Philosophy as Social Science

Carl H. Flygt

October 2007


Peter Winch’s landmark essay, The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (1958), which is an attack on positivism in the social sciences, and an extension of Wittgenstein’s later ruminations on language games, family resemblances and forms of life in actual linguistic usage, purports to show that “any worthwhile study of society must be philosophical in character, and any worthwhile philosophy must be concerned with the nature of human society” (p. 3). The  philosophical paradigms here are apparent: Plato’s Republic, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, Mill’s Utilitarianism and Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.  Notwithstanding this notable genealogy, and the ascendance of economics as a successful quantitative (and a successful ordinal) treatment of values in human society, one still has the sense that a real social science, and by Winch’s  equivalence a real philosophy, has yet to emerge in human history and to pay its dividends. Do we really know what it’s all about, this endless round of living, dying and social contracting? Why do people do it? What is its purpose? What is its logic?


I believe the reason for this non-emergence both of “worthwhile philosophy” and of “worthwhile social study” has to do with the fact that neither philosophy nor science had thus far managed to define human conversation adequately. Conversation is, if anything is, a basic unit of society, and social science therefore cannot do without a working model for it. Conversation, moreover, underlies the whole impulse of philosophy. Philosophers live for conversation, which they may accomplish more or less well, but for which alone they apply their self-discipline and refine their arguments. Conversation also contains all of the ontology relevant to worthwhile philosophy and to worthwhile science. What, for example, are the causes of thoughts in conversation? How do thoughts come to be during conversation and how do they become irrelevant? What are true thoughts and by what social mechanism are they legitimated in conversation? How many thoughts are there in a conversation? How do thoughts constitute selves? What is the substance of the self? To what extent is the self socially constituted? How do selves function in conversation? What is the deontic status of the conversational self? What is conversational unity? When is a mental content identical or universal in conversation? How is identical or universal mental representation verified in conversation? What is the theory of computability in conversation? How do numbers and projective geometries underlie conversation? And so forth.


Winch of course explicitly recognizes the relevance of conversation to the idea of social science. When he argues that social explanation in general and historical explanation in particular is nothing like scientific explanation, which applies experimental-deductive generalization and theory to particular instances, he says that historical explanation is altogether analogous to “applying one’s knowledge of a language in order to understand a conversation.” To understand a conversation, one neither needs nor applies any theory of conversation. One simply engages, “non-logically,” with the social relations that “fall into the same logical category as do relations between ideas.” Social relations underlie the logical relations between propositions used in conversation, and for this reason, or something like it, social relations cannot be explained as if they were an instance of physics, for example, subject to the deductive logic of generality, law and theory. From that it follows, or seems to follow, that the scientific method just can’t be applied to social explanation because the objects of social explanation, namely social relationships, are more or less identical with particular languages, and no overarching theory of logic is adequate to explain these.


It seems to me that Winch’s argument simply misses the question of whether a logical-deductive theory of conversation in general is possible. If such a theory were possible, then it is altogether conceivable that any particular language and any particular social organization, regardless of how “non-logical” or subconscious its organizing presuppositions were, could in fact be explained as an instance of a general type. On the conversation theory I favor, it will turn out that the particular languages one can point to (and thus the particular social organizations they constitute) are degenerate versions of an ideal but altogether realizable language and social organization that underlies all language and all social relationship. It is an a priori ideal that everyone recognizes and as a matter of fact hopes for in day-to-day life, but that no one has yet managed to formulate in terms adequate either to philosophy or to social science. The trick will be to produce a working model of the ideal form.


The realizability of ideal language and ideal social organization depends more than anything else, it seems to me, on the scale on which is attempted. The basic reason social science has never gelled as a hard, natural science, as something on the order of physics or molecular biology, is that the scales of government, demography and history are just too large and too complex to derive precise functional relationships. Social science needs to be miniaturized. It needs to be applied to the atoms of society, not to the complex, non-logical, particular and inevitably degenerate complexes that result, for example, from subconscious causes, like amateur parenting, or power politics, like Germany’s 19th and 20th century bids for its place in the sun. No social science of phenomena like these is going to be possible unless and until we understand what good parenting or what Germanic pride generally are, and we’re not going to understand these generally unless and until we understand what good human company and good human conversation logically are, unless and until we can produce them materially and at will.



Flygt, Carl H. Conversation: A New Theory of Language. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2006.


Winch, Peter. The Idea of a Social Science. New York: Routledge Classics, 2007 (first impression, 1958).

John Searle is fond of making this point.

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