F.W. Fowler. Sydney Libertarianism 1988

Social Theory as a Positive Science

Source: Heraclitus No. 15, April 1988;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price.

At the outset, I would like to indicate that the object of this paper is, in the main, a threefold one: to show in the first place, the study of social matters has the same status as does the study of any other field of events; secondly, that this means, expressing the title of the paper in another way, that this study is deterministic, meaning thereby that social events, whatever these may turn out to be, are conditioned, that they are subject to the same type of causality as is found in any other field of study; and to bring out, thirdly, some of the main confusions that have hindered the investigation of this field, to expose views of society which even if they do not definitely obstruct inquiry into the social field, nonetheless add their weight to the propagation of confusion.

There are few who would not agree that society provides us with a field of study, that there are social processes, forces or strengths that we not only can investigate but about which we find, certain views have already been expressed and, in fact, on the basis of these views, policies have been formulated, or, as we could put it, on the basis of statements of what is the case we find statements regarding what is to be done – although of course what is to be done would have no place in social theory itself.

It is worth noting at this point that if we undertake, say, the study of mathematical subjects, e.g. geometry, we expect certain propositions to be laid down, certain demonstrations to be made and a certain position to be put forward which can be regarded as a body of geometrical knowledge; and emphasising the point further, while we can come across differences of opinion in the mathematical field, we still do find a definite body of what is recognised as mathematical knowledge. On the other hand, in the field of the so-called social sciences, philosophy, psychology, ethics, aesthetics, education and the like, we find that our attention is drawn not so much to the subject itself as to what are-termed the ‘views’ of certain theorists in those fields, so that we tend to speak of so and so’s social theory, of so and so’s psychology, ethics, etc.; and. this is so, not because the field of these subjects is constituted simply by views, ie., that in these fields there are no facts, no body of knowledge to be built up, but simply that in these fields there is no recognised common body of knowledge, no common body of social theory, comparable eg. to the body of geometrical theory.

At various times, this fact has been taken to establish a difference in the status of these fields of study, a difference which, to take the extremist view, regards the social sciences as NON-science, so that to take a particular point it is argued, eg. in the field of aesthetics, that we have no field of study, that what we call aesthetics comes to us in the form of ‘opinions’, views, judgements, appreciations or the like of the connoisseur in such matters, the man whose opinions count or whose views have to be solicited, if we ourselves are to have aesthetic understanding. Briefly put, this is the doctrine that if we want to know whether a work of art is good or not, we simply ask the connoisseur whether he likes it or not.

Now that view would certainly remove aesthetics from the field of scientific investigation and reduce it to the consideration of someone’s preferences. That type of position was demonstrated, once and for all, as those people who are familiar with Greek philosophy will know, by Socrates in the Euthyphro when, in the discussion of the holy, he made it quite clear that if the holy was simply what the gods like, then we could, if we were sufficiently interested in godly likings, ask them what they liked (which, of course, could be anything at all); but that if the gods liked only that which was holy, ie., things of a holy character (whatever that might turn out to be), then not only were their likings irrelevant to what was holy, but at once we could presumably take up the study of these holy things, their characteristics, their relationships to one another and to things that were not holy at all.

In passing it should be noted that the very notion of the connoisseur, as presented suggests that works of art have qualities and that it is his knowledge of these qualities that gives him his status rather than what must otherwise bo regarded as mere whimsies of his.

The less extreme view’ (which, however, is just as erroneous; is that with the social sciences, the contrast is raised between the group of sciences that are exact and those that are inexact; but, of course, this is only a somewhat less obvious way of formulating connoisseurism. Its attempt is to give us a science (exact) whose propositions are acceptable to all and a science (inexact) whose propositions are not acceptable to all, propositions that are the subjects of dispute or about which there-are supporters and opponents.

But, of course, any such distinction cannot consistently be maintained: not only are there disagreements in the so-called exact sciences, but the very fact of disagreement itself points to a subject matter because otherwise disagreement would be quite meaningless; there would just be nothing about which to disagree. Put somewhat differently, we can say that if it really is the case that there is no recognised body of social theory, if each social theorist is found to have his own ‘view’, then that can only be because he has that view of a certain issue, a view of certain social facts, and those facts remain there to be studied no matter how many views there happen to be about them; although it would certainly be the case that if two views of the facts were contradictory, ie., if it was held, on the one hand, that A was B, and on the other, that A was not B, then one view would be true (would constitute KNOWLEDGE) while the other view would be false (would constitute ERROR). And that, of course, does not in any way raise the question of finding some arbiter, someone who is to decide which of the two propositions is true and which is false; indeed for the social theorist it is simply a question of inquiring further – of finding what we might term “evidence” for his particular statement of the case, recognising, in using the term “evidence” here that we are simply referring to continuing investigation and that there is no evidence which can establish a proposition beyond dispute.

Thus the object of social theory is to build up a body of knowledge about social matters, their characteristics, their ways of working, their interrelationships and their relationships with things which are not social at all.

We can, of course, approach the subject in various ways; we can, eg., study society from the historical point of view – i.e., we can consider the various societies that have existed, their leading characteristics, the way in which changes come about in their make-up (the emergence or the disappearance of certain characteristics); or we can, in attempting to see what the problems are, study the various social doctrines that have been formulated from time to time, while in the case of this method of approach being continually on guard against the type of social doctrine which does not state what is taken to be the case but what it is considered society ought to do or ought to become.

The main point still remains, however, that from whatever angle we approach the examination of social questions, we have to recognise that, whatever the issues are,we are dealing with social facts, with what is the case, and that such issues can be settled only by determining what the facts are; only on that basis is there any possibility of building up sound theory, or as it was put earlier in the case eg. of geometry, a body of knowledge.

While it can be said that up to the present no such body of knowledge exists, there are certainly two important confusions which persistently hamper social investigation and which therefore cannot be exposed too often if theoretical advance is to be made.

In the first place, the social sciences (and this applies, of course, to psychology itself) are all closely involved with the attitudes, demands and wants of individuals; and this works against theorising in at least two main ways; in one way it works by maintaining that “A is B because I want it to be” or that “A is not B because I don’t want it to be”; and nowhere perhaps do we get a better example of the stultifying and, even on occasions, the terrorising effect on theorising, than by considering historically the effect on the growth of what would now be regarded as a very “exact” science, namely astronomy, of religious believers’ control of the earth.

In another way it works by endeavouring, with much success, to draw a distinction between a science that is normative (the social sciences) and a positive science (the physical sciences). According to this distinction while science may tell us “what is,” it cannot tell us “what ought to be”; for that we need a science that establishes ‘norms’, ‘ideals’ or ‘standards’, ‘ends’ or ‘things to be achieved’; and if we adopt that particular position, reality or the facts will always be bent towards what ought to be. It is worth noting in passing, that the obsession with normative science endeavours even to invade the fields of sciences not normally describable as social at all. Thus medicine eg., is taken from one aspect at least as setting up norms or standards for health. The fact, however, that when we are acquainted with medical theory we can see that this group of sciences can be regarded as laying down rules, as telling us eg. what are the laws of health, does not in any way mean that the science of medicine has any directive force; it simply means that it puts-forward propositions regarding the human body and it informs us that if we act in certain ways, certain other consequences will follow, but we cannot say that medicine tells us to take one course or the other; it gives no rules or norms that are binding on us.

which are not social at all.


Now in the second place, what might be termed the obscurantism of the application of theory has had a particularly damaging effect on social theory. It is not, of course, that knowledge cannot be applied, that we cannot use what we know to solve problems that we would not be able to solve without such knowledge; the obscurantism or the confusing effect of applications lies precisely in the way in which theory is formulated to support policy. Indeed, at this point, if we look at the matter from an historical point of

view (something I hope to touch on later) we find that a considerable volume of social theorising is actually motivated by possibilities of application (not, of course, that that is to say anything about the truth or falsity of such theorising); but also that applications have been put forward AS social theory; in other words, the study of social questions has been replaced by the formulation of policies, so ultimately the doctrine

of applicability is another variant of the doctrine of norms or of what ought to be done.

Turning now specifically to social theory, we find that what we are dealing with what, as it were our field of study is – is the organisation of social movements, the characteristics of these movements, the relationships between themselves and between them and other things of a non-social character, just as when we take up the study of minds (psychology) we find we are dealing with organisations of feelings, passions or emotions, which are characterised in different ways and interrelated to one another and to things of a non-mental character, as when we say a particular mental process, feeling or emotion knows that “all men are mortal.”

All this is to say, then, that we recognise things of a social character, namely, forces or movements on the one hand, and on the other, mental forces which we have further characterised as emotional. And I would like to mention here in passing, that I am raising psychological questions in this way because the parallelism between mind and society is not only a close one but the problems and particularly the confusions that have to be removed are very much the same.

We are thus opening up the field of social theory by: recognising the existence of social processes that we describe as movements; contending that such movements have characteristics of their own so that we can distinguish one from another and relationships between then – at least relations of support and opposition as indicated (however it may be deplored by the voluntarist) by the fact of social struggles; and finally by describing the association of such forces as constituting a society. And what is meant, then, by arguing that social theory is a positive or deterministic science is the additional recognition that in studying the above, we are studying spatio-temporal events, ie., that we are studying facts, no matter what their characteristics may turn out to be.

Now to have the theory of society as ‘organisation of movements’ is at once to reject the view of it as an organisation of individuals. Indeed, the conception of society as consisting of the acts of persons and as determined by their wishes or wills is based on the voluntaristic notion that these wills are ‘free’ to operate or that persons are able to ELECT to enter into certain relations with one another. Thus while society has persons as constituents,-- or to put it another way, while without personal activities, we cannot have social activities, social activities can operate through persons without such persons being in any way aware of their nature.

The theory of society as ‘organisation of movements’ similarly leads to the rejection of the Marxist view of society as constituted by CLASSES. As opposed to the individualistic, voluntarist doctrine just referred to, there is much to be said for Marx’s approach to social questions, particularly in his rejection of individualism, and with his doctrine of society as organisation of classes, he opened the field for investigation, a field that was virtually closed by prevailing voluntarist views which took social theory to be simply a matter of finding out what individuals thought about things, or, more particularly, of discovering what they wanted to do.

The main criticism of the class view of society is that classes can disappear (eg., the feudalists) without society coming to an end, nor is it possible, if we look at societies historically, to find any class, the existence of which is not only a constant feature of society, but without whose existence society would collapse or disintegrate.

In fact, Marx, on the doctrine of society as constituted by classes, produced on the basis of political activism (and not of social theorising) a bifurcation of society ultimately into two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the possessors and the unpossessed, and this in itself involved him, not only in the difficulties of fitting into this bifurcation bits and pieces, as it were, of classes, like artists, educators, scientists, philosophers, etc., but also in the denigration of such activities as being irrelevant to THE STRUGGLE or to the death throes of capitalism.

This, of course, is beside the main point of criticism of the class doctrine. This is that if social theory is the study of classes and their struggles, then on Marx’s theory about the sounding of the death knell of capitalism and the impending coming to power of the working class (the proletarian revolution) which is supposed to sec the disappearance of all classes with the establishment of a classless society, it would presumably at the same time sec the disappearance of all theorising because there would be nothing to theorise about.

Much the same type of criticism applies to the doctrine of Marx and Engels referred to as the “economic interpretation of history” which properly speaking is really the “economic interpretation of society.” In Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Engels writes: “The Materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all human structure] that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders, is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the PHILOSOPHY, but in the ECONOMICS of each particular epoch.”

But, of course, if economics is the basis of all social structure, then it is difficult to see what kind of economics, as the theory of production, distribution and exchange would support the arrival of the classless society; indeed, in speaking of the philosophy of an epoch Engels is adopting the relativist view of truth, assuming that we can say no more about, say, A’s being B than that it was held at a certain time and, presumably, under certain economic conditions. But the question is not how or under what conditions, economic or otherwise, that the proposition has been formulated but simply whether, in actual fact, A IS or IS NOT B and that is not relative to anything at all.

While, then, there is no doubt that we can have all kinds of determinants of views -and if we were sufficiently interested we could consider not only the conditions under which someone comes to recognise a fact but perhaps especially how he failed to do so, how he came to mistake one thing for something else – those investigations would not have the slightest bearing on the truth or falsity of the views themselves. That can only be determined by an examination of the facts themselves.

At the same time, the emphasis placed by Marx and Engels on economic factors, on the importance of those ways of living that were involved in the productive system, gives us an indication of the role of what we might term the productive forces or movements in social organisation. It will not, then, be as it was for Marx and Engels so much a question of a productive class. It was, indeed, this almost fanatical and certainly deistic view that led Marx, as has already been pointed out, to bifurcate society into two classes, parasites and producers, and further to the optimism of the society that must be established because parasitism could no longer carry on an a viable economic system and was waiting to be overthrown by the producers.

As opposed to the above dialectic (the “contradictions of capitalism,” eg.) we have to recognise, on any positive, deterministic, spatio-temporal view of society that, in the first place it is a feature of ANY society that it exhibits forces or movements that can be described as PRODUCTIVE, that such movements can be further characterised as both free and cooperative with one another (“free,” incidentally, in the sense that they oppose the destructive forces in society; eg., we should describe ‘thinking’ as a free activity meaning it is of such a character that it will cooperate with other free activities, scientific activity, artistic creation, etc., and will struggle against any forces that endeavor to suppress either it or what it supports, its special foe being obscurantism with its weapon, among others, of censorship.) In the second place, it is in the decline, for whatever reason, of the productive forces that we have the decline of a society, and in the event of their disappearance, the death of that society.

Now there is nothing in the doctrine that the basic forces in society are the productive ones to imply that they are either always or ever the dominant ones. In fact, although Marx places the struggle as one between classes, he considers that, while it will not be able to maintain itself, hold its position as the dominant social force, nonetheless the bourgeoisie – the consumer, parasitic, oppressive force – was in fact the dominant social class which had to be overthrown by that class that only had production on its side; and this would point to the fact that if we were to recognise social goods, eg., that productive movements had such a character, that would certainly not guarantee them a dominant role in social organisation or even guarantee their continued existence.

In conclusion, Marx can be said to have completely overlooked the view of society as organisation of movements and that therefore he failed to recognise that productive forces did not wholly channel themselves through the proletariat, that such forces, in varying degrees worked through the bourgeoisie itself, even if in doing so they met with much stronger opposition from consumerism, from forces generally of a parasitic character. His lack of interest in theory as such, exhibited in the nonsense of the dialectic and that of relative truth, similarly prevented him from appreciating the way in which productive movements worked through philosophers, scientists, artists and educators and led him to belittle their work as mere reflections of economic conditions and as therefore of little importance to the class struggle. It might be noted, in this connection, that the Bolshevik revolution occurred in Russia and not in the more advanced Western countries just because the productive movement, such as it was, spoke much more powerfully through the proletariat than in the Western countries where enterprise and capitalist activity generally, however basically consumer orientated, nevertheless exhibited, in varying degrees, the working of productive activities.

To sum up, then, we can say that social theory as a positive science takes its field to be that of social movements, that these are spatio-temporal occurrences, that they are determined (subject to the general laws of causality); that it finds the productive forces in society to be those that are cooperative, free, and good; that their chief enemies are the consumptive, parasitic group of forces that not only oppose the social goods but struggle among themselves, although there are also, it should be noted, forces of lesser power that are neither productive nor parasitic in character.

On this theory of society there can never be any ultimate peace (as against Marx’s illusion of the classless society); that is, there will never be a stage when any society can be described as a producers’ society, a society in which all other movements have been eliminated or to put it in another way, freedom as a positive way of life, ie., as a feature of socially defensible movements, will always be confronted with opposing forces, or to put the matter popularly in terms of present-day politics, will always be in the opposition.

(A paper given to the Newcastle University Philosophy Club)