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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Impossibility of Predictive Social Science

"The development of a historical tradition may involve deliberation, argument, the canvassing of rival interpretations, followed perhaps by the adoption of some agreed compromise or the springing up of rival schools. Consider, for instance, the relation between the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; or the rival schools of political thought which all claim, with some show of reason, to be based on the Marxist tradition. Think of the interplay between orthodoxy and heresy in the development of religion; or of the way in which the game of football was revolutionized by the Rugby boy who picked up the ball and ran. It would certainly not have been possible to predict that revolution from knowledge of the preceding state of the game any more than it would have been possible to predict the philosophy of Hume from the philosophies of his predecessors. It may help here to recall Humphrey Lyttleton’s rejoinder to someone who asked him where Jazz was going: ‘If I knew where Jazz was going I’d be there already’.

"Maurice Cranston makes essentially the same point when he notices that to predict the writing of a piece of poetry or the making of a new invention would involve writing the poem or making the invention oneself. And if one has already done this oneself then it is impossible to predict that someone else will make up that poem or discover that invention. ‘He could not predict it because he could not say it was going to happen before it happened.’ (8: p. 166.)

"It would be a mistake, though tempting, to regard this as a piece of trivial logic-chopping. One appears to be attempting an impossible task of a priori legislation against a purely empirical possibility. What in fact one is showing, however, is that the central concepts which belong to our understanding of social life are incompatible with concepts central to the activity of scientific prediction. When we speak of the possibility of scientific prediction of social developments of this sort, we literally do not understand what we are saying. We cannot understand it, because it has no sense." -- Peter Winch, The Idea of a Social Science, pp. 87-88

Yes, of course: science is a modal qualification of experience achieved through abstraction. As such it cannot ever be taken as the whole of experience without serious error.

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