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On the Problem of Causality in Social Sciences (Synopsis)

Usually the concept of causality is discussed in the context of hard sciences, especially physics, which are considered to be paradigmatic. To transfer this concept of causality to social sciences is believed to be a merely pragmatic problem: since the objects of social sciences are highly complex and can hardly be isolated, social science is not as "hard" a science as physics, although on principle it could be.

This essay argues for the other way round: that social sciences are paradigmatic for understanding the concept of causality: we couldn't understand the concept of causality in hard sciences had we never experienced it in our social world in the first place.

David Hume had argued that when we refer to causality, all we really experience is that what we call the effect will always happen after what we call the cause. But how did we arrive at the idea of perceiving this as a causal relationship at all, one that points to an inner connection between cause and effect rather than the mere temporal sequence we perceive? The answer is that we get this idea from our social experiences.

Social reality has the form of a text, i.e. everything in it has meaning and can and will be interpreted. Saying something is just as meaningful as not saying anything - both these actions deliver a message to the people around, whether intended or not. The rules that structure social reality are the rules of meaning respectively language; as speakers of our language we all know them implicitly. Therefore, to make our knowledge about them explicit, the social scientist has to only reconstruct them in their own medium - language respectively meaning. The rules exist objectively insofar as they actually generate the phenomena that need to be explained; they are generative rules.

The hard scientist, however, applies the concept of causality only by analogy to her social experiences. She may assume the fact that the cause is always followed by the effect stems from the same inner connection we experience when we talk of reasons in the social world, but she'll never know. Since nature has no meaning and doesn't speak, there are no existing rules merely to be found and reconstructed (rules are a property of language). Instead, the hard scientist has to construct the rules. They don't exist objectively (language is no property of nature) but are used to subsume our discrete empiric data; as such they are subsuming rules.

Therefore, it can be said that the hard scientist has to translate her object data into the medium of language and rules, while the social scientist need not do so. The act of translation moves hard sciences farther away from their objects, introducing new possibilities of error. In this respect, social sciences are less error-prone as hard sciences, contrary to common belief.

However, due to their very nature of being subject to human free action (which constitutes change and thereby history), social rules are of less prognostic value than those in the hard sciences.

Therefore, the question which kind of science comes closer to truth depends on the perspective. If the concept of truth is reduced to prognostic value (a prevalent view at least in Anglo-Saxon countries nowadays), it's certainly hard sciences. If it's not, it's probably social sciences.