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Daniel Steel and Francesco Guala (eds), The Philosophy of Social Science Reader

Mikaël Cozic
p. 613-615
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The Philosophy of Social Science Reader, Daniel Steel and Francesco Guala (eds), London and New York: Routledge, 2011, xiii + 442 pages, ISBN 978-041577968-5

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1Anthologies are often a blend of classic and contemporary readings. The main characteristic of Steel and Guala’s Philosophy of Social Science Reader is that it is massively focused on current debates in the field. This clear-cut editorial line is made explicit and justified in the general introduction to the book where the authors hold that “the philosophy of social science has changed quite dramatically over the last two decades. So a new anthology is required to keep track of the best research…” Indeed, most of the 28 chapters (papers or books’s excerpts) have been published after the publication of what has been hitherto the main anthology in analytic philosophy of social science, Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science, edited by M. Martin and L. McIntyre (1994).

2Interestingly, Steel and Guala put forward four key factors as responsible for what they consider as a “radical restructuring” of the field. First, philosophers of science have progressively acknowledged that distinct disciplines may rely on distinct methods of inquiry and have relinquished the reference to the methodology of physics—or, at least, the view they have of physics—as a universal methodological standard (“Disunity”). Second, bridges and interdisciplinary areas have been constructed both within social sciences and between social sciences and cognitive or natural sciences (“Interdisciplinarity”). Third, philosophy is increasingly seen as contiguous to sciences, neither as superior nor as subordinated to them (“Naturalism”). Lastly, while the role of values in social sciences is largely recognized, the attention shifts on the issue of knowing under which conditions scientific objectivity can be preserved (“Values”).

3The selected readings are spread among seven parts, each of which presenting an active research topic. A concise introduction to each part elaborates historically and conceptually on the topic and provides further references. A look at the seven selected topics gives some indication about where the authors locate the new research areas. Five of the topics are fairly standard (and were already parts of Michael Martin and Lee C. McIntyre, 1994): “values and social science”, “causal inference and explanation”, “interpretation”, “rationality and choice” and “methodological individualism”. The last two parts reflect the emergence of two very active research areas: the first one, entitled “Norms, conventions and institutions”, covers analytic social ontology (as exemplified in the works of Margaret Gilbert or John Searle), whereas the second, “Cultural evolution”, bears on evolutionary social sciences (broadly conceived). These two topics are today major research areas, and it is definitely a good idea to have devoted to each of them a separate part.

4Undoubtedly, Steel and Guala’s views on the evolution of the philosophy of social science, thought-provocative as they are, shall stimulate the reader’s interest. Indeed, one may want to dispute the claim that radical changes have occurred over the last twenty years. Some parts of the anthology, when compared with the corresponding parts in Martin and McIntyre’s (1994) book, rather bear testimony for a strong continuity. It is the case, notably, of the part devoted to values and social science and of the one dealing with methodological individualism. By contrast, the chapters on causal inference and explanation put forward more original topics (the role of invariance in explanation, the role of mechanisms in causal inference and causal inference in Bayesian networks). As for the four key factors put forward as responsible for the major changes in the field, they have been undoubtedly important in its recent evolution. Nonetheless, they are diversely reflected in the book’s parts. Consider for instance the part devoted to the issue of interpretation: Karsten R. Stueber’s (2002, chapter 13) construal and vindication of “reenactment” rely on “a priori arguments” coming from philosophy of mind and action and are quite “detached from actual scientific practice”, contrary to what Steel and Guala view as the current trend in philosophy of social science. Ironically, the classic excerpt by Clifford Geertz (1973) on “thick interpretation”, which is deeply rooted in ethnographic practice, is a better illustration of this trend. By contrast, the part devoted to cultural evolution exemplifies beautifully interdisciplinarity and naturalism: social sciences, biology and (sometimes) psychology are at the very heart of the debates. Furthermore, as naturalists would welcome, the frontiers between conceptual analysis, elaboration of research programs and high-level scientific theorizing become blurred. Whether or not Steel and Guala’s views on the evolution of the philosophy of social science are right, and whether or not they are systematically reflected in the anthology, one of the advantages of the temporal tightening of the chapters is that it favors direct dialogues. Examples abound. In chapter 7, James Woodward contrasts his views of explanation in the special sciences as based on invariance under intervention with those based on ceteris paribus laws, which are exemplified by Harold Kincaid in chapter 6. In chapter 22, Gilbert criticizes David Lewis’s account of social conventions, which is partly expounded in chapter 21. Dan Sperber (chapter 26) discusses Richard Dawkins’s theory of cultural evolution as evolution of “memes” (chapter 25); in turn, Peter J. Richerson and Rob Boyd (chapter 28) discuss Dan Sperber. These dialogues make the anthology all the more stimulating and useful.

5If we now make abstraction of these issues, the first thing to say is that Steel and Guala’s anthology is an outstanding achievement: it covers most of the important issues, the readings are in general of excellent quality and well chosen, and the introductions are helpful. The authors have succeeded in “represent[ing] the contemporary state of the field” with its strengths and weaknesses. Given the uncompromising editorial line described above, the book is naturally suited for researchers looking for a comprehensive update of the field, even if such readers may be willing to rely on more substantial introductions than the one offered. But the Reader will be appropriate as well for being used in teaching: it is not less accessible than more classic anthologies, and the interactions between chapters stressed above will probably be of great help to students.

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Stueber, Karsten R. 2002. The Problem Of Self-Knowledge. Erkenntnis, 56(3): 269-296, (chapter 13 of Steel and Guala, 2009)

Martin, Michael, and Lee C. McIntyre. 1994. Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture. In The interpretation of Cultures, Chap.1. New-York: Basic Books, 3-30. (chapter 10 of Steel and Guala, 2009)

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Mikaël Cozic, « Daniel Steel and Francesco Guala (eds), The Philosophy of Social Science Reader », Œconomia, 1-4 | 2011, 613-615.

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Mikaël Cozic, « Daniel Steel and Francesco Guala (eds), The Philosophy of Social Science Reader », Œconomia [En ligne], 1-4 | 2011, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2011, consulté le 18 décembre 2017. URL :

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Mikaël Cozic

Université Paris-Est Créteil et Institut d’Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences et des Techniques

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