The explanatory virtue of abstracting away from idiosyncratic and messy detail


Some explanations are relatively abstract: they abstract away from the idiosyncratic or messy details of the case in hand. The received wisdom in philosophy is that this is a virtue for any explanation to possess. I argue that the apparent consensus on this point is illusory. When philosophers make this claim, they differ on which of four alternative varieties of abstractness they have in mind. What’s more, for each variety of abstractness there are several alternative reasons to think that the variety of abstractness in question is a virtue. I identify the most promising reasons, and dismiss some others. The paper concludes by relating this discussion to the idea that explanations in biology, psychology and social science cannot be replaced by relatively micro explanations without loss of understanding.

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  1. 1.

    See Putnam (1973, 296–297), Garfinkel (1981, 91–96), Kitcher (1984), Marras (1993, 279), Antony (1999, 16) as well as Kincaid (1986, 40–43), Kincaid (1993, 24), Kincaid (1997a) and Potochnik (2010, 69) for talk of ‘capturing’ ‘highlighting’ or ‘bringing out’ patterns. Marchionni (2008) talks of ‘breadth’; and MacDonald (1985, 210) of ‘generality’.

  2. 2.

    See footnotes in Sect. 7.

  3. 3.

    See the extensive citations throughout this paper. Indeed, as will be evident from the frequent citation of Fodor’s work, the abstractness thesis is very similar to Fodor’s infamous multiple-realizability thesis (Fodor 1974).

  4. 4.

    The generalization ‘All ravens are black’ is logically equivalent to ‘All non-black things aren’t ravens’. So here we have a generalization whose primary jurisdiction is all ravens, but which is logically equivalent to a generalization whose primary jurisdiction is all non-black things. So there’s a sense in which a generalization of the form ‘All Fs are G’ has two sorts of primary jurisdiction. See Sober (1999, footnote 9) for this worry. Note, however, that if the conditionals C in generalizations like G1 are read as Lewisean or Woodwardian conditionals, then these generalizations will not have the logical form ‘All Fs are G’, and so this problem is averted.

  5. 5.

    This is because it is often goes unnoticed that the argument in Fodor (1997) is a considerable the advance over Fodor (1974). For example Jaworski (2002) and Sawyer (2002) treat Fodor 1974 and Fodor 1997 as offering the same argument.

  6. 6.

    Note that Fodor talks about explanation implicitly, rather than explicitly. Sober (1999, footnote 17) presents a similar reading to my own, although there are some noteworthy differences.

  7. 7.

    See Armstrong (1983) and Little (1993) for example for this ambiguous talk of ‘scope’.

  8. 8.

    My treatment bears some similarity to Jackson and Pettit’s (1992) treatment of similar cases. One important difference is that my account shows that the logically modest assertion provides both more ‘modally comparative’ information and more ‘modally contrastive’ information—to use their terminology. Jackson and Pettit are mistaken when they claim that logically modest assertions provide more comparative information, and logically bold assertions provide more contrastive information. My treatment also has affinities with that of Marchionni (2008) who also appeals to implicit explanatory contrasts.

  9. 9.

    To see the difference, consider a hybrid explanation that included both this logically modest factor and this logically bold factor.

  10. 10.

    See Weatherson (2012), Shaprio and Sober (2012), and Franklin-Hall (Forthcoming, §5) for various problems.

  11. 11.

    See Putnam (1973, 296), Block (1995, §3.3) and Weslake (2010) for this view. Marchionni (2008) and Potochnik (2010) endorses a qualified version of this view too.

  12. 12.

    See Sober (1999) and Weslake (2010, 291) for illustrations of this ambiguity.

  13. 13.

    Haug (2011a) may also interpret Fodor (1997) this way, but I’m skeptical of this interpretation.

  14. 14.

    Kincaid (1986, 40–43) makes an interesting distinction between ‘type explanations’ and ‘token explanations’ and says that this argument is focusing on the former. See Marras (1993, 196) for a similar idea.

  15. 15.

    It is fair to interpret Fodor (1974), as Kincaid does, as making a similar claim: syntactic simplicity is required for a concept to feature in explanatory generalizations. But Fodor confesses that his argument for this claim is somewhat circular (102). This is in contrast to Fodor’s more developed (1997) treatment, which I discussed in Sect. 2.

  16. 16.

    For one thing, see Sober (1988) for a compelling argument that the importance of instance confirmability has been overstated. I should also note, however, that my contention here leaves open the question of whether evidential status can ever serve as a rough indicator of explanatory virtue. Antony (1999), for example, would say that instance confirmability indicates that a generalization refers to natural kinds, and thereby indicates its explanatory virtue.

  17. 17.

    No worries if you think that it’s ingestees not ingestions that possess the powers.

  18. 18.

    As Haug (2011b, §5) urges, however, the following reasoning would still apply if one drops this pretense. Simply replace ‘morphine’ with a very long disjunction of all the possible vaso-suppressants.

  19. 19.

    Although Haug (2011b, 253, 257) accepts this, one might dispute this. One might prefer instead to say that the ingestion of morphine is a distinct event from the ingestion of a vaso-suppresant. It’s just that the two events are necessarily concurrent. But see Clarke (Manuscript-b) for an argument that my conclusion follows anyway: necessarily concurrent events have exactly the same causal powers.

  20. 20.

    This is tantamount to Haug’s (2011b, 253) rejection of what he calls the Absolute Closure principle.

  21. 21.

    Perhaps VS doesn’t quite pragmatically imply this, but VS at least makes this proposition more cognitively salient.

  22. 22.

    Many would argue that this epidemiologist has not identified what caused this phenomenon, but rather what caused each of the mereological parts of this phenomenon, as it were. See Putnam (1973, 296–298) and Garfinkel (1981) for advocates of this extreme skepticism. Jackson and Pettit (1992), Kincaid (1997a), Sober (1999) and Marchionni (2008) repudiate it. See Owens (1989) for an excellent discussion of the general issues involved. See Kitcher (1984), MacDonald (1992, 86, 90–92) and Haug (2011a, 1150) for the claim that the present explanation includes irrelevant details.


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I am indebted to Christopher Cowie, Tim Lewens and Nick Shea for their helpful comments on an early draft of the manuscript. This work has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant agreement no 284123.

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Clarke, C. The explanatory virtue of abstracting away from idiosyncratic and messy detail. Philos Stud 173, 1429–1449 (2016).

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  • Explanation
  • Reduction
  • Explanatory dispensability
  • Multiple realizability argument