In sociology and moral philosophy the term naturalism has several distinct but related uses which are frequently confused with one another. In moral philosophy, naturalism is the thesis (contra Hume's famous denial that ‘ought’ can be derived from ‘is’) that moral judgements can be deduced from (or are a type of) factual statements. In sociology, however, the most common use of the term derives from the long-running dispute about whether sociology can be a science in the same sense as the natural sciences; and, relatedly, whether its methods should be based on those of the natural sciences. Naturalism in this usage of the term (‘methodological naturalism’) is the view that sociology is, or can become, a science, and that the methods of the natural sciences-experiment, inductive generalization, prediction, statistical analysis, and so on-are directly, or by analogy, usable by sociologists. Anti-naturalists argue that a radically different methodological approach-closer to literary criticism, textual interpretation, or conversational analysis-is required.
Generally implicit in this methodological dispute are disagreements of an ontological kind about the nature of the subject-matter of sociology (and the other human sciences). In general terms, the opposition may be characterized as a dispute about whether human beings and their social life should be understood as a part of nature, continuous with the subject-matter of other sciences, or whether humans represent a radical discontinuity, a qualitative exception in the order of nature. In this area the dispute between naturalists and anti-naturalists clearly overlaps with that between materialists and idealists . However, further distinctions need to be made if we are to make sense of the different positions commonly taken up by sociologists. Ontological naturalists can themselves be divided into two broad groups. Those (such as, for example, sociobiologists ) who take the view that sociology may become a science through direct annexation as a sub-division of the existing natural sciences (evolutionary biology, in the case of the sociobiologists), may be termed ‘reductionist naturalists’. Other ontological naturalists insist that humans and their social life are a part of nature, but nevertheless recognize that language , culture , complex forms of normatively ordered social life, and so on, establish a distinct order of reality (‘emergent properties’) which poses special challenges for scientific investigation. Émile Durkheim , for example, recognized the sui generis reality of social life, its irreducibility to the facts of biology or psychology, yet advocated a methodology modelled upon that of the natural sciences.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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