Exploring the similarities in human action

EXPALANATION AND UNDERSTANDING IN THE HUMAN SCIENCE Gurpreet Mahajan Publisher: Oxford University Press Price: Rs 150

By B K Royburman
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

THIS SLIM monograph explains Mahajan's preference for the term "human sciences" rather than "social sciences". Within the framework of social sciences, there are different disciplines, each analysing a particular dimension of the collective human enterprise. Human science stresses the similarities among different categories of human action and hence provides the appropriate backdrop for discussing methodological issues cutting across disciplines.

According to Mahajan, the Anglo-Saxon tradition of social science has been obsessed with facts and values. There is also the parallel tradition associated with German scholars like Wegelin Herder and others that can be traced back to the mid-18th century. History, according to Wegelin, analyses products of human values, morals, opinions and social conventions, which cannot be comprehended through cause-and-effect relationships.

Mahajan begins with the assumption that when we choose a particular mode of explanation for an object, we construct the object differently from the ones that are not chosen. The modes considered by the author are causal explanation, reason-action explanation, and the narrative mode.

Mahajan gives several reasons in support of a mode of explanation other than the causal, and the most important of these is that by excluding the dimension of intentionality, causal explanations visualise history as a series of events. They examine what happens to people rather than what they do.

Reason-action explanations assume historical agents are rational humans; they choose a particular course of action because they feel this would enable them to pursue and realise their goals and desires. It becomes obvious there are many pitfalls in this approach and where Mahajan fails is in explaining the role of the subconscious in the reason-action paradigm.

On the whole, this is an interesting book because it introduces the reader to a new set of arguments.

B K Royburman is a social anthropologist who has worked extensively with tribals in India.

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