- A Comment on Ian Shapiro’s The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences
In The Flight from Reality in the Human Sciences, a nicely contained set of previously published analyses and polemics, Ian Shapiro (and several co-authors) defend an approach to the human sciences that is "problem-based" rather than "methods-based".1 The essays stand against many in the humanities who deny the possibility of systematic knowledge of causal mechanisms in or any serious engagement with the social world. And they stand against many in the social sciences whose formalistic models are not put to serious empirical test, and therefore present solutions to methodological rather than real-world problems. I endorse his two principal points, viz. that it is important to link our research to questions about politics whose answers would be consequential for the quality of our lives, and that we should be more concerned about the truth value of our findings than their theoretical elegance. Moreover, I am much taken by his ideal for the political theorist as a "roving ombudsman" (p. 179) whose "problematizing redescriptions" (p. 201) of political reality serve to unsettle us from anodyne appraisals of our political world.
Yet in the course of making his arguments in these essays, Shapiro steps on several land mines, making his project at times self-destructive. This review seeks then to clear the field, as it were, making Shapiro's arguments less dangerous to those of us fighting in his trenches who do not want to get blown up with him.
In its expressions of disdain for methods-based research, this book is mired in self-contradiction. Its title castigates the human sciences for their focus on method that entails a flight from reality. While "reality" is never defined in these essays, I surmise that Shapiro is referring to events and outcomes that are consequential for our safety, our values, or our opportunities. Yet the text is virtually empty of any supported claims about that reality.2 In chapter 1, for example, addressing the issue of consent, we are treated to a war of methods. We meet up with logical empiricists (of two types, logicists and empiricists), interpretivists, conventionalists, Marxists, post-Marxists, Gramsci-ites, minimalists, utilitarians, philosophical idealists, realists (of two types, commonsensical and scientific), and Foucaldians, but hardly a person who could give or withhold consent. To be sure, we get John Gaventa's theory about coal miners but the contact with their world is at best indirect, as Shapiro (and his co-author Alexander Wendt) take on the role of philosophers, who we are told (p. 50) need not be worried about saying true things about the world. Is this opening essay then not a flight from reality?
Chapter 2, on the debate over rational choice that Shapiro (and his collaborator Donald Green) instigated, is similarly mired in methodological pilpul. This argument in this chapter is solely about a methodological debate instigated by the authors. It first argues that rational choice theorists avoid reality. It then reminds us that Green and Shapiro, in the book that instigated the debate, showed this to be the case. It then summarizes the defense of rational choice critics in light of Green and Shapiro's charges. Finally, Green and Shapiro elaborate with indelicate wit on the paltriness of the defense. To the accumulated knowledge about the world (which on p. 88, they name as their criterion for social science success) this chapter adds nothing. Method rather than problems motivated this chapter. Their antidote to the flight from reality, we can surmise, is further flight!
In chapter 4 as well, called "Gross Concepts in Political Argument", readers get buffeted between utilitarians and deontologists, and after that between foundationalists and contextualists. And in the course of these debates that are internal to political theory, Shapiro promises to "outline a more complex account of the relationship between the structure of political grammar and people's beliefs about that structure" (p. 154). I wonder if knowing either the structure of political grammar or people's beliefs about that structure constitutes problems that should serve as the focus of our research? In getting mired into these subdisciplinary (within...