Towards a Philosophical Sociology

Sunday 17th May, 2015

Daniel Chernilo

In this special series for The Sociological Review website, innovative sociologists reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing the discipline today. In the fourth essay, Daniel Chernilo, Reader in Social and Political Thought at Loughborough University, considers the tacit philosophical underpinnings of social life and calls for a Philosophical Sociology capable of reclaiming them. 

The anxiety over the future of sociology is as old as the discipline itself. This does not mean that we take lightly the malaise that seems to be coming out every tradition within sociology. But it does suggest that we owe to put things in perspective.  And maybe also be prepared to think outside box.

To a large extent, sociology’s main task has hardly changed over the past 150 years: it remains that of offering sound empirical accounts of contemporary social life. Classically, this has involved the recourse to some (more or less) hidden mechanism that makes society work as an autonomous domain: from class conflict to systemic differentiation, from structure and agency to power/discourse. Strictly conceptual debates in sociology (i.e. what is usually known as ‘sociological theory’) commonly gravitate towards specifying the main properties of the social so that we can demarcate sociology’s field of expertise. Less apparent, however, is the fact that sociology has neglected the ideas of the human that actually underpin these representations of the social.

One thing we have learnt from the history of science since the 17th century is that, in order to secure the autonomy of any intellectual field, an anthropocentric perspective needs to be abandoned. This is apparent not only in physics and biology but also in philosophy’s preoccupation with ‘being in general’ (rather than with human beings in particular): sound knowledge-claims cannot start by presupposing the transcendental necessity of human beings nor can they remain subordinated to what appears useful for human beings. On the contrary, a similar shift is found in all cases so that cognitive propositions are allowed to follow their own immanent logic. Human beings remain the starting point but are no longer the ultimate standard of scientific knowledge: decentring humanity is a price we pay for intellectual sophistication.

From the standpoint of philosophical sociology, the key argument is that implicit conceptions of the human are central to our explicit understandings of social life. This is not a return to anthropocentrism, but a rather an invitation to reconsider the idea that social life itself is predicated on the fact that human beings are capable of such collective existence. Humans are beings who have a continuity of consciousness so that they see themselves as themselves throughout their life; are beings who, as they negotiate a multiplicity of sometimes contradictory identities, recognise each other as members of the same species, and they are also beings who can create and interpret cultural artefacts. Crucially, humans are beings who can deploy a sense of self-transcendence so that they are able to look at the world from somebody else’s point of view and thus conceive new social institutions. The uncovering of the implicit anthropologies that make society possible is a first task of philosophical sociology.

This idea of philosophical sociology builds also on the Weberian insight that sociology can make a contribution to public debates by unpacking the various practical and indeed normative implications of different policy options. More concretely, it suggests that normative debates in society – from abortion to euthanasia via welfare reforms – are actually underpinned by ideas of the human that are never fully articulated out. By making use of its expert empirical knowledge, sociology can cast a critical eye on what is exactly being advocated in particular instances. Indeed, all societies possess normative ideas and most sociologists will accept that a good account of social life will have to be able to say something meaningful about how these ideas are articulated: even the crudest form of materialism have to acknowledge the normative ideas that motivate people to act and even radical constructionists have to account for role of their own beliefs as they decide to engage in self-deconstruction. Unpacking these ideas of the human is important because normative debates ultimately depend on what human beings themselves consider right or wrong, fair or unfair. Humans have turned themselves into the ultimate arbiters of normativity itself.

As it emerged in the early nineteenth century, the sociological imagination tried to come to terms with traditional normative justification that were being questioned. Religion does of course remain available, but cosmological convictions now co-exist with a wide pool of competing justifications so that they very (ir)rationality is hotly contested. Then it was the time of teleological ideas of (secular) progress and their belief in the normative power of history: justifications for the rights and wrongs of past and present were to be assessed against the promises of a better future. Finally, society itself was posited as a source of normative integration. But being also subject to dramatic historical and cultural changes, society was equally weak for the task of providing stable normative justifications. The ambivalent normative appeal of the nation in modern times, and the need to defend people against the nation’s unsavoury wishes, illustrates this point well.

As religion, history and society are all in trouble when trying to uphold normative justifications, we can still ask whether the defining anthropological features of our species can do this job – and this is a path philosophical sociology seeks to explore. To be sure, ideas of humanity are socially constructed and have themselves changed over time. But it seems to me that their key strength lies in the idea that humans have a generic capacity to reflect on what makes them the kind of being that they actually are. Anthropological arguments remain the best option here because they allow us to consider, simultaneously, that normative arguments are only actualised in society, are to carry the free assent of individual themselves and yet their biding force remains attached to some stable features that all humans possess qua human beings. Indeed, this is precisely why we claim human rights ought to be respected under all circumstances and even against society’s own will.

If what I have argued so far makes sense, it may already be clear that this is not a task that sociology can fulfil on its own. Given the historical, moral and indeed theological density of our conceptions of the human, in order to pursue this task sociology needs to reconnect to philosophy. Two centuries ago Kant claimed that the main ‘scandal of reason’ lie in the fact that we cannot answer the one question that troubles us above all others: what is a human being. Early in the twentieth century, philosophical anthropology developed as a particular branch of philosophy that sought to grapple directly with this fundamental question. In their view, we can begin to answer the question ‘what is a human being’ only if we are prepared to understand both the natural, embodied condition of our humanity and its ideal, cultural or normative dimension. A dual approach, both scientific and philosophical, is needed because this reflects best our human condition. Rather than reverting to untenable forms of anthropocentrism, this is actually an attempt to connect our sociological understandings of social life with philosophically informed ideas of the human, humanity and even human nature.

After a long history in which sociology tried to differentiate itself from philosophy in order to secure its scientific status, it is now again in need of philosophy. Without disciplinary arrogance or parochialism, this re-engagement needs to take the form of a mutual learning process between the different knowledge claims that underpin them both: the empirical vocation of sociology as it grapples with the complexities of contemporary society and the kind of unanswerable questions that we still associate with the philosophical tradition. At stake here is the fact that as long as sociology continues to raise the big questions about life in society – the powers of agency, the relationships between nature and culture or the dialectics between domination and emancipation – these are all questions that also transcend it: good sociological questions are always, in the last instance, also philosophical ones.

Daniel Chernilo is Reader in Social and Political Thought at Loughborough University. His forthcoming monograph Philosophical Sociology: Debating Humanity in Contemporary Social Theory will be published by Cambridge University Press. Email: D.Chernilo@lboro.ac.uk