What Are the Pragmatics of Explanation?

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An enticing view about explanation consists of two theses. First, there is the Relevance Thesis, the thesis that the truth of explanation sentences depends on a contextually selected relevance relation. The idea is that whether an utterance is true depends on what factors the context counts as relevant. Second, there is the Contrastivity Thesis, the thesis that the truth of explanation sentences depends on a contextually determined contrastive focus. This metalinguistic view is enticing, and elements of it have been defended by van Fraassen (1980), Woodward (1984), Schaffer (2005a; 2013), and others. Nevertheless, the enticing view is flawed; both the Contrastivity Thesis and the Relevance Thesis are mistaken.

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  1. 1.

    As will become clear, the unadorned explanation sentences are, roughly, the declarative ones without cleft, emphasis, or an explicit contrastive focus.

  2. 2.

    My discussion of contextual involvement provides a simple, but plausible framework for considering how declarative sentences work. Stanley and others cover much of the same territory. “In the first phase, a hearer first assigns denotations to each element of the logical form produced by the speaker, denotations that are determined by the meanings of the elements of the logical forms plus perhaps contextual factors” (Stanley 2000, 394). Then, a bit later, Stanley continues, “Pragmatics is then the study of those aspects of interpretation that take as input the truth-conditions of a linguistic act, and yield other propositions implicated by that speech act” (Stanley 2000, 394). For van Fraassen, it seems, the pragmatics includes many kinds of connections with context.

  3. 3.

    See van Fraassen (1980, 146–151) on the evaluation of answers to why-questions.

  4. 4.

    In (Carroll 1999, 6), I presented this heuristic a little bit differently by making the analysandum be P explains why Q. The ‘because’ formulation fits a little better with van Fraassen’s examples of explanation sentences.

  5. 5.

    Indeed, van Fraassen is sympathetic to the idea that explanation sentences are context dependent in a way that parallels the context dependence of counterfactual conditional sentences: “Let us suppose that I say to myself, sotto voce, that a certain fuse leads into the barrel of gunpowder, and then say out loud, ‘If Tom lit that fuse, there would be an explosion’. Suppose that before I came in, you had observed to yourself that Tom is very cautious, and would not light any fuse before disconnecting it, and said out loud, ‘If Tom lit that fuse, there would be no explosion’. Have we contradicted each other?” (van Fraassen 1980, 116). Van Fraassen does not out and out endorse a parallel context dependence between explanation sentences and corresponding conditionals, but he does seem open to the idea that this is a possible source of the context dependence of explanation sentences and does say, “If, as I am inclined to agree, counterfactual language is proper to explanation, we should conclude that explanation harbours a significant degree of context-dependence” (van Fraassen 1980, 118).

  6. 6.

    For Lipton, the main advantage of an appeal to contrastive foci is that it will help to solve the causal selectivity problem. If I am right that there is no causal selectivity problem at the semantic level, this undercuts a possible source of support for the Contrastivity Thesis. There is no successful argument for contrastivity stemming from these cases.

  7. 7.

    An anonymous referee objected to my use of the colloquial negation of the son’s remark. Instead, the referee suggested that the appropriate negation to consider is ‘It is not the case that (the porch light is on because the porch switch is closed)’. Again, this strikes me as false, and it is hard to see how it could really be true and just seem false due to low assertability.

  8. 8.

    Woodward uses ‘to cause’ instead of ‘because’ or ‘to explain’ in his examples of singular causal explanation sentences.

  9. 9.

    In the quotation, I have renumbered Woodward’s example sentences so that they fall in line with my numbering here. I do the same in the remaining quotes from van Fraassen and Woodward.

  10. 10.

    Some of what Woodward says seems to me to be unconvincing. In the quotation, we are told that a person can say Sentence (4) and mean: “that his eating parsnips accounts for the contrast between the actual situation [his having indigestion with an ulcerated stomach] and an otherwise similar situation in which his stomach is ulcerated but in which he develops no indigestion.” This is implausible; this complex and anything-but-obvious contrastive focus was not the completion or disambiguation of (4).

  11. 11.

    It is an answer, but by my lights it is a false answer. See Carroll (1999).

  12. 12.

    The first time (8a) and (8b) are introduced and discussed, Woodward does not say that they are construals of (8). What he says is that in asking (8) one “may want to know” the answers to questions (8a′) or (8b′) (see Woodward 1984, 245). That much is not objectionable, but that much also does not begin to speak in favour of the Contrastivity Thesis.

  13. 13.

    As far as I know, the modal presupposition of emphasis explanation sentences has not previously been acknowledged. Chris Hitchcock (1996, 415) may have come the closest. He talks about “two distinct levels of presupposition” associated with why-questions that include emphasis. On the first level, ‘Why did Adam eat the apple?’ presupposes that Adam ate the apple and does so with or without the emphasis. According to Hitchcock, the emphasis introduces the second-level presupposition that Adam ate something. My view sheds light on what is going on. In asking a question, we presuppose that there is an answer. So a presupposition of ‘Why did Adam eat the apple?’ is that some fact explains why Adam ate the apple. That presupposition entails that Adam ate the apple. That is Hitchcock’s first-level presupposition. But, by (φ), and due to the presence of the emphasis, it also follows that, if the explanans fact had not obtained, then Adam still would have eaten something. That, roughly, is Hitchcock’s second-level presupposition gone modal. By recognizing the modal/explanatory nature of the standard question/answer presupposition, it becomes clear in what sense there is a second-level presupposition introduced by the emphasis.


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Thanks to Keith DeRose and Ann Rives for offering suggestions on an earlier draft. An early version of this paper was read at the 2003 Inland Northwest Philosophy Conference. The discussion that followed my presentation there was very helpful. Special thanks to Sara McGrath who commented on the paper. I have benefited from email correspondence and conference exchanges with Jonathan Schaffer over several years on these and other topics. Three anonymous referees provided many useful criticisms and recommendations. One of the referees was very critical and significantly improved the paper.

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Correspondence to John W. Carroll.

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Carroll, J.W. What Are the Pragmatics of Explanation?. J Gen Philos Sci (2020).

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  • Explanation
  • Relevance
  • Contrastivity
  • Context
  • Presupposition