A Revolution in Philosophy (and Social Science) in 800 Words

By Liah Greenfeld

First published as “Modern social science deeply indebted to Darwin” in South China Morning Post, June 7, 2015

We are all aware of the power of science and treat it as supreme authority in matters pertaining to our understanding of our world. Of all intellectual endeavors, science alone proved progressive — building and constantly adding to previously accumulated understandings, expanding their reach. This is evident in physics and biology: our understanding of both material and organic realities becomes deeper, increasing our control over them. Not so in social sciences focusing on the reality most pertinent for us: humanity itself.

We hardly understand humanity better than in the end of the 19th century, when the social sciences were first ensconced as such in American research universities — the model for the entire world. Separated by arbitrary divisions which obscured the commonality and the very nature of their subject, social sciences were misconceived from the start. They assumed that society was humanity’s distinguishing characteristic, while it is a corollary of animal life.

What distinguishes humanity from the rest of the animal world is not society, but the way it is transmitted: while the other species rely on genetic transmission, humans rely on culture (or symbolic transmission). Much more flexible, cultural transmission explains the variability of human societies as compared to the near-uniformity of social orders within all other species. Culture and not society should be the focus of the social sciences.

But, if culture is, as is commonly assumed, a function of the human brain, social sciences must belong within biology. The only thing that would justify their existence as autonomous is the irreducibility of this distinguishing characteristic of humanity to the organic and material realities. If humanity is not a reality of its own kind, they represent biological or physical disciplines and social scientists, usually biologically and physically illiterate, are unqualified to be social scientists.

To prove such irreducibility — that is, to prove that the distinction between humanity and other animals is qualitative, not quantitative, one needs, first, to resolve the 2500-years-old central problem in Western philosophy. Western philosophy pictures reality — the entire world of experience — as a universe composed of two heterogeneous elements, matter and spirit, which, derived from one source and thus assumed to be fundamentally consistent, nevertheless appear to be contradictory.

Both elements may be accessible to reason, through observation or faith, but their assumed consistency escapes logical and empirical proof. This was acknowledged by the 19th century. From this acknowledgment resulted the division of intellectual labor: the realm of the spirit going to speculative philosophy and empirical science becoming the authority over (while limiting itself to) material reality. All empirically accessible reality was deemed material and it became impossible to imagine an empirical science that was not a part of physics.

Fortunately for students of humanity, the psycho-physical problem was resolved in 1859 by Charles Darwin. This was a colossal problem for biology as well: Life, too, could be approached scientifically only through physics, but it proved impossible to explain its regularities through physical laws. Thus, the science of biology did not develop: our understanding of living phenomena by 1859 had hardly advanced beyond Aristotle.

Western philosophy – our fundamental vision of reality – did not allow for the autonomous science of biology. A new ontology was needed, which Darwin provided in The Origins of the Species. By demonstrating a form of comprehensive causality operative in life that had nothing to do with the laws of physics but was logically consistent with them, Darwin established life as an autonomous, empirically accessible reality, dependent for its existence on material elements, but irreducible to them and, as concerns causal mechanisms, not material. Thus he transcended the dualist, spiritual material, ontological vision and liberated empirical science from the hold of materialist philosophy.

Now one could imagine empirical reality, accessible through observation, as consisting of heterogeneous, though logically consistent, layers, material and organic, and, within this new ontological framework, biology, unchained from physics, rapidly developed. Influential philosophers still think Darwin established a unified framework in which everything can be understood as a derivation from fundamental physical laws; in fact, he established precisely the opposite.

Though the concept was created later, he gave us the possibility to think of empirically accessible reality, open to scientific investigation, in terms of emergence, as of autonomous layers, each upper layer existing within the boundary conditions of the one below, to which it is causally irreducible.

There are three such layers, the two upper ones emergent — the material, the organic, and the cultural (or symbolic). This justifies seeing humanity as a reality of its own kind and the existence of an autonomous group of scientific disciplines focused on it and its distinguishing characteristic — culture.

This view may save lots of resources wasted in futile attempts to analyze social structures without knowing anything about biology and to reduce culture to the brain, while motivating a systematic exploration of the fascinating subject social sciences now mostly overlook. Perhaps, social sciences, too, will deepen our understanding of the world.

Liah Greenfeld is University Professor at Boston University and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lingnan University. This article is based on her lecture delivered recently at the University of Hong Kong.

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