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Three conceptions of explaining how possibly - and one reductive account

  • Henk de Regt
  • Stephan Hartmann
  • Samir Okasha
Publiceringsår: 2011-09-26
Språk: Engelska
Sidor: 275-286
Publikation/Tidskrift/Serie: The European Philosophy of Science Association Proceedings
Volym: 1
Dokumenttyp: Del av eller Kapitel i bok
Förlag: Springer


Philosophers of science have often favoured reductive approaches to how-possibly explanation. This article identifies three varieties of how-possibly explanation and, in so doing, helps to show that this form of explanation is a rich and interesting phenomenon

in its own right.

The first variety approaches “How is it possible that X?” by showing that, despite appearances, X is not ruled out by what was believed prior to X. This can sometimes be

achieved by removing misunderstandings about the implications of one’s belief system

(prior to observing X), but more often than not it involves a modification of this belief

system so that one’s acceptance of X does not generate a contradiction.

The second variety of how-possibly explanation offers a potential how-explanation of

X; it is usually followed by a range of further potential how-explanations of the same

phenomenon. In recent literature the factual claims implied by this sort of how-possibly

explanation have been downplayed, whereas the heuristic role of mapping the space of

conceptual possibilities has been emphasized. Below I will focus especially on this

truth-bracketing sense of potentiality when I look at this variety of explanation more


The third variety of how-possibly explanation has attracted less interest. It presents a

partial how-explanation of X, and typically it aims to establish the existence of a

mechanism by which X could be, and was, generated without filling in all the details. It

stands out as the natural alternative for advocates of ontic how-possibly explanation.

This article translates divisions like those evident in Salmon’s (1984) view that

explanation-concepts can be broadly divided into epistemic, modal, and ontic across to

the context of how-possibly explanations. Moreover, it is argued that each of the three

varieties of how-possibly explanation mentioned above has a place in science. That this

is so may be especially interesting to philosophers: we are often misled by the promises

made on behalf of various why-explanation accounts, and seem to have forgotten nearly

everything about the fruitful diversity of how-possibly explanations.


  • Philosophy
  • cause
  • explanation
  • mechanism
  • how-possibly explanation
  • how-explanation


EPSA 09: 2nd Conference of the European Philosophy of Science
  • ISBN: 978-94-007-2403-7
  • ISBN: 978-94-007-2404-4

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