The relevance of ontological commitments in social sciences: Realist and pragmatist viewpoints

Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 34 (3):231–248 (2004)
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The article discusses the relevance of ontology, the metaphysical study of being, in social sciences through a comparison of three distinct outlooks: Roy Bhaskar's version of critical realism, a pragmatic realist approach the most renowned representatives of which are Rom Harré and Hilary Putnam, and the authors’ own synthesis of the pragmatist John Dewey's and the neopragmatist Richard Rorty's ideas, here called methodological relationalism. The Bhaskarian critical realism is committed to the heavy ontological furniture of metaphysical transcendentalism, resting on essentialist presumptions of causality and social structures, tacitly creating a dualism between individuals and society. Pragmatic realists, for their part, carry much lighter metaphysical baggage than critical realists and, much in a pragmatist vein, accept the idea that social scientists should study society by studying social life—the interwoven activities of individuals. Nevertheless, pragmatic realists only reluctantly, if at all, renounce the subject–object dualism and its ontological implications. Drawing on the ideas of Donald Davidson and Richard Rorty, the writers outline their own antirepresentationalist, antiessentialist approach to social sciences. The proposed methodological relationalism is a pragmatist approach of Deweyan origin. Based on a Darwinian understanding of human beings as organisms trying to cope with their environment, it emphasises the insight that one can neither step outside one's own action, nor withdraw from the actor's point of view, just as one cannot cognitively step outside language



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