In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Scientific Explanation

  • Introduction
  • Introductions and Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Historical Accounts of Explanation
  • Contemporary Analysis of Historical Accounts of Explanation
  • The Deductive-Nomological Model of Explanation
  • The Statistical Relevancy Model of Explanation
  • The Causal-Mechanical Model of Explanation
  • Contemporary Mechanical Explanation
  • Teleological Explanation
  • Historical Explanation
  • Explanation as Unification
  • Pragmatic Theories of Explanation
  • Explanation in Specific Sciences
  • Moral and Scientific Explanation

Philosophy Scientific Explanation
Joseph Pitt, Steven Mischler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0339


The modern search for an adequate general theory of explanation is an outgrowth of the logical positivist’s agenda: to lay the groundwork for a general unified theory of science. Carl Hempel and Paul Oppenheim’s “Studies in the Logic of Explanation” (Hempel and Oppenheim 1948, cited under the Deductive-Nomological Model of Explanation) was the first major attempt to put forth an account that met the positivist’s criteria. It initiated a lively debate that has continued up to the present. But as the attention of the philosophers of science became increasingly focused on the individual sciences, it quickly became clear that one general theory of explanation would not do since the particulars of the various sciences called for different accounts of what constituted an adequate explanation in physics and biology as well as chemistry, etc. This article attempts to capture the flavor of the debates and the nature of the shifting targets over the years. It does not profess to be complete, being largely restricted to work published in English, but it is a start. While the modern debates surrounding explanation can be said to begin with Hempel and Oppenheim, the history of philosophical accounts of explanation can be traced at least to Aristotle, whose metaphysics set the logical framework for explanations until Galileo urged that appeals to metaphysical categories be replaced by mathematics and measurement. For the most part, Galileo was not interested in appealing to causes or occult forces. The account of how things behaved was to be expressed in the language of mathematics. Descartes tried to capitalize on that insight with his resurrection of medieval discussions of causation relying on Aristotle’s framework framed in a mathematical physics, only to be countered by Newton, who introduced non-Aristotelian causal explanation grounded in mathematical physics. Finally John Stuart Mill begins the long march to contemporary accounts of causal explanation in both the physical and the social sciences, again relying on certain key assumptions about human nature. So the history of explanation is long and intertwined with a variety of metaphysical frameworks. The Positivists of the 20th century unsuccessfully eschewed metaphysics and sought to create an account of causal explanation that somehow aimed to stick strictly to the dictates of science, only to be thwarted by the metaphysical assumptions in the sciences themselves.

Introductions and Overviews

A range of books, articles, and encyclopedic entries are included here to introduce readers to the topic of scientific explanation. Hempel 1965 and Popper 1959 are introductory in the sense that these works have been at the center of the discussion of explanation since the 1960s. Familiarity with these works is required reading for engaging in philosophical discussion of explanation. Nagel 1961 is written as an introductory text, but it does not limit itself to surveying topics. Ruben 1990 and Okasha 2002 specifically aim to provide overviews for nonspecialists. Salmon 1989, Woodward 2014, and Skow 2016 provide overview accounts aimed at specialists. These overviews also contain rich bibliographies. Finally, Cartwright provides a historical survey of the role of the idea of explanation as opposed to other overviews that recount the various accounts of explanation.

  • Cartwright, Nancy. “From Causation to Explanation and Back.” In The Future for Philosophy. Edited by Brian Leiter, 230–245. Oxford: Clarendon, 2004.

    Cartwright examines the history of the philosophical project of explicating the notion of scientific explanation and how the field has changed to focus on the notion of causation. An undercurrent of Cartwright’s paper is that the influence of logical positivism had philosophers focusing on the linguistic relations present in scientific theories while purposively dismissing talk of causation as unsavory metaphysical speculation.

  • Hempel, Carl G. Aspects of Scientific Explanation and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Science. New York: Free Press, 1965.

    This book includes a number of Hempel’s influential papers in the philosophy of science, making it a useful volume for studying the issues of philosophy of science in general. Relevant here, the last section of essays is focused specifically on scientific explanation. Here Hempel addresses conceptual questions regarding explanation. He also develops and defends his own view of explanation (the influential deductive-nomological model).

  • Nagel, Ernest. The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961.

    Nagel’s book provides a clearly written starting point. Nagel traces the history of contemporary problems and examines a number of cases studies, including a chapter-length treatment of logical problems of Newtonian mechanics. The latter half of the book examines issues regarding explanation in the special and social sciences.

  • Okasha, Samir. Philosophy of Science: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780198745587.001.0001

    Witten for nonspecialists, Okasha’s book serves as a clear and brief primer on important topics in the philosophy of science, including scientific explanation, which is covered in the third chapter.

  • Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Hutchinson, 1959.

    Popper’s text is a classic and serves as a useful starting point for investigation into the nature of explanation as well as other important issues in the philosophy of science.

  • Ruben, David-Hillel. Explaining Explanation. New York: Routledge, 1990.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203169308

    Ruben provides an accessible introduction to the subject. Much of the first chapter sets out useful distinctions and analyses of the concept of explanation. Later chapters engage the ancient and contemporary history of thought on explanation. A second edition was published in 2012.

  • Salmon, Wesley C. Four Decades of Scientific Explanation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

    Salmon provides a history of philosophical discussion of scientific explanation from 1948 through 1988, replete with an extensive bibliography for each decade. The book is divided into four main sections, each treating a decade of discussion. The first two sections focus on the rise and fall of the deductive-nomological model, while the third and fourth sections detail the rise of competing models of explanation as well as an examination of related philosophical questions, such as the relationship of explanation to argument and description.

  • Skow, Bradford. “Scientific Explanation.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Science. Edited by Paul Humphreys, 524–543. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    Skow’s entry is a short introduction to the topic that pays close attention to recent developments in the field. The entry is aimed at students and specialists.

  • Woodward, James. “Scientific Explanation.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014.

    An entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The entry provides an overview of the history and development of the main positions regarding the philosophy of scientific explanation. The entry includes a bibliography.

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