Research

Our mission is defined by two broad goals. We pursue a practically relevant philosophy of the social sciences with consequences for scientific practice and its management. We also pursue a path towards a new philosophy of interdisciplinarity, with practical consequences for the philosophy of science. These two general objectives depend on one another in virtue of the fact that interdisciplinarity is a major characteristic of contemporary social science and beyond. The attainment of these goals requires creative collective effort that combines detailed case studies with inventive theorizing.

We understand the purpose of philosophical research to be the detection, analysis and resolution of conceptual problems in scientific practice. Philosophical analyses have the potential to increase methodological self-awareness among scientists and to alleviate problems of interdisciplinary communication. They also allow fuller exploitation of interdisciplinary synergies by liberating intellectual resources from futile battles between research traditions.

Research streams

The CoE organises its research into five topic areas based on our earlier research on and diagnosis of the future challenges in the human and social sciences. This is expected to facilitate fruitful and timely interventions into the practices in these disciplines and to provide building blocks for the new philosophy of interdisciplinarity. The five intertwined and overlapping topic areas are:

  1. Models and other transferable means of surrogate reasoning
  2. Explanation and evidence across disciplinary boundaries
  3. Social ontology: understanding sociality from the group perspective
  4. Economics and interdisciplinary trade
  5. Philosophical foundations of analytical sociology

Strands of research on these themes proceed in parallel and are mutually supportive. CoE members may work on more than one topic area, thereby contributing to the flow of information between the strands.


1 Models and other transferable means of surrogate reasoning

Modelling and related techniques of surrogate reasoning are increasingly applied and transferred across the social sciences and other disciplines, giving rise to confusion and controversy that call for philosophical analysis and assistance. Science makes use of an astounding variety of models and other tools of surrogate reasoning, such as sets of mathematical equations, agent-based computer simulations, experimental systems, model organisms, physical miniatures of ecosystems, and much more. These provide the surrogate systems that scientists examine in place of, and in order to learn about, the world.

We recognise three major ongoing or emerging trends. First, the (social) sciences are applying various techniques of surrogate reasoning at a growing rate next to, or at the expense of, other methods. Secondly, such techniques are increasingly crossing traditional disciplinary boundaries. Thirdly, not only are these developments reshaping the practices and standards of inquiry in the social sciences, they are also likely to transform the way in which social research will be applied in policy making.

The social and human sciences and their subfields are not uniform in their style of theorising, and there are often deep epistemological and ontological differences in their background assumptions. The heterogeneity of these disciplines and the increasing interdisciplinary transfer of modelling tools set the agenda for philosophical inquiry.

Stream leader: Uskali Mäki


2 Explanation and evidence across disciplinary boundaries

Many disputes in and around the social sciences spring from unarticulated intuitions about, and confusions between, evidential relevance and explanatory power. Problems with the integration of knowledge across fields and with the assessment of the merits of competing research approaches are especially prominent in cases in which data, research methods and the conceptual tools of the relevant fields diverge. Misunderstandings often concern diverging judgments of explanatory and evidential relevance. Such judgments rely on discipline-specific intuitions about evidential relevance and explanatory power. There is an obvious need for a philosophical analysis of explanation and evidence that may be used to clarify and resolve these disputes.

Explanatory and evidential relevance are routinely conflated in theoretical interdisciplinary controversies. The major task is to disentangle these notions. This will be crucial in order to distinguish genuine explanatory potential or evidential support from mere hyperbole, and genuine challenges from ungrounded prejudices, both of which are all too common when, for example, biological knowledge is imported into the social sciences. Moreover, given the widespread calls for evidence-based policy, there is currently a strong demand for a more thorough understanding of the criteria of evidential relevance.

Stream leader: Petri Ylikoski


3 Social ontology: Understanding sociality from the group perspective

Building on previous work on social ontology and collective intentionality, the main aims are: to show why a full understanding of social phenomena requires a non-individualistic account of group reasoning; to develop a philosophical account of human sociality that will incorporate the group (viz. "we-mode") perspective; and to offer detailed accounts of cooperation, social institutions, collective emotions and collective understanding – including understanding within scientific communities – from the group perspective.

The expected result is a rich and systematic trans-disciplinary framework for the study of human sociality that is relevant to various social-science disciplines. Another goal is to propose a detailed empirical research programme that will help social scientists to avoid the myopia of the excessively individualistic conceptual framework that has thus far dominated most empirical studies of human sociality and cooperation.

Stream leader: Raimo Tuomela


4 Economics and interdisciplinary trade

Economics is presently torn between two opposing trends of interdisciplinary interaction. On the one hand, economic concepts, models and methods have been increasingly used in other sciences (such as sociology, political science, law and biology). Special attention will be given to the expansive spread of the market concept as a form of marketisation (see www.helsinki.fi/market). On the other hand, economics has recently come under pressure by influences flowing from other disciplines (such as experimental psychology, cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology), giving rise to new subfields such as behavioural economics and neuroeconomics.

A critical scrutiny of these trends will presuppose as well as help refine an understanding of the identity of economics in terms of its theory and method as well as its proper domain of application. Based on the analysis of these trends, the general notions of scientific unification, integration, and cross-fertilisation will be critically re-illuminated.

Stream leader: Uskali Mäki


5 Philosophical foundations of analytical sociology

The research on this topic area applies ideas on modelling, explanation and evidence to the current debate on the aims and methods of sociology. This debate is driven by the so-called "analytical sociology" movement, which emphasises the importance of mechanism-based explanations, middle-range theories and interdisciplinarity. Analytical sociology is also introducing new methodological ideas into mainstream sociology, including the use of experiments and agent-based computational modelling. These developments have parallels in economics, political science and other social sciences, and therefore open up possibilities for interesting comparisons between these disciplines.

The aim of this strand of the CoE is: to study how the new methods are introduced in and adapted to sociological research; to examine the difficulties involved in the integration of the results of the cognitive sciences in the context of sociological theory; and to analyse the conceptual foundations of analytical sociology, focusing on concepts (such as social mechanisms and middle-range theory) and issues (such as methodological individualism and intentional fundamentalism).

Stream leader: Petri Ylikoski


Collaborators

The Institute for Analytical Sociology
Linköping University

The researchers at the Institute for Analytical Sociology (IAS) conduct cutting-edge research on important social, political, and cultural matters. The research at IAS is sociological – in its original and broadly conceived meaning – and the researchers at the IAS come from several academic disciplines.

Institute for Analytical Sociology website

 

Erasmus Institute for Philosophy
and Economics Rotterdam

EIPE is the world's leading research institute in philosophy and economics and host to a highly acclaimed graduate programme. The research topics covered at EIPE span all branches of philosophy and economics, including foundations of economic theory, rationality, economic methodology and ethical aspects of economics.

EIPE website

 

Biological Knowledge through
Modeling and Engineering

SynBioMode develops theoretical and practical insights and resources for an improved understanding of the cognitive and practical profile of synthetic biology. It offers synthetic biologists conceptual resources for avoiding pitfalls in interdisciplinary research. It also aims at providing tools for communicating expertise to other scientists, policy makers, and societal actors. It fosters public understanding of and engagement in synthetic biology by providing a realistic understanding of its potential benefits and risks.

SynBioMode website