The Ontology of Explanation

  • David-Hillel Ruben
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 117)


John Watkins and I seem to be equally out of fashion in our shared views on explanation. There is no shame in this, since fashions change but the truth is forever. I, like him, cannot make such sense of the idea of probabilistic or statistical explanation. I do not share his rejection of inductive argument per se, but since I agree with him that “the occurrence at a particular time of a chance event simply defies all explanation”,1 I hold that no such non-deductive argument whose conclusion mentions a particular event could count as an explanation of that particular event, however highly probable, given the premises, that conclusion is.


Short Circuit Causal Explanation Singular Term Property Identity Definite Description 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    J.W.N. Watkins, Science and Scepticism, Princeton University Press, Princeton, U.S.A., 1984, p. 228.Google Scholar
  2. 2a.
    A notable exception to this claim is Peter Achinstein, especially in his ‘The Object of Explanation’, in Explanation, S. Körner (Ed.), Blackwell, Oxford, 1975, pp. 1–45Google Scholar
  3. 2b.
    in his The Nature of Explanation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983. I have learned more from Achinstein than from any other writer on explanation.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Jonathan Dancy, Introduction to Contemporary Epistemology, Blackwell, Oxford, 1985, pp. 46–49.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Susan Haack, Philosophy of Logic, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1978, p. 246.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    Zeno Vendler discusses the mixed case of facts and events as the relata of the causal relation. See Vendler, ‘Causal Relations’, The Journal of Philosophy, LXIV (21) (1967), 704–713.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 6.
    David Lewis, ‘Causal Explanation’, Philosophical Papers, Vol. II, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986, pp. 214–40.Google Scholar
  8. 7a.
    James Woodward, ‘A Theory of Singular Causal Explanation’, Erkenntnis, 21 (1984), 231–262CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 7b.
    ‘Are Singular Causal Explanations Implicit Covering Law Explanations’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 16 (2) (June 1986), 253–279.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    John Mackie, The Cement of the Universe, Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 260.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Hilary Putnam discusses a case in which there is both a geometric ‘macroexplanation’ and a ‘microexplanation’ in terms of the laws of particle physics, for the fact that a peg 1 inch square goes through a 1 inch square hole and not through a 1 inch round hole, in his Meaning and the Moral Sciences, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1978, pp. 42–43.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    Peter Achinstein, The Nature of Explanation, Chapters 2 and 3, passim.Google Scholar
  13. 11a.
    Donald Davidson, The Journal of Philosophy, LXVI (21) (1967), 691–703CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 11b.
    reprinted in Causation and Conditionals, Ernest Sosa (Ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1975, pp. 82–94. My page references are to the Sosa collection. Davidson actually holds that “the fact that — explains the fact that —” is a non-truth-functional sentential connective, but there is no need to enter into these refinements here.Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    Donald Davidson, ‘True to the Facts’, The Journal of Philosophy, LXVI (1969), 748–764.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 13a.
    J.L. Austin, ‘Truth’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supp. Vol. XXIV, (1950)Google Scholar
  17. 13a.
    reprinted in Truth, George Pitcher (Ed.), Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1964, pp. 18–31. Quote from p. 24.Google Scholar
  18. 14.
    Zeno Vendler, op. cit., p. 710.Google Scholar
  19. 15a.
    Stephen Schiffer, Remnants of Meaning, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1987.Google Scholar
  20. 15b.
    See especially p. 51, Chapter 6 (pp. 139–78)Google Scholar
  21. 15c.
    Stephen Schiffer, Remnants of Meaning, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1987 pp. 234–39.Google Scholar
  22. 16.
    Since writing this paper, I have had Barry Taylor’s ‘States of Affairs’ drawn to my attention (in Truth and Meaning: Essays in Semantics, Gareth Evans and John McDowell (Eds.), Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 263–284). For Taylor, facts are states of affairs which obtain. Taylor uses intensions as the predicative element he requires in constructing facts; whereas I use properties (for ordinary facts) and properties as conceptualised (for special or epistemicised facts). Clearly, there are similarities in our approaches. Taylor’s facts are useless for a theory of truth (see p. 280). Taylor mentions other possible uses for states of affairs (and facts), but he does not mention their employment in a theory of explanation.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • David-Hillel Ruben
    • 1
  1. 1.The London School of EconomicsUK

Personalised recommendations