The Concept of the Social in Uniting the Humanities and Social Sciences

The Concept of the Social in Uniting the Humanities and Social Sciences

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 260
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  • Book Info
    The Concept of the Social in Uniting the Humanities and Social Sciences
    Book Description:

    In this book, Michael Brown provides original and critical analysis of the state of the social sciences and the humanities. He examines the different disciplines that address human affairs--from sociology, philosophy, political science, and anthropology to the humanities in general--to understand their common ground. He probes the ways in which we investigate the meaning of individuality in a society for which individuals are not the agents of the activities in which they participate, and he develops a critical method for studying the relations among activities, objects, and situations.

    The Concept of the Social in Uniting the Humanities and Social Sciencesrestores the centrality of sociality to all disciplines that provide for and depend on the social dimension of human life. Ultimately, he establishes a theory of the unity of the human sciences that will surely make readers rethink the current state and future of theory in those fields for years to come.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-1017-7
    Subjects: Sociology, Philosophy, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Introduction: What Is Human about Human Affairs?
    (pp. 1-20)

    It is widely agreed that the individual is, as Amy Gutmann puts it, “the ultimate moral claimants in a democracy” (2003, 57). I interpret this to mean that individual persons are the ultimatereferents ofmoral discourse. While it is difficult to disagree with this statement, it poses familiar and apparently intractable problems for those disciplines in the social sciences and humanities for which the ontological priority of society is fundamental to their understanding of human affairs. In this and other respects, the claim itself is fatefully ambiguous. The ambiguity arises in part because of a failure to clarify the...


    • 1 The Urgency of Defining the Social
      (pp. 23-32)

      While it is now taken virtually for granted that humans are essentially social beings, an important implication that is less likely to be acknowledged is that sociality is immanent to every instance of human affairs. The idea of the general will, a subjectivity beyond subjects, remains confusing and has been only rarely submitted to conceptual analysis. It is nevertheless presupposed whenever we consider people living among people and therefore whenever language and self-reflection are issues. The confusion engendered by this presupposition is evident in the persistence of cognates of interpersonal behavior (sharing, communicating, etc.) in accounts of collective happenings that...

    • 2 Society as a Basic Fact
      (pp. 33-51)

      There is no doubt that human beings can imagine a humanly livable state of nature. But it cannot be the sort of nature that is the negative of society. Rousseau’s characterization of the state of nature as a realm of necessity that excludes all that being human requires envisions only nonhuman creatures—“stupid and limited” (1978b, 56)—unable to reach beyond their biological urges and incapable of forming ideas about their own situation and about the possibility of society that can support an intention to enter into a self-transforming association with other such creatures. Indeed, there could be an issue...

    • 3 Dependence and Autonomy
      (pp. 52-75)

      The appeal of Rousseau’s arguments against received theories and in favor of the idea that human affairs are essentially social before they are anything else depends on whether he successfully demonstrates that there is an immediate sense shared by all human beings that everything about them reflects, as an indisputable fact, that their being social is the essence of their being human. He first attempts to show why the standard theories of right should be rejected. Only then does he show that human life cannot be conceived of in the state of nature and, therefore, can be conceived of only...

    • 4 The Certainty of the Social as the Basic Fact
      (pp. 76-100)

      So far, I have discussed one idea that requires something like a definition of “sociality.” It says that humans living together cannot imagine human existence in a state of nature defined by the negation of society and that any other definition of the state of nature assumes society. Since every person lives among people, no one can imagine herself outside of that encompassing fact, and therefore outside of a universe in which each depends on all and responds to every other as someone that could, in important respects, be anyone. Each of us is, then, social through and through and...

    • 5 The Sociality of Agency
      (pp. 101-113)

      The second way of addressing the idea of the social also emphasizes its centrality to any theory that claims to represent or express what is human about human affairs. The key texts can be placed conveniently under two related theoretical registers, Marxism, by which I mean the critique of capital in regard to its intrinsic limitations, and post-structuralism, by which I mean the critique of the theory of the sign.¹

      Thesis I of Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” states:

      The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism . . . is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the...

    • 6 Models, Theory, and Theorizing
      (pp. 114-130)

      The most prominent models used to represent the social aspect of human affairs are known by their key concepts: system, exchange, structure, rule-governed practices, networks, and rational agency. Each stands for a paradigm of what is and is not reasonable to claim about the nature of the activities, representations, and subjectivities of “people among people,” and for each, units of analysis are conceived of, as far as possible, as relations. While they overlap in many respects, there are significant differences among them, though they all either elide or suppress the underlying idea essential to extending any model of social reality...

    • 7 Theorizing
      (pp. 131-149)

      Theorizing is an activity that undermines received concepts, first by identifying the universe to which they refer and second by showing that their meaning depends on something necessarily omitted—on a different referential universe for which what is omitted has its possible concept. It begins with an idea among ideas each of which must be understood asforthe other ideas, as if part of a system. What is left out, then, is not merely something specific but the sense of an alternative universe to the “known universe.” Given that the two universes qualify each otherwith respect to what...

    • 8 Historicism and Its Alternative
      (pp. 150-162)

      Against historicism is the claim that certain ideas about human affairs are necessarily beyond criticism, either because they are obviously true or because knowledge of human affairs is possible only if they are not put into question.¹ It is often the case that inconsistent ideas are maintained in a text, by a theoretician, or within a discipline. For example, the idea that the skin is a natural boundary, dividing subjects and thereby particularizing expressions of agency, is often taken for granted in the human sciences. It is not obviously consistent with another proposition also taken for granted—namely, that humans...

    • 9 Social Facts, Situations, and Moral Stakes
      (pp. 163-180)

      To say that human beings are essentially social is to say that they and their affairs cannot be understood on the model of a science of agency-independent reality. Otherwise, the human sciences appear as parodies of something they cannot be, because they lack an authentic object, or the object they claim to study can be justifiably known only by its reconstitution as an object of natural science, or they are “immature sciences.” To the extent to which the truth of a proposition depends on the truth of other propositions, theory is crucial to the constitution of knowledge. It is necessary,...


    • 10 Can “the Social” Be a Proper Object of Theory?
      (pp. 183-195)

      It is often taken as axiomatic that human beings are essentially social, where “social” refers to more than the fact that people, like many nonhuman creatures, are never wholly apart from others of their kind. Despite this, the proposition has, with few exceptions, served as a resource for but not been directly submitted to theoretical inquiry.¹ There may be good reasons for this, whether it stems from a philosophical principle, simple indifference, or momentary neglect. At best, it appears difficult to identify the social, as we must, apart from aggregation, institutional patterns, congregation, familiarity, interpersonal relations, overlapping intentions, rules of...

    • 11 Further Problems in Theorizing the Social
      (pp. 196-207)

      There is a plausible nonradical alternative to the conclusion that the original theory-rejecting claim about the social is, or might be, symptomatic of the phenomenon itself, that sociality is by its nature resistant to being theorized. It is nonradical in that it does not address the relationship between theory and theorizing, and it is necessary to do that if, as I have tried to show, the conception of sociality as a course of activity implies that there is an opposition between ostensible products such as theories, justified beliefs, and gestures, and the activity from which they appear to issue as...

    • 12 Social Action as Action
      (pp. 208-222)

      Regardless of the problems involved in assigning meaning to the term “social” and regardless of the criticisms of the argument that dwelling on those problems disrupts the accumulation of knowledge, the idea that humans are essentially social is insinuated in most of what is written in the human sciences—though differences exist about whether this needs further ontological enrichment or should be simplified for purposes of fitting it to current debates.¹ Consider again Strawson’s comment:

      It has often been quite normal, quite conventional, in the philosophical tradition to work through epistemological and ontological questions in abstraction from the great fact...

    • 13 The Self of the Actor
      (pp. 223-232)

      I argue that the theory of social action as conduct that takes account of others is not an adequate interpretation of the idea that humans are essentially social because it categorically distinguishes between the actor who takes others into account and the nonactors taken into account. The theory depicts the actor as solitary insofar as she is taking something (e.g., an “other”) into account, so the predicate “social” applies to the action in the course of which “taking account” occurs and not to the actor herself. In this respect, it is occasionally convenient to represent the actor as a predisposed...

    • 14 Self and Situation
      (pp. 233-251)

      The theoretical usefulness of the construct of a self depends in part on what it is intended to bring to notice. For the point of view under consideration, that is a complex temporality of action coordinated with the actor conceived of as a particular for which the skin is a natural boundary that individuates certain “events” sufficient to provide a general grounding for motivation and to integrate the various dispositions necessary for the formation and implementation of specific intentions. The integrity of the temporal dimension is confined to and supported by a self-articulating identity the tendencies of which continue throughout...

    • 15 Self and Agency
      (pp. 252-268)

      Let us suppose that the concept of the situation in which an action takes place is radically different from what is required by the standard theory. How might it be characterized and what theoretical issues does it bring to notice? One possibility is derived from an early idea in social psychology: what a person does in her capacity as an agent—as a bearer of intentionality—expresses a subjective state at least partially constituted under circumstances that call for meaningful as well as effective behavior and therefore behavior with reasons that could be reasons for any partyandappreciated as...

    • 16 Social Action Reconsidered
      (pp. 269-284)

      We have been considering an application of the theory of action that identifies the sociality of action with actors taking account of others. While this need not be thought of as exhausting the meaning of “social,” there is considerable agreement that it provides a basis for a reasonable account of conduct in the presence of others. However, this application depends on taking action and human association as ontologically distinct. If the distinction is rejected, as I have suggested, one has little choice but to begin with the idea of the social and derive individuality from it, in contrast with what...


    • 17 Overview
      (pp. 287-301)

      The immanence and irreducibility of the social is virtually axiomatic in the discourse of the human sciences despite the lack of consensus about the meaning of the term and despite the continued prominence of individualism as the default position in the philosophy and practice of social science. In other words, it has proven difficult even to approximate the programmatic obligations imposed by Durkheim’s identification of society as an autonomous form of life (1961, 60). Taking the concept as primitive may allow one to select with confidence certain nameable entities (nations, licensed organizations, police, etc.) or “families” of such entities (the...

    • 18 Causes of Failure in the Social Sciences
      (pp. 302-322)

      When the social sciences are understood as imperfect realizations of the standard model of the natural sciences, their defects are explained in a number of ways. Here I discuss three: complexity, the problem of the observer, and immaturity.¹ My purpose is to expand on the thesis that their weaknesses are not primarily epistemological but ontological; they have to do with sociality as the basic fact. The problem is not that available methods are as yet inadequate to their subject matter, though that may be part of it. Nor is it simply a matter of hubris, though researchers often make too...

    • 19 Objects and Their Subjects
      (pp. 323-342)

      One working hypothesis for what follows is derived from the relationship between agency-dependent reality and the social conceived of as a course of activity. It says that there is an internal relationship between a certain idea of criticism and what is human about human affairs. I have been using the expression “human sciences” to refer to disciplinary fields having to do with agency-dependent reality. In anticipation of what follows, “agency-dependence” refers to the aspect of an object that presupposes subjectivity irreducible to individual mentalities. This is a radical claim if every referent of discourse presupposes such a subjectivity. The point...

    • 20 The Positive Sense of “Situation”
      (pp. 343-351)

      I have distinguished between the idea of a situation as internally related to life and the more familiar positive idea of situations as independent entities comprising similarly independent entities. It appears, however, that both lead to the same conclusion, that what is typically considered to be external to subjectivity has a subjective aspect that is an irreducible feature of its objectivity. This chapter considers some implications of this conclusioninsofar as it is implicit in the attempt to maintain a positive conception of “situation.”

      We often use the term “situation” in a positive way to refer to what had come...

    • 21 Practices, Situations, and Inter-subjectivity
      (pp. 352-376)

      Practices are often identified theoretically as institutional facts that are internal features of society distinguished particularly from arbitrary, momentary, statistically prevalent, or purely spontaneous activities or activities instigated by external facts. Examples often given of the latter are fads, riots, moral panics, reactions to surveillance, coercion, and/or deception, and a form of social movement that bears a relation to its society in some respects but that is classically said to be independent of the organizational principles of that society. Certainly, more is needed to connect practices thought of as top-down ordering principles to the idea of a situation, if the...

    • 22 Criticism, Inter-subjectivity, and Collective Enunciation
      (pp. 377-383)

      The fields specializing in the knowledge of agency-dependent reality include, familiarly, history, anthropology, psychology, political economy, the humanities, and the fine arts. I have tried to show that they all rely on a conception of sociality as inter-subjective activity, where the “inter” is not meant to indicate separable subjects. It follows that each discipline must be considered to be essentially inter-disciplinary. Their distinctiveness depends on the aspect of sociality under which each is incorporated. An understanding of the integrity of each discipline depends, then, on a self-critical attitude that embraces sociality as its object. By this I mean a sociological...

    • 23 Criticism and Human Affairs
      (pp. 384-398)

      We can begin by observing that the proposition that persons are essentially social beings does not imply that sociality is a distributed property of individuals or that it is exclusively a function of norms, rules, or principles of exchange. If it is conceived of as distributed or normative, then what people do might be social or it might not. Since it is inconceivable that there be something they do that is not at all social, we can conclude that everything done, every activity, is already socialized—before definite meanings are attached to behavior and before definite intentions are formed and/or...

    • 24 Collective Enunciation
      (pp. 399-412)

      We can now say that the meaningfulness of discursive speech, of whatever is in the course of being uttered, is a feature of the general will. As far as “communication” is the issue, the general will is meaningfulness per se, which isthe becoming that is waited onin every instance of uttering or gesturing. In this way, instances transpire in the attitude of waiting implicit in the sociality of life. Meaningfulness, in the moment of the general will that belongs to language, lies in the continuation of speaking—in the limitless circulation of a value for which there is...

    • 25 Subjectivity and Objectivity
      (pp. 413-431)

      The objects of experience are intentional in the following sense: they are agency-dependent such that their dependency constitutes their objectivity. We can say, then, that their objectivity, as objects of possible apprehension, resides in the ongoing internal relation of life and situation and displays itself as momentary instantiations of inter-subjectivity. To speak of them in regard to their beingobjects of experienceis to bring to notice the way in which the very idea of experience depends on their being “subjective objects” in the sense of being essentially inter-dependent (meaningful) and inter-subjective (belonging to a course of activity). It follows...

    • 26 Summary, Reprise, and Transition
      (pp. 432-438)

      The first part of this book addresses the question “What is human about human affairs?” The answer justifies the claim that the human sciences form a single field insofar as they address a shared reality—namely, the sociality of human life. This requires showing that society, understood as in motion in the form of a course of activity, is the “basic fact,” in the sense of being irreducible, irrepressible, and reflexive. I identify this with Rousseau’s concept of a “first convention.” It also requires distinguishing the language of agency from the language of individuality, a distinction I attribute to Marx...

  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 439-440)
  8. Notes
    (pp. 441-494)
  9. References
    (pp. 495-508)
  10. Index
    (pp. 509-528)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 529-529)