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sociology and philosophy

We got into a bit of an argument recently over the role of philosophy in sociology. I’m a bit of a skeptic. Sure, we can all really argue about whether we “really” understand causation, but at the end of the day, we care about more about progress than linguistic precision.

That doesn’t mean that sociology and philosophy shouldn’t speak to each other. I think that sociology raises a number of interesting questions for philosophy such as:

  • Groupiness/emergence. States, markets, cultures – these are all more than the sum of the parts. Why? In sociology, former guest Keith Sawyer has a number of articles on this topic.
  • Socialization and human action. Many things, like religious choice, seem to be the outcome of socialization. What does socialization say about will and choice?
  • Ethics: A lot of us are tribalists – we like people of our group more than other people. What sorts of ethics are reasonable in a world of tribalists?

What other sociology inspired questions should philosophers consider?

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Written by fabiorojas

November 24, 2010 at 12:07 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

18 Responses

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  1. Sure, we can all really argue about whether we “really” understand causation, but at the end of the day, we care about more about progress than linguistic precision.

    Philosophers care about “linguistic precision” (the good ones, do, anyway), but not as an end in itself. It’s part of the business of making sure you’re not full of bullshit, and I think the successful avoidance of bullshit is an aspect of social-scientific progress. Beyond that, I generally agree with your skepticism about the relevance of philosophy to sociology, but in my case this extends to having a low tolerance for the sort of sociologist who believes they are better than philosophers at doing philosophy.

    What other sociology inspired questions should philosophers consider?

    Convention, norms, and meaning. Practical action and tacit knowledge. The origin of preferences, personal identity, and the self in general. Social aspects of cognition and perception. The irrelevance of motive and intent. Social structure and moral luck. The nature of value. The list is very long, really. And this is without even getting into any questions of the nature of social reality and whatnot.

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    Kieran

    November 24, 2010 at 1:01 am

  2. […] Philosophy November 24th, 2010 Over at orgtheory, where I have recently begun to read, Fabio Rojas asks what sociology-inspired questions philosophy should ask. He offers a few. A commenter offers […]

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  3. Isn’t that question a bit strange given the fact that most (all?) sociological questions are inspired originally by philosophy? I mean, just look at Kieran’s suggestions “Convention, norms, and meaning. Practical action and tacit knowledge. The origin of preferences, personal identity, and the self in general…” These are not question that, to move quickly back through time, Hume, Augustine and Aristotle had “considered”?

    Is the real question not rather: what questions should philosophers leave to sociologists given advances by the latter? And what questions should sociologists admit they are still WAY out of their depth on?

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    Thomas

    November 24, 2010 at 11:36 am

  4. “What other sociology inspired questions should philosophers consider?”

    Every major social theorist has a completely different ontological view of the social. Take Durkheim for example: “consider social facts as things”. Sure, but what the heck does it mean to be social, what the heck is a fact and what the heck is a thing? So when you start moving from Durkheim to Weber and then on to Giddens, Habermas and Bourdieu, you start to find in each ontological assumptions whose critical analysis is a sine qua non condition for the definition of sociology as a science.

    Our difference in perceptions may be due to the fact that you have a background in hard sciences and mine is in the humanities. So it’s not surprising we don’t focus on the same types of questions. You seem more interested in formulating and proving simple theorems, but sociological questions do not stop there.

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    Guillermo

    November 24, 2010 at 11:55 am

  5. Can anyone give an example of a non-technology oriented sociology question that philosophy hasn’t asked at least 150 (if not 400 or 2000) years ago? The examples provided are centuries old, in philosophy.

    And your perception of philosophy seems….well, weird, to say the least. Philosophy does not deal with whether we “really” understood causation.

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    Anonymous

    November 24, 2010 at 6:29 pm

  6. The creative ontology of labor

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    John

    November 24, 2010 at 6:29 pm

  7. The only philosophy of direct relevance to sociologists, in my opinion, is philosophy of science and ethics. As soon as philosophers start to talk about social phenomena (‘social philosophy’), they are implicitly making empirical claims, and are therefore practicing social science, although (sadly) usually not playing by the rules of science. I really favor a clear division of labor when it comes to sociology and philosophy.

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    Rense

    November 27, 2010 at 1:20 am

  8. I disagree with Rense. Society does not offer a referent for “empirical claims”. When sociologists “describe” society, they are implicitly prescribing for it (society consists of subjects of power, not objects of knowledge, we might say). (Bourdieu has an excellent piece on this subject in Language & Symbolic Power.) I agree, however, that philosophers should stick to ethics in so far as they want to talk about social issues. I’m not sure how much more “sociological” philosophers actually want to be.

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    Thomas

    November 27, 2010 at 7:41 pm

  9. I guess what I meant is that it frustrates me that while sociologists are constantly harassed about measurement problems, sampling issues, p-levels, etc whenever they publish something, philosophers seem to claim a license to speculate freely about social phenomena without the obligation to test their theories, or even propose testable hypotheses. Of course, everybody is free to theorize, but theories by philosophers should by judged by the same standards as sociological theories. If, as Thomas says, gathering objective knowledge about society is impossible, aren’t the philosophical theories useless as well? Note that the claim that ‘society consists of subjects of power’ is also an empirical claim…

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    Rense

    November 27, 2010 at 9:15 pm

  10. Neither “society consists of objects of knowledge” or “society consists of subjects of power”, are empirical claims. How would you settle their “truth” by empirical means? No, they are philosophical remarks that play on what we *must mean* by these words, not on what *is the case* in the world.

    Nor, do I think there is any straightforward reason to hold two different disciplines to “the same standards”. But I will grant that *if* social science is useless *then* so too is social philosophy. The reason is that if an area of experience has no real objects then it has no genuine concepts, and if it has no genuine concepts then there is nothing for philosophers to consider.

    That is, I’m willing to grant for the sake of one argument that socially inclined philosophers could do ethics. But if you are willing to grant, for the sake of another argument, that society is not an objective reality, then I’d agree with you that philosophers should stay out of it altogether. And I would much prefer that conclusion in fact. But it does away with social science, too, of course. And I think that’s a bit too radical for most social scientists to grant.

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    Thomas

    November 27, 2010 at 11:24 pm

  11. Rense – I graduated in philosophy, and I really cannot recognize your image of philosophy. And remember the vital distinction between descriptive and normative studies. You can easily do political philosophy that is somehow “social philosophy” that is not meant to be “validated” in your sense. John Rawls e.g.
    Maybe you only find and read philosophy that shouldnt be philosophy – but philosophy that is respected and widely cited does not, generally, make the mistake that you argue.

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    Anonymous

    November 28, 2010 at 7:07 pm

  12. ‘Anonymous’: note that my original complaint was explicitly *not* aimed at ethics (including most of Rawls’ work) and philosophy of science. I am perfectly fine with philosophers thinking about how things should be or what we can know about how things work. Once they start making statements about how things *actually* work (in society, in our case), they enter the realm of social science and should play by its rules. And many well-known folks typically make such statements – take the work of Foucault, for example.
    Just for the record, I don’t want to leave the impression that I dislike philosophy – to the contrary, I think philosophy of science especially is tremendously important for sociology, given the messy state of the discipline.

    Thomas: I doubt that we’ll reach agreement here. I don’t see how statements on what society consists of cannot be empirical, unless you want it to refer to what we mean by ‘society’, which makes it a matter of definitions and thereby much less interesting. In any case, if it is not about a state of the world, couldn’t sociologists safely ignore such statements? (And no, I’m not willing to grant that society is not an objective reality – the legitimacy of my job is at stake there :).)

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    Rense

    November 29, 2010 at 1:41 am

  13. Wittgenstein said that “the world is all that is case” and that it “divides into facts, not things”. He was pretty explicit about those not being empirical claims, whose truth was somehow “out there” to be “discovered”.

    I think the same is true of corresponding claims about, say, history (“history is what everyone does”, or “history is everyone who’s on my case”, and “it divides into acts, not people”, which is something I usually say.)

    And similar claims in sociology. They’re not really claims that empirical investigation can do anything about.

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    Thomas

    November 29, 2010 at 11:35 am

  14. I wouldn’t call Foucault a typical philosopher. Cf. Wikipedia, he is philosopher, sociologist and historian, meaning he doesn’t just rely on philosophy. Hence, the argument goes against people using more than one perspective, rather than philosophy per se.

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    Anonymous

    November 29, 2010 at 3:51 pm

  15. I’m chiming in late to agree with Kieran. I’m now a grad student in sociology, but I previously studied philosophy, and I’ve been puzzled and disconcerted by much of the supposed engagement with philosophy I’ve encountered in soc.

    Just to be clear, I’ve been lucky enough to interact with social theorists who have engaged with philosophy seriously and deeply, and have what I consider very useful things to say at the intersection of the fields. And, of course, most sociologists make contributions to our own field and don’t pretend to be doing philosophy. But I’ve also repeatedly seen sociology conference talks that presented themselves as offering some sort of original philosophical insight, yet were philosophically incompetent in fundamental ways.

    One surprising (to me) component of this is the apparently widespread belief among sociologists that the philosophy of science started and ended with Popper (with a little detour for Kuhn). It’s as though the last half-century never occurred. (To be fair, I have the impression that natural scientists who’ve tried to engage with philosophy at all have also tended to end up with Popper alone. There’s probably an interesting sociology of science to be done, if it hasn’t been, about why his views seem to speak to practitioners about their practice.)

    Sometimes I feel the analogous experience would be attending a philosophy conference and having a well-regarded philosopher announce that he’s going to do some sociology, and it becomes clear he thinks he can do this because he’s read some secondary source on Parsons, found it pretty common-sensical, and had a few thoughts about it.

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    Elizabeth

    December 1, 2010 at 4:26 pm

  16. “One surprising (to me) component of this is the apparently widespread belief among sociologists that the philosophy of science started and ended with Popper (with a little detour for Kuhn).”

    Lakatos is also widely read in sociology.

    “But I’ve also repeatedly seen sociology conference talks that presented themselves as offering some sort of original philosophical insight, yet were philosophically incompetent in fundamental ways.”

    Have you read Hans Joas (not Jonas)? Partly to answer Fabio’s original question, I do think he works in both social theory and philosophy quite well.

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    Guillermo

    December 1, 2010 at 8:46 pm

  17. As I read Elisabeth’s post, Fabio’s post is an excellent example of the typical sociologist comment – which displays 0 knowledge about philosophy.

    Of course this doesn’t apply to all sociologist.

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    Anonymous

    December 2, 2010 at 8:08 am

  18. I am a first year college student considering a degree in sociology or philosophy. I hope I don’t end up like any of pretentious twats on this blog. Your senseless bickering seems counterproductive to both fields of study.

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    James

    July 3, 2012 at 9:02 am


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