Explanation and Understanding Revisited

In Human Condition. Philosophical Essays in Honour of the Centennial Anniversary of Georg Henrik von Wright. Helsinki: , The Philosophical Society of Finland. pp. 339-353 (2017)
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"Explanation and Understanding" (1971) by Georg Henrik von Wright is a modern classic in analytic hermeneutics, and in the philosophy of the social sciences and humanities in general. In this work, von Wright argues against naturalism, or methodological monism, i.e. the idea that both the natural sciences and the social sciences follow broadly the same general scientific approach and aim to achieve causal explanations. Against this view, von Wright contends that the social sciences are qualitatively different from the natural sciences: according to his view, the natural sciences aim at causal explanations, whereas the purpose of the social sciences is to understand their subjects. In support of this conviction, von Wright also puts forward a version of the so-called logical connection argument. Von Wright views scientific explanation along the lines of the traditional covering law model. He suggests that the social sciences, in contrast, utilize what he calls “practical syllogism” in understanding human actions. In addition, von Wright presents in this work an original picture on causation: a version of the manipulability theory of causation. In the four decades following von Wright’s classic work, the overall picture in in the philosophy of science has changed significantly, and much progress has been made in various fronts. The aim of the contribution is to revisit the central ideas of "Explanation and Understanding" and evaluate them from this perspective. The covering law model of explanation and the regularity theory of causation behind it have since then fallen into disfavor, and virtually no one believes that causal explanations even in the natural sciences comply with the covering law model. No wonder then that covering law explanations are not found in the social sciences either. Ironically, the most popular theory of causal explanation in the philosophy of science nowadays is the interventionist theory, which is a descendant of the manipulability theory of von Wright and others. However, this theory can be applied with no special difficulties in both the natural sciences and the social sciences. Von Wright’s logical connection argument and his ideas concerning practical syllogisms are also critically assessed. It is argued that in closer scrutiny, they do not pose serious problems for the view that the social sciences too provide causal explanations. In sum, von Wright’s arguments against naturalism do not appear, in today’s perspective, particularly convincing.
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