Jack Bissett, BSc. Politics and Philosophy ’21

Since there have been substantial changes between the 2019/20 (when I studied PH203) and 2020/21 course structure and readings, I will be focussing my articles on the weeks which have stayed the same between the years. So, that said, I will be beginning with Week 2. This week presents us with the state of the philosophy of social science as it stands today, introducing us to the important notion of ‘pre-paradigmatic’. We then discover what Guala describes as the ‘Standard Model of Social Ontology’ (SMoSO), which is the three main elements of contemporary social ontology (performativity, reflexivity, and collective intentionality). Collectively, these three elements constitute the basis of what most social metaphysicians consider the foundations of the field (although this is heavily contested). Finally, we will look at one of the key issues in the philosophy of social science, which is the question of laws. Can the social sciences produce laws? If so, are those laws akin to those we find in the natural sciences? If not, what do the social sciences aim to discover? These questions undercut the very notion of the social sciences, and are a natural place to begin these articles. 

Social ontology “is the study of the nature and properties of the social world. It is concerned with analyzing the various entities in the world that arise from social interaction” (Epstein, 2018). This subfield of the philosophy of social science is crucially important because it takes as its object the nature of social phenomena, which underlies a lot of the higher level questions in the field about the properties and interactions of those phenomena. For example, without an account of what a social class is, how might we begin to explore the philosophy of social sciences which investigate class relations. Guala argues that the natural sciences are mature, philosophically speaking, because while there is some contestation of the underlying metaphysics, there is sufficient agreement to allow fruitful debate about higher level problems. There is a paradigm, a relative consensus on underlying foundational principles of the field, which scientists can take for granted. However, this is not the case for the social sciences, which are, in a Kuhnian sense, ‘pre-paradigmatic’. Without any widespread agreement on problems at the very foundation of the social sciences, concerning what the social is and what properties it has, there is a significant barrier to any higher level progress. Two social scientists operating with different underlying assumptions about the nature of the social world might not be able to meaningfully compare their research. This problem is the motivation behind Guala’s Standard Model of Social Ontology: to try and establish a paradigm of the most widely accepted social metaphysics, a point of departure for the philosophy of social science to orient itself around.

Guala argues that at the end of the century philosophers Searle and Hacking developed an account of the ‘individualistic foundations of social phenomena’ which she describes as the Standard Model of Social Ontology (SMoSO) (Guala, 2007, p. 961). The central premise of SMoSO is the basic ontological intuition that ‘if all individuals were to disappear, all social institutions would disappear too’ (Guala, 2007, p. 961). This premise entails a degree of soft methodological individualism, meaning that social phenomena cannot act over and above their component parts. From this premise, Guala presents the three constitutive elements of SMoSO: performativity, reflexivity, and collective intentionality. Performativity argues that since social institutions are nothing beyond their individual members, they only exist by virtue of people’s beliefs about them, and thus must be constantly ‘performed’ by their constituents to exist. For example, in his analysis of institutional facts, Searle argues that a bank note is only a currency, rather than a piece of paper, because we perform its social function as money; if everyone was to stop acting like that piece of paper is currency, it would no longer be currency. Building on performativity, reflexivity holds that since social entities exist by virtue of our beliefs about them, by developing beliefs about those beliefs we can change social phenomena; by acting based on their beliefs about social phenomena, the nature of social phenomena can be changed. For example, Hacking argues that human kinds, our social ways of categorising people and their behaviour, have a reflexive ‘looping-effect’ whereby being categorised as something can change how you think about yourself, thus prompting you to act against the categorisation or in accordance with it, thereby changing the meaning of the category (Hacking, 1996, pp. 369-370). And finally, collective intentionality holds that social entities can be described as having intentions—these intentions are not necessarily the aggregate of individual intentions, but may be attributed to the social entities themselves. For example, it is the official policy of the Monster Raving Loony Party (at time of writing) to release all innocent prisoners, and while not all party members might agree with this policy, we say that it is the intention of the party because it is the official position. These three elements, taken together with the central premise of SMoSO, provide important reference points for debates within the philosophy of social science, grounding the field within a particular framework. 

With the problem of pre-paradigmatisation looming over the field, we might ask ourselves what the point of social sciences is, what they hope to achieve. This leads us on nicely to the problem of laws – it is generally held that the natural sciences aim to produce both laws and robust explanations (scientific theory), which collectively give us a well-confirmed account of observable phenomena and what causes it. Mitchell argues that the features of laws (at least in the traditional natural account) which allow them to be successful are; “(a) logical consistency (have empirical content); (b) universality (cover all space and time); (c) truth (exceptionless); and (d) natural necessity (not accidental)” (Mitchell, 2009, p.132). Mitchell considers a number of objections to these four criteria, but is able to construct a convincing defence; of particular note, she explores the ways in which laws in biology diverge from this model, since they are “contingent on a particular historical pathway traversed as a result of evolutionary dynamics” (Mitchell, 2009, p.136). Similar to biology, the social sciences are also unable to create laws along the lines of the traditional account, since arguably the objects of its investigation (individuals, social groups, social phenomena) are contingencies, and therefore neither exceptionless nor universal nor naturally necessary. 

Mitchell then considers the principle way in which philosophers have typically broached this problem, attempting to develop an account of laws which is inclusive of biology and the social sciences. She draws upon Kincaid, who defends the use of ceteris paribus laws in the case of the social sciences against a number of objections. A ceteris paribus clause is an addition to a causal explanation or law which hold that it is true “when all else is equal” (Mitchell, 2009, p.140, emphasis added). The advantage of ceteris paribus laws are that it can transform a contingent causal-explanatory principle into a universal one, by incorporating its contingencies into its applicability (both Kincaid and Mitchell agree that this practice is not only widespread in biological and social sciences, but also chemistry and physics). Mitchell rejects Kincaid’s defence of ceteris paribus laws, arguing that “Kincaid’s defence of laws in the social sciences turns out to be a rejection of the usefulness of the notion of law (made applicable only with a cp clause) to the social sciences (2009, p. 141). Mitchell argues that “we need to reconfigure our framework for understanding knowledge claims to accept that the world is occupied by causal relations that form a continuum of degrees of contingency and stability” (2009, pp.142-143). Mitchell concludes that “the central problem of laws in the special sciences, and perhaps for all sciences, is shifted from what is a strict law, ceteris paribus, or no law at all, to how do we detect and describe the causal structure of complex, highly contingent, interactive systems and how to we export that knowledge to other similar systems (2009, p. 144).

Between Guala and Mitchell, we are left with a grounding in both the main metaphysical foundations of the social sciences and the ways in which they work. This grounding will be very important as the course develops, having SMoSO as a background will really help you to be able to critically engage with the study of key topics in methodological individualism and holism, while also being able to explore other philosophies with roots in social ontology, like Zerubavel’s cognitive sociology and the metaphysics of group agency. Understanding Mitchell’s criticisms of Kincaid allows us to understand the role of the social sciences and some of the ways in which they are different to the natural sciences, which will arise again when we look at the work of Fodor on the ‘(dis)unity’ of the sciences and at different forms of experimentation in the social sciences.



Epstein, Brian, “Social Ontology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/social-ontology/>.

Guala, F., 2007. The Philosophy of Social Science: Metaphysical and Empirical. Philosophy Compass, 2(6), pp. 954-980.

Hacking, I., 1996. The Looping Effects of Human Kinds. In: D. Sperber, D. Premack and A. Premack, ed., Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate, 1st ed. Oxford University Press.

Mitchell, S., 2009. Complexity and Explanation in the Social Sciences. In: C. Mantzavinos, ed., Philosophy of the social sciences : philosophical theory and scientific practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.130-145.

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