The Explanation of Social Action
John Levi Martin
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The Explanation of Social Action is a sustained critique of the conventional understanding of what it means to "explain" something in the social sciences. It makes the strong argument that the traditional understanding involves asking questions that have no clear foundation and provoke an unnecessary tension between lay and expert vocabularies. Drawing on the history and philosophy of the social sciences, John Levi Martin exposes the root of the problem as an attempt to counterpose two radically different types of answers to the question of why someone did a certain thing: first person and third person responses. The tendency is epitomized by attempts to explain human action in "causal" terms. This "causality" has little to do with reality and instead involves the creation and validation of abstract statements that almost no social scientist would defend literally.
This substitution of analysts' imaginations over actors' realities results from an intellectual history wherein social scientists began to distrust the self-understanding of actors in favor of fundamentally anti-democratic epistemologies. These were rooted most defensibly in a general understanding of an epistemic hiatus in social knowledge and least defensibly in the importation of practices of truth production from the hierarchical setting of institutions for the insane. Martin, instead of assuming that there is something fundamentally arbitrary about the cognitive schemes of actors, focuses on the nature of judgment. This implies the need for a social aesthetics, an understanding of the process whereby actors intuit intersubjectively valid qualities of complex social objects. In this thought-provoking and ambitious book, John Levi Martin argues that the most promising way forward to such a science of social aesthetics will involve a rigorous field theory.
for psychologists attempting to account for the nonindependence of perceptual elements, which did not square with the dominant mechanistic explanation of sight. According to this attempt towards salvation began with a further retreat.”) Or, as Stumpf (1907: 35) said, Husserl only explored the genetic, and not the descriptive, tasks of a fundamental psychology. (It is important to recall that many of Husserl’s works that might lead us to question this judgment were published very late.) When
year ago is a cause, everything within 80 miles 5 years ago a cause, everything within 300 miles 10 years ago a cause, and so on. We cannot reject answers just because we do not like them. If causality were equivalent to simple counterfactual dependence, we will need to accept some of the confusing implications. But, as I will show, far from being obviously the true nature of causality, SCF has insoluble difficulties. Necessary Problems of Necessity There is a decent size industry in
for our more serious endeavors. If we argue that the pattern of alliances caused the First World War, we imagine a 1914 Europe without alliances. Why are there no alliances? Are the leaders ignorant of proper political action? Is the German state-building project on hold? Has Russia turned eastward? In other words, if we are interested in determining whether A is a cause of B, it will not do simply to try to construct a world identical to ours but lacking only A, for this world may be “farther
there is a fundamental difference between all theoretical and observational statements, and we cannot avoid some sort of gulf between the two. We brutally cram reality into ill-fitting boxes to which we attach doubtful labels because we call it the “operationalization” of abstract concepts and have convinced ourselves that there is no other way of doing science. Now, it is important to emphasize that this epistemology is the theory of our actual practice, not the prescriptive articulations of any
disapprove of a colleague so ill-mannered as to insist to others that there was no such thing as phlogiston. Sociology is indeed different from chemistry and other fields; my point is not that we should adopt the methods of any other science, but simply that there clearly is no general epistemological reason why we cannot say that intrinsic religiosity does not exist. We need to be able to distinguish between sophistication in the service of smartness from sophistication in the service of willful