Conventional understanding of what it means to "explain" something in the social sciences provokes unnecessary confusion and conflict, and indeed is often based more on analysts' imaginations than actors' realities. The Explanation of Social Action lays out a sustained critique of this understanding, pointing out that the root of the problem is an attempt to counterpose two radically different types of answers to the question of why someone did a certain thing--first person responses and third person ones. John Levi Martin illustrates how this tendency is epitomized in attempts to explain human action in "causal" terms. He shows how this causality has little to do with the real world, but instead involves the creation of imaginary worlds, stemming from an intellectual history whereby social scientists began to distrust the self-understanding of actors and accepted fundamentally anti-democratic epistemologies, due to an epistemic hiatus in social knowledge and the adoption of practices in the intensely hierarchic setting of forced incarceral institutions for the insane.
Martin moves on to highlight other traditions that do not assume that the cognitive schemes of actors are fundamentally arbitrary. These traditions in turn suggest that the analytic problems that now arise require attention to the nature of judgment, implying the need for an understanding of the process whereby actors intuit intersubjectively valid qualities of complex social objects. Tackling the very way in which social scientists analyze why people do things, The Explanation of Social Action is a novel and essential take on the evidence on which their explanations are based.