Skip to main content

Against explanatory realism


Explanatory realism is the position that all explanations give information about whatever metaphysically determines the explanandum. This view is popular and plays a central role in metaphysics, but in this paper I argue that explanatory realism is false. In Sect. 1 I introduce explanatory realism in its weak and strong versions, and discuss the argumentative work that explanatory realism is used for in contemporary metaphysics. In Sect. 2 I present a series of problem cases for explanatory realism, including explanation by analogy, explanations involving rules, reduction ad absurdum explanations and certain statistical explanations. In Sect. 3 I consider and reject two modified versions of explanatory realism: the position that explanatory realism is true only of explanation in metaphysics, and the position that determinative explanation is the most complete form of explanation. In conclusion I consider explanatory antirealism and explanatory pluralism as alternatives to explanatory realism.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Henceforth I will shorten “metaphysical determination” to “determination”.

  2. Schaffer (2016, p. 96).

  3. See Schaffer (2016, section 1) for detail about these similarities, and p. 59 for a summary.

  4. Audi (2012, section 2).

  5. Kim (1994, p. 67).

  6. Wilsch (2015, 2016).

  7. Most authors agree that supervenience is not explanatory, but Kovacs argues against this consensus in Kovacs (unpublished ms).

  8. Lewis’s view is, to explain an event is to provide some information about its causal history. Lewis (1986, p. 271) Skow’s view is, A body of fact partially causal explains E iff it is a body of facts about what causes, if any, e had, or it is a body of fact about what it would have taken for some specific alternative or range of alternatives to E to have occurred instead. Skow (2014, p. 5).

  9. Lewis (1986).

  10. Lewis (1986, p. 220).

  11. Skow (2014, p. 4).

  12. Kim (1988, p. 226) This view applies only to the explanation of events, but elsewhere Kim argues that there could be non-causal forms of determination that support non-causal explanations in which the explananda need not be events. See Kim (1994, p. 67).

  13. Kim (1988, pp. 231–232).

  14. Kim (1994, p. 68).

  15. Kim (1988).

  16. See Kim (1990, p. 24).

  17. Audi (2015, p. 212).

  18. Audi (2012, p. 688).

  19. Ruben (1990, Chapter 7).

  20. Ruben (1990, p. 233).

  21. Audi also groups his own view together with those of Kim and Ruben in Audi (2015, p. 4).

  22. Koslicki (2012) Varieties of Ontological Dependence in Correia and Schneider (2012, p. 213) and footnote 27.

  23. For example, Fine describes grounding as the ultimate form of explanation in Fine (2001, p. 16).

  24. Kim writes, On the realist view, our explanations are ‘correct’ or‘ ‘true’ if they depict these relations correctly, just as our propositions or beliefs are true if they correctly depict objective facts, and explanations could be more or less ‘accurate’ according to how accurately they depict these relations. Kim (1988, p. 226). But he also writes, According to “explanatory realism”, when something is correctly invoked as an explanation of another thing, the explanatory relation must be grounded in some objective relation of dependence or determination holding for the explanans and the explanandum. Kim (1993, p. xii).

  25. Weak explanatory realism faces problems beyond these counterexamples. One concern is that weak explanatory realism has such a tenuous connection to determination as to not deserve the title “explanatory realism”. Sober argues that the view of causal explanation as providing any causal information about the explanandum trivializes causal explanation in Sober (1983, pp. 202–203). (Skow discusses Sober’s view in Skow (2014) footnote 4.) Finnur Dellsén also discusses some problem cases for Skow’s account of explanation in Skow in Dellsén (2016).

  26. Darwin (1859, Chapter 1). See discussion in Theunissen (2012).

  27. Lipton (2004, p. 24).

  28. See Holyoak and Thagard (1995, Chapter 8) for discussion of wave and water flow analogies. Hempel also mentions these cases in Hempel (1965, p. 430), and Hesse discusses them in Hesse (1966, p. 11).

  29. See

  30. Hempel (1965, p. 430) and Friedman (1974, pp. 9–11).

  31. Hempel (1965, p. 430).

  32. See discussion in Hempel, C. & Oppenheim, P. “Studies in the Logic of Explanation” in Hempel (1965). Section 4. They argue that reduction to the familiar cannot be necessary for explanation because so many explanations do not reduce to the familiar, and that reduction to the familiar is not sufficient for explanation because such explanations lack testability and also do not involve general laws. The second point should not worry us because their influential conception of all explanation as involving general laws has long been rejected, and there is good reason to be hesitant about the first point. There are interesting questions about what makes for a successful analogy, but it is possible to specify some dimension along which two entities are similar, and then draw an analogy on the basis of that similarity, as we often do when using argument from analogy. Then the specified notion of similarity could be testable.

  33. Hesse (1966) Section on The Explanatory Function of Metaphor; Campbell (1920).

  34. See familiar discussion of this point in e.g. Fodor (1974) As mentioned earlier some philosophers, such as Kim, hold that complete explanations exclude each other, but I am presuming that an explanation can be successful without being complete because it may be even impossible to formulated a genuinely complete explanation. As Lewis puts it, It is, of course, very unlikely that so much explanatory information ever could be known, or conveyed to anyone in some tremendous act of explaining! Lewis (1986, p. 219).

  35. Daniel Kahnemen discusses this example in Kahneman (2011, Chapter 10).

  36. Kahneman (2011, Chapter 10).

  37. An explanatory realist could argue that in cases such as the football case we are explaining what the game is, rather than explaining the fact that the player was sent off, by appealing to the rule. However, this would be a roundabout and unnecessarily complex way to explain what the game is, because the explanandum is the fact that the player was sent off, rather than any more general facts about the game of football.

  38. Brennan et al discuss the use of norms in the explanation of action in Part 3 of Brennan et al. (2013).

  39. For instance, Wilsch defends a nomological account of ground according to which some truths p1, …, pn metaphysically explain q just in case there are metaphysical laws that determine q on the basis of p1, …, pn. Wilsch (2015).

  40. See discussion in Chang (2004, Chapter 4). Thomson uses similar reasoning in a footnote to the 1848 paper in which he originally proposes his absolute temperature scale ("absolute" meaning detached from the physical details of any actual substances). This was before Thomson included absolute zero on his temperature scale, a detail he didn't add until 1852. Thomson notes that on the air-thermometer scale the value of a degree depends on how high or low up the scale it is taken. His own proposed scale is not like this, as on his absolute scale all degrees have the same value. But Thomson points out in a footnote that it is to be expected that the air thermometer scales are as they are, because if they were not then there would be a point at which the volume of air would be reduced to nothing: This is what we might anticipate, when we reflect that infinite cold must correspond to a finite number of degrees of the air-thermometer below zero; since, if we push the strict principle of graduation, stated above, sufficiently far, we should arrive at a point corresponding to the volume of air being reduced to nothing, which would be marked as—2780 of the scale (−100/.366, if .366 be the coefficient of expansion); and therefore—2730 of the air-thermometer is a point which cannot be reached at any finite temperature, however low. Thomson (1882, p. 104).

  41. Lewis (1986, p. 222).

  42. Jeffrey (1969) Statistical Explanation versus Statistical Inference, reprinted in Salmon (ed.) (1969, pp. 22–23).

  43. Those who prefer could follow Jeffrey and present this as a case of radioactive decay to get genuine indeterminism into the case, but I will use the coin toss for the sake of simplicity.

  44. See Salmon on the discussion of the IS model in the introductory chapter of Salmon (1969). See “Aspects of Scientific Explanation” section 3, in Hempel (1965) for the IS model.

  45. I owe this locution to Skiles in Skiles (2015).

  46. For example, Rosen endorses a necessitarian “entailment principle”, and argues that this is a distinguishing feature of grounding. Rosen also argues for a connection between grounding and reduction that relies upon grounding necessitarianism. See Rosen (2010, sections 7 and 10). For critique of the principle, see Skiles (2015).

  47. For discussion see Cartwright (1979).

  48. This is not the only kind of statistical explanation that poses problems for the realist. Lange argues that really statistical explanation is a form of noncausal statistical explanation, including explanations appealing to genetic drift. See Lange (2013).

  49. For introduction to and discussion of narrative explanation, See Danto (1985) and Velleman (2003).

  50. For discussion of whether narrative explanation is causal, see Richards (1992).

  51. Martin (1994).

  52. Martin (1994, section 2).

  53. For example, see Achinstein (1983), and Van Fraassen (1980).

  54. Sometimes the label “explanatory pluralism” is used in philosophy of science for the position that more than one explanation is required to account for a given phenomenon. For example, Carla Fehr argues that this is true of the evolution of sex in Fehr (2006). However, I am using this term in a different way, for the view that some explanations are determinative, while others are not.


  • Achinstein, P. (1983). The nature of explanation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Audi, P. (2012). Grounding: Towards a theory of the in-virtue-of relation. Journal of Philosophy, 109(12), 685–711.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Audi, P. (2015). Explanation and explication. In C. Daly (Ed.), The Palgrave handbook of philosophical methods. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brennan, G., Eriksson, L., Goodin, R., & Southwood, N. (2013). Explaining norms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Campbell, N. R. (1920). The foundations of science. Dover Publications Inc.

  • Cartwright, N. (1979). Causal laws and effective strategies. Nous, 13(4), 419–437.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Chang, H. (2004). Inventing temperature: Measurement and scientific progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Danto, A. (1985). Narration and knowledge. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Darwin, C. (1859). The origin of the species. Reprinted in P. Appleman (Ed.) (2001). Darwin: A Norton critical edition. Norton.

  • Dellsén, F. (2016). There may yet be non-causal explanations. Journal for General Philosophy of Science, 42(2), 377–384.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fehr, C. (2006). Explanations of the evolution of sex: A plurality of local mechanisms. In S. Kellert, H. Longino, & K. Waters (2006). Scientific pluralism. Minnesota studies in the philosophy of science (Vol. XIX). University of Minnesota Press.

  • Fine, K. (2001). The question of realism. Philosopher’s Imprint, 1(1), 1–30.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fodor, J. (1974). Special sciences, or disunity of science as a working hypothesis. Synthese, 28(2), 97–115.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Friedman, M. (1974). Explanation and scientific understanding. The Journal of Philosophy, 71(1), 5–19.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hempel, C. (1965). Aspects of scientific explanation and other essays. Mumbai: Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hesse, M. (1966). Models and analogies in science. University of Notre Dame Press.

  • Holyoak, K., & Thagard, P. (1995). Mental leaps: Analogy in creative thought. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jeffrey, R. (1969) Statistical explanation vs statistical inference. In W. Salmon (Ed.), Statistical Explanation and Statistical Relevance. University of Pittsburgh Press.

  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kim, J. (1988). Explanatory realism, causal realism, and explanatory exclusion. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 12(1), 225–239.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kim, J. (1990). Supervenience as a philosophical concept. Metaphilosophy, 21(1–2), 1–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kim, J. (1993). Supervenience and Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Kim, J. (1994). Explanatory knowledge and metaphysical dependence. Philosophical Issues, 5, 51–69.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Koslicki, K. (2012) Varieties of ontological dependence. In F. Correia & B. Schneider (Eds.), Metaphysical Grounding: Understanding the Structure of Reality. Cambridge University Press.

  • Kovacs, D. (unpublished ms) On the old saw thatSupervenience is Not an Explanatory Relation’.

  • Lange, M. (2013). Really statistical explanations and genetic drift. Philosophy of Science, 80(2), 169–188.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lewis, D. (Ed.). (1986). Causal explanation. In Philosophical papers (Vol. II). New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Lipton, P. (2004). Inference to the best explanation (2nd ed.). Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Martin, C. B. (1994). Dispositions and conditionals. Philosophical Quarterly, 44(174), 1–8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Richards, R. J. (1992). The structure of narrative explanation in history and biology. In M. Nitecki & D. Nitecki (Eds.), History and evolution. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosen, G. (2010). Metaphysical dependence: Grounding and reduction. In B. Hale & A. Hoffmann (Eds.), Modality: Metaphysics, logic, and epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ruben, D.-H. (1990). Explaining explanation. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Schaffer, J. (2016). Grounding in the image of causation. Philosophical Studies, 173, 49–100.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Skiles, A. (2015). Against grounding necessitarianism. Erkenntnis, 80(4), 717–751.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Skow, B. (2014). Are there non-causal explanations (of particular events)? British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 65(3), 445–467.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sober, E. (1983). Equilibrium explanation. Philosophical Studies, 43(2), 201–210.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Theunissen, B. (2012). Darwin and his Pigeons: The analogy between artificial and natural selection revisited. Journal of the History of Biology, 45(2), 179–212.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Thomson, W. (Ed.). (1882). Mathematical and physical papers (Vol. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Van Fraassen, B. (1982). The scientific image. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Velleman, D. (2003). Narrative explanation. Philosophical Review, 112(1), 1–25.

  • Wilsch, T. (2015). The nomological account of ground. Philosophical Studies, 172(12), 3293–3312.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wilsch, T. (2016). The deductive-nomological account of metaphysical explanation. Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 94(1), 1–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Thanks to Paul Audi, Stephen Biggs, Finnur Dellsén, Ranpal Dosanjh, Samuel Fletcher, David Kovacs, Marc Lange, Kerry McKenzie, Elizabeth Miller, Alex Skiles and Megan Wallace for helpful feedback and discussion. Thanks to audiences at the Open Session of the Aristotelian Society, the Central States Philosophical Association, the Iowa Philosophical Society, the University of Reading and the UNC Chapel Hill Philosophy of Science Workshop. Thanks also to the Iowa State University M&E Research Group.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Elanor Taylor.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Taylor, E. Against explanatory realism. Philos Stud 175, 197–219 (2018).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Explanation
  • Metaphysics
  • Causation
  • Grounding