, Volume 190, Issue 3, pp 379–396 | Cite as

General theories of explanation: buyer beware



We argue that there is no general theory of explanation that spans the sciences, mathematics, and ethics, etc. More specifically, there is no good reason to believe that substantive and domain-invariant constraints on explanatory information exist. Using Nickel (Noûs 44(2):305–328, 2010) as an exemplar of the contrary, generalist position, we first show that Nickel’s arguments rest on several ambiguities, and then show that even when these ambiguities are charitably corrected, Nickel’s defense of general theories of explanation is inadequate along several different dimensions. Specifically, we argue that Nickel’s argument has three fatal flaws. First, he has not provided any compelling illustrations of domain-invariant constraints on explanation. Second, in order to fend off the most vehement skeptics of domain-invariant theories of explanation, Nickel must beg all of the important questions. Third, Nickel’s examples of explanations from different domains with common explanatory structure rely on incorrect formulations of the explanations under consideration, circular justifications, and/or a mischaracterization of the position Nickel intends to critique. Given that the best and most elaborate defense of the generalist position fails in so many ways, we conclude that the standard practice in philosophy (and in philosophy of science in particular), which is to develop theories of explanation that are tailored to specific domains, still is justified. For those who want to buy into a more ambitious project: beware of the costs!


Explanation Explanatory skepticism Context Nickel Domain-specificity 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Logic, History and Philosophy of Science/LOGOS Research GroupUniversity of BarcelonaBarcelonaSpain
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyMiddlebury CollegeMiddleburyUSA
  3. 3.Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences, Centre for Logic and Philosophy of ScienceGhent UniversityGhentBelgium

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