Edited by Peter J. Boettke
Chapter 3: The Facts of the Social Sciences are what People Believe and Think
Virgil Henry Storr* [W]henever we interpret human action as in any sense purposive or meaningful, whether we do so in ordinary life or for the purposes of the social sciences, we have to define both the objects of human activity and the different kinds of actions themselves, not in physical terms but in terms of the opinions and intentions of the acting persons. (Hayek, 1948, p. 62) 3.1 Introduction The aim of the social sciences is to explain and understand social phenomena. They are concerned with how the purposeful action of individuals operating on the basis of their own peculiar knowledge of their particular circumstances of time and place bring about orders that no single mind did or could deliberately design. Understanding purposeful human action and, so, the emergence of social phenomena, means understanding the opinions and beliefs that guide individual decision-making. The facts of social sciences are, therefore, the meanings that individuals attach to their actions and their environments. The essential data of the social sciences are subjective in character. As Mises (1963, p. 26) argued in Human Action, “we cannot approach our subject if we disregard the meaning which acting man attaches to [his] situation.” Similarly, as Hayek (1979, p. 53) argued in The Counter-Revolution of Science, “unless we can understand what the acting people mean by their actions any attempt to explain them. . .is bound to fail.” The social sciences, if they are to explain social phenomena, must be concerned with what people think and feel,...
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