Social Science under Debate. A Philosophical Perspective

BUNGE, Mario Augusto, Social Science under Debate. A Philosophical Perspective, Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1998, pp. 672. ISBN-13: 978-0-802-08357-9 (paperback).

BUNGE, Mario, Las ciencias sociales en discusión: una perspectiva filosófica, Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1999, pp. 576. ISBN 13: 978 -9-500-71566-9 (rústica).*

About the book (from the publisher)

Mario Bunge, author of the monumental Treatise on Basic Philosophy, is widely renowned as a philosopher of science. In this new and ambitious work he shifts his attention to the social sciences and the social technologies. He considers a number of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, law, history, and management science.

Bunge contends that social science research has fallen prey to a postmodern fascination with irrationalism and relativism. He urges social scientists to re-examine the philosophy and the methodology at the base of their discipline. Bunge calls for objective and relevant fact-finding, rigorous theorizing, and empirical testing, as well as morally sensitive and socially responsible policy design.

About the book (this are excerpts from Mario Bunge’s Preface)

This book deals with controversies that divide the students of society, social-policy makers, and philosopher of social studies. These scholars are indeed split over philosophical questions about the nature of society and the best way of getting to know it, as well as on the fairest way of solving social issues. Thus, for instance, if people are assumed to follow exclusively the laws of nature, then we may discover the social order but it is not for us to question it, let alone try and alter it. Again, if social facts cannot be understood the way any other facts can, namely by observation, conjecture, and argument, then the study of society can never become scientific and thus be a reliable guide to social policy and political action. And if rationality is nothing but self-interest, and the only serious social theories are of the rational-choice kind, then, given the social traps that self-seeking behaviour can lead us to, we must give up all hope of conducting our affairs in the light of social studies, or perhaps even in the light of reason. Are we really so badly off, or is there a way out? (p. IX)


This book is not an impartial description and dispassionate analysis of the current state of the social sciences and sociotechnologies. Far from gloating over accomplishments, it focuses on flaws likely to be rooted in either mistaken philosophies or ideological dogmas. This admittedly unbalanced selection should not give the impression that contemporary social science is all warts. I do believe that social science has been advancing and can continue to do so –provided it resists the bulldozing of “postmodern” irrationalism. But I have chosen to highlight some of the philosophical obstacles to further advancement. Other scholars are likely to note flaws of a different king, such as neglect of the theories of social changes and mechanisms (e.g., Sørensen 1997) and insufficient longitudinal data to test those theories (e.g., Smith and Boyle Torrey 1996).

Most scientists, being eager to get on with their work, are impatient with controversy and philosophy. But what if one has unwittingly adopted a wrong approach to the problem at hand? And what if such an approach has been prompted by an unexamined philosophy that hinders the exploration of reality –e.g., by holding that reality is a construction, or else self-existent but impregnable to the scientific method? In such cases philosophical debate is indispensable, not only to unearth and examine presuppositions, clarify ideas, and check inferences, but to make research at all possible. (pp. X-XI).


Prominent among the targets of my criticism are certain radical views: holism (or collectivism) and individualism (or atomism); spiritualism (idealism) and physicalism; irrationalism and hyperrationalism (apriorism); positivism and obscurantist anti-positivism; social constructivism and relativism; zealotry and insensitivity to the moral aspect of social issues; bogus rigor and the cult of data; grand theory and ideology; moralizing ignorant of social science; and the compartmentalization of social studies. Spare the rod and spoil the tender-minded. (pp. XI-XII).

However, my criticisms should not be mistaken for the rash views that social studies are necessarily not scientific and that all philosophy is rubbish. […]. (p. XII)

My own view is that the study of society, though still backward, can and should become fully scientific, particularly if it is to guide effective and responsible social action. […]. (p. XII)


Finally, a word of encouragement to the prospective reader who may be put off by the large number of disciplines examined in this book. This diversity has turned out to be manageable for being unified with the help of only a dozen master ideas. These are the following. […]. (p. XIII).

About the author

Mario Bunge was born in Buenos Aires (Argentina) in 1919. After training as a physicist –doctorate in mathematical physics, Universidad Nacional de La Plata (1952), where he learnt atomic physics and quantum mechanics from Guido Beck, an Austrian expatriate who had been an assistant of Heisenberg–, he was professor of theoretical physics (1956-1966) and philosophy, which he taught at the University of Buenos Aires from 1957 to 1963. He was the first South American philosopher of science to be trained in science.

Driven to emigrate by the political situation of his native country, particularly due to his socialist leanings, Mario Bunge initially settled in Europe, then in Montréal, where in 1966 he joined the philosophy department at McGill University, and never looked back. His career as a researcher rapidly assumed international scope and led him on to countless activities as an editor, speaker, guest professor, learned society member, and recipient of honorary distinctions, etc.

As Michael R. Matthews –University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia– underline, the unifying thread of Mario Bunge’s scholarship is the constant and vigorous advancement of the Enlightenment Project, and criticism of cultural and academic movements that deny or devalue the core planks of the project: namely its naturalism, the search for truth, the universality of science, rationality, and respect for individuals. At a time when specialization is widely decried, and its deleterious effects on science, philosophy of science, educational research and science teaching are recognized – it is salutary to see the fruits of one person’s pursuit of the ‘Big’ scientific and philosophical picture.

Mario Bunge was the Frothingham Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at McGill University until his retirement in 2011 and is now Professor Emeritus in Philosophy.

He is author of over 80 books (including many translations into several languages) and some 500 articles mainly in English and Spanish, cofounder with logician Hugues Leblanc of the Society for Exact Philosophy, Mario Bunge set himself a task as an epistemologist, achieving a synthesis of rationalism and empiricism (Scientific Research, 1967, new version: Philosophy of Science, 1999), and also as a generalist philosopher and creator of a complete system, thanks to his monumental 8 volume Treatise on Basic Philosophy (1974-89), in which he defended conceptions on materialism and humanism. In his own cutting style, his Dictionary of Philosophy (1999) –the first edition of the Philosophical Dictionary–, accurately conveys this thought. Advocate of a precise philosophy “offering axiomatic and formalized expression of concepts and theories” he no less supported original positions on moral thought and politics. He is also the author of The Sociology-Philosophy Connection (1991), Finding Philosophy in Social Science (1996), Social Science under Debate. A Philosophical Perspective (1998), Philosophy in Crisis: The Need for Reconstruction (2001), Scientific Realism: Selected Essays of Mario Bunge (edited by Martin Mahner (2001), Matter and Mind. A Philosophical Inquiry (2010), Evaluating Philosophies (2012), and Medical Philosophy (2013).

Mario Bunge is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (from 1984) and the Royal Society of Canada (from 1992). He was awarded the Premio Príncipe de Asturias of Spain in 1982 and the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971.


PhD in physico-mathematical sciences, Universidad Nacional de La Plata (1952)

Twenty honorary doctorates

Five honorary professorships

Teaching and research areas

Theoretical physics



Philosophy of science

Philosophy of technology

Philosophy of mind

Value theory and ethics

Current research

Philosophy of the social sciences, philosophy of mind, and metaphysics




Part A: Basic Social Science     1
1 From Natural Science to Social Science     4
            1 Nature and Society     5
            2 The Natural Science/Social Science Divide   10
            3 The Nomothetic/Idiographic Dichotomy   21
            4 Biosociology and. Sociobiology   33
            5 Demography and Geography   37
            6 Social Psychology   41
            7 Anthropology   47
            8 Linguistics   57
2 Sociology   61
            1 Agency and Structure   64
            2 Class and Status, Role and Norm   66
            3 Micro-Macro Relations   72
            4 Coleman’s Linear System of Action   79
            5 Economic Imperialism   83
            6 Economicism Does Not Pay   88
            7 Economic Sociology and Socio-Economics   90
            8 Barbarians inside the Gates   93
3 Positive Economics 100
            1 What Is Economics About? 102
            2 Economic Concepts 107
            3 Economic Assumptions 114
            4 Laws and Rules, Theories and Models 123
            5 Neoclassical Microeconomics: Rationality and Perfect Competition 127
            6 Neoclassical Microeconomics Continued: Equilibrium and Price 136
            7 Positive Macroeconomics 141
            8 Ugly Facts versus Pretty Theory 147
4 Political Science 155
            1 Units of Analysis and Power 159
            2 Government and People: Autocracy to Democracy 167
            3 Rational-Choice Politology 175
            4 Public-Choice and Social-Choice Theories 180
            5 Explaining and Predicting Political Events 188
            6 Politics, Ideology, Morality 197
            7 Domestic Politics 201
            8 International Relations 211
5 Culturology 219
            1 Idealism versus Materialism 223
            2 Externalism versus Internalism 225
            3 Sociology of Knowledge: Marx to Merton 229
            4 The Antiscientific Reaction 234
            5 Technology in Society 239
            6 Social Science in Society 242
            7 Ideology 246
            8 The Market Approach to Culture 249
6 History 257
            1 Historical Objectivity, Lies, and Forgeries 260
            2 Materialism versus Idealism 266
            3 Systemism versus Individualism and Holism 274
            4 Law, Accident, Luck 279
            5 Trends: Progress, Stagnation, Decline 283
            6 Interpretation or Hypothesis? 286
            7 Historical Explanation 289
            8 Uses of History 291 291
Part B: Sociotechnology 297
7 Action Theory 306
            1 Systemic Praxiology 310
            2 Decision Theory 315
            3 Collective-Action Theory 321
            4 Austrian Praxiology 325
            5 Reasons for the Failure of Rational-Choice Action Theory 328
            6 Values and Norms 331
            7 Policy 334
            8 Planning 348
8 Law 354
            1 Norm and Truth 356
            2 Law and Morality 362
            3 Legal Code and Legal Theory 365
            4 Legal Reasoning 367
            5 Private and Public 369
            6 Rights and Duties 371
            7 Crime and Punishment 374
            8 Law’s Impotence 377
9 Management Technology 380
            1 Strategy: Policy 382
            2 Tactics: Planning 385
            3 Management 387
            4 Operations Research 394
            5 Private and Public 397
            6 Resource Management 399
            7 Management and Politics 400
            8 Rationality in Action 401
10 Normative Economics 403
            1 Normative Macroeconomics 404
            2 Economic Policy 407
            3 Economic Planning 412
            4 Welfare Economics 417
            5 Capitalism: Old and New, Pro and Con 420
            6 Statism: Fascist and Communist 430
            7 Socialism as Cooperativism 431
            8 Alternative: Integral Technodemocracy 434
11 Designing the Future 439
            1 Macrosocial Issues and Their Inherent Values and Morals 440
            2 Utopianism and Ideals without Illusions 441
            3 Social Engineering: Piecemeal and Systemic 442
            4 Top-Down Planning 444
            5 Systemic Democratic Planning 446
            6 Growth and Development 447
            7 Integral and Sustainable Development 448
            8 The Future of Social Studies 450
Part C: Appendices 455
            1 Modelling Competition: A Systemic Approach 455
            2 Modelling Cooperation: A Systemic Approach 456
            3 A Production Model 458
            4 Humbug Mathematical Economics 459
            5 Modelling Secrecy Leaks 461
            6 Newcomb’s Problem 462
            7 A General Concept of Action 463

Critical reviews

“We should welcome the book for its author, subject, and style. He maps what is wrong and what is strong in energetic, opinionated prose. I can’t wait to teach from the published version, not to mention embellish my own methodological essays with bright quotation from it”.

Charles Tilly, Columbia University

“The book is scholarly yet lively; comprehensive yet unified around a few central powerful ideas; profound yet entertaining reading with one bon mot after another; unorthodox yet constructive; a sort of vademecum for the bewitched but critical rover through the manifold of contemporary social studies”.

Joseph Agassi, Tel Aviv and York Universities

“The main merit of this work is a wide range of relevant material, reliably and intelligently assembled, clearly presented. No one can read [this volume] without learning a great deal, and [it] could be used as backbone of a teaching course, or an intelligent person could use it in an initiation to each of the fields [covered by the book]. Clarity, erudition and range are the merits”.

The late Ernest Gellner, Central European University

A broad critical perspective on modern social science

This is the only book I know of where all disciplines of modern social science –sociology, economics, anthropology, political science, management science etc.– are included in a critical and informed discussion. Few social scientists or philosophers are bold (or foolish) enough to pass judgement on their discipline as a whole. Mario Bunge isn’t an expert in every discipline, but he’s close enough to articulate well-reasoned opinions on them all. He maintains that social science can be just as rigorous as natural science and that the failures of modern social science have been due to philosophical confusions. So he sets out to separate the wheat from the chaff philosophically. The crucial part is the mandatory interplay between theory and empirical study, which he stresses again and again.


He then puts the various social science disciplines to this philosophical test by directing particularly strong criticism against two developments in social science. The first is the popularity of relativistic and constructivistic theories which renounce scientific objectivity. Anthropology is the main target of this criticism. Amusingly, he always puts the word “interpretation” in scare quotes and condescendingly refers to the “hermeneuticists and postmodernists” whose irresponsible scepticism underlies what he calls the “Verstehen” school of social science. I think he fires away a little too indiscriminately in these sections, but some of his points are certainly valid.


The second object of criticism is the spreading of economic thought to disciplines other than economics, in the form of rational choice and public choice theory, for instance. Bunge’s thesis is that economic models which are detached from empirical confirmation are at most complementary, they cannot be the core of social science no matter how pretty the mathematical formalism may look. He also criticizes the presuppositions of micro- and macroeconomics quite strongly. This is in my opinion the best part of the book. Unlike many other philosophers he also has some ideas for better methods in social research. They may be provisional and incomplete, but they still offer a lot to think about for your next research proposal.


In my opinion the book loses focus a bit in the second part where the author discusses action theory, law, business management, social policy and economic policy. His goal is to complement his analysis of basic social science with sociotechnology (how society can be changed). He jumps quite quickly from one subject to another and perhaps overextends the argument a bit. He even ventures into political philosophy and articulates his preferred social order, “integral technodemocracy”, which seemed like an unnecessary addition in this book (but perhaps a good starting point for a new book).


In conclusion I certainly was impressed both by the breadth of material and the author’s deep understanding of social science fundamentals. I recommend this book to social scientists, social philosophers and to everyone who makes use of social science data in one way or another. There are about one thousand references here so you won’t have to look far for further reading. I’ve previously read “The sociology-philosophy connection” by the same author, but I think this book was clearly better.

T. Carlsson on August 29, 2012

More about Mario Bunge’s work

[For more information, we recommend the readers to refer to our previous presentation of Mario Bunge’s book: Finding Philosophy in Social Science in this section: Actualités:].

BUNGE, Mario, “A systems design of the future”. Systems Science and Cybernetics, vol. II

©Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS). Cf.:

BERG, Axel Van Den, “The Social Sciences According to Mario Bunge”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, vol. 31, n.º 1, March 2001, pp. 83-103.

PICKEL, Andreas, “Mario Bunge’s Philosophy of Social Science”, Society, Vol. 37, n.º 4, May-June 2001, pp. 71-74.

OBIEDAT, A., “A Very Short Introduction to Mario Bunge and What to Read of His Numerous Books”, BookFinder 4U [Comments on Finding Philosophy in Social Science].

KURZMAN, Charles, “Can Understanding Undermine Explanation? The Confused Experience of Revolution”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, vol. 34, nº. 3, September 2004, pp. 328-351. Cf.: **MB

SADOVNIKOV, Slava, “Systemism, Social Laws, and the Limits of Social Theory: Themes Out of Mario Bunge’s The Sociology-Philosophy Connection”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, vol. 34, n.º 4, December 2004, pp. 536-587.

REIHLEN, Markus, Thorsten KLAAS-WISSING, and Torsten RINGBERG, “Metatheories in Management Studies: Reflections Upon Individualism, Holism, and Systemism”, Management, vol. 10, n.º 3, 2007, pp. 49-69. Cf.: **MB

MANZO, Gianluca, “Variables, Mechanisms, and Simulations: Can the Three Methods Be Synthesized? A Critical Analysis of the Literature”, Revue française de Sociologie, n.º 48, Supplement, 2007, pp. 35-71. Cf. : **MB

CAMPA, Riccardo, “Making Science by Serendipity. A review of Rober K. Merton and Elinor Barber’s The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity, Journal of Evolution and Techonology, vol. 17, n.º 1, March 2008, pp. 75-83. Cf.:

SEIFERT, Uwe “The Co-Evolution of Humans and Machines: A Paradox of Interactivity”, in SEIFERT, Uwe, Jin Hyun KIM, and Anthony MOORE (eds.), Paradoxes of Interactivity Perspectives for Media Theory, Human-Computer Interaction, and Artistic Investigations, Bielefeld (Germany): transcript Verlag, 2008, pp. 8-23.

SZOSTAK, Rick, “Classifying Heterodoxy”, The Journal of Philosophical Economics, vol. 1, n.º 2, (Special issue 2008), pp. 97-126. Cf.:

FILIPPO, Armando Di, “Latin American structuralism and economic theory”, CEPAL Review (Santiago, Chile), n.º 98, August 2009, pp. 175-196. Cf.:

Task Force of the Spencer Foundation Educationl Research Training Grant Institutions, The Preparation of Aspiring Educational Researchers in the Empirical Qualitative and Quantitative Traditions of Social Science. Methodological Rigor, Social and Theoretical Relevance, And More, September 2009, pp. 146.

KAIDESOJA, Tuukka, Studies on Ontological and Methodological Foundations of Critical Realism in the Social Sciences, Jyväskylä (Finland): University of Jyväskylä, December 5, 2009, pp. 65 (Jyväskylä Studies in Education, Psychology and Social Research, n.º 376). Cf.: **MB

DOBUSCH, Leonhard and Jakob KAPELLER, “Breaking New Paths: Theory And Method In Path Dependence Research”, Schmalenbach Business Review, n.º 65, July 2013, pp. 288-311. Cf.:

The Scientific Philosophy of Mario Bunge. Selected Bibliography on the Scientific Philosophy of Mario Bunge. Cf.: