A Plea for Pragmatics

Arnon Levy, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The pragmatic approach to explanation emphasizes the communicative context in which explanations are given and received. A number of versions of this approach were developed in decades past (Achinstein, 1983; Bromberger, 1966; van Fraassen, 1980). But they failed to make a substantial impact on philosophical thinking about explanation, mainly because they failed to solve – indeed it is unclear they even addressed – the problem of explanatory relevance, seen by many as the sine qua non of an account of scientific explanation.

But the failure to supply criteria for relevance does not mean the pragmatic perspective is useless. In this talk, I will argue that by combining the overall structure of pragmatic approaches – on which explanation is intimately connected with understanding – with relevance criteria drawn from current causal approaches, we can do justice to important issues surrounding explanation, e.g. the importance of explanatory virtues such as modularity and the manner in which explanatory power can benefit from idealization. This view is grounded in a substantive, ability-focused, account of understanding, something existing pragmatic approaches lack. If successful, the argument motivates a two-factor theory in which both the content and the context of an explanation determine its overall quality.

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