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A Dilemma

We saw that Windelband was happy to agree that history and the other human sciences are in fact empirical. Others in the dyadic tradition, such as Dilthey, did the same. And Dilthey is even explicit that metaphysics is to be avoided. But we also saw that Windelband suggests that beyond ordinary observation there may be a special sort of perception that applies only in the human sciences.[1] The point is important, for on it hinges the success of the dyadic tradition.

Carnap of course would say that the dyadic tradition is mischaracterizing the natural sciences. These sciences are not completely uninterested in individual objects, events, and processes and they do not abstract entirely away from perceptible features of things. But the issue of whether there is a special kind of perception involved in the human sciences is more important. Insofar as it restricts itself to ordinary observation, the dyadic tradition does not succeed in showing that the natural and human sciences are relevantly different. If, however, it accepts a special sort of evidence as a source of validation in the human or historical sciences but not within the natural ones, then the dyadic tradition would have succeeded in distinguishing the natural from the human sciences, but at the cost of crossing the boundary into metaphysics. This is because the special sort of perception, insofar as it is special and not ordinary public observation, will lead to the same sort of irresolvable (wearisome) controversies that metaphysics does.

Carnap does not in fact attack the human sciences as unempirical; he thinks they are perfectly legitimate sciences resting on the same sort of public evidence that other sciences do. He does not attack them as metaphysical. Rather, he poses a dilemma to the dyadic tradition: decide whether to claim that there is special evidence involved for the human sciences. If not, then the argument for the sharp distinction between two kinds of sciences falls apart. If the claim is that there is a special kind of perception in the human sciences, then they dyadic tradition convicts itself of having those sciences engage in irresolvable metaphysical controversies.

So in a sense, Carnap’s response to the dyadic tradition is much the same as his mature response to metaphysics. We need clarity. State clearly what you take as evidence and as argument forms. And let us see where that leads.

It would be foolish to think that Carnap could “overcome” metaphysics in the sense that it would disappear. And it would be foolish to think that he could end the more that two hundred year old controversy over the relations between the human and natural sciences. But we can come to understand more nearly what is at stake in a controversy that has been going on for two hundred years, and that is an important step. And in the process we can get clearer about our own methods in history, in philosophy, and in science. And we can refine them as well. If we lay out those methods clearly, pursue, with an open mind, those methods we think most fruitful, and allow others to do the same, we can let history judge our progress.

  • [1] Dilthey makes a similar suggestion. Perhaps it is more than a suggestion. He notes that individualminds are enormously complex, and this complexity is compounded when we move to the level ofminds interacting in a society. But, he says, we have a way of cutting through that complexity andapprehending, apparently directly, truths at the social level: The difficulties in knowing a single psychical entity are multiplied by the great varieties anduniqueness of these entities, by the way they work together in a society, by the complexityof natural conditions which bind them together, and by the sum total of mutual influencesbrought to bear in the succession of many generations which does not allow us to declaredirectly from human nature as we know it the state of affairs of earlier times or to infer present states of affairs from a general type of human nature. Nevertheless, all this is more thanoutweighed by the fact that I myself, who inwardly experience and know myself, am amember of this social body and that the other members are like me in kind and thereforelikewise comprehensible to me in their inner being. (1883/1988, 98)
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