The Historical Dimension of Western Social Science Methodology

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.8, 2019


The Historical Dimension of Western Social Science Methodology



Guo Taihui


The social sciences are closely related to historical research. The three methodological traditions that took shape in Western social sciences in the 19th century—Comte’s positivism, Marx’s materialist dialectics, and Weber’s hermeneutics—all aimed at understanding and solving the problem of modernity, and have all had a profound impact on the development of social sciences. The three traditions were based on different historical concepts and appeared in three different relational forms as they showed the way to combining the social sciences and historical research. Comte’s positivist tradition of “making history a social science” regarded history as the “application” of the demonstrative material of the social sciences, while Weber’s hermeneutic tradition of “historicizing the social sciences” took history as the “substance” and the social sciences as a way of understanding historical individuals and their actions. Marx’s “science of history,” transcending the dispute between substance and application, started from the relations of material production to reveal the historical unity of nature and society. As positivism came to dominate the Western academic horizon and shifted toward the United States, which lacked a historical sense, an ahistorical analysis of individual actions that sought precision and practicality became the standard for Western social sciences, completely abandoning the important role of historical research in the social science methodological tradition. After the Second World War, Western social science, in the name of a “historical turn,” selectively combined the historical dimensions of the three methodological traditions, but their incorporation of history into the social sciences took a simplistic approach to history as material and method, and failed to escape the stereotypes of positivism. In the face of the global spread of terrorism and economic crises in the 21st century, the “end of history” has become an outdated argument, and Western social sciences are encountering new challenges and changes. To solve the major problems faced by the community of mankind and reconstruct the social sciences as a whole, we need to reiterate Marx’s tradition of the “science of history,” denounce the ahistorical consciousness of the positivist tradition, and resist the hermeneutic tradition’s tendency toward the fragmentation of knowledge.