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What Is Social Philosophy?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Social philosophy is the study of social interactions and behavior between two or more people. Such philosophical studies are usually conducted on humans, but have also been used to look at social systems in other animals such as dolphins and great apes. Social philosophy examines group dynamics and organization, group identity and the role of individual feelings within them.

Any discussion of and any theory about social issues could be considered an element of social philosophy. There are many overlapping disciplines with the philosophy of society. For example, it overlaps with other philosophical disciplines such as ethics, language philosophy, political philosophy and social epistemology. It also combines and merges with non-philosophical disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and psychology.

The two main elements of social philosophy are the society and the individual. Emmanuel Kant believed that the fundamental element of a good society is freedom. By this, he means the freedom to be an individual, but individuals also have a contract with society that naturally limits any such freedom. According to Kant, therefore, society is about a balance between rights and responsibilities.

Responsibilities or duties are called the social contract. Kant expounded his ideas on the social contract in his “Theory and Practice” essay. The social contract does overlap with ethics and morality, but is not bound entirely to those parameters.

Authority is also an aspect of the social contract in social philosophy. Just as the large strata of society have obligations to one another and to society as a whole, those in power are also restrained by rights and responsibilities. This helps to define what a person in authority can and cannot do, what their obligations are to others and what privileges they receive in return.

Philosopher Max Weber developed a theory that there are three types of legitimate authority in social philosophy. The first is the leader who gains his or her position by rational and legal means, such as through an election. The second is the leader who gains his or her position through tradition such as hereditary monarchies. The final leader gets to the position of authority through charisma alone. Followers of the first type of authority may have problems with the second and third types because they have no democratic mandate, but authority from charisma can be given to public figures as diverse as religious leaders and talk show hosts.

As well as covering the structure of societies and how individuals relate to them, social philosophy studies specific social situations and how they occur and why within the larger framework. This includes romance and dating, fashion and the development of culture. It also includes culturally-specific problems such as terrorism.

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Discussion Comments
By candyquilt — On Jul 05, 2014

As far as I understand, social philosophy is more about philosophy and less about being social. Meaning that social philosophy wants to understand society by studying people's ethics rather than their relationships.

By bear78 — On Jul 04, 2014

@bluedolphin-- I don't know if American founders were influenced by Kant's thoughts. But I don't think that American culture is very worried about social responsibilities. I think that American culture is rather individualistic.

Yes, people have individual rights, they know what they are and these rights are protected by the Constitution. But I don't think that American society as a whole carries a psychology where the common good is at the forefront. Most people do not care much about social responsibilities or do not feel that they have them. It's mostly about individual liberties and wealth.

I may be wrong but this is my opinion.

By bluedolphin — On Jul 04, 2014

I think that Kant's ideas about social responsibility were very influential on American founders and American politics. The idea that individual freedom is important but must not infringe on others' freedom is essential to the concept of individual rights and responsibilities in our country. There is a common phrase that "an individual's rights ends where another's begins. I think this is what Kant thought about the social contract.

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