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Motivating a Pragmatic Approach to Naturalized Social Ontology

Abstract

Recent contributions to the philosophy of the social sciences have motivated ontological commitments using appeals to the social sciences (naturalized social ontologies). These arguments rely on social scientific realism about the social sciences, the view that our social scientific theories are approximately true. I apply a distinction formulated in metaontology between ontologically loaded and unloaded meanings of existential quantification to argue that there is a pragmatic approach to naturalized social ontology that is minimally realist (it treats existence claims as true or false) but that is ontologically austere. I argue that the extant arguments may be construed in terms of this pragmatic approach. The result is an approach to social ontology that is deflationist about naturalized social ontology.

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Notes

  1. The degree of empirical success in the social sciences and its implications for the ontology and scientific status of the social sciences has been a large point of contention. See Elster (2009), Epstein (2015), Guala (2007), Hawley (2018), Kincaid (1996), Northcott (2015), Taagepera (2008) and Harp and Khalifa (2017).

  2. These entities are ontologically dubious because they depend on the minds of agents and so need not have existence unto themselves. This arises in the debate between methodological (and ontological) individualists and holists. See Zahle and Collin (2013) for an overview of the history of this debate as well as recent innovations.

  3. SSR assumes a definition of scientific realism as the thesis that our best scientific theories are true or approximately true. This differs from other approaches to the question about realism about social science and social ontology. For example, Guala (2016) and Ruben (2014), who are concerned with questions about the dependence of the social on the mental and Bunge (1993) who takes realism about social science to be the view that the social sciences can be objective. Moreover, it differs from the realism defined by Currie (1988), which is about the aims of science.

  4. Note that this argument stands in contrast to the one examined by Harp and Khalifa (2017), which emphasizes appeals to best explanations.

  5. Kincaid uses Chronbach and Meehl (1955). On their view, constructs are embedded in nomological nets—or collections of lawlike generalizations that describe the way in which the construct relates to other variables. Hence, Kincaid seems to focus on both converging evidence and causal explanation.

  6. The income inequality hypothesis posits social status structure as a cause of poor health among the poor. Levels of inequality are measured using the Gini Coefficient and epidemiologic data (stress, obesity, rates of diseases, etc.).

  7. The strict ‘unobservability’ of these entities might be contested—in economic theory, unobservability of preferences has been a point of contention. One might launch similar arguments here. See Hausman (1998).

  8. The data here are used to predict more data. Using old data, we should expect new data points to fit along a line predicted by the old data. There are difficult issues associated with novel prediction in these contexts that go beyond the purview of this paper. See Forster (2007) for a discussion of data and novel prediction.

  9. For example, Kris McDaniel’s chapter in Chalmers et al. (2009) invokes a Heidegerrian equivocalist, Tahko (2015) provides an overview of the discussion, particularly its connection to the Quine-Carnap debate. For treatments of these issues in touch with Carnap’s significance, see Blatti and Lapointe (2016).

  10. Even if there are multiple senses of ‘exist’ we might disagree about their relative importance. Equivocalists may give arguments for thinking that there is a privileged meaning of ‘exists’. Univocalists may instead argue that there is one sense of ‘exists’.

  11. I follow Psillos (1999).

  12. One could appeal to “acceptance” as discussed by van Fraassen. My proposal suggests a way of positing acceptance but enabling talk about the truth of scientific claims (by giving a deflated reading of their truth).

  13. Thomasson’s account prohibits defining the application conditions for F in terms of the existence of F. See Thomasson (2015, 96).

  14. These inferences might be understood in Bayesian terms.

  15. See Markus and Borsboom (2013) and Strauss and Smith (2009) for discussions of construct validation.

  16. See Kincaid (2018) for a defense of the reality of race along these lines.

  17. These are not biological realist attitudes, but constructionist ones. Constructionists argue that race is constructed but real. See Haslanger (2000).

  18. To clarify: the race assigned to an individual by a researcher or interviewer. Saperstein observed differences in reported incomes depending on which measure was used. See p. 65 Fig. 1.

  19. The pragmatic approach might generalize beyond the social and behavioral sciences to the natural sciences. However, there may be epistemic considerations that justify the traditional realist interpretation of existential claims about the natural sciences. Both the concerns over empirical success and ontological dubiousness mentioned at the beginning might press us to be more cautious in the case of the social sciences.

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Acknowledgements

This article has received significant feedback from anonymous reviewers at two journals. Their feedback has markedly improved the quality of my discussion – they have my thanks (whoever they are).

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Correspondence to Richard Lauer.

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Lauer, R. Motivating a Pragmatic Approach to Naturalized Social Ontology. J Gen Philos Sci (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-021-09581-3

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Keywords

  • Scientific metaphysics
  • Metametaphysics
  • Social ontology
  • Scientific realism
  • Meta-social ontology