On Knowing--The Social Sciences

On Knowing--The Social Sciences

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As a philosopher, Richard McKeon spent his career developing Pragmatism in a new key, specifically by tracing the ways in which philosophic problems arise in fields other than philosophy—across the natural and social sciences and aesthetics—and showed the ways in which any problem, pushed back to its beginning or taken to its end, is a philosophic problem. The roots of this book, On Knowing—The Social Sciences, are traced to McKeon’s classes where he blended philosophy with physics, ethics, politics, history, and aesthetics.

This volume—the second in a series—leaves behind natural science themes to embrace freedom, power, and history, which, McKeon argues, lay out the whole field of human action. The authors McKeon considers—Hobbes, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Kant, and J. S. Mill—show brilliantly how philosophic methods work in action, via analyses that do not merely reduce or deconstruct meaning, but enhance those texts by reconnecting them to the active history of philosophy and to problems of ethics, politics, and history. The waves of modernism and post-modernism are receding. Philosophic pluralism is now available, fully formulated, in McKeon’s work, spreading from the humanities to the social sciences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226340357
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/09/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 480
File size: 18 MB
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About the Author

Richard McKeon (1900–85) was the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy and Classics at the University of Chicago. David B. Owen is professor emeritus of education at Iowa State University. Joanne K. Olson is professor in the School of Education at Iowa State University.

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On Knowing â" The Social Sciences

By Richard McKeon, David B. Owen, Joanne K. Olson

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-34035-7


Philosophic Problems in the Social Sciences

This course is the second in a sequence of three which are based on the subject matters we usually call the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. The sequence is designed to be an introduction to philosophy by way of the examination of fundamental problems. It makes the assumption that philosophic problems arise in fields other than philosophy, that they arise even in everyday life. Moreover, because all three courses are concerned with similar philosophic problems and approach them by similar philosophic analyses, and because the differences in concepts and methods examined in the respective courses are, as we shall see, not fixed ones, each course is independent of the other two. In other words, these courses are an exploration of problems which are at heart philosophical and which occur in the various disciplines, but you need not to have taken the course in the natural sciences or the humanities to understand this one in the social sciences.

The method by which we shall proceed is to choose certain concepts basic to a field or discipline both as they are handled by the men in that field and as they are used by philosophers who write about work being done there. It is especially good when you can find one and the same man doing both jobs. For instance, the course on the natural sciences makes an examination of fundamental problems taken from the physical sciences. The problems of motion, to pick one example, involve philosophic aspects when different theories of motion are formed; and philosophic aspects are present either in the resolution of the problems presented by these differences of theory or in the elaboration of one position concerning motion and its related problems of space, time, and cause, even when worked out by scientists such as Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and Schrödinger. The results of each theoretic position taken can be ascertained and traced in experience, but the choice of position taken is not imposed on us by experience or by facts. The relation between the means by which we determine the facts and the means we employ in the science itself is, fundamentally, a philosophic problem.

This course takes its central problems from the social sciences. The social sciences treat various aspects of man's behavior in communities and in the association of individuals with one another. Philosophic problems are involved in the determination of the basic questions raised by such knowledge and its application. There are a variety of ways of identifying and considering such basic problems. As in the natural sciences, we shall use the device of examining the meanings and applications of several basic concepts, namely, freedom, power, and history. Our investigation may be viewed either as an inquiry into the meanings of the terms or as an inquiry into the nature of freedom, power, and history. Viewed the first way, our result will be a series of definitions as well as an analysis of the relations among them. Viewed the second way, the result will be a series of structures of relation among the processes involved in actions which are characterized by freedom, which employ power, and which are recorded in history, as well as an analysis of the relations among those actions. The decision concerning how to consider the actions, moreover, is itself a philosophic distinction which separates different approaches to philosophy or different philosophic schools. In short, when raised explicitly, these basic questions in the social sciences are the subject of philosophy.

We will proceed on the assumption that there is no single, true definition of any of our concepts; rather, a number of good definitions, as well as a number of bad or inadequate ones, exists. Progress occurs through the interplay of the various ideas, not the establishment of just one, and can appear either in the understanding of what freedom means or in the actual achievement of freedom. Although we will not be concerned with the history of ideas, we will see that controversies similar to current ones have occurred up and down various fields throughout history. Still, in the larger picture, progress has occurred in that the current controversies are not simply a repetition of the older ones. Over time there have been a series of significant changes; philosophers are not committing the same old mistakes. We will question the dogma, for instance, that the natural sciences have shown progress but the social sciences have not. This is not true. When we examine the question of history, we will analyze the various senses history can have. In one kind of philosophic scheme, history is progressive; in another, it is not. Consequently, we need to be clear about the definition of our terms before we see if there is progress in history or not.

What, then, is the relation of our terms to each other? Any relation is possible. Take, for instance, freedom and power. They enter into each other's definitions in the varying philosophies, and four relations are logically possible. First, freedom and power can be contraries, that is, terms on the same level and mutually exclusive. One term enters into the definition of the other, and here you have freedom when no one is exercising power over you. Second, the terms are on the same level but are not mutually exclusive: they both occur at once, overlap, and contribute to each other. In this case, the more freedom you have, the more power you have. Third, freedom is the basic and prior term, with power delimiting it and standing in its way. In this approach, freedom and right are taken together, and you get natural rights philosophers like Rousseau arguing in favor of innate rights. Fourth, you may consider power to be the fundamental term and prior to freedom. This is the position where "might makes right": might sets up the sovereign, and it is only after this that one can go on to discuss how freedom and rights fit into the state. Consequently, one has an open field for examining the meaning of freedom, and all four possibilities are present in developed philosophies and in the social sciences.

You will notice that these controversies are based on the ambiguities of the terms' definitions. This is not to say that ambiguity is a bad thing: it is not. In the history of freedom and power, ambiguous statements have been the source not only of philosophic problems but also of discussion and progress. If there were no ambiguity, if each disputant always knew exactly what position he held, there would be no need for discussion. Discussion has value in that it can lead you to clarify your ideas, change your mind, or persuade others; and it can even lead to agreement among parties about an idea that none of them had at the beginning. For instance, philosophers would generally agree on the ambiguous definition of freedom as "the ability to act without external restraint." The key terms here — ability,act, and particularly external — are all ambiguous. Acts, for instance, can be viewed as something internal rather than external. Likewise, anything that one writer holds to be an external impediment can be translated without much subtlety by another into something internal: the external irritant, for instance, may become part of an emotion, of something internal. As a result, freedom of discussion can provide both an alternative to the exercise of power as well as a basis of power.

History, our third term, enters the picture as an illustration of this process. History is the occurrences or the accounts of the occurrences in which human actions exemplify freedom or the use of power. In cases of reason and action, the appeal is to what is the case or to what the facts are; and history is the factual account, past and present, by which what is the case is determined. But examination will show that there are as many senses of history as there are senses of power and freedom; therefore, appropriate facts can be established and inappropriate facts can be rejected for proper reasons, depending on which philosophic position you take. For example, in one kind of history the sequence of what happens has the same form as the conceptual analysis encountered there. Thus, the progress of history is fundamentally the same as the evolution of thought. Hegel takes this position. In another approach to history, by contrast, your appeal is to any fact, and any explanation you can make that will account for the fact is your history. History is what you make it, because there is no simple, direct way to get at what has occurred. You will notice, therefore, that what determines the facts varies, and history will differ according to the different approaches taken. There will be a history for each idea of freedom and power, and the facts we allege will themselves have a history.

The consequence of all this is that one must examine carefully the ideas and methods of any statement, even a chance one, because in large measure they bring about the selection of the writer's facts. You will notice that in talking about ideas and methods so far, I have used a pair of expressions that refers both to the advance in freedom and to the advance in the understanding of freedom. Our analysis will try to keep both these aspects moving together; that is, we will take account of the principle of indifference. The principle of indifference says that if you have a good analysis of the terms in a statement, then you have a good analysis of the facts in the process to which the statement refers. In other words, you should be able to move back and forth between a consideration of the terms in a statement and an examination of the facts in the process. Consequently, all the way through I will draw your attention to both the formal and the material aspects of our analysis.

How should we go about examining the many ideas and methods that appear in history? Well, the first philosophic question involves asking how one goes about defining any concept or about determining the nature of the operations to which the concept refers. We will make use of a schematism which will take care of all the many possible philosophic positions by means of formal considerations. In that schematism, four elements are involved in establishing meaning. We will follow these elements throughout our lectures and discussions.

One of the four elements involves problems of selection. There are an infinite number of terms or data potentially related to any question we can ask, and it is out of these that we make a selection. For example, in psychology, some writers select terms that ultimately go back to physics and talk of motions and forces. Others, nonbehaviorists like Freud, borrow terms from hydrodynamics and talk of pressures. Still others account for social interrelations by choosing terms based on spiritual values. Thus, selection gives you the basic way in which you orient yourself to problems. Again, the question of terms or groups of terms has a double character. In its formal aspect, it involves a question of what terms are used to generate meaning, what language is employed. In its material aspect, it involves a question of what data the terms refer to — not the propositions made about the data but the isolated data the language refers to. Both of these aspects, in turn, are influenced by society, ideology, the fashions of thought, or the climate of opinion in which one is working. Fundamentally, then, selection involves questions of single terms.

A second element of definition is interpretation. An interpretation is a statement involving two terms — when we used to speak of parts of speech, this was called a subject and a predicate; now it is done with respect to sentence functions — and it is the minimum unit of truth or falsity. The statements or propositions of interpretation make allegations that may be tested, that may be proved or disproved, about the relation of something to something else. On the one hand, a proposition can be tested formally by examining the relation between a subject and what is asserted of that subject as a predicate, which leads to establishing the proposition's truth or falsity; on the other hand, it can be tested materially by various experiential means which lead to establishing the existential relations among the data, that is, establishing the facts relevant to the case at hand. Notice, a fact is something that has been made, something which is not fixed but, rather, is the product of an interpretation.

In order to hold that something is true or false, you must be able to prove or show it. A rich vocabulary is involved here due to the work of the German existentialists. Explain, prove, inquire, discover, all refer to processes by which you can arrive at conclusions; and the process by which you arrive at a conclusion which is either true or, at least, probable is your method, our third element. Method is the means by which one discovers or establishes knowledge about something, for example, freedom, or the means by which one acquires or protects freedom. It refers both to the sequence of steps leading to a conclusion, usually the exposition in words of the processes denoted, and to the sequence of steps in the actions themselves. Formally, method consists of three or more terms, the traditional example of the minimum number of terms required being the three terms of a syllogism.

Finally, arguments can be organized into homogeneous sets that are compendent or systematic in character; they are organized into a single whole. Any number of terms can enter at this point, so you have n possibilities. This is the element of principle. It is the basis on which knowledge is established or action is founded. Of all the terms and data which might be selected, of all the truths and facts that one can interpret, of all the sequences of statements and things that one can follow, principle joins these other elements, formal and material, together into a compendent set. It grounds what you say the case is with what is the case.

This schematism is important because it corresponds to the different kinds of questions you can ask about something; and when the answers to these questions are gathered together, you have a complete definition of what it is you are talking about. Selection is an answer to the question, What are you talking about? What terms or data are relevant to the question? Interpretation answers the question, What are you saying about it? What are instances? Method answers the question, How did you achieve this result in fact or in argument? And principle provides the answer to the question, Where did you start? What is the basis ruling the entire procedure? What are the grounds for all this? (See table 1.)

Let's take the concept of freedom as an example. If you begin with the ambiguous statement that freedom is the ability to act without external restraint, you can render that definition precise by answering each of these questions. The questions would look like this — and remember, they will include both formal and material aspects. Selection asks: What terms are to be used in the discussion of freedom, for example, things, institutions, natures, powers, reason, will, passions, actions, language, communication, consensus? What things or actions are free? Interpretation asks the question: What do you mean by freedom? What are the defining characteristics of freedom that allow you to recognize what things and actions are free? Method's question is: How is freedom investigated? How is it achieved and exercised? How is knowledge related to freedom? Finally, principle asks: What is the basis of freedom? How is freedom possible or conceivable? Answer each of these questions and you will have defined and located freedom unambiguously (see table 2).

In this course, we will move through our three concepts by successively taking up each of their possible selections, interpretations, methods, and principles. This will be the first level of our discussion, and we will examine what could be meant by the various approaches. In this process, we will place various philosophers in a schema relative to each other. This part will be the semantics of the course. Philosophy here is the combination which one makes out of the various approaches and the reasons advanced in support of that combination.


Excerpted from On Knowing â" The Social Sciences by Richard McKeon, David B. Owen, Joanne K. Olson. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures and Tables
Lecture 1 Philosophic Problems in the Social Sciences
Lecture 2 Freedom: Method
Discussion. Hobbes
Part 1 Leviathan, Part I, Chapter XIV
Part 2 Leviathan, Part I, Chapter XIV; Part II, Chapter XXI; Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society, Chapter XIV
Lecture 3 Freedom: Interpretation
Lecture 4 Freedom: Principle
Discussion. Spinoza
Part 1 Ethics, Books I–IV
Part 2 Ethics, Book V
Part 3 Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Chapter IV
Part 4 Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Chapter XVI
Lecture 5 Freedom: Selection
Lecture 6 Freedom: Selection (Part 2)
Discussion. Kant
Part 1 Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, Preface
Part 2 Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, First Section
Part 3 Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, First Section; Second Section
Part 4 Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, Second Section; Third Section
Lecture 7 Power: Selection and Interpretation
Lecture 8 Power: Interpretation (Part 2) and Method
Discussion. Mill, On Liberty
Part 1 On Liberty, Chapter I
Part 2 On Liberty, Chapter II
Part 3 On Liberty, Chapter II
Part 4 On Liberty, Chapters III–IV
Lecture 9 Power: Method (Part 2)
Lecture 10 Power: Principle; and History: Interpretation
Discussion. Machiavelli
Part 1 The Prince
Part 2 Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius
Lecture 11 History: Method and Principle; and Conclusion
Discussion. Review
Appendix A: Class Schedule
Appendix B: List of Names
Appendix C: One Alternate Introduction to the Course
Appendix D: Schema of Philosophic Semantics
Appendix E: Reading Selections from Hobbes’s Leviathan and Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society
Appendix F: Kant, Fundamental Principles: Three Editions with Major Sections’ Pagination
Appendix G: Mill, On Liberty: Four Editions with Major Sections’ Pagination
Appendix H: McKeon Notes on Freedom and History
Appendix I: Final Examination
Appendix J: Semantic Profiles of Selected Western Thinkers
Appendix K: Alternative Definitions of Freedom, Power, and History

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