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ISBN-13: 9780300074772
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/10/1998
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Bruce Mazlish was professor emeritus of history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of The Leader, The Led, and the Psyche; The Revolutionary Ascetic, In Search of Nixon The Riddle of History; Reflections on the Modern and the Global, and Globalization and Transformation. Bruce Mazlish was professor emeritus of history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of The Leader, The Led, and the Psyche; The Revolutionary Ascetic, In Search of Nixon The Riddle of History; Reflections on the Modern and the Global, and Globalization and Transformation.

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Chapter One

The Problem
of the Human Sciences

The natural sciences allow us to attain relatively certain understanding of, and predictive control and manipulative power over, natural processes—or so it is widely assumed. This view holds, assuredly among scientists, even in the face of postmodernism and the social constructionism of science. Many believe that the natural sciences may, and perhaps should, serve as a model for any attempt at comparable human sciences. Indeed, at the time of the Enlightenment it was widely held that nothing seriously stood in the way of the extension of scientific method to human matters, although there was disagreement over how to carry out the assignment.

    As we shall see, this view went forward forcefully as positivism. The arguments in favor of it, and the difficulties with it (for many opposed, and oppose, it, root and branch), will be discussed in the next chapter. Here, in this chapter, I want to suggest the range of hopes and problems associated with any attempt at the human sciences, whether on the model of the natural sciences or not, making only a partial effort at this point—more in the way of hints, if anything—to judge or to offer alternative possibilities.

    In carrying out this task, I will be employing a historical perspective. My approach might be called philosophical history, that is, history with a philosophical intent, in contrast to the more widely accepted philosophical anthropology. In taking this approach, however, it is imperative to cross existing boundary lines, including those around the discipline of history. Only a broad, synoptic treatment of the subject can offer the possibility of a real change in our thinking.

    In this chapter, where the general problem is posed, I shall arrange what I have to say under two major headings: the aims of a human science and its preconditions. We shall begin, however, by further examining (following on the Introduction) the definitions attached to the words human science(s) and by next imagining a Martian observer on Earth. Then we shall consider such topics as secularization, symbolization, emergent phenomena, interpretation, and accumulation as vital parts of our initial inquiry. Last, I shall introduce the perspectives brought to bear on the problem of the nature and meaning of the human sciences by presenting three prerequisite events: the Age of Discovery, the Enlightenment, and the Darwinian revolution.

The Human Sciences: Further Definitions

In the Introduction, we explored various definitions of the human sciences. Now we must recognize that numerous other names for what we are in general talking about have been, and still are, used: the science of man, social sciences, behavioral sciences, moral sciences, and Geisteswissenschaften. There are perhaps others, including Kulturwissenschaften and even cultural studies (although this last does not have explicit scientific aims). Often the social sciences are viewed as equivalent to the human sciences. In fact, I would argue, they are simply a subset, usually containing economics, anthropology, sociology, and political science. History, and psychology, in the form of social psychology, are given uneasy entrance. But even literature can at least be imagined as a legitimate form of science?

    We must leave open, therefore, the issues of (1) what is meant by the term science and (2) what falls under its dominion. In the simplest etymological sense, the word science means "knowing." One "knower" was the erudite English classicist Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, who announced: "I am the master of this college;/What I know not is not knowledge." Such a claim, whether by an arrogant classical scholar or by contemporary social scientists, should not preclude further investigation.

    Although the division between natural and human sciences is a useful one, it can be seriously misleading. Does the nomenclature imply that the natural sciences are "inhuman"? Such a conclusion might be a remnant of the view of some humanists that the natural sciences are cold and calculating, instead of being part of human creativity. Are the human sciences, in turn, not "natural"? This view would also seem to be a remnant, in this case of the belief that humans are separate from nature, somehow a special creation. We now know that humans are natural creatures, formed by evolution, and that the natural sciences are socially constructed. In this light, then, the division between the sciences must be viewed as one of convenience (which sometimes becomes inconvenient) and emphasis.

    The modern use of the term science itself is just that—modern. As many scholars know, what today we place under the heading "natural science" was formerly thought of as natural philosophy. Although a recognizable scientific method was being practiced by the seventeenth century, the nomenclature did not change appropriately until the nineteenth century. At that time, in the 1830-40s, William Whewell asked why there was a generic term, artists, for sculptors, painters, and engravers and no such term for botanists, zoologists, geologists, and physicists. To repair this omission, he suggested scientist and science as the names under which to group the emerging specialities formerly lumped under natural philosophy. The term caught on, and Michael Faraday was perhaps the last major inquirer to continue calling himself a natural philosopher.

    At about the same time, the rubric "social sciences," presumably inspired by the natural ones, came into common usage. It was a loose term, verging on the inclusion of social work on one side and social theory on the other. Social science as a phrase seems to have come into existence around 1789. Subsequently, the Marquis de Condorcet, in his Sketch for an Historical Picture of the Human Mind (1793), spoke of a "social art." In the 1820s, Adolphe Quetelet, the Belgium statistician, was writing about "social physics." By the 1840s, Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism, coined the term sociology to differentiate his larger and more ambitious science from Quetelet's limited statistical approach. Gradually the earlier overall term social science came to mean what Comte meant by sociology—a scientific inquiry into human phenomena—and to include economics (which had only recently emerged, in the 1770s, out of work in moral philosophy, vide Adam Smith) as well as the newly professionalized disciplines of sociology and anthropology.

    John Stuart Mill thought that he was pursuing moral philosophy when he took up the task of inquiring into what he came to call the moral sciences. The German translation of this term was Geisteswissenschaften, where the moral or spiritual sciences were placed in contrast to the Naturwissenschaften. The assumption was that the two kinds of sciences dealt with radically different phenomena and required radically different methods.

    By using the term human sciences I am trying to escape from the attitudes attached to the various designations. The subject matter of human science is a particular species, Homo sapiens, which can be studied by natural science, as we would study ants, and also by another set of disciplines, which have as their central feature the fact of human subjectivity and meaning.

    What this statement entails will become clearer in the rest of this book. We get a hint of the problem in A. R. Radcliffe-Brown's wish that anthropology be a science of "concrete, observable facts" and his plaintive realization that relationships are not observable phenomena. If we would understand such institutions as cannibalism or totemism, we are told, we must also understand the values attached to them. (How this is to be done is the subject of much thought in cultural anthropology.) One writer has reduced the notion to its simplest expression: the human sciences are "the sciences of subjectivity."

    As we go on, I think that we will find that this short definition is not so much wrong as too simple. The human sciences involve any disciplined scientific attempt to understand the human species, which, though not excluding the external (how could it?), tends to emphasize the internal experience. The scientific method used in any particular human science, as I shall try to show, must be judged not in terms of any a priori model but in terms of the particular human science itself, as it develops in regard to its view of the subject. The method, I am arguing, is continuous with that to be found in the natural sciences. There is only one way of thinking scientifically, whatever the field, but innumerable methodical modes by which so to think.

    What I have given here is a brief historical background to our use of the rubric "human sciences." We need to keep the definition open-ended, at least provisionally, allowing for what is described by the terms social science and literature, psychology and cultural studies, positivism and hermeneutics to be seen as part of the domain of the human sciences. Any useful definition must be an evolving one, as demanded by its own subject matter.

The Martian Experiment

To offer perspective, let me introduce a scientist who has come from Mars and has landed on Earth to do a study of this alien species, humanity, the way we Earthlings study ants. In fact, our Martian is even further removed from "his" subject (for literary reasons, I will use the masculine pronoun), for he neither coexists with it nor has any inherited feelings about it. Thus, he is completely objective—that is, he can treat his subject matter as solely an object.

    How good a scientist would our Martian be? He would observe dispassionately all that was external, he could record data, he might even run experiments forbidden to human scientists, for he would have no human moral scruples (of course, he might have his own, just as ours might interfere with what we do with ants). He would observe humans engaging in economic activities, practicing science, and making wars. On a more private scale, he could study their mating customs and sexual mores and their child-rearing habits.

    He would also see buildings and art objects; he would observe humans reading books and would read them himself. And it is somewhere near this point that the question of meaning, inherent in all the human activities and practices cited above, would come front and center. How would our Martian know what all these activities "mean"? How could he understand what the Earthlings were saying hypocritically or ironically, with humor or with malice?

    A facsimile of the problem is presented to us by an ethnographer studying an alien tribe—one like Bronislaw Malinowski, who specifically enjoins us to "imagine an ethnographer from Mars." In an early, positivistic mode, Malinowski pictured the Ethnographer (he capitalized the term) as a being removed from the scene he was observing. From on high, so to speak, he could view the whole of the society in question. As Malinowski declared, the natives "have no knowledge of the total outline of any of their social structure.... Not even the most intelligent native has any clear idea of the Kula as a big, organized social construction, still less of its sociological function and implications." Only the Ethnographer knows: he "has to construct the picture of the big institution, very much as the physicist constructs his theory from the experimental data."

    Malinowski's confident tone slackens as his experience in the field deepens. He still believes that his report from the field is analogous to the "experimental contribution of physical or chemical science," but as he is drawn further into the question of how to describe the conditions under which his observations have been made, and his own role as observer, doubts begin to surface. He becomes increasingly aware that his observations are being made not by a mechanical device but by a self, his self. Even Malinowski's Martian ethnographer, who might wish to treat the native as a particle, à la the physicist, will find himself encountering difficulties. His questioning of the natives—the interview technique so basic to anthropology in the field—will not be trustworthy, for example, for the informant's recital of a moral rule may not coincide with actual behavior. The ethnographer must observe what is done, and if he is to understand its meaning, he must have a knowledge of the native's language and of the meaning context in which the act is performed.

    What the Martian discovers is that human phenomena—the messy details of rules and rituals, belief systems and social practices—are filled with ambiguity and, worst of all, with meanings that pose problems for an imagined objective observer. When the human ethnographer is himself part of what is observed—both in terms of his awareness of self and the other's awareness of him—his confidence erodes. Is he, therefore, left with merely subjective impressions? With sheer uncertainty?

    Our Martian could be a follower of B. F. Skinner and insist that behaviorism is all. Or insist that he can observe "unintended consequences" with mathematical exactitude. I do not wish to pursue our jeu d'esprit with more rigor, however; I will simply let it signal the sort of problems to be encountered in thinking about the human sciences. In place of further cogitations on the deus ex machina—read, Ethnographer—from Mars, let us turn to the specific problem of aims.

Aims of the Human Sciences

The presumed aims of a human science are usually many and varied, frequently vague, often utopian. Still, we can identify a number of them and indicate the sorts of claims on which they are based. Without exploring any of these aims and claims in depth, we can gain a purchase on the problem in regard to the human sciences. The comparison with the similar problem facing the natural sciences should be implicit.

    Before engaging in this task, however, I should enter a demurrer. Much of the discussion generally undertaken in this area is highly formalistic, employing abstract philosophical distinctions and committed to terminological disputes. The discussion is frequently more concerned with logical principles than with immersion in the human sciences. Often, this kind of philosophy of science offers benefits, especially clarity and precision, and I have sought such gains. My basic approach, however, while also philosophical in intent, is not of this sort.

    In attempting to understand scientific method, I have approached the subject first and foremost from a historical perspective, seeking to understand its emergence from the actual practices and changing thoughts of those working in the disciplines. Yet the present work is not a history of the human sciences any more than it is a philosophy of them, although I have tried to benefit from such histories.

    There is neither an ur-model of science nor a Platonic ideal, nor, in the case of the human sciences, a history that suffices. There is only the human attempt to understand the natural and social environment in ways that come to be considered scientific and that eventually adhere to acceptable criteria for collecting and weighing of evidence, validating procedures, making testable predictions where feasible, verifying results, and so forth, by an agreed-upon scientific community. Here, however, I will say no more, for much of what follows is intended to exemplify and spell out rather than merely describe the perspective being advocated.


    Almost all effort at science, human and natural, is an attempt to increase understanding. More specifically, understanding (which comes from the Old English for "a mental grasp" or "comprehension") is used here as a synonym for knowledge, for science, as the etymology of the word in Latin informs us, means "to know." Not all that we understand, or know, is science, however. For it to be science, it must be "systematized knowledge derived from observation, study, and experimentation carried on in order to determine the nature or principle of what is being studied" (Webster's New World Dictionary).

    In earlier times, the key word was "systematized." Thus, in the Christian Middle Ages, theology was Queen of the Sciences, for it certainly systematized our knowledge of the supernatural and, by derivation, the natural as well. We are less sympathetic to its claims today, after the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, for we find it short on controlled experimentation and long on intuitive assertion and unverifiable observation.

    Although systemization is a critical component of what we take to be scientific understanding, it is not sufficient: the telephone book is systematized, yet we would hesitate to place it in the canons of scientific literature. Still, systematization we must have if we are to have scientific understanding as opposed to or distinct from other kinds of understanding, such as isolated insights or intuitions.

    But is scientific understanding the only kind deserving of the name? Many positivists and logical positivists are happy to take an affirmative position, ruling out as irrelevant or nonsensical other claims to knowledge (as distinct from belief). For them, the arts, for example, would also fall into this irrelevant category. My position on this issue is implicit in what has already been said; further comments will be reserved for the chapters on positivism and hermeneutics.

    Understanding, then, with all the definitional nuances and qualifications that adhere to it, is one all-encompassing aim of any human science. The question of what we are trying to understand—the content of the human sciences—remains open. Is it human nature? Is it how societies function? Is it the laws of social change? This is a major subject to which we shall return.


    If understanding is an aim of any human science, one test of understanding may be predictive power. If we really know, so it is often asserted, we should be able to predict the course of events. The French scientist Pierre Simon de Laplace, who lived in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, may have indulged in hyperbole (and obviously did not anticipate quantum theory) when he boasted that if he knew the location and motion of every particle in the universe at a particular moment, he could predict every possible future state. Although this view is no longer seen as tenable, even sober physicists still take it as a commonplace that, knowing the present position of electrons in a closed system, they can predict the force of a nuclear blast. Even probability theory bows to determinism where the boundary conditions can be known.

    Is prediction possible in regard to the human sciences? This was certainly the hope and belief of early social scientists. Where religion indulged in prophecy, secular science was to substitute true prediction. What this meant was a subject of great contention. The Marquis de Gondorcet, the eminent French progressivist, believed that mathematics could construct a "social art" whereby predictions could be made on the basis of probability theory, so that insurance schemes and welfare provisions could be scientifically constructed to take care of future happenings. Karl Marx went much further and in his confident Hegelian moods predicted the inevitable rising of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie (in his better moments, Marx was aware of the contingent nature of his prediction).

    The reductio ad absurdum of this belief in social science prediction can be found in the science fiction (a contradiction in terms?) of Isaac Asimov. In Foundations he posits a science of "psychohistory." That this has nothing to do with the hermeneutic-based science of Erik Erikson and others is made clear by Asimov's definition: it is "a profound statistical science." It offers predictions, in some cases with a 98.4 percent probability as to the future history of the Galactic Empire. This is sheer hocus-pocus. When, however, Asimov has his scientist-hero Hari Seldon remark, "Were you to discover the ins and outs, our plan might fail," he is touching on on important point: if humans know how they are supposed to behave, they may behave otherwise.

    In any event, prediction of some sort is a recurring problem for the human sciences. Practically, the question can be asked, if the human sciences cannot offer reliable predictions of some sort or another, what good are they? Even if we take prediction to mean foreseeing scientifically a course of events that will occur unless we take certain actions to head them off, thus falsifying the narrow prediction, ought we not still to expect any science worthy of the name to be able to predict? If not, we are forced to rethink the aims and purposes of the human sciences.

    Prescription and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

    Closely aligned with prediction are prescription and the self-fulfilling prophecy, with each verging on the other. Hari Seldon in Foundations had to hide what was to happen so that no actor could purposefully change the outcome. In prescription, the actors' knowledge of the ins and outs can become essential to the realization of the prediction.

    Let us consider some examples. The department store magnate Edward Filene observed in 1919 that "mass production demands the education of the masses; the masses must learn to behave like human beings in a mass production world." Another example, this one from Charles Lindblom and David Cohen in their book Usable Knowledge: "Inflation appears to be an example of a problem that cannot be solved until certain groups of people learn different behavior," which is to moderate their income demands. (I am not concerned here with the correctness of the prescription, only its form.) In both examples, the predicted behavior—mass consumption or the ending of inflation—is predicated (and I use the word advisedly) on people acting in a certain way laid down for them. Such behavior can also be "unconscious" or "unintended," that is, appearing as a consequence of conscious behavior whose aim is other than that which finally emerges.

    Perhaps the most famous example is connected to Max Weber's Protestant Ethic. His thesis is that the life of economic man is prepared for by the inculcation of a highly controlled, calculating, and self-monitoring way of life. Derived as this character is from Calvinist religious admonitions, it has the unconscious and unintended consequence of being advantageous in capitalist society. As Thomas Haskell sums it up, Weber "recognized that the market itself, by rewarding some character types and penalizing others, encouraged the development of the utility-maximizing sort of person that its efficient operation demanded."

    Only if a sufficiently large number of individuals behave as prescribed, as utility-maximizers, does the market operate in a fashion that lends itself to reliable prediction. If enough humans act in an economically self-interested manner, the outcome of their behavior takes on a regular, and thus calculable, form. Such behavior is not "natural" (although Adam Smith sought to root bartering, and by extension the market, in a propensity of human nature); it is prescriptive.

    It is not only in economics that prescription can operate. The seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke insisted that men contract, as rational beings, to enter civil society and to establish a political community. Though based on a fiction of natural rights, this description-become-prescription played a role in causing his fellow Englishmen to establish a political community on the Lockean model. In this case, moreover, what began as a "what should be"—a nation as a community of free-willing individuals—became a "what is," thus presumptively solving this perpetual dilemma of the human sciences.

    If humans will behave as prescribed, then their behavior can be predicted. This is one formula (which we will take up again later in the book). In reality, humans are erratic, inconsistent, changeable, and even perverse. Only machines are, in principle, totally programed and thus predictable. The Industrial Revolution had in mind to create not only novel inorganic machines but new mechanical men as well.

    Typically, Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the pottery manufacture that bears his name (and grandfather of Charles Darwin), described one of his tasks as "to make such machines of the Men [his factory "hands"] as cannot err." Jeremy Bentham, his contemporary and designer of the infamous Panopticon, wondered "whether the liberal spirit and energy of a free citizen would not be exchanged for the mechanical discipline of a soldier.... And whether the result of this high-wrought contrivance might not be constructing a set of machines under the similitude of men?"

    It is not an accident that Bentham also tried to construct a human science, his "felicific calculus," that could give apodictic, that is, certain, knowledge concerning such Man-like machines. If humans are indeed machines, as not only Wedgwood and Bentham hoped and as many behaviorists and even artificial intelligence researchers believe, then they may be as predictable as other mechanical devices are. In this light, prescription may be viewed as a means of turning humans into machinelike subject-objects whose behavior is then predictable.

    The other, more limited form that prescription takes may be viewed as the self-fulfilling prophecy, made famous by the sociologist Robert Merton. Stated simply, if people believe something is going to happen, and act on that presupposition, then it comes about. For example, if I (or, better still, a megafinancier) predict that the German mark will go up in value, and act accordingly, enough people will follow suit so that the mark will go up. A more portentous example: if Marx predicts the proletariat will inherit the earth, and enough workers act on that prediction, they may indeed inherit the earth.

    Prediction, prescription, self-fulfilling prophecy—they are all linked. But in whatever form, prediction in the human sciences is fraught with difficulties not to be found in many of the natural Sciences. For many observers, the freewilling aspect of the human subject makes it different from other objects. In fact, as in all else, we are faced with a matter of degree. How predictive is the theory of evolution by natural selection in the fine grain of nature? We can predict that natural selection will operate, but in exactly what manner may escape us. More certain seems the prediction that a missile launched at the moon will reach its target. Moving to the social sciences, we can also predict with some confidence that births tend to go up after a war and that lowering the interest rate will stimulate capitalist investment—more or less. As with all sciences, however, at every point we must add "other things being equal" and "given the following conditions." We must acknowledge that the setting of conditions—boundaries—appears far more tentative and uncertain in the human than in the natural sciences. As a result, the problem of prediction, as of understanding, can be dealt with significantly only in regard to a particular human science and its attempt at establishing useful boundary conditions.

    For our purposes, we need only note at this point the importance of prediction as an aim professed by many in the human sciences, observing at the same time, however, that, in practice, prediction of any important consequence turns out not to be the strong suit of the human sciences.

    Control and Power

    If prediction is chancy, what sort of utility can the human sciences claim? Some practitioners answer that the aim is to control, rather than leaving matters to chance. Thus, typically, an early sociologist, Edward Alsworth Ross, in 1898 urged that "the right persons" (presumably social scientists like himself) should undertake "the study of moral influences ... for the scientific control of the individual." The same idea is implicit in the motto of the Chicago Exposition of 1933: "Science Finds. Industry Applies. Man Conforms." The assumption behind such statements is that science is sure and acts upon Man, the object, in no uncertain terms. Yet, at the very beginning of the attempt at human science,' in this case, history, Herodotus voiced doubts about the proposition: "Of all the sorrows which afflict mankind, the bitterest is this, that one should have consciousness of much, but control over nothing." The issue is joined.

    Control can be envisioned by its supporters in terms of precise, calculable laws or in vaguer and more general terms. When Michel Foucault announces that knowledge is power, he means that "society"—in his case, bourgeois society—imposes a discipline upon its members, whether in asylums, penitentiaries, or the economic and social sphere, in the guise of social science. Thus, social science offers control, but, in fact, in the form of ideology rather than real knowledge.

    A less extreme or "ideological" version of this position can be found with Lindblom and Cohen. They put little stock in the notion that social science is the pursuit of verifiable propositions, or "truth," or an increasingly correct representation of reality. Instead, they believe that its aim must be to raise new issues and to stimulate debate and, if possible, to cause policy makers to reconsider their political or social philosophies. In the end, they claim, "some kinds of issues have to be settled by the interactions called 'politics' rather than by analysis."

    Politics comes very close to ideological battle (whatever its basis as well in personalities and interests striving after power). In this battle, the claim to scientific certitude, in the form of social science, becomes a potent device. Following Lindblom and Cohen, we can argue that the "nine out of ten doctors agree" syndrome (my example), so helpful in selling products, can also sell social policies. The aim of a human science, then, would not necessarily be to offer scientific knowledge but merely to offer the claim to it.

    Some argue that we need not settle for this disappointing conclusion. The human sciences may not be able to offer us apodictic knowledge or Panoptical control (which we may not even want), but it can offer us an analysis of connections that makes sense out of what otherwise is chaos. Such an analysis will have to match up to the data and theory requirements of the particular human science in question—and, to anticipate a later argument, to do so by mixing positivist and hermeneutic perspectives.

    Such a claim (whatever its validity in practice) is made by Malinowski in his classic work Argonauts of the Western Pacific. His argument is that ethnography introduces law and order into what otherwise seems chaotic and freakish. The result, in his study of the Trobriand Islands, is the transformation of the "sensational, wild and unaccountable world of 'savages' into a number of well ordered communities." We are granted, or so the claim goes, an understanding—anthropological science—denied to the natives themselves.

    Thus, it can be argued (an argument to be taken up again at length in the concluding chapter) that control may take the form of consciousness, that is, mental comprehension, as an aim of the human sciences, for conscious analysis and understanding is a form of control over phenomena; and it is a form of science. This may sound paradoxical, for, indeed, analysis of this sort, à la Malinowski's transformation, is almost always multicausal and historically conditioned—making control along the lines of positivist or behavioral aspirations more or less impossible. In short, even when we are conscious of phenomena and their causes, achieving a kind of mental control, we may have to conclude that we are probably unable to affect them in a desired way.

    Yet the human desire for control, for power, over social phenomena, as well as natural phenomena, persists. We see the paradox dramatically presented by even so astute a philosopher as Jürgen Habermas, when, as Thomas McCarthy paraphrases him, he calls for a "social theory [read, "human science"] designed with a practical intent." Yet Habermas wishes for a life "free from unnecessary domination." How is one to have practical intent without domination? Is this to hanker after utopia? The implicit hope is that human science will have practical consequences—this is the famous Marxist theory and praxis argument—by providing scientific certainty, an acceptable form of control, in the context of which freedom can grow. It is a position, suitably modified, toward which I am not unsympathetic.

    Accumulation and Interpretation

    We have pondered some of the possible aims of the human sciences: understanding, prediction, power, and control. We need now to examine one other aim, which can be understood only when placed in the context of the others. It is the problem of accumulation. To qualify as scientific knowledge, knowledge must presumably grow and heap up. This is a modern view, and is certainly the positivist view. It seems to be an achievable aim in the natural sciences. As Newton said, he stood on the shoulders of giants and could therefore see further than they. We do not need to read Newton himself to share in his discoveries. They stand available to us in textbooks on physics. On these formulas and laws, we can build further science. We are in the presence of symbolic formulations that allow for precise transmission and scientific elaboration and accumulation.

    In the light of this ideal, what is the situation in the human sciences? Faced with grand political and social philosophical systems, the positivist's reaction, as phrased by Richard J. Bernstein, is to say that the "trouble [with such systems] is their tendency to confuse fact and value, descriptive and prescriptive judgments. Whatever worth such a study might have, these traditional systems do not lend themselves to systematic, rigorous formulation by which they can be empirically tested." Or, to put it another way, they offer little in the way of accumulated scientific knowledge, or even the possibility thereof.

    What shall we make of this criticism? The first thing to note is that the same criticism is made today even of the natural sciences. Some historians of science, such as Georges Canguilhem and Thomas Kuhn, and such philosophers as Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, as well as many postmodernists, speak of "ruptures" or breaks, or paradigms in science, rather than of scientific accumulation. As Alan Ryan sums up their position, "Science was not the accumulation of particular pieces of knowledge, but the imposition on experience of changing conceptions of reality, of how it operated, and what counted as knowledge of it. Intellectual history was not the history of individuals but of these structures. Galileo's heliocentric universe was not a development of the geocentric universe that preceded it, but its revolutionary overthrow. Its acceptance was not a matter of adding one new belief to an old stock but of agreeing to see the world differently."

    There is something of value in this view. As Anthony Pagden and others have pointed out, it is not always new facts but the new way of looking at them that can be said to mark the advance of knowledge. What is overlooked by the rupture adherents is precisely that the seventeenth-century break shown in the history of science was marked most fundamentally by the elaboration and acceptance by a newly formed scientific community of the practice of scientific method. It is the very practice of this method—changed over time in accord with its own findings and in accord with the nature of the phenomena to which it is extended, but unchanged in its fundamental attributes—that constitutes modern science and is the basis of its accumulated findings.

    If this view is accepted, the cumulative nature of science is at least partially rescued. What implication does this finding have for the human sciences? If they are devoid of true scientific method, are they not by definition a matter simply of constant ruptures and no cumulative value? We can see now why the effort in this book to understand and employ the scientific method of the human sciences is so important, for it stands at the heart of the cumulation problem.

    In this light, let us tentatively address the question Why read Auguste Comte or any other human scientist? Why not extract from him whatever is of verifiable value, put it in a textbook, and read that, along with other, similar materials? The answer must be that in the human sciences we are faced with a different sense of accumulation than in, say, physics. We read Comte because he is both part of the past of humanity that we are trying to understand and a theorist about the emergent phenomena of industrialization and science. His views have a different kind of validity from that of a scientific experiment.

    The human sciences, though they, like the natural sciences, are subject to the constraints of employing a proper, suitable scientific method, do work differently. It is important to realize that in the natural sciences there is a relatively fixed text, in the sense of the objects to be interpreted. For Newton, whereas stars and apples may move and even decay, their properties as objects susceptible to the force of gravitation remain constant. The earth's history is fixed in a way that written texts are not, so stratigraphy, studying the strata of the earth, is uniform for the entire globe. Written texts, a major part of the human sciences, are different from apples and rocks. They shift in a way that is not tectonic but emergent; consciousness changes as to what constitutes their meaning.

    In the human sciences, we are often faced with the distinction between primary and secondary texts. The primary texts, such as Comte in intellectual history, have meaning mostly, if not solely, in terms of the subjective meaning that we attach to them. The secondary texts amount to an ersatz form of accumulation, a potted form of the reality studied by the human sciences (other than the behavioral). What is more, even if consensual knowledge, based on the texts of, say, the nature of feudal society, could be imagined—in other words, accumulated—later historians would be faced with the shift from feudal to commercial society, an emergent phenomenon with novel structures based on new principles of human consciousness. Such a shift would seem to erode the earlier accumulation almost beyond recognition.

    Does this mean that accumulation in the human sciences is impossible? I shall argue later that this is not the case, that the question is poorly put. For much of the human sciences, accumulation will take place in a manner different from that of the natural sciences but no less real for all that. The natural sciences accumulate verifiable knowledge, on which further knowledge can be built in order to achieve greater understanding, prediction, and control. The human sciences mainly accumulate increased consciousness—understanding, but without the attributes of the natural sciences other than that of accordance with scientific method. What this last means I will detail later.

    Before proceeding, one major qualification must be made to what has been said. In the human sciences, there is also the possibility of acquiring scientific understanding of processes that are lawlike and calculable. These are the unintended consequences that economists especially strive to comprehend. They can perhaps be found in other areas of human life, and it is the conjunction of our understanding of unintended consequences and the interpretation of texts wherein may lie the center of the human sciences.


It should be obvious by now that the heart of the human sciences is interpretation, not positivist observations, experiments, verifications, and predictions. One of the elements that I will seek to add is the reinstatement of positivism, in the form of scientific method, as an integral aspect of the human sciences.

    As the Latin etymology of the word interpret informs us, an interpreter is an "agent between two parties, broker [does this allow for extension to economic activities?], negotiator." Such an agent makes things understandable," supplies "meaning" (Webster's New World Dictionary). Interpretation clearly requires at least two parties; and in one sense, a symbol is a form of currency permitting exchange. I will use the word hermeneutics to encompass all of these definitions.

    Merely to say that interpretation is central leaves us with the question How do we decide among competing interpretations? This fits in with the larger question, applicable to unintended consequences as well: Given the variety of different explanations that may appear to satisfy the criteria for truth, how do we know which to select? These questions will be addressed in the other chapters of this book. In the immediate chapter after this one, however, I shall focus on positivism.

    One conclusion I can state now, even before a fuller examination of positivism, is that the human sciences in a purely positivist mode have, to a great and perhaps overwhelming extent, failed. This appears to me beyond contestation (though not argumentation). On the other hand, that an increase in "scientific" understanding and consciousness has occurred also seems to me an obvious fact. We know today not only much more about the external and physical world but also about the internal and social world. It is the conditions, or rather preconditions, of this knowing that I need now to make clearer, thereby preparing to answer the questions Is a human science possible? and What shape would it take if it is possible?


In discussing the possible aims of the human sciences I am aware of how much deeper other thinkers have gone into some of these matters. I am also aware of the innumerable other problems that bedevil any discussion of our subject. Questions about verification, experimentation, repetition of observations, the role of classification, objectivity, value-free research, and so on, are rightly addressed as much to the human as to the natural sciences. Again, I would point out that the most useful discussion can occur only in regard to the discipline involved (see Chapter 5).

    There are other perennial problems. Richard J. Bernstein, mainly with the social sciences in mind, identifies some of them when he says, "Primary questions have been raised about the nature of human beings, what constitutes knowledge of society and politics, how this knowledge can affect the ways in which we shape our lives, and what is and ought to be the relation of theory and practice." Further on, he expands on the function of theory, which is supposed to be "its ability to help us distinguish appearance from reality, the false from the true, and to provide an orientation for practical activity." For the moment, we will not pursue these questions in the abstract—the task primarily of philosophers and social theorists—but just acknowledge their existence.

    But one postulate must be firmly established from the outset: the secular nature of the human sciences. This is a historical note sounded from the eighteenth century on. It becomes a trumpet blast by the mid-nineteenth century, after Darwin. A typical forceful statement of the position can be found in the twentieth century with Edward O. Wilson, who starts from the conclusion that "Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species" and ends by stating categorically that scientific naturalism "is the essential first hypothesis for any serious consideration of the human condition."

    Whatever the ultimate origins of the universe, our study of both natural and human phenomena must be in naturalistic terms if we hope for scientific understanding. Even William James, who had a strong religious streak, insisted that the notion of a soul was a "superfluity for scientific purposes." We must take it, therefore, as given that science cannot appeal to deities for its explanations, but only to secular forces.

    Still, the search for scientific truth, natural or human, has been frequently tied to religious inspirations. We must recognize that, historically, there is no sharp dividing line between religious attempts to explain and understand phenomena and what we call scientific ones. The pursuit of science is continuous with prescientific attempts to understand, predict, and control events (the difference being the critical attitude). Science also developed with strong connections to magic. To speak of the warfare between science and religion (actually, theology) is a gross simplification, as the modern history of science has shown us.

    The "progress" of science, we now realize, has been highly mediated by religious concerns. It was, for example, inspirations drawn from the Bible and its account of the Deluge that encouraged much of the research that underlay the emergence of geology as a modern science. So, too, was geological theory influenced by religious belief, illustrating in this case the way science draws on nonscientific fields for many of its insights. We can expect that nonscientific inspiration will be even more acute in regard to the human sciences.

    Science must therefore define its method in secular terms, yet the scientific pursuit of knowledge often has religious inspirations. The paradox is only apparent. We commit the etiological fallacy if we confuse the social or personal grounds for engaging in science with its logical requirements. Secularization is a logical requirement, although it has its own history.

    In addition to a general trend toward a secularization of knowledge, three historical developments qua preconditions have helped establish the prerequisites for the unfolding of the human sciences. The first is the Age of Discovery, with its encounter with the "Other," raising in new form the question of human nature and what came to be known as culture. The second is the seventeenth-century scientific revolution and its model of scientific thinking, which, in the so-called Age of Reason, was extended to the human sciences. The third is Darwinian theory, with its insights into humanity's evolutionary nature. I shall be touching only briefly on these episodes, but enough, I trust, to show what is involved.


Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction 1(9)
1. The Problem of the Human Sciences
2. Positivism
3. The Human Species as an Object of Study
4. Hermeneutics
5. Some Achievements to Date
6. The Uncertain Sciences
7. "Da Capo," or Back to the Beginning
Appendix: Statistics 237(4)
Notes 241(56)
Critical Bibliography 297(22)
Index 319

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