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The Concept of the Social in Uniting the Humanities and Social Sciences

Michael E. Brown

Publication Year: 2015

In this book, Michael Brown provides original and critical analysis of the state of the social sciences and the humanities. He examines the different disciplines that address human affairs--from sociology, philosophy, political science, and anthropology to the humanities in general--to understand their common ground. He probes the ways in which we investigate the meaning of individuality in a society for which individuals are not the agents of the activities in which they participate, and he develops a critical method for studying the relations among activities, objects, and situations.


The Concept of the Social in Uniting the Humanities and Social Sciences restores the centrality of sociality to all disciplines that provide for and depend on the social dimension of human life. Ultimately, he establishes a theory of the unity of the human sciences that will surely make readers rethink the current state and future of theory in those fields for years to come.


Published by: Temple University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-viii

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Introduction: What Is Human about Human Affairs?

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pp. 1-20

It is widely agreed that the individual is, as Amy Gutmann puts it, “the ultimate moral claimants in a democracy” (2003, 57). I interpret this to mean that individual persons are the ultimate referents of moral discourse. While it is difficult to disagree with this statement, it poses familiar and apparently intractable problems for those disciplines in the social sciences and humanities...

I. Sociality: The Problem of Definition

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1. The Urgency of Defining the Social

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pp. 23-32

While it is now taken virtually for granted that humans are essentially social beings, an important implication that is less likely to be acknowledged is that sociality is immanent to every instance of human affairs. The idea of the general will, a subjectivity beyond subjects, remains confusing and has been only rarely submitted to conceptual analysis. It is nevertheless presupposed whenever we consider people living among people and therefore whenever language and self-reflection are issues. The confusion...

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2. Society as a Basic Fact

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pp. 33-51

There is no doubt that human beings can imagine a humanly livable state of nature. But it cannot be the sort of nature that is the negative of society. Rousseau’s characterization of the state of nature as a realm of necessity that excludes all that being human requires envisions only nonhuman creatures—“stupid and limited” (1978b, 56)—unable to reach beyond their biological urges and incapable of forming ideas about their own situation and about the possibility of society that can support an intention to enter into a self-transforming...

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3. Dependence and Autonomy

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pp. 52-75

The appeal of Rousseau’s arguments against received theories and in favor of the idea that human affairs are essentially social before they are anything else depends on whether he successfully demonstrates that there is an immediate sense shared by all human beings that everything about them reflects, as an indisputable fact, that their being social is the essence of their being human. He first attempts to show why the standard theories of right should be rejected. Only then does he show that human life cannot be conceived of in...

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4. The Certainty of the Social as the Basic Fact

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pp. 76-100

So far, I have discussed one idea that requires something like a definition of “sociality.” It says that humans living together cannot imagine human existence in a state of nature defined by the negation of society and that any other definition of the state of nature assumes society. Since every person lives among people, no one can imagine herself outside of that encompassing fact, and therefore outside of a universe in which each depends on all and responds...

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5. The Sociality of Agency

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pp. 101-113

The second way of addressing the idea of the social also emphasizes its centrality to any theory that claims to represent or express what is human about human affairs. The key texts can be placed conveniently under two related theoretical registers, Marxism, by which I mean the critique of capital in regard to its intrinsic limitations, and post-structuralism, by which I mean the critique of the theory of the...

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6. Models, Theory, and Theorizing

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pp. 114-130

The most prominent models used to represent the social aspect of human affairs are known by their key concepts: system, exchange, structure, rule-governed practices, networks, and rational agency. Each stands for a paradigm of what is and is not reasonable to claim about the nature of the activities, representations, and subjectivities of “people among people,” and for each, units of analysis are conceived of, as far as possible, as relations. While...

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7. Theorizing

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pp. 131-149

Theorizing is an activity that undermines received concepts, first by identifying the universe to which they refer and second by showing that their meaning depends on something necessarily omitted—on a different referential universe for which what is omitted has its possible concept. It begins with an idea among ideas each of which must be understood as for the other ideas, as if part of a system. What is left out, then, is not merely something specific but the sense of an alternative universe to the “known universe.” ...

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8. Historicism and Its Alternative

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pp. 150-162

Against historicism is the claim that certain ideas about human affairs are necessarily beyond criticism, either because they are obviously true or because knowledge of human affairs is possible only if they are not put into question.1 It is often the case that inconsistent ideas are maintained in a text, by a theoretician, or within a discipline. For example, the idea that the skin is a natural boundary, dividing subjects and thereby particularizing expressions of agency, is often taken for granted in the human sciences. It is not ...

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9. Social Facts, Situations, and Moral Stakes

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pp. 163-180

To say that human beings are essentially social is to say that they and their affairs cannot be understood on the model of a science of agencyindependent reality. Otherwise, the human sciences appear as parodies of something they cannot be, because they lack an authentic object, or the object they claim to study can be justifiably known only by its reconstitution as an object of natural science, or they are “immature sciences.” To the extent to which the truth of a proposition depends on the truth of other propositions,...

II. Social Action

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10. Can “the Social” Be a Proper Object of Theory?

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pp. 183-195

It is often taken as axiomatic that human beings are essentially social, where “social” refers to more than the fact that people, like many nonhuman creatures, are never wholly apart from others of their kind. Despite this, the proposition has, with few exceptions, served as a resource for but not been directly submitted to theoretical inquiry.1 There may be good reasons for this, whether it stems from a philosophical principle, simple indifference, or momentary neglect. At best, it appears difficult to identify the social, as we must,...

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11. Further Problems in Theorizing the Social

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pp. 196-207

There is a plausible nonradical alternative to the conclusion that the original theory-rejecting claim about the social is, or might be, symptomatic of the phenomenon itself, that sociality is by its nature resistant to being theorized. It is nonradical in that it does not address the relationship between theory and theorizing, and it is necessary to do that if, as I have tried to show, the conception of sociality as a course of activity implies that there is an opposition...

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12. Social Action as Action

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pp. 208-222

Regardless of the problems involved in assigning meaning to the term “social” and regardless of the criticisms of the argument that dwelling on those problems disrupts the accumulation of knowledge, the idea that humans are essentially social is insinuated in most of what is written in the human sciences—though differences exist about whether this needs further ontological enrichment or should be simplified for purposes of fitting it to current...

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13. The Self of the Actor

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pp. 223-232

Iargue that the theory of social action as conduct that takes account of others is not an adequate interpretation of the idea that humans are essentially social because it categorically distinguishes between the actor who takes others into account and the nonactors taken into account. The theory depicts the actor as solitary insofar as she is taking something (e.g., an “other”) into account, so the predicate “social” applies to the action in the course of which “taking account” occurs and not to the actor herself. In this respect, it is occasionally...

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14. Self and Situation

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pp. 233-251

The theoretical usefulness of the construct of a self depends in part on what it is intended to bring to notice. For the point of view under consideration, that is a complex temporality of action coordinated with the actor conceived of as a particular for which the skin is a natural boundary that individuates certain “events” sufficient to provide a general grounding for motivation and to integrate the various dispositions necessary for the formation and implementation of specific intentions. The integrity of the temporal dimension...

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15. Self and Agency

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pp. 252-268

Let us suppose that the concept of the situation in which an action takes place is radically different from what is required by the standard theory. How might it be characterized and what theoretical issues does it bring to notice? One possibility is derived from an early idea in social psychology: what a person does in her capacity as an agent—as a bearer of intentionality— expresses a subjective state at least partially constituted under circumstances that call for meaningful as well as effective behavior and therefore behavior...

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16. Social Action Reconsidered

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pp. 269-284

We have been considering an application of the theory of action that identifies the sociality of action with actors taking account of others. While this need not be thought of as exhausting the meaning of “social,” there is considerable agreement that it provides a basis for a reasonable account of conduct in the presence of others. However, this application depends on taking action and human association as ontologically distinct. If...

III. Subjects and Situations

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17. Overview

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pp. 287-301

The immanence and irreducibility of the social is virtually axiomatic in the discourse of the human sciences despite the lack of consensus about the meaning of the term and despite the continued prominence of individualism as the default position in the philosophy and practice of social science. In other words, it has proven difficult even to approximate the programmatic obligations imposed by Durkheim’s identification of society as an ...

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18. Causes of Failure in the Social Sciences

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pp. 302-322

When the social sciences are understood as imperfect realizations of the standard model of the natural sciences, their defects are explained in a number of ways. Here I discuss three: complexity, the problem of the observer, and immaturity.1 My purpose is to expand on the thesis that their weaknesses are not primarily epistemological but ontological; they have to do with sociality as the basic fact. The problem is not that available...

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19. Objects and Their Subjects

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pp. 323-342

One working hypothesis for what follows is derived from the relationship between agency-dependent reality and the social conceived of as a course of activity. It says that there is an internal relationship between a certain idea of criticism and what is human about human affairs. I have been using the expression “human sciences” to refer to disciplinary fields having to do with agency-dependent reality. In anticipation of what follows, “agency-dependence”...

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20. The Positive Sense of “Situation”

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pp. 343-351

I have distinguished between the idea of a situation as internally related to life and the more familiar positive idea of situations as independent entities comprising similarly independent entities. It appears, however, that both lead to the same conclusion, that what is typically considered to be external to subjectivity has a subjective aspect that is an irreducible feature of its objectivity. This chapter considers some implications of this conclusion...

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21. Practices, Situations, and Inter-subjectivity

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pp. 352-376

Practices are often identified theoretically as institutional facts that are internal features of society distinguished particularly from arbitrary, momentary, statistically prevalent, or purely spontaneous activities or activities instigated by external facts. Examples often given of the latter are fads, riots, moral panics, reactions to surveillance, coercion, and/or deception, and a form of social movement that bears a relation to its society in some respects but...

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22. Criticism, Inter-subjectivity, and Collective Enunciation

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pp. 377-383

The fields specializing in the knowledge of agency-dependent reality include, familiarly, history, anthropology, psychology, political economy, the humanities, and the fine arts. I have tried to show that they all rely on a conception of sociality as inter-subjective activity, where the “inter” is not meant to indicate separable subjects. It follows that each discipline must be considered to be essentially inter-disciplinary. Their distinctiveness depends on the aspect of sociality under which each is incorporated. An understanding...

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23. Criticism and Human Affairs

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pp. 384-398

We can begin by observing that the proposition that persons are essentially social beings does not imply that sociality is a distributed property of individuals or that it is exclusively a function of norms, rules, or principles of exchange. If it is conceived of as distributed or normative, then what people do might be social or it might not. Since it is inconceivable that there be something they do that is not at all social, we can conclude that...

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24. Collective Enunciation

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pp. 399-412

We can now say that the meaningfulness of discursive speech, of whatever is in the course of being uttered, is a feature of the general will. As far as “communication” is the issue, the general will is meaningfulness per se, which is the becoming that is waited on in every instance of uttering or gesturing. In this way, instances transpire in the attitude of waiting implicit in the sociality of life. Meaningfulness, in the moment of...

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25. Subjectivity and Objectivity

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pp. 413-431

The objects of experience are intentional in the following sense: they are agency-dependent such that their dependency constitutes their objectivity. We can say, then, that their objectivity, as objects of possible apprehension, resides in the ongoing internal relation of life and situation and displays itself as momentary instantiations of inter-subjectivity. To speak of them in regard to their being...

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26. Summary, Reprise, and Transition

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pp. 432-438

The first part of this book addresses the question “What is human about human affairs?” The answer justifies the claim that the human sciences form a single field insofar as they address a shared reality—namely, the sociality of human life. This requires showing that society, understood as in motion in the form of a course of activity, is the “basic fact,” in the sense of being irreducible, irrepressible, and reflexive. I identify this with Rousseau’s concept of a “first convention.” It also requires distinguishing the language of...

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pp. 439-440

In the course of a conversation some years ago, Marie-Hélène Huet commented that “we do not have a language of cooperation.” It was with this in mind that I began to write this book. My long association with Frank Rosengarten, my friend and cofounder of the journal Socialism and Democracy, enhanced my appreciation of the contribution of the humanities to our understanding of the social aspect of human affairs. My interest in this was originally stimulated by discussions with Frithjof Bergmann during my...


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pp. 441-494


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pp. 495-508


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pp. 509-528

About the Author

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p. 529-529

E-ISBN-13: 9781439910177
E-ISBN-10: 1439910170
Print-ISBN-13: 9781439910153
Print-ISBN-10: 1439910154

Page Count: 260
Publication Year: 2015

Series Editor Byline: John Smith, Will Wordsworth