Universal and Particular: Implications for Social Science

Lecture 15.  October 9 and 15.

Afterthoughts.  Essential to the Enlightenment Project was (is) the universal claim of reason found in Condorcet’s Sketch, in which he looks forward to the day when all men everywhere will be governed only by their own reason, when particular religions and cultures will have given way to a universal, rational, way of life.  Thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment, such as Herder, on the other hand, defend the particularities of culture and language against the universal empire of reason.

While it looks like this is fundamentally a disagreement about values and human nature, it has important implications for conceiving of psychology and the other social sciences as sciences.  The possibility and practice of natural science rests upon the idea that the laws of nature are universally the same everywhere and everywhen, as in Newton’s law of universal gravity: This is the View from Nowhere I discussed in our first week.  If the Enlightenment’s claim of universal reason is correct, then psychology and the other social sciences can be sciences in the same sense as physics.

Consider one path to such a conception of psychology as science, the one taken today by mainstream cognitive science, the symbol system concept of mind.  If people are to be universally governed by reason, then one has to have an idea about what reason is.  We have met one candidate for defining reason, in the Classical period with Plato and the Stoics.  Plato modeled rationality on geometry, and the Stoics developed the idea of mind as logic (logos) in their propositional calculus.  Key to both views is separating reason as a universal process from the particular things reasoned about.  The Pythagorean theorem is not about any particular triangle with a specific shape or size.  The logical argument

  1. If p, then q;
  2. q is true;
  3. therefore q is true 

is a valid argument no matter what particular propositions we plug into p and q.  Reason is thus truly universal: The same logico-mathematical rules govern thought regardless what cultural or era specific content is thought about.  

Psychology can, then, be the universal science of the mind-as-reason just as physics is the universal science of nature as matter-in-motion.  Cognitive science marries the Classical view of mind as rational calculus with the Scientific Revolution’s idea of the world as a machine.  People think with evolved meat-machine brains, and computers think with artificial silicon brains, and cognitive science is about the logical programs that control both of them.  While people in different cultures think about different topics, and may even have different values, the course of their thinking is determined by the universal laws of reason, and psychology is the science of those laws.  Associationist conceptions of the mind dispense with logic, but share the notion that the rules governing the mind — Hume’s “gravity of the mind” of association — are the same everywhere and in all people, indeed in all animals.  

Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, on the other hand, defended the particularities of culture and language.  Herder, for example, thought that because different languages had different grammars and concepts, that speakers of different languages would think in different ways.  Against the philosophes, who thought that human nature was everywhere and in every period much the same, Herder insisted that the peoples of different cultures and epochs could vary tremendously in how they thought and acted.  With regard to ethics, Herder rejected Kant’s proposal that moral decisions were based on reasoning from abstract moral premises, arguing that moral decisions derived more from feeling than from reason.

Herder’s viewpoint throws cold water on the ambition of psychology, or any of the so-called social sciences to be universal sciences along the lines of physics.  If reasoning varies from culture to culture and from era to era, and if morality is rooted in sentiment more than reason, then there may be no universal laws of human behavior, or they may be so few (e.g., all people get hungry) as to be scientifically uninteresting.  Or, perhaps, there are laws of human thought and action, but they are different in different cultures, and are not universal like the law of gravity. 

Forethoughts.  The various social sciences will begin to emerge in the nineteenth century, and this battle between the universal and the particular will shape debates about their proper methods and goals.  On the one side will be the universalists, primarily British and French, who will maintain the Unity of Science: All sciences, whether of the physical or human worlds, aim at universal law use the same methods, and should develop the same sorts of theories.  On the other side will be particularists, primarily German, who will say that human and natural sciences are radically different in method, theory, and ultimate ambitions.  Unlike the natural sciences, which predict and control nature, the human sciences interpret human thought and behavior within its meaning-giving cultural context.