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and political world that they inhabit. In each case, explanations allow humans to manipulate
the world successfully. Put another way, explanations offer affordances (Gibson, 1977).
Some of these may be affordances for action, others are affordances for prediction.
There are, however, also important differences between the ways in which scientists
and practitioners construct and use explanations. The scientist aims to use established
explanations as a starting point for the production of further, true explanations. In practice,
the scientist makes use of explanations as the basis on which to make predictions. Successful
predictions, in turn, help to generate the theories that then become the basis for further
explanations. The practitioner’s aims are more pragmatic. The practitioner relies on
explanations insofar as they are useful; that is, truth is incidental to the practitioner’s aims.
Explanations have value if they lead to affordances for action. Explanations have little value
if they do not create an affordance but rather merely offer more description. For the scientific
realist, an explanation is good if it is accurate. Pragmatic success is, at best, a secondary
desideratum. Priorities are reversed for the practitioner: for the practitioner, an explanation is
good if reliance on the explanation leads to pragmatic success. Truth is, at best, a secondary
The distinction is perhaps best illustrated by considering two disciplines, each of
which is interested in offering explanations: physics and economics. Physics offers reductive
explanations in terms of the properties of the constituents and sub-constituents of matter. For
the past century, Western thinking has been guided by the physics paradigm: the world is
organized around discrete objects that aggregate and have simple relationships. Everything is
explainable through rules, laws, and algorithms. The observer is not a part of the observation
but is external to the closed systems under consideration.
Economics carries the mark of the last century of Western thought and so is modeled
on the physics paradigm. Physics has been strikingly successful; economics, less so. There
are at least two fundamental differences between the object of study of physics and that of
economics. While physics studies the interactions of mindless particles, economics studies
the interactions of autonomous and semi-autonomous agents. Furthermore, while in the study
of physics the physicist stands outside of the closed system being studied, the same cannot be
said of the economist.
Despite the successes of the frame of thinking that characterized physics, it has a
serious deficiency: How can it be that the actions and behaviors of reflexive, anticipatory
creatures are best described by rules for non-thinking, non-reflexive, non-anticipatory
objects? How can it be that context is deemed not to matter? And what about complexity or
those relationships that cannot be described by the simple? The physics-based frame has no
answer and instead discards these issues with the magic words
ceteris paribus
(“all other
things being equal”).
Ceteris paribus
clauses need not be problematic for the physicist, for
physics studies closed systems. However, we do not live in a closed system, thus the need
arises for some other frame of thought to enable our tools for understanding to be adequate
for the world around us.
The philosophical literature suggests that explanation and understanding, while
intertwined, are also different. Ricoeur’s (1973, 1974) hermeneutical method, for example,