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Approach

Mentalism

The philosophy behind the approach of the Institute is best conceived of as mentalism.

Mentalism is understood as insistence on the importance of humanity as a reality sui generis as against physical and biological realities. This approach is different from the approaches characteristic of contemporary social sciences both in its focus and in its method. What distinguishes humanity from the rest of the animal species is culture, i.e. the fact that the process through which human beings transmit their ways of life across generations and distances is essentially symbolic and not, as in other animal species, essentially genetic. Therefore, our focus is on culture.

The study of symbolic reality necessitates an appropriate method, by definition different from methods appropriate for biological or physical realities, accepted in the social sciences as the only methods deserving the name of “scientific”. This approach is also different from the approaches characteristic of the humanities in that it is indeed a scientific approach, i.e. its theories are not speculative but in every case refutable by the test of empirical evidence.

In terms of the existing disciplinary divisions, mentalism is necessarily broadly trans-disciplinary. Yet, it is not eclectic but unified through the fundamental philosophy behind it and its method.

In a paper delivered at the meeting in London celebrating the centenary of the publication of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Professor Greenfeld first referred to this approach as “mentalism” (“Nationalism and Modern Economy: Communing with the Spirit of Max Weber,” MaxWeber Studies. Vol. 5.2/6.1 (July 2005/January 2006), pp. 317-343).