Frederic Charles Schaffer, "What Is It We Do When We Ask Questions about Causes?", December 2012

This paper examines what people do when they ask and answer questions about the causes of human action in everyday contexts in order to explore difficulties that political scientists have encountered in thinking about causation. It is, after all, to everyday talk that technical political-science understandings of causation must ultimately be tethered in some way. The analysis of ordinary-language use shows that people inquire about causes when they are surprised, and that it is perfectly acceptable when answering such questions to invoke reasons, motives, and understandings as causes. These two observations suggest the following conclusions. First, positivist scholars who eschew consideration of motives, reasons, and understandings when investigating the causes of human action are in danger of providing accounts that are misleading or off the mark. Second, interpretivist scholars who refrain from investigating causal questions mistakenly conflate causal accounts in general with Humean mechanistic accounts of causality, and thereby overly restrict the scope of their analyses. Lastly, the kinds of tools political scientists have developed to explain regularized human behavior divert attention from inquiry into the extraordinary, and thus too from some of the causal questions people most want to ask.