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Philosophy for Business
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ISSN 2043-0736

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Philosophie & Wirtschaft


Daniel Silvermintz

Tom C. Veblen

Marco Senatore

Peter S Borkowski

Dena Hurst

Sean Jasso


Geoffrey Klempner

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P H I L O S O P H Y   F O R   B U S I N E S S           ISSN 2043-0736

Issue number 54
19th October 2009


I. 'Plato and Aristotle on the Ethics of Business' by Andrew Murray

II. 'Durkheim and Weber: Methodological Reflections for Management and Business
Studies' by Alfredo D'Angelo and Federico Zuolo

III. Open University Pavis Lecture by Onora O'Neill



In this issue, Andrew Murray, Senior lecturer in Philosophy at the Catholic 
Institute of Sydney, looks at the ethical questions raised by the fact that 
human beings engage in business activity, from the perspective of the Greek 
philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Both philosophers were aware of the special 
difficulties raised by the existence of money and exchange for our notions of 
justice and fairness. Murray argues that business ethics, which deals with the 
rules for conducting business, is insufficient for this larger task.

Alfredo d'Angelo and Federico Zuolo, from the Faculty of Economics and the 
Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Pavia Italy, offer a 
clear and instructive exposition of the differing methodologies of the two 
giants of the social sciences, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, which have 
important implications for the very idea of a 'science' of business or 

Professor Onora O'Neill is one of a handful of academic philosophers who have 
been elevated to the House of Lords, where as Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve she 
has had the opportunity to make a significant contribution to debates over 
ethics and justice. She will be delivering the Open University Pavis Lecture on
4 November, on the topic,  'Making Reason Public: Necessary Conditions for 
Dialogue and Discourse'. All are welcome to attend.

Geoffrey Klempner



The focus of this essay is not 'business ethics', which arose out of perceived 
needs for ethical boundaries, but 'the ethics of business' -- the questions of 
what ethics is inherent in the kinds of activities in which business partakes 
and of what difficulties belong to it. It will conclude that the ethic natural 
to business is insufficient for negotiating some of the larger issues that 
business faces. The essay will draw on two classical sources -- Book One of 
Plato's Republic and Book Five of Aristotle's, Nicomachean Ethics. It may 
surprise that these works are deemed relevant, but what we find in them are the
first methodical analyses of business activity in the emerging Greek free 
societies. They stand at the foundation of our civilisation and offer a clarity
that is often later obscured.

 The Problems of Justice in Plato's Republic Book I

The Republic, which is about justice, begins with a chance meeting of 
associates and the decision to withdraw to the house of an aged but wealthy 
businessman for conversation. The first book of The Republic is unlike the 
other nine and is more like an early Platonic dialogue, in which the drama of 
the interplay of characters is essential, than the middle Plato of the later 
books. In some senses it is a complete dialogue in its own right. Although it 
can be easily passed over for the 'more serious' discussion, that is a mistake,
because in this book Socrates elicits the natural or instinctual understandings 
of justice of different persons in the community.[1] I will deal just with Book

In Book I, three definitions of justice are articulated, or if we take into 
account Socrates' presuppositions, four definitions. The master of the house, 
Cephalus agrees to the definition that justice is 'speaking the truth and 
giving back what one takes.'[2] His son and heir, Polemarchus, adopts the 
opinion that justice is 'doing good to friends and harm to enemies.'[3] 
Thrasymachus, a wandering teacher of the political art of speechmaking, asserts
'that the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.'[4] In his 
questioning of each of these views, Socrates maintains a stance that 'justice 
is more profitable than injustice',[5] which later in Book I becomes the 
question of 'whether the just also live better than the unjust and are happier.
'[6] -There is a pervading sense that for him justice stands at the pinnacle of
human virtue.[7] Each of these views will be of interest to us, but it is with 
Cephalus that we must start, as does Plato.[8] In a short passage of just four 
pages, he paints an exquisitely precise picture of the moral landscape of the 
aged businessman.

Cephalus lives not in Athens but at its port, Piraeus, where he does his 
business. His inherited wealth predates his grandfather, but he is proud that 
he will pass on more to his son than his father had to him. He is delighted to 
see Socrates and encourages him to come more often since he has found that with
the decline of the pleasures of the body due to old age, the pleasures of 
conversation have increased. Socrates questions him about old age, and Cephalus
distinguishes those of his contemporaries who lament the loss of the pleasures 
of sex, drinking and feasts and those who see it as a time of peace and freedom.
He asserts, however, that the real question is one of character. For those 
who are 'balanced and good-tempered, even old age is only moderately 
troublesome';[9] for those who are not both old age and youth are difficult. 
The discussion is of ethics, and Cephalus establishes himself as an upright and
temperate person. In response to Socrates' challenge that the consolations of 
his wealth make it easier for him to deal with old age, he agrees that poverty 
would be difficult for the decent man but that the one who is not decent would 
not be made better by wealth.

They continue to discuss wealth, and Socrates raises the difficulty that those 
who make money 'are twice as attached to it as others' and unlikely to find 
value in higher things.[10] He then asks Cephalus what he has most enjoyed from
possessing wealth. Cephalus replies that when one comes close to death and to 
Hades, where unjust deeds are punished, those who have been unjust lie awake at
night in fright, but that those who are aware of no unjust deeds are nursed by 
hope. 'The possession of money', he says, 'contributes a great deal to not have
to cheat or lie to any man against one's will.'[11]

It is from this discussion that Socrates gleans Cephalus' understanding of 
justice, 'speaking the truth and giving back what one takes'.[12] One gets the 
sense that it is both his conception of justice and a principle by which he has
lived, and that it now gives him consolation in old age. Socrates, however, 
challenges the definition. What if one receives a weapon from a friend when he 
is sane, but the friend demands it back after he has turned mad. Is it just to 
return it? At this point, Cephalus, despite his love of conversation, hands the
discussion over to his son, Polemarchus, and leaves the company to go and make 
offerings to the gods, a task in which he had been engaged when they all 

What Plato has displayed here is a conception of justice that flows naturally 
from the kind of activity that business is. Business is about trade and 
exchange, which is necessarily done in relationship with other people.[13] If 
one does not tell the truth about one's product and the other party realises 
that it has bought something that is not of the standard it appeared to be, 
that party will complain of unfairness, and the possibility of further trade is
undermined. The relationship will fail. Similarly, in business, the terms of 
exchange are negotiated and contracts are made. Should one receive what is owed
under a contract but not give what is owed in return, the contract has clearly 
failed and injustice has been done. Yet again, the possibility of further 
business dealing will be undermined, because an essential component of the 
activity is missing. It would seem that we have touched the ethical core of the
business relationship.

Yet, Plato instils a doubt. Cephalus is clearly a decent person. We can glean 
from the dialogue that he is temperate and prudent, and can suppose that in his
youth and prime he was courageous. Wealth has enabled him to live justly in his 
own estimation. Yet when Socrates begins to question his understanding of 
justice, he becomes uncomfortable, and the lover of conversation withdraws to 
the privacy of the sanctuary to offer sacrifice to the gods in order to ease 
his passage into the next life. What is it that concerns him? It is not 
anything obvious, but somehow a doubt remains about whether he has indeed lived
justly, even though he has told the truth and paid his debts.

Socrates' discussion with Polemarchus is more playful, for he is dealing with 
an energetic young man. Yet some crucial moves are made. Polemarchus persists 
in the view that 'justice is doing good to friends and harm to enemies'.[14] At
first, being young and enamoured with politics, he identifies this with 'making 
war and being an ally in battle,'[15] but pushed by Socrates he reveals that he
is the son of his father and associates the view with contracts and partnerships,
in other words with life of business. There is some sense to this, as the 
maintenance of trading relationships demands that one treat those in the 
relationships well. Closer examination by Socrates of what real rather than 
apparent friends are and of real good, however, challenges this, and 
Polemarchus has to admit that 'it is not the work of the just man to harm 
either a friend or anyone else.'[16]

Although the discussion with the wandering teacher, Thrasymachus, is longer and
much more heated, because Socrates and Thrasymachus are peers of a sort, it need
not detain us except for a few crucial points. Thrasymachus asserts powerfully 
that 'the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger'.[17] What 
he means is that 'each ruling group sets down laws for its own advantage; a 
democracy sets down democratic laws; a tyranny, tyrannic laws; and the others 
do the same.'[18] Thrasymachus has shifted the discussion to political justice 
and he has a point. Nevertheless, embedded in his definition are other 
propositions that deserve scrutiny and which Socrates teases out. These are:
(1) that justice is identical with what the law demands; (2) that a particular 
regime will put in place laws that mirror itself and its interests; (3) that 
rulers will and should ordinarily act in their own interests. These will be 
taken up in the next section, which will in turn prepare us to understand 
Cephalus' predicament and also problems of contemporary business practice such 
as regulation of the financial sector, high executive salaries and the 
production of unhealthy food.

 Clarifications and Distinctions in Aristotle's Ethics

It will help us resolve the dilemmas present in Book I of the Republic, if we 
look at Aristotle's discussion of justice in Book V of his Nicomachean Ethics. 
He soon remarks 'that the words justice and injustice are ambiguous'.[19] Not 
only are they ambiguous, but the meanings given them are close together, so 
that people often do not notice that they have shifted meaning and equivocation
enters the discussion. It is with this ambiguity that Socrates has often played 
to the annoyance of his interlocutors. Let us look first at how Aristotle 
removes three of these ambiguities.

The first is that 'just' and 'unjust' are said variously of persons, 
dispositions and actions. Aristotle has done the groundwork for the resolution 
of this problem in the earlier books of the Ethics. A just person is one who 
does just acts from a stable disposition or habit. It is this habit that 
constitutes the virtue of justice. The virtues and vices that one possesses 
constitute one's character.

The second ambiguity is that we seem to have two different measures of what is 
just and unjust. We consider unjust both a person who breaks the law and one 
who treats others unfairly. Justice is both lawfulness and fairness. Initially,
Aristotle leans towards the fairness definition, because to be unjust is always 
to take more than one's share of the kinds of goods that constitute good 
fortune -- money, land, honour, position. These external goods 'are always good
in themselves, but are not always good for the individual.'[20] A virtuous 
person will not only take a just share but will also know how to use it 
properly; a vicious person will misuse even a smaller share. One of the goods 
at stake, however, is the happiness of the political community, and it is here 
that law comes into play. In a well-formed state, the laws prescribe the manner
of many activities so as to share the advantages of communal life fairly. In 
what came to be called 'political justice', to be just equates with following 
the law.

The third ambiguity flows from the second. Assuming a regime that is good and 
capable and laws that are complete, to be virtuous in this ideal community will
be equivalent to following the laws. Justice in this sense will be the sum and 
perfection of all the virtues, specifically in how their exercise relates to 
others in the community. Aristotle calls this general or universal justice, and
it was the likely object of Socrates' pursuit in the Republic. He is, however, 
going to be more concerned with particular justice, justice as simply one of 
the virtues, which deals 'with honour or money or security or any single name 
that we can use to cover all three'.[21]

With these ambiguities clarified, Aristotle is able to distinguish the 
different kinds of particular justice. The principal distinction is between 
distributive justice, which relates to the distribution 'of honour or money or 
such other assets as are divisible among members of the community' and 
rectificatory justice, 'which rectifies the conditions of a transaction'.[22] 
He further divides rectificatory justice on the basis of transactions that are 
voluntary, such as buying and selling, which we call commutative justice, and 
transactions that are involuntary on the part of the recipient and generally 
amount to inflicted injury subject in our system either to criminal law 
(retributive justice) or civil law (corrective justice). It is with distributive
and commutative justice that we will be concerned, because it is this 
distinction that will illumine the problems of Republic I.

Distributive justice has to do with the fair distribution of a community's 
goods among the members of the community. It would be simple if all goods were 
commensurate and all members were entitled to an equal share, but neither is 
the case. The goods are diverse and Aristotle recognises that their 
distribution is best made according to some sense of merit rather than strict 
equality. He speaks of a proportionality of distribution in relation to merit 
or desert. This leads us into one of Thrasymachus' concerns, for Aristotle 
acknowledges that not all elements in a community judge merit in the same way: 
'the democratic view is that the criterion is free birth; the oligarchic that 
it is wealth or good family; the aristocratic that it is excellence.'[23] His 
work, the Politics, is devoted to examining how these different elements in a 
community might be balanced. What he will not accept from Thrasymachus is that 
justice is identical with law, unless, of course, the law is good. Nor will he 
accept that those who rule should do so only for their own good. Although 
distribution will recognise differences in the community, the exercise of rule 
must consider the good of the whole and of all its elements. Otherwise, it is 
deviant rule such as tyranny.

Commutative justice does, however, look to a kind of equality or more properly,
reciprocity. In buying and selling, both parties expect to do well, so that the 
goods exchanged though clearly not identical need to be valued in a way that is
fair for both parties. The means of commensurability is money and the measure of
value is demand. It is here that Aristotle touches the nature of business as a 
whole and its role in the political community.

     Without exchange there would be no [community], without 
     equality there would be no exchange, without 
     commensurability there would be no equality. Strictly 
     speaking, things so widely different cannot be 
     commensurable; but in relation to demand a sufficient 
     degree of accuracy is possible.[24]

These matters are not exact, but they can be settled. Aristotle further remarks
that commercial transactions have immunity from the law,[25] that is, in setting
price. This is generally true, unless, of course, abuses begin to dominate on 
the basis of strength (monopolies) or wickedness (deceptive deals made in 
secret). Then laws will be established to limit the extent of immunity and to 
curb abuse.

 The Ethics of Business -- Cephalus' Insecurity

We are now in a position to examine Cephalus' discomfort more closely and also 
to note applications of Plato's analysis for today's world. It can be taken for
granted that Cephalus is a good man and that he has lived the core business 
ethic of telling the truth and paying his debts. Yet doubts remain, and he 
finds it necessary to appease the gods. Three areas of difficulty can be 

First, in setting his prices, Cephalus has enjoyed immunity from the law, which
has been both useful and a necessary part of how markets function. If the 
negotiations have been above board and contracts have been completed, Cephalus 
can rest that he has acted justly. Yet, there are issues. Having enjoyed this 
immunity, can Cephalus experience the consolation of affirmation by an external
monitor of his actions? Did he ever negotiate from a position of such strength, 
that the other party had to accept gracefully a deal that was very 
disadvantageous? Was he ever tempted to link this immunity with the assumption 
that what is unjust is what is so determined by law and so consider himself 
free to do anything not forbidden by law? Each of these questions points to a 
difficulty at the heart of the ethics of business. In modern times, these 
difficulties have shown up in debates about labour laws, monopolies and the 
regulation and deregulation of the financial sector.

Secondly, Cephalus has been a truth-teller, but has he been a truth-seeker? He 
has understood his product, but has he sought to understand how his activities 
have affected the well-being of the community and we would say the environment?
He has lived in Piraeus rather than Athens, and it is possible that both 
distance and the concrete nature of his own activities have held him back from 
deeper inquiry. The dialogue shows that he is not about to start. In our times,
businesses that make judgments according only to accounting advice face this 
difficulty. At a more sinister level, businesses that produce unhealthy food 
and promote it through the manipulation of taste have questions to answer. The 
very existence of the tobacco industry raises serious questions.

Thirdly, Cephalus locates his sense of justice firmly in the area of 
commutative justice and altogether neglects distributive justice. At root he is
right, because business is about transactions and individual businesses could 
hardly carry the political responsibility of ensuring fair distribution of 
wealth, honour and opportunity across the whole community. Yet there is a 
problem. Commutative justice is only one part of justice, and in relation to 
the good of the whole community it is the lesser part. Business justly prides 
itself on generating wealth, but, though it is not easy, there is surely some 
dimension of responsibility also for the more general distribution of wealth. 
In today's world, these questions arise around the issue of high executive 
salaries. They are frequently justified in terms of commutative justice, market
forces and the immunity from law given the market. But are there not 
distributive issues as well -- between company and shareholders; between 
executives and other employees; between company and customers?

What these questions show is that the ethic inherent to the ordinary activity 
of doing business and therefore the ethic that business people are likely to 
use is insufficient for some of the larger ethical issues that business must 
face. Can business be a good citizen? In the Republic, Cephalus goes off to 
pray to the gods in order to find his peace. In the Ethics, Aristotle notes the
Temple of the Graces, which is set up in a public place for the repayment of 
benefits. 'It is,' he says, 'right both to repay a service to a benefactor and 
at another time to take the initiative in benefaction'.[26] Might it be that in
our time philanthropy is one way in which we attempt to put things right?


1. See, for instance, Richard Kraut, 'The Defense of Justice in The Republic', 
in The Cambridge Companion to Plato, edited by Richard Kraut (Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 331, n. 3.

2. Plato, The Republic, translated by Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968)
331d, p. 7.

3. Republic 332d, p. 8.

4. Republic 338c, p. 15.

5. Republic 345a, p. 22.

6. Republic 352d, p.31.

7. In Books II -- X, this becomes the search for the form of Justice itself and
a thought experiment exploring the possibility of a regime in which perfect 
justice might be achieved. In these books, Socrates' thesis is that the life of
the just man is better than that of the unjust man, even if he suffers 
misfortune. (See Glaucon's statement of the contrary thesis at 358c.) The fact 
that in the end the ideal state does not stand up pushes the argument back to 
Book I.

8. Republic 328c -- 331d, pp. 327 -- 331.

9. Republic 329d, p. 5.

10. Republic 330c, p. 6.

11. Republic 331b, p. 7.

12. Republic 331c-d, p. 7.

13. Aristotle introduces a hard distinction between producers and traders 
(Politics I, 9). In this essay we are examining the ethics of the relations of a
business with those outside the business, and so it is convenient that Cephalus 
is a trader. An alternative exercise is to examine the internal human relations
of a business, and then it is more fruitful to concentrate on the productive 
side of business.

14. Republic 332d, p. 8, and 334b, p. 11.

15. Republic 332e, p. 9.

16. Republic 335e, p. 13.

17. Republic 338c, p. 15.

18. Republic 338d, p. 16.

19. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by J. A. K. Thomson, revised by 
Hugh Treddennick (London: Penguin, 1976), V, 1 (1129a27), p. 113.

20. Ethics V, 1 (1129b4), pp. 113-114.

21. Ethics V, 2 (1130b3), p. 117.

22. Ethics V, 2 (1130b30 -1131a3), p. 118.

23. Ethics V, 3 (1131a27-28), p. 119. See also Politics III, 9.

24. Ethics V, 5 (1133b17-21), pp. 126-127.

25. Ethics V, 4 (1132b15), p. 122.

26. Ethics V, 5 (1133a5), p. 124.

(c) Andrew Murray 2009

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy
Catholic Institute of Sydney


Web site:



 1. Introduction

The central concern of management and business research is to understand why 
some strategies rise while others fall, why some firms outperform others and 
are more successful than their competitors (Barney and Clark, 2007; Rumelt, 
1987). Management and business research has heavily drawn on Emile Durkheim's 
ideas about social milieu and identity and Max Weber's ideas about institutions
to explain why and how certain strategies are optimal, or at least efficient; 
however, very little is known about their methodological contributions.

Nowadays, almost all the articles published on top tier management and business
journals present a methodology section to carry out their studies; however, 
little reference is made to recall the methodological augmentations of Durkheim
and Weber. The purpose of this essay is to explore the methodological 
contributions of Durkheim and Weber. Although the discussion and reflections 
about their methodological dilemmas can not be exhaustive, we believe that the 
representation of their paradigms can shed light on the different 
methodological approaches for conducting a study in the field of business and 

Specifically, we shall conduct this study comparing and contrasting their 
different visions under the following sections: (1) scientific knowledge and 
subject matter; (2) the role of the researcher; (3) approaches to empirical 
data. In doing that, we shall further examine these two philosophers, 
juxtaposing the positivistic paradigm to that of the interpretative paradigm to
which they belong.

 2. Scientific Knowledge and Subject Matter

A central issue in the discussion about the methodological dilemmas of Durkheim
and Weber is the question of whether the social world can and should be studied 
according to the same principles and procedures as the natural science. There 
are two main research positions propounded in the literature on social science 
methodology namely the positivist and interpretative paradigms. The term
'paradigm' has been used to describe different forms of social science 
demonstrating fundamentally different philosophical orientations (Delanty and 
Strydom, 2003). In other words, paradigms are different ways of understanding 
social scientific phenomena.

The author refers here to the term paradigm as suggested by Thomas Kuhn's work 
(1979), who used it to describe the progress of scientific discoveries. The 
paradigm well known as 'positivism' came into the language thanks to the 
nineteenth century French philosopher-scientist Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who 
developed the idea that human phenomena could be studied in analogous manner 
with the natural world, and that therefore the methods of natural science are 
basically also of equal value in the study of humans (Hughes and Sharrock, 1997).
The positivist paradigm is essentially based on the idea that social science
does not, in any serious way, differ from natural science. Saunders, Lewis and 
Thornhill (2003) defined positivism as a research philosophy that involves 
working with an observable social reality. Hollis (1994) underlined as 
positivistic the approach that applies scientific method to human affairs which
are regarded as belonging to a natural order open to objective enquiry.

According to the positivist stance, scientific knowledge comes into truth when 
hypotheses are tested against the facts of the world. Universal truths and laws
are able to explain and predict behaviours and events (Easterby-Smith, Thorpe 
and Lowe, 1991). The emphasis is on highly structured methodology to facilitate
replication, and the end product can be law-like generalisations similar to 
those produced by physical and natural scientists. Hollis (1994) stated that 
for positivists knowledge is grounded in particular observations and can extend
to general beliefs only in so far as experience can confirm them. Thus, the 
positivist philosophy of knowledge suggests that knowledge can be acquired only
through direct observation and experimentation rather than through metaphysics 
and theology.

This philosophical tradition found in Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) one of its 
most important representative. He clearly stated: 'when the individual has been
eliminated, society alone remains. We must then, seek the explanation of social 
life in the nature of society itself' (Durkheim, 1895 quoted in Pope, Cohen and
Hazelrigg, 1975). By way of illustration, he stressed that individuals commit 
suicide, but the suicide rate indicates 'a social fact' independent of 
individual suicides. In other words, social facts, of which reality is made up,
exist independently of each individual. Since Durkheim's ontological position is
that social world exists externally, he advocates the application of methods of 
the natural sciences to the study of social reality.

Durkheim put forward the positivist doctrine with his classification of social 
facts as 'things' or externally constraining realities that require objective 
study from an external point of view. According to Durkheim, 'a social fact is 
every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual and 
external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout 
a given society, while at same time existing in its own right independent of 
its individual manifestations' (Durkheim, 1895 quoted in Delanty and Strydom, 
2003). Social phenomena are an element of the external world and they present 
themselves to us as 'external things' (Hollis, 1994). For Durkheim 'society is 
not a mere sum of individuals' and individual behaviour has to be explained by 
reference to social facts (Hollis, 1994). Social facts are 'ways of acting, 
thinking and feeling, external to the individual consciousness' (Durkheim, 1895
quoted in Martin and McIntyre, 1996). Moreover, 'social facts exert a coercive 
power over us' (Benton and Craib, 2001), 'by virtue of which they impose 
themselves upon the individual, independent of his/ her will' (Durkheim, 1895 
quoted in Delanty and Strydom, 2003).

In conclusion, society forms and determines individual behaviour more than 
individuals determine society. To paraphrase Durkheim, 'our mental outlook is 
formed by our social background, not society by our mental outlook'. 'We gain 
our language, religious beliefs, morals, customs, and so forth from the social 
context in which we are born and brought up'. Durkheim gave the example of the 
system of currency which exists and it works independently of our own use; 
currency it is there, but we do not create it, we inherited it; we are not 
obligated to use it, but you cannot do otherwise (Durkheim, 1895 quoted in 
Martin and McIntyre, 1996). He stated that social things are things in the 
sense that they are peripheral to an idea, that they can only be known by 
observation, and that thus they must be studied as nature is studied by 
physicists. Reality, in other words, is objectively determined and it can be 
studied following a methodology analogous to that used to study the natural 

Durkheim's concept of social facts and his approach to methods has influenced 
many positivist or empiricist social scientists. To summarise, the basic tenet 
of positivism is that a science of society, comparable with natural science, is
both possible and desirable. This proposition rests on two assertions: that the 
methodological procedures of natural science may be directly adapted to the 
study of human social actions, and that the outcome of research in the social 
sciences will take the form of causal laws (Giddens, 1976). In this context, 
Durkheim's work pointed out the supremacy of scientific knowledge as the 
paradigm of all valid knowledge.

In opposition to this view, interpretivists believe that the world is made up 
of people with their own intentions, attitudes and values. The ontological 
orientation here is based on the idea that reality is socially constructed 
rather than objectively determined (Williams and May, 1996). Thus, the 
epistemological stance of interpretivism is in claiming that social phenomena 
can not be understood without considering how they appear to us or are 
perceived by the actors in a certain situation (Lester, 1999).

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a key proponent of this interpretative paradigm based
upon a subjectivist methodology (Udehn, 1981). He stated that 'behaviour must be
understood in terms of individual motives and subjective meanings' (Weber quoted
in Pope, Cohen and Hazelrigg, 1975). According to Benton and Craib (2001), 
Weber's ontological position is based on the idea that the world studied by 
social sciences is made up of individuals interacting together.

Weber's starting point is the individual actor who attaches meaning to his/ her
actions; then he introduces the idea of social action as an interplay which has 
to be considered from the point of view of each individual (Hollis, 1994). By 
social actions Weber means all human actions which take account of the 
behaviour of each individual and his/ her subjective meaning. For Weber, the 
subject matter of any social investigation should be social action to which the
individual gives a meaning, directed to other people, intended to achieve 
practical purposes in the world. Therefore social sciences have their own 
specific object in meaningful social actions (Benton and Craib, 2001). Using 
Bryman's words (2004), 'the social science is required to grasp the subjective 
meaning of social action'.

Interpretivism developed in reaction to the dominance of positivism in the 19th
and 20th centuries, arguing that there were fundamental differences between 
human and natural science. Advocates of interpretivism argued that the basis of
distinction stemmed from the different aims: explanation (Erklaren) of human 
behaviour is the main ingredient of the positivist approach, whereas 
understanding (Verstehen) of the social actions is the main ingredient of the 
interpretivist approach (Bryman, 2004; Schwandt, 2000). According to Benton and
Craib (2001), the social sciences have objects of study that differ from those 
of the natural sciences and they must develop their own specific methods to 
study these objects.

Weber's methodology gave vital place to actors' subjective meaning (Hollis, 
1994) and he described his specific methodology as interpretive understanding
-- hence the use of 'interpretivist' to describe this approach. Interpretive 
understanding is a mean for arriving at a causal explanation of social action. 
Weber talks of two types of understanding: observational and explanatory. 
Direct observational understanding is obtained when we understand what an 
individual does, while explanatory understanding also includes the 
understanding of why (s)he does it and what are the motives which drive him/ 
her in doing it. In order to acquire substantial knowledge, Weber argued that 
the social sciences have to 'understand' social phenomena in terms of
'meaningful' categories of human experience. Understanding and interpreting 
involve more than objectivistic view of social phenomena and therefore, the
'causal-functional' approach of the natural sciences is not applicable in social
inquiry (Schutz, 1954).

In sum, the basic premise of the interpretivist paradigm is that unlike the 
physical sciences which deal with reality as external object, the social 
sciences deal with action and behaviour which are generated from within the 
human mind (Hussey et al. 1997). According to Denzin and Lincoln (2000), the 
interpretative research method essentially tries to explore and describe human 
activities and experiences rather than explain and derive universal laws.

 3. The Role of the Researcher

As stated above, Durkheim strongly believed in the objective determination of 
social reality. He asserted that the social world exists independently of an 
individual's own ideas or will. However, reality does not just appear to our 
sense, as intended by the materialistic view, but it is more likely to appear 
as a representation of social facts. In other words, social facts might be 
viewed by the social scientists as an illusion of the social reality. For 
Durkheim, the task of the social scientist is to describe the essential 
characteristics of social facts, explain how they come into being, enter into 
relationships with one other, act on each other, and function together to form 
social wholes (Hughes and Sharrock, 1997).

Social scientists can not ignore that social 'things' can appear vague and 
unclear. Their task is to rid themselves of the prejudice and preconceptions 
which are considered impediments to scientific knowledge. Therefore, social 
facts have to be observed from the outside. The only way to do that is through 
the application of scientific methods. Natural sciences are superior to other 
method of conjecture and speculation. In the process of scientific knowledge 
generation which involves the participation of two subjects namely the 
researcher (observer) and the actor (observed), Durkheim assigned a passive 
role to both. The researcher, in carrying on his/ her investigation, should, as
stated above, free his/ her mind of all preconceptions, take a more passive 
relationship to social reality, and deal with phenomena 'in terms of their 
inherent properties', and their 'common external characteristics'.

Durkheim insisted that researchers should approach their subject matter with no
abstract notions or preconceptions in mind. He stressed the necessity of casting
aside such preconceptions about the social phenomena under investigation. First 
of all because social facts, in so far as they are things, are impossible to 
modify by a simple effort of the will. Second, Durkheim argued that using such 
preconceptions instead of 'observing, describing, and comparing things, we are 
content to focus our consciousness upon, to analyze, and to combine our ideas. 
Instead of a science concerned with realities, we produce no more than an 
ideological analysis' (Durkheim, 1958 quoted in Smelser, 1977). Third, he 
stated that social phenomena have a constraining influence upon individuals and
their properties should be measured through objective methods rather than being 
interfered subjectively through sensation, reflection and intuition.

The researcher free of abstract notions or mental preconceptions is expected to
come up with hypotheses and the research processes are directed towards testing 
and verifying hypotheses in order to establish a reliable and valid pattern 
which can form the basis of general thesis. Durkheim's principle is that '[the]
determining cause of a social fact should be sought among the social facts 
preceding it and not among the states of the individual consciousness'. 
Actually, Durkheim rejected explanations of social phenomena that called on 
psychological factors. His position followed from his original definition of a 
social fact; '[since] their essential characteristic is their power of exerting
pressure on individual consciousness, it follows that they are not derived from 
the latter...'. Durkheim concluded that 'every time a social phenomenon is 
directly explained by a psychological phenomenon, we may be sure that the 
explanation is false' (Durkheim, 1895 quoted in Delanty and Strydom, 2003).

Weber contrasts with Durkheim on the role of the researcher. First of all, 
Weber's concern was focused on subjective meaning; therefore he was not willing
to treat social phenomena as 'things'. As stated above, for Weber social actions
cannot be understood, described, or analyzed without reference to their 
subjective meaning. Furthermore, by insisting on the impossibility of a
'presuppositionless' social science, he attributed to the observer a more active
role in the generation of scientific knowledge. This implies that he regarded 
the researcher as motivated, assessing his environment in terms of its 
significance for him, and organizing his behaviour accordingly. The 
social-scientific interest has its point of departure in 'the 
individually-structured configuration of our cultural life and in its universal
relationships'. Therefore, the selection of certain aspects of the body of 
scientific knowledge is made by the investigator who has a 'value-orientation' 
toward events and situations. 

Selectivity is not determined by the 'nature of things', as Durkheim held, but 
by the initiative of the investigator. Without the investigator's evaluative 
ideas, there would be no principle of selection of subject-matter and no 
meaningful knowledge of the concrete reality. To paraphrase Weber: 'there is no
absolutely objective scientific analysis of social phenomena independent of 
special and one-sided viewpoints according to which -- expressly or tacitly, 
consciously or unconsciously -- they are selected, analysed and organised for 
expository purposes'.

Weber pointed out that the 'self-consciousness' of human beings and the
'freedom of choice', which that consciousness entails, implies that an observer 
can never obtain an up-to-date account of the subject's state of mind which 
would be correct for the agent to accept. The social scientist can only reveal 
'trends' rather than 'laws' and, accordingly, (s)he is entitled to study not 
exactly the social reality but only the logic of various situations. For Weber 
researchers need objectivity and 'value neutrality' when investigating problems
in the social sciences. Scientists should be value-free, but this does not mean,
according to Weber, that scientists cannot have and disseminate values. The 
scientist as educator must seek to specialize in knowledge and education. The 
scientist can express political and moral judgments, not as scientist but 
outside the university as a 'political animal'. The sphere of science and 
politics, then, must be kept separate.

Weber also cautioned against the making of value judgements which coincide with
the orientation or motives of the researcher. It is important to note that 
although Weber believed that value neutrality was the aim of research, his view
was that no science is fundamentally neutral and its observational language is 
never independent of the way individuals see phenomena and the questions they 
pose about them.

The interpretivist paradigm stresses a clear interrelationship between the 
investigator and the subject of research. Verifying what actually exists in the
social and human world depends on the researcher's interpretation. According to 
Weber, any interpretative analysis of subjective meanings depends upon
'empirical rules' hence the development of his methodological tools, notably the
typology of the 'ideal type' (Giddens, 1976).

Weber started from the premise that it is impossible to conceive the
'infinitely complex' structure of reality. With this recognition of the 
impossibility of understanding the 'full reality', he introduced the concept of
'ideal type'. Weber's ideal type was not a description of reality nor a 
hypothesis, but rather a mental construct which can help to build hypotheses. 
An ideal type is a generalizing device, applicable to a variety of instances of
action, and which can be employed by an investigator to facilitate empirical 
analysis. This was done by Weber with the understanding that the ideal type
'cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality'.

The task of the investigator is to determine in each individual case how much 
the 'ideal type' approximates and how much it diverges from concrete reality. 
Therefore, the function of ideal-type is to provide conceptual tools for 
comparison. In other words, they allow us to compare different individuals with
unique subjective-meaning complexes. Weber's conceptualization of ideal types 
creating an order of concepts that enabled the researcher to analyze phenomena 
at a level closer to that which Durkheim called 'social facts'. Durkheim 
consistently adhered to the primary reality of the social level independent of 
individual actors, whereas Weber insisted that his ideal-type constructions 
were inferences rooted ultimately in the substratum of the subjectively 
meaningful experience of individual actors.

 4. Approach to Empirical Data

Durkheim and Weber were both committed in terms of linking causes and effects 
of social phenomena and they also believed that social science analysis should 
tend to generalize its findings (Smelser, 1977). Both of them were concerned 
with the necessity of establishing a balance between the complexity of which 
the social reality is made and the generalization principle in order to explain
social phenomena (Ragin and Zaret, 1983). Moreover, they both settled on the 
priority of comparative analysis and regarded comparative research as the via 
media between complexity and generality that have to establish the academic 
credentials of social sciences (Ragin and Zaret, 1983). However, theoretical 
differences between them were reflected in their different approach to 
empirical data.

Durkheim's approach was focused on the study of observable and measurable 
social facts trying to discover uniformities and differences and explaining 
individual facts by applying them (Smelser, 1977). Durkheim stressed that in 
order to explain a social fact, a study of its cause and its function is 
required. Causes of social facts are investigated by the comparative method, 
i.e. comparing the cases where two social facts are simultaneously absent or 
present, so we can discover the variations displayed in these combinations 
which provide evidence that one fact (cause) leads to another fact (effect). 
This method is guided by the rule that one cause leads to one effect (any one 
effect must be generated by one cause).

It is important to note that this rule, as Durkheim admits, does not really 
prove causes, but that it can minimally disprove causes. Indeed, if one states 
that A causes B, but we find a case where there is A but not B, then the thesis
is disproved (Smelser, 1977). Since social life is so complex, it can always be 
that we have omitted a relevant variable. A parallelism of a sufficient number 
of cases, however, adds value to our inferences on causal links. Then we can 
deduce a thesis and test it inductively. This could lead us to establish laws. 
What is indispensable for social sciences then, is to explain social facts by 
tracing their entire development throughout all social species (i.e. across 
time and space).

Weber instead was essentially focused upon the use of ideal types enabling 
generalization to give theoretical meaning to social phenomena (Smelser, 1977).
He began with the recognition that the researcher plays an important role in 
framing research questions, identifying units of analysis, and selecting items 
for comparison. Rather than assuming an objective separation of the researcher 
and data, he constructed ideal types, or analytical models that did not confuse
the researcher's conceptualization of the phenomena with the phenomena itself. 
These types enabled him to investigate the phenomena from an acknowledged 
starting point and interrogate other aspects of the object during analysis. 

Ideal-types are specifically constructed with the purpose of interpreting and 
explaining social events. Weber was interested in the formulation of general 
principles of social actions, but these were not perceived as laws. For Weber 
social sciences must seek to understand human action. This does not exclude 
explanation. Social sciences understand human action, with reference to an 
ideal-type or with regard to a specific meaning of action, and thereby explain 
its course and consequences.

Explanation lies in the generation of one or more ideal-type constructions of 
the subjective-meaning complex of actors and the comparison of these 
expectations with the best available data (Smelser, 1977). For Weber, the use 
of ideal types enables only limited generalization. Actually Weber, like 
Durkheim, was convinced that social reality is sufficiently complex as to be 
unknowable in the absence of theoretical interests that guide construction of 
one-sided type concepts (Ragin and Zaret, 1983).

In order to conclude this limited analysis of the approach to empirical data of
Durkheim and Weber, it is important to mention that both were sensitive to the 
problems of taking into account controlling variables and their methodological 
significance (Smelser, 1977). Durkheim's view was that if similarities or 
differences among facts are a function of the similarity or difference of 
social context, then social contexts must be made similar if the facts are to 
be judged so in order to control unwanted sources of variation in the phenomena
under study (Smelser, 1977). Similarly, Weber stated that there remains only the
possibility of comparing processes which, while otherwise similar, differ in the
single decisive point of their relation to the particular motive or fact which 
is being investigated.

 5. Conclusions

The analysis and discussion of the reflections and methodological dilemmas of 
Durkheim and Weber, two of the foremost analysts in the history of social 
science, has shed some light on their differing methodological approaches for 
the philosopher or social scientist undertaking studies in the field of 
business and management. The purpose of this study was not to decide upon the 
best methodology for business and management research; rather it focussed on 
highlighting the views of Durkheim and Weber on the nature of scientific 
knowledge and subject matter, the role of the researcher, and approaches to 
empirical data. Different views in each of these three areas will determine 
one's conception of what it means to conduct a science of business or of 
management, as well as how one approaches the question how in practice such an 
inquiry should be carried out.


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 Alfredo D'Angelo

Dipartimento Ricerche Aziendali
Facolta di Economia
Universita di Pavia

 Federico Zuolo

Dipartimento di Filosofia
Facolta di Lettere e Filosofia
Universita di Pavia

(c) Alfredo D'Angelo and Federico Zuolo 2009




Wednesday, 4 November 2009, 16:30
Berrill Lecture Theatre
Berrill Building
The Open University
Milton Keynes

Title: 'Making Reason Public: Necessary Conditions for Dialogue and Discourse'

Speaker: Professor Onora O'Neill (Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve)

The Department of Sociology at The Open University warmly invites you to the 
2009 annual Pavis public lecture.

Onora O'Neill will argue that recent accounts of 'public reason' (notably those
of Rawls and Habermas) focus on its context in the public and political process 
of democracies. This work has been linked to conceptions of deliberative or 
participatory democracy. But is this form of 'public reason' feasible in large 
democratic societies, where inclusive communication may be impossible? Can new 
technology change this or will it support no more than quasi- communication? 

Professor O'Neill will discuss an alternative more Kantian conception of public
reason that focuses on reasoning rather than on its public context and will 
argue that this may be relevant to public life in C21 democracies.

Professor Onora O'Neill is Professor of Philosophy at the University of 
Cambridge and a cross bench Member of the House of Lords. She was formerly 
President of the British Academy and Principal of Newnham College Cambridge. 
She writes on ethics and political philosophy and on international justice.

She is probably best known for her influential BBC Reith Lectures of 2002 on
'Trust' and has written extensively on trust and on other topics such as 
bioethics (she was chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and acting chair 
of the Human Genetics Advisory Commission). She has been a member of the House 
of Lords' Select Committees on Stem Cell Research, BBC Charter Review and 
Genomic Medicine.

Tea and coffee from 16:00. All welcome.

Please contact Shirley Shuttleworth,, to indicate 
your attendance.