Introduction to Social Philosophy, Lecture 7
John Dupré
Scientific Knowledge: Empiricism and Rationalism
This lecture continues the consideration of the nature of science introduced last week. Hollis's book
takes a more historically based look at the two major philosophical traditions for understanding the
investigation of natural phenomena, rationalism and empiricism. The discussion is also explicitly
directed at understanding the nature of social science.
Fundamental Issues in the Philosophy of Social Science
These are the most important questions about the social sciences that we shall hope to understand better
in the light of considerations about the nature of science.
1. Individualism vs. holism.
This is an issue that can be interpreted on various levels. One issue is one of ontology: do social
groups or structures exist in some sense independently of the agents and actions that constitute them?
At the moment we shall be more concerned with questions about explanation. Do we explain social
phenomena primarily by appeal to the actions of individuals or by appeal to the properties of social
structures? Closely related to both the preceding, do we see individual actions as determined by social
structures or social structures as determined by individual actions. This, finally, leads immediately to a
question of methodology. Do we approach the study of social phenomena primarily by investigating
individual psychology, or by analysing the nature and consequences of social structures.
These issues are also referred to in the contrast between explanation as 'top-down' (holism) and
'bottom-up' (individualism).
2. Explanation vs. Understanding.
By explanation here is meant the idea elaborated by Hempel: to explain something is to subsume it
under some generalisation. (E.g. M. Rouget in Hollis, ch.3.) The alternative tradition in social science
argues that the social has to be understood from the inside. This tradition also emphasises the
centrality of meanings or rules to understanding the social.
Rationalism vs. Empiricism
This is the most fundamental dichotomy in the history of the philosophy of science (though, like many
dichotomies, the ultimate goal may be to find the best way to compromise between the two extremes).
Rationalism and empiricism emphasise, respectively, reason and experience. An important tradition in
modern philosophy has been radical empiricism. This tradition insists that all knowledge about the
world must be fully grounded in experience. (Its most famous exponent was the 18th century Scottish
Philosopher, David Hume.) The only legitimate move beyond what is actually observed is some
principle of induction, that unobserved phenomena will resemble (to some extent) observed
There are probably no radical rationalists in the sense of people who hold that all knowledge of the
world is derivable solely through reason independently of experience. Rationalists, however, make
more or less powerful claims about ways in which reason can take us beyond mere experience:
1. Areas of knowledge may be accessible to pure reason. The central cases here are mathematical,
and especially geometrical. Several philosophers have thought that geometry (a purely rational
exercise) provided us with knowledge about space (a real phenomenon). The greatest blow to
rationalism was the discovery in the 19th century that there were several alternatives to classical
Euclidean geometry, and the claim in the 20th century that these alternatives better described the
real nature of space.
2. Laws of nature are often held to differ from merely true generalisations in being necessary. As
Hume famously argued, necessity is not something discoverable from experience. For Hume it
existed only in 'relations of ideas' (e.g. mathematics) never 'matters of fact'.
3. Appearance and reality. A common perception of science is that it reveals the reality lying behind
the appearances of things. But empiricism is limited to the former. We do not have experience of
electrons or quarks, or of social classes and status groups. It appears, then, that radical empiricism
should insist on silence on such matters. This is the issue on which a rationalist modification to
radical empiricism is most widely accepted.