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Mechanistic Explanation in Social Contexts: Elster and the Problem of Local Scientific Growth

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Jon Elster worries about the explanatory power of the social sciences. His main concern is that they have so few well-established laws. Elster develops an interesting substitute: a special kind of mechanism designed to fill the explanatory gap between laws and mere description. However, his mechanisms suffer from a characteristic problem that I will explore in this article. As our causal knowledge of a specific problem grows we might come to know too much to make use of an Elsterian mechanism but still lack a law. We might then find ourselves in the paradoxical position of knowing more relevant causal truths about the phenomenon we are interested in than we did before, but being able to explain less. If this possibility is realized in social science settings, as I argue it might well be, Elster’s mechanistic account is threatened. Moreover, even if the possibility is rarely realized in that way, it raises, simply as a possibility, a conceptual problem with Elster’s mechanistic framework.

Keywords: Elster; Explanation; Mechanism; Scientific Growth

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2012

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