Interessante artigo sobre a importância de argumentos que, via de regra, não recebem a devida importância no campo da ciências sociais.
According to Bertrand Russell, philosophy is the subject that teaches how to tell a good argument from a bad one. That definition accords well with my recollection of how it was presented in my schooldays when we were assured that good arguments were based either on the deductive reasoning of mathematics and logic or inferences drawn from observations which could be empirically verified. Bad arguments were therefore of three kinds: mistaken deductions, where a seemingly sound proof turned out not to be; mistaken inferences from evidence which turned out to be inadequate to support them; and arguments which turned out to rest on propositions mistakenly claiming a validity inherently beyond them, like those of metaphysics or ethics.
We soon learned that matters were not so simple. But if the distinctions between the analytical and the empirical, or between fact and value, could not be relied on, and if metaphysical statements could not be dismissed as confused if not downright meaningless, where were we to go for guidance? I am a sociologist, not a philosopher. But I was (and am) uncomfortably aware that sociology is full of arguments whose persuasiveness dissolves under the harsh light of philosophical scrutiny. Some sociologists, like many natural scientists, are dismissive of the suggestion that philosophers can be of help to them. If you want to find out why the things you observe going on in the world are as they are, get out and study them by the most serviceable techniques you can find. But evidence doesn’t speak for itself. In expounding their findings, scientists have both to justify and to interpret them. They have to be able to show their claims for the validity and significance of their findings to be right.
This, by general consent, is even more difficult in the social than in the natural sciences, since human beings have ideas of their own about why they behave as they do. But the difference matters not because the criteria by which arguments are assessed in the natural sciences cease to apply in the social sciences but because arguments of other kinds can be brought to bear on accounts of human behaviour. It is thus critical to the assessment of sociologists’ arguments to establish what exactly it is that they are seeking to achieve. For this, the most useful philosophical distinction to apply is the one between locution, illocution, and perlocution – that is, between what you are saying, what you are doing in saying it, and what you are doing by saying it. Different sociologists have all sorts of different illocutionary aims. Some try to forecast what is going to happen in or to the societies they study. Some compile social statistics. Some advance cross-cultural generalisations which others dismiss as trivial or circular. Some ruminate about the human condition. Some use the written or oral testimony of chosen informants to describe how the lives of their informants are experienced by themselves. Some make recommendations about social policy. Some link social effects to psychological causes, and others link social causes to psychological effects. All, however, depend for their success in doing what they are doing on convincing their readers that their arguments are good ones; and that depends on applying the right criterion to the particular case.
Sceptics who doubt whether any non-trivial generalisations about human social behaviour can ever be established to universal satisfaction sometimes question whether there are such things as social facts at all. But nobody seriously denies that some observations are more accurate than others and some causal connections more reliable. This holds not only for the way we all conduct our daily social lives but also for the way we account for historical events. There is a difference between interpreting evidence in one way rather than another, and making it up. But it is also true that the criteria by which arguments are judged are different in different cultural communities. To assert that any argument is better than another is to invite the rejoinder “yes, perhaps – but it depends on your point of view”.
I was made particularly aware of this recently when writing a short book under the title Great Books, Bad Arguments: Republic, Leviathan, and The Communist Manifesto. I had been prompted to write it by re-reading these three famous texts for the first time in half a century and wondering how well they would stand up in the light of what present-day sociologists can fairly claim to know that Plato, Hobbes, and Marx did not. None of them were doing social science as that term is nowadays understood. But all three advance conclusions derived from evidence for how human beings do, or would, or might, behave under different environmental and historical conditions. If these arguments are bad ones, this will presumably undermine the larger purposes which the three texts are intended to serve. Or will it? If I say that it does, might I be arguing badly myself?
Consider Leviathan. No reader of it can doubt that Hobbes wants to convince us that the preservation of order in human societies requires their members to accept the authority of a sovereign whose commands they are bound to obey. But of the arguments he advances for the purpose, some are timeless – this, he says, is what human beings have always been like, and always will be – whereas others are self-evidently parochial to his own time and place. Successive generations of commentators have puzzled over Hobbes’s views about religion, and it is hard to see how they will ever establish either what exactly he was doing in, or what exactly he expected to achieve by, Parts Three (“Of a Christian Commonwealth”) and Four (“Of the Kingdome of Darknesse”). But whether the arguments in those chapters are good or bad, Leviathan remains independently of them a classic text of Western political philosophy because the timeless arguments are good enough to keep it there. Or might there be some other criterion of assessment by which it doesn’t matter so much if they aren’t quite as good as all that?
Hobbes argues that in the absence of an effective sovereign, human beings will revert to a perpetual state of war of all against all. But if he believed that our ancestors did originally live in such a state, he is mistaken. In the Palaeolithic hunting and foraging bands from whose members we are all descended, there were no doubt some individuals who were liars, bullies, thieves, free-riders, and cheats, while there were others who were reliable, generous, and kind. But they managed well enough to hold together, to collaborate for common purposes, to form ongoing relationships with other bands, and to respect each other’s personal autonomy without having to be forcibly restrained by a ruling person or group. It is a matter of dispute among palaeoanthropologists how far the ethnographic evidence for the behaviour of hunter-gatherers observed in the present licenses inferences about human behaviour in the Stone Age. But the ethnography provides abundant examples of how the liars, bullies, thieves, free-riders, and cheats can be adequately disciplined by ridicule, ostracism, the formation of counter-dominant coalitions, and occasional recourse to physical violence. Nor is it true that people cannot make credible and effective commitments to collaborate in exploiting their natural environment without a coercive external authority: Elinor Ostrom has recently been awarded a Nobel Prize for showing how they can. That does not mean that in present-day Britain, any more than in Hobbes’s day, the government can dispense with the practices and institutions through which behaviour socially defined as unlawful is physically monitored, restrained, and punished. But it does mean that Hobbes’s central thesis is a bad one to the extent that it attributes to human beings a universal psychology inherited from a common past from which he derives a generalisation which is demonstrably false.
The same holds for his argument that sovereignty is indivisible. That is trivially true if a sovereign who shares power is by definition not a sovereign. But it is a sociological fact that there are societies in which order is successfully maintained under constitutions which explicitly allow for a separation of powers. Hobbes is unwilling to accept that the risk of descent into civil war might actually be lower in a society where the citizens accept the authority of separate political institutions no one of which dominates the rest. He does not believe that the citizens might be more, not less, likely to live in harmony with one another if they could see their interests being represented in, and safeguarded by, a number of autonomous bodies which co-exist alongside, as opposed to above and below, one another. For Hobbes, any power delegated by the sovereign must be revocable, because otherwise the members of those bodies and the citizens who acknowledge their authority will have a divided loyalty. But the urge to rebel can be all the stronger when a single sovereign has a monopoly of power and allegiance to any other institution is not merely disloyal but seditious. Hobbes again draws from his own chosen examples a generalisation which cannot be sustained.
These are only two of the arguments in Leviathan which have been exhaustively analysed by Hobbes’s commentators. But if these two are central to his purpose, and they are not good enough to sustain the conclusions he draws, what then? Can Leviathan’s enduring reputation be justified? The answer to which I was led by my re-reading was that what Hobbes is most importantly doing in Leviathan is done so well that it continues to set the agenda for any sociologist or philosopher who wishes to devise a form of political organisation which will enable human beings to live together in lasting order and harmony. He is both warning his readers just how difficult that is and voicing the hope that, if only his warnings could be heeded, it might one day be achieved after all.
On this interpretation, Hobbes’s sociology should be construed as “optative” sociology, as it were, a sociology of wishes or hopes. Hobbes is not telling his readers what is going to happen. Nor is he telling them what ought to happen. He is telling them how much more comfortable a world it would be if only certain things could be made to happen. It is unlikely that they will, since human nature is what it is. But there are lessons to be learned from historical events which would make less likely the kind of civil war which he had witnessed at first hand. His warning goes on being as deserving of attention as ever because the dangers which alarm him continue to be as serious as ever. If he were with us, he might concede to Elizabeth Ostrom that there can be “covenants without the sword”. He might acknowledge that there can be such a thing as a loyal opposition, that not all forms of protest against the decisions of government are inherently subversive, that unorthodox political opinions are not always treasonable, and that a constitution in which the judiciary is not an arm of the executive can increase rather than diminish popular respect for the law. But he would be right to insist that competition for power is endemic in human societies, that no society can continue in being with a total absence of coercive sanctions, that unchecked rivalry between alternative contenders for power threatens the stability of the society as a whole, that ideological intolerance leads all too easily to internecine political conflict, that disinterested rationality all too often gives way to self-serving prejudice, that both rulers and their subjects would always like to have more power than they do, and that liars, bullies, thieves, free-riders, and cheats will continue to get away with what they can. If some of his arguments about power and sovereignty can be shown to be bad ones, it does not follow that his hopes for a more harmonious and orderly future, or his warnings of the obstacles in the way of their being realised, have lost either their illocutionary force or their perlocutionary effect.
W.G. Runciman is fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and author of Great Books, Bad Arguments (Princeton University Press).