Michael A. Simon on Human Action

Philosophical Books 25 (1984): 38-41.

Denis Dutton


Understanding Human Action, by Michael A. Simon. SUNY Press, 1982, ix & 226 pp. $32.50 cloth, $9.95 paper.

Michael Simon defends the view that the study of rational human social activity cannot be modeled on the example of the physical sciences, but must take into account the fundamentally teleological nature of human action. The thesis is hardly unique to Simon, and yet this book stands as an uncommonly valuable contribution to the literature. Simon has a keen sense of the relative importance of the countless topics end debates in the chaotic field of philosophy of the social sciences, and he wastes little space on the pointless or trivial. In fact. I would go so far as to say that in providing a virtual compendium of arguments in support of a humanistic conception ofsocial science, and in the concision, richness, and pertinence of its discussion, Understanding Human Action is one of the finest books in philosophy of social science written in the last decade.

The analysis begins, not unreasonably, by arguing that the social sciences must conceive human behavior as activity, and that action is a primitive notion, one incompatible with the kinds of explanation demanded in the natural sciences. The idea of action “is bound up with a whole cluster of concepts that are constitutive of the human condition — ideas of freedom, morality, and responsibility” (p.22). This conception of action is “indissolubly linked to that of a person” (p.23), and it makes any science of human beings “intrinsically anthropocentric.”

Much of the material Simon presents in his initial chapters will be familiar to readers acquainted with the discussion of free action as it has progressed in analytic philosophy over the last thirty years. There are echoes, as well as thoughtful criticisms, of Austin, Melden, Winch, Danto, and Davidson. Having demonstrated the primacy of action and agency, for social science, Simon proceeds to show that “action is itself ultimately a social category” (p. 29). This denies any essential distinction between “individual” and “social” action or activity: all action, insofar as it is invested with meaning, is social.

Worth particular attention is Simon’s examination of the extent to which an agent can be held accountable for an action when the action in question is as redeseribed by an observer. He wants “to argue that actions have meanings that go beyond the agent’s subjective intentions” and that we must “acknowledge that there are actions that are correctly characterizable under descriptions that agents may not accept” (p. 31 ). Thus, apparently, we can “perform an action unknowingly” (p. 38). He later reverts to a phrase which often appears in discussion of this issue when he writes of characterizations of actions which are “not available” to the agent. But I fail to see how his examples involve descriptions “not available” to the actor. The speculator who sells short without knowing the conventional market phrase for what he is doing is only in the most trivial sense “unknowingly selling short": he might well be cognizant of even aspect and implication of what he is doing without realizing what it is called. Again, Simon is right that we can do many things we are unaware of — tugging newously at an ear lobe — but these are hardly actions with descriptions unavailable to us. Likewise with Simon’s accounts of “unconscious” preferences of jobs or hobbies: there may be more in what we do than we have considered, but that does not mean that our actions described in terms of those considerations are unavailable to us.

Simon wants to show here that actions can have meanings “that go beyond the agent’s subjective intentions but are not encompassed by the notion of unintended consequences” (p.30). This is a laudable aim, because he is trying to expand the sphere of what can be properly considered intentional. But it seems to me that his discussion gives too much to the social sciences. Claims by social scientists to privileged insight often rest on their ways of redescribing human affairs. It is notorious that frequently the sociologist’s or psychologist’s technical, “expert” redescription of a human activity amounts to nothing more than a clumsy translation into esoteric jargon of something apparent — and “available” — to all in ordinary discourse. The issue that cries out to be addressed is how far social scientific redescription ever constitutes any kind of new insight or knowledge about human activity or the human condition. On this point I would be even less generous than Simon.

Later on, Simon does indeed turn more severe, especially in his concluding chapter, “The Fruits of Social Research.” Here he argues that when the social sciences are at their best they never deliver the kinds of empirical generalization produced by the natural sciences, and conversely, when they are truly — or scientifically — empirical, they tend towards truism and triviality. “It is not,” for example, “psychology that teaches us that a major determinant of a person’s choice of activities, how hard he strives and how long he persists” with them is his ability to control the outcomes of those activities. “Empirical studies do not validate such insights; they instantiate them” (p. 193). In many cases “our ordinary common-sense explanations are the best we have, and they are not improved by being expressed in the abstract terminology of psychological theory” (pp. 193-94).

The central chapters of Understanding Human Action treat causation and theory in the social sciences. There are any number of intriguing arguments and asides in these pages, including the following: in order for there to be discoverable laws covering a domain, it is not enough that we be assured that “the same equal conditions always produce the same effect . . . if this requires that all of the original conditions obtain and nothing intervene” (p. 115). The “same cause, same effect” formula is insufficient for the determination of causal laws; what is needed is something that relates the same kinds of causes with the same kinds of effects. As Simon puts it, “if all of the elements in the domain are interrelated in such a way that if any of them had been different, a designated cause-effect would not have produced its effect, this would be a case of causation without causal laws” (pp. 115-16). This means that human activity could well be causally conditioned, and still not be describable in terms of universal laws governing types of human action.

In any event, you cannot infer from the fact that people make similar rational choices “that their choices are determined in accordance with causal law” (p. 125). And it is this lack of identifiable laws of social behaviour which contributes to the lack of any established theory in the social sciences. (Though one might remark that the problem with the social sciences is not too few theories, but too many — a cacophony of theories,) There is no point in waiting for a Newton or a Darwin to turn this situation about, in Simons view. Rather, a “real impossibility” faces us in our attempt to order the subject matter of the social sciences in any way that resembles the theoretical structures of the natural sciences. Yet this need not be seen as a threat to the value of the social sciences, because there is much that “can be learned about the relations among various social phenomena without having a grasp of law or theory” (p. 139). “Like the dramatist or novelist,” a social scientist does not require a theory in order to have practical knowledge of human affairs.

Simon’s plea, then, is for a social science that provides the kinds of insights into the human condition produced by literature, history, and journalism. “Once its scientific aspirations are set aside, and its pretensions stripped away,” social science is “at its best, a set of humanistic disciplines” (p. 205). Coming at a time when some humanists are beginning to ape the social sciences at their most philistine in order to give their disciplines “new direction,” such a thesis may be received as reactionary. But I think it right — and it is well argued in this rich and provocative book.