Concepts of Explanation

The conceptions of explanation are not theories of explanation, and a given concept may be consistent with many theories, and vice versa. Indeed, a good theory will capture aspects of all the conceptions, thus explaining why they all have some intuitive pull.


An explanation gives us a reason to believe in the truth of the explanandum. This was Hempel's official position.

Sometimes, however, the only reason we have to believe the explanation is that we know the explanandum is true (e.g. the recession explanation for the red shift of galactic spectra).


An explanation makes the unfamiliar and surprising explanandum familiar to us.

However, we often explain familiar things, such as the blue of the sky, in unfamiliar terms, such as the differential scattering of different wavelengths of light from microscopic particles.


An explanation unifies our knowledge of the explanandum with our knowledge of other things. This is tightly linked to unification models of explanation.

It is difficult to say what, exactly, unification involves.


An explanation enables us to see why the explanandum had to be the case.

There are problems with the possibility of probabilistic explanation.


We explain something by giving its causes. This is closely linked to the causal model of explanation.

Some explanations do not seem to be causal, e.g. explanations in mathematics.


An explanation is anything that improves our understanding. See Matthews 1981.

Unfortunately, we do not have a good account of understanding at present.

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Copyright David Chart 1997