Mechanistic Explanation in Social Contexts: Elster and the Problem of Local Scientific Growth

Social Epistemology 26 (1):105-114 (2012)
Abstract
Jon Elster worries about the explanatory power of the social sciences. His main concern is that they have so few well-established laws. Elster develops an interesting substitute: a special kind of mechanism designed to fill the explanatory gap between laws and mere description. However, his mechanisms suffer from a characteristic problem that I will explore in this article. As our causal knowledge of a specific problem grows we might come to know too much to make use of an Elsterian mechanism but still lack a law. We might then find ourselves in the paradoxical position of knowing more relevant causal truths about the phenomenon we are interested in than we did before, but being able to explain less. If this possibility is realized in social science settings, as I argue it might well be, Elster?s mechanistic account is threatened. Moreover, even if the possibility is rarely realized in that way, it raises, simply as a possibility, a conceptual problem with Elster?s mechanistic framework
Keywords mechanistic explanation  Elster  social explanation  mechanisms  causal explanation
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References found in this work BETA
Sandra D. Mitchell (2009). Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy. The University of Chicago Press Chicago and London.
Johannes Persson (2005). Tropes as Mechanisms. Foundations of Science 10 (4):371-393.

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