In This Article Philosophy of Science and Social Work

  • Introduction
  • History of Philosophy and the History of Philosophy of Science
  • History of Social Work
  • Theory
  • Research and Evaluation
  • Ethical Issues in Science and Practice
  • The Philosophy of Scientific Practice
  • Criticism and Debate

Social Work Philosophy of Science and Social Work
Martin Bloom
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0100


Social work is, or ought to be, an empirically based, theoretically guided, value-infused practice that helps clients resolve their own challenges (problems or possibilities) in a way that is acceptable within an appropriate sociocultural context. There is nothing in this general definition of the profession that demands any necessary connection to a philosophy of science. Philosophy of science is a study of the abstract tools and methods (in contrast with empirical ones) with regard to understanding the nature of the science, with the emphasis here on the social sciences. This involves using epistemology (the study of knowledge and its tools for understanding, such as how concepts, propositions, and theories are used in science), ethics (the study of right or moral conduct, including the subtopic of ethical duties of helping professionals), logic (the study of valid and invalid forms of reasoning, as distinguished from its content), and, last but not least, metaphysics (the study of the nature of ultimate reality, including such charming topics as the relationship between “mind” and matter, fact and value, and substance versus visible attributes of substance. Very few social workers likely know about these topics (except professional ethics), and fewer still make use of them in daily practice. Social workers don’t ordinarily lose sleep over questions of what exists (in “reality” or in our “minds” where we construct that reality). What do we know” Do we only know what we can perceive, or are abstract concepts like neurosis or wellness “real?” What is the nature of good practice? For example, Is helping a client obtain her pittance from welfare or overturning the system to demand fair treatment for all good practice? Philosophy of science is developed largely in academic settings to address a variety of complex ideas, not people or things as such. This separation is unfortunate, because social work has much to learn about its scientific bases and how these influence its practice and its evaluation choices; and philosophy of science may benefit by the posing of new kinds of socially useful questions involving living people, semi-living organizations, and comatose nations. This bibliographic article is in the uncomfortable position of having to introduce some readers to very unfamiliar territory, while at the same time providing others with coverage in depth on these same topics. The compromise that will be used is to present one introductory text on each of the several topics discussed below, along with ample citations for going into greater depth.

History of Philosophy and the History of Philosophy of Science

This section will present materials on the history of the search for “wisdom” (philosophy) and the history seeking the correct intellectual tools with which to conduct this search (philosophy of science). Russell 1945 is a vast introductory history that covers the range of Western philosophy, from the pre-Socratics to a brief look at logical analysis, while Heilbroner 1953 is a very readable book that focuses on great economic thinkers, from Adam Smith to Joseph Schumpeter. Burtt 1955 addresses the history leading to modern physical science, while Gleick 2011 leads the reader through the fascinating maze of the history of information technology and thought. With Rosenberg 2000, readers can begin to grasp the outlines of major intellectual movements in the philosophy of science in modern times. Howard 2000 offers a briefer perspective on this same theme. Kuhn 1970 represents both a history of science and a critical analysis of it, introducing terms such as “paradigm shift,” and reflecting revolutionary changes in what scientists think about, in contrast to how they perform their normal (everyday) scientific efforts. Durkheim 1951, in effect, represents a specific instance of a major shift in the social sciences, using statistical analyses for sociological theory-building.

  • Burtt, Edwin Arthur. 1955. The metaphysical foundations of modern physical science. Rev. ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

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    Originally published in 1926. This book provides interesting insights into the origins and developments that led to modern science. We follow Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo as they preceded step by step (including some false steps) toward creating the tools that astronomers and rocket scientists use to this day. Physical scientists will find this volume of much interest; others can also profit from this perspective on how metaphysical ideas facilitate or limit what physical scientists do.

  • Durkheim, Émile. 1951. Suicide: A study in sociology. New York: Free Press.

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    Originally published in 1897. Durkheim’s astonishing but carefully researched book caused a major revision in thinking about the nature of the human condition, with abstract sociological-level forces and structures producing concrete empirical facts (called social facts, like suicide rates, which were shown to be relatively constant over time and place). These abstract concepts and propositions led to new ways of understanding (recognizing) and acting on social problems, without reducing them to psychological factors.

  • Gleick, James. 2011. The information: A history, a theory, a flood. New York: Pantheon.

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    This book presents the history of information technology, and how information became the major characteristic of the modern world. It travels from the invention of writing; to Charles Babbidge, who invented a prototype of the computer, and his pal, the Lady Ada Lovelace, who developed the mathematical programs for this computer; all the way to contemporary times and the genius of Claude Shannon (who created information theory itself). Not an easy journey, but a fascinating one.

  • Heilbroner, Robert L. 1953. The worldly philosophers: The lives, times, and ideas of the great economic thinkers. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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    This highly accessible book discusses the ideas of the major economic thinkers, from the “wonderful world” of Adam Smith and the “gloomy world” of Parson Malthus, to the “beautiful world” of utopian socialists like John Stuart Mill, to the “inexorable world” of Karl Marx and the “savage world” of Thorstein Veblen, and finally to the “modern world” of Joseph Schumpter, all of whose ideas social workers ought to understand, because they underlie, directly or indirectly, all of the social structures in which and through which practitioners work.

  • Howard, George S. 2000. Philosophy of science. In Encyclopedia of psychology. Vol. 6. Edited by Alan E. Kazdin, 180–184. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This entry is a brief survey of advances in the philosophy of science, from the late 19th century to contemporary times. Major players in this development are Bertrand Russell, with his theories of mathematics and logical atomism, leading to logical positivism, and the Vienna Circle of philosophers. Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and other philosophers and scientists are briefly discussed.

  • Kuhn, Thomas. 1970. The structure of scientific revolutions. 2d ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Kuhn’s book sold over a million copies and influenced thousands of scholars and students. His thesis on the nature of scientific change suggests that a given paradigm (roughly, a general way of looking at problems, and what solutions are compatible with this perspective) generates puzzles to be solved by scientists (this is the normal or ordinary activity of scientists). However, as anomalies emerge from the work of these scientists, the paradigm itself becomes questioned—an indication of a crisis in science. Out of this crisis emerges a new paradigm that is better able to solve current puzzles, and adds new ones as well.

  • Rosenberg, Alex. 2000. Philosophy of science: A contemporary introduction. London: Routledge.

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    This is a relatively accessible introduction to complex topics. The author suggests that philosophy of science begins where science leaves off, as well as with normative or value questions, which science does not. From Newton to Darwin, science constructed a deterministic lawful world. In the 20th century, scientists and philosophers rediscovered complexity and uncertainty, and they used abstract tools to approximate answers for extraordinarily intertwined concrete questions.

  • Russell, Bertrand. 1945. A history of western philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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    This introduction to the history of philosophy covers major philosophers in the Western world, from Plato and Aristotle, through Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes, to an all-too-brief commentary on logical analysis by Bertrand Russell and friends. Russell has nothing to say about Godel, whose metamathematics undid Russell’s mathematical model. (See Gleick 2011)

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