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always ignores some features or aspects of the individual object. … Explanations
express choices between possibilities, perspectives and purposes; one may choose the
theory and define the relevant context within which one wishes to explain a given
fact.” (Lorand, 2001)
To approach these questions we are taking our guidance from Weber et al. (2011), who called
for a “pragmatic approach to scientific explanation.” They suggest that such a pragmatic
approach is centered around context-dependent claims and then taking “into account the
epistemic interests (i.e. the reason scientists have for asking specific explanation-seeking
questions) when trying to make context-dependent normative or descriptive claims about
explanations. These epistemic interests have to be taken into account because they influence
the type of explanation that is appropriate in a given context and also influence which
properties of an explanation (e.g. depth, deductivity) are important and which not in the given
context.” What this means in practice is that there is a need to take a careful look at context,
epistemic interests, and philosophical worldview when attempting to make claims about the
nature of explanation itself. Our aim for this chapter is to do just that.
Context Dependence and Epistemic Interests
Historically, it was the anti-positivists such as Droysen, Dilthey, Simmel, Weber,
Windelband, and Rickert who “reject[ed] the methodological monism of positivism and
refuse[d] to view the pattern set by the exact natural sciences as the sole and supreme ideal
for a rational understanding of reality. Many of them emphasize[d] a contrast between those
sciences which, like physics or chemistry or physiology, aim at generalizations about
reproducible and predictable phenomena, and those which, like history, want to grasp the
individual and unique features of their objects. Windelband coined the label ‘nomothetic’ for
sciences which search for laws, and ‘ideographic’ for the descriptive study of individuality.
Droysen coined for it the names explanation and understanding. The aim of the natural
sciences, he said, is to explain; the aim of history is to understand the phenomena which fall
within its domain” (von Wright, 2004).
More contemporaneously, “Scriven challenged the standard distinction between
explanation and description. He argued that it is often appropriate to provide a descriptive
statement in response to a question and that the right description is what counts as the
explanation. And what counts as the ‘right description’ is to be counted as what ‘fills in a
particular gap in the understanding of the person or people to whom the explanation is
directed.’ Scriven argued that explanation is not a matter of something more than description
but a matter of the context in which that description is placed” (Bunzl, 1993). Scriven’s
argument helps place context dependence front and center.
Kagan (2009) refers to three cultures: the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the
humanities. In so doing, he and many others suggest that the methodologies, interests,
ontologies, epistemologies, and so on differ among them. In contrast, Salmon (1984) at his