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Knowing and the Known: The Philosophy and Methodology of the Social Sciences

Patrick Jackson

American University

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies, and Director of the AU Honors Program, at the American University in Washington, DC.

His award-winning book The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations was published by Routledge in a second, revised edition in 2016.

At present he is working on projects on explanation in the social sciences, theological responses to climate change, and the theory and methodology of Max Weber.

Patrick's personal website

Twitter icon  @profptj

Course Dates and Times

Monday 8 to Friday 12 August 2016
Generally classes are either 09:00-12:30 or 14:00-17:30
15 hours over 5 days

Prerequisite Knowledge

This course presumes no prior detailed familiarity with the philosophy of social science, beyond that gained by any practicing social scientist in the course of meeting the challenges associated with the conduct of her or his research project. The course does, however, presume a willingness to think of social science as a philosophical rather than just a technical endeavour. A course in basic European philosophy during one’s university experience would be a plus, although the reading of a couple of good survey books like Richard Bernstein’s The Restructuring of Social and Political Theory or Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? are advised as a refresher in any event. The vocabulary introduced and developed in the instructor’s own book The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations (Routledge, 2011 or 2016) will inform the course lectures.

Short Outline

The social sciences have long been concerned with the epistemic status of their empirical claims. Unlike in the natural sciences, where an evident record of practical success tends to make the exploration of such philosophical issues a narrowly specialized endeavour, in the social sciences, differences between the philosophies of science underpinning the empirical work of varied researchers produces important and evident differences in the kind of social-scientific work that they do. Philosophy of science issues are, in this way, closer to the surface of social-scientific research, and part of being a competent social scientist involves coming to terms with and developing a position on those issues. This course will provide a survey of important authors and themes in the philosophy of the social sciences, concentrating in particular on the relationship of the mind to the social world and on the relationship between knowledge and experience; students will have ample opportunities to draw out the implications of different stances on these issues for their concrete empirical research.

Long Course Outline

This course is a broad survey of epistemological, ontological, and methodological issues relevant to the production of knowledge in the social sciences. The course has three overlapping and interrelated objectives:


• to provide you with a grounding in these issues as they are conceptualized and debated by philosophers, social theorists, and intellectuals more generally;

• to act as a sort of introduction to the ways in which these issues have been incorporated (sometimes—often—inaccurately) into different branches of the social sciences;

• to serve as a forum for reflection on the relationship between these issues and the concrete conduct of research, both your own and that of others.


That having been said, this is neither a technical “research design” nor a “proposal writing” class, but is pitched as a somewhat greater level of abstraction. As we proceed through the course, however, you should try not to lose sight of the fact that these philosophical debates have profound consequences for practical research. Treat this course as an opportunity to set aside some time to think critically, creatively, and expansively about the status of knowledge, both that which you have produced and will produce, and that produced by others.


The “science question” rests more heavily on the social sciences than it does on the natural sciences, for the simple reason that the evident successes of the natural sciences in enhancing the human ability to control and manipulate the physical world stands as a powerful rejoinder to any scepticism about the scientific status of fields of inquiry like physics and biology. The social science have long laboured in the shadow of those successes, and one popular response has been to try to model the social sciences on one or another of the natural sciences; this naturalism forms one of the recurrent gestures in the philosophy of the social sciences, and we will trace it through its incarnation in the Logical Positivism of the Vienna Circle and then into the “post-positivist” embrace of falsification as the mark of a scientific statement. Problems generated by the firm emphasis on lawlike generalizations through both of these naturalistic approaches to social science lead to the reformulated naturalism of critical realism, as well as to the rejection of naturalism by pragmatists and followers of classical sociologists like Max Weber. Finally, we will consider the tradition of critical theory stemming from the Frankfurt School, and the contemporary manifestation of that commitment to reflexive knowledge in feminist and post-colonial approaches to social science.


While not an exhaustive survey of the philosophy of the social sciences, this course will serve as an opportunity to explore some of the perennial issues of great relevance to the conduct of social-scientific inquiry, and will thus function as a solid foundation for subsequent reading and discussion—and for the practice of social science. Throughout the course we will draw on exemplary work from Anthropology, Economics, Sociology, Political Science; students will be encouraged to draw on their own disciplines as well as these others in producing their reflections and participating in our lively discussions.

Day Topic Details
Monday Overview; Logical Positivism

1.5 hour lecture; 1.5 hour seminar; blogging assignment #1

Tuesday Neopositivism and Falsification

1.5 hour lecture; 1.5 hour seminar; blogging assignment #2

Wednesday Scientific Realism

1.5 hour lecture; 1.5 hour seminar; blogging assignment #3

Thursday Ideal-types and Pragmatism

1.5 hour lecture; 1.5 hour seminar; blogging assignment #4

Friday Critical Theory

1.5 hour lecture; 1.5 hour seminar; blogging assignment #5

Day Readings

Ludwig Wittgenstein; Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus (selections); A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic (selections); Carl Hempel, “The Function of General Laws in History,” in Aspects of Scientific Explanation and other essays (New York: Free Press, 1965), pp. 231-44.


Karl Popper, Objective Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), selections; Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, third edition (University of Chicago Press, 1996); Imre Lakatos, Philosophical Papers Volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), papers on the methodology of scientific research programmes and the rational reconstruction of science.


Roy Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism, third edition (London: Routledge, 1998); Hilary Putnam, Representation and Reality (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), selections; John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality (New York: Free Press, 1996), selections.


Max Weber, essays on “Science as a Vocation” and “The ‘Objectivity’ of Social-Scientific and Socio-Political Knowledge”; John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920).


Raymond Geuss, The Idea of a Critical Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (selections); Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms (selections).

Software Requirements


Hardware Requirements



Forthcoming in the syllabus itself.

Additional Information


This course description may be subject to subsequent adaptations (e.g. taking into account new developments in the field, participant demands, group size, etc). Registered participants will be informed at the time of change.

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, please contact us before registering.