PhilSocSci Discussion - EPOST
Phil566 Readings
Philosophy 566, Fall 2006
Philosophy of Social Science Seminar

Instructor: Alison Wylie

Office: Savery Hall 342
Office Hours: Tuesdays/Thursdays 2:30-3:30
Telephone: 206-543-5873

Meeting Times and Locations
Mondays 3:30-5:20
Philosophy seminar room: Savery Hall 331K

Course Description

The pivotal question in philosophical debates about the social sciences has long been that of whether human, social subjects can be studied scientifically or require, instead, a distinctively interpretive methodology. The aim of this course is to assess a number "anti-naturalist" arguments and associated models of interpretive goals and practice in the social sciences. The point of departure is Ian Hacking's Taming of Chance (1990): a jointly historical and philosophical account of how the development of social statistics constituted social phenomena as a tractable subject for scientific investigation and, in turn, shaped social life itself. We then turn to a selection of classic articles in which the philosophical rationale for these naturalist ambitions are articulated (e.g., by Hempel on historical explanation, and by Rudner on hypothesis evaluation), and to the anti-naturalist reaction in which they are disputed by the Wittgensteinian critic Peter Winch.

Two issues central to the debate generated by Winch's Idea of a Social Science are the focus of subsequent sections of the course: the relativist implications of Winch's position; and the interactive effects by which social scientific inquiry transforms its subject. In connection with the first we discuss successive attempts to account for the possibility and the limits of cross-cultural translation/interpretation. An early exchange between MacIntyre and Winch provides a jumping-off point for considering recent reappraisals of this debate by Henderson, who argues that translation should be understood as a species of explanation, and by Risjord who proposes an erotetic account of ethnographic interpretation. In connection with the second, we return to Hacking to consider his account of "looping effects" and their role in constituting social kinds, and juxtapose with this recent reappraisals of social identity constructs due to Moya, Mohanty, and Alcoff.

Course Texts
  • Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance (1990).
  • Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (1999).
  • Peter Winch. The Idea of a Social Science. (1958/1990, second edition).
  • David K. Henderson, Interpretation and Explanation in the Social Sciences (1993).
  • Mark W. Risjord,. Woodcutters and Witchcraft: Rationality and Interpretive Change in the Social Sciences (2000).


Seminar participation and presentations

(25% of final grade)
  • active participation in the seminar meetings is required;
  • seminar presentation: you will expected to give one seminar presentation in the course of the quarter; this should take the form of a 15-20 minute analysis of one of the assigned readings for the week you choose (or of a theme that cross-cuts a selection of the assigned readings), with the aim of initiating seminar discussion
Written assignments (75% of final grade)
  • Essay I (25% ): A sharply focused critical-expository analysis of readings assigned in the first section of the course (Hacking, naturalist models of explanation, and Winch's anti-naturalism); this should be 3-5 pages long and is due Friday, November 3.
  • Essay II (50%): a 12-15 page paper in which you develop a carefully argued position on one of the issues raised by the assigned readings and discussed in the course of the semester. Submit an a 12-15 page paper in which you develop a carefully argued position on one of the issues raised by the assigned readings and discussed in the course of the semester. Submit an abstract or proposal for this paper by Friday, November 17; the final paper is due Friday, December 15.

General guidelines

  • Essays should be submitted in hard copy to the Philosophy office by 5:00 on the date they are due.
  • Late essays will be accepted only in cases of medical emergency or personal/family crisis.
  • Incompletes will be granted only under the following circumstances: you are eligible for an incomplete only in cases of medical emergency or personal/family crisis; you must request an incomplete two weeks before the end of the quarter; you must have completed all assignments that have come due up to that point.

Presentation Schedule

October 23: The very idea of a science of the social - Andrew Fyfe

October 30: Translation and interpretation - Mitch Kaufman

November 6: Translation and interpretation - Scott Clifton

November 13: Interpretation as explanation - Andrea Sullivan-Clarke

December 4: Reclaiminig Identity - Ben Almassi