From What Would an Adequate Philosophy of Social Science Look Like? by Brian Fay and J. Donald Moon:
Irrational social phenomena, unfortunately, are quite common. Consider, e.g., sociologists' and psychologists' attempts to uncover the "real meaning" of neurotic behavior (like compulsive handwashing), of violent prejudicial behavior toward minority groups, of recurring self-destructive patterns of social interaction, and so forth. Moreover, in situations such as these, the particular form of irrational behavior may not be just an isolated feature of a person's life, but may instead be systematically related to a wide range of different emotions, beliefs, and actions. The very basis of a person's life -- the terms in which he talks about himself in his most lucid and reflective moments, and the fears, aspirations, beliefs, passions and values which he ascribes to himself at these times -- may be fundamentally mistaken, and, as a result, he may be unable to adequately explain his behavior to himself or others. Worse than this, as a result of such misunderstanding he pursue ends he cannot achieve, and the goals he does reach may not be satsifying. Such frustration may lead him to intensify his efforts, and so to perpetuate his misery. And just as it is possible for a person to be systematically mistaken, so whole forms of life may be based on such self-misunderstandings, or what might be called "false consciousness." This is the picture of life that is painted for us be Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and, more recently, by Freud, Brown, Habermas, Becker, and a host of others.
The social scientist attempts to explain such irrational phenomena by treating the actors' beliefs and desires as ciphers for something else that constitutes the actors' actual reason for acting, or the real need which they are trying to fill. Thus, according to Rousseau, people desire wealth, but what they really want is social distinction, and money is an expression of social distinction in certain societies. Similarly, according to Mark, people engage in religious practices because they desire to be complete and whole human beings, and they believe that God will provide that fulfillment; but God is really nothing more than a picture of themselves fully actualized, and what would really satisfy them is to develop and exercise their productive capacities in forms of cooperative, social labor. Finally, to offer a third example, Becker aruges that people pursue sexual romance and contact, because sex is a cipher for everlasting life, and what they really want is to overcome the fear of their own death.
Such accounts of human motivation and behavior immediately lead to the question, How is it possible for people to be so ignorant and confused about their own needs and motives, thereby leading them to engage in destructive and frustrating activities? To answer this question we must have an account of what causes people to mistake some purpose or object (wealth, God, sex), for what they really want (social distinction, happiness, eternal life), and how these delustions are maintained. Freud's notions of sublimation and repression, and Marx's notions of alientation and ideology, are examples of concepts created in order to explain the process by which an activity acquires symbolic import and with it casal power, and how this process itself is hidden from the agent's view.
Thus, systematic misunderstandings of the meanings of one's activities, reinforced by repressive mechanisms, can result in irrational behavior whose upshot is social conflict and the experience of frustration. And this is the case just because human behavior is intentional in the sense of being undertaken on the basis of the ideas, desires, and perceptions of those who perform it. But in these situations the traditional humanist goal of understanding intentional phenomena by grasping the coherence which exists among their meanings must be replaced by the need to critique these phenomena. Or better, the only way to understand such a situtation is to engage in a critique in which one lays bare the ways in which the ideas people have of themselves mask the social reality which their behavior creates, and in which ones tries to demonstrate that the coherence of the relevant behavior occurs at the level so deep that it is beyond the capacity of the actors to appreciate it given the conceptual and emotional repsonses open to them. In doing this, the social scientist will undoubtedly have to make use of concepts and conceptual distinctions which in a basic way go beyond those operative in the social life which is being studied. It is in this way that the humanist model will be transcended.
The thing that caught my eye about this passage was the (unexamined) possibility that we are _not_ intentional beings, that there actually _is_ no coherence to our motivations. Maybe the same impulse that led us to find demi-gods and nymphs in every tree and river leads us to look for reasons and motivations in every action we take.
See also: jigamaree