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Top>Opinion>Rethinking 20th Century Human and Social Sciences: Thoughts upon Translating Joseph Heath’s Following the Rules


Hirokazu Takizawa

Hirokazu Takizawa [profile]

Rethinking 20th Century Human and Social Sciences:

Thoughts upon Translating Joseph Heath’s Following the Rules

Hirokazu Takizawa
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Game Theory, Experimental Economics, and Philosophy of Economics

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I recently published a translation of Joseph Heath’s Following the Rules: Practical Reasoning and Deontic Constraint (Oxford Univ. Press, 2008). If one were to try to categorize this work into one particular field, I suppose it would be a work of philosophy. Some people may wonder why I was the one to translate this work since my own areas of specialization are originally game theory and experimental game theory. In fact, as I explain in more detail below, far from being limited only to philosophy, the discussion in this work straddles across a wide range of fields from sociology to psychology to evolutionary biology, and although not everything contained, proceeding with the translation of this work while trying to understand the texts quoted in this work was a task which consumed an enormous amount of time for me. However, the comments received from people upon publication of this translation, which included among them completely undreamed of praise such as “The most important text of the past 10 years,” have made such efforts all seem worthwhile. This work raises extremely large and important questions for future social science and it is my hope that as many people as possible come to understand its significance.

1. How do human beings maintain social order?

If one was to try to summarize the themes of this work in one or two sentences, it would have to be something along the lines of “Why do human beings behave in accordance with norms and morality and why is it possible for us to maintain social order?” and “How is social order changed?” They are among the most basic questions regarding people and human societies. Of course, large numbers of philosophers, sociologists and economists have tackled these questions in the past. However, they remain far from resolved. Why then, at this point in time, has Heath chosen to address these questions again? And what sort of new answers does he propose?

2. The mainstream of the social sciences in the 20th Century: “Instrumental rationality” and “Methodological individualism”

Firstly, let me begin by explaining the situation of social science today by looking at the main current that has regulated and prescribed it until now. Although there are some exceptions such as social psychology and anthropology, in most of the fields of social science and human science in the 20th Century people have tried to understand social order in the following ways.

  1. It is assumed that individual people rationally choose their actions by selecting the choice which is expected to bring the most desirable result from among all the available actions. In doing so, the desirability of each action is derived solely from the desirability of the result that will be generated by it, and it was thought until now that the level of desirability which is attributed to each result by each individual was seen as an issue of personal preferences and therefore remained outside the realms of debate, and could not be discussed. This sort of rationality is known as “instrumental rationality.”
  2. By each individual putting together their own rational choices, a certain level of social order is created (this approach to social phenomena is known as “methodological individualism”).

In other words, the mainstream of the social sciences in the 20th Century has been this sort of methodological individualism, which tries to explain social phenomena based upon instrumentally rational individuals. Individuals acting based on internalized morality were not included within this explanation, and moral order within society could only be explained as a combination of the actions of multiple rational individuals.

One of the most typical examples of this is the methodology which has been used in economics. For example, in game theory, the following explanation has been used to explain the question of why people cooperate within society. The situation of whether or not a person will choose to cooperate is modeled using the well-known “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game. If this game is only played once, it is rational not to cooperate. So how can cooperative behavior within society be explained? In fact, even in the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game, if the game is to be repeated an infinite number of times, then it can be shown that cooperation is the rational choice. In other words, it is possible to explain cooperative behavior in society from the instrumental rationality of individuals.

However, around the end of the 20th Century, a wide variety of experiments were carried out in the field of game theory and it was discovered that there are a large number of phenomena which cannot be explained using this sort of “rational” explanation.

3. The gradual convergence of ways of looking at society and ways of looking at individuals

On the other hand, the 20th Century was also a period which witnessed progress in the accumulation of scholarly research to an extent unprecedented in the history of humanity. In particular, I would like to draw attention to how in the latter half of the 20th Century, research in the various fields which study human social behavior from each of their respective unique approaches, such as analytical philosophy, decision making theory, game theory, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science, anthropology, etc., have started to throw up common points of discussion. If one was to very roughly sum up these common points of discussion, they could be described as saying that people’s “rationality” is socially formed, and that in fact, at the foundations of human rationality is a propensity to conform with norms in an imitative way, inherent in humans as living creatures, and that without these norms it would also be impossible for rationality to exist.

In Heath’s Following the Rules, by skillfully weaving together various sorts of research results from a wide range of fields, he is able to prove that human social behavior is at its deepest level supported by morality and the need to conform with norms. And furthermore, he goes on to exhort the necessity of changing concepts of human rationality from this perspective.

For example, in the field of philosophy, a paradigm shift has occurred from conventional philosophy, which emphasized a person’s inner “consciousness,” to an emphasis on linguistic expression, known as the “linguistic turn.” Furthermore, using an approach known as Neo-pragmatism, which is not yet very well-known in Japan, the philosopher Robert Brandom is trying to explain the generation of language and concepts from social practices. According to this thinking, the spiritual state itself (for example, the prediction of the results which each action will bring, and the evaluation of the desirability of each of these results, which is referred to by experts as the state of orientation), which is needed when selecting an action based upon instrumental rationality, is created from social practice based upon normative rules.

As a reaction to the “unscientific nature” of Freudian psychoanalysis which emphasized peoples’ unconscious, psychology in the 20th Century at one point tended to be biased in favor of behaviorist research of the mind which did not impinge on the inner workings of human beings. However, after the cognitive revolution of the 1960s, today, greater focus is gradually being made again on the way the enormous unconscious realm shapes and prescribes almost all human behavior. Thus, while until this point desires had been viewed in a relatively simple manner as being very similar to physical stimulation, desires themselves are coming to be seen as being socially learned, and it is further being clarified that they are prescribed and defined by the mechanisms which govern rational thought. Desires are not simply personal preferences of individuals but are subject to rational revisions. In addition, in cognitive science, it is becoming clear that human beings are animals which are particularly skilled at making interactions with artificial things. The mind is no longer thought of as something which operates from inside our brain, but is thought of as being something that processes information from within the mutual interaction of our minds and bodies and environments. The environment mentioned here of course includes social systems.

In evolutionary biology, attention is being paid to explanations which show how humans display “super-sociality” and are fundamentally different animals from monkeys. Moreover, the argument that the three human characteristics of “superior intelligence,” “structured language,” and “cultural dependence,” which set us apart and distinguish us from monkeys, were all caused by a single biological adaptation, namely, an orientation to accurately copy others and conform to norms, is gradually attracting more proponents and becoming more dominant.

4. Conformance with norms supports human rationality

Let us return again to the question I raised at the beginning of this article. As the background to why, at this point in time, Heath was able to make a new attempt to address what is, historically, a difficult question—that of, how do human beings maintain social order?—there was marked progress in super-interdisciplinary interaction and an accumulation of research from the above-mentioned various different fields. In other words, it can be said that a common awareness of the question at hand emerged from people participating in each of these various fields. From looking at the question from across a broad range of research results, Heath was able to identify the fact that human beings, as a species, have an orientation to conform to norms which is not evident among other species. From this fact, it is possible to explain the generation of language and our cultural dependence, and superior human intelligence can also be understood as being the result of this. In this way, our rationality is supported at the very deepest level by our norms and morality, and as long as we remain rational, norms and morality will never disappear.

Of course, this sort of simple introduction to such a weighty work can only possibly scratch the surface of the depth that it contains. Heath’s explanation in this work is written accessibly in a narrative which can be understood without any prior knowledge, provided you have the perseverance to carefully follow his argument. This work will no doubt broaden the horizons and perspective of both those whose interests lean only toward philosophy, as well as those whose knowledge is limited to the theory of the social sciences. I hope that a great many people will read this valuable work.

Hirokazu Takizawa
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Game Theory, Experimental Economics, and Philosophy of Economics
Born in Tokyo in 1960. Completed credits at the Graduate School of Economics, University of Tokyo in 1997. Entered current position in 2010 after working as a visiting research fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, assistant professor at the Faculty of Economics, Toyo University, and fellow at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry. Major publications include, Kawagoe, T. and H. Takizawa (2009), "Equilibrium Refinement vs. Level-k Analysis: An Experimental Study of Cheap-talk Games with Private Information," Games and Economic Behavior, Vol. 66, pp.238-255, Kawagoe, T. and H. Takizawa (2012), "Level-k Analysis of Experimental Centipede Games," Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Vol. 82, pp.548-566.