The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences

New York, NY: Oxford University Press (2015)
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We live in a world of crowds and corporations, artworks and artifacts, legislatures and languages, money and markets. These are all social objects — they are made, at least in part, by people and by communities. But what exactly are these things? How are they made, and what is the role of people in making them? In The Ant Trap, Brian Epstein rewrites our understanding of the nature of the social world and the foundations of the social sciences. Epstein explains and challenges the three prevailing traditions about how the social world is made. One tradition takes the social world to be built out of people, much as traffic is built out of cars. A second tradition also takes people to be the building blocks of the social world, but focuses on thoughts and attitudes we have toward one another. And a third tradition takes the social world to be a collective projection onto the physical world. Epstein shows that these share critical flaws. Most fundamentally, all three traditions overestimate the role of people in building the social world: they are overly anthropocentric. Epstein starts from scratch, bringing the resources of contemporary metaphysics to bear. In the place of traditional theories, he introduces a model based on a new distinction between the grounds and the anchors of social facts. Epstein illustrates the model with a study of the nature of law, and shows how to interpret the prevailing traditions about the social world. Then he turns to social groups, and to what it means for a group to take an action or have an intention. Contrary to the overwhelming consensus, these often depend on more than the actions and intentions of group members.



This chapter discusses the paradox of the social sciences. Despite advances in collecting and deploying information about people in the last generation, the social sciences have made little progress in coming to consensus on basic questions about economics, political systems, and solving s... see more


This chapter introduces the debate between individualism and holism in the social sciences. It describes the problem with social “spirits,” as it appears in the work of nineteenth- and twentieth-century social theorists such as Ranke and Parsons. It discusses the criticisms of “spirits” le... see more

Tools and Terminology

This chapter offers a few basic tools of metaphysics. First, it presents the three-part model distinguishing (a) facts in the world; (b) propositions; and (c) sentences. Second, it introduces ways of thinking about possibility, including possible worlds and facts. Third, it discusses prope... see more

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Author's Profile

Brian Epstein
Tufts University

Citations of this work

Racism, Ideology, and Social Movements.Sally Haslanger - 2017 - Res Philosophica 94 (1):1-22.
Truth and objectivity in conceptual engineering.Sarah Sawyer - 2020 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 63 (9-10):1001-1022.
The ontology of social groups.Amie L. Thomasson - 2019 - Synthese 196 (12):4829-4845.

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