dan_sperber's picture
Social and Cognitive Scientist; CEU Budapest and CNRS Paris; Co-author (with Deirdre Wilson), Meaning and Relevance; and (with Hugo Mercier), The Enigma of Reason
How much can we expect the social sciences to help build a just and free society?


Marx and Engels argued for "scientific socialism", that is, for a political movement that would bring about a just and free society with the help of science. No need to recall how the movements that they inspired either failed to achieve much, or succeeded in establishing societies tragically lacking in justice and freedom. Was the science insufficiently scientific, or was the very idea of a scientific socialism flawed? I became a social scientist (and then a cognitive scientist and a philosopher) out of the conviction that what was lacking in scientific socialism was a proper science of society. I gave myself the goal of contributing to the development of a truly scientific programme in the social sciences. Today, I believe some significant steps have been taken in this direction, in particular by beginning to bridge the gap between the social sciences and the cognitive and, more generally, the natural sciences. But does this bring us anywhere nearer, not "scientific socialism" (clearly an obsolete notion), but, more generally, the possibility of using the social sciences for radically bettering our world?

Most people understand the social relationships and institutions in which they participate well enough to get the most (which often is not much) out of their participation. The social sciences are, for the most part, a systematized, de-parochialized, professionalized version of this competence that we all have, to a smaller or greater extent, as social actors. As such, the social sciences help us improve our understanding of the social world; they help better understand in particular the point of views of other actors in the same society and of people in other societies. But this enhanced understanding is still shallow, and strikingly weak in predictive power. It is, as far as informing political action, little more than serious journalism without the time pressure. The events of last September provide a telling illustration: What did social scientists have to contribute to our understanding of the events? Did interpretive anthropologists provide a much deeper understanding of the fundamentalist terrorists? Did sociologists give well argued and unexpected predictions as to how the target societies would react? No, the contribution of social scientists was, to say the least, modest. Still, the role of the social sciences as enhancers of common sense social understanding may be modest, but it is crucial in helping people overcome prejudices and biases, and become better citizens not just of their own country, but of the world. Immodest social scientists that presume say what is to be done should not be easily believed.

But might, in the future, a more scientific social science emerge (probably alongside, rather than in place of, the more common sense social sciences that we know)? Its role would not be to ground political action — it is not the role of science to say what is good and what is bad — but to inform it well enough so that more daring long-sighted political action could be undertaken — action that might help build a more just and freer society —without being all too likely to have its unforeseen consequences compromise its initial goals, as happened with communism? This is my question. I don't know the answer.