Page 64 - MODES of EXPLANATION

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emphasized by van Fraassen (1980), citing Hanson, when he notes: “In other words, the
salient feature picked out as ‘the cause’ in that complex process, is salient to a given person
because of his orientation, his interests, and various other peculiarities in the way he
approaches or comes to know the problem-contextual factors.”
“Very broadly speaking, to explain something to a person is to make it plain and
intelligible to him, to make him understand it. Thus construed, the word ‘explanation’
and its cognates are pragmatic terms: their use requires reference to the persons
involved in the process of explaining. ... Explanation in this pragmatic sense is thus a
relative notion: something can be significantly said to constitute an explanation in this
sense only for this or that individual.” (Hempel, 1965)
In this view, explanation is in some sense “reduction to the familiar.” It is what is strange or
surprising that we do not understand; a good explanation gives us understanding by making
the phenomenon familiar, presumably by relating it to other things that are already familiar
(cf. Friedman, 1974). The penultimate pragmatist on the topic of explanation, Van Fraassen
(1980), claims: “A scientific explanation reflects a certain understanding of the context,
including the questioner’s interest, and encapsulates many everyday presumptions that form
our background knowledge.” This context dependence is reflective of the idea that an
explanation is “what Austin calls an illocutionary act. Like warning and promising, it is
typically performed by uttering words in certain contexts with appropriate intentions”
(Achinstein, 1983). Faye (2004) summarizes this: “An important requirement of an
explanation is that the response to an explanation-seeking question is relevant. An answer
that is considered irrelevant does not function as an explanation.”
Science 1 and Science 2
The framework presented above gives rise to the importance of a particular kind of context
dependence or epistemic interest: the difference between what we identified in the
Introduction as the worlds of Science 1 and Science 2.
Contrast “[t]he objects of historical study are fundamentally different from those, for
example, of the natural sciences, because they are the actions of beings like ourselves“ (Dray,
1957) and “the sciences which have an interest in specific events and their explanation may,
in contradistinction to the generalizing sciences, be called the historical sciences” (Popper,
1974) with Glennan (2013):
“While some philosophers of history have argued that explanations in human history
are of a fundamentally different kind than explanations in the natural sciences, I shall
argue that this is not the case. Human beings are part of nature, human history is part
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