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William O

What is the Objectivist position on the methodology of the social sciences?

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Wikipedia defines and describes the social sciences as follows:

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Social science is a major category of academic disciplines, concerned with society and the relationships among individuals within a society. It in turn has many branches, each of which is considered a social "science". The social sciences include, but are not limited to, economics, political science, human geography, demography, management, psychology, sociology, anthropology, archaeology, jurisprudence, history, and linguistics.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_science

A while ago, I read The Psychology of Self Esteem by Nathaniel Branden, a work on psychology that Objectivists often approve of. The methodology used to establish claims in this book struck me as different from that of academic psychology, which aims to be experimental. I also know that Objectivists often approve of Mises' Austrian economics, which is more deductive and depends less on empirical studies than mainstream economics.

With that in mind, I have two questions:

1. What is the Objectivist position on how claims in the social sciences should be justified?

2. What criticisms, if any, do Objectivists have of the way the social sciences are currently conducted in academia?

Ideally, responses will refer to the Objectivist canon, secondary literature, or intellectuals like Peikoff who accept Objectivism.

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There is no specific Objectivist objection to “social sciences”, but there are objections to practices of particular disciplines. These objections aren’t peculiar to Objectivism, rather they are straightforward scientific objections. It’s just that Objectivists make superior scientists, so we are well attuned to checking our premises (we do it all the time), and we understand the importance of a good philosophical foundation for any activity, with terms being defined.

Any claim (social science or otherwise) must be justified by reference to facts of the universe which can be observed. Part of the evaluation of a claim is consideration of alternatives for which there is also evidence. Once there is no remaining evidence, even conceptual evidence, that supports an alternative claim, the conclusion is certain: it is proven, and justified (basically, OPAR ch. 5). Social sciences fall quite short in the enterprise of considering reasonable alternatives.

The main problem of social sciences, as I see it, is even articulating a valid conceptual claim. It is not at all difficult to come up with (valid) empirical law in physical science, but it is nigh onto impossible to do this in social science (economics has the greatest potential that I can see). What is a “law of sociology”? What indeed is a meaningful theoretical question in sociology? Here are some examples of what seem to be theory questions in sociology (from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociological_theory)

What is action? What is social order? How is intersubjectivity achieved? Do social structures determine an individual's behaviour or does human agency? What is the social world made of?

You need a certain amount of background knowledge to grasp the meaning of these questions, but it should not be an infinite regress of arbitrary stipulations and conditionals (“if we define X as Y, then Q follows”). Social sciences are very abstract, in the sense of being significantly removed from experience. Unlike concepts in physical sciences, concepts in social science do not reduce to undeniable observations (iron bars and what happens to them if you stick them in a fire), they reduce to other concepts which reduce to conditionals of the form “We can define X as Y”.

There are two broad kinds of scientific activity: observing, and theorizing. Framed in Objectivist terms, there are perceptual questions, and conceptual questions. Physicists don’t just ask “what happens what you bash two Rolexes against each other at a million miles an hour?”, they ask “why does this happen?”, and “how do we increase the energy output?”. Social science is for the most part stuck in the descriptive, perceptual phase: “this is what these subjects did”. Even answering the most elementary descriptive questions can be extremely difficult, since for the most part, social sciences are observational (not experimental), and the observational data is in disarray (who collects it? how cooperative are those being observed, or those collecting the data? how accurately do the collectors employ the academician’s protocol?).

In the realm of conceptual-level theorizing, the prospects for saying anything meaningful in the social sciences are dim, for two reasons: people are free to chose, and people are free to chose irrationally. Most people can’t predict my future actions, because they don’t understand my hierarchy of values. It’s even harder to make a prediction when the object of investigation (an individual) does not always act rationally.

Contrary to the Wikipedia characterization of “social science”, I would say it has to do with the interaction between choices of an individual and the value one expects to obtain from interacting with other persons. Correspondingly, much of linguistics and cognitive psychology

are not social science.

 

 

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