The humanities and social sciences: between scientism and politics


In her lecture on June, 12 at the Collège de France, EHESS research director Dominique Schnapper, who serves as chairwoman of the 2019 PSL dissertation prize in the humanities and social sciences, spoke about the tensions inherent in those fields.

Dominique Schnapper

The humanities are directly tied to the two major revolutions that typify modernity: the technological and scientific revolution, and the democratic revolution, which eliminated the religious and dynastic components of political legitimacy.
This twofold link generates two forms of tension that are specific to the humanities and social sciences project. The first arises from the question of whether the humanities and social sciences truly deserve the impressive title of “science.” The second involves the relationship between researchers and politics.

Scientific ambition

Researchers in the humanities can all agree that the rigor of the research methods and procedures they follow – all of which must be explained to a lay audience – is an argument for deeming them scientific or, in any case, rational. But at that point they divide into two groups, or tribes.

The first group is attracted to a scientific outlook that is conveyed exclusively in numerical data. The second argues for the unique nature of any undertaking that investigates social ties and focuses on individuals and interpersonal relations.

In other words, their methods are not inherently good or bad; they must be heuristically fruitful, based on the topic of research. It seems to me self-evident that every inquiry uses methods of some kind at different stages of its progress, and no method is superior to another.

The relationship to politics

The humanities and social sciences want to be viewed as scientific, but their subject matter necessarily leads them to objectify social issues as such, rendering them political. They are necessarily creating a project that is always critical, at least in the Kantian sense, and – in today’s democratic societies – often even radically critical in the current sense of the term.
They have a complicated relationship with political power. Researchers assert the freedom to conduct research that is granted by democratic power. Must we then conclude that any relationship with power is inherently reprehensible? The virtue of democracy is that it doesn’t merely acknowledge criticism but indeed institutionalizes it so as to ensure a rational debate among citizens. Through their work, researchers are especially well placed to make a rational contribution to that debate; should they refrain from taking part once their freedom as a scholar is assured?
It’s true that preserving the freedom of intellectuals and researchers while upholding civic responsibility is not an easy task, but who ever said that living and thinking were easy?