Types of Mechanisms: Ephemeral, Regular, Functional

  • Beate Krickel
Part of the Studies in Brain and Mind book series (SIBM, volume 13)


The Acting Entity-characterization of mechanisms, defended in the last chapter, is rather broad. It allows for almost all causal goings-on to be mechanisms. Let us call the AE-characterization of mechanisms as formulated in the previous chapter the minimal notion of a mechanism (Glennan 2017). In the following sections I introduce a taxonomy of mechanisms that goes beyond the minimal notion. First, I introduce the notion of a functional mechanism: one can distinguish between those mechanisms that fulfill a (biological) function, and those that do not (Garson 2013; Piccinini 2015; Maley and Piccinini 2017). Indeed, combining the notion of a mechanism with that of a function seems to be promising with regard to making sense of the normativity of mechanism-talk: a mechanism that has a certain function is supposed to fulfill that function and might fail to fulfill it. In what follows, I discuss different suggestions for how to characterize functional mechanisms. It will turn out that neither of these notions successfully accounts for the normativity of mechanism-talk unless the second and third sub-types of mechanisms are taken into account. I will call the second type regular mechanism; the third type I will call reversely regular mechanism (Krickel 2018). Both notions rest on the idea that one can distinguish between one-off mechanisms and mechanisms that establish some kind of regularity (Andersen 2012). Regular mechanisms, as I will show, have to be understood as mechanisms that bring about a particular phenomenon more often than they bring about any other phenomenon. Reversely regular mechanisms are mechanisms that bring about a particular phenomenon that is more often brought about by that mechanism than by any other mechanism. I will show how these two notions of regularity together are necessary and sufficient for grounding type-level mechanistic explanations (see also Krickel 2018), and when combined with the functional notion of a mechanism, can solve the problem of accidental goal contributions, which afflicts the most promising account of functions as discussed in the next section.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Beate Krickel
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Philosophy IIRuhr-University BochumBochumGermany

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