Discovery or Invention?

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The Trouble with Liberalism
Discovery or Invention?
Reason, the Good and Righs


Marc Stier

Summary of the Book

This book is primarily a work in the philosophy of the political and social sciences. It aims to show how discovery and invention, human nature and culture both play a central role in making our political and social life what it is. The first two chapters consider the dominant philosophical conceptions of political and social thought today, naturalism and interpretavism. The first view, naturalism, holds that the methods and / or results of the natural sciences enable us to discover how the world is. Naturalism thus claims that the natural sciences should be the touchstone for the political and social sciences. The second view, interpretavism, holds that we can invent many legitimate forms of explanation and that the invented character of political and social life leads to the conclusion that the political and social sciences must be distinct from the natural sciences. In these chapters I examine both the broad metaphysical and epistemological bases of each view and their particular views of human ends and action and of political and social explanation. I argue that neither view is entirely satisfactory. Interpretavism is correct in holding that political and social life is fundamentally different from inanimate nature. But naturalism is correct in holding that systematic political and social theory is both possible and useful. Interpretavists are right to insist that neither the methods nor the results of the natural sciences can tell us all that we can or need to know about the world around us. However, naturalists are right to suggest that interpretavism too easily leads to a denial that rational or objective knowledge is possible at all. In addition, both views fail to show how certain individual phenomena, such as weakness of will and self-deception, or political and social phenomena, such as mass irrationality or large scale political and social transformation, are possible. And they fail in this way because they both deny that it is possible to discover some set of natural and more or less universal ends that are shared by all human beings and that underlie our socially constituted ends. In the third chapter of this work I present a new philosophical psychology, critical interpretavism, that shows how it is possible to discover such natural ends-which I call wants-and how these wants influence our socially constituted ends-which I call our desires. I show, that is, how nature and culture combine to make us the kinds of people we are. In the fourth chapter I put this philosophical psychology to work by giving an account of how many different kinds of political and social explanation are related to one another. Here I discuss the nature and importance of both the interpretation of particular polities and societies and the development of political and social theories. And I consider a wide range of such theories, including formal rational choice theory, systems theory, depth psychology, and sociobiology. Finally in the fifth chapter I draw out some of the implications of my account of political and social explanation for the broader question of the nature of rationality. I argue that the question of how far rational agreement is possible in any area of inquiry is, in essence, an empirical question, not amenable to armchair philosophical resolution. This view of rationality, which I call pragmatic rationalism, challenges both those naturalists who think that we can discover, once and for all, the nature and power of rational thought and those interpretavists and historicists who deny that rational conclusions are possible in any form of inquiry. My aim is to show how we can free ourselves from the constraints of naturalist thought without succumbing to the historicism, relativism or irrationalism that is so often associated with interpretavism.

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