Covering Law Explanation

The logical-empiricist account of explanation. The explanandum, or the high probability of the explanandum, must be validly deduced from premises including at least one law of nature.

Two basic types: Deductive-Nomological and Inductive-Statistical.


A model for the explanation of deterministic events. The explanandum (thing to be explained) must be the conclusion of an argument, the premises of which must essentially include a law of nature.


First presented in Hempel and Oppenheim 1948 'Studies in the Logic of Explanation'.

Main important development in Hempel 1965b 'Aspects of Scientific Explanation'.


A model for the explanation of indeterministic events. The argument, which must involve a law of nature as an essential premise, must lead to the conclusion that the explanandum was extremely likely.


First presented in Hempel 1965b 'Aspects of Scientific Explanation'.


There is a good summary of all the main objections and objectors in Salmon 1990 Four Decades of Scientific Explanation, chapters 1-3.


Structural Identity Thesis

The claim that explanations and predictions have the same structure: an explanation is a prediction made after the fact.


Stated in Hempel 1965b, pp364-76 and 406-10.

Criticised in Scheffler 1981 The Anatomy of Inquiry, chapter 1, sections 1-5, and Scriven 1962 'Explanations, Predictions, and Laws'.

Relevance Problems

It is often possible to deduce a fact from facts that do not seem to explain it. How can Hempel's model cope with this?


Hempel's approach to the problem is found in Hempel 1964 'Postscript (1964) to Studies in the Logic of Explanation' and Hempel 1965b, section 2.1.

Many of the problems are raised in Salmon 1990, section 2.3.

Functional Explanation

Can Covering Law models handle explanations that invoke purposes?


Hempel 1959 'The Logic of Functional Analysis' is the first discussion of these issues.

It is developed further in Cohen 1978 'Functional Explanation: In General'.

Probabilistic Explanation

The Inductive-Statistical model deals with this, but has been found unsatisfactory in some respects.


Coffa 1974 is one of the first criticisms of the IS model in particular.

Railton 1978 and Railton 1981 present a Deductive-Nomological account of probabilistic explanation.