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Explanation and Understanding: Action as “Historical Structure”

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The first part of this essay is basically historical. It introduces the explanation–understanding divide, focusing in particular on the general–unique distinction. The second part is more philosophical and it presents two different claims on action. In the first place, I will try to say what it means to understand an action. Secondly, we will focus on the explanation of action as it is seen in some explanatory sciences. I will try to argue that in some cases these sciences commit what I call an “external contradiction”.

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  1. 1.

    Mill, J. S. (1892). The Logic of the Moral Sciences. (In Mill, J. S., The System of Logic (book VI, chap. I, 1). London: Routledge.) A little further on, Mill calls the state of the “moral sciences” a “blot on the face of science”

  2. 2.

    Hempel, C. G. (1942). The Function of General Laws in History. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 35 – 48, quotation p. 48. See also p. 35: “general laws have quite analogous functions in history and in the natural sciences”.

  3. 3.

    Libet B. (1999). Do We Have Free Will? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8–9, pp. 47–57, see p. 55: “There is an unexplained gap between the category of physical phenomena and the category of subjective phenomena.”

  4. 4.

    Helmholtz, H. von (1995). On the Relation of Natural Science to Science in General. (Helmholtz, H. von, Science and Culture: Popular and Philosophical Essays (76–95), The University of Chicago Press.) Quotation p. 85.

  5. 5.

    Droysen, J. G. (1937). Grundriss der Historik (In Droysen, J. G., Historik: Vorlesungen über Enzyklopädie und Methode der Geschichte. München), see §§ 72, 14 and 37.

  6. 6.

    J. S. Mill, A System of Logic, Book III, chap. 3, § 1.

  7. 7.

    H. Rickert: “everything in the world has its ‘history’”, i.e., its nonrecurring evolution, just as everything has its ‘nature’, i.e., can be subsumed under universal concepts or laws.” See Rickert, H. (1962). Science and History: A critique of positive epistemology (New York), p. 86.

  8. 8.

    Windelband, W. (1980), History and Natural Sciences. Rectorial Address, Strassbourg 1894. History and Theory, Vol. 19, No. 2., pp. 169 – 185, quotation p. 175.

  9. 9.

    “Only a concept that is likewise logical can constitute the opposite of the logical concept of nature as the existence of things as far as it is determined according to universal laws. But this, I believe, is the concept of history in the broadest formal sense of the word, i.e., the concept of the nonrepeatable event in its particularity and individuality, which stands in formal opposition to the concept of universal law. Hence, in classifying the various sciences, we must speak of a distinction between the method of the natural sciences and the method of history.”, Rickert, H., Science and History. A critic of positive epistemology, p. 14f.

  10. 10.

    “The method of the natural sciences can be said to be that of generalizationNature is known by a process of generalization.”, ibid., p. 46.

  11. 11.

    Ibid., p. 56f.

  12. 12.

    Ibid., p. 44. See also Windelband, p. 180.

  13. 13.

    Johann Gustav Droysen, who introduced terms “explanation” and “understanding” into this methodological debate, states: “to explain” is “to infer the later from the former, to extrapolate phenomena as necessary from laws, to take them as pure effect and development.” (Die historische Forschung will nicht erklären, d.h. aus dem Früheren das Spätere, aus Gesetzen die Erscheinungen als notwendig, als bloße Wirkungen und Entwicklungen ableiten.), Grundriss der Historik, § 37.

  14. 14.

    J. G. Droysen, Grundriss der Historik, § 10.

  15. 15.

    Kant, I. (1929). Critique of Pure Reason, (transl. by Norman Kemp Smith, Basingstoke – London), p. 465.

  16. 16.

    W. Windelband, History and Natural Sciences, p. 180. We can also recall Droysens analogy between a voluntary action and a cell (see note 4).

  17. 17.

    See for example the program of the “physics of introspection”, as set by a distinguished French neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux, in: Ricoeur, P. & Changeux, J.-P. (1998), Ce qui nous fait penser. La nature et la règle. (Paris), p. 76.

  18. 18.

    F. Bacon (2000), The New Organon (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, CUP), § 3.


I would like to thank the anonymous referees for a number of very helpful suggestions.

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Correspondence to Jakub Čapek.

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Čapek, J. Explanation and Understanding: Action as “Historical Structure”. Philosophia 36, 453–463 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-008-9132-x

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  • Philosophy
  • Explanation
  • Understanding
  • Action
  • History
  • Droysen
  • Windelband
  • Rickert
  • Mill
  • Helmholtz