Archives For philosophy of social science

Author Information: Johannes Persson, Lund University,

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

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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…