What is the definition of social relativism

Social action


1 Introduction

2. Theory Perspectives I: Individualism and Holism

3. Theory Perspectives II: Explaining and Understanding

4. At the crossroads of theoretical perspectives
4.1 Systems or functional models
4.2 Rational strategists or actors
4.3 Life forms or games
4.4 People or Actuators

5. The problems of reductionism and relativism
5.1 The relativism problem
5.2 The reductionism problem

6. Beyond reductionism and relativism?

7. Literature

1 Introduction

The search for ultimate truths has always driven people. It is not just the desire to constantly expand the existing knowledge and to break into new horizons. It is also about explaining processes, understanding them and living with developments that would obviously be difficult to endure without explanation. The search for knowledge has changed since the Enlightenment. Belief in higher powers was replaced by a strong belief in reason and progress. Reason not only created new content, the methods of examining the world also changed: facts were checked empirically, the mind overcame the limits of sensory perception and was able to clarify connections that could not previously be explained other than through belief. With the discoveries in the external world, the question arose whether human behavior could not also be explained by order and context. The aim was to find the perfect society and then to approach it correctively. The hope that stands behind this view can be expressed succinctly in the thesis that our social action gets better the better we understand social action.1

Finding this ideal society with its rules and norms turned out to be much more difficult than initially assumed.

“The basic question of the philosophy of the social sciences is how we can explain and understand social action. This question breaks down into many more questions: Are people guided by rules and norms that they can decide for or against? Or do they follow laws to which they are more or less subject? "2

The philosophy of social science draws on different areas in its questions, methods and topics and thus carries out a conflict between the humanities and natural science methods. In the following, I will look at the approaches to investigating social action based on the book Social understanding. An introduction to the philosophy of the social sciences (1995) by Martin Hollis. First of all, however, it is a matter of filling the concept of social action with more life. What is meant by the concept of social action?

According to Max Weber, sociology is the "science that interprets social action"3 and "thereby explain its course and its effects causally"4 want. The word "acting" is intended to encompass all human behavior, "if and in so far as the agent or agents are subjective with him sense connect ". Under" social action "is to be understood an action," which is related to the behavior of others and is based on this in its process. "5

2. Theory Perspectives I: Individualism and Holism

In order to be able to explain and understand social action, one must first ask the question of the structure in which these actions take place. The problem of structure and action is examined below from two theoretical perspectives. First of all, I will devote myself to the perspective of individualism and holism in order to go into a second theoretical perspective of explanation and understanding in the following.

Individualists explain social phenomena as actions of individuals. Ontologically, they view society as the set of all individuals. Ontological holism, on the other hand, is based on structures that have a "real existence"6. From this point of view, society is a social system in which the individual members act. From this perspective, society is more than the mere sum of its parts.

But what is this society now? From a methodological point of view, this question gives an equally differentiated picture.

“The elementary unit of social life is individual human action. One explanation of social institutions and social change is to show how they emerge as results from the actions and interactions of individuals. "7

From an individualistic point of view, actions will always arise from the wishes and beliefs of the actor and are not due to external causes such as social institutions. If there is society as a system, from this point of view it is no more than the sum of individuals who come together to achieve what no one can do alone. From this point of view, social action can be understood as an "object of exchange" in the world.

Methodological holism goes the other way: from the whole to the individual. In this holistic view, structures have real existence, individuals are members of the community. The actions of the individual actors are explained by referring to a larger whole8 - "Forces, laws and underlying historical movements that are supposed to determine all elements of the social world including institutions"9. If one understands the community as a basic anthropological category, then holists would find that the human being cannot be fully grasped in his essence if one only regards him as an individual. The human being must always also be seen in the community of human beings. The essence of the community is just as difficult to grasp as if one were to start from individuals who are later joined together to form a whole. An addition of the essential properties of individuality can therefore never explain the essence and reality of the community. So the whole is "not just a sum of individuals"10.

There is no epistemological foundation for these structures and causal forces that influence action, which are real from a holistic point of view, and so both theoretical approaches have their weaknesses. It is not possible to understand the community as a subsequent union of individuals, as for example according to the theory of the State Treaty, nor can the community be seen as the first in the sense that the individuals only separate themselves from it. This view is apparently supported historically and anthropologically11but observations on tribes of primitive people, to whom individual consciousness is alien to tribal consciousness, cannot simply be applied to a more highly developed culture. Here it is important to find other explanatory models or to develop a different understanding.

» The teacher: You Fu, tell us the main questions of philosophy!

Si Fu: Are the things outside of us, for themselves, even without us, or are the things in us, for us, without us?

The teacher: Which opinion is the right one? Si Fu: No decision has been made.

The teacher: What opinion did the majority of our philosophers lean towards in the end?

Si Fu: Are things outside of us, for themselves, even without us. The teacher: Why did the question remain unsolved?

Si Fu: The congress that was to bring the decision took place, as it has for two hundred years, in the Mi Sang monastery, which is on the banks of the Yellow River. The question was: Is the Yellow River real, or does it only exist in the mind? During the congress, however, there was a snowmelt in the mountains, and the Yellow River surged over its banks and washed away the Mi Sang monastery with all the congress participants. Thus the proof that things are outside of us, for themselves, even without us, has not been provided. "12

3. Theory Perspectives II: Explaining and Understanding

After looking at the structure from an individualistic and holistic point of view, one thing became clear: the methodological approach of both theoretical perspectives is not sufficient to define social systems. The question of a structure was not answered in this way. Under these circumstances, new methodological paths must be opened up by linking the first approaches with a second level of explanation and understanding. This conflict, which is carried out in the philosophy of the social sciences between the humanities and the natural sciences, naturally also affects the explanation of social action. The understanding of social action can be approached from two competing directions: an explanation of the social world from the outside and an understanding from the inside.

The methodological approach of explaining is based on the natural sciences. On the basis of observations, processes are explained and incorporated into a deductive explanatory model. The explaining approach looks for causes and reasons for actions and events. An example of this approach would be to use statistics to explain a person's voting behavior. Since the reason for this choice cannot be explained by statistical means, either a more convincing philosophy of the natural sciences must be developed, which can then also be transferred to the social sciences, or one deals with the special aspect of the social sciences, the concept of social action, which makes the concept of understanding necessary and can merge with more comprehensive explanatory concepts.13 Understanding is a way of knowing that differs structurally from scientific explanations and deductions. Instead of looking for the causes of the behavior, the purpose or meaning of the action is to be tracked down. The meaning of the actions carried out by people therefore lies in common ideas and rules. Every action means something. The methodical approach is an approach to understanding and interpretation at the center of every explanation and goes back to the hermeneutics of Gadamer or Heidegger. References in language, actions or events and norms are sought. The explanatory approach is based on the fact that normative perspectives in understanding other people are not given. But if there are no norms for human behavior, conventional normative explanatory models cannot work.

There are indications that the social sciences require their own scientific method. According to Wilhelm Dilthey, "meaning" is a category peculiar to life and the historical world. "Human life [...] can only be understood with the help of categories that do not apply to the knowledge of the physical world, for example, "Purpose", "Value", "Development" and "Ideal", hence aspects of "meaning" "14. What distinguishes the category of meaning from the reasons found in the natural sciences? There are meanings behind human actions. The person has reasons for this action which are influenced by personal values ​​and feelings.15 The meaning of an action need not be identical to what the person means by that action.16 Human practices are influenced by normative expectations. These role-specific expectations are usually based on a broader ethic that extends the visible world and extends it to an invisible world of values, ideals and saints.17 But behind every action there is not only a meaning, humans are also capable of setting up theories about the nature of things and in relation to humans.18 These indications make the difference between natural adaptive reactions to a changing environment and conscious, theoretically shaped social interaction.19

Of course, this idea of ​​understanding also poses problems. The general basic concept of hermeneutics, the "meaning", unfortunately has the disadvantage that it cannot be precisely defined. Weber has therefore explained the concept of "meaning" with the help of the concept of "rationality" and poses the question, whether the respective action is rational, so the reasons for the respective behavior should be reconstructed.20

Total rationality is both prescriptive and controversial in its definition - actions may appear rational by some definitions, but irrational when examined by others. The unavoidable question is here too: Which definition is the right one?

The demands for a rational evaluation of the game of social life raise questions about role models and the form of social organization.

4. At the crossroads of theoretical perspectives

4.1 Systems or functional models

"It is not people's consciousness that determines their being, but, conversely, their social being that determines their consciousness."21

Marx explains the social system and the laws, forces and mechanisms that rule it as decisive for social phenomena and human actions. The behavior of people is based on existing systemic needs and is purpose-oriented. This explanation of human society is very functional. People are only seen as elements of a structure. This results in a role for people in this hidden system, which has to be filled and in which people act. But what then explains the step that "these elements [...] should form a structure that is more than the sum or the consequence of the individual parts, while these individual parts behave in a way that only through their function." can be explained as a whole. "22 Durkheim explains in his Rules of the Sociological Method (1895)that social phenomena cannot be traced back to states of individual consciousness. He explains that the determining cause of a sociological fact is to be sought in the social phenomena that precede it in time.23 The nature of the individual is shaped by the social facts which are functionally oriented in relation to a social purpose. These functional mechanisms combine social purposes with the overall level of social integration, thereby creating the medium of "collective consciousness" necessary for a society to thrive.24

This explanation also poses problems. The notion of unobservable systems that put purposeful pressure on their members is problematic. The endeavors of this unobservable assumed collective consciousness boil down to maintaining a balance in which the question arises as to whether this balance is really worth striving for or whether it cannot be replaced by others. If we are generally convinced that there are hidden systems, then the problem formulated by David Singer still arises: Does the "system" determine the behavior of its "units" or vice versa?25 Are human individuals creators or products of the social world?26

4.2 Rational strategists or actors

In economics, the reasons for action from an individualistic point of view have been studied particularly thoroughly. "According to the economic theory of rational choice, we are rational, self-serving individuals, each intent on maximizing our own utility."27 According to this, it is only their own interests that induce the subjects to act. These highly idealized actors are characterized by "completely ordered preferences, complete information" and a perfect internal calculator.28 This actor, who is geared towards purposeful action and maximizing utility, is called homo oeconomicus. The individualism of decision and game theory takes social norms into account in different ways. Norms are either created to solve problems or anchored from the outset in the preferences of the actors, whereby the theory says nothing about the causes of these preferences. These are interpreted as givens. How one can get all players to behave cooperatively also remains open. Finally, the relationship between the ideal-typical world of the rational actors and our normal world with its non-idealized persons is not clarified.

Without going into the various game theory models, it can be stated that if all those involved act rationally, they can do worse than necessary (e.g. prisoner's dilemma) or a balance has a disadvantageous effect on one party (e.g. gender struggle).

4.3 Life forms or games

If one looks for the meaning behind the decisions for or against an action, one arrives at the rules of the way of life. They are both constitutive and regulative for the "games". Social action must therefore be understood from the inside of this set of rules that give meaning to social action. The rules are a normative structure that is outside of the individual, but within the group of players.The player who is guided by norms, rules, customs and institutions can be described as homo sociologicus. Actions and language are integral parts of a way of life. The actions belong to a system of rules-based practices that make up a culture. Language is also understood as an action, since it is an immediate habitual medium. Life forms are ultimate cultural factors that cannot be derived further. “You have to remember that the language game is something unpredictable, so to speak. I mean: it's not justified. Not sensible (or unreasonable). It is there - like our life. "(Quoted from the lecture)

The attitudes laid down in language, as well as the different ways of using words and language behavior, are the expression and determinant of the way of life, so the following applies: "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him."

4.4 people

The distinction between personal and social identity can constitute a possible compromise between holism and individualism. The personal identity shows the gap in the holistic explanatory models: the actor or the rational strategist has a body and a social identity, but he lacks the identity of self-confidence and thus the source of autonomy. The person or the actor stands beyond conformity and isolation. He has autonomy within the limits of causal causes and social rules.29

People are able to normatively control what actually exists, for example through laws or a "quasi moral framework of duties and authorizations"30. Actors adapt to reality via factual normalities, but this only applies to a limited extent to actors. People can create new norms from regulative ideas because they then adjust their behavior according to this idea. The second-order desires and ethical preferences established by Harry Frankfurt even form perspectives for expanding the normative31. People can wish to have certain wishes and these can be subjected to one's own evaluation. In addition to self-interest, it is precisely these reflections that make up the person.

People have several roles in everyday life and there can be conflicts between the individual roles. People or actors have judgment and can possibly use this to the detriment of the rules established for this role, since they have their reasons for their actions and these do not always have to comply with the rules.32 From this one can also derive a clear criticism of Homo oeconomicus. People are able to "promise" and make (infinite) agreements in everyday experiences. This hinders the explanation of rational behavior in society. Emotions and also emotive trust in the other flow into strategic behavior. This aspect becomes not taken into account by game and decision theory.

5. The problems of reductionism and relativism

5.1 The relativism problem

“One objection often raised against hermeneutics is that it leads to relativism. [...] since the findings of natural science are the objective results of a search for objective truth, the social sciences get into trouble if they do not succeed in being objective as well. If understanding has nothing more to offer than subjective or intersubjective fruits, the whole hermeneutic approach is condemned to relativism. "33

The hermeneutics contradict this view held by naturalists. They believe that for certain reasons the social sciences need to be studied differently than the natural sciences. The thesis that the social sciences can and should be "value-free" plays a major role in this context. Social scientists are of the opinion that a "human-related topic"34 should be treated differently than in the fact-based natural sciences. On the one hand, it is due to the things valued by people that influence an essential part of human activity. But also the fact that the researchers, as humans, cannot stand outside their object of investigation means that the investigations must be subjectively influenced.35 Actions and customs that are understood from within must be assessed by the researchers. They interpret the results consciously, since the individuals are often not clear about their own wishes, motives and convictions.36 The problem of relativism thus lies in the breadth of the forms of life and the actors that cannot be captured.

"If action can be understood by rationally reconstructing the meaning from within, we are dealing with a" double hermeneutic "and are being pushed further in the direction of relativism."37 The problem that lies behind the double hermeneutics is that of the alien psychic: we cannot say what the other really thinks. The enhancement of the alien psychic lies in the alien culture. In the abstract it excludes understanding, but in practice it is possible, insofar as skepticism does not apply. Full understanding is not possible, but partial understanding can be achieved through translations.

Relativism and the problem of the alien psychic can take different forms. The relativism of perception can lead to different conceptions of what really is. There is no such thing as a perceptual, objective reality - how do I know that another person is also perceiving the situation? Perceptual relativism then immediately leads to the problem of language: If I want to exchange ideas with this other person about my perception, how do I know that we mean the same thing? The words may be the same, but is the classification the same? According to the hypothesis of Sapir and Whorf, language defines the worldview. Our values ​​and ideas are formed by our language, certain interpretative decisions are determined by the habits of our community.38 What provides understanding in this situation? The multiculturalism exists, it is in fact there. There are two possible approaches to understanding: On the one hand the bridgehead argument, ie understanding through structural analogies, or the "lowest common denominator that is common to all people." If the structural approach to reality is similar, the content is true not to be compared with each other, but there is a structural analogy. For Hollis these structural analogies are sufficient for understanding the other, only if they are not available, an understanding is excluded. The relativism of perception also influences morality. ,, ... the simple fact that different people, times and cultures have very different moral convictions "39, encourages the proponents of moral relativism. No generally valid underlying moral convictions can be proven, but moral relativism is rightly criticized, e.g. by Charles Taylor.40

Finally, truth is also influenced by perceptual relativism. Winch even goes so far as to dispute the general validity of the criteria of logic and claims that they too "arise from the context of ways of life or social forms of life and can only be understood in it."41

As against all the theses put forward so far, there are also serious objections to relativism. If the social units were actually so different, understanding would be impossible from the outset. The factual, however, proves that understanding is possible, even if there are of course gradations in understanding between people from one cultural area and from foreign cultures. For understanding other cultures, Hollis suggests, "If you want to trace a world from within, the first step is to understand what the people of that world believe in."42 This leads to an understanding of beliefs that may appear irrational to us, but which are considered rational by other people.43

5.2 The reductionism problem

Reductionism is generally based on the assumption that it is in principle possible to trace givens such as systems and relationships of forms of movement back to their essence or to the basic principles inherent in them and to explain them completely from them.

All conditions are seen as qualitatively the same, the distinction is made only quantitatively through the degree of complexity. The different qualitative dimensions of the social sciences such as self-confidence or the one-person perspective cannot be explained in this way. However, your own self-confidence cannot be questioned - it is completely different to take the perspective of the third person. The self- and reflective behavior of the individual, the conscious guiding achievements about one's own meaning and the meaning of personal action cannot be understood in reductionism. Likewise, artificial worlds of the social, art or culture cannot be explained.

Ultimately, a complete reduction to the simplest sentences is not possible, since the thesis of reductionism itself is not one of these.

6. Beyond reductionism and relativism?

"You definitely won't like it," said Deep Thought. "Tell us anyway!" "All right," said Deep Thought. "The answer to the big question ..." "Yes ...!"

"... after life, the universe and everything ..." said Deep Thought. "Yes ...!" "... is ..." "Yes ... !!! ... ???"

"Forty-two," said Deep Thought with unspeakable majesty and calm.44

At all times people have final answers to "the great question of life"45 wanted, and Douglas Adams describes very impressively with the answer of the computer Deep Thought that one will probably never find this answer. Adams attributes it to the fact that the question (emphasis added) was never exactly known.

If the key to the truth has not yet been found in the theories listed, the way out may be to combine the various theories. But if one goes so far, "until explanation and understanding, holism and individualism are completely intertwined"46The result would be "a comprehensive social theory according to which the structure is the medium in which action regenerates the structure and in which this dialectical interplay unfolds within the framework of a dynamic synthesis"47. Hollis warns, however, against undertaking an all-inclusive merger, because then all social theories and philosophies would "disappear without a trace"48. So some connection between elements is required, and the question is, what are the limits?

According to Hollis, combining holism and individualism would be easier than explaining and understanding.49 Apart from the objections that have already been raised against the individual positions, in the event of a connection there would still be more than enough material for conflict.

7. Literature

Adams, Douglas: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Frankfurt / Berlin, 1988. Hollis, Martin / Lukes, Steven: Rationality and Relativism. Oxford, 1982.

Hollis, Martin: Rationality and Social Understanding. Frankfurt, 1991.

Hollis, Martin: Social Action. An introduction to the philosophy of the social sciences. Berlin, 1995.

Kersting, Wolfgang: The political philosophy of the social contract. Darmstadt, 1994.

Störig, Hans Joachim: Small world history of philosophy. Frankfurt, 1987. Taylor, Charles: The discomfort in modernity. Frankfurt, 1995. Weber, Max: Basic sociological concepts. Tubingen, 1984.


1 see Hollis, Martin: Rationality and Social Understanding. Frankfurt, 1991. p. 8

2 Vossenkuhl, Wilhelm, quoted from the introduction to Hollis, Martin: Social action. An introduction to the philosophy of the social sciences. Berlin, 1995. pp. 9f

3 Weber, Max: Basic sociological terms. Tübingen, 1984. p. 19

4 that.

5 that.

6 Hollis, 1995, p. 145

7 Elster, Jon: Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press, 1989. p. 13, cited from Hollis, 1995, p. 148

8 cf. loc. cit., p. 31

9 Hollis, 1995, p. 148

10 Durkheim, Émile, quoted from Hollis, 1995, p. 152

11 Leroi-Gourhan, André: Hand and Word - The Evolution of Technology, Language and Art. Frankfurt, 1980. p. 187

12 Brecht, Bertolt: Turandot or the congress of the whitewashers, quoted from Störig, Hans Joachim: Small world history of philosophy. Frankfurt, 1987. pp. 680f.

13 see Hollis, 1991, p. 10

14 Dilthey, Wilhelm: Collected works. Stuttgart, 1926, quoted from Hollis, 1995, p. 33

15 cf. loc. cit., p. 192

16 cf. loc. cit., p. 193

17 cf. loc. cit., p. 193 f.

18 cf. loc. cit., p. 194

19 see Hollis, 1995, p. 195

20 see Hollis, 1991, p. 17

21 Marx, Karl, quoted in Hollis, 1995, p. 129

22 loc. cit., p. 135

23 Durkheim, quoted in Hollis, 1995, p. 138

24 cf. loc. cit., p. 139

25 see Singer, David: The Level-of-Analysis Problem in International Relations. 1961, quoted in Hollis, 1995, p. 146

26 see Hollis, 1995, p. 156

27 loc. cit., p. 157

28 loc. cit., p. 158

29 see Hollis, 1995, pp. 238f.

30 that.

31 Frankfurt, Harry: Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. 1971, quoted in Hollis, 1995, p. 251

32 see Hollis, 1995, p. 239

33 Hollis, 1995, p. 265

34 loc. cit., p. 267

35 see ders.

36 cf. loc. cit., p. 276

37 loc. cit., p. 291

38 see Hollis, 1995, pp. 308f.

39 loc. cit., p. 306

40 see Taylor, Charles: The Uneasiness of Modernity. Frankfurt, 1995. pp. 26f.

41 Winch, Peter: quoted from Hollis, 1995, p. 309

42 Hollis, 1995, p. 318

43 cf. loc. cit., p. 319

44 Adams, Douglas: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Frankfurt / Berlin, 1988. p. 164

45 loc. cit., p. 162

46 Hollis, 1995, p. 322

47 that.

48 loc. cit., p. 332

49 cf. loc. cit., p. 322