Types of Explanation in the Special Sciences – The Case of Biology and History

Cologne, 30. Sept. – 03. Oct. 2010

Explaining is an important part of scientific practice. Accordingly, for a long time philosophers of science have been trying hard to understand what a scientific explanation is. How, for instance, can explanations be distinguished from mere descriptions and what exactly is it that accounts for their explanatory status?
In the last decades, several accounts of explanation have been forwarded and subsequently been subjected to critical discussion, e.g. the covering law model, the causal model, and the unificationist model of explanation. All of these are general accounts of explanation, seeking to provide the one characterization of explanation that allegedly applies to every kind of science. Once philosophers started to pay more attention to the intricacies of scientific practice within the special sciences, however, they also began to notice the diversity of explanatory practice in science. In order to accommodate this diversity, recently a lot of authors have shifted the focus of their research. Rather than trying to establish a general account of explanation, they are now setting out to investigate different types of explanation.
On the occasion of this workshop we want to get a closer look at explanations in two of the special sciences: biology and history. Our aim is, on the one hand, to specify what biological and historical explanations are and, particularly, what types of explanations can be distinguished in each of the two disciplines. On the other hand, we want to compare the explanatory practices of these two sciences. Are there important respects in which biological explanations resemble or differ from explanations in history? For example, some philosophers of biology have argued that evolutionary explanations are to be characterized as historical. What about other types of explanations, as for example causal-mechanistic explanations which are frequently found in many areas of biology? Are they of a completely different type than explanations given in history, or can historical explanations be characterized as causal, too?



General Information

If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact us at marie.kaiser[at]uni-muenster.de, Department of Philosophy, Westfaelische Wilhelms-University Muenster, Domplatz 23, 48143 Muenster.