Emergence, Reductionism, Pragmatism

What is the relationship between the social sciences and the psychological and biological sciences?

This is a bit of an older strand of my work, and one that is at risk of losing itself in abstract theorizing. A while ago, I wrote a (somewhat turgid) chapter about my thinking on this topic, which hasn’t changed much since. Unfortunately (and naturally), however, it is in German, so here is a quick summary of my thoughts.

In a nutshell, I find myself unconvinced by attempts to justify non-reductive forms of individualism.1 What do I mean by that? The central premise of non-reductive individualists is the emergentist claim that while social phenomena must always be realized in individuals (much like thoughts must always be somehow realized in brain activity), they are nonetheless irreducible to these underlying individual (or ultimately physical) processes in that they exert independent causal influences on them.

Without going into too much detail here, it strikes me as implausible that things that are always realized on a lower level can also be somehow independent of these lower levels (this is the same criticism that Jaegwon Kim2 has levelled against analogous arguments in the philosophy of mind). If everything always also has to happen on the lower level, there is simply nothing left to do for top-down causality. Either things happen on a higher level that don’t happen on a lower level, or there is no causal work left to do for higher-level processes.

Without going further down this rabbit hole, we find ourselves at an impasse. What seems obvious, namely that psychology or biology, not to speak of physics, don’t even come close to offering a reasonable explanation for the intricacies and eccentricities of social and political life, also seems philosophically questionable.

The problem is of course resolved if we acknowledge that the language game social scientists play offers incredibly useful shortcuts for describing processes that would be devilishly difficult to describe otherwise (it is, after all, also much easier to say “I am hungry” than to give an detailed account of the complex physiological processes that underlie both the feeling of hunger and its representation in the mind).

But if that is the case, why even bother with psychological or biological explanations? Why not just keep playing the social scientific language game if that gets us where we want to be? Well, it is not that easy either. That is because if we acknowledge that all social life is realized in individuals - that causality flows only between individuals and not from society “down” to individuals - we also need to acknowledge that our theories of social life should not contradict the best theories we have about individuals.

But fear not, fellow social scientists. In the pragmatist understanding I offer, the social sciences are not reduced to a biologistic or psychologistic science of the individual, but need only be compatible with their findings. This is not to say, of course, that social scientists cannot challenge these findings, but they should seriously engage with those that are well replicated and adjust their theories accordingly (for an excellent example, see Stephen Vaisey’s work on sociological theories of motivation and justification3).

It is in this spirit that I made the case for a more serious and sustained engagement between “human scientists” from different backgrounds. It heartening to see that multiple lines of research converge on similar conclusions, from the work on the social-evolutionary origins of human thinking and human morality4, to the work at the intersection of sociology and genetics5, to the “social turn” in many life sciences6, to the “psychological turn” in many subfields of political science.7

I have no current projects in this area, but I am convinced that a full account of social life needs to take recourse to not only structural, institutional, and ideational explanations, but also to psychological (or biological) ones - sometimes this simply mean to make sure that our theories do not outrightly contradict “lower-level” theories, sometimes it means to actively incorporate (and advance) them.


  1. Greve, J. (2012) ‘Emergence in Sociology: A Critique of Nonreductive Individualism’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 42(2), pp. 188–223.↩︎

  2. Kim, J. (ed.) (1993) Supervenience and mind: Selected philosophical essays. New York: Cambridge University Press.↩︎

  3. Vaisey, S. (2009) ‘Motivation and Justification: A Dual-Process Model of Culture in Action’, American Journal of Sociology, 114(6), pp. 1675–1715.↩︎

  4. Tomasello, M. (2014) A Natural History of Human Thinking. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. Tomasello, M. (2016) A Natural History of Human Morality. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.↩︎

  5. Freese, J. and Shostak, S. (2009) ‘Genetics and Social Inquiry’, Annual Review of Sociology, 35(1), pp. 107–128.↩︎

  6. Meloni, M. (2014) ‘How biology became social, and what it means for social theory’, The Sociological Review, 62(3), pp. 593–614.↩︎

  7. For example, Kertzer, J.D. and Tingley, D. (2018) ‘Political Psychology in International Relations: Beyond the Paradigms’, Annual Review of Political Science, 21(1), pp. 319–339.↩︎