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

Persson, Johannes LU (2012) In Social Epistemology 26(1). p.105-114
Abstract
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... (More)
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

framework. (Less)
Please use this url to cite or link to this publication:
author
organization
publishing date
type
Contribution to journal
publication status
published
subject
keywords
scientific growth, mechanism, explanation, Elster
in
Social Epistemology
volume
26
issue
1
pages
105 - 114
publisher
Routledge
external identifiers
  • scopus:84856844982
ISSN
0269-1728
DOI
10.1080/02691728.2011.604445
language
English
LU publication?
yes
id
03a39030-13cf-4a93-849e-dda09b6dad0b (old id 1768887)
date added to LUP
2011-01-27 09:34:50
date last changed
2017-10-22 04:53:54
@article{03a39030-13cf-4a93-849e-dda09b6dad0b,
  abstract     = {Jon Elster worries about the explanatory power of the social sciences. His main concern is<br/><br>
that they have so few well-established laws. Elster (2007) develops an interesting substitute: a<br/><br>
special kind of mechanism designed to fill the explanatory gap between laws and mere<br/><br>
description. However, his mechanisms suffer from a characteristic problem which I will<br/><br>
explore in this article. As our causal knowledge of a specific problem grows we might come<br/><br>
to know too much to make use of an Elsterian mechanism but still lack a law. We might then<br/><br>
find ourselves in the paradoxical position of knowing more relevant causal truths about the<br/><br>
phenomenon we are interested in than we did before but being able to explain less. If this<br/><br>
possibility is realized in social science settings, as I argue it might well be, Elster’s<br/><br>
mechanistic account is threatened. Moreover, even if the possibility is rarely realized in that<br/><br>
way, it raises, simply as a possibility, a conceptual problem with Elster’s mechanistic<br/><br>
framework.},
  author       = {Persson, Johannes},
  issn         = {0269-1728},
  keyword      = {scientific growth,mechanism,explanation,Elster},
  language     = {eng},
  number       = {1},
  pages        = {105--114},
  publisher    = {Routledge},
  series       = {Social Epistemology},
  title        = {Mechanistic explanation in social contexts: Elster and the problem of local scientific growth},
  url          = {http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2011.604445},
  volume       = {26},
  year         = {2012},
}