To Widen the Limits of What is Possible

A passage from Hirschman’s A Bias for Hope (1971):

Most social scientists conceive it as their exclusive task to discover and stress regularities, stable relationships, and uniform sequences. This is obviously an essential search, one in which no thinking person can refrain from participating. But in the social sciences there is a special room for the opposite type of endeavor: to underline the multiplicity and creative disorder of the human adventure, to bring out the uniqueness of a certain occurrence, and to perceive an entirely new way of turning a historical corner.

The coexistence as equals of the two types of activities just outlined is characteristic of the social sciences. In the natural sciences the unexplained phenomenon and alertness to it are also of the greatest importance, but only as a means to an end, as the beginning of a new search for an improved general theory which would subsume the odd fact, thus overcoming its recalcitrance and destroying it in its uniqueness. In the social sciences, on the other hand, it is not at all clear which is means and which is end: true, most social scientists behave in this respect as if they were natural scientists; but they would be more surprised than the latter and, above all, considerably distraught if their search for general laws were crowned with total success. Quite possibly, then, all the successive theories and models in the social sciences, and the immense efforts that go into them, are motivated by the noble, if unconscious, desire to demonstrate the irreducibility of the social world to general laws! In no other way would it have been possible to affirm so conclusively the social world as the realm of freedom and creativity. But by now there surely is something to be said for pursuing this theme in a less roundabout fashion.

The importance of granting equal rights of citizenship in social science to the search for general laws and to the search for uniqueness appears particularly in the analysis of social change. One way of dealing with this phenomenon is to look for “laws of change” on the basis of our understanding of past historical sequences. But the possibility of encountering genuine novelty can never be ruled out—this is indeed one of the principal lessons of the past itself. And there is a special justification for the direct search for novelty, creativity, and uniqueness: without these attributes change, at least large-scale social change, may not be possible at all. For, in the first place, the powerful social forces opposed to change will be quite proficient at blocking off those paths of change that have already been trod. Secondly, revolutionaries or radical reformers are unlikely to generate the extraordinary social energy they need to achieve change unless they are exhilaratingly conscious of writing an entirely new page of human history.

I have of course not been disinterested in claiming equal rights for an approach to the social world that would stress the unique rather than the general, the unexpected rather than the expected, and the possible rather than the probable. For the fundamental bent of my writings has been to widen the limits of what is or is perceived to be possible, be it at the cost of lowering our ability, real or imaginary, to discern the probable.


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