General theories of explanation: buyer beware

Synthese 190 (3):379-396 (2013)
We argue that there is no general theory of explanation that spans the sciences, mathematics, and ethics, etc. More specifically, there is no good reason to believe that substantive and domain-invariant constraints on explanatory information exist. Using Nickel (Noûs 44(2):305–328, 2010 ) as an exemplar of the contrary, generalist position, we first show that Nickel’s arguments rest on several ambiguities, and then show that even when these ambiguities are charitably corrected, Nickel’s defense of general theories of explanation is inadequate along several different dimensions. Specifically, we argue that Nickel’s argument has three fatal flaws. First, he has not provided any compelling illustrations of domain-invariant constraints on explanation. Second, in order to fend off the most vehement skeptics of domain-invariant theories of explanation, Nickel must beg all of the important questions. Third, Nickel’s examples of explanations from different domains with common explanatory structure rely on incorrect formulations of the explanations under consideration, circular justifications, and/or a mischaracterization of the position Nickel intends to critique. Given that the best and most elaborate defense of the generalist position fails in so many ways, we conclude that the standard practice in philosophy (and in philosophy of science in particular), which is to develop theories of explanation that are tailored to specific domains, still is justified. For those who want to buy into a more ambitious project: beware of the costs!
Keywords Explanation  Explanatory skepticism  Domain-specificity  Nickel  Context
Categories (categorize this paper)
DOI 10.1007/s11229-011-0020-8
 Save to my reading list
Follow the author(s)
My bibliography
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Revision history Request removal from index
Download options
PhilPapers Archive

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy on self-archival     Papers currently archived: 24,411
External links
Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library
References found in this work BETA

View all 10 references / Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

No citations found.

Add more citations

Similar books and articles
K. Khalifa (2013). The Role of Explanation in Understanding. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 64 (1):161-187.
James Owen Weatherall (2011). On Explanations in Physics. Philosophy of Science 78 (3):421-447.
Mark Zelcer (2013). Against Mathematical Explanation. Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 44 (1):173-192.
Paul Thompson (1988). Explanation in the Semantic Conception of Theory Structure. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1988:286 - 296.
Barbara V. E. Klein (1980). What Should We Expect of a Theory of Explanation? PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 1980:319 - 328.
Jeroen de Ridder (2006). Mechanistic Artefact Explanation. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 37 (1):81-96.

Monthly downloads

Added to index


Total downloads

90 ( #53,238 of 1,924,716 )

Recent downloads (6 months)

15 ( #52,486 of 1,924,716 )

How can I increase my downloads?

My notes
Sign in to use this feature

Start a new thread
There  are no threads in this forum
Nothing in this forum yet.