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July 16, 2013 / Adam Knott

The Structural Difference between Social Science and Natural Science – Part 1

The Structural Difference between Social Science and Natural Science

Natural science is the study of objects or states that may be observationally compared.  In natural science we compare X and Y with respect to their respective attributes.  Social science, by contrast, is not founded on an observational comparison of several objects or states.  In social science we do not compare the attributes of two things X and Y.  The foundation of social science is the relationship between an object or state (X) on the one hand, and a desire to change X to something different on the other hand.  Here, there is only one entity, X, that has attributes.  The focal point of social science is the relationship between X and a desire to change X to something different.

We may call the desire to change X to something different an entity, Y.  Social science then is founded on the relationship between object or state X, and the desire (Y) to change X.  We assume as given an observation, perception, or sensation, X.   If we assume or postulate that Y—the desire to change X—is also an observation, perception, or sensation (e.g., the notion that desire is something I can feel, or the notion that desire is something that can be observed as a chemical or biological process), then a study of the relationship between X and Y is a study of two objects or states that may be observationally, perceptually, or sensually compared.  Such a comparison constitutes the foundation of natural science.

On the other hand, if we assume or postulate that Y—the desire to change X—is not an observation, perception, or sensation (i.e., if we assume or postulate that Y is a nonperceptible presence), then a study of the relationship between X and Y cannot be a study of two objects that may be observationally, perceptually, or sensually compared.  Such a study then cannot be natural science, but must be a different kind of study.  This illustrates the epistemological or structural difference between natural science and social science.

If we assume as given perception X, and if we assume the desire (Y) to change X is a nonperceptual presence, then the concept pair object/desire conforms to the binary categorial structure previously explained.  Regarding the previously discussed concept pairs: supply/demand, supply/value, means/ends, satisfaction/dissatisfaction, etc., the entities that comprise one category must be fundamentally different from the entities that comprise the other category.  Only the elements of one category may have observable or perceptible attributes (may be defined in terms of sensations, perceptions, or observations).  In social science, the desire to change X must be of an altogether different nature from X; the valuing of supply X must be of an altogether different nature from supply X; the end toward which means X is utilized, must be of an altogether different nature from means X, etc.

Natural science requires a plurality of observations.  Its categorial structure includes, minimally, an initial observation (observation-1) and a follow-up observation (observation-2).  The categorial structure of social science entails only one category of observation (only one category of perceptual or sensual data).  Social science lacks the categorial structure needed for comparing a plurality of observational, perceptual, or sensual data.

Physical Concepts in Social Science

It follows directly from the epistemological difference between social science and physical science that social science cannot employ conceptions that imply (that rely on or require) a comparison of several observations, perceptions, or sensations.  For example, the notion “more urgent versus less urgent” implies that two instances of urgency have been compared with respect to their intensity.  The idea is that two observations, perceptions, or sensations, have occurred and have been compared, and it has been determined that in observation-1 “more” of an attribute was found than was found in observation-2.  As has been argued, this comparison of several observations, perceptions, or sensations, constitutes the very foundation of natural science.  An investigation founded on observational comparisons is a natural-scientific investigation, not a social-scientific one.  Hayek wrote about the nonphysical nature of social phenomena in his essay “The Facts of the Social Sciences”:

…though all the social phenomena with which we can possibly deal may have physical attributes, they need not be physical facts for our purpose.  That depends on how we shall find it convenient to classify them for the discussion of our problems.  Are the human actions which we observe, and the objects of these actions, things of the same or a different kind because they appear as physically the same or different to us, the observers—or for some other reason?

Is it the physical attributes of the objects—what we can find out about these objects by studying them—or is it by something else that we must classify the objects when we attempt to explain what men do about them?

It is easily seen that all these [social science] concepts…refer not to some objective properties possessed by the things, or which the observer can find out about them, but to views which some other person holds about the things.  These objects cannot even be defined in physical terms, because there is no single physical property which any one member of a class must possess.

What I am arguing is that no physical properties can enter into the explicit definition of any of these classes, because the elements of these classes need not possess common physical attributes, and we do not even consciously or explicitly know which are the various physical properties of which an object would have to possess at least one to be a member of a class.

The common attributes which the elements of any of these classes possess are not physical attributes but must be something else. (IEO, p. 59-62)

Social phenomena cannot be defined in physical terms.  This means that social phenomena cannot be defined in terms of a comparison of the attributes of several observations, perceptions, or sensations.  And this means that social phenomena cannot be defined in terms of distinctions such as internal/external, sooner/later, higher/lower, more/less, etc.  Physical terms such as these imply attribute differences between several entities.  The study of attribute differences between several entities constitutes the foundation of natural science.  In his essay, Hayek came to the following conclusion:

…whenever we interpret human action as in any sense purposive or meaningful, whether we do so in ordinary life or for the purposes of the social sciences, we have to define both the objects of human activity and the different kinds of actions themselves, not in physical terms but in terms of the opinions or intentions of the acting persons…

Hayek writes that we have to define the objects and actions of social science (in Hayek’s conception these are two observable entities) in terms of the opinions or intentions of the acting persons.  Here, following Hulsmann, we will consider opinions and intentions to be “nonextended entities” similar in nature to value, utility, preference ranks, etc.  Thus, we interpret Hayek’s insight as consistent with what we assert regarding the difference between natural science and social science.  Social science does not treat the relationship between two observable (extended) entities.  Social science treats the relationship between an observable entity on the one hand (Hayek’s objects and actions), and a nonobservable (nonextended) entity on the other hand (Hayek’s opinions and intentions).  The relevant concept pair in this case is object/opinion or object/intention, where one category is a category of perceptual content, and the other category is a category of nonperceptual presence.

Key

EP = Epistemological Problems of Economics, Mises, 1976
EPV = The Economic Point of View, Kirzner, 1976
ESA = Economic Science and the Austrian Method, Hoppe, 1995
FM = The Free Market and its Enemies, Mises, 2004
HA = Human Action, Mises, 1966
HUL = “Economic Science and Neoclassicism,” Hulsmann, The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Winter 1999.
I = Investigations Into the Method of the Social Sciences, Menger, 1985
IEO = Individualism and Economic Order, Hayek, 1948
LR = An Essay on the Nature & Significance of Economic Science, Robbins, 1945
MBS = Minds, Brains and Science, Searle, 2003
MES = Man, Economy, and State, Rothbard, 1993
MM = Money, Method, and the Market Process, Mises, 1990
MOP = A Man of Principle, Essays in Honor of Hans F. Sennholz, 1992
POAE = “The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics,” Gordon, 1996
PP = Physics and Philosophy, Heisenberg, 1958
PSW = The Phenomenology of the Social World, Schutz, 1967
TH = Theory and History, Mises, 1985
UF = The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, Mises, 2002

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