, Volume 191, Issue 5, pp 1013–1035 | Cite as

Explanatory anti-psychologism overturned by lay and scientific case classifications

  • Jonathan Waskan
  • Ian Harmon
  • Zachary Horne
  • Joseph Spino
  • John Clevenger


Many philosophers of science follow Hempel in embracing both substantive and methodological anti-psychologism regarding the study of explanation. The former thesis denies that explanations are constituted by psychological events, and the latter denies that psychological research can contribute much to the philosophical investigation of the nature of explanation. Substantive anti-psychologism is commonly defended by citing cases, such as hyper-complex descriptions or vast computer simulations, which are reputedly generally agreed to constitute explanations but which defy human comprehension and, as a result, fail to engender any relevant psychological events. It is commonly held that the truth of the substantive thesis would lend support to the methodological thesis. However, the standard argument for the substantive thesis presumes that philosophers’ own judgments about the aforementioned cases issues from mastery of the lay or scientific norms regarding the use of ‘explanation.’ Here we challenge this presumption with a series of experiments indicating that both lay and scientific populations require of explanations that they actually render their targets intelligible. This research not only undermines a standard line of argument for substantive anti-psychologism, it demonstrates the utility of psychological research methods for answering meta-questions about the norms regarding the use of ‘explanation.’


Intelligibility Explanation Psychologism 



For their many helpful suggestions regarding this research, our heartfelt thanks go to Mike Braverman, Bill Brewer, Mark Donahue, Andrew Higgins, Peter Machamer, and Derek Powell. This research was funded by a generous grant from the University of Illinois Campus Research Board and kind assistance from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.


  1. Braithwaite, R. B. (1946). Teleological explanation: The presidential address. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 47, i–xx.Google Scholar
  2. Bransford, J. D., & Franks, J. J. (1971). The abstraction of linguistic ideas. Cognitive Psychology, 2(4), 331–350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Brewer, W. F. (2001). Models in science and mental models in scientists and nonscientists. Mind & Society, 2(2), 33–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Brewer, W. F., Chinn, C. A., & Samarapungavan, A. (2000). Explanation in scientists and children. In Explanation and cognition. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2010). The creativity crisis. Newsweek.Google Scholar
  6. Churchland, P. M. (1989). A neurocomputational perspective: The nature of mind and the structure of science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  7. Craver, C. F. (2007). Explaining the brain. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. de Regt, H. W. (2009). The epistemic value of understanding. Philosophy of Science, 76(5), 585–597.Google Scholar
  9. Geldard, F. A. (1942). Explanation in science. American Scientist, 30(3), 202–211.Google Scholar
  10. Gelman, S. A., & Wellman, H. M. (1991). Insides and essences: Early understandings of the non-obvious. Cognition, 38(3), 213–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Gentner, D. (1981). Verb semantic structures in memory for sentences: Evidence for componential representation. Cognitive Psychology, 13(1), 56–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Giere, R. N. (1990). Explaining science: A cognitive approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  13. Gopnik, A. (2000). Explanation as orgasm and the drive for causal knowledge: The function, evolution, and phenomenology of the theory formation system. In F. Keil & R. Wilson (Eds.), Explanation and cognition. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  14. Graham, G., & Horgan, J. (1994). Southern fundamentalism and the end of philosophy. Philosophical Issues, 5, 219–247.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Hempel, C. G. (1942). The function of general laws in history. The Journal of Philosophy, 39(2), 35–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hempel, C. G. (1965). Aspects of scientific explanation and other essays in the philosophy of science. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  17. Hickling, A. K., & Wellman, H. M. (2001). The emergence of children’s causal explanations and theories: Evidence from everyday conversation. Developmental Psychology, 37(5), 668–683.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hospers, J. (1946). On explanation. The Journal of Philosophy, 43(13), 337–356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Jackson, F. (1994). Armchair metaphysics. In J. O’Leary-Hawthorne & M. Michael (Eds.), Philosophy in mind: The place of philosophy in the study of mind. Dordrecht: Kluwer.Google Scholar
  20. Keil, F. C. (2006). Explanation and understanding. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 227–254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Keil, F., & Wilson, R. (2000). Explanation and cognition. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  22. Kornblith, H. (1998). The role of intuition in philosophical inquiry: An account with no unnatural ingredients. In M. DePaul & W. Ramsey (Eds.), Rethinking Intuition: The psychology of intuition and its role in philosophical inquiry. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  23. Lombrozo, T. (2006). The structure and function of explanations. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(10), 464–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lombrozo, T., & Carey, S. (2006). Functional explanation and the function of explanation. Cognition, 99(2), 167–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Machamer, P., & Woody, A. (1994). A model of intelligibility in science: Using Galileo’s balance as a model for understanding the motion of bodies. Science & Education, 3(3), 215–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Maher, P. (2007). Explication defended. Studia Logica, 86(2), 331–341.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Miller, D. L. (1946). The meaning of explanation. Psychological Review, 53(4), 241–246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Miller, D. L. (1947). Explanation versus description. The Philosophical Review, 56(3), 306–312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Mishra, P., & Brewer, W. F. (2003). Theories as a form of mental representation and their role in the recall of text information. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 28, 277–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Nersessian, N. J. (2009). How do engineering scientists think? Model-based simulation in biomedical engineering research laboratories. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1, 730–757.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Powell, D., Horne, Z., & Pinillos, A. (forthcoming). Semantic integration as a method for investigating concepts. In J. Beebe (Ed.), Advances in experimental epistemology. New York: Continuum Press.Google Scholar
  32. Psillos, S. (2011). Making contact with molecules: On Perrin and Achinstein. In G. J. Morgan (Ed.), Philosophy of science matters: The philosophy of Peter Achinstein. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Sellars, W. (1997). Empiricism and the philosophy of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Simon, H. A. (1966). Thinking by computers. In R. G. Colodny (Ed.), Mind and cosmos: Essays in contemporary science and philosophy. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  35. Strevens, M. (2013). No understanding without explanation. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. doi: 10.1016/j.shpsa.2012.12.005.
  36. Sulin, R. A., & Dooling, D. J. (1974). Intrusion of a thematic idea in retention of prose. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 103(2), 255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Thagard, P., & Litt, A. (2008). Models of scientific explanation. In R. Sun (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of computational cognitive modeling. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Trout, J. D. (2007). The psychology of scientific explanation. Philosophy Compass, 2(3), 564–591.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Vosniadou, S. (2002). Mental models in conceptual development. In L. Magnani & N. J. Nersessian (Eds.), Model-based reasoning: Science, technology, values. Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonathan Waskan
    • 1
  • Ian Harmon
    • 1
  • Zachary Horne
    • 1
  • Joseph Spino
    • 1
  • John Clevenger
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbanaUSA

Personalised recommendations