In this captivating yet troubling book, Ian Shapiro offers a searing indictment of many influential practices in the social sciences and humanities today. Perhaps best known for his critique of rational choice theory, Shapiro expands his purview here. In discipline after discipline, he argues, scholars have fallen prey to inward-looking myopia that results from--and perpetuates--a flight from reality.
In the method-driven academic culture we inhabit, argues Shapiro, researchers too often make display and refinement of their techniques the principal scholarly activity. The result is that they lose sight of the objects of their study. Pet theories and methodological blinders lead unwelcome facts to be ignored, sometimes not even perceived. The targets of Shapiro's critique include the law and economics movement, overzealous formal and statistical modeling, various reductive theories of human behavior, misguided conceptual analysis in political theory, and the Cambridge school of intellectual history.
As an alternative to all of these, Shapiro makes a compelling case for problem-driven social research, rooted in a realist philosophy of science and an antireductionist view of social explanation. In the lucid--if biting--prose for which Shapiro is renowned, he explains why this requires greater critical attention to how problems are specified than is usually undertaken. He illustrates what is at stake for the study of power, democracy, law, and ideology, as well as in normative debates over rights, justice, freedom, virtue, and community. Shapiro answers many critics of his views along the way, securing his position as one of the distinctive social and political theorists of our time.
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Princeton University Press
November 18, 2006
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Excerpt from The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences by Ian Shapiro
FEAR OF NOT FLYING
IN MEDIEVAL ENGLAND there was a curious gap between the study and practice of law. From the thirteenth century to the seventeenth, the main language used for pleading in common law courts was Law French. It seems to have developed because Latin, the language of formal records, carried too much historical freight from Roman law for the peculiarities of English circumstances, whereas medieval English was insufficiently standardized for official use. Law French was a hybrid dialect, owing more to Picard and Angevin influences than to Norman French, in which French vocabulary was combined with the rules of English grammar. The common lawyers developed it for their pleadings in the courts, passing it down from generation to generation.1
This evolving vernacular of the common law courts had little, if any, impact on the academic study of law. Latin was the language of jurisprudence in Oxford and Cambridge, and, although Law French could reportedly be learned in ten days or fewer, the professors of jurisprudence appear not to have thought it worth their while. This might have been, as Fortescue said, because Latin was the language of all scientific instruction.2 It might have been, as Blackstone claimed, because the civil law--taught and studied in Latin--was embraced in the universities and monasteries after the Norman Conquest but resisted in the courts.3 It might have been, as contemporary historians such as J. H. Baker maintain, because English Law was thought insufficiently cosmopolitan to merit serious study.4 Whatever the reason, English jurisprudence developed in literal ignorance of the practice of English law.
A comparable disjunction afflicts the human sciences today. In discipline after discipline, the flight from reality has been so complete that the academics have all but lost sight of what they claim is their object of study. This goes for the quantitative and formally oriented social sciences that are principally geared toward causal explanation. Following economics, they have modeled themselves on physics--or at any rate on a stylized version of what is often said to go on in physics. But it also goes for many of the more interpretive endeavors that have been influenced by fashions in the humanities--particularly the linguistic turn in philosophy and developments in literary hermeneutics. Practitioners in these fields often see themselves as engaged in interpretation rather than explanation, thereby perpetuating a false dichotomy. Hence my use of the term human sciences here to encapsulate both endeavors. This book is my attempt to chronicle the extent of their flight from reality, and to combat it.
I should say at the outset that I do not believe the flight from reality has a single source or cause. It results, rather, from various developments that share elective affinities--developments that all too often are mutually reinforcing. Some of their sources are intellectual, having to do with the ebb and flow of academic fashion. Some of them are institutional, reflecting the structure of academic professions and the incentives for advancement in an era of exhausted paradigms and extensive specialization. This can be bolstered by a perverse sense of rigor, where the dread of being thought insufficiently scientific spawns a fear of not flying among young scholars. Some are political in the broadest sense, having to do with the relations between disengaged human sciences and the reproduction of the social and political order. The flight from reality is not without consequences for reality as we will see. At best it marginalizes the potential effects of political and social criticism, and sometimes it contributes to the maintenance of oppressive social relations--however unwittingly.
I begin making this case, with the help of Alexander Wendt, in the opening chapter. We expose the limitations of empiricist and interpretive methods of social research, showing how they bias the enterprise in method-driven ways, and we argue for a realist view in their stead. Rather than do this in the abstract, we pursue it by reference to a concrete phenomenon that has attracted a good deal of attention in the human sciences: the study of consent. Empiricism as we describe it here encompasses two different approaches to social inquiry--both bastard stepchildren of David Hume. The first we dub logicism to call attention to the fact that its proponents embrace the view, made famous by Carl Hempel, that good explanations are sound deductive arguments. For logicists, an hypothesis is scientific only if it is derived from a general theory. Such theories often rest on simplifying assumptions about reality, or even "as if" assumptions that are not valid empirically at all.