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Delving into a Philosophy of Science that Transcends the Boundaries of the Natural and the Social Sciences

Kei Yoshida
Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Expanding the Methodology of the Philosophy of Science

My field of expertise is the philosophy of the social sciences, which is a philosophical study that explores methods in the social sciences. The philosophy of science is traditionally considered to be a philosophical field related to the natural sciences. However, my main focus of study is the social sciences. I started studying philosophy from graduate school, and I worked on the philosophy of science, with a focus on studying the debate about relativism and the work of Karl Popper, a philosopher of science. Thomas Kuhn, a historian and philosopher of science who is well known even in Japan, made a famous claim that the organization and development of science is based on paradigms—the common frameworks of knowledge shared among scientists—but that scientific progress is not cumulative. Popper strongly criticized this claim, arguing that the relativist viewpoint of seeing science as confined and dependent on a specific framework conflicts with the view that regards science as a pursuit of the objective truth. I considered Popper's criticism and presented my own take on the subject in my master’s thesis.

When I moved on to my doctoral course, I decided to expand on these viewpoints of the philosophy of science, and to delve into philosophical debates about different cultures in the fields of the humanities and the social sciences. From the 1960s to the 1980s, a debate referred to as the “rationality debate” took place. The debate concerned claims made by social anthropologists active around the 1930s to the 1960s, such as E. E. Evans-Pritchard, who examined societies in Africa and other places and claimed that rites and rituals rooted in local customs cannot be explained by scientific rationality, and thus are irrational. The philosopher Peter Winch claimed that local customs have their own rationalities that differ from scientific rationality. The philosopher Charles Taylor and the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz also presented their own views of the rationality of different cultures.

However, there are many who criticize this by claiming that assuming rationality that differs from scientific rationality is cultural relativism, much like Popper’s criticism of relativism. Justifying a different form of rationality results in a problem where any possibility of external explanations and criticisms is excluded from debate and ultimately rejected. These debates seemed to have ended during the 1980s and onward, but this does not mean the problem itself was resolved. It continued to be a topic of debate in the 1990s and 2000s, while taking on various new forms.

In my doctoral dissertation, I explored these controversies from my own point of view. I had the desire to go overseas to pursue my research in graduate school, so I decided to study abroad in Toronto at the graduate program offered at York University, where there were professors who had studied under Karl Popper. This is where I began my studies under the supervision of Professor Ian Jarvie. Professor Jarvie studied directly under Popper, and works on the philosophy of anthropology. He has been also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal titled Philosophy of the Social Sciences since its foundation. I felt that his supervision was indispensable for my research.

Picture 1: A collection of papers derived from the centenary congress Karl Popper 2002, where my first paper written in English was published.

Picture 2: Philosophy of the Social Sciences Volume 37, Number 3, 2007. This is the first international journal in which I had a paper published.

The Debate about the Limits of Interpretivism

The philosophy of the social sciences is divided in two positions: naturalism and interpretivism. Naturalism is a position which claims that the social sciences can be studied in a natural scientific way. Interpretivism, on the other hand, is a position which claims that the research object of the social sciences differs from that of the natural sciences, and thus one cannot use the natural scientific way in studying humans, who act on intentions and purposes. The two opposing positions of naturalism and interpretivism originate from the ancient Greek dichotomy of physis (nature) and nomos (convention). Physis is the universal existence of nature, while nomos is the artificial rules and customs that change according to regions and times. This way of thinking has been passed down through the ages from ancient times to the present day, and is even now influencing our perspectives on the natural and the social sciences.

However, when attempting to analyze social phenomena from an interpretivist perspective under the conditions of this dichotomy, it becomes difficult to explain the unintended consequences of social actions. One example is a famous incident that occurred in Japan in 1973, when a rumor triggered a bank run at the Toyokawa Shinkin Bank. The incident occurred when a female high school student told two of her friends that she got a job at the Toyokawa Shinkin Bank. One of the friends teased her by saying “I heard it’s not so stable there.” The high school student took this comment seriously, and asked her relatives if this was in fact true. The rumors spread from there, and led many people to withdraw their savings from the bank. These types of collective social phenomena cannot be explained just by examining what each of the actors had intended.

The economist Friedrich Hayek also thought that the unintended consequences of actions taken in the market economy and in political systems cannot be ignored, pointing out that the dichotomy of physis and nomos cannot fully explain all social phenomena. Against the backdrop of these historical debates, the root focus of my research is to rethink the approach to the social sciences, and to explore the philosophy of science in a way that methodologically unites the natural and the social sciences.

Developing My Doctoral Dissertation for Publication in the English-Speaking World

Picture 3:Rationality and Cultural Interpretivism: A Critical Assessment of Failed Solutions (Sole authorship: Lexington Books, August 2014)

After studying in Canada for six years and writing my doctoral dissertation, I considered the option of staying there and finding employment, but competition in the English-speaking world is fierce, so I had no choice but to return to Japan. To make a case in point, at the University of Virginia in the U.S. at the time, there were 600 applicants for a single professorship in philosophy. It was also a well-known fact that in Japan, there were few full-time positions available for philosophers, so I decided to continue my studies by building my career through postdoctoral research and by working as a part-time lecturer. During that time, I had the idea of publishing my doctoral dissertation as a book and taking it to an American academic publisher with a proposal. I eventually had it peer reviewed and published. I revised my dissertation by adding new research results, and finally succeeded in getting it published in August 2014 (Picture 3). I was applying for professorships overseas while writing the book, but right at that time there was an opening for a professorship in the methodology of the social sciences at Waseda University. With luck, I was hired and started teaching in April 2015.

As for which direction I want to take my research to, I want to do something that will inspire scientific research in the future. For example, there is currently a trend that is attempting to integrate neuroscience and social science and to reveal the economic behavior of humans from a neuroscientific perspective. Some economists, however, are objecting to this approach, claiming that neuroscience is not related to economics at all. However, I find that there is a problem in being fixated on the current academic discipline and dismissing certain ideas as irrelevant. It is necessary to include the perspective of philosophers of science in the debates about these new studies.

I also hope to help the philosophy of the social sciences take root in Japan. As I mentioned above, the philosophy of the social sciences was not a major field of study to begin with, but the number of scholars has steadily increased in the past decade. The Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable, a major conference where philosophers and social scientists from the English-speaking world gather to discuss problems in the philosophy of the social sciences, has been held every year since 1999. In 2009, at the conference in which I first participated, there were very few participants and the venue only consisted of a single room. However, when I participated again in 2016, there were more participants and multiple rooms were used. Furthermore, since 2012, the European Network for the Philosophy of the Social Sciences has been held in Europe. The philosophy of the social sciences is a subject that is drawing more and more international focus. I believe that this trend where the philosophy of science is expanding its subjects of study from physics to biology—and even to the social sciences— is connected to the increase in scholars who hold a keen interest in the philosophy of the social sciences.

Academic disciplines such as the natural and the social sciences, which explore empirical realities and phenomena, are called the empirical sciences. If they can be put into a metaphor about building a condominium, one role of the philosophy of science is to perform a thorough analysis of how it is constructed. It is possible that even if the builders are intending to build a spectacular condominium, there may be various flaws in its construction. I believe that it is important for empirical scientists to listen carefully to the discussions of philosophers, and to pay attention to philosophical problems in their own research. I believe that ideally, we should have an interactive relationship where philosophers can actively stimulate the works of empirical scientists.

Kei Yoshida
Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Kei Yoshida graduated from the Division of Humanities, College of Liberal Arts, International Christian University in 1997, and completed his master’s program in philosophy at the Graduate School of Philosophy, Sophia University in 1999. He then completed his doctoral course at the Graduate Program in Philosophy at York University in Canada (Ph.D.) in 2005. After working as a project lecturer at the University of Tokyo Global COE program, “The University of Tokyo Center for Philosophy” (UTCP), and at the University of Tokyo Program for Leading Graduate Schools, “Integrated Human Sciences Program for Cultural Diversity” (IHS), he assumed his post as Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University in April 2015, and took his current post in April 2017. He received the 2016 Waseda Research Award (High-Impact Publication).