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Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 14:    The Autonomy of Sociology

This chapter contains an early statement of Popper’s ideas on explanation in the social sciences by “situational analysis”. He considered that this is the standard form of explanation used in neoclassical microeconomics and it is applicable to any kind of situation involving human action. Popper claimed that Marx was a pioneer in this approach because he rejected the idea that motives or psychological factors provide an adequate explanation of socioeconomic structures and historical events. In other words, the social sciences are not reducible to psychology. Popper called this latter approach “psychologism” and J S Mill was prime target.

The chapter opens with an example to demonstrate Marx’s view on the primacy of social existence over consciousness. This is the apparently universal fear of snakes.

"This aversion has a greater semblance of being instinctive or ‘natural’ in that it is exhibited not only by men but also by all anthropoid apes and by most monkeys as well. But experiments seem to indicate that this fear is conventional. It appears to be a product of education, not only in the human race but also for instance in chimpanzees, since both young children and young chimpanzees who have not been taught to fear snakes do not exhibit the alleged instinct."

So it seems that social intervention and learning are required to produce what might be regarded as a universal psychological trait.

"A concise formulation of Marx’s opposition to psychologism, i.e. to the plausible doctrine that all laws of social life must be ultimately reducible to the psychological laws of human nature’, is his famous epigram: ‘It is not the consciousness of man that determines his existence—rather, it is his social existence that determines his consciousness.’ The function of the present chapter as well as of the two following ones is mainly to elucidate this epigram. And I may state at once that in developing what I believe to be Marx’s anti-psychologism, I am developing a view to which I subscribe myself."

Popper developed a situational and institutional argument against the doctrine of psychologism in order to defend the autonomy of sociology against psychological reductionism. For example an action cannot be explained by motive alone, without reference to the general situation, and especially to the environment.

"In the case of human actions, this environment is very largely of a social nature; thus our actions cannot be explained without reference to our social environment, to social institutions and to their manner of functioning."

He returned to criticism of Mill and especially Mill's attempt to provide a psychological account of history and soical development, and especially the origins of social life among humans, that is a psychological version of the "social contract". Incidentally this is something that caused some problems for Freud when he attempted to explain how apparently self-seeking, ego-driven social atoms could ever behave in a "social" manner and find a way to live in cooperating groups. He overlooked the simple fact (which Suttie pointed out in his revision of Freudian theory), that humans, like evey other animal species, are  social beings and evolved to live in groups, so there is no need to postulate that we have to be coerced to hang together out of fear of punishment. Of course we need to be socialised to behave in the most effective manner but that process is superimposed on the mix of impulsesand instincts that we inherit (including some that can be described as "anti-social"). 

'It can hardly be seriously discussed, for we have every reason to believe that man or rather his ancestor was social prior to being human (considering, for example, that language presupposes society). But this implies that social institutions, and with them, typical social regularities or sociological laws, must have existed prior to what some people are pleased to call ‘human nature’, and to human psychology."

Institutions of various kinds and also traditions are important aspects of the situation that need to be considered in explanations by way of situational analysis. In his approach to traditions and institutions Popper follows the ‘Austrian’ tradition founded by Carl Menger. After noting that these things are man-made “in a certain sense” he quickly went on to explain some important qualifications.

"This does not mean that they are all consciously designed, and explicable in terms of needs, hopes, or motives. On the contrary, even those which arise as the result of conscious and intentional human actions are, as a rule, the indirect, the unintended and often the unwanted byproducts of such actions. ‘Only a minority of social institutions are consciously designed, while the vast majority have just “grown”, as the undesigned results of human actions’, as I have said before; and we can add that even most of the few institutions which were consciously and successfully designed (say, a newly founded University, or a Trade Union) do not turn out according to plan—again because of the unintended social repercussions resulting from their intentional creation. For their creation affects not only many other social institutions but also ‘human nature’—hopes, fears, and ambitions, first of those more immediately involved, and later often of all members of the society. One of the consequences of this is that the moral values of a society—the demands and proposals recognized by all, or by very nearly all, of its members—are closely bound up with its institutions and traditions, and that they cannot survive the destruction of the institutions and traditions of a society (as indicated in chapter 9 when we discussed the ‘canvas-cleaning’ of the radical revolutionary)."

Popper's arguments against psychologism do not imply that psychological studies and discoveries are not illuminating for social scientists, they just mean that study of psychology is one of the socail sceinces and not the basis of all social science.

"Nobody would deny the importance for political science of psychological facts such as the craving for power, and the various neurotic phenomena connected with it. But ‘craving for power’ is undoubtedly a social notion as well as a psychological one: we must not forget that, if we study, for example, the first appearance in childhood of this craving, then we study it in the setting of a certain social institution, for example, that of our modern family."

Chapter 13 Sociological DeterminismChapter 15 Economic Historicism

Start of the Shorter OSE

The Open Society and its Enemies
Karl Popper