Explanation and laws

Synthese 120 (1):1--18 (1999)
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In this paper I examine two aspects of Hempel’s covering-law models of explanation. These are (i) nomic subsumption and (ii) explication by models. Nomic subsumption is the idea that to explain a fact is to show how it falls under some appropriate law. This conception of explanation Hempel explicates using a pair of models, where, in this context, a model is a template or pattern such that if something fits it, then that thing is an explanation. A range of well-known counter-examples to Hempel’s models has led his successors to seek alternatives. Problems with limited amendments have encouraged some theorists of explanation to abandon nomic subsumption. So, in particular, causal components have come to be regarded as essential, even though Hempel had intended his model to capture causal explanation as well.1 Here I want to examine the prospects for retaining nomic subsumption by rejecting the other feature of Hempel’s approach – explication by models. An examination of the counter-examples will suggest that it is a mistake to imagine that a limited quantity of information about laws and antecedent conditions will be able to provide an actual explanation – other information, about explanations, may be relevant. This in turn leads me to examine what I shall call structural approaches. They are structural because the status of something as an explanation depends on its fitting into a structure of explanations. There are two structural approaches I shall examine. One is holistic – it proposes that we consider explanation hand-in-hand with the concept of law. This account of explanation inherits its holistic nature from the holistic (or sys- tematic) character of laws of nature. The second supervenience view I shall consider is not global as the holistic approach is. Instead it concentrates on the ‘vertical’ structure of explanations, whereby the existence of a nomic explanation at one level reflects explanations on lower levels on which it supervenes. These structural approaches were first proposed in Bird Synthese 120: 1–18, 1999. © 1999 Kluwer Academic Publishers..



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Alexander James Bird
Cambridge University

References found in this work

What is a Law of Nature?D. M. Armstrong - 1983 - New York: Cambridge University Press. Edited by Sydney Shoemaker.
Inference to the Best Explanation.Peter Lipton - 1991 - London and New York: Routledge/Taylor and Francis Group.
Inference to the Best Explanation.Peter Lipton - 1991 - London and New York: Routledge.
Counterfactuals.David Lewis - 1973 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 36 (3):602-605.

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