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Reconstructive Social Theory: Metatheoretical Reconstruction

This is a guest blog post by Professor Frederic Vandenberghe of Sociology in the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Frederic is a leading expert in the field of Critical Realism. He has been working on CR and the social sciences since 1994 when he completed his doctorate in Sociology from Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales. His work operates at the intersection of philosophy and sociology with a special interest in hermeneutics, phenomenology, and critical realism. He recently published a series of essays in a book titled, “What’s Critical about Critical Realism? Essays in Reconstructive Social Theory”. 

This is Part 2 of 4 in a blog post series by Professor Frederic Vandenberghe on Reconstructive Sociology. To read Part 1 on Habermas, Bhaskar, and Caille, click here.

Metatheoretical Reconstruction

In the postscript to A Philosophical history of German Sociology, I developed a framework for the integrated analysis of metatheory, social theory and sociological theory (Vandenberghe, 2009: 290-303). I now want to retrieve that framework and briefly outline what reconstruction implies in each of the theoretical subdivisions.

Metatheory is philosophy for social scientists who (like myself) don’t know their canon. Placing itself at the intersection of philosophy and sociology (within sociology, but investigating its philosophy and making it explicit), it proposes an inquiry into the philosophical foundations of the social sciences. In accordance with the classical divisions of philosophy, it scrutinises the ontology, epistemology, methodology, normativity and anthropology of sociology. The underlying idea is that those presuppositions do not vary randomly. One can map them out. Together they form a system. I suggested that, ultimately, everything depends on the philosophical anthropology one proclaims. Like in an old-fashioned transcendental deduction, the vision of the human being (formerly known as Man) one adheres to predetermines all one’s other options. I still subscribe to that analysis, but, to further simplify it and make it more pungent, I would now divide the philosophical spectrum into three classes (onto-epistemological, normative and existential) and tie the reconstructive impetus to some determinate choices within each.

In the onto-epistemological class, one finds the premises that define the conditions of possible knowledge. Here as elsewhere, it is the nature of the object of knowledge that determines and prescribes the knowledge of the object (and not the other way round). Ontology undergirds epistemology and directs metamethodology. The first determinate choice in the philosophy of science concerns the issue of naturalism. Reconstruction implies the radical rejection of any positivist philosophy of science. With its rigorous critique of positivism and its demonstration that positivism does not even hold in the natural sciences, critical realism is superior to any other competing philosophy in my opinion. It incorporates all preceding critiques of naturalism (from Weber’s neo-Kantian and Popper’s neo-positivist derogation to Winch’s neo-Wittgensteinian and Habermas’s neo-Marxist) and is, therefore, the grand finale of the Postivismusstreit.

The social sciences are human sciences, however, and to make them human I consider it essential to consider phenomenological hermeneutics as their natural-cultural foundation. Although hermeneutics clinches the impossibility of naturalism, it is compatible in my opinion with critical realism. Even more, it represents its idealist counterpart, and it is only together that critical realism and hermeneutics offer solid foundations for the social sciences.

Reconstructive social sciences are not only militantly anti-positivist, they are also anti-utilitarian in principle. The struggle here is against all forms of rational choice (strategic action, game theory, etc.) – not only in theory, but also in practice and in society. If critical realism is the preferred option for onto-epistemological inquiries, the second generation of critical theory (Albrecht Wellmer, Karl-Otto Apel, but above all Jürgen Habermas) occupies a similar position concerning normative issues. The gap between critical realism and critical theory can be closed through the “linguistic turn” in hermeneutics, phenomenology and pragmatism. All these approaches share a principled anti-utilitarian stand and an insistence on symbolism and world-disclosure. They move away from the individual to intersubjective communication, and a consequent dislocation from interests to norms, ideals and principles.

Although I am willing to concede that one can do better in ethics than discourse ethics, one can hardly do worse. With its strong defence of universalism, Habermas has defined the minima moralia of the modern age and determined the lower limit beyond which one cannot fall. The defence of human rights, citizenship and justice is the sine qua non of a decent society. No doubt, one can and should defend stronger options, like virtue ethics and the ethics of care, but in pluralist societies, one cannot impose one’s personal and communal choices on one´s fellows. Eudemonia is the end I said earlier, but from a normative point of view, one can only secure the social preconditions that make the pursuit of the good life of all and each one possible. As individuals and as communities, we may subscribe to “comprehensive doctrines”, but we cannot impose our maxima moralia on others. That would be tantamount to paternalism.

Having granted Habermas (and by implication also John Rawls) the last word on morality, I should, however, immediately qualify my position and insist that I do not conceive of discourse ethics in narrow rationalist terms. Discourse ethics is more than a formal procedure for the universalization of our maxims of conduct; it is, rather, a formalisation and rationalization of a dialogical ethics one finds in philosophical hermeneutics. What we have is not a procedure, but a lived process for testing our convictions in dialogue with others, the others being the addressees that allow us, like friends, to understand our limits and overcome our own narrowness. Through the dialogical interchange of positions, we welcome the other in our thought and in our heart and, thereby, we enlarge our perspective so that no one is excluded.

Underneath the onto-epistemological and the normative classes, I have now opened an existential storey. It more or less corresponds to a normative philosophical anthropology, with this notable difference that the vision of the anthropos is no longer a generic one, but a personal one. My existentialism is humanist and personalist, much more in tune with the Existenzphilosophie of Karl Jaspers (1976) and Paul Ricoeur (1991) than with the heroic despair of Sartre and Camus. Not only do I fully subscribe to a positive anthropology one finds in Habermas, Bhaskar and Mauss, I also seek to contribute to its realization in daily life. The vision of the human being as homo simbolicus reciprocans that I espouse is a normative one – it corresponds to the full development of human capabilities of each and everyone. It coincides at the limit with full human flourishing – the good life of each as a precondition for the full development of all in a convivialist society.

As a guiding principle of human development (Bildung), existential reconstruction presupposes and projects a humane world of fragile, interdependent and responsive human beings who are mutually concerned and responsible for each other. It is not just a lofty theory of the human, however, but it is also a daily reflexive practice. It is an ethics, for sure, but to the extent that it is lived, it is also an ethos. It involves politics as well, but more in the sense of constructing the polis one wants to live in with and for others than of manning the barricades and continue the struggle, though at times (for instance when there’s a coup d’état, like in Brazil today) this is also necessary.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of 4 of Professor Vandenberghe’s blog post series on Reconstructive Sociology!

1 thought on “Reconstructive Social Theory: Metatheoretical Reconstruction”

  1. Pingback: Reconstructive Social Theory: Agency, Culture, and Social Change – Critical Realism Network

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