At first I thought the vogue for “social ontology” was just a pale reflection of the (ultimately Quine-inspired) revival of ontology over the past few decades in analytical philosophy more generally. But then just in the past ten or fifteen years, social ontology rather dramatically took on a life of its own. John Searle proclaimed, for instance, that “where the social sciences are concerned, social ontology is prior to methodology and theory.” (Imagine someone saying such things about physics — since Descartes, anyway!) This burst of enthusiasm reached its apogee in about 2015, I think it fair to say, with the launch of the Journal of Social Ontology and with Brian Epstein’s The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences, perhaps the most brazen attempt in recent memory to reclaim the Platonic mantle of philosopher king. Historians, economists, sociologists, and assorted others working in the trenches were told that (unbeknownst to them) their disciplines were in crisis, and could only be rescued if they jettisoned their “foundations” and accepted Epstein’s application of “the sophisticated toolkit of metaphysics” to understand what they were even talking about. (p. 9). That theories or questions of actual social science were left out of the picture (and the book) didn’t bother philosophers, who mostly reviewed The Ant Trap glowingly.
Now it’s certainly true that, as Ladyman and Ross very sternly and thoroughly pointed out, philosophers have also been doing this sort of thing with the ontology of the physical and biological sciences more generally. But they’re more careful there. They evidently think that the poor benighted social sciences need especially conscientious bossing around by wise philosophers. Philosophers of physics or biology take it for granted that they need to know something about the subject they are providing with the ontology the scientists themselves thoughtlessly omitted, and mostly accept that their ontological supplements can’t conflict with what the scientists think they’ve tentatively established. It would be considered childishly anthropomorphic to think that the philosopher in her armchair could think up a better set of basic concepts from scratch for, say, chemistry than the chemist in her lab.
Epstein’s equally anthropomorphic efforts, though applauded by philosophers, did not go over so well with social scientists. His book was thoroughly eviscerated by Robert Sugden in the Journal of Economic Literature, who pointed out its complete irrelevance to anything in economics, and ended his review with a famous quotation from Neurath on the dispensability of “foundations.”
One of the main themes of my book about Carnap is that a decisive component of the original motivation first to write the Aufbau and then to push forward to the radical pluralism of the Syntax (and beyond) was Carnap’s diagnosis of the political situation immediately after the First World War in Germany. Amidst revolution and upheaval, Carnap saw very clearly that the German intelligentsia had contributed to the outbreak and continuation of the war by failing to get politically involved in the 19th century as French and British intellectuals had done, and thus failing to restrain the German elite’s war-oriented Betonköpfe (yes, that’s an anachronism — to make a point). So he advocated greater political involvement (and got involved himself), but also thought that to prevent future wars, the chaotic development of societies over the past century or two of rapid industrialization had to be steered by reason to a greater extent. But there existed no satisfactory account of reason, no system in which all the knowledge accumulated by the sciences over the past century could be seen to fit together. In contrast to the traditional Enlightenment system of knowledge (e.g. the Encyclopédie), where the various parts and components of knowledge were anchored in the various human cognitive, practical, and other mental faculties — so that the system was ultimately grounded in human psychology — Carnap (having studied with Frege) thought, like Leibniz, that the system of knowledge should be deductive. And so on from there.
To show that there was really something to this, I attempted in my concluding chapter, very briefly, to suggest how one might apply the later Carnap’s perspective to actual political discourse. This was suggested to me by Michael Friedman, who was on my dissertation committee, and who said that it might help people to get what I was talking about if I applied it to a controversy they were familiar with, such as the Rawls-Habermas debate. Well, I did exactly that, but no one really noticed, and when they did, they ridiculed the idea that such a rarefied nerd as Carnap, who sticks to the “icy slopes of logic,” could possibly have had a political motivation for the intricacies of his formalistic obsessions — or that his perspective could possibly contribute anything to political deliberation. Until now. James Pearson has taken pity on this explicitly political dimension of my book and devoted a paper to it, in which he tries to apply my Carnapian suggestions to a couple of concrete cases. Continue reading
My main philosophical interest all along has been in the philosophy of social science, and I’ve found Carnap interesting as a refreshingly different perspective on that subject (which wasn’t his subject) from the currently most popular ones, which I have to admit I mostly find pretty dreary — especially the endless wallowing in “social ontology,” or “social ontologies.” (So you can see how one might find Carnap’s rejection of ontology refreshing.)
I haven’t had much time to work out my ideas on social science over the past couple of years (since my paper with Sheilagh Ogilvie on evidence in social and economic history, and a related review article), but I’m getting back to them, and was recently invited to post something about them (particularly as they apply to language) on the site History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. This post is just a small corner of a much larger conception, but may be of interest to some readers of this blog as it focusses on philosophy of language, and the nature of meaning, from an empirical point of view. I think the connections to Carnap will be obvious.
Last week I went to a rather interesting little conference in Budapest organized by Ádám Tamás Tuboly at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Given its focus on “sociological” aspects of logical empiricism, most of the papers were focussed on Philipp Frank (about whom I learned a lot) and Neurath (about whom I learned even more, though I knew a lot more about him than Frank to begin with). I was a little surprised at the neglect of Richard von Mises, an outsider I’ve always found very attractive, especially in this connection, and especially of Felix Kaufmann. Neither, admittedly, belongs to either of the two notorious “parties” of the Left or Right Vienna Circles, so both are somewhat lonely eccentrics on the fringe. But then so is Wittgenstein (though of course he’s a much bigger name than either Mises or Kaufmann), to whom Martin Kusch devoted a superb paper focussing on the intellectual context of Wittgenstein’s many remarks on color and color perception, showing in detail how some, at least, of Wittgenstein’s ideas were formed in response to the experimental psychology he encountered in Cambridge when he was a student there before the First World War. Continue reading