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The causal situationist account of constitutive relevance


An epistemic account of constitutive relevance lists the criteria by which scientists can identify the components of mechanisms in empirical practice. Three prominent claims from Craver (Explaining the brain: mechanisms and the mosaic unity of neuroscience, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007) form a promising basis for an account. First, constitutive relevance is established by means of interlevel experiments. Second, interlevel experiments are executions of interventions. Third, there is no interlevel causation between a mechanism and its components. Currently, no account on offer respects all three claims. I offer my causal situationist account of constitutive relevance that respects the claims. By situating a part of a mechanism on the causal chain between the mechanism’s input and output, components can be identified with interventions, without the interventions suggesting interlevel causation. The causal situationist account is the only account on offer so far that clearly fits within Craver’s (2007) framework.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. Assuming the relevant background conditions are present. One’s heart must be beating, for example, for one’s mechanism for motion perception to operate at all.

  2. One noteworthy exception is an amplifier whose transistors operate in parallel, and thus do not comprise a single causal chain, but are nevertheless components (Wimsatt 2007, pp. 281–287).

  3. For in-depth explanations of why interventions on S’s ψ-ing with respect to X’s Φ-ing cannot be ideal, see Romero (2015) and Baumgartner and Gebharter (2015, pp. 737–745).

  4. Diagrams of the interventions performed in interlevel experiments that are similar to Fig. 2b can be found in Bechtel (in press).


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Thanks to Carl Craver and Ben Henke for their great help developing this paper, as well as to the audience at the 2017 Meeting of the Society for the Metaphysics of Science in New York.

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Correspondence to Emily Prychitko.

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Prychitko, E. The causal situationist account of constitutive relevance. Synthese 198, 1829–1843 (2021).

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  • Mechanistic explanation
  • Constitutive relevance
  • Interventionism
  • Interlevel causation