Between Man and Nature

Hubert L. Dreyfus

Between Man and Nature

En: The Harvard Review of Philosophy – Continental Philosophy, 1991.

“The difference between the Natur and the Geisteswissenschaften, where the Geisteswissenschaften means the humanities, is obvious. What needs to be argued is that there is a basic methodological difference between the empirical disciplines that study nature and the empirical disciplines that study human comportment. In this case the Geisteswissenschafen means the social sciences. There are many ways to approach the question of the unity and differences between these two types of discipline. I want to talk about a difference in the goals of the social and the natural sciences. I will argue that the relation of a science’s practices to the object the science studies is different in the natural and social sciences, and that this difference leads to different disciplinary goals – explaining in the natural sciences and understanding in the social ones.

The attempt to draw a principled distinction between the methods of the natural and social sciences has had a surprising history. For a century the pressure to unify the sciences came from the attraction of the hard natural sciences as models for the soft social sciences. Those who opposed unification did so by arguing that the human sciences dealt with meaningful events and so required an interpretive approach different in principle from the covering law model of the sciences of nature. Just when the difference between the theoretical and the hermeneutic disciplines was becoming accepted, however, the line of attack suddenly shifted and now it has become fashionable to push for the methodological unity of the sciences by arguing that all disciplines are interpretive and their objects are all social constructs. The hope of hammering all of the disciplines into one hard objective science has thus given way to the desire to dissolve them all into a soft hermeneutical hash.

This second approach to unity is furthered by the fact that among philosophers any attempt to defend an essential difference between the hard sciences as converging on the objective truth about nature and the soft sciences as dealing with historically changing human meanings, has become suspect. On the one hand, Thomas Kuhn and others have shown that science has a history of radical paradigm shifts and have claimed that this undermines the argument that science is converging on the truth about nature. On the other hand, eliminative materialists, such as Paul Feyerabend, Richard Rorty and their followers, have convincingly argued that there is no in principle reason why a social science might not predict the behavior of human beings under some objective description that eliminates reference to everyday meaningful entities and events and to people as agents.

Since many philosophers are convinced that no argument for the in principle distinction between the methods of the Geistes and the Natnrwissenschafen can be defended, it has become increasingly unpopular among “post-modern” philosophers even to raise the issue. Still, there does seem to be an obvious difference in the current status of the two types of disciplines. Put crudely: the natural science’s progress while the human sciences do not. So, rather than attempting to distinguish these disciplines by looking for an essential difference in their objects that necessitates an essential difference in their methods, we should ask a more modest question: What is there about the practices of each type of discipline that accounts for the natural sciences’ ability to formulate objective theoretical truths about nature, and the social sciences’ failure to discover similar types of truths about human beings?

Anyone who wants thus to defend the disunity of the sciences must fight on two fronts. He needs to show that, even though physical science is a social practice subject to radical paradigm shifts, it can still reveal the way the world is independent of our theories and practices, and that, even though the human sciences deal with human beings who are, among other things, objects, they can never be objective. Since the task of arguing for a basic, if not essential, difference between the natural and human sciences is double, my paper will be in effect two mini-papers.”

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