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Chapter 3
The Context of Our Query
Michael Lissack
This chapter is intended to serve the function of a literature review: locating the present work
within the context and structures of existing research and literature. However (and this is an
important caveat), our belief is that the traditional format of a literature survey (author a said
x, author b said y, arranged either chronologically or by topic) seldom lends itself directly to
an explanatory task – and the aim of this book is to better explain explanation. Thus, we have
taken a different approach. You will find that this chapter is mostly quotations – quotations
that have been selected and arranged to provide contextual background. The text below draws
from the vast literature on explanation, but is organized so as to lay out more effectively the
expository framework on which the following chapters rely. The structure of the chapter is
that of an embedded hermeneutic circle, where the dialogue is among the quoted authors and
the interpretation is left to the reader.
make (an idea, situation, or problem) clear to someone by describing it in
more detail or revealing relevant facts or ideas.
account for (an action or event) by giving a reason as excuse or justification.
justify, give a justification for, give an excuse for, vindicate, legitimize.
be the cause of or motivating factor for.
minimize the significance of an embarrassing fact or action by giving an
excuse or justification. (as defined by a Google search, February 2014)
“To explain (explicate, explicare) is to strip reality of the appearances covering it like
a veil, in order to see the bare reality itself.” (Duhem, 1906/1954)
To explain is to “remove puzzlement” (Wilkes, 1989) and “increase intelligibility” (Boden,
1962) – to describe one thing in terms of something else.
“According to Salmon’s classic discussion, conceptions of explanation can be divided
into epistemic, modal and ontic approaches (1984). The view that all scientific
explanations are arguments, either deductive or inductive, is identified as the
inferential version of the epistemic conception; the doctrine that all explanations are
deductive arguments represents the modal conception. The causal conception of
scientific explanation is a version of the ontic conception (Salmon, 1984). These