Explanation in the Social Sciences


Explanation in the Social Sciences


Habermas bases this so-called lack of symmetry between physics and psychoanalysis

on the platitude that Freudian narratives are psychological (1984, 21).

Karl-Otto Apel's defense of the asymmetry between history and physical

science departs somewhat from the statements of Habermas that Grimbaum criticizes.

It brings out, perhaps, more clearly the worry about loss of human autonomy

that is the real concern of critical theorists:

It is true, I think, that physics has to deal with irreversibility in the sense of

the second principle of thermodynamics. . . . But, in this very sense of irreversibility,

physics may suppose nature's being definitely determined concerning

its future and thus having no history in a sense that would resist nomological


Contrary to this, social science . . . must not only suppose irreversibility—in

the sense of a statistically determined process—but irreversibility,

in the sense of the advance of human knowledge influencing the process of history

in an irreversible manner. (Apel 1979, 20, emphasis mine)

Apel then goes on to talk about the problem presented to social science (but

not to physical science) by Merton's theorem concerning self-fulfilling and selfdestroying


Apel's remarks suggest that critical theorists' talk about the special "historic"

character of social science, here and elsewhere, really amounts to the recognition

that humans are often able to use their knowledge of what has happened to redirect

the course of events, and to change what would have been otherwise had they not

been aware of what was going on and had they not formed goals of their own.

Since humans are agents with purposes, they enter into the molding of their own

histories in a way not possible by any nonthinking part of nature.

Grunbaum does include examples of "feedback" systems in his account of how

past states count in the determination of present behavior (1984, 19), but it is at

least arguable that the concept of "purposive behavior" is not entirely captured

in the descriptions of mechanical feedback systems (Taylor 1966). Apparently,

the critical theorists use the term "history" in a special way to refer to accounts

of autonomous human behavior. In this, they are similar to Collingwood, who

does not apply the term to any processes of nature—even geological and evolutionary

processes—that do not involve human intentions:

The processes of nature can therefore be properly described as sequences of

mere events, but those of history cannot. They are not processes of mere

events but processes of actions, which have an inner side, consisting of

processes of thought; and what the historian is looking for is these processes

of thought. All history is the history of thought. (Collingwood 1946, 215)

In addition to using "history" in this special way, critical theorists are concerned

that the "regularities" observed in our (corrupt) social system—that are the

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