Philosophy of Social Science in a nutshell: from discourse to model and experiment

In Denis Phan & Fred Amblard (eds.), Agent Based Modelling and Simulations in the Human and Social Siences. Oxford: The Bardwell Press. pp. 393-431 (2007)
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The debates on the scientificity of social sciences in general, and sociology in particular, are recurring. From the original methodenstreitat the end the 19th Century to the contemporary controversy on the legitimacy of “regional epistemologies”, a same set of interrogations reappears. Are social sciences really scientific? And if so, are they sciences like other sciences? How should we conceive “research programs” Lakatos (1978) or “research traditions” for Laudan (1977) able to produce advancement of knowledge in the field of social and human phenomena? Is the progress of knowledge in social sciences similar to the one generally observed in natural sciences? Is it possible to evaluate the relative merits of each one of these research programs? These debates are important vectors of social and intellectual polarization. The historical divide between the positivist and the hermeneutics poles precedes the structure of the contemporary debate around the epistemic space of social sciences, It is not only a question of renewing the opposition between a monist view of sciences (e.g. McIntyre, 1996) and a dualistic one (e.g. Geertz, 1973) or even a trialist view of sciences (e.g. Lepenies, 1985). It is also a question of asserting dichotomies transformed into framework (including when it is a question of exceeding them): nature-culture, nomothetic-idiographic, models-narrative, structure-history, cause-reason, explanation-comprehension. In this short introduction, we provide, in section 2, a first overview of this epistemological debate in social science. Section 3 proposes a different standpoint on the same questions, by introducing both ontological and methodological aspects in this basic epistemological debate. Namely, following (Hollis, 1994) oppositions of the explanation - understanding, causes - meaning, etc., types discussed in the firsts ection are comparatively examined together with oppositions of the structure - action, holism - individualism types. This allows us to discus show multi-agent design, by integrating various dimensions and standpoints in the same framework (Phan, Amblard, 2007, Chapters 1, 5, 14) can help us to shift these boundaries, and to bypass these oppositions. As model building and ontology design are at the core of this process (Phan, Amblard, 2007, Chapter 12), Section4 discusses various issues of the art of modelling, starting both from economists’ and sociologists’ current standpoints.

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Denis Phan
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique


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