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Social Science Is A Misnomer

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The term 'social science' is a misnomer which masks the necessarily different epistemic methods and ontological realities consistent with natural and social realms respectively". Critically appraise this claim

In this essay I intend to dispute the notion that the term social science is a misnomer. Firstly, I will define social science, and then focus on the differences between rationalism and empiricism without whose existence there would be no epistemology. Empiricism will receive more attention due to the fact that that it has become the dominant epistemic approach, systematically and rigorously expressed through its offspring, ie ,materialism, sensism, positivism and naturalism. Second, I intend to allow ontological realities to manifest themselves through Kant's articulation as both an empiricist and a rationalist. This will dispel uninteresting dichotomies and allow one to "stand back", as it were, from one's own analysis of the topic.


According to Marshall social science is "a general label applied to the study of society and human relationships…The designation of an area of study as a social science usually carries the implication that it is comparable in many ways to a natural science" (1994 :493). The implication here is that natural and social reality can be studied in the same way because both realities consist of relationships between facts, eg, cause and effect.

Note should be taken of the fact that rationalists and empiricists, despite their different approaches in their quest for knowledge, have both contributed immensely to the "birth" of different academic disciplines to which even modern day intellectuals subscribe. More interesting is that each of the two epistemic approaches claims their method of enquiry gives birth to valid information or certainty. According to Hamlyn rationalism ,whose founder is Descartes' is an epistemological doctrine that "puts weight on reason or understanding, as distinct from the senses or sense perception"(1987:134).On the other hand empiricists believe the only source of knowledge is experience. John Locke held the view that "the scope of our knowledge is limited to, and by, our experience"(Stumpf,1983:254).



This philosophical movement was initiated by Descartes' and "carried on with varying degrees of thoroughness by Spinoza and Leibniz…(Hamlyn, 1987:134). A rationalist relies on logic and principles of reasonableness in order to arrive at a conclusion. One would clarify this by giving an example popularized by Rene Descartes' that "it is only in relation to thinking that I am certain that I exist"(Hamlyn,1987:138).Descartes' continues to maintain that existence must be a property of a being who is conceived of as possessing all attributes in perfection (Hamlyn,1987:141).Kant opposed this view citing experience was not a property of a thing in the way that Descartes' supposes. Leibniz went further by maintaining that "existence depends on whether that conception is coherent or involves a contradiction"(Hamlyn,1987:140).One can partly agree with Descartes' view that existence is a property of a being, but to say that its creator is perfect is a product of human imagination. Perfection, by the way, remains an imaginary construct when taking into account the context in which Descartes' states his case. For example, in order for one to be declared perfect, one has to adhere to the standard guidelines which should be followed in order to create a particular thing or use a previous model as a yardstick or even improve on it. It is one's belief that rationalism has not been a dominant epistemic approach. Kant and Locke, for example, have imbibed both epistemic approaches. To take it further most modern day individuals employ both approaches in their daily activities.


There was also another rationalist called Spinoza in whose views rationalism received its most systematic and rigorous expression. His main work was called ethics. According to Stumpf "ethics is concerned with actions that can be labeled right or wrong, good or bad, desirable or undesirable, worthy or unworthy. Also, ethics, is concerned with one's personal responsibility, duty, or obligation for his behaviour"(1983:1)His concern with ethics should be understood in its proper context in that both the means and goals of social science investigation are intrinsically bound up with ethical considerations, especially when conducting research involving human subjects, eg., protection of privacy through informed consent.

According to Hamlyn Spinoza provides "…a striking contrast with Descartes' ,who had little concern with things ethical"(1987:149).Spinoza felt that there are three kinds of knowledge, ie, knowledge of vague experience- when we generalize from casual and confused experience. The second kind is identified with reason, and the third one is intuition(Hamlyn,1987:152).The second and third kinds of knowledge reflect a rationalist view in that they are necessarily true, and reason regards things as necessary


According to Stumpf "Leibniz was dissatisfied with the way Descartes and Spinoza had described the nature of substance because he felt they had distorted our understanding of human nature"(1983:246).Spinoza defines substance as "that which is in itself: I mean that the conception of which does not depend on the conception of another thing from which it must be formed"(Stumpf,1983:241).Leibniz on the other hand takes it that substance as a basic form of existence must be absolutely simple ,for if it were complex it would be secondary to whatever it is composed of (Hamlyn,1987:159).This means that Leibniz and Spinoza somehow agree that substance should not depend on anything other that itself to exist. But one would argue that their view has defied logic in that every entity or substance is an "offspring" or a product of a particular "thing".

It is interesting that Leibniz, despite being a rationalist, sought empirical evidence to defend his principle that no two substances can differ solo numero (Hamlyn, 1987:162-163). He pointed to considerations that tree leaves are all different, and subscribed



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