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Winch—The Idea of a Social Science

The Idea of a Social Science

by Peter Winch

[Winch, Peter. 1970. “The Idea of a Social Science.” In Rationality, edited by Bryan Wilson, 1–17. Key Concepts in the Social Sciences. London: Basil Blackwell.]


The book as a whole represents an intervention into the ‘reasons and causes’ argument—the basic premise being that

  1. there are rules that regulate human activities. These rules “rest on a social context of common activity”
  2. In physical science, you are studying objects, these rules define how the scientists deal with the objects of study and how scientists relate to each other when involved in the study
    1. scientists understand these rules because they are developed through the process of doing science as scientists (regularities)
  3. In the social sciences, however, the object of study is not an object, but instead another layer of complex rules regulating human activity, which leads to the problem:
    1. Social scientists understand the rules of the social sciences—the rules that govern interactions with each other and the study but how can they claim to understand the rules regulating the subjects of their study?
  4. So, when we talk of “reasons,” we can really only talk about the rules that inform intention toward a particular act
  • “A regularity or uniformity is the constant recurrence of the same kind of event on the same kind of occasion; hence statements of uniformities presuppose judgements of identity. But this takes us right back to the argument according to which criteria of identity are necessarily relative to some rule: with the corollary that two events which count as qualitatively similar from the point of view of one rule would count as different from the point of view of another” (1).
  • “Even if it is legitimate to speak of one’s understanding of a mode of social activity as consisting in a knowledge of regularities, the nature of this knowledge must be very different from the nature of knowledge of physical regularities” (4).
  • “In the course of this argument I have linked the assertion that social relations are internal with the assertion that men’s mutual interaction ‘embodies ideas’, suggesting that social interaction can more profitably be compared to the exchange of ideas in a conversation than to the interaction of forces in a physical system” (12).
  • “So, even where it would be unnatural to say that a given kind of social relation expresses any ideas of a discursive nature, still it is closer to that general category than it is to that of the interaction of physical forces” (12).

Questionable: “a historian or sociologist of religion must himself have some religious feeling if he is to make sense of the religious movement he is studying and understand considerations which govern the lives of their participants” (4). Continue reading Winch—The Idea of a Social Science