Archives For Johannes Persson

Author Information: Daniel Little, University of Michigan-Dearborn, delittle@umich.edu

Little, Daniel. 2013. “Disaggregating Historical Explanation: The Move to Social Mechanisms in the Philosophy of History.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (8): 1-7.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-QM

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Melinda Fagan makes two valuable contributions to the debate on the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective surrounding Johannes Persson’s critique of Jon Elster’s account of “explanation by mechanisms” (2012). First, she skillfully demonstrates that Elster’s position tacitly presupposes a monistic approach to explanation: the gold standard of explanation is subsumption under exceptionless regularities. Mechanismic explanations are faut de mieux, to be wheeled out when we have not yet discovered the underlying general laws.[1] This is a venerable approach, extending back to Carl Hempel’s advocacy of the covering law model for all areas of science, including history. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Melinda Fagan, Rice University, SERRC, mbf2@rice.edu

Fagan, Melinda. 2013. “Social mechanisms and explanatory pluralism: Reflections on the Persson-Little-Chuang debate.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (7): 6-11.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-NS

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Persson’s recent critique of Elster’s account of social mechanisms (2012a) has sparked a lively debate (Little 2012a, 2012b; Persson 2012b, 2012c; Chuang 2012).  Concerning this debate, I wish to make two points:

(1)  The debate over social mechanisms overlaps instructively with accounts of explanation and mechanism in philosophy of science and philosophy of biology.

(2)  Both these accounts and responses to Elster support a pluralistic approach to scientific explanation.

I discuss each of these points in turn. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Johannes Persson, Lund University, Johannes.Persson@fil.lu.se

Please cite as:

Persson, Johannes. 2012.Social mechanisms and explaining how: A reply to Kimberly Chuang. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (9): 37-41

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-qS

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Kimberly Chuang’s detailed and helpful reply to my article (2012a) concerns Jon Elster’s struggle to develop a mechanistic account that sheds light on explanation in social science. I argue that a problem exists with Elster’s current conception of mechanistic explanation in social contexts. Chuang (2012) defends Elster’s conception against my critique. I still believe I have identified a problem with Elster’s conception. In this reply I want to recapitulate briefly Elster’s idea, as I understand it, and then use some of Chuang’s critical points to advance the position I advocate.

1. Social explanations and Elster’s mechanistic surrogate for covering law explanations Continue Reading…

Author Information: Daniel Little, University of Michigan-Dearborn, UnderstandingSociety, Daniel Little: Wikipedia Entry, dlittle30@gmail.com

Little, Daniel. 2012. More challenges for social mechanisms: Contribution to the Persson-Chuang discussion. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (9): 28-32

The PDF of the article gves specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-qk

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The extended discussion stimulated by Johannes Persson’s (2012a) critique of Elster’s definition of causal mechanisms in this forum is a valuable one. Anyone interested in causal mechanisms theory will be appreciative of the thoughtful contributions offered by Persson (2012b) and Kimberly Chuang (2012).

The core of Persson’s critique is that Elster appears to define a causal mechanism in a way that incorporates the idea of unknown triggers or indeterminate outcomes as a part of the definition. Persson finds fault with this approach on the ground that it implies that when we gain more knowledge about how a mechanism M works, M is no longer a mechanism (because its trigger or outcomes are no longer unknown). This is deeply counterintuitive: more knowledge produces less explanatory power.

Kimberly Chuang thinks there is a flaw in Persson’s argument against Elster. She provides a careful exegesis of what Elster might have meant with his original specification of causal mechanisms as well as a sustained argument intended to show that Persson’s arguments fail. Her argument is complex, but it comes down to the claim that the examples Persson provides are actually specifications of particular (local) triggers rather than general triggers. So the item remains a causal mechanism after all — against Persson’s conclusion. This is the thrust of her claim that “Persson’s argument inappropriately overlooks the difference between applications of mechanisms rather than mechanisms themselves” (2012: 2). Continue Reading…

Author Information: Kimberly Chuang, University of Michigan, kimberly.chuang@gmail.com

Chuang, Kimberly. 2012. In defense of Elster’s mechanisms. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (9): 1-19

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-pU

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Abstract

Mechanisms are a species of causal explanation that apply in situations where there is unavoidable indeterminacy. In this paper, I defend Jon Elster’s account of mechanisms against Johannes Persson’s recently published critiques. Persson claims to have identified a dilemma to which Elster is committed. Elster stipulates that mechanisms must be indeterminate in either their triggering conditions or their consequences. Persson argues that we can resolve the indeterminacies in certain mechanisms. Upon doing so, we no longer, by definition, have mechanisms. At the same time, these resolved mechanisms remain only explanatorily local, and so fall short of the explanatory strength of laws. Persson concludes that by Elster’s account, eliminating the indeterminacies of mechanisms actually leaves us at an explanatory deficit: we are left with something that is no longer a mechanism, but that still falls short of law-like explanatory strength. I counter that in his argument, Persson has overlooked the distinction between improved explanatory strength in a purely local sense and improved explanatory strength in a generalized sense. In addition, Persson has also overlooked the distinction between individual instances, or applications of mechanisms, and mechanisms themselves. I conclude that Persson has not, in fact, discovered any dilemma in Elster. Persson’s argument occurs at the level of mere applications of mechanisms. His challenges to Elster pertain to improved explanatory strength in a purely local sense. What he needed to have done, in order to complete his case against Elster, was show that the alleged shortcomings of Elster’s mechanistic account occurred at the level of mechanisms themselves, and pertained to improved explanatory strength in a generalized sense.

Continue Reading…

Author Information: Johannes Persson, Lund University, Johannes.Persson@fil.lu.se

Persson, Johannes. 2012. Social laws should be conceived as a special case of mechanisms: A reply to Daniel Little. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (7): 12-14

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shotlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-nG

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I am grateful to Daniel Little for his insightful reply to my recent article in Social Epistemology (2012, 105-114) about what appears to be a flaw in Jon Elster’s conception of mechanisms. I agree with much of what Little says, but want to amplify a different underlying problem with Elster’s conception (fourth point below) than Little suggests in his reply (third point below). This underlying problem connects nicely with a passage in Little’s reply, which he thinks unconnected with the point on which I focus.

First, I briefly state Elster’s position.

Elster roots his perspective in a traditional view of explanation. A traditional view holds that a perfect covering law explanation is the best kind of explanation. The problem, as Elster sees it, is that we know of few such explanations in the social sciences. To bolster our explanatory resources, Elster introduces mechanistic explanations. Elster partly frames these mechanisms in terms of epistemic uncertainty. For instance, Elsterian mechanisms “are triggered under generally unknown conditions” (Elster 2007, 36). Elsterian mechanisms, then, depend on current epistemic conditions. Some day we may come to know the triggering conditions, thus we will no longer have an Elsterian mechanism. In Elster’s view this outcome does not matter since we now have something even better — a covering law explanation — to replace mechanistic explanations. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Daniel Little, University of Michigan-Dearborn, dlittle30@gmail.com

Little, Daniel. 2012. “Social Mechanisms and Scientific Realism: Discussion of ‘Mechanistic Explanation in Social Contexts’” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (3): 1-5.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. This post and the accompanying PDF were revised on 7 June 2012. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-9i

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The social mechanisms approach to explanation (SM) has filled a very important gap in the theory of social explanation in the past twenty years, between the covering-law model and merely particularistic accounts of specific events. The SM approach is particularly prominent in the emerging programme of analytical sociology, but has made its mark in comparative historical sociology and other areas of the social sciences as well. But what exactly do various contributors mean by a “social mechanism”? And how does reference to hypothesized mechanisms help in explaining social outcomes? Continue Reading…