Empiricism, Objectivity, and Explanation

Midwest Studies in Philosophy 18 (1):121-131 (1993)
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Abstract
We sley Salmon, in his influential and detailed book, Four Decades of Scientific Explanation, argues that the pragmatic approach to scientific explanation, “construed as the claim that scientific explanation can be explicated entirely in pragmatic terms” (1989, 185) is inadequate. The specific inadequacy ascribed to a pragmatic account is that objective relevance relations cannot be incorporated into such an account. Salmon relies on the arguments given in Kitcher and Salmon (1987) to ground this objection. He also suggests that Peter Railton’s concepts of the ideal explanatory text and explanatory information (Railton 1981) can provide what the pragmatic approach lacks. This suggestion is not a conclusion of course; we read it as the promotion of part of a research program aimed at forging a greater consensus on scientific explanation-an admirable goal. However, we do not see the pragmatic approach as inadequate. We will show that a synthetic account inspired by Salmon’s adaptation of Railton would be equivalent to van Fraassen’s pragmatic account in three respects: accepting or rejecting requests for explanation; the practice of giving scientific explanations; and the evaluation of the goodness of explanations. We include all three under the general rubric of explanatory “practice.” Admittedly these are not the only three features by which an account of explanation might be evaluated. Roughly, we mean to show that a synthetic account cannot do a better job of accounting for the scientific practices which are of importance to the constructive empiricist, and therefore no argument can be presented to the constructive empiricist to convince her that by her own standards the synthetic account is superior.
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