Facts, Values, and Evaluative Explanation: Contributions of Leo Strauss to Contemporary Debates

Abbott, James R.
March 2001
American Sociologist;Spring2001, Vol. 32 Issue 1, p50
Academic Journal
As the 20th century comes to a close, sociologists remain mired in the long-standing debate surrounding facts and values. The tensions between value-neutral and value-relevant sociologists have raged for decades and no resolution appears likely; at least no resolution is likely within the parameters of the existing debate. This essay is an introduction to the work of social thinker Leo Strauss, whose orientation provides a different perspective on the issue. It was Strauss's conviction that sociologists were fiddling Neros, oblivious to the crisis of value they helped engender, but excused on grounds that they did not know they fiddled and that they did not know Rome burned. A value-flee social science that denied the possibility of reasoned discourse on value, while surreptitiously advancing a vision of the good, created little but confusion while undermining the basis on which any vision of the good could be defended. A value-driven social science, animated by what Strauss called the “historical sense,” likewise undermined the legitimacy of the value this social science was designed to serve while casting suspicion on all subsequent value claims. Works by Bellah, Wallerstein and Alexander, Seidman, Collins and Denzin, among others, are used for illustrative purposes. Following Strauss, it is suggested that evaluation and explanation cannot be divorced; theirs was a natural relationship that modern philosophy, beginning with Machiavelli, had unwittingly denied. Strauss advocated a social science that understood value as something to quest for, rather than something to be assumed, and he judged theory to be a guide for action, rather than its substitute. It is suggested that Strauss's reading of the classics could be of benefit to sociologists seeking resolution to the crisis of facts and values.


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