On Reproducing Social Reality: A Reply to Harrison

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Feleppa, Robert

That social inquirers should be careful about the intrusion of biases and questionable ethnocentric presuppositions is a widely accepted and unquestionably cogent methodological dictum. Less widely accepted, and perhaps less cogent, is the view that such intrusions are best avoided by inquirers adopting the interpretive constructs, points of view, etc., of their subjects. Debates over this latter point have flared up repeatedly in twentieth-century philosophical and social-scientific literature, notably in the extensive discussions of Peter Winch’ss The Idea of a Social Science (ISS) and ’Understanding a Primitive Society’ (UPS). His contention that proper social inquiry is actually a form of conceptual-analytic epistemology, aimed necessarily at the recovery and use by the inquirer of certain rules and criteria operative within the source-language community in the individuation of social actions, makes Winch clearly a proponent of the latter, controversial thesis. The late Richard Rudner (’Some Essays at Objectivity’ [EO]) has challenged ’ Winch, contending that his thesis rests on what Rudner calls the ’reproductive fallacy’ of assuming that the function of a social description is to reproduce aspects of what it describes. Recently, Stanley Harrison (’Rudner’s Reproductive Fallacy’ [RF]) has taken issue with Rudner’s critique, charging that it commits a fallacy of somewhat older vintage, namely, of attacking a straw man. Rudner, he claims, by not attending with care to Winch’s important distinction between reflective and unreflective understanding, and by not keeping in mind the differences in view between himself and Winch regarding the nature of reflective understanding, creates the confusion and inconsistency he ostensibly finds in Winch. However, I shall argue that Harrison has misconstrued the thrust and content of Rudner’s argument, and though this may result in part from the way Rudner formulates certain points, these can be clarified and Rudner’s telling objections to Winch’s and related views sustained.

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