Philosophical Studies

, Volume 175, Issue 3, pp 665–702 | Cite as

Outlines of a theory of structural explanations

  • Philippe HunemanEmail author


This paper argues that in some explanations mathematics are playing an explanatory rather than a representational role, and that this feature unifies many types of non-causal or non-mechanistic explanations that some philosophers of science have been recently exploring under various names (mathematical, topological, etc.). After showing how mathematics can play either a representational or an explanatory role by considering two alternative explanations of a same biological pattern—“Bergmann’s rule”—I offer an example of an explanation where the bulk of the explanatory job is done by a mathematical theorem, and where mechanisms involved in the target systems are not explanatorily relevant. Then I account for the way mathematical properties may function in an explanatory way within an explanation by arguing that some mathematical propositions involving variables non directly referring to the target system features constitute constraints to which a whole class of systems should comply, provided they are describable by a mathematical object concerned by those propositions. According to such “constraint account”, those mathematical facts are directly entailing the explanandum (often a limit regime, a robustness property or a steady state), as a consequence of such constraints. I call those explanations “structural”, because here properties of mathematical structures are accounting for the explanandum; various kinds of mathematical structures (algebraic, graph-theoretical, etc.) thereby define various types of structural explanations.


Explanation Mechanisms Topological explanation Causation Structure Optimization Mathematical properties Genericity 



I am grateful to Carl Craver, Stuart Glennan, Paul Humphreys and Anya Plutynski for insightful comments and constructive criticism on drafts of this paper, and to Robert Batterman, Laura Felline, Tom Polger, Larry Shapiro and Rasmus Winther for discussions on the arguments. Thanks to Andrew McFarland for a thorough language checking of the text. I also warmly thank an anonymous reviewer for critiques and suggestions that substantially improved the paper. This work is supported by the Grant ANR 13 BSH3 0007 “Explabio”.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut d’Histoire et de Philosophie des Sciences et des Techniques (CNRS/Université Paris 1 Sorbonne)ParisFrance

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