When we talk about the possibility and desirability of unity within the social sciences, we must occupy ourselves not only with methodological problems concerning certain academic disciplines vis-à-vis each other, but also with the question of how much space for unity the subject matters of the social sciences actually grant these sciences. Starting from a situation of diversity in the social sciences, it would perhaps be possible to unite these sciences into a synopsis or a total social science by formulating a body of methodological principles and fundamental assumptions from which the presently existing content of the concerned sciences could be derived. Two formal questions are relevant with respect to such a process: First, would this synopsis really be sufficient for the satisfactory and exhaustive investigation of the study objects, amongst which e.g. culture, society and mind? Said otherwise, would the unified total social science be complete in the sense of covering all that there is to be investigated? If not, this would leave open the possibility that apart from the incomplete generalisation we proposed, another social scientific approach would have to be formulated, which would create the problem of unification all over again. The second question is: Would it be possible to safeguard the proposed total social science’s consistency? An inconsistent body of assumptions and principles is usually not considered a convincing scientific way of describing the world.
The question whether the currently existing social sciences are compatible at all is often formulated with an eye to the results of the natural sciences, which somehow appear to have succeeded better in achieving mutual compatibility, even when there exists a considerable degree of labour division. The state of affairs in the social sciences leads to a sense of awkwardness. Howarth (2004, 229) describes this sense thus: ‘The scandal of the human and social sciences is their interminable dispute.’ But as yet there does not exist a convincing motivation why one should agree with this assertion of scandal. It could well be that the study objects of the social sciences themselves allow for less mutually compatible theories than those we usually encounter in the natural sciences.
It would not be convenient to invoke solely the social sciences themselves for providing insight in this topic, since this would simply result in begging the question. Therefore I propose to draw on some ideas taken from analytical philosophy. With special attention to the topics of completeness and consistency, I intend to show that analytical philosophy can be used to shed light on the problem of unity and diversity in the social sciences. Analytical philosophy studies formal aspects of such topics as ‘deductive theories’, ‘sets’, ‘signs’, ‘meaning’, ‘concepts’, and the like. Since it is not itself a social science, analytical philosophy perfectly suggests itself for studying the formal aspects of theorising in the social sciences.
Since I am mostly familiar with cultural anthropology, the focus in this article will be on applications of analytical philosophy on that science. Nevertheless I believe the investigations to have wider relevance. In many respects I follow ideas of Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), an anthropologist with a keen interest in related topics, such as human communication, learning, and the interaction of humanity with its environment. I will discuss a theory Bateson referred to in several places, namely Bertrand Russell’s theory of logical types, but I will also extend the discussion by dealing with the paradox named after Haskell Curry as well as Kurt Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem. These topics all deal, in different ways, with problems of completeness and consistency. Crucial for Bateson’s approach as I will discuss it, is that they are connected to the investigation of hierarchies of levels. Amongst others, I will shortly discuss ideas of Renato Rosaldo and Christoph Brumann from this viewpoint. Even though their approaches seem quite different at first sight, they appear to have a lot in common with respect to typetheoretical questions.
My use of analytical philosophy shall be twofold: In the first place it is intended to deliver an example of interdisciplinary research in so far as the application of analytical philosophy to social sciences is concerned. In the second place I shall try, with some understandings of that application, to say something about the unity or diversity of the social sciences. Despite its high potential for interesting investigations, the use of analytical philosophy has been far from widespread among the social sciences. Dumont (1983, 228) has stated that Bateson was one of the few anthropologists who clearly saw the necessity of recognising a hierarchy of levels. Since Dumont’s statement, however, not much has been done to explore further the lines of thought Bateson had been setting up. Though discussion of levels is not always absent (cf. Howarth 2004, 241), the related problems of completeness and consistency in the social sciences are far from exhaustively explored yet.
In the sequel, I will first give an exposition of the basic ideas in which Bateson was involved; second, I elaborate a bit on these ideas; and third, I discuss what such studies could tell us about the unity or diversity of the social sciences.