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Situating (university) research in an encompassing social theory

As far as I can tell, research at most South African universities – and I would even include overseas universities in this – is conducted in such a way that it is guided principally by individual researchers’ interests, and/or their interests in so far as they overlap or dovetail with those of other researchers under the aegis of a common research theme – in other words, team-research. In addition, universities are guided by what they envisage as “focus areas” of research – those that are deemed especially important for the broadly “developmental” needs of the country’s economy, and are therefore promoted by universities (and by industries).

Both of these kinds of research – individual and team-research – are usually encouraged, although the emphasis in South Africa has been more on the latter type lately, partly to encourage experienced researchers to impart their knowledge to younger researchers who have to step into the breach when they finally retire – “finally”, in light of Minister Blade Nzimande’s recent remark, that academics’ retirement age should be lifted to the age of 80, instead of 60, where it currently stands in most cases. This was good sense on the part of the minister, but here I want to concentrate on something else, which, as far as I can tell, is sadly lacking in this country, namely the ongoing project of formulating an encompassing social theory to orientate research.

I specify such a desired project as “ongoing”, because knowledge is never final – any such claim to finality is patently ideological. Instead, as the history of the sciences shows, it is always revisable, and a social theory is no exception. But why a social theory for the orientation of research? Simply because, unless one has a non-ideological, social-scientifically informed grasp of society, one is unable to assess, always in a provisional, revisable manner, how the wide variety of sciences and disciplines are related to one another in terms of supplementarity, contrast or imbrication.

In other words, one needs a “map” of sorts, of the social structures and dynamics that comprise society as a whole, both “internally” (regarding social relations between and among individuals and groups of all kinds), and “externally” (in relation to the natural environment, organic as well as inorganic). In the absence of such a social-scientific map – one reciprocally and systematically informed by the knowledge embodied in ALL the sciences, lest any detractor of the social sciences should see in this proposal an attempt to lord it over the natural sciences – one is unable to see the proverbial wood for the trees: already such specialised knowledge of a large number of “trees” exists, but where does one look for an encompassing map of the forest that would show its various regions and what one may encounter there?

An obvious objection would be that I am clearly suffering from historical amnesia, and that I should remind myself that the era of encompassing (metaphysical) systems – of the kind that flourished from the 17th to the 19th centuries in the work of among others Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza and especially Hegel – is long gone. And besides, as the Hegel scholar W.T. Stace once observed about Hegel’s all-encompassing philosophy of Spirit, it resembles a medieval castle – beautiful from the outside, with its moat, portcullis, turrets and battlements, but uninhabited. Would a social theory to orientate the sciences in their differences as well as their interrelationships not be similarly alien to extant “reality”? It could easily degenerate into such a vacuous construction, but it need not, if scientists were to contribute to its construction and regular revision. But what about a starting point?

A variety of starting points are available, and possible, including Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms, or Foucault’s marvellously intricate grid of societal “mechanisms” for the control of discourse. For present purposes I shall briefly focus on the methodological theoretical framework outlined by Jürgen Habermas early in his career in the book Knowledge and Human Interests, where he articulates his theory of the “three cognitive interests”, corresponding to different groups of sciences, each of which is grounded in a particular area of social life. This comprises a theory within which researchers could situate their own work, and at the same time come to understand the differences as well as the interconnectedness between different kinds of science.

In more detail (but briefly), Habermas’s early theory amounts to this. It articulates the correlation between what Habermas regards as three “cognitive interests” (values) which guide certain groups of sciences, and are rooted in three distinct fields of human existence. The three cognitive interests and the corresponding groups of sciences are as follows, keeping in mind that although these are predominantly methodological and epistemological considerations, they point towards a social theory that would accommodate and explain the need for such sciences to exist.

First there is the technical interest in control, which underpins the empirical-analytical sciences (including engineering, physics, chemistry, computer science, accounting, but also sciences like psychology, in so far as they are practised with a view to exercising control through, for instance, psychometrics). Then there is the practical (i.e. ethical) interest in mutual understanding, underlying the historical-hermeneutic sciences (such as history, literary studies, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, communication studies, and so on). Thirdly, the emancipatory interest supporting and driving the critical social sciences (like sociology, social and critical psychology, political science, psychoanalysis, critical economics and philosophy; it will be noted that philosophy straddles the second and third group of sciences, because it incorporates both kinds of interests).

Each of these ‘interests’ (and therefore each of the groups of sciences), is rooted or grounded in a distinct aspect of human social existence: the technical interest is grounded on work or labour (necessary for survival), the practical interest on (communicative) interaction, and the emancipatory interest on power as an inalienable aspect of human existence. One could put this the other way around as well, this time in developmental terms, by saying that the work or labour that has always been necessary for the reproduction of social life through the exercise of a measure of (broadly) technical control over one’s environment, has given rise to those experiential sciences which lay the cognitive basis for securing social life in all its ramifications. Parallel to, and interwoven with this, the social practice of communicative interaction that has, from time immemorial, been required as a “praxis” (ethical practice) for societies to exist, has led to the emergence of sciences of a broadly historical and hermeneutic (that is, interpretive) nature. Lastly, the ubiquitous existence of asymmetrical power relations (from within families to between social and political groupings) has called into being the need for emancipation, or liberation, which, as a distinct interest or value, has resulted in the establishment of the critical social sciences.

The important thing to notice here is that each distinguishable group of sciences, while being rooted in the social practice concerned (work, communication and the exercise of power), and being driven by the values or interests concerned (technical, practical and emancipatory) has the important reciprocal function of serving to strengthen these social practices by reinforcing the different interests. And even more importantly, Habermas intimates that, just as work or labour is necessary for social or cultural communicative interaction to flourish, both of these are prerequisites for social and political emancipation to become a reality. Similarly, the corresponding empirical-analytical sciences and historical-hermeneutic sciences point towards, and in a sense promote the possibility of the critical social sciences, because “freedom from” oppression, and “freedom to” actualise one’s potential in society is the highest value or interest of them all. Against this backdrop it should be clear why Habermas’s theory ultimately leads to, or implies, an encompassing social theory.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.