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 Indeed it might now be regarded as one that is superannuated, the old question coming to be superseded by, inter alia, interests in social properties, collective intentional states, systemic and model theoretic approaches to society.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.