why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics

Yesterday, I introduced the substance of Brian Epstein’s book The Ant Trap. Epstein analyzes the metaphysics of social phenomena, such as groups. Here I want to argue that social scientists should be more attuned to metaphysical issues in general.

In social science, we think naturally of certain relationships, such as correlation and causation, and of certain kinds of objects, such as individuals and groups. But other relationships are present although less explicit in our work. For instance, the members of the US Congress do not cause the Congress; they compose it. Composition is a relationship that is named (but rarely explored) in standard social science.

One can ask, more generally, what kinds of relationships exist and what kinds of things are related to each other. Constitution and causality are two different relationships. Groups, moments in time, and ethical qualities are three different kinds of things. These types and relationships can go together in many ways. We can ask about their logic or their epistemology, but when we ask specifically, “What kinds of things are there and how do they go together?” we are putting the question in terms of metaphysics.

Social scientists should be concerned with metaphysics for two big reasons. First, in our actual writing and modeling, we often use some metaphysical terms (e.g., object, composition, causation), but only a few of those get explicit critical attention. In my experience, most of the meta-discussion is about what constitutes causality and how you can prove it—but there are equally important questions about the other relationships used in social science.

Second, professional philosophers have developed a whole set of other types and relationships that are typically not mentioned in social science but that can be powerful analytical tools if one is aware of them: supervenience, grounding, and anchoring being three that play important roles in The Ant Trap.

Since metaphysics is a subfield of philosophy, and since philosophers are probably outnumbered 50-to-one by social and behavioral scientists, it’s easy for the latter to overlook metaphysics. In fact, I suspect that the word “metaphysics” (as modern academic philosophers use it) is not well known. If you Google “metaphysical relationships,” you will see New Age dating tips. But all scientific programs involve metaphysics, and it is important to understand that discourse–not only to be more critical of the science but also to develop more powerful models.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.