Scientific Realism

In Social Theory as Science (Routledge 1975; 2nd edn 1982), John Urry and I argued that the scientific character of social theory is best understood and defended in terms of a realist conception of science, as distinct from the positivist and conventionalist alternatives to this in the philosophy of science. The book was re-issued by Routledge Revivals in 2011; there is also a Kindle edition. Some related papers in which its main arguments were developed and applied are reproduced below.

In The Politics of Social Theory: Habermas, Freud and the Critique of Positivism (Blackwell/Chicago University Press 1981), I examined some of the central claims in Habermas's early work, especially Knowledge and Human Interests, in which he argues that critical social theory differs in its epistemological character from both the empirical and hermeneutic sciences, and instead displays the kind of self-reflective knowledge exemplified by psychoanalysis. Against this I defended a realist interpretation of Freudian theory and criticised the non-realist implications of his theory of knowledge-constitutive interests.

Both The Politics of Social Theory and Social Theory as Science were concerned also with the relationship between social science and political values. Relevant extracts are included in the material on value-free social science.

The phenomenological tradition provides another, though different challenge to realism about science, in according ontological primacy to the ‘lived world’, as experienced by human subjects, and regarding the ‘scientific world’ as an abstraction from this. In Understanding Phenomenology (co-authored with Michael Hammond and Jane Howarth, Blackwell 1991), I examined Merleau-Ponty’s critique of scientific realism, and Husserl’s non-realist interpretation of modern science.


Click to view / download PDF files

Positivism, Naturalism and Anti Naturalism in the Social Sciences 1971
This paper sets out, in embryonic form, the overall argument of Social Theory as Science: that many of the arguments against the possibility of the social sciences sharing their aims and methods with the natural sciences depend on assuming a specifically positivist conception of science, and that they fail when this is replaced, as it should be, by a realist one.

A Critical Examination of B F Skinner's Objections to Mentalism 1972
This paper evaluates the objections to ‘mentalistic’ explanations presented by the radical behaviourist, B. F. Skinner, for whom any explanations appealing to people’s beliefs, purposes or desires are inherently unscientific. It is argued that his position depends on an unduly restrictive understanding of science and of the role of theoretical concepts in scientific explanation.

Positivism and Statistics in Social 1979
In this paper, some of the main themes in Social Theory as Science are explored through a discussion of the role of statistics in the explanation of social phenomena. It is argued that the use of statistics in Durkheim’s classic study of suicide illustrates the nature of a positivist social science and the weaknesses in its conception of scientific explanation.

Introduction to The Politics of Social Theory 1981
This presents an outline of Habermas’s theory of knowledge-constitutive interests, and locates it in the broader context of the Frankfurt School’s conception of critical social theory and its critique of positivism.

Knowledge, Objects and Interests 1981
This extract from The Politics of Social Theory examines Habermas’s claim that the object-domain and criteria of validity of the empirical-analytic sciences are constituted by the human interest in technical control. It argues that his attempts to justify this claim generate irresolvable problems, and that his position prevents one recognising the distinctive character of different kinds of objects in the natural world.

Psychoanalysis and Human Emancipation 1981
This extract from The Politics of Social Theory examines Habermas’s view of psychoanalytic theory as, like critical social theory, rooted in self-reflective processes guided by an emancipatory interest. It argues that in defending this view Habermas misrepresents Freud’s concept of the id, by ignoring the role of the instincts, and misconceives the kind of autonomy that psychoanalysis may reasonably aim to achieve.

Theory and Practice in Psychotherapy 1981
Debates about the scientific status of Freudian theory, and the relationship between the adequacy of that theory and the effectiveness of psychoanalytic therapy, are examined in this extract from The Politics of Social Theory. Habermas’s view that psychoanalytic theory should not be seen as an empirical science is criticised for its simplistic model of science, as is Karl Popper’s rejection of Freudian theory as unfalsifiable.

The Critique of Objective Thought 1991
This extract from Understanding Phenomenology explores Merleau-Ponty’s critique, in Phenomenology of Perception, of what he calls ‘objective thought’: the ‘scientific’ view of the world as consisting in causally related objects with determinate properties and locations. His criticisms of ‘empiricist’ and ‘intellectualist’ versions of objective thought are examined, along with his use of these criticisms to reject realism and idealism and to show how phenomenology differs from these.

Phenomenology and Scientific Realism 1991
The phenomenologists’ rejection of scientific realism is examined in this extract from Understanding Phenomenology. Husserl’s view of modern science as based on abstraction from the lifeworld is criticised for its instrumentalist conception of science; the difficulties in avoiding anthropomorphism are explored; and it is argued that scientific explanation is compatible with recognising the distinctive nature of human experience.