Reading Guide to Selections from: Hindess, B (1977) Philosophy and Methodology in the Social Sciences, Hassocks: Harvester Press


There are problems with approaches that operate at different levels. The philosophical claims (epistemological) of social sciences are dubious, based on some claim to have a foundational knowledge of how the relation between discrete realms is formed to produce valid knowledge. The discrete realms here might be ideas, objects, the subject, the object -- anything empiricist. The claim can take the form of either an epistemological one about correct knowledge, or an ontological one about the essential properties of these objects, which then yield concepts and so on. All such claims are incoherent [logically incoherent, for example as in positivism where all knowledge is supposed to be based on experience except the knowledge of how to gain valid knowledge!] or dogmatic, that is not defensible by rationality alone. If this is so, epistemology or philosophy of social sciences cannot be a ground, a privileged level of knowledge from which to evaluate substantive scientific discourses.

A common approach is to pursue a rationalist strategy of action. Here, ideas are realised [meaning 'made real' throughout] in nature by the actions of individuals, collectives, or even some transcendental subject: things that exist in nature are only the result of such realised ideas. There are a number of mechanisms for this realisation, not only rationalism in the narrow sense [that reason is detectable in the world]. All are  theological in inspiration, however -- God, society, or individuals realise the Word, values, or functional prerequisites. However, ideas must always be a part of some totality which is always imperfectly realised, leading to an inevitably speculative element. The totality of ideas itself pre-determines the mechanisms of realisation too, so that it is possible to have contradictory realisations -- some realisations might be particularly dominating at particular times, for example. However, this leads either to an indeterminacy, or the need for some other mechanisms, extra-rational determinations of various kinds -- and this is incoherent.

Another consequence of this approach is a difficulty in shifting between the levels of analysis. There can be no explicit critique of [speculative] methodology, although it is possible to critique substantive discourses. As examples:

(1) Neo-Kantianism. Kant himself argues for the constitutive role of experience, but he does not mean empirical experience. This leads to two realms, of sensible objects [detectable using the senses] and 'supersensible' ones -- the noumena. Although Man is a cognitive as well as a natural subject, knowledge of cognitive processes, at the transcendental level especially, must be speculative for Kant: this has led to an approach which is not really knowledge at all. The emphasis is reversed by the neo-Kantians. The way the cognitive processes constitute the world is the precise interest of Social Sciences [geisteswissenschaften]. Kant's notion of pure reason was seen best in geometry or maths, while theoretical reason was about the knowledge of things in nature, and practical reason referred to the knowledge of action and morality, including the idea of freedom as submission to the moral law [which is not really knowledge again, says Hindess]. There is no basis for the later splits between natural and social sciences, so important for the neo-Kantians. For the latter, social science involves knowledge of some objective Spirit, some notion of meanings arising from some supersensible process of realisation: this must be speculative, and cannot be coherently positivised, as Weber tries to do.

(2) Positivism, which in its protocol form involves deductivism or systematic model building. This must be circular, since the protocols themselves do not arise from experience alone, or incoherent, smuggling in illicitly 'metaphysical' notions, like those used to relate concepts and their objects -- fields, forces and so on. Positivism could also be dogmatic, as in Popper's insistence that 'basic statements' must be the basis of science, even though he goes on to admit that this notion is still 'theoretical' [and see Habermas's critique here].

(3) Theoretical discourse as a kind of production, which was Althusser's position. This argues against the empirical process of knowledge production, which sees 'facts' as something independent of theoretical practice -- empiricism is therefore ideological. However, science is still a particular type of a real empirical process of production -- there is still a real world of 'givens', and, for Althusser, these can be grasped by ordinary thought in the form of ideology. What science does is to produce an order of concepts which appear in a regular sequence -- everything turns on the order of discourse. [This refers to the 'generalities' model in Althusser] . Science of this kind cannot be used to critique other discourses, however, although it can be used in a general way to cast doubt on epistemology and methodology. The science/ideology split is not sufficient for effective critique. How should we critique discourses then? We used to see a 'theoretical problematic' being realised in discourses, as in Althusser again, but this is open to the same sort of rationalist action critique as in the above examples.

Chapter 1 The Methodology of Max Weber

Weber sees social action as the 'phenomenal expression of transcendent meanings' (24). His methods really are aimed at producing plausibility and subjective conviction, with religious undertones. He says we should focus on action because of a general belief that culture is a major characteristic of human beings -- he gets this from German philosophy in Kant, Rickert and so on, and this belief is then claimed as knowledge. He is vague on the precise mechanisms, how action arises from these meanings and orientations. He really operates with a teleological expressive relation: this is essential to Weber's sociology, which is based on an unquestioned notion of human subjectivity.

There are problems with different types of meaning in Weber. For example, he defines as objective meaning that which is attributed by an observer rather than that which is found in nature or reality. This reveals the same problem found in all transcendental presuppositions.

Given that there is a lot of actual behaviour rather than action, it is hard to see why action is seen as essential to human beings. There is an implicit claim that action is somehow 'higher', that is valued in some way. There is thus an irrational, decisionistic elements at the heart of Weber's work (29), a supernatural reference point (30). This is what lies behind the usual reading of Weber as some counterpoint to [marxist] materialism.

Weber says sociology must be value-relevant, which again implies there can be no general universal study, and that all concepts must be tied to values, even causal factors are. This should produce a relativism at the level of cultures, but Weber is unable to acknowledge this for his own causal concepts. The work is incoherent.

Human actions express transcendent meanings, unlike behaviours, but there is a problem in distinguishing what these might be. They cannot be detected by empirical observation or science, which leaves only postulation by the observer. Observers therefore have a licence to construct accounts based on meanings at will. This can be seen in the oscillation between ideal types and reality to. Ideal types are a double abstraction -- first they are selected on the basis of value relevance, and then further abstracted for methodological purposes [implying that actual events are abstracted in this way in order to fit them] There must therefore always be a discrepancy between ideal types and reality, and ideal types can never be valid in the usual sense, but only a model.

However, they can also be no theoretical account of the discrepancies between ideal types and reality: they can only be useful or relevant and so on. If they are not useful they can be rejected on the basis of some arbitrary decision rather than for theoretical reasons -- presumably, we can just change our ideal type. Given that the deviation from reality cannot be explained, the sociologist has a licence to pick and choose ideal types on the basis of personal decisions.

Because values ultimately determine the choice of concepts, there is a relativism in Weber, despite his protests on this matter. This is concealed by the focus on formal technical chains of deduction, and pursuit of causal uniformities. However, the notion of adequacy, at the levels of meaning and causality, involves little other than a reference to habitual modes of thought [see Schutz here]. At the level of meaning adequacy , this is really a way of smuggling in the transcendental level, on the assumption that habits express these best. Turning to causal adequacy, this relies on being able to estimate and generalise from experience and probability, masked as attempting to achieve some correspondence to laws. But Weber already knows there are problems with causes, which are infinite -- the chain is only to be terminated by value relevance (42), which gives the investigator a licence for decisionism again. In practice, Weber himself never used actual empirical laws at all, but relied on all sorts of vague analogies and so on (43).

Reality is impossible to grasp, without the selective filter of value relevance. This leads to a methodological problem in isolating specific events, which is what historical analysis is supposed to be all about, for Weber. History itself is not law-like, it seems, but unique, and the only methodology one can use to analyse it is the thought experiment. This can only be very abstract, though -- which 'facts' are to be used to conduct the experiment, which ones are to be held constant while the others vary? Weber simply says we can choose here.

The same point arises with the idea of objective possibilities or probabilities. In reality, subjective certainty seems to be the judge here. Certainty lies behind the matter of proof for Weber: it becomes a matter of verisimilitude at the most, or plausibility, despite a superficial relation to Kantian notions of the subjective and objective.

Chapter 7 The Critique of Empiricism, and Analysis of Theoretical Discourse

There are two kinds of critique available, one which critiques epistemology as such, while the other critiques particular applications of protocols, as in ideology-critique. The two cannot be connected: one cannot be extended to the other without logical problems. Both are needed.

[Some fascinating stuff follows on the general anti-empiricism, and the distinction between empiricism and science, in the work of Willers. Very briefly, empiricism focuses on the relations between observables which are privileged, while the relations between concepts are seen as the same, or as derivative. Science embraces both kinds of relations, and develops sequences of them. However, there is no clear statement of how this relation arises. There are illustrations, examples, or analogies instead. Thus there can be no clear distinction between the terms in these relations. Take the process of 'abstraction'. This involves establishing some isomorphism or analogy between objects so that some theoretical relation between them can emerge. This clearly involves an epistemological claim, says Hindess. How is this process governed? What makes an abstraction better? {Better than a description? Or better than a rival abstraction?}. If we try to specify rules we are guilty of empiricism, since this involves some view that there is something special and determining about the observables themselves which we must discover and formulate as a rule.]

There is an alternative, which requires maintaining the two types of critique, of empiricism in general, and of the science/ideology split [conceived more generally this time, as a matter of trying to define what makes science science?]. We can turn to Althusser for a critique of empiricism: empiricists think they can abstract knowledge from real objects by some subjective process, but real objects cannot be the same as objects of knowledge. The latter are produced theoretically, by propositions and so on. The whole process becomes circular because theory itself produces the correct relations between subject and object which then guarantees knowledge as theoretically valid. It is better to see these protocols as purely internal to science, to a problematic and to its characteristic testing procedures. There are no external guarantees of valid knowledge. Instead, a 'knowledge effect' is what characterises science rather than ideology [that is, roughly, an ability to generate new knowledge instead of just endlessly repeating the categories and findings of ideologies. NB, ideologies also have 'other social functions', other than producing knowledge, that is]. The problem then becomes one of asking how concepts, and the order of appearance of them, constitute an object in knowledge, how the problematic works: it is absent in specific discourses, yet it constitutes the object.

Turning to the split between science and ideology, these used to be separated according to their protocols, as in Popper's demarcation according to falsifiability [roughly, only scientific hypotheses were capable of falsification, while ideological propositions endlessly generated ad hoc hypotheses to prevent falsification. Falsification itself proceeded via the scientific community devising some decisive test for hypotheses]. For Althusser, though, these protocols themselves are internal to problematics [roughly,  a 'problematic' is an organised theoretical perspective which suggests significant problems to be investigated].

  1. One distinction might be whether there are social as well as conceptual determinants [the 'other social functions' as above].
  2. The shift to a scientific problematic is also a shift away from determination by subjective consciousness as a way to determine the order of concepts.
  3. Since the 'practico social' influences even theoretical ideology [the that is the more theoretically worked on ideologies, such as political economy], classes and their struggles in social formations can also have an effect [since ideology occupies a 'level' in the social formation]. Science certainly appears as removed, and therefore as autonomous.
  4. For Althusser, ideology appears as a lived relation [in the Imaginary, of course] to the 'real world', and is therefore empiricist, unaware that it is constituting objects in this world, and indeed subjects.

Turning to theoretical ideologies, political economy, sociology, and history operate with given, and therefore ideologically constituted, objects: this produces inevitable 'discrepancies' within them [between the ideological and the theoretical bits]. The anti-empiricism argument applies here -- there can be no direct access to real objects, which are always constructed either by science or by ideology. Such construction takes place actively, through the deployment of concepts, or by accepting the givens of experience. The process of production must leave its mark on specific theories, however, and produce specific knowledge effects: the latter index the former (page 204).

We find the notion of 'givens' in scientific texts too, even in Marx's Capital, or in Lenin. Althusser is incoherent himself here, because he is prepared to interpret Marx [read him 'symptomatically' in the jargon], but simply abandon political economy. A symptomatic reading clarifies Marx, for example by showing how Marx himself was unable to articulate the concept of 'structural causality' which was crucial nevertheless. In explaining this failure to be able to articulate this key concept, Althusser even uses old vocabularies which are themselves empiricist [bits of sociological and historical stuff on the context of the writing, if I recall correctly], instead of coherently analysing the concepts Marx produced as determined by his discourse, just as with everyone else. [An ancient criticism of Althusser springs to mind, by Glucksmann I think -- Marx is seen as a person who is struggling to articulate a regular discourse, and if this is so, Althusser's reading makes perfect sense. Since Marx is not allowed to persist with contradictions according to this reading, the problems must simply be down to a forgivable lack of clarity]. Althusser's reading presupposes that the difference between science and ideology is known in advance. Thus we can offer a symptomatic reading for preferred authors, and completely reject others in advance, so to speak.

The basic concepts in marxism need to be identified in order to permit a symptomatic reading. Althusser says they are there, so that 'structural causality' can be seen to underlying the other concepts, even though the concept itself is not present in Capital. [The concept of structural causality itself is a dubious one, Hindess and Hirst were to argue in another piece -- it is both idealist and teleological]. But this is to argue that the science/ideology split is not fully rational or justifiable (208). There is also an incoherence -- the features of discourse do index the production process for ideology, but they do not do so for science. This incoherence undermines Althusser's attempts to shift from the general criticism of empiricism to a criticism of specific discourses and products.

Finally, we have seen from the above that both practico-social determinations and theoretical determinations effect discourse. At some level these two must be equivalent in their effects, therefore. Yet again this is odd. Althusser actually pursues two methods in his critique of theoretical discourses: (a) he points to the effects of practical social relations, but (b) he also attempts to establish the coherence or incoherence of concepts without any need to refer to these outside determinations at all. The latter approach assumes there are abstract standards of coherence to be deployed here, of course [not ones produced by another discourse, that is. Incidentally, I think that Hindess himself is in danger of circularity here, since he wants to deny that his own criticisms of Althusser are somehow universal and independent of his own discourse]. It is not clear how scientific productions managed to remain aloof from these social determinations -- removing them from the social formation altogether is idealist, while connecting them with other material practices, such as political practice in Marx, weakens the distinction between science and ideology (if science is connected to society in some theory/practice relation, it cannot be autonomous). It seems better to assume that both science and ideology are determined by both theoretical concepts and the practico-social [an argument that was to lead Hindess to the view that there were no privileged theories to guide political practices at all, thus we should be guided in practice only by 'calculation'].

In terms of the production of theoretical discourses, the two types of criticism are apparent again in the work of Althusser, although a slightly different emphasis is given to the general critique of empiricism -- it is not ideological as such but simply incoherent, dogmatic, or circular. The two types of criticism can be linked only if the substantive specific ones are seen as realising certain concepts established in the general ones. This process of production needs to be explained, however -- how do substantive discourses realise the totality outside the discourse itself? For Althusser, a problematic underlies the forms of order of substantive discourses [compare with the 'vertical' dimension in structural linguistics]. The problematic is the extra - discursive totality here. This is the same as the ideological argument that the substantive takes the form of 'methods' from some epistemological totality, or that some worldview produces specific expressions etc as in the Introduction above [NB Kuhn's notion of a paradigm and its relation to normal science operates like this too for Hindess].

The general problem is that logical conditions are not the same as the real conditions of production. Logical conditions are presupposed by discourses, even implicitly, and even where they are contradicted. Other kinds of presupposition are more difficult to identify [I think Hindess means epistemological statements about consciousness and how it works, although I originally thought he might be referring to various ideological 'blocks']. The effect is often assumed to be the same as that of logical presuppositions, as in the other forms of rationalism mentioned in the Introduction. Cybernetics in the work of Parsons is attacked here too -- social systems are seen as the realisation of some higher systems with relations of rationality and coherence joining the two, in a clear example of the running together of logical and real conditioning factors. The problem can therefore affect both humanist and anti-humanist approaches.

Many theorists simply assume there is such a relation, and presuppose that this explains the limit on what appears or underlies specific objects or social relations. However, there is a mechanism of production assumed here, which is rarely specified in order not to raise problems about the coherence between the two levels. Indeterminacy and dogmatism cover the contradictions which appear nevertheless. There is sometimes a hierarchy of preconditions at work as well -- logical preconditions take precedence followed by the others, often in the order of 'real', and then 'political' preconditions. However, the real priorities are often not logical, and so the attempt to explain discourses as produced by logical presuppositions usually fails as well. The same arguments can be extended to the view that problematics are the sole producers of discourses, of course. Usually, the logical preconditions exist only by a 'courtesy of other real conditions' (221). [There seems to be some underlying sociologism  in Hindess here -- why must this usually be so?].

In conclusion, we need to separate the logical and real conditions, and move away from the purely logical relations between concepts -- these do not exclusively govern discourses are. The implications may be devastating for protocol methodologies and for Althusser alike. There are no easy criticisms of positivism or political economy simply as part of the more general attack on empiricism. Criticisms should operate at the level of specific concepts, and not only because they originate in empiricism.

Althusser still offers a model analysis when he looks at Capital. He teases out the presuppositions in it and so on, but can we assume that discourse is simply produced by some system of these presuppositions, shows the incoherencies and go on to reconstruct a more scientific version? The problem is that any text has inconsistencies. Some hierarchical conception is required to point out which concepts are actually centrally connected in the text (page 225), concepts which control the other concepts. It is possible to show in Parsons, for example, that incoherence arises at the 'fundamental' level, precisely where he tries to join action and system together. There are also more trivial examples in the work on the family, but these are worth less theoretical effort: the former examples have a much more general effect (225).

This is the sort of theoretical analysis which is required, [rather than a a purely logical one operating with any examples]. We need a form of critique which does more than contrast one theory with another, or merely operate with some privileged epistemology which can only dogmatically assert a case. There can be no agreed extra-theoretical Court of Appeal in which to judge rival theories. We should focus on internal matters, such as consistency, and the notion of hierarchy developed above, which is found in it all theoretical discourses of any substance and rigour. We need to examine especially whether the substantive discourses are coherent with the more general fundamental concepts.

Should we also undertake any investigations of the real conditions of production? Discourses are not produced by a Logos alone, and even Althusser forgot this and fell into Idealism. Should such an investigation of real conditions deployed concepts like Marx on the mode of production, or Freud on the unconscious? Both of these certainly challenge rationalist conceptions, although they are not yet sufficiently focused on discourses. [NB Foucault is dismissed as simply eclectic, according to a note on page 245 -- he uses analysis of economic and social institutions, norms and discourses in some freewheeling manner of his own].