Peter Winch 1926-97                                                 RUPERT READ, U.E.A., Norwich, U.K.



Winch’s philosophical reputation is mostly due to his famous (or infamous) monograph, The Idea of a Social Science (1958, 1990). This is perhaps the most influential of the ‘little red books’ published by followers of Wittgenstein which briefly held the English-speaking philosophical world in the late 50s and early 60s. However, unlike others of the ‘little red books’, Winch’s was read widely outside academic philosophy.


Winch’s aim in this book was to follow Collingwood’s aim, in his classic work The Idea of History, of attempting to understand human action as ‘from the inside’, as the action of people with ideas, agents, not merely related to each other ‘externally’ as billiard balls are. Winch urged that any philosophy or social science which failed so to understand human action was not succeeding in understanding human action – action with an inevitably social dimension -- at all. However, while Collingwood saw the study of history as by and large a successful effort to understand, Winch excoriated the social sciences for treating human beings as if they were physical objects or some other fit matter for scientific treatment. Winch famously claimed that most of sociology was in truth not any kind of science, but a disguised form of philosophy. His book might easily have been entitled, The very idea of a social science.


Most social scientists were stung or outraged by Winch’s claims. A minority thought Winch’s a fair critique of much of their discipline(s), and praised Winch’s hermeneutical sensibility. A smaller minority still, of ‘Wittgensteinian’ and ethnomethodological sociologists, have tried to foment a new form of ‘social studies’ which explicitly follows the non-scientistic path that Winch intimates.


Winch’s most famous paper was a follow-up to his famous little monograph. It was a treatment of anthropology laid out upon broadly similar lines to the treatment of sociology etc. offered in The idea of a social science. In “Understanding a primitive society” (1964, 1972), Winch argued that the best way to avoid misunderstanding a primitive society – or any other society which seemed seriously different from our own – was to try to understand it as a language-game that was being played, rather than to approach it through our own pre-established standards of judgement. (This conception of his was strikingly similar to Thomas Kuhn’s idea, propounded at the same time, and similarly under Wittgenstein’s influence, of understanding an ‘alien’ science – such as Aristotle’s physics – not as a failed attempt to grasp at what we know, but sui generis, as a ‘language-game’ with its own methods and standards.)  Winch further held that approaching the society in question in such a genuinely open-minded spirit was likely to have the fortunate ‘side-effect’ of increasing one’s understanding of one’s own society. The ‘alien’ society could function as a genuine object of comparison which one could learn from, by contrast and possibly later by imitation, and not just dismiss.


In 1990, Winch produced a new ‘Preface’ for The Idea of a Social Science, which is important in that it tries to head off various widespread misunderstandings of the earlier work, and to make clear the parallelism between it and the work of Wittgenstein’s great student, Rush Rhees (a colleague of Winch’s at Swansea). In his last years, Winch became increasingly impressed and critically engaged with the new interpretation of Wittgenstein associated with Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond and James Conant (see especially his “Persuasion” (1992)), an interpretation of Wittgenstein that parallels closely Rhees’s own views.


Winch made important contributions to ethics, to the understanding of the Holocaust, to the philosophy of literature, to Wittgenstein scholarship, and in translating some of Wittgenstein’s work. He would probably be disappointed to be remembered primarily as ‘a radical philosopher of social science’. His corpus is far richer than that label would suggest.



Select Bibliography


Alice Crary and Rupert Read (eds.) The new Wittgenstein, London: Routledge, 2000.

Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, London: Prentice-Hall, 1965.

Colin Lyas, Peter Winch, London: Acumen, 1999.

Nigel Pleasants, “The concept of learning from the Holocaust” (forthcoming).

Wes Sharrock and Rupert Read, Kuhn, Oxford: Polity, 2002.

Peter Winch, “Social Science”, British Journal of Sociology 7 (1956), 18-33.

            The idea of a social science and its relation to philosophy, London: Routledge, 1958.

            (ed.) Studies in the philosophy of Wittgenstein, London: Routledge, 1969.

            Ethics and Action, London: Routledge, 1972.

            Trying to make sense, Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

            “Persuasion”, MidWest Studies in Philosophy 17 (1992), 123-137.