Whence the Social Sciences ?

During and after the final days of 4 years of decadence that has come to be known as Engineering, I developed a certain taste for things non-technical (which is obviously apparent), and decided to try and think of options other than IT as a career. The first attractive option was Economics, after all, these dudes seem(claim) to know why and how we tick, monetarily atleast. Asked around for advice, and Deepak Malghan, (almost sole) author of this blog, gave me very negative opinions about it. Considering that the advice came from a person who studied Economics from Princeton and Maryland, was taken aback and decided to find out for myself the reasons for such an opinion.

The idea was not to study Economic theories, but to study Economics (or Sociology, since I wanted to see what these guys were upto as well) in itself. The fundamental assumptions, the philosophy behind these subjects, which would help me form my own opinion about them. This is still an ongoing process, and thought a mid-term check of what has been gleaned will be in order. This post will be the first in a series of posts which will describe, as the header says, the origin of the social sciences, and I will concentrate on sociology and economics, since they are what I have studied so far, rather than psychology, Anthropology or any others. I will draw my main streams of thought from Isaiah Berlin (the book has been previously mentioned), Reassembling the Social by Bruno LaTour and some other sources like The Worldly Philosophers by Heilbroner, Limitations of Marginal Utility by Veblen, The Affluent Society by John K. Galbraith (who was Ambassador to India, btw), maybe a little from Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher as well, if I can get it back from a friend who is currently (not!!) reading it. If time permits, I will add some notes from The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (which i intend to finish sometime before I die).

Though it may be noticed that most of the books are Economic literature, and Sociology has been underrepresented (only LaTour), LaTour’s book is more philosophical in nature, as compared to the others, and since that is the focus of this series of posts, and due to lack of literature, will have to content myself with it. This will not be a comprehensive, nor well rounded survey, and all mistakes are acts of omission rather than commission.

As Isaiah Berlin rightly points out, the ideas and theories that one studies is incomplete if not viewed along with the historical conditions that surrounded its birth. Thus, it makes sense to
learn about the birth of the social sciences, and the reasons for their coming into existence. The scene is the 17th century, and Isaac Newton is on his way to superstardom after the publication of the Prinicipia Mathematica, Galileo and Copernicus are much admired for their brave stand against the oppressive intellectual climate created by the Church for whatever reasons, and the numerous breakthroughs in physics and mathematics (by above mentioned people and others like Leibniz) have captured the imagination of the intellectuals of the era. Newton actually was able to predict orbits of planets which were empirically given until then by Kepler’s laws, and heliocentrism made possible a very accurate picture of the solar system. The triumph of reason over blind belief, of science over theology, of logic over metaphysics was seen as an imminent, inevitable happening. The oppressive feudal system which gave prominence for place of birth over any intrinsic ability was much decried against, and the ‘enlightened’ people of this era set about building systematic arguments about the idea of divine rights of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and all such nonsense. This was about the same time when the Holy Roman Empire was in its death throes and people were beginning to speak boldly, questioning the basis of despotism, feudalism, nobility and primacy of the Church as a source of both divine and material power.

It was an era of tremendous change, and brought to the fore men of great intellectual ability like Voltaire, Hobbes, Rousseau, Descartes, the list will simply go on and on. They were the pioneers, so to speak, in the wilderness of unreason, irrationality, despotism, trying to find paths which lead to liberty, equality, fraternity (the main themes under which the French Revolution of 1789 was fought) using the guiding torch of reason. Every set about writing their own views about the world, and how it should be, and the printers probably laughed all the way to the bank. These were men with the noble task of ushering in the “Age of Reason”, as the Enlightenment is also called. Everything had to be argued on the basis or reason, had to be rational, or else you probably were reactionary (i.e, siding with the Church or the kings, which was very bad). The Medieval Ages were ruled by all kinds of fairy tales, cults of irrationality called religions, and now was the time to break from all that and start another cult : the cult of Reason or Rationality.

Now, all the old institutions were to be disposed of with. The State, as previously identified with a majestic king who was given the right to rule over his subject by someone no less the God himself could no longer be accepted. God is an irrational creation of man, not verifiable in any sense, and therefore could not be a source of authority. Man was not created by the breath of God, and therefore there must be other ways in which to understand him ( Gender sensitivity was not necessary for political correctness then, from what i gather). What better way to start analysing such things if not by the methods adopted by the spectacularly successful natural sciences ? Newton, the blue eyed icon, who stood for all that is Rational, was to be emulated in studying all aspects of the world. Studies had been made and successfully explained why a stone moves if we kick it, and why the moon does not spin away from the earth, and obviously these things were explained using rational arguments, therefore it must be possible to explain man, agglomerations of men in the same manner. After all, everything in the universe followed a rational pattern, and one just required the insight to find it. Man was a bunch of atoms, and we knew how atoms work, so by induction we must be able to postulate general laws as to the behaviour of man. But since not everything is known to us as of now, we must atleast postulate laws which in some sense must be empirically verifiable.

Every genuine question must have a genuine answer : if not, the question is false, irrational. Since questions like “what is the nature of man?”, “what is the nature of the State?” “How can economic relations between men explained ?” are genuine questions, they must have genuine, unique answers. And these can be answered, atleast to the extent of the present knowledge, by employing methodologies which have had such success in the natural sciences, i.e, they must be verifiable or be supported by sound reasoning.

This seems to be the bouyant mood in which Western Europe was in the Age of the Enlightenment. This was the time when the systematic study of man and his relations with others started, which was later termed as the Social Sciences. The consequences of this outlook at the birth of the Social Sciences has had many effects, swinging both in the positive and the negative direction. What they were, next time.


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