Academic Philosophy and the Human Sciences
in Nineteenth-Century France

Newark, Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 1998 (available from Amazon.Com)


This study offers a new interpretation of the emergence of scientific psychology and sociology in late nineteenth-century France. Focusing on their relationship with the philosophy taught in the French education system, the author the profound impact on the individuals most responsible for the introduction of the human sciences into the French university--Théodule Ribot, Alfred Espinas, Pierre Janet, and Emile Durkheim. This impact was recognized by contemporaries but has been underestimated by subsequent historians and social scientists. Philosophers helped shape the human sciences by their criticisms of conceptual and methodological problems in the emerging disciplines. The human sciences that emerged were less reductionist and more methodologically sound than they would have been without the vigorous debate with philosophy. This influence is the eclectic legacy of academic philosophy to the human sciences in France. 

Academic philosophy and the human sciences were intimately connected in France. For most of the nineteenth century, psychology and sociology were considered parts of philosophy and were taught in the French educational system in a highly standardized form known as eclectic spiritualism. Most of the individuals who first attained university positions as social scientists had begun their careers as academic philosophers. Examining the careers and early writings of Ribot, Espinas, Janet, and Durkheim, the author argues that their philosophical training had a greater influence than has generally been acknowledged. Institutionally, social scientists depended on academic philosophers for career advancement and support, even as they sought positions outside philosophy. Intellectually, academic philosophy influenced their conception of science, their scientific method, their choice of topics, and their answers to the problems they addressed. 

At the same time, the efforts to separate the human sciences from philosophy forced academic philosophers to rethink their conceptions of both philosophy and science. Eclectic spiritualists insisted that philosophy should be a science of observation, like physics. Other academic philosophers came to redefine their discipline as something essentially different from science. They also reexamined the foundations of science and found it to be a much more complicated enterprise than they or their colleagues in the human sciences had imagined. This reappraisal contributed to new philosophies of science such as conventionalism that would have a profound influence on the twentieth-century understanding of science. 

The author addresses the internalist/externalist debate in intellectual history by arguing for an integrated approach that treats texts as rhetorical acts in a historically constituted field of actors. He negotiates the continuist/discontinuist debate by suggesting that early social scientists often invoked the rhetoric of revolution while simultaneously pursuing strategies of accommodation and incorporation with respect to their intellectual opponents. Finally, he attempts to resolve the issue of rational reconstruction vs. unlimited deconstruction by arguing that although texts cannot be reduced to a unitary interpretation, their range of meaning can be circumscribed by attending to the audiences they addressed. 

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