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

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Understanding, Models, Mechanisms, Causal modeling, Max Weber, Explanation

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Explanations implicitly end with something that makes sense, and begin with something that does not make sense. A statistical relationship, for example, a numerical fact, does not make sense; an explanation of this relationship adds something, such as causal information, which does make sense, and provides an endpoint for the sense-making process. Does social science differ from natural science in this respect? One difference is that in the natural sciences, models are what need “understanding.” In the social sciences, matters are more complex. There are models, such as causal models, which need to be understood, but also depend on background knowledge that goes beyond the model and the correlations that make it up, which produces a regress. The background knowledge is knowledge of in-filling mechanisms, which are normally made up of elements that involve the direct understanding of the acting and believing subjects themselves. These models, and social science explanations generally, are satisfactory only when they end the regress in this kind of understanding or use direct understanding evidence to decide between alternative mechanism explanations.

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Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, v. 44, issue 3, p. 532-538