I'm a master's graduate in biology. I completed a thesis recently on 'Social science in the age of biology'. It discusses how social scientists and biologists approach and answer questions pertaining to human behaviour and organisation of society differently. I was able to complete this thesis because I was guided by a social scientist. I developed a keen interest in the social sciences. I am now reading Foucault's ' Madness and Civilization' and Marx's ' Capital' and am finding it very difficult to decipher the text, even after understanding the individual words. Why is it that I'm finding it so difficult to make sense of the works of intellectuals in the social sciences? The amount of abstraction is also lesser as compared to the sciences, in which I have some training. My reading and comprehension skills are also reasonably good. What can I do to bridge the gaps in my ability to comprehend the works of intellectuals in the social sciences? Is doing coursework necessary?

  • Field apart, you would probably find equally hard to read hard sciences' works from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially if the original works were not written in English, with, e.g., long and convoluted sentences. Language changes with time and it's hard to read texts from a distant past, if one is not used to. – Massimo Ortolano May 11 '17 at 19:49
  • I've read mostly textbooks and current research papers in the hard sciences. So, if what you're saying is correct, the problem lies in the language belonging to a different time period? – user45959 May 11 '17 at 19:52
  • The sentences are long. But I can make sense of quite long sentences. With these works though, I understand the individual words, but I fail to understand what point the author is trying to make. – user45959 May 11 '17 at 19:54
  • It's not the only problem, but it's a major one, yes. – Massimo Ortolano May 11 '17 at 19:54
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    Could it possible that I haven't experienced the phenomenon that the author is referring to and hence, unable to relate to what they are conveying? Or am I unable to experience them vicariously either because the sentences though long, are pithy, in that they require much more examples and discussion for me to make sense of them and relate to them? – user45959 May 11 '17 at 19:57

These authors wrote for a particular audience and you, as a person living in 2017, are not who they had in mind. Part of comprehending text is being able to attach it to something that provides context to the text. You probably don't have this. Before reading books such as these try reading a modern summary that also provides context. This will give you a better chance at comprehension.

Additionally, the style of writing has evolved substantially since these books were written. Today authors (should) write for clarity. This wasn't always the case.

  • How could the target audience understand the texts in their time then, if they lacked context? – user45959 May 11 '17 at 20:51
  • The target audience would have understood these books because they had the necessary experiences. The audience was of the time in which the books were written and the ideas presented in these books were not altogether new. It's likely that readers would have a back ground in these areas. Additionally, they would have had discussions related to the topics tackled in these books. Also, not everyone would have understood the point of the books. Just like today, people claim to have an understanding of a concept even if they don't. – c4sadler May 11 '17 at 20:58
  • That applies partially to Marx but not to Foucault, who published into the 1980s. – henning -- reinstate Monica May 12 '17 at 6:03
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    Foucault is French, and French academia is also exceptionally "foreign" to people outside that bubble. – Maarten Buis May 12 '17 at 8:11

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