CFP: Historical and Scientific Explanation: Reexamining the Connection

Submission deadline: April 8, 2018

Conference date(s):
June 15, 2018 - June 16, 2018

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Conference Venue:

Institute of Philosophy, KU Leuven
Leuven, Belgium

Topic areas


In a 1965 article Carl Hempel famously described historical explanations as (scientific) ‘explanation sketches’: incomplete explanations where the historians had failed to explicitly refer to the underlying universal laws. In reaction, Arthur Danto rejected the notion that historical explanation had anything to do with scientific explanation. Instead, historical explanation is a humanistic, interpretative activity, and all attempts to bring historical and scientific explanation together (e.g. Marx) have resulted in “intellectual monsters”.

Despite Danto’s protests, the past 50 years has seen a creeping expansion of the application of scientific explanation to an increasing number of intellectual domains. Historians incorporate social science into their explanations, and literary criticism is often influenced by theories in psychology or social science. Intellectual monsters abound.

Has Hempel been vindicated? A number important of developments in philosophy of science give pause. The first is that our conception of what it means to explain something scientifically has much widened. It is no longer automatically means to subsume phenomena under timeless universal laws, but can also mean, for instance, to find the mechanisms causing the phenomenon, or to explain a state of affairs as a path-dependent, irreversible outcome. 

The second is that scientific explanation is now distinguished from understanding, at least by some philosophers. Giving an explanation of a phenomenon is not the same as understanding that phenomenon. This distinction was alien to the early generation of logical positivists, but would have been sympathetically received by Danto.

These developments invite a reexamination of the relationship between scientific and historical explanation – a topic that has fallen into neglect since 1970.

Addressed questions during this workshop include but are not limited to: 

1.What role does history play in scientific explanation? Why does history play a role?

2.Can we reduce historical explanation to a form of causal explanation? 

3.Is there a form of explanation or perhaps understanding that historians seek that is distinctive from that of social scientists? 

4.What is the difference between explanation in history and explanation in social science?

5.Is there a difference between scientific understanding and humanistic understanding? 

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