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Mechanistic explanation in social contexts: Elster and the problem of local scientific growth

Publiceringsår: 2012
Språk: Engelska
Sidor: 105-114
Publikation/Tidskrift/Serie: Social Epistemology
Volym: 26
Nummer: 1
Dokumenttyp: Artikel


Jon Elster worries about the explanatory power of the social sciences. His main concern is
that they have so few well-established laws. Elster (2007) develops an interesting substitute: a
special kind of mechanism designed to fill the explanatory gap between laws and mere
description. However, his mechanisms suffer from a characteristic problem which I will
explore in this article. As our causal knowledge of a specific problem grows we might come
to know too much to make use of an Elsterian mechanism but still lack a law. We might then
find ourselves in the paradoxical position of knowing more relevant causal truths about the
phenomenon we are interested in than we did before but being able to explain less. If this
possibility is realized in social science settings, as I argue it might well be, Elster’s
mechanistic account is threatened. Moreover, even if the possibility is rarely realized in that
way, it raises, simply as a possibility, a conceptual problem with Elster’s mechanistic



  • Nursing
  • scientific growth
  • mechanism
  • explanation
  • Elster


  • Lund university
  • Swedish Research Council
  • ISSN: 1464-5297
  • ISSN: 0269-1728

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