By John von Heyking, January 15, 2009 in Uncategorized
Like the physical sciences, the social sciences (especially economics) “satisfies our desire to understand the mechanisms of human society for the sheer pleasure of such understanding itself” (226) as well as providing reams of useful data on such things as “opinion-testing devices to frame positions and develop strategies, and their constituents depend on these same devices to judge the performance of those in office” (221). The “systematic and impersonal forms of knowledge” of the social sciences have replaced the premodern reliance on “statesmanship and personal allegiance and on the basis of common sense and anecdotal knowledge” (220).
Kronman’s estimation of the social sciences is probably the weakest part of his book. Practicing politicians use the filtered results of social science their aides glean for them as part of their deliberations, but they would be quite surprised to learn they do not need to practice the practical wisdom associated with statesmanship and that they do not rely on personal allegiances and anecdotal knowledge that gets conveyed from those allegiances. One might consider Michael Oakeshott’s criticism of “rationalism” in politics. Or one might consider German scholar Tilo Schabert’s empirical (though not positivist) treatment of Francois Mitterand during German unification as a case study that undermines Kronman’s Weberian claims.
The larger problem with Kronman’s treatment of the social sciences is that he retreats somewhat from his criticism anthropological reductionism found characteristic of political correctness. There he criticized the claim made by exponents of diversity that all moral and political claims are simply expressions of interest or desire. He pointed out that all passions have an element of “ideality,” meaning all passions or interest exist at some level of articulation and self-awareness. In other words, nonrational inclinations are at some level mixed with reason and choice, and are therefore subject to rational analysis.
Kronman’s rejection of reductionism is the basis of his muted criticism that social science’s quantification of human behavior includes “a number of simplifying assumptions about the sources and character of human motivation,” including “the inherently purposive nature of the human actions they study” (224-225). Social science, as Harvey Mansfield points out of behavioralism’s treatment of the Constitution, provides a model of choice that filters out the people’s ability to make choices; or as William Riker once said of his model that identifies the interests rational actors pursue: it “permits one to transcend the obstacle of the existence of choice” (see Harvey Mansfield, America’s Constitutional Soul, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 159).
I write this article amidst the global economic meltdown that likely has its sources in people acting not by self-interest but out of panic, which makes me skeptical of the rational actor model implicit in the social sciences. Social science, then, amplifies what Freud called Instinkt over Trieb, or what Aristotle called passion over choice, or what Kant called phenomenal over noumenal. By transcending “the obstacle of the existence of choice,” social science posits a false liberation. It seeks to liberate human beings from fate by placing them under fate. Only the social scientist himself, the subject who conceptualizes reality, seems to escape this fate.
While social scientists have largely been chastened of behavioralism, this reductionist tendency can still be seen among evolutionary psychologists who have difficulty accounting for choice, and thereby end up speaking as though genes have intentionality when they enable humans to perform highly specific and culturally particular tasks. Curiously, it seems physicists also have the tendency to speak as though subatomic particles have the human characteristic of intentionality.
These peculiarities of social and physical scientists aside, for Kronman, both derive their authority from “rigor, objectivity, impersonality, a reliance on quantitative methods, [and] the framing of hypotheses that are vulnerable to empirical disconfirmation” (225). Recall they gain these qualities by a synthesis of universal and particular knowledge, of synthesizing the abstract with the empirical. The experimental method claims to fulfill the Aristotelian aspiration of combining theoria with phronesis, except the experimental method rejects the personal (or “anecdotal”) knowledge that the Aristotelian aspiration implies in favor of impersonal knowledge. While for Aristotle, the combination of theoria with phronesis is expressed in the human personality by the full activation of the intellectual and moral virtues that are most exercised among friendships of contemplatives, it is unclear of what the personal expression of the “fusion of mathematical and empirical knowledge” consists. I should remind the reader that Aristotle considers it immature for people to expect the study of human phenomena to have the same precision as physics.