, Volume 191, Issue 6, pp 1163–1183 | Cite as

Narratives, mechanisms and progress in historical science

  • Adrian Mitchell CurrieEmail author


Geologists, Paleontologists and other historical scientists are frequently concerned with narrative explanations targeting single cases. I show that two distinct explanatory strategies are employed in narratives, simple and complex. A simple narrative has minimal causal detail and is embedded in a regularity, whereas a complex narrative is more detailed and not embedded. The distinction is illustrated through two case studies: the ‘snowball earth’ explanation of Neoproterozoic glaciation and recent attempts to explain gigantism in Sauropods. This distinction is revelatory of historical science. I argue that at least sometimes which strategy is appropriate is not a pragmatic issue, but turns on the nature of the target. Moreover, the distinction reveals a counterintuitive pattern of progress in some historical explanation: shifting from simple to complex. Sometimes, historical scientists rightly abandon simple, unified explanations in favour of disunified, complex narratives. Finally I compare narrative and mechanistic explanation, arguing that mechanistic approaches are inappropriate for complex narrative explanations.


Explanation Narrative Mechanism Historical science  Scientific progress 



Thanks to Zoe Drayson, Daniel Nolan, Brett Calcott, Kim Sterelny, Arnon Levy, Gladys Kostyrka and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. This paper has been presented in various forms to the philosophy departments of ANU and Sydney University, as well as at the 2012 PSA conference—I am grateful for the feedback received there.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy Department, RSSSAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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