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How the social sciences have humanised technical civilisation

Contrary to what one might believe, the mathematization of social sciences is not at all accompanied by dehumanization, as Claude Lévi-Strauss declared in this document (UNESCO Archives), dated 8 August 1956. Technological civilization is not a separate civilization. Humanization is based on all humans and all the sciences.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

The problem raised here does not in any way imply the recognition that social sciences are a field of their own, nor that they are defined by special characteristics. Do social sciences deserve a separate place, next to the humanities on one hand, and to natural sciences on the other? Do they offer any real originality, other than – as has amusingly been said – of not being more social than the others, and much less scientific?

Even in the United States, where the tripartite division between human sciences, social sciences and natural sciences seemed to have been solidly established for half a century, new categories are appearing. Thus, behavioral sciences bring together the three orders to the extent that they directly interest humans. And yet, the best French translation of “behavioral sciences“ is sciences de la conduite humaine, that is to say that there is a return to the bipartite distinction, which has been traditional in Europe since the Renaissance: on the one hand, natural sciences, which deal with the objective world; on the other, the humanities, which deal with humans and the world in relation to them.

These methodological problems have an immediate importance for our debate: if social sciences must be considered as separate sciences, their contribution to the humanization of civilization is not at all obvious; it needs to be demonstrated. If, on the other hand, social sciences are not different from the research traditionally carried out in the name of human sciences, if, therefore, they are within the field of the humanities, it is self-evident that any thinking about humans is “humanising” just because it is “human”. According to one conception or the other, their contribution to progress will also seem different. In the first hypothesis, this contribution will be conceived using the engineer’s model: study a problem, determine the difficulties and devise a solution using the appropriate techniques: social order is considered as an objective datum, which only needs to be improved. On the contrary, in the second case the stress is placed on becoming aware: just the fact of judging an order bad or imperfect humanizes it, as the emergence of a criticism is already a change.

What is therefore the common characteristic in research that is classified under the name of social sciences? They are all linked to society, and to the improvement of the knowledge of society; but not for the same reasons. Sometimes, they are problems whose characteristics are so unique that one chooses to isolate them from the others, in order to solve them better: such is the case of law, political science and economic science. Sometimes, one intends to study phenomena common to all forms of social life, but by reaching them at a deeper level: this is the ambition shared by sociology and social psychology. Finally, one sometimes wants to include in the knowledge of humans types of activities that are very remote, in time or in space, and this research falls within the field of history and ethnology. Uniqueness, depth, remoteness: three forms of resistance of social facts, that the corresponding disciplines attempt to overcome in parallel, but using different means.

Social sciences: a gratuitous manipulation of symbols?

One may first wonder if all social phenomena benefit from the same degree of reality, and if some of them (those that are being covered here) are not an illusion, a sort of collective phantasmagoria. The problem is then to know if certain levels can be isolated, or if they do not depend on other levels with which they maintain dialectical relationships. Finally, science always postulates the coherence of its object; if the social sciences at issue are defined by reference to a pseudoobject, do they not merely consist in a sort of game, a gratuitous manipulation of symbols? We would then be in the area of mystification, which is quite the contrary of humanization.

And yet, mystification is also a human operat ion. Whatever the degree of reality that we recognize in legal or political systems, and whatever the objective function they perform in the life of societies, these systems are productions of the mind. By studying their structures and the mechanism of their functioning, and by establishing their typology, we learn at least something, namely how the human spirit works to give a rational form (be it only in appearance) to what has none. On the condition that the corresponding sciences are really sciences (that is to say that they are carried out in true objectivity), the knowledge that they gather is humanising, for they allow humans to become aware of the real functioning of society.

The case of economic science is especially significant, as, in its liberal form, it has been accused of manipulating abstractions. But in social sciences, as elsewhere, abstraction may be understood in two ways. Too often, it is used as pretext for an arbitrary division of concrete reality. Economic science has been a victim of this error in the past. On the other hand, the recent at tempt s to apply modern mathematics (called “qualitative”) to economic theory, have led to a remarkable result: the more the theory became mathematic and therefore – seemingly – abstract, the more it implied historical and concrete objects at the outset, as the substance of its formalism. No form of economic bourgeois thought is closer to Marxist conceptions than the highly mathematic treatment presented by von Neumann and Morgenstern in 1944 in the Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour: for them, the theory is applied to a society divided into rival groups and between which antagonisms or coalitions are created. Contrary to what one might believe, the mathematization of social sciences is not at all accompanied by dehumanization. It corresponds to the fact that inside each discipline, theory tends to become more and more general. In mathematical expression, economic science, sociology and psychology discover a common language. And it may be very rapidly seen that this common language is possible, because the objects to which it is applied are, in reality, identical.

The same “humanist” connection occurs in psychology and sociology. Thus, by studying the mechanisms of subconscious life, psychoanalysts make use of a symbolism that is in fact the same one as that that used by social psychologists and linguists, to the extent that language and social stereotypes are also based on subconscious activities of the mind.

It is worth focusing on this convergence of social sciences for a moment. Our sciences first became isolated in order to become deeper, but at a certain depth, they succeed in joining each other. Thus, little by little, in an objective area, the old philosophical hypothesis of the unity of the human spirit, or more exactly, of the universal existence of a human nature is borne out. No matter from which angle it is approached, either individual or collective, in its expressions that are apparently the least controlled, or perceived through traditional institutions, we see that the human spirit obeys the same laws, always and everywhere.

The third wave

Ethnology and history put us in the presence of an evolution of the same type. It was long believed that history only aimed at exactly recreating the past. In fact, history, as well as ethnology, studies societies that are different from those in which we live. They both seek to widen specific experience to the dimensions of an experience that is general, or more general, which thus becomes more accessible to humans of another country or of another time.

Like history, ethnology is therefore part of the humanist tradition. But its role is to create, for the first time, what might be called democratic humanism. After the aristocratic humanism of the Renaissance, founded only on the comparison of Greek and Roman societies (because no others were known) and the exotic humanism of the 19th century, which added to them the civilizations of the East and Far East (but only through written documents and figurative monuments), ethnology appears as the third wave – no doubt the last – because, of all social sciences, it is the most characteristic of the finite world that our planet has become in the 20th century. Ethnology appeals to all human societies, in order to draw up a global knowledge of humans; and, even better, the distinctive characteristics of these “residual” societies have led it to create new types of knowledge, which, as we are gradually realizing, can profitably be applied to the study of all civilizations, including ours. It operates simultaneously on the surface and in depth.

Technological civilization is not a separate civilization

In the absence of written texts and figurative monuments, these ways of knowledge are both more external and more internal (one might also say coarser and finer) than those of the other social sciences: on the one hand, study from the outside (physical anthropology, prehistory, technology), on the other hand, study from the inside (identification of ethnology with the group whose existence it shares). Always below and beyond social sciences, ethnology can neither be dissociated from natural sciences nor from human sciences. Its originality consists in the union of the methods of both, at the service of a generalized knowledge of humans, that is to say anthropology. 

With the risk of belying the title of this lecture, it is therefore not by declaring themselves social and isolating themselves from the rest that our disciplines will be able to humanize civilization, but by quite simply attempting to become more special techniques for its improvement: the humanization of social life is not the task of one profession. It depends on all humans and on all sciences.

Humanizing technological civilization is, first, to put it into perspective in the global history of humanity, and then to analyse and understand the driving forces of its advent and functioning. In every case, as a result: to know. The contribution of our sciences will be evaluated, not using dubious methods that are subject to the whims of the day, but according to the new perspectives that they will be able to open to humanity, so that it may better understand its own nature and its history, and therefore also judge it.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Known for his studies and research at the University of Sâo Paulo in Brazil and the Institute of Ethnology in Paris, Claude Lévi-Strauss was formerly Deputy Director of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. He was the director of research in the religious science section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and Secretary-General of International Council of Social Sciences in Paris.