Although I find many approaches to the social sciences of great interest, I personally attempt to follow a broadly “scientific” tradition which focuses upon relatively formal, mathematicized theories which emphasize the continuity of cultural behavior with human biology, more general animal behavior, and evolutionary biology as the overarching framework for explanation.
However, following Feyerabend, Rorty, Fine, and others, I see no reason to take an exclusionary position towards other types of inquiry. In particular, Rorty’s distinction in Consequences of Pragmatism between forms of inquiry meant to enhance our abilities to predict and control, and forms of inquiry meant to increase our understanding and empathy seems to me a critical one within the social sciences. I tend to agree with Rorty that to the extent that we can point to “moral successes” (e.g., increases in the inclusiveness and tolerance of our communities, cessation or abatement of forms of intolerance or oppression), we largely have empathic, communal, and rhetorical modes of inquiry and argumentation to thank, rather than scientific experimentation or theorizing.
At the same time, contrary to those who condemn the European Enlightenment (principally for its totalizing side effects), I also believe that science has played an important role in providing a background of cultural, economic, and technical innovation within which our empathic inquiries have “wiggle room” to enlarge our moral universe. In other words, I believe strongly that Rorty’s two modes of inquiry should be seen as symbiotic, rather than competitive.
Given this perspective, I find it interesting that so many scientists still believe that so-called “post-modern” philosophy and social theory is an enemy to be fought. Clearly, there are excesses — of nihilistic relativism on the one hand, and totalizing “scientism” on the other — but by and large the cultures of science and cultural criticism are mutually reinforcing. If we read “democracy” in the following as another way of discussing communal, empathic, rhetorical modes of social interaction, the arch-scientist Carl Sagan begins to sound much like the Richard Rorty of Philosophy and Social Hope, for example:
The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, in many cases indistinguishable. Science and democracy began — in their civilized incarnations — in the same time and place, Greece in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. Science confers power on anyone who takes the trouble to learn it (although too many have been systematically prevented from doing so). Science thrives on, indeed requires, the free exchange of ideas; its values are antithetical to secrecy. Science holds to no special vantage points or privileged positions. Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty. Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge….It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes. The more widespread its language, rules, and methods, the better chance we have of preserving what Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues had in mind. But democracy can also be subverted more thoroughly through the products of science than any pre-industrial demagogue ever dreamed.
Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires vigilance, dedication, and courage. But if we don’t practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us — and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along.
In more concrete terms, I like to work from the premise that human cognition and behavior are continuous with analogous phenomena in the animal world, and that no unbridgeable “gulf” separates us from the rest of the natural world. In Huw Price’s sense of the term, this makes me a “subject naturalist,” and of course since I work on extending evolutionary theory to human behavior and the products of human behavior, I necessarily take an anti-essentialist approach to the social sciences. Less necessarily, but tactically quite important is a generative approach to explanation, in which evolutionary models are accepted as possible explanations for a phenomenon only when we can demonstrate that a population of agents with specific capabilities will create the patterning being explained if placed in local interaction with each other and an specific “environment.” Joshua Epstein’s work on generative methodologies is very inspirational for me in this regard.
In support of this anti-essentialist, generative, evolutionary, and subject-naturalist stance on the human sciences, I continue to try to understand the writings of philosophers like Wilfrid Sellars, W.V.O. Quine, Robert Brandom, Donald Davison, Paul Feyerabend, Richard Rorty, Daniel Dennett, Arthur Fine, Elliott Sober, Andy Clark, and Kim Sterelny. Something like the sum total of their “canonical” works might be my vote for a useful philosophical background for a social scientist oriented towards a naturalistic, evolutionary stance.