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Any systematic exposition of the grounds of and means to knowledge constitutes an epistemology. Standard epistemologies of mathematics find such grounds in axiomatic self-evidence and means in methods of proof. Epistemologies of the natural sciences additionally underscore methods of experimental verification. Emerging in the shadow of the natural sciences, the social sciences have since their inception been the province of a stubborn epistemological divide. On the one side are those who insist that the natural sciences offer the only valid model of the attainment of knowledge about the empirical world and that the social sciences should thus strive to emulate their methodological precedent. On the other side are those who insist that human actions and creations are different in kind from the events and objects to which natural scientists attend and require methods of approach and comprehension entirely their own. Strictly speaking, these alternatives are incompatible; no perfect compromise is possible.
Emerging clearly in the middle of the nineteenth century, the divide at issue rests in distinct philosophical precedents and traditions of scholarship. On the side of a unified science is Auguste Comte’s “positivism,” which casts society as the final and most complex object to become available to the senses in the course of the evolution of human cognition and amenable, if not precisely to experimental manipulation, then to controlled comparative inquiry rigorous enough to yield knowledge in its wake. Comte’s Course of Positive Philosophy (1830–1842) inaugurates what he coined “sociology” as a science every bit as natural as its predecessors, but clearly reflects both the rationalism of René Descartes and the empiricism of Etienne Bonnot de Condillac. Comte’s most influential epistemological heir is Émile Durkheim, who takes particular pains to distinguish the empirical domain of psychology from that of sociology in his late nineteenth-century work. The former encompasses at once what is common to all human beings and what is idiosyncratic to one or another of them. The latter, encompassing what marks human beings as members of specific collectivities, is the proper domain of “social facts” available to the senses first of all as the experience of externally imposed obligation or coercion. It yields the classic definition of society as a “normative order.” It permits two basic modes of inquiry, both of which might be put into the service of controlled comparison. One of these pursues a sampling of particular cases substantial enough to reveal patterning variables and their statistical co-variations. Another seeks to extract from perhaps only a single case a model of the system of which it is representative or expresses the limit. The first is the mode of statistical and quantitative inquiry not only in sociology but across all the social sciences. The second is the mode of model-theoretic inquiry—whether rigorously algebraic, as in much of contemporary economics, or largely qualitative, as in Durkheim’s own Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912).
On the side of the divide itself is Wilhelm Dilthey’s programmatic distinction between the natural sciences and what he termed the Geisteswissenschaften, sciences of “spirit” or “mind” or “human sciences.” The latter category includes all of the disciplines that make up the social sciences, but its cardinal focus is the discipline of historical inquiry and what would come by the late nineteenth century to be known as cultural anthropology. The human sciences do not in Dilthey’s typology produce “knowledge” but instead produce “understanding.” The latter is a mode of knowing grounded of necessity in self-reflection because the objectifications of spirit or mind—human actions and artifacts—that constitute its investigative terrain are precisely the objectifications of such psychic states as intentions, beliefs, values and sentiments. The human scientist understands any such objectification not in determining its efficient cause but in interpreting its always particular “meaning” or “significance” in light of the broader historical or cultural context in which it is embedded. Dilthey’s work follows the founder of biblical hermeneutics, Friedrich Schleiermacher, in presuming that the process of interpretation rests essentially in the interpreter’s capacity imaginatively and empathetically to enter into the lives of others. He derived his thoroughgoing separation of the physical from the experiential world from Immanuel Kant’s similarly thorough separation of the objective from the subjective in his three Critiques, published in 1781, 1788, and 1790. In his appropriation of Kant at least, Dilthey is at one with his only slightly later contemporary, Max Weber.
Weber is well known for his address of the “problem of objectivity” in the human sciences. He recognized that particular evaluative commitments do and even should influence the content of the questions that the human scientist poses. He insisted that the scientist’s research, properly conducted, should and can produce nothing else but facts. His resolution still has its adherents, but the problem of objectivity itself long predates him and lasts beyond him. In its general form, it is the result of the reflective recognition that beliefs and evaluative orientations are generally conditioned by or contingent upon their historical, cultural and social context; hence, for example, Thorstein Veblen’s observation that distinct fractions of the dominant classes are drawn to those intellectual pursuits that are most intimately concerned with the practical bases of their dominance. Prima facie, the same should broadly be true of beliefs about and evaluative orientations toward the historical, the cultural and the social themselves. This does not entail that the latter beliefs and orientations are wrong-headed, but it does point to the need for an account of how and when and why a researcher is right to suppose that they are enduringly true or valid. Thus construed, the problem of objectivity has inspired three general responses. One is Comte’s own: a progressivist rendering of cognitive and moral evolution positing that modern society has become disburdened of the sources of the errors and confusions that clouded the mental and moral landscapes of societies less developed.
Though no longer with a positivist inflection, a similar evolutionism has a central place in Jürgen Habermas’ much more recent efforts to reestablish the foundations of a critical social theory. A second response emerges in the later Marxist tradition, in which the problem of objectivity gains intensity with the presumption that the prevailing ideas of every class-divided society are ideological distortions that serve not truth but the reproduction of the dominant class.
Though with many variations, it seeks in social institutions or psychosocial circumstances those factors that permit certain individuals to become detached from their classes of origin and so think outside of the boundaries that would otherwise constrict their judgment. In a classic contribution to what is thus a “sociology of knowledge,” Karl Mannheim’s work sees such factors in the coalescence of the secular, liberal university in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe. Louis Althusser’s work focuses instead on the conjunctures of politico-economic structure and personal circumstance in which an investigator’s exercise of experiment and critique effect an “epistemic break” from the ideology in which his thinking had previously been mired. Though once again with many variations, a third response might be called pragmatic. The philosophical resources it taps include Kant and Ludwig Wittgenstein. From Weber to anthropologist Clifford Geertz and social theorist Niklas Luhmann, its proponents regard proper intellectual labor in the human sciences as having its end in heuristic and diagnostic constructions and interventions that, whatever their contingencies or motivations, facilitate clarity, communication and translation. Hardly a return to positivism, this response nevertheless highlights the analytical service of an intellectual device of steadily increasing saliency in the epistemological toolkit of the natural sciences themselves: the model.
- Althusser, Louis.  1969. For Marx. Ben Brewster. New York: Pantheon Books.
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- Schleiermacher, Friedrich.  1988. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Survivors. Richard Crouter. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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- Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan.
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