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Where Explanation Ends: Understanding as the Place the Spade Turns in the Social Sciences Stephen Turner.

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Presentation on theme: "Where Explanation Ends: Understanding as the Place the Spade Turns in the Social Sciences Stephen Turner."— Presentation transcript:

1 Where Explanation Ends: Understanding as the Place the Spade Turns in the Social Sciences Stephen Turner

2 The End of Explanation Explanation as substituting one mystery for another Mill A well-known scientist (some say it was the philosopher Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise. The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, What is the tortoise standing on? Youre very clever, young man, very clever, said the old lady. But its turtles all the way down!


4 Which Gives us the Problem Turtles all the way down or Ending Some place

5 What I am looking for The explanatory element that will be of concern to me here is the something that, added to the particular facts, makes for an explanation: the special inference ticket that allows us to go from particulars to an account of the thing. Ryle: A law is used as, so to speak, an inference-ticket (a season ticket) which licenses its possessors to move from asserting factual statements to asserting other factual statements. It also licenses them to provide explanations of given facts and to bring about desired states of affairs by manipulating what is found existing or happening.

6 Diversity, or One end point? are the social sciences themselves a unity, or do they amount to a collection of Dupré-like semi-independent domains, each of which has its own explanatory end-points? Are the kinds of things social scientists ordinarily work with, such as rational choice models, mechanisms, and causal models, actually explanatory or do they depend on something else which is the real end-point of these explanations? E.g. evolutionary psychology and sexual selection?

7 The Forms Answer When is an explanation complete, complete in the sense that it is satisfactory on its own terms? That will depend, of course, on what these terms are. But here we can arrive at some answers: For a covering law explanation, it is complete when the premises for the argument that makes up the deduction are filled in by true generalizations, including the ultimate inference ticket, a genuine law. For a narrative explanation of a particular kind, it is when the elements of the narrative form can be filled in with the right kind of facts. The form itself is the ticket that makes the particulars into an explanation.

8 Contextualism of a Kind If we stop here, with the recognition that there are multiple forms of explanation in social science, each of which has a conventional stopping point, we get a kind of contextual account. We also get a kind of answer to the problem of the role and nature of understanding: understanding is relative to explanatory forms, forms which are themselves paradigms of the understood, for which no further understanding is required. To fit an account into one of these pre-understood forms, such as a rational explanation, is the same as providing an understanding. And this comports well with actual social science, with its extraordinary diversity of approaches and explanatory practices.

9 But, no such happy ending the situation in social science is not like the felicitous menagerie of domain relevant explanations in John Duprés descriptions of natural science. The animals in social science dont stay in their cages, but compete with and not infrequently attempt to devour one another, or at least to discredit and supplant one another.

10 Two Big Problems Intelligibility: In the case of physics, it was more or less accepted that explanations would not make sense, and that whatever sense the physicist could made of predictions was enough. Social science has some analogues to this, but they are controversial and rare. So one problem with social science is the role of intelligibility: do social science explanations have to end in something intelligible?

11 Second Problem: Models No genuine laws But plenty of good, intelligible, and semi- predictive models, which are nevertheless literally false. So there is a question about how to understand these models: are they the kind which depend on some sort of intelligibility which we share with the subjects whose doings are explained by the model, or is it external intelligibility, the sort involved in making sense of predictively successful models, by analogies, for example.

12 Correlations what is a successful explanation in social science? If prediction plus intelligibility is enough, does it matter that the predictive successes are different– mainly involving correlations– than in physics or other natural sciences?

13 Causal Models as a Case These are models that are made up of correlations. From the usual practitioners point of view, modeling is a kind of hypothesis testing, in which the researcher starts out with some expectations about what is likely to correlate with what, a list of standard nuisance variables or confounders that are known to obscure relationships and can be controlled for statistically, and relationships that are understood, in the sense that they are known to be causal or potentially causal, and a data set of ordered tuples. The researcher then guesses at a causal interpretation of some phenomenon of interest– executive pay levels, political instability, pregnancy, a disease, success in school– and tries to construct a model, in the form of a set of causal arrows, which indicates what the lines of causal influence are. The data, or considerations of fit, determine which elements of the model, which causal relationships, are actually predictively relevant, and thus explanatorily relevant.

14 Where is the inference ticket? In the assumptions about what causes what, which are not tested by considerations of fit. So the usual strategy is to minimize these or rely on those that are too innocuous to reject. Then one can apply technical means to deal with confounding, ordering, etc.

15 Techie answer to being complete the statistics themselves tell us when the explanation is done: classically, as in Yules study of the effects of outdoor-relief, variables are added to the regression equation until they dont change anything about the predictions. If all the variables that might be expected to make a difference, namely those that cannot be placed into the not affected by category a priori, have been eliminated on this makes no difference ground, the model is as complete as it can get. More recent methods designed to detect spurious relations work on the same principle, but they are directed at excess correlation in a path on a graph, which indicates the presence of some causal influence that is not included in the model.

16 Slouching Toward Plausibility Being done in these cases, in short, comes down to two things: claiming that there is nothing that could be added that would make a difference to the predictive results of the model, and claiming that the causal assumptions have been reduced to innocuous and uncontroversial background knowledge. Often, of course, innocuous background knowledge is not enough, and the more flexible standard of plausibility is applied. This standard slides gradually into something else: intelligibility or causal plausibility. And in practice, the list of variables, and the way they are conceived and measured, reflects and reproduces background knowledge about what can affect what.

17 Robustness or Apply when they apply a kind of completion that is not provided: there is no sense in which one expects to be able to say under what conditions the model is applicable. Doing so would amount to universalization. But for these models, one can only say that they apply when they apply. The basic relationships themselves may simply cease to operate under novel conditions, or merely different circumstances, and there is nothing general that may be said about this.

18 So what does one get? the kind of causality that amounts to little more than a predictive relationship that is not excluded as non-causal a priori. Everything else one gets in the way of understanding or causal content one gets by adding background knowledge.

19 The Alternative: Mechanisms Mechanisms differ from causal models in that they have more content. Some of what figures as background knowledge or means of interpretation of relationships for causal models appears within the model of the mechanism itself. A typical example of a mechanism is Mertons account of machine politics: the Bosses secure the support of disprivileged groups, such as recent immigrants, by providing services or enabling access to public services. Support, which appears irrational, now makes sense as rational by identifying the processes by which each side benefits. This mechanism does not automatically develop out of the conditions of exclusion and so forth, but needs to be employed by a Boss in order to work, like any complex scheme of exchange. But it is also a model that can be employed by others in similar settings.

20 Also apply when they apply Mechanisms in this sense have the same applies when it applies character of causal models: they are there to plug in to account for input-output relationships with similar inputs and outputs, but the inputs and outputs do not determine the mechanism or produce it. The epistemic function of mechanisms is this: they are free-floating intelligibility-producing devices that fill in between inputs and outputs in a way that is more satisfying– more understanding-producing– than predictors which are not a priori no affect relations.

21 When are mechanism explanations complete? They seem to be complete when the elements of the mechanism are screwed together and work to connect the inputs to the outputs. The elements which form the connections, however, are the puzzle. If mechanisms are better explainers than correlations, it would be odd if the elements were merely correlations themselves. Then one would have to ask why casual models are any different than mechanisms.

22 So they have to be something more One answer might be that mechanisms resemble genuinely explanatory models that are already intelligible to us– this would be Intelligibility Type II, the intelligibility of models as models. But this would make the intelligibility that is conferred into analogy. Another– the elements are intelligible acts.

23 The Analogy Issue The concerns of the promoters of mechanisms may not seem obvious, but it should be clear that they intend to contrast mechanism explanations from the kind of psuedo-mechanisms that flourished under Talcott Parsons, systems theory, Jürgen Habermas, Niklas Luhmann, and Pierre Bourdieu, in which society did things like equilibrate or have steering mechanisms. These were overtly analogical explanations in which the parts that would enable the analogy to work were, routinely, either missing or entirely hypothetical.

24 But these analogies do confer understanding What makes these accounts attractive is that they confer a kind of understanding, analogous to the kind of understanding one gets of a physical science model, but without anything very predictive going on. An end, but also a dead-end: no good way of selecting between the analogies, or getting rid of them on the grounds that the underlying model is false or non-predictive, since there is no predictive empirical underlying model.

25 Why Mechanisms are better mechanisms in sociology, in contrast, has focused on an attempt to be more concrete than correlation, which means filling in or replacing correlations with something substantive. Human action is at the core of most mechanism explanations, so writers like Peter Hedstrom have moved on to argue that the kinds of mechanisms needed are made up of human actions, accounted for in terms of desires, beliefs, and opportunities. This is essentially the model of action explanation found in Donald Davidson and Max Weber, so the issues with it are well-understood. 2 Andrew Sayer Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp Andrew Collier Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskars Philosophy, New York: Verso, p. 20. –4 Collier. Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskars Philosophy, p. 20.

26 Critical Realism a third way of talking about mechanisms that appears to differ both from the analogical mechanisms of teleological social theory and the kind of in-filling rational action models. basic idea of critical realism is that the observable reality is produced by unobservable mechanisms that are real, have generative or causal powers as well as causal liabilities or vulnerabilities to being impacted by the world in various ways. Mechanisms operate when something triggers them. These powers and so forth are accessible through conditions for the possibility reasoning, rather than in the way theoretical objects are supposed to be accessed.

27 Where this works Power is real– exercised or not. account of power as something that people have but need not actually use if others know they have this power and act in ways which respect this fact. One could say that the existence of power which is never exercised and thus never observed is a condition for the possibility of the kind of power relations that actually exist in politics, namely the kind in which people make decisions in terms of the potential triggering of mechanisms that really exist but are never used, and are therefore inaccessible to positivism.

28 Where it collapses into action Is this use of power another analogical usage, or is it something that can be cashed in by translating it into the language of action? Certainly the literature in this area favors the use of physical, analogical language. But this isnt the kind of language that stands on its own: we either accept it because there is some compelling reason to accept it, or because we can translate it into something we already accept, and accept as a genuine completion of the explanation. The power of a boss rests on his ability to produce results, results that typically depend on people co-operating with them because they believe that the Boss could and would act in particular ways that would harm or benefit them. If this is what we mean by power, the term is analogical, and translates fully into action language. Terms like triggering simply conceal the fact that for someone to trigger the power of the political machine people need to act on their beliefs and in terms of their opportunities and desires.

29 So– action or bust. When we look at mechanisms made up of actions, or make sense of correlations by identifying typical action patterns (decisions, for example), where do these end? As explanations, they are ideal-types. So the claim is that they a) make sense (are more intelligible than the morass of individual actions) yet represent the actions that make up the pattern.

30 Older Issues with Ideal-types He calls ideal-types intuitive idealizations to distinguish them from idealizations in physics (which he suggests, using the ideal gas laws as a model, are ideal only in the sense that they involve extreme values not to be found in real cases), Hempel– didnt make sense other than as yet to be completed nomic explanations, by supplying the full conditions for the application. But acknowledges their role in lending intelligibility.

31 Hempels Bottom Line For Hempel, they are treated as sources of hypotheses which might be made into empirical theories: their function is to aid in the discovery of regular connections between various constituents of some social structure or process. Treating ideal-types as true subject to ceteris paribus clauses, he notes, will not suffice, because these qualifications make the formulation irrefutable and empirically irrelevant. Consider the claimQ will be realized whenever P is realized all other things being equal: since the protective clause does not specify what factors other than P have to be equal, (i.e. constant) or irrelevant if the prediction is q is to be warranted, the hypothesis is not capable of predictive application to concrete phenomena. i.e. they apply when they apply, but this is not good enough for explanation.

32 The only thing that would make them explanatory would be for them to function as theories, that is, for them to be claimed to be true. But economics, on this account, into the category of irrefutable and thus empirically irrelevant. Deducing results from postulates which represent ideal forms of behavior precludes a theoretical basis for an appraisal of the idealization involved. But he thinks that economic theory can be saved if economic theory could be deduced as a special case from a more general theory of social action, of the kind which, he optimistically notes, were being proposed at the time (by Parsons!).

33 The theoretical systems are then understood in accordance with the standard conception of empirical theory, and are thus testable on the basis of predictions about observable phenomena, because, as special cases, their area of application is defined. Open ceteris paribus clauses mean that any predictive failure can be claimed to be the result of external conditions. This is an answer to the completion question: completion occurs when there is a valid empirical theory.

34 A More Basic Distinction The type is an idealized example of an intelligible action– a narrative. These examples of intelligible actions are already described in a way that they are explained. They dont need to be backed by anything else. The problem is whether the idealizations apply to anything. Theories, in contrast, need to meet at least three standards: to be intuitively intelligible, to be in a form that is explanatory, and to be true.

35 Intentions If we grant this– that individual intentional explanations are complete and intelligible without reference to general laws– just by filling a narrative form, we get back to an earlier answer. But this answer has its own troubles: are narratives merely interpretations, of which there may be many consistent with the facts?

36 Hermeneutic Circles One answer is yes: that they are never complete– that attributions of intentions are acts of interpretation. We can revise the hypothesis and return to the evidence and test it again, in a perpetual hermeneutic circle. Interpretation is interpretation all the way down. But the core fact, the intention, is a mystery which is inaccessible, because the minds of others are inaccessible.

37 demystifications The locus classicus for the view that intentional explanations are hypotheses like any other, is Hempels discussion of rational action, in which rationality is analyzed as a disposition. This has the effect of making rational intentions into an unobservable, and specific attributions of intentions into derivative by-products of generalizations about dispositions and their outcome in action under difference circumstances.

38 Anscombe Variation of the narrative version: the only thing one needs or can get in the way of an account of intentional action is a correct description. Explanation is impossible, because the correct descriptions are non-explanatory and typologizing rather than causal. These descriptions are a dead-end. No additional causes or explanations are needed or possible. So the end point of these explanations becomes not a law but a concept, the concept used in the description.

39 Why do Narratives Explain Why are some descriptions explanatory and others not? Anscombes own account seems to be this: the redescriptions are backed by practical syllogisms. But this in itself is not enough, nor is it correct, as one can see from her own examples of Aristotle reasoning about wet and dry food.

40 The Later Peter Winch the understanding we already have is expressed in the concepts which constitute the form of the subject matter we are concerned with. These concepts on the other hand also express certain aspects of the life characteristic of those who apply them.

41 So concepts are the dead end They happen to contain the tacit knowledge that grounds explanation. The tacit grounds are then the real dead end, but they are an inaccessible mystery, so the de facto dead end is the concepts, which are explanatory.

42 Lots of problems Alien concepts– are they understandable? How are concepts understood? Or are they just grasped? Does conceptual relativism imply no understanding, or is it via something like similarities in underlying practices– we understand Zande beliefs because there is a similarity to our religious practices, which we already understand/

43 Is there an alternative? Empathy. This is direct understanding of action and beliefs of others. It is the end of the line. Concepts themselves can be omitted. Quinean ostensive definition is an example of empathy in action. Translation can account for variant beliefs.

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