled by this approach and yet personal, non-commercial behavior could remain as free as safely possible.

    This is a sketch of a possible way to attain civilizational agency. Democracy, science and technology must be as free as possible subject to ethical considerations (moral philosophy). Commerce and self-interested competition (as opposed to social cooperation) must be strictly controlled and limited. It is the permissions of runaway selfishness, self-interest and commercialism which take us ever further from a controllable and sustainable political economy. One cannot even be certain this attempt would succeed especially at this late hour in human history. But we stand on the brink of catastrophe and some attempt must be made. Unfettered capitalism has brought us tothis juncture. Clearly, the need now is to fetter it. I would suggest doing so in the manner outlined above.

    • June 20, 2020 at 9:42 am

      Ikonoclast misrepresents me by quoting the whole Lewis book as a purported route to reforming economics when I quoted an extract from an extract to try and convey a concept of ‘system’ which sophomore students (never mind post-doctorals) ought to be already familiar with. I learned elementary dc and ac electric circuit theory as an apprentice at age 16, and spectrum analysis (based on frequency domains) is an everyday feature of radio and dna testing. The contrast is with those who think of a system as a pattern in numerical data. My point anyway was how long understanding of circuits, messaging and feedback has been around, unconsidered by economists despite Adam Smith’s intuition of an “invisible hand”. .

      • Ikonoclast
        June 20, 2020 at 10:15 am


        My apologies, it was not my intention to misrepresent you. I riffed on a theme (which I tend to do) in this case about civilizational complexity. The book, as a science text artifact, touched off that set of thoughts in my, no doubt slightly odd, Borges-style imagination.

    • June 20, 2020 at 10:26 am

      Ironically, Ike says ” the system continues to show extensive characteristics of growing out of control”. So why is he not interested in modern control theory? He’s not thinking outside his own box when he says “the permissible operations and limits of commerce must be strictly set by a small rule-set of inviolable laws. The principle for commerce (not personal behavior) must be “that which is not expressly permitted is proscribed”. But he hasn’t squared his own circle. How are increasingly diversified situtations going to remain controlled by a small rule-set? The “complex truth” concept squares the circle by enabling all the possible situations to be expressed like positions located by just latitude and longitude, with what is going on there located by time. One can then start thinking of commercial control like epidemiology, with new ideas having to be tested locally – eliminating design errors and misunderstandings using PID methods – so that just those which are socially valuable can be industrialised. Ike’s method perpetuates top-down rule and freedom to endanger the whole planet by over-production. Mine leaves freedom to try out, but requires more thought to go into what shall be mass-produced, leaving at least the initial decision in the hands not of a king but of a local jury.

      • June 20, 2020 at 10:30 am

        Ikonoclast, apology accepted. It crept in while I was pondering your comments!

  6. Ken Zimmerman
    July 5, 2020 at 2:20 pm

    Turns out “Enlightenment tradition” is a bit “off the mark.” This from Norbert Elias regarding sociology makes that missing of the mark clear. Please note this was written in 1970 (What is Sociology). Thus, the emancipation of our understanding of human and social processes of which Elias speaks is further along than Elias’ words indicate. And the social studies of science have made remarkable strides, particularly since 1980. The Enlightenment was not either the beginning or the end of studies and understanding.

    In trying to enlarge our understanding of human and social processes and to acquire a growing fund of more knowledge about them – this in itself is one of the main objects of sociology – we are confronted with a similar task of emancipation [Similar to natural events’ emancipation from magical and metaphysical thinking. Keeping in mind the understanding of human and social processes had also to be emancipated from scientific thinking about the physico-chemical aspects of the world.] In this sphere, too, people find themselves subjected to ‘compelling forces’. They seek to understand them so that with the help of this knowledge they may gain some control over the blind course of these compelling forces, the effects of which for them are often senseless and destructive, causing much suffering. The aim is to guide these forces in such a way as to make them less meaningless and less wasteful of lives and resources. It is therefore central to the tasks of sociological teaching and research to acquire a general understanding of these forces and an increase in dependable knowledge about them through specialized fields of investigation.

    The first step does not seem very difficult. It is not hard to grasp the idea that what we attempt to conceptualize as social forces are in fact forces exerted by people over one another and over themselves. Yet as soon as we try to proceed from here, we find that the social apparatus for thinking and speaking places at our disposal only either models of a naïvely egocentric or magicomythical kind, or else models from natural science. We encounter the former whenever people try to explain the compelling forces stemming from the figurations they and other people form together, entirely in terms of the personal character or the personal aims and intentions of other individuals or groups of individuals. This urge to except oneself or one’s own group from explanation in terms of figurations formed with other people is very common, and it is one of the many manifestations of naïve egocentricity or (what is much the same) naïve anthropomorphism which still permeate our thought and speech about social processes. These naïvely egocentric modes of expression are mixed with others which, modelled on the vocabulary used to explain compelling forces of nature, are now used to explain the compelling forces found in society.

    There has been a trend towards ‘scientificization’ of modes of speaking and thinking about what is now known to be inanimate nature, in sharp distinction from the human-social world. Many verbal and conceptual structures derived from the uncovering of physical and chemical structures have passed into the everyday stock of words and concepts of European [and American] society and taken root there. Numerous words and concepts, the present-day forms of which derive primarily from the interpretation of natural events, have been transferred unobtrusively to the interpretation of human and social phenomena. Together with the various manifestations of magico-mythical thought, they contribute to the perpetuation of many customary modes of speech and thought for tackling problems in the human sciences to which they are plainly unsuited. They thus hinder the development of more autonomous ways of speaking and thinking, better suited to the special peculiarities of human figurations.

    The tasks of sociology therefore include not only examination and interpretation of specific compelling forces to which people are exposed in their particular empirically observable societies and groups, but also the freeing of speech and thought about such forces from their links with earlier heteronomous models. In place of words and concepts bearing the mark of their origin in magicomythical ideas or in natural science, sociology must gradually develop others which do better justice to the peculiarities of human social figurations.

    This would be less difficult if today we already had a clear picture of the corresponding phase in the development of the natural sciences, when new and more adequate means of speaking and thinking replaced the older magico-mythical ones. Of this, however, we know very little. Many of the gradually developed fundamental concepts of the scientific knowledge of nature proved again and again to be more or less appropriate in the observation and manipulation of physico-chemical processes. For this very reason, these fundamental concepts appear to their inheritors to be eternally valid and, therefore, eternal. The corresponding scientific words, categories and modes of thought seem so self evident that it is easy to imagine that every human being knew them intuitively. It took numerous generations of scientists much hard thought and observation, arduous and often very dangerous struggles to develop ideas like those of mechanical causality or the non-intentional, aimless and unplanned lawfulness of nature. Only very slowly and with great difficulty did these ideas emerge out of anthropomorphic and egocentric ideas and ways of thinking. Then finally the new ideas diffused outwards from a small élite, until they informed the everyday thought and speech of whole social groups. Now they often appear to subsequent generations to be simply ‘true’, ‘rational’ or ‘logical’ ideas and modes of thought. By and large they stand the test of constant observation and action, and we therefore no longer ask how and why human thinking about this particular level of integration in the cosmos has become so well adapted to its purpose.

    Therefore, it emerges that these social developments of speech and thought about the compelling forces of natural processes have been neglected as a subject for sociological research. The static philosophical idea of scientific knowledge as an ‘eternally human’ form of knowledge has almost completely inhibited inquiry into the sociogenesis and psychogenesis of the scientific vocabulary and modes of speech and thought. Yet only investigations such as these will put us on the right track in explaining this reorientation of human thought and experience. The problem is usually discounted before it is posed, because it is seen as ‘merely an historical matter’, as opposed to so-called problems of systematic theory. But this distinction is itself an illustration of the inadequacy of natural scientific models for comprehending longterm social processes, of which the scientificization of thought is one. Such processes are quite different from what is called the history of science, as contrasted with an apparently immutable philosophy of science, just as natural history used to be contrasted with the study of the apparently immutable solar system.

    Corresponding to this failure to investigate problems of longterm processes of social development, we still lack a general understanding of the longterm reorientation of language and thought in European societies, to which the rise of the natural sciences would be central. Such an understanding is essential if we are to gain a clearer and more vivid picture of the transformation. It would also make it much easier for people to understand that sociology has now reached a new level of experience and awareness. With constant feedback from the increasing volume of empirical research we can now discard many traditional models of knowledge and thought, and over the years develop in their place other instruments for speaking and thinking, better suited to the scientific investigation of human social figurations.

    Emancipation from heteronomous ideas, with their concomitant modes of speech and thought, is scarcely easier for the human sciences than it was for the natural sciences two or three centuries ago. Those espousing the cause of the natural sciences then had no choice but to start by combating institutionalized magicomythical models of perception and thought; protagonists of the social sciences today must now also struggle against the heteronomous use of natural scientific models which have become just as firmly institutionalized. Even bearing in mind that social forces are forces exerted by people over themselves and over one another, it is still very difficult when thinking and speaking to guard against the social pressure of verbal and conceptual structures. These make social forces seem like forces exerted on objects in nature – like forces external to people, exerted over them as ‘objects’. Too often we speak and think as though not just mountains, clouds and storms, but also villages and states, the economy and politics, factors of production and technological advances, the sciences and the industrial system, among countless other social structures, were all extra-human entities with their own inner laws and thus quite independent of human action or inaction.

    • July 6, 2020 at 10:27 am

      Ken has obviously put a lot of thought as well as long words into this.

      “Emancipation from heteronomous ideas, with their concomitant modes of speech and thought, is scarcely easier for the human sciences than it was for the natural sciences two or three centuries ago. Those espousing the cause of the natural sciences then had no choice but to start by combating institutionalized magicomythical models of perception and thought; protagonists of the social sciences today must now also struggle against the heteronomous use of natural scientific models which have become just as firmly institutionalized. Even bearing in mind that social forces are forces exerted by people over themselves and over one another … “.

      From his – verbal – point of view he is right, but missing the point that information science is about the amount and manner of processing rather than the factual meaning of information. Binary digits can be represented by wires and pulses as well as by fingers, and processes by neural as well as electronic circuit programs. When “magicomythical” models are looked at by verbal thinkers they see non-facts, where old-fashioned intuitive thinkers see ways of recognising and thinking about the unknown. That’s what the mathematician Cantor saw, thinking about infinity. That’s what the mathematician Shannon saw, seeing the switches of an automatic telephone exchange performing logic and encoded messages conveying only apparently unintelligible information. What I saw was physical scientists trying to make the circuit symbols for transistors not meaningless but iconic: not arbitrary but suggestive of the physical realisation of the transistor concept.

      Words don’t exert forces; when we recognise them our sense have already been so directed that our thinking processes trigger actions and associations. Maybe the wrong ones, but with at least the possibility of being right: not with built-in category error obscuring the fact that actions have consequences. Still, that’s my thinking factually. Maybe ‘force’ is one of those “magicomythical” concepts that help us see things in the appropriate way?

      • Ken Zimmerman
        July 6, 2020 at 2:29 pm

        Dave, the words are Elias’. I merely quote them. Only the first and last paragraphs are mine. I chose the Elias quote for two reasons. First, it shows the depth of sociological theorizing and research efforts. Second, it emphasizes that sociology (and the other social sciences as well) had to overcome both what Elias calls magicomythical ways of conceptualizing the study and understanding of human actions and thinking and the ways to conceptualize study of the natural world created by the natural sciences which some had attempted to transfer to sociology. His contention is that sociology must create its own concepts. Scientific ones. But different from the natural sciences. Since the subject matter of sociology is different from natural science. To answer your questions you can consult “The Sociology of Norbert Elias” by Steven Loyal and Stephen Quilley. I don’t know enough of the details to answer.

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