Causation, complexity, and the Concert: the pragmatics of causal explanation in International Relations

  • Adam R C Humphreys
Original Article


A causal explanation provides information about the causal history of whatever is being explained. However, most causal histories extend back almost infinitely and can be described in almost infinite detail. Causal explanations therefore involve choices about which elements of causal histories to pick out. These choices are pragmatic: they reflect our explanatory interests. When adjudicating between competing causal explanations, we must therefore consider not only questions of epistemic adequacy (whether or not we have good grounds for identifying certain factors as causes), but also questions of pragmatic adequacy (whether or not the aspects of the causal history picked out are salient to our explanatory interests). Recognising that causal explanations differ pragmatically as well as epistemically is crucial for identifying what is at stake in competing explanations of the relative peacefulness of the nineteenth-century Concert system. It is also crucial for understanding how explanations of past events can inform policy prescription.


causal explanation causation concert of Europe IR theory pragmatism rationalism 



Earlier versions of this paper, under a different title, were presented at a workshop at the University of Reading and at the British International Studies Association annual conference in Dublin, both in June 2014. The author is grateful to participants in both forums. Particular thanks are due to Hidemi Suganami, Patrick Jackson and two anonymous reviewers for thoughtful and constructive comments on earlier drafts.


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Politics and International Relations, University of ReadingReadingUK

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