Monday, March 21, 2016

Ontic, Epistemic, and Pragmatic Models of Explanation

Not so long ago, there were thought to be three main “schools” of explanation in the philosophy of science literature: the ontic, the epistemic, and the pragmatic, e.g. in Wesley Salmon’s masterful “Four Decades of Scientific Explanation.” This tripartite distinction was not employed consistently, and might never have been articulated very precisely. I offer the following as a useful distinction.

A theory T of explanation is ontic iffdf according to T, there exists no statement of the form x explains why y” that is true relative to a person S1 and not true relative to another person S2.

A theory T of explanation is epistemic iffdf according to T, there exists a statement of the form x explains why y” that is true relative to a knowledge corpus K1 and not true relative to another knowledge corpus K2.

A theory T of explanation is pragmatic iffdf according to T, there exists a statement of the form x explains why y” that is true relative to a person S1 and not true relative to another person S2.

Stipulation: If a statement is relative to a knowledge corpus, then it is relative to a person.


According to our stipulation and definitions, all epistemic theories of explanation are pragmatic theories of explanation. Hence, the fundamental divide is between ontic and pragmatic theories. Indeed, it might be more fruitful to describe the distinction as one between "impersonal" and "personal" theories.

More will need to be said about: (a) the viability of our stipulation, (b) the “relativity-clauses” in epistemic and pragmatic models, and (c) what “persons” are in the latter.

3 comments:

  1. I received some useful feedback on Facebook. Matt Brown wondered whether person-relativity is the best way to capture pragmatic theories of explanation. In particular, he worried that it excluded too many of the pragmatist's best tools: activities, situations, and communities.

    Reply: These pragmatist considerations are part of how I would individuate one person from another. It's pretty clear that individuals who are otherwise similar but engage in substantially different activities will not be the same person. I think the same point applies to situations and communities. (Insert your favorite "Twin Earth" scenario here.) Hence, I think only a very internalist conception of personhood would rob my view of its pragmatic character.

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  2. Richard Lauer wondered whether there is (or needs to be) genuine disagreement between ontic and pragmatic theories. In particular, we might think of "explanation" as having an ontic meaning (in which it is a metaphysical relationship) and another, distinct pragmatic one (in which it is a communcative act).

    Reply: Suppose that we follow Richard's suggestion. Now take any putative explanation and suppose that it satisfies the ontic constraints but not the pragmatic ones (or vice versa). Is the explanation correct or not? On Richard's suggestion, it is correct in one sense but incorrect in another. This might be the most principled philosophical response. However, I think it would be a mistake to assume that it HAS to be the most principled philosophical response.

    To settle this, we would need some way of adjudicating between legitimate "concept-splittings" versus their illegitimate counterparts. And there clearly are dubious concept-splittings. For instance, we wouldn't dissolve abortion debates as merely trading on different (but equally legitimate) conceptions of "life," "choice," etc. Moreover, there appear to be debates about explanation which bear closer resemblance to the abortion debate than merely verbal disputes. For instance, pragmatic and ontic theorists are likely to disagree about the probity of Inference to the Best Explanation.

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  3. Another thing I should mention: the original motivation for distinguishing ontic theories from the rest comes from Alberto Coffa's critique of Hempel's Inductive-Statistical Model of Explanation. Hempel's model has a requirement of maximal specificity that makes the explanatory relation relative to a knowledge corpus. Coffa thought that this makes the concept of explanation insufficiently objective for scientific practice. A few things to observe: (1) my definitions show why, if you have Coffa's worry, then you would be even more troubled by pragmatic theories, (2) my account of epistemic theories nicely accords with how Hempel and Coffa construe the controversial aspect of the I-S Model.

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