‘It often happens,’ observes John Stuart Mill (in Principles of Political Economy ‘Preliminary Remarks’), ‘that the universal belief of one age of mankind … become to a subsequent age so palpable an absurdity, that the only difficulty then is to image how such a thing can ever have appeared credible’. The greatest intellectual innovation in the social sciences is just such an event:
It is also best summed up by John Stuart Mill (Principles of Political Economy Vol. One, p. 379): ‘Of all the vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences.’ In short, one of the results of the emergence of Europe from the Middle Ages was a sea change in perceptions of society and with it the discovery of the possibility that social theory is a unique form of inquiry into societal conditions. Scholars began to perceive that existing laws and institutions, including the institutions of social inequality, were not immutable laws of nature but human constructs, which, if unsatisfactory could be changed.
Nico Stehr, Knowledge Politics: Governing the Consequences of Science and Technology, Paradigm Press, 2005 (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).
Nico Stehr, Die Moralisierung der Maerkte. Eine Gesellschaftstheorie. Suhrkamp Verlag, 2007.
(with Stephan Jansen and Birger Priddat), Die Zukunft des Öffentlichen. Multidisziplinäre Perspektiven für eine Öffnung der Diskussion über das Öffentliche. VS-Verlag, 2007.