Pub. Date:
Princeton University Press
The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences

The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences

by Ian Shapiro
Current price is , Original price is $31.95. You

Temporarily Out of Stock Online

Please check back later for updated availability.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691134017
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 12/09/2007
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Ian Shapiro is the Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, where he also serves as Henry R. Luce Director of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies. Among his many books are Containment [Princeton], The State of Democratic Theory and, with Michael J. Graetz, Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth (Princeton); and The Moral Foundations of Politics.

Read an Excerpt

The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences



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 thecivil law-taught and studied in Latin-was embraced in the universities and monasteries after the Norman Conquest but resisted in the courts. It might have been, as contemporary historians such as J. H. Baker maintain, because English Law was thought insufficiently cosmopolitan to merit serious study. Whatever the reason, English jurisprudence developed in literal ignorance of the practice of English law.

A comparable disjunction afflicts the human sciences today. In discipline after discipline, the flight from reality has been so complete that the academics have all but lost sight of what they claim is their object of study. This goes for the quantitative and formally oriented social sciences that are principally geared toward causal explanation. Following economics, they have modeled themselves on physics-or at any rate on a stylized version of what is often said to go on in physics. But it also goes for many of the more interpretive endeavors that have been influenced by fashions in the humanities-particularly the linguistic turn in philosophy and developments in literary hermeneutics. Practitioners in these fields often see themselves as engaged in interpretation rather than explanation, thereby perpetuating a false dichotomy. Hence my use of the term human sciences here to encapsulate both endeavors. This book is my attempt to chronicle the extent of their flight from reality, and to combat it.

I should say at the outset that I do not believe the flight from reality has a single source or cause. It results, rather, from various developments that share elective affinities-developments that all too often are mutually reinforcing. Some of their sources are intellectual, having to do with the ebb and flow of academic fashion. Some of them are institutional, reflecting the structure of academic professions and the incentives for advancement in an era of exhausted paradigms and extensive specialization. This can be bolstered by a perverse sense of rigor, where the dread of being thought insufficiently scientific spawns a fear of not flying among young scholars. Some are political in the broadest sense, having to do with the relations between disengaged human sciences and the reproduction of the social and political order. The flight from reality is not without consequences for reality as we will see. At best it marginalizes the potential effects of political and social criticism, and sometimes it contributes to the maintenance of oppressive social relations-however unwittingly.

I begin making this case, with the help of Alexander Wendt, in the opening chapter. We expose the limitations of empiricist and interpretive methods of social research, showing how they bias the enterprise in method-driven ways, and we argue for a realist view in their stead. Rather than do this in the abstract, we pursue it by reference to a concrete phenomenon that has attracted a good deal of attention in the human sciences: the study of consent. Empiricism as we describe it here encompasses two different approaches to social inquiry-both bastard stepchildren of David Hume. The first we dub logicism to call attention to the fact that its proponents embrace the view, made famous by Carl Hempel, that good explanations are sound deductive arguments. For logicists, an hypothesis is scientific only if it is derived from a general theory. Such theories often rest on simplifying assumptions about reality, or even "as if" assumptions that are not valid empirically at all.

It is conventional to defend this practice on the grounds that these theories do a good predictive job in accounting for empirical reality. This might sound reasonable in principle, but in practice logicists often formulate their claims so generally that they turn out to be compatible with all possible empirical results-in effect rendering the empirical world epiphenomenal to the theory. We show how this vitiates the study of consent in practice, when theorists of rational consent have sought to explain away apparent anomalies by concocting redescriptions that render them compatible with their preferred theories. This was understandable with theorists of the early Enlightenment because, as I have argued elsewhere, they embraced the view that certainty is the hallmark of science-making the toleration of counterexamples unacceptable. However, mature Enlightenment views of science assume knowledge generally to be corrigible, with the implication that scientists will not take hypotheses seriously if they cannot be falsified-and, indeed, if the conditions under which they will be rejected cannot be specified in advance. The irony, then, is that although contemporary logicists often like to think of themselves as the only genuinely rigorous practitioners of social science-"if you ain't got a theorem you ain't got shit!" as a partisan of this view once put it to me-in reality they are wedded a view of science that most practicing scientists have not taken seriously for centuries.

Hume's other bastard stepchildren discussed in chapter 1 are empiricists of a particular stamp-those who became known in the 1950s and 1960s as behavioralists. Often skeptical of the breathtaking theoretical ambition characteristic of logicists, these empiricists were partisans of Hume's insistence that knowledge is grounded in observation of events and that causal knowledge inheres in observing their constant conjunction. Whereas the logicist derives comfort from the certainty that seems to inhere in the deductive relations between premises and conclusions, the Humean empiricist looks to observation for reassurance. We show how, in the political science power literature, this biased research away from attending to factors that coerce people into apparently consensual behavior-whether by surreptitious manipulation of agendas, structuring people's perceptions of alternatives, or even shaping their preferences. The focus on observed behavior was conceived as a corrective to elite theories of politics put forward by Gaetano Mosca, Robert Michels, Vilfredo Pareto, and C. Wright Mills. They had been cavalier in their treatment of observable behavior, ignoring it or explaining away any tensions between it and what Michels described as the "iron law" of oligarchy. Ironically, the behavioralists ended up with a different kind of method-drivenness, one in which the realm of observed behavior was assumed to be the only pertinent realm in accounting for consent.

If behavioralists bias research in favor of the phenomenal realm in one way, partisans of interpretation do it in another. By interpretivism I mean the research agenda that came into vogue in the human sciences during the 1970s, largely because of dissatisfaction with various failed reductionist enterprises. Prominent among these was Marxism, by then famous for its inability to account for the major political developments of the twentieth century. Instead of spawning revolutionary socialist proletariats, the advanced capitalist countries had experienced tenacious nationalism and working-class conservatism-not to mention the rise of Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy. Communists who did come to power either did so in peasant societies such as Russia and China contra Marx's prognostications, or they were forcibly imposed by the Soviets after World War II. In any case, by the 1950s it was obvious that, at best, communism as practiced rested on grotesque distortions of Marx's principles.

Attempts to rescue Marxism from an unhelpfully recalcitrant reality produced more noise than light over the succeeding decades. One motivation for those who found the interpretive turn attractive was to get away from the sectarian bickering over how to save Marx's materialism-even when it was conceded that this could operate only "in the last instance." The interpretive turn involves treating articulated beliefs and ideas as elemental to human interaction. They are seen not as part of an epiphenomenal superstructure, to be understood, however circuitously, by reference to its links with the "underlying" material base. Rather, to use one of the buzz words of the day, they constitute reality-or at least human social reality-through language. Social reality is linguistic reality on this view. When human beings do things like create obligations or social contracts they do this through language, not by some other means that is then described by language. Understanding social reality means understanding the linguistic processes that give rise to it.

The interpretive turn thus went hand in glove with the ascent of ordinary language philosophy associated with the later Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin in the 1950s and with developments in literary hermeneutics in which understanding social processes was modeled on the interpretation of texts. It was but a small step from this to the view that society should be conceived of as a text, whose meaning is best recovered by exploring the web of linguistic conventions within which social agents operate as collective authors. We are locked within a prison-house of language, as Frederick Jameson colorfully put it, the implication being that it is better to try to understand linguistic reality from the inside than to indulge vain fantasies of escape. Different theorists had different views of how such understanding is best achieved, but they all agreed that the point of the exercise is to elucidate social meanings by exploring the linguistic conventions-the language games, as Wittgenstein had it-within which people inevitably operate. Social reality arises out of conventional linguistic usage, and the key to understanding it lies in recovering the conventions so as to see how people use them to act in the social world.

Elsewhere I have discussed the interpretative turn's impact on the historical study of political theory by examining the contextual theories of the Cambridge school-John Dunn, J.G.A. Pocock, and Quentin Skinner. There is much to commend their approach to the study of the texts in the history of ideas. In particular, their insistence that contextual knowledge is essential to recover what an author meant to do in writing a text was an important corrective to prevalent methodologies that had assumed reading the text "over and over again" to be sufficient. Some of their contextual rereadings of particular authors are debatable and have been debated, but one would be hard pressed to dispute that important correctives to received interpretations have resulted from this scholarship. Skinner's rereadings of Hobbes have stood the test of time especially well-displacing a tired stereotype of him as "the monster of Malmesbury." Dunn's relocation of Locke's political writings in the theological disputes that were his lifelong preoccupation have revolutionized Locke scholarship for a generation, and the careful contextual researches of Peter Laslett and Richard Ashcraft have established that the Two Treatises of Government were written the better part of a decade before the Glorious Revolution of 1688-rubbishing an older conventional wisdom that they were written to justify it. Locke's contradictory views on slavery have received definitive illumination through the contextual analysis of James Farr. Pocock's magisterial recovery of the civic humanist tradition has spawned a revival of interest in republican ideas, complicating, at least, our picture of liberalism's emergence and evolution. This is to say nothing of the revisions of received interpretations of medieval and early modern natural law theory at the hands of Richard Tuck and James Tully, or the accounts of Adam Smith and David Ricardo's politics from Donald Winch, Shannon Stimson, and Murray Milgate.

It is one thing to say that understanding what an author was trying to do depends critically on recovering the context in which he was writing; quite another to turn this into an a theory of politics and political change. It is this vastly more ambitious agenda, most self-consciously articulated by Quentin Skinner, with which I take issue. I agree with Skinner that any plausible account of political reality must take account of the role political ideas play in shaping it. But making this move inevitably puts large causal questions on the table about what ideologies are, how they shape and are shaped by political conflict and change, and how-if at all-they might be related to the ideas of political theorists.

Skinner ducks these questions by eschewing all causal analysis in favor of the "interpretation," but I argue that in effect this means he does his causal analysis behind his back, which he insists that we should not. He equates the meaning of a text with what an author intended to convey, and he gets at this by seeing how the author's ideas were received by his intended audience. But this overlooks gamuts of relevant possibilities once we are studying their ideas as ideologies. What people overlook might be more important, ideologically, than what they discern. People might be misled, whether for malevolent or accidental reasons. They might supply inadvertent legitimation for practices that they perceive dimly, if at all. How people's ideas are appropriated or misappropriated by subsequent generations might be more important than their intentions as communicated to contemporaries. By assuming that an "internal" reading, geared to recovering authorial intention, is synonymous with studying the history of ideas as the history of ideologies, Skinner affirms a new-rather whiggish-reductionism without ever acknowledging it.

In contrast, I argue for openness to "external" readings. These are geared to locating subjective accounts in larger causal processes without prejudging what those processes might consist in, without deciding in advance whether and how much they might shape or be shaped by political interests, agendas, and events, and without assuming anything a priori about how-if at all-they might be subsumable into a general theory of politics. These are all subjects for research that cannot be settled before it begins. The scientific outlook requires a commitment to discovering what is actually going on in a given situation without prejudging what that is. Opting for the recovery of what a particular political theorist meant to say involves one of many possible cuts at accounting for ideology's role in politics. It has to be justified by comparison with the going plausible alternatives, not smuggled in by the backdoor under the guise of eschewing the world of causation for that of interpretation. Partisans of interpretation often see themselves as fundamentally at odds with behavioral social scientists. So it is ironic that they end up embracing a reductive view that makes them cousins of the behavioralists. Both rule out looking behind the world of appearances. This biases the study of consent by taking some of the most significant possibilities off the table before research begins.


Excerpted from The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences by Ian Shapiro Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

INTRODUCTION: Fear of Not Flying 1

CHAPTER ONE: The Difference That Realism Makes: Social Science and the Politics of Consent by Ian Shapiro and Alexander Wendt 19

CHAPTER TWO: Revisiting the Pathologies of Rational Choice by Donald Green and Ian Shapiro 51

CHAPTER THREE: Richard Posner's Praxis 100

CHAPTER FOUR: Gross Concepts in Political Argument 152

CHAPTER FIVE: Problems, Methods, and Theories in the Study of Politics: Or, What's Wrong with Political Science and What to Do about It 178

CHAPTER SIX: The Political Science Discipline: A Comment on David Laitin 204

Index 213

What People are Saying About This

Clarissa Rile Hayward

This is an important book for two main reasons. First, its central argument is, undoubtedly, correct. Recent methodological advances in the social sciences, combined with pressures from increased professionalization, have rendered epidemic the 'pathologies' that are the book's subject. Second, Shapiro is one of only a handful of scholars who have drawn social scientists' attention to these problems. The tightly argued essays that comprise the book are written in a clear, jargon-free prose that will make them accessible to scholars across a range of fields and disciplines.
Clarissa Rile Hayward, Ohio State University, author of "De-Facing Power"

Elisabeth Ellis

This lucid, brilliant, and beautifully written volume of essays contributes substantially to our understanding of the philosophy and practice of research in the human sciences. Anyone undertaking such research, or interested in its results, will want to read it.
Elisabeth Ellis, Texas A&M University, author of "Kant's Politics: Provisional Theory for an Uncertain World"

Joyce Appleby

With his characteristic boldness and insight, Ian Shapiro surveys the reigning theories in the social sciences and finds them wanting. A superb collection of essays from a trenchant critic.
Joyce Appleby, Professor Emerita of History, University of California, Los Angeles, author of "Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination"

Mark Tushnet

Informed by normative political theory and the philosophy of science, and grounded in a deep knowledge of empirical studies in political science, Ian Shapiro's essays raise fundamental questions for those in all the disciplines—including law—who seek to understand and explain social behavior in the construction of decent public institutions.
Mark Tushnet, Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Constitutional Law, Georgetown University

Alan Ryan

It is always a pleasure to read Ian Shapiro's reflections on political theory, the methodology of political science, and on the state of the discipline. He is sceptical but not cynical, he is critical without malice, and he laces his insights with a dry wit that makes some sometimes quite tough argumentation unusually digestible. It is good to have these pieces so conveniently assembled in one place.
Alan Ryan, New College, Oxford

Strobe Talbott

Ian Shapiro's work has inspired a generation of both scholars and practitioners of politics—for the simple reason that he meets the standards of the former and the needs of the latter. In this book, he helps rescue the study of politics and society from moralists, who believe individuals have more control over their fates than history or economics would support, and from those scientists who view human behavior as mechanistic. He is a theoretician with solid grounding in the real world, a master-observer of the human capacity that is at the heart of the best and worst in political and social life—and everything in between: choice. He writes with a clarity that is refreshing as well as redolent of the confidence he rightly feels in his own judgments.
Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews