Philosophy Abduction and Explanatory Reasoning
by
Igor Douven
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0385

Introduction

The term “abduction” originates in the work of the American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. Roughly, he meant it to indicate the process of searching for hypotheses guided by explanatory considerations. It thus had a place in (what later came to be called) the context of discovery. Nowadays, the term “abduction” is commonly used to refer to a type of inference which we take to be warranted on explanatory grounds, as when for instance we infer that it has been raining when we see that the streets are wet, given that it having rained is the best (although not the only possible) explanation of the streets being wet. Thus understood, abduction belongs to the so-called context of justification. In modern usage, “abduction” is typically taken to be synonymous with “Inference to the Best Explanation.” As such, it is standardly contrasted with deduction (in which the inference is warranted on the basis of form alone) and induction (in which the inference is warranted on the basis of statistical information). Abduction and induction share the feature of being ampliative, meaning that they do not guarantee the truth of the conclusion on the basis of the truth of the premises (unlike deduction); they lead to a conclusion that—one might say—goes “beyond” the premises. Philosophers have been mainly interested in the normative aspects of abduction—is it rational to infer to the best explanation, even if perhaps only under certain circumstances?—while psychologists have looked at how well the hypothesis that people reason abductively explains certain aspects of their cognitive behavior, for instance, how well that hypothesis explains some registered ways in which people tend to deviate from Bayesian norms of reasoning. For this reason, there is relevant work to be found both in the philosophical and in the psychological literature. Computer scientists, especially researchers in the field of artificial intelligence, have sought to implement abduction computationally, as part of a general attempt to develop a computational model of human reasoning, and have compared it with other inferential principles through the use of computer simulations. In philosophy, it has long been mostly philosophers of science, and to a lesser extent epistemologists, who were interested in abduction. More recently, abduction has come to be regarded as a key principle in the methodology of philosophy, with applications in a variety of areas of philosophical research.

General Overviews

There are a few general overviews of the literature on abduction. Vogel 1998 and Douven 2017 are encyclopedia entries that focus on the philosophical literature, while Lombrozo 2012 and Koslowski 2018 are contributions to handbooks that attend more closely to the psychological literature. While not in any way meant as an overview, Schurz 2008 does actually give an excellent overview of the many forms in which we can reason abductively. Similarly, McCain and Poston 2018 is not intended to give an overview, but the various articles in that volume do jointly give a very useful overview of the wealth of positions vis-à-vis abduction that are currently to be found among philosophers.

  • Douven, Igor. “Abduction.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by E. N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2017.

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    Overview of philosophical discussions concerning abduction. Has a supplement on Peirce’s view on abduction and how it differs from those more common today.

  • Koslowski, Barbara. “Abductive Reasoning and Explanation.” In Routledge International Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. Edited by L. J. Ball and V. A. Thompson, 366–382. London: Routledge, 2018.

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    Another excellent overview of the psychological literature on abduction, also exhibiting a clear understanding of the philosophical issues.

  • Lombrozo, Tania. “Explanation and Abductive Inference.” In Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. Edited by K. J. Holyoak and R. G. Morrison, 260–276. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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    Excellent discussion of much of the psychological literature concerned with abduction, written by a psychologist with a deep understanding of the relevant philosophical literature.

  • McCain, Kevin, and Ted Poston, eds. Best Explanations: New Essays on Inference to the Best Explanation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

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    Edited volume of sixteen previously unpublished papers dealing with abduction, covering a broad range of topics, including questions of how best to conceive of abduction, whether it is rational to reason abductively, whether abduction is really separate from other types of reasoning; also contains essays discussing historical aspects of abduction and applications of it both in epistemology and in the philosophy of science.

  • Schurz, Gerhard. “Patterns of Abduction.” Synthese 164 (2008): 201–234.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11229-007-9223-4E-mail Citation »

    Makes fine-grained conceptual distinctions between different types of abduction. The emphasis is on the use (or rather uses) of abductive reasoning in science.

  • Vogel, Jonathan. “Inference to the Best Explanation.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by E. Craig. London: Routledge, 1998.

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    Older but still highly valuable overview of the main philosophical issues surrounding abduction. Available online with subscription.

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