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Problems of Explanation and Interpretation


Module description

The Enlightenment set a path for subsequent political and intellectual developments in Europe and thus, through European colonial expansion, in the rest of the world too. We still live with its consequences today. In this module, we examine approaches to politics, philosophy and history inspired by the Enlightenment, and also those approaches inspired by subsequent challenges and reactions against the Enlightenment. How should we view human nature, and thus the possibilities for history and social science?

Among the issues covered: should we seek to discover laws and causal explanations in social science and history in the same way as we do in natural science? What is the role of interpretation and hermeneutics in social science and history - does this tell against the project of emulating natural science? A leading approach in contemporary social science is rational choice theory, exemplified most notably by economics - what is this theory, what are its strengths and weaknesses, and what methodological and ethical views is it implicitly committed to? What is the role of power and political context in shaping social science and history - how should that role colour our understanding of what those disciplines are doing? This leads to considering issues such as Eurocentrism, androcentrism, standpoint epistemologies and identity politics. And might we re-make human nature via technological interventions? Among thinkers whose ideas the module may cover are Marx, Darwin, Freud and Foucault.

Indicative module syllabus

  • Laws and explanations in social science
  • The role of interpretation and hermeneutics in social science and history
  • Rational choice theory
  • Values and ethics in economics
  • Eurocentrism and androcentrism in social science and history
  • The role of power in social science and history
  • Standpoint epistemologies, identity politics
  • Marx, Darwin, Freud, Foucault

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • demonstrate detailed knowledge of different philosophical and historical approaches to social science and history
  • demonstrate an awareness of different ideas, contexts and frameworks deployed by historical and contemporary contributors to debates over the nature of human beings, history and social science, and recognise some of their strengths and weaknesses
  • analyse and compare different philosophical and historical theories of the nature and goals of social science and history
  • select appropriate criteria to evaluate historical and philosophical accounts of human nature, social science and history.