PHIL 466 A: Philosophy Of The Social Sciences

Meeting Time: 
TTh 11:30am - 1:20pm
SAV 408
Alison Wylie

Syllabus Description:

The Very Idea of a Social Science: Objectivity, Looping Effects, and the Goals of Social Inquiry

Instructor: Professor Alison Wylie
Seminar meetings: Tuesdays & Thursdays 11:30 - 1:20, SAV 408
Office hours:
Tuesdays, 2:00-3:30, or by appointment (SAV M369)


open until midnight on June 12

Can human, social subjects be studied “scientifically” or do they require, instead, a distinctive interpretive methodology? The debate about “naturalism” – whether the social sciences can or should model themselves on the natural sciences – has long been central to philosophy of the social sciences. The aim of this seminar is to assess arguments for and against naturalism, focusing on recent arguments for rethinking the oppositional terms of the debate.

We begin with an historical account of how the social sciences took shape in relation to the natural sciences and the humanities – the Gulbenkian Commission report, Open the Social Sciences (1996) – and then turn to Winch’s classic defense of anti-naturalism, The Idea of a Social Science (1958/2008). Winch’s analysis raised in particularly pointed terms two sets of issues that will be our focus for the rest of the quarter. The first is the question of what epistemic ideals are appropriate to the social sciences. Critiques of the conception of “science” that anchored Winch’s account anticipate now-standard arguments that values play a role in all sciences, and that a ‘view from nowhere’ conception of objectivity is untenable. It is the situated, complex nature of scientific practice generally, not just idiosyncratic features of the social sciences, that requires a systematic reframing of these ideals.

The second set of issues we carry forward from Winch are ontological: what kind of subjects are social entities and social kinds? What follows from the fact that they’re subject to what Hacking describes as “looping effects”: the process of studying social subjects can quite profoundly change them? We end the quarter with a selection of readings that build on these critiques of the naturalist:anti-naturalist divide: arguments for various forms of standpoint theory, and recent reappraisals of social identity constructs due to feminist and critical race theorists.

The 2015 joint meeting of the Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable and the European Network for Philosophy of the Social Sciences (RT/ENPOSS) will be hosted at UW this quarter: May 8-10, at the Simpson Center for the Humanities. The readings assigned for the seminar are designed to complement these proceedings, and seminar participants are invited to attend and report back to class on RT/ENPOSS conference events. The program is available at:

Articles: posted on Canvas -
available through the UW bookstore:

  • Cartwright & Montuschi (eds.), Philosophy of Social Science: A New Introduction (Oxford, 2014).
  • Winch, The Idea of a Social Science, 50th anniversary edition (Routledge, 2008/1958).


This is a reading-intensive seminar, so a third of the final grade is based on reading responses, participation and in-class discussion. For the other two thirds of the grade you are required to write two analytic essays. For the details, see the syllabus posted as a PDF on the Canvas home page and the assignment details in Canvas modules.

  • Seminar participation:  active engagement in seminar discussion and three round-robin discussion contributions.  (15% of the final grade)
  • Reading responses: three short commentaries (250 words) on an assigned reading, posted the evening before the seminar meeting in which the reading you respond to will be discussed.  (15% of the final grade)
  • Written assignments:
    • Essay 1: a short expository essay of 3-4 pages (750-1250 words) on a position, argument, or concept discussed in the first section of the course.  (20% of the final grade)
      • due Friday, May 1
    • Essay 2: a thesis driven research essay of 10-12 pages (2500-3000 words) in which you develop a carefully argued position of your own on an issue raised by readings and class discussion in the final two sections of the course. (50% of the final grade)
      • due Tuesday, June 11

Grade conversion chart - based on the UW grade conversions posted online.


Catalog Description: 
Examination of fundamental issues in the foundations, methodology, and interpretation of the social sciences. Topics include value orientation and objectivity, methodological individualism, functionalism, reductionism, and the status of idealized models, including models involving idealized conceptions of individual rationality. Emphasis varies from quarter to quarter.
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Writing (W)
Other Requirements Met: 
Last updated: 
April 29, 2016 - 9:04pm