Sociology Hesitant

Recently an exciting new collection of essays was released called `Ten Neglected Classics Of Philosophy'. In the spirit of this volume, I am going to explicate the argument of an essay that I think is, at the least, an under-appreciated contribution to the philosophy of science. The essay is: `Sociology Hesitant' by W.E.B. Du Bois. It's based on a manuscript he wrote in 1905 reflecting on a scientific conference he had attended, but was first published in 2000 -- this delay in publication probably contributing to its under-appreciation.

Ok so, here is the problem Du Bois takes himself to be responding to. Sociologists of his day, he thinks, are apt to be too metaphysical and theoretical and not enough empirically informed. The result is that they end up offering vague and rather mysterious pronouncements that do not obviously contribute to better understanding the day to day realities of social life that sociology should properly be informing us of. The science thus stands in a state of ill repair, and with a bit of flair he puts the matter as such:
For far more than forty years we have wandered in this sociological wilderness, lisping a peculiar patois, uttering fat books and yet ever conscious of a fundamental confusion of thought at the very foundations of our science—something so wrong that while a man boasts himself an Astronomer, and acknowledges himself a Biologist, he owns to Sociology only on strict compulsion and with frantic struggles.
Where did it all go wrong?

Well, Du Bois has a theory on this point, and based on that theory a solution. He thinks that sociologists are caught between a rock and a hard place because of a complex tangle of beliefs about human free will, scientific laws, and implicitly how those laws must feature in scientific explanation. Untangling this mess, he hopes, will put sociology on the sure path of a science.

The confusion, he thinks, is as such. Sociologists conceive of laws as something like exceptionless universal generalisations, on the model of how physical laws were then understood. To give a good sociological explanation would then be to find sociological laws that capture ``the evident rhythm of human action'' in terms of such laws. However, to suppose that human behaviour could be captured by such laws seems to contradict widely shared and deep convictions about freedom of the will. After all, if we are free, could we not just decide to change our behaviour, and thus invalidate any previously established laws? (I recall a dinner conversation with an economist who told me that he always thought successful social science would never be possible because, should a real economic law ever be discovered, he would resolve to break it, just because he enjoyed being contrary like that. Quite why he was in the business he was in I thought it impolitic to ask him!) And so the sociologist is apparently committed to an impossible task: formulate laws so as to give scientific explanation of human social life, even though such laws cannot be had given the reality of human freedom. Faced with this impossible task, sociologists retreat into studying more well behaved abstractions, resulting in what he describes as ``metaphysical wanderings—studying not the Things themselves but the mystical Whole which it was argued bravely they did form because they logically must'' (he explicitly mentions ``Economic Man'' as an example of such an unreal-but-tidy abstraction).
W.E.B. Du Bois -- ``After studying for some
time in Germany I adopted a handlebar 'stache
and started wearing Prussian calvary gloves.
This is the kind of man I was.''

Rather than such an ultimately fruitless retreat, Du Bois advocates that sociologists ``flatly face the Paradox''. Although not in these terms, Du Bois essentially advocates weakening the concept of scientific law such that sociologists can still give explanations in terms of laws. As he puts it, sociologists should adopt ``the Hypothesis of Law and the Assumption of Chance, and seek to determine by study and measurement the limits of each''. What is meant by that is: sociologists should accept that the laws they produce will be probabilistic rather than determinate, they will state not exceptionless generalisations but chance-y ones. This, he thinks, will allow sociologists to navigate their troubled waters unscathed. So long as people tend to behave in certain predictable ways we can allow that sometimes by whatever mechanism free will is maintained they will act in defiance of our established laws and yet still have laws that capture the phenomena with sufficient reliability and precision as to be useful. With a suitable conception of scientific explanation in hand, we may turn to the empirical study of actual human behaviour, confident that even if human free will does render people to some degree impossible to predict, this will not destroy our chance of offering genuine scientific explanations.

What is more, such a course of study will actually allow us to put our metaphysical convictions to the test. Probabilistic sociological laws in themselves, he thinks, should be acceptable to both the hard determinist and the believer in human free will. This because they don't tell us why the law is probabilistic -- perhaps it is because human free will renders our behaviour fundamentally inexplicable and irreducible to law in some deep way, or perhaps it is simply because we are ignorant of the true causes that, if known, could allow us to formulate a properly deterministic law. Such a situation of metaphysical neutrality is exactly analogous to the metaphysical neutrality of physical laws. As Du Bois puts it:
In the last analysis, Chance is as explicable as Law: just as the Voice of God may sound behind physical law, so behind Chance we place free human wills capable of undetermined choices, frankly acknowledging that in both these cases we [con]front the humanly Inexplicable. 
Whether free will libertarians or ignorant hard determinists, the probabilistic element of our sociological laws represents the degree to which we think ourselves unable to explain human behaviour.

 However! While individual laws may have this feature, sociology as a whole then takes on a grand metaphysical purpose. For the extent to which we are able to replace probabilistic laws with deterministic ones (or, I suppose if one wanted to be fernickity, probabilistic laws with `probability 1' filled in at appropriate places!) will measure the extent to which human free will genuinely exists and influences the course of affairs. As Du Bois puts it: ``Sociology, then, is the Science that seeks the limits of Chance in human conduct.'' So by the end of the essay not only has sociology been placed on an empirical footing, but it has done so without even losing a rightful claim to metaphysical significance and grandiosity of purpose.

That, then, is my summary of the essay. Some of this, I think, will be old hat to philosophers of science now, where for its time it was highly original. We've learned to live with probabilistic,  chance-y, or generally non-deterministic scientific laws, in a way that theorists of 1905 perhaps had not. But I do think that Du Bois attempt to show that a more sophisticated conception of scientific explanation can overcome objections to the idea of `human science' still has relevance. I still encounter people with certain Romantic conceptions of the person that balk at the notions of social science, and I sometimes suspect they are caught in the web of confusions Du Bois was pointing to. I hope people read up.

(Ok full disclosure I am friends with many of the authors in Ten Neglected Classics of Philosophy. Also, given that I motivated this blog with an image of black steam punk scientists... Du Bois is a pretty perfect mascot for this blog?)


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