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Pitt-Tsinghua Summer School for Philosophy of Science

Institute of Science Technology and Society, Tsinghua University • Center for Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh


2009  Merrilee Salmon, Philosophy of Social Science

First Session: Historical Background and Development of the Social Sciences

An introduction to important works concerning the nature and methodology of the social sciences will look at the conflict between naturalistic (or positivistic) and interpretive approaches to the study of human behavior, whether the methods that have been so successful in the natural sciences are applicable to the study of human behavior, whether human’s free will and their concern with values are barriers to scientific study of their behavior, whether social behavior is completely analyzable in terms of the behavior of individuals.

Suggested readings: 

1. John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic, Book VI “On the Logic of the Moral Sciences,” Chapters vi and vii.  (Pages vary in different editions. Later editions (e.g. 8th) are more complete. In my copy of the 8th edition (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1874) the pages for these chapters are 606-613.)

2. Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, section on “Social Facts”  (Glencoe. IL, Free Press, 1965) Relevant section is reprinted in Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science, edited by Michael Martin and Lee C. McIntyre (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1994, pp. 433-440). Note: the Martin & McIntyre anthology is an excellent library resource!

3. Fritz Ringer, Max Weber’s Methodology: The unification of the cultural and social sciences, (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press), sections on “Interpretive sociology” and “The ideal type and its functions,” pp. 100-121.


Second Session: Explanation in the Social Sciences

Many critics of the social sciences believe that there can be no true social science without genuine scientific explanations of social phenomena. Various philosophical models of explanation will be discussed, with special attention to their suitability for use in the social sciences. Special questions to be addressed include whether explanations require laws, the standing of statistical explanations, and the feasibility of singular causal explanations.
Suggested readings:

1. C.G. Hempel, “The Function of General Laws in History,” reprinted in many places, including Hempel’s Aspects of Scientific Explanation, New York, The Free Press, pp. 231-244, and the Martin & McIntyre anthology mentioned above, pp. 43-53.

2. W.C. Salmon,  “Explanation and Confirmation: A Bayesian Critique of Inference to the Best Explanation.” In Explanation: Theoretical Approaches and Applications, Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers (2001), pp.61-91.


Third Session: Prediction in the Social Sciences

The capacity to accurately predict phenomena is regarded by many as the crucial hallmark of science. This session will address whether and to what degree the social sciences can meet this standard. The alleged symmetry between explanation and prediction will be criticized. Opinions among students of human behavior vary widely on the possibility and value of prediction; some say there is—at least theoretically-- relatively little difference between social and physical sciences with respect to the possibility of prediction; others deny that prediction is a reasonable goal. The problem of prediction on the basis of statistical data will be addressed.
Suggested readings:

1. W.C. Salmon “Rational Prediction,” British Journal of Philosophy of Science, 32 (1983), pp. 115-125
2. W. Gonzales “From Erklaeren-Verstehen to Prediction-Understanding: The Methodological Framework in Economics.” In Realism in Action: Essays in the Philosophy of the Social Sciences, eds. M. Sintonen, et al., Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003, pp. 33-50.


Fourth Session: Causality in the Social Sciences

Obviously, the problems of explanation and prediction are closely related to those of causality. Philosophers of science in recent years have offered a number of different theories of causality. Some, such as that proposed by Clark Glymour and his associates, easily accommodate the social sciences, while others, such as the theory of processes and conserved quantities of W. Salmon and P. Dowe pose difficulties. We will examine these along with the manipulability theory of J. Woodward. In addition, we will again consider Interpretivists’ denial that causality is an appropriate category for the studying human behavior.
Suggested readings:

1. Richard Scheines “Computation and Causation,” (2002) in MetaPhilosophy, 33: 1, Blackwell.  (This is a clear account of Glymour’s views. It can be downloaded from Scheines’s CMU site.)
2. James Woodward “Causation and Manipulability”  (2008), Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Free, on-line access
3. W.C. Salmon “The Causal Structure of the World” (Unpublished Reichenbach Lecture,written in 2001)*
4. M.H. Salmon “Causal explanations of behavior.” (2003) Philosophy of Science 90, pp.720-738.


Fifth Session: Values in the Social Sciences

A strict separation between facts and values, and the exclusion of the latter from science, views accepted by many scientists, were central tenets of 20th century logical positivism. Studies of human behavior, however, seem inextricably linked to questions of value. The responses to this situation vary. Some see the concern with value as a fatal impediment to a science of human behavior. Others deny that facts and values can be clearly separated, and some argue that even the physical sciences are “value laden.” Clearly science is concerned with more or less “pure” epistemic values, such as truth and consistency, but what about non-epistemic values? Can the latter always be clearly distinguished from the former? In this lecture we will try to clarify some of the issues surrounding the role of values in science, and hope to show that concern with (non-epistemic) values pervades all the sciences.
Suggested readings:

NOTE: All of these readings are in Value-Free Science: Ideals and Illusions, edited by Harold Kincaid, John Dupre’ and Alison Wylie. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 2007.

1. “Fact and Value,” John Dupre’, pp.27-41.
2. “ Social Problems,” Michael Root, pp. 42-57.
3. “Contextualist Morals and Science,” by Harold Kincaid, pp. 218-238
 *Sent as email attachment.


Revised 9/11/18 - Copyright 2006-2009