Dr. Paul Sheehy(Richmond upon Thames College)
Social Groups: reasons to be a realist
It is an old question. What kind of thing is a social group? Indeed
it might now be regarded as one that is superannuated, the old
question coming to be superseded by, inter alia, interests in social
properties, collective intentional states, systemic and model
theoretic approaches to society. Notwithstanding the interest
and importance of such issues the old question has never gone away
for it is at the core of an understanding of the nature of the
social sciences. In both everyday and formal social scientific
discourse our forms of explanation and description, laden with
reference to groups, carry with them ontological commitments that ought
to be rendered transparent.
The truth conditions of many propositions about the social world depend
upon the existential or referential status of groups such as nations,
peoples, classes, communities, teams, tribes and families. A proper
understanding of what is said - of what we mean - turns on how we are
to treat references to social groups. The justification of moral
evaluations, the articulation of practical judgements and action,
and the formation of policies depend upon the object of such judgements
or actions being an appropriate one. In particular it must be the kind
of thing capable of sustaining such judgements and of being responsive
to particular policies and actions.
In this talk I aim to adumbrate the motivation for a form of realism
about groups, ontological holism. This is the thesis that social groups
are composite material particulars capable of standing in their own right
in causal and explanatory relations. It is opposed by ontological
individualism, which maintains individuals and their relations enjoy
ontological and explanatory priority. In its different forms individualism
has come to dominate much thinking about the nature of the social world.
A proper understanding of that world demands we be realists.
Dr Paul Sheehy is head of philosophy at Richmond upon Thames College
and has previously lectured at King's College London. He completed a BA
in history at Oxford before beginning his studies in philosophy, in which
he took an MA and PhD at King's College London. His main interests are in
the philosophy of the social sciences, metaphysics, and political and moral
philosophy. He has published papers on topics concerning social groups,
collective responsibility, voting and theism. His book, The Reality of
Social Groups, was published at the end of 2006 by Ashgate.