Archives For Kimberly Chuang

Author Information: Melinda Fagan, Rice University, SERRC,

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.

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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,

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

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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,

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

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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,

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

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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…