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Hegeler Institute

ON EXPLAINING HOW-POSSIBLY Author(s): W. H. Dray Source: The Monist, Vol. 52, No. 3, Philosophic Problems of Social Science (JULY, 1968), pp. 390-407 Published by: Hegeler Institute Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27902091 . Accessed: 13/12/2013 03:20
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ON EXPLAINING HOW-POSSIBLY
Some years ago, in the course of a general critique of what has sometimes been referred to as the covering law (or Popper-Hempel) I made the claim that perfectly satisfactory theory of explanation, a few can be often explanations provided by indicating only one or

thesis which have come tomy attention in the interval, and tomake such concessions as these seem to require.2 In fact, the concessions will be minor, since the general thesis still seems to me quite defensible. The original statement of the thesis was phrased in terms of a rather frivolous example taken from a popular magazine. Since the criticisms I wish to consider have generally been put in terms of it may be useful to restate it before briefly the same example, my noncovering law analysis of it. The example goes summarizing like this:
An announcer a baseball from Victoria, B.C.,

necessary conditions, where we remain ignorant of the sufficient conditions, of what we nevertheless claim to understand. What I called seemed to me one identifiable type of such explanations was a more it type naturally "explaining how-possibly," because given in response to the question how it could be that a certain than to the more familiar question why it did so.1 thing happened In the present paper I propose to review certain objections to this

said: "It's a long fly ball to centre field, and it's going to hit high
up on the fence. The the batter centre-fielder's Listeners back, who he's knew under it, he's caught twenty it, and is out." the fence was

broadcasting

game

feet high couldn't figure out how the fielder caught the ball. Spec tators could have given them the unlikely explanation. At the rear
i Laws and Explanation inHistory (Oxford, 1957) ,Chap. 6.

account

21 regret that F. D. Newman's by Description (The Hague, Explanation 1968) came into my hands too late for me to take his very into interesting criticisms in this paper.

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391

of centre field was a high platform for the scorekeeper.The centre fielder ran up the ladder and caught the ball twenty feet above the
ground.

is a that what is here called an explanation The anecdote. the context in the suggested by perfectly good one, revelation of certain previously unknown facts-that there was a ladder, attached to a platform, and that the fielder used it-is an explanation needed to exactly what those listeners who wanted these particular facts explanatory? Not, 1 know. But what made should argue, their constituting sufficient conditions for the event to be explained, the catch-and hence, still less their being seen to fall or laws which would under generalizations justify the claim that even that they are seen to they were sufficient conditions. It is not is quite a sufficient set of conditions, for the explanation complete the a set remains unknown. What makes even if such acceptable seems rather to be that they successfully cited facts explanatory rebut a presumption, shared by listeners, and reasonable enough in the light of their knowledge at the time, that the fielder could not is that in spite of the have caught the ball. The presumption Now it seems tome that the ball was caught, this just couldn't have consists in showing that, in spite of The explanation happened. to the contrary, the event was not impossible after appearances announcement
all.

of this sort, it should be noted, makes no explanation to be shown to show attempt why the ball was caught. What needs to catch it-how it could be that he is how the fielder managed to this how-possibly caught it. And it is with reference specifically I should argue, and not to the more common why-neces question, status of the facts cited is to be sarily one, that the explanatory to make more 'There was a is Thus nothing required judged. a of the proper etc.* ladder, completely satisfactory explanation of to the rebut what is needed than impossibility. presumption type Since this can be achieved by citing merely necessary conditions of the catch, it seems proper to represent the case as exemplifying a class of exceptions to the standard covering law account of explana tion. This class, furthermore, is to be distinguished, not only from An cases which those which satisfy that theory in its deductive version, but also from covering law theorists analyze in terms of inductive

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the position which has just been sketched and certain other of ways arguing for the viability of explanations citing only neces sary conditions. It is often claimed, for example, that what satisfies between us, in practice, is generally incomplete explanation-this we have reason to believe as regarded justifiable provided being that the

are no more to be assimi probilification. Explanations how-possibly to to than lated how-probablies why-necessarilies. It may be worth calling attention explicitly to some differences

conditions we cite in fact belong to a sufficient set, which a demand for the completion of our explanation would require us to specify.3 The way I have represented the aim of explaining how-possibly, however, makes knowledge of such sufficient conditions irrelevant to the question asked. The present thesis is to be distinguished also from the claim that, in the special case of explaining voluntary human actions at least, necessary conditions-notably those which provided the agent with reasons to act as he did-are all our can to set to it is assumed that no be forth,'since explanations hope sufficient conditions for such actions exist.4 This is a position quite like one which

necessary conditions of a certain develop ment or process were successively satisfied over a period of time, a series of but-for-this-not-that's.5 Such accounts, however, yielding seldom offer any theoretical justification of the claim that necessary conditions by themselves are capable of performing the explanatory of merely function. There is nothing in them analogous rebuttal pattern of explaining how-possibly.
3 See, Function * See, for example, Carl Hempel's of General in History," Laws account reprinted

how a number

I have argued for elsewhere myself; but it is here the beside quite point. Somewhat closer to that point, perhaps, is a as an attempt to show view of distinctively genetic explanations

to the presumption

of explanation in P. Gardiner

"sketches" (ed.), in H.

in "The of and

Theories

History (Glencoe, 1959), pp. 350ff.


A. M. Honor s See W. Gardiner

for example, the account of 'interpersonal transactions' ,Causation in the Law (Oxford, 1959), pp. 48-54. B. Gallie, (ed.), in History and "Explanation Theories ofHistory, pp. 387ff. the Genetic

A. Hart

Sciences,"

in Patrick

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II
clarification and elaboration of my general claim may conveniently be left to emerge frommy review of criticism. Let me turn first to some objections which have been raised by P. F. Further

to and John Passmore. According Strawson, P. H. Nowell-Smith I "a have about makes what said Strawson, explaining how-possibly pretty neutral point" as between covering law theorists and their opponents. "For thus to counter a prior presumption against some thing's being possible," he says might simply be to show that itwas not, after all, an exception to a
law; and even the most rigorous covering law theorist would prob

ably be willing to qualify his account of explanation sufficientlyto admit this case, without feeling that he had thereby surrendered any substantial part of his position.6 As Strawson expresses it, however, I cannot see that this is a very damaging statement, even if true. For although one may certainly rebut a presumption of impossibility by an attribution of necessity, one surely need not claim that to do something short of this-name

fail to rebut the presumption. ly, to show only possibility-would We might, in this connection, speak of strong and weak rebuttals, the former, which Strawson appears to favour, going further than is actually required, but certainly also counting as an explanation, an answer to the original question. It may be, of course, acceptable that I have misconstrued Strawson's point in saying this; itmay be that by showing that what happened was not an exception to a law, he simply means showing that we can still accept the original that apparently ruled out the case. In the baseball this might be something like 'Fielders don't catch balls example, above feet their heads'. But in that case Strawson really twenty to show that what happens is not an me. For with agrees exception to that law is not necessarily to show that it falls under some other law-the law. The one

point at issue, of course, is not whether explaining how must repudiate the applicability of all laws. It is rather possibly whether it commits us to the truth of some law or laws which renders what happened either necessary or highly probable. . Review,Mind (April, 1959), 268.

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Professor Nowell-Smith begins by agreeing that explanations are to show that something which, in view of the "concerned reader's natural expectations, might seem impossible, nevertheless to occur." But he objects to my concluding that such a "For what is done constitute here," he separate type.

managed

explanations says

heads, a generalization that he formerlythought inapplicable.7 Here there is not doubt what the critic means. As I was tempted to in the case of Strawson, also, what is being claimed is that the infer cogency of a how-possibly explanation depends upon the truth of at least an implicit law which would represent what is explained as necessary; and Professor Nowell-Smith makes quite explicit what, in the present case, he takes that law to be. It might be noted that he knows enough of the game of baseball not to hold that such an

not twenty feet; the player's head, catch that expert players generalization above

is to permit the reader to bring to bear on the situation one of the typesof explanation with which he is already equipped. In this case, it is explained that (surprisingly) the ball was in fact only a foot
so he balls can one bring foot to bear the above their

insertion is pointless. For sume, making it analytic), Nowell-Smith's we do not require to know in the case envisaged that the fielder was expert in any such inflated sense. We only need to know that the catch was within ceded that people their competences. Like Strawson his competence. And it need surely not be con always, or even usually, perform at the level of

obviously satisfactory explanation could depend logically upon such as 'Players always catch an obviously unsatisfactory generalization balls one foot above their heads'. He therefore prudently modifies to read "expert players." Even if the more obvious generalization this renders the generalization true, however (without, let us as

and Nowell-Smith, Professor Passmore begins by that demands for often arise in the way set allowing explanation out by the baseball example: "something seems to have happened that cuts right across our expectations," he says. Having been told about the catch, there is "a discrepancy in our experience." "Never

7Review, Philosophy (April, 1959), 172.

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can be set out in the theless," he continues, "the explanation familiar logical pattern" of the covering law model as follows:
A professional outfielder outfielder was on a on professional the ball.8 platform a platform; can catch a therefore high he ball; can this catch

That

the explanation must be susceptible of some such analysis, Passmore contends, is "all that Popper and Hempel need to argue." statements like the one cited, he continues, are doubtless General

"relatively trivial," and the puzzle-dissolving fact that the outfielder was on a platform may be, by contrast, much more interesting and more difficult to discover. But "the form of the is not explanation affected by the relative degree of unfamiliarity of its major and
minor

is whether this shows the reducibility of the how-possibly to covering law form-at any rate as explanation Hempelians would understand it. For both Popper and Hempel insist quite an to occurrence that in any legitimate sense is to clearly explain a as it law under which represent falling justifies the conclusion-in the original statement of the theory it was the deductive conclusion -that the event itself occurred. Clearly the law elicited by Pass more as relevant to this explanation does not perform that func tion; it permits the conclusion only that the event could occur. To put it another way, Passmore's reduction does nothing to protect one of the central claims of the covering law theory of explanation: the claim that explaining and predicting are correlative operations. To explain what happened is, on this theory, to represent it as been having predictable. question One answer that what was occurrence-the argued,
s Review 272.

Now I must admit that the validity of the reasoning Passmore sets out is indeed assumed by the how-possibly explanation we are it is a condition of its acceptability. What I should considering;

premises."

to be

is the possibility
Article, Australian

to such a response might be that it falsely assumes in the baseball explained example was an catch. All that is explained, it might rather be of the catch. Passmore himself seems to be
Journal of Politics and History (November, 1958)

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condition of the possibility of the catch, it therefore only explains the possibility of the catch, in fact accords very well with what the most extreme deductivists among covering law theorists have always said. Against accepting such a view, I urge two considerations. The first,which will perhaps have a rather limited appeal, is the simple observation that deductivists here do not explicate an existing notion of explanation, but stipulate one. For there is nothing at all odd about asking "How do you explain the catch and getting the reply "There was a platform and But if covering law theorists are not moved by ation, I think they should at least be a little second. For the argument used

a little tempted by thismove. The explanation "he was standing on a high not "a he does indicate sufficient condition allows, platform/' "in of ball-catching" this is adds but irrelevant, and is (he general," a state it does But "a condition for what sufficient presumably slip). is puzzling us-how it is possible for him to catch the ball."9 to say that since the explanation Now only offers a sufficient

in the light of ..." a ladder, and . . ." this first consider

uneasy about the to deny that the alleged how-pos sibly explanation explains the catch can surely be turned against all those inductive versions of the covering law model which Hem pel himself has been the first to elaborate. If we can explain only what we can strictly deduce, then any so-called inductive explana tion of a given occurrence will turn out not to be an explanation of it either, but (atmost) of its probability. Professor May Brodbeck is the only covering law theorist, to my knowledge, who is willing to to swallow this-or, at any rate, something very like it. Refusing we can we can the that what deduce, give up only explain principle and admitting that most of our general that knowledge-including found inmost sciences-is statistical, the courage of her convictions drives her to the conclusion that we can hardly ever (and perhaps never) explain individual occurrences.10 The outlook for explana tion in applied sciences, history or the law on such a theory is

hardly promising.
Ibid., p. 273. 10 Prediction and in H. Feigl and G. "Explanation, 'Imperfect' Knowledge," Studies in the Maxwell, 3 (Minnea eds., Minnesota of Science, Vol. Philosophy 9

polis, 1962), pp. 248ff.

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III
But Passmore does not finally rest his case on the considerations so far.He goes on in fact to elaborate an argument which, holding firmly to the assumption that it is the catch that is to be adduced

satisfactory explanation.11 It is true, he allows, that we seldom know what the fully sufficient conditions of an actual occurrence are; but we must be "confident" all the same that what we refer to was sufficient in that particular case-by which I take him to mean,

that how-possibly explanations, explained, reaches the conclusion under pressure, must dissolve into why-necessarily ones. The "really serious question," he says, is whether reference to anything short of a sufficient condition, no matter how important itmay be, can be a

make

sufficient in conjunction with other unspecified conditions which I am confident were satisfied in the case. In the face of a certain kind of challenge, Passmore continues, we might well feel obliged to explicit. If so, "it turns out that to answer a 'how-possibly* question, unless with a mere guess, is to sketch in a such conditions Now
explanation."

against the claim that the catch has been explained why-necessarily. And the contention that we have to explain why-necessarily in order completely to explain how-possibly is exactly what remains to arguments which merely show that what I have called explaining how-possibly fails to rule out the conceivability of "slips twixt cup and lip" are surely irrelevant. To put it another way, the need to distinguish between complete and incomplete arises within, not beyond, the class of such explanations. Thus, in
ii Op. cit., pp. 272-3.

from what Passmore says we should have to do this conclu I question is his claim that we have sion does indeed follow. What the kind of obligation he says we have in such cases. His precise argument begins with the observation: "The baseballer might have dropped the catch; how then can his being on the platform serve as a sufficient explanation of his catching the ball?" The answer surely is that it can serve in the sense of sufficiently explaining how it could be that he caught it, or in the sense of explaining his catching it how-possibly. That he might have dropped the ball counts only

'why-necessarily'

be established. All

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to have said only the circumstances we have been considering, an was a "There incomplete how platform," would have provided possibly explanation, because it only partially rebuts the presump tion of impossibility which raised the demand for explanation. For a complete rebuttal we need reference also to the ladder. Such not turn a how-possibly answer into a completion, however, does one. why-necessarily In the course of Passmore's argument to the contrary, two fur ther issues are raised. The less important arises out of the following observation in support of the claim that a how-possibly explanation is incomplete writes: if it does not explain why a thing occurred. Passmore

An explanation, plaining. est of "necessarily rejection need not be an explanation.

ex Just as describing is not explaining, so equally rebutting is not


of course, can be a rebuttal-the so"-but not" is "necessarily strong a rebuttal

And

could be said not to be explaining either. As reason-deducing Professor Scriven has remarked in this connection, any statement can be deduced from a double negative formed from it, but no one would want to claim that anything is explained by such a manoeu ver.12 And it might plausibly be claimed, too, that in many con is not explain texts, deduction frommere empirical generalizations same could be said of probilification. Passmore ing either. The allows that an explanation may be a rebuttal. And although I

is certainly not explaining, this, of course, is right. Rebutting an mean we to that rebut is always and if by that assumption to for exactly the same necessarily explain something. But-and

of something), this concession is enough. For the question how are rebuttals attain their force takes us back to which explanations we have already discussed. points The other and more important issue is suggested by the follow ing remarks of Passmore's:
12 "Truisms (ed.) ,Theories as the Grounds

should rather have put it that an explanation may take the form of a rebuttal as on other occasions and in response to other types (just of question, itmay take the form of a deduction of the occurrence

for Historical

Explanations,"

in Patrick

Gardiner

of History,

p. 455.

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ON
Suppose baseballer a we tower are in on

EXPLAINING

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we a do not even, might know that that

399
the to us other there was

the radio-broadcast up the field. Then a tower,

ran

example, and we do not "he ran up

know, tower"

occur no

as a hypothesis; but itwould be a satisfactoryexplanation only if


convinced that, in the circumstances, there was

way inwhich he could have caught theball. He continues: No doubt it is only too often the case that [we] can produce
than a set of conceivable of choosing no real way explanations-"how-pos between them, but this

nothing sibly"

better answers-with

is certainlynot a situation [we find] satisfactory.13

how something could have happened' tends to receive in the discus to sion. If explain how-possibly were, as Passmore puts it, to offer answers simply "a set of conceivable explanations"-how-possibly -with no real way of choosing between them," then it is plausible indeed to say that such explanation requires "completion" of some kind. It would be my argument, however, that unless we choose to change our question to a why-necessarily one (and, in practice, this the completion need involve only the elimina commonly happens) tion of incorrect how-possibly explanations. There can be possible explanations how-possibly as well as possible explanations why
necessarily.

Now the first thing to be said about this is that, on the face of it at least, Passmore seems to be confusing giving how-possibly expla nations with giving possible explanations. And there is perhaps some excuse for this in the loose treatment the expression 'showing

says here, taken in conjunction with his previous argument suggests a further claim, which has been urged is that when we actually come to by other critics as well. This choose between alternative how-possibly explanations, we shall find that the only good reason we can give for preferring the one we select is its being convertible into an explanation why-necessarily. illustration Passmore offers does not in fact give very forceful The support to this claim. In the case of the baseball catch, he suggests, it would
i3 Op.

But what

Passmore

be a possible

explanation

how-possibly

of what happened

cit., p. 273.

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that the fielder used a helicopter to close the gap between himself the ball. But the need to choose between this and the story about the platform and ladder surely puts us under no obligation to expand the latter into an explanation why-necessarily. We choose the one we do because we have reason for believing in the truth of its component statements; we exclude the merely possible explana tion in such a case by falsifying the claim that there was a helicopter available. as has been pointed out to me by Mr. Paul McEvoy, However, the choice between possible how-possibly may not explanations a matter. always be such Suppose that, upon investigation, simple

we

sumption of impossibility which raised the demand for explanation in the first place, set forth conditions which actually did obtain. How do we choose between them? Presumably by asking the further question: Which means did the fielder actually employ in catching answer to which, Mr. McEvoy the ball?-our suggests, is really better referred to as an explanation 'how-actually* the fielder did it. Unless we are pre he the than ball, caught how-possibly to to all the go way asking how-actually, itmust be admitted, pared we shall be in danger of offering as the explanation of the catch we as all to do with at had which, might say, nothing something it-or, as some objectors have preferred to put it, something which was irrelevant to its causal explanation. It still does not follow, however, that what we do select as itself explain the catch why-necessarily, or that in one set of conditions as causally relevant we claim to regarding only itself is.No knowledge of the know what the full causal explanation relevant niust sufficient conditions of the catch is needed to rule unused helicop ters or trampolines out of its how-possibly explanation. What we do is a matter of about Mr. McEvoy's terminological recommendation no great importance. He would prefer to call an explanation by reference to something which was either not used or not there an and an explanation by reference to explanation how-possibly, was an which in fact used something explanation how-actually

find that there was a helicopter on the field at that point-or, the alternative a little more shall we say a trampoline, to make now two have We explanations how-possibly, both of plausible. the formal criterion of rebutting the pre which, besides meeting

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I prefer to mark the same (although still not why-necessarily). distinction by speaking of possible explanations how-possibly, and actual explanations how-possibly, reserving the term how-actually for a kind of explanation going far beyond the rebuttal of presump tions of impossibility.

IV Let me turn now to some criticisms offered by Jack Pitt. Pitt, like Passmore, denies that how-possibly explanations can ultimately be separated on any clear and acceptable principle from explana tions why. He begins by agreeing that the event to be explained "may be described as 'the centre-fielder caught the bair." The can consist "solely of question, he says, is whether the explanation statements describing prior to his catching

(a) the centre-fielder's activity immediately the ball, (the (b) the physical conditions It is ladder and the platform) which make his activity possible." Pitt's own view that the relevance of such considerations can be established only "by an appeal to an implicitly assumed generali zation." His own candidate, which he describes as a 'tendency law', is "People with considerable experience in catching fly-balls will, when having placed themselves in a certain proximity to a fly-ball, usually catch it."14 Now account

against this, my argument would, of course, be that no is taken by Pitt of the presumption-rebuttal pattern of the If the problem expressed by "That's impossible" explanation. arises, as it seems to, out of our thinking the fielder lacked the means of catching the ball, it is just not necessary, in order to remove precisely this difficulty, that we show that, given the means, we could conclude, in accordance with a tendency law, that the ball would

certainly, or very probably, be caught. Since we know that the ball was caught, the explanation would be just as good, of its type, if the strongest law we could justifiably assert were "Fielders occasionally, when within two feet of a fly ball, catch it." In fact, even "Fielders do it once a season" would be enough. If it is
i* "Generalizations 1959), 581-2. in Historical Explanation," Journal of Philosophy (June 18,

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that, were fielders to make catches only once a season, objected to explain about this particular catch there would still be much as originally envisaged, which the how-possibly ig explanation, nores, the point may be conceded. For we can always ask for further to be explained, or for the same thing to be some further way. My contention is that explanations in explained are complete when they resolve the specific problem which gave rise to them-not all the kinds we are able to muster in a given something situation. In

the baseball situation, the kind being resolved is a articulated by how-possibly question. Pitt attempts to drive home his point, however, with an example which has some independent interest. I shall quote it here in full: Imagine a chemist saying to his layman friend that a certain solu tion is alkaline. He offers to illustrate this by showing that it turns
litmus

red

litmus paper. Meanwhile


tion. The that it does chemist returns, not work.

paper

blue,

and

his friend pours nitric acid into the solu


tries the says litmus the test, and "when friend, is flabbergasted out you were

goes

into

the next

room

to secure

some

I did pour in some of this other solution you have here." Now in keeping with Dray's analysis, the explanation would consist solely
of the statement, need only "Nitric acid was added to the test solution." statement The point vant be hardly if a variety labored, however, that are this is rele

"Well,"

man's

certain laws of chemistry. It is significant to add thatwhile the lay


remark is enlightening laws.15 to the chemist who knows the laws, its

of generalizations

assumed,

in particular

point can be seen by the layman only after the chemist indicates
that there are such

Pitt's point here appears to be that the chemist could to know it how could be that the litmus paper claim scarcely remained red, without discovering that the solution was not, after all, alkaline. And from this latter knowledge, plus his knowledge that nonalkaline liquids do not turn litmus paper blue (or more and detailed laws would which sophisticated perform the same to is deduce what happened, and hence to resolve able function) he Now Pitt seems to be the difficuty.What those vague examples of explanation
is Ibid., pp. 582-3.

saying is that when we leave we may draw from ordinary

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403

life and examine precise ones drawn from reputable, systematic the weak and sciences, we shall see-as Passmore had claimed-that of impossibility cannot be strong rebuttals of the presupposition Perhaps for some contexts Pitt's point is well taken. For in a field of enquiry like chemistry, where precise laws and deductive are readily available, it may be difficult to imagine explanations circumstances in which an occurrence would seriously be repre sented as merely possible. I may therefore have been rash in seem can be ing to claim that irreducible how-possibly explanations offered and found acceptable with respect to any type of subject matter whatever. Yet in any investigation of natural events in which it is allowed that we can necessary, without
separated.

sometimes have knowledge of knowledge of sufficient, conditions-knowledge of the form 'Only if x then perhaps expressed in generalizations y'-the claim that we can give how-possibly explanations which fall short of why-necessarily ones would surely hold. For how-possibly our belief that, in a situation in which arise out of might questions we do not know the sufficient conditions of what a happened, certain condition known to be necessary, at least, is not satisfied. And an explanation how-possibly could be given if this necessary to obtain after all. It is true that, in condition was discovered an such conducting investigation, we might believe that sufficient conditions were in fact satisfied. And this belief would not be after the all, extraordinary: thing happened. Yet our explanation no of what those conditions were. And the requires knowledge a would retain for its force who believed rather person explanation that no sufficient conditions were satisfied, i.e. for one who took an indeterministic view of the subject-matter. I would thus challenge the implication that what makes how sometimes appear viable, outside certain possibly explanations our or is vagueness laboratory situations, simply imprecision. And I would suggest that the limitation upon explaining how-possibly, if any, to which Pitt's example calls attention, is really just a conse quence of the difficulty, in some contexts, of claiming a legitimate

employment for the concept of sheer physical possibility. It is signi ficant, in this connection, to observe that when lawyers, historians, moralists or businessmen ask the question "How could that be so?",

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it is seldom physical possibility, whether vaguely or precisely con in the baseball example ceived, that is at issue. Their concern-as a more to certain agent had the opportunity is far be whether likely of doing what he was alleged to do, or whether it was really within his powers-what has sometimes been referred to as 'technical pos

show possibility in either of these two senses clearly sibility\ To need not involve us in showing physical necessity. Nor need it raise the question why the agent did what he did at all. the necessity of an action If a distinction is allowed between done for good reason, and that of physical occurrence falling under a common one-in which law, there is still a further sense-and

how-possibly explanations may be required to show possibility. An example from everyday life would be "How could he have taken the rest of the day off,with all this work still to be done?"-which could be answered completely and satisfactorily by "He didn't know there would be another mail delivery today, so he thought itwas all right to go early." Explanations of actions by reference to reasons can be, and often are, of the sort which might be said to show the rational say "Why did he have necessity of a certain line of conduct. We to?", and expect an answer showing there was one and only one reasonable thing to have done. But, in reply to a how-possibly can often also be given, and be com question, such explanations

pletely given, by showing that what was done was rationally permis sible, in spite of a presumption to the contrary. V

itwith the characteristic historical way of responding to a a narrative. Some critics who have for request explanation-with constitutes a logically distinct agreed that this form of explanation type, have nevertheless expressed doubt as to whether it throws much for example, light on historians' practice. Alan Donagan, me most to invites historical explanations, and themost "agree that and points out important of them, explain why things happened," that "the Hempelian of these is theory undamaged" by the accep

connected

In my original discussion of how-possibly explanation, I argued that it was of particular interest to philosophers of history; and I

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ON EXPLAINING

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has tance of a further, how-possibly model.18 J. W. N. Watkins a similar objection. The account given of explaining how possibly, he agrees, is "plausible when one considers the explana he points out tion of bizarre, exotic and remarkable events"-and that the baseball example dealt with such a one. But historians, he in a "how on earth?" state of continues, are not continuously amazement. Most of their work consists of explaining "unsurprising "which events"; and in these more usual cases, an explanation voiced merely
curiosity

showed

that it was not

impossible would

not satisfy [our]

at all."17

these critics are obviously correct to insist that how-pos are not the only-or, for that matter, the most sibly explanations found in historical writing. Donagan common-kind is justified, was not delib too, in suggesting further that the Hempelian theory structure to the of intended elucidate erately explanations given in answer to other than 'why* questions. I would still want to claim, however, that how-possibly explanations do have a considerable, if not major, place in the explanatory activities of historians. And although I may formerly have exaggerated it, I should still want to represent their analysis as throwing special light on that characteris Now tic explanatory activity of historians-the construction of narra
tives.

First let me offer a historical example which suggests the func observed that Henry tioning of the how-possibly pattern. Having VIII has been called a coward and a tyrant,A. F. Pollard, in his Factors in Modern History, writes: There
with them harmonize you make ard's or this tyrant's astonishing

is no objection to calling him all these things provided that


a rational success. explanation the more But of this cow cowardly or

themore tyrannical you make him out to be, themore difficultyou make your own and your real task of solving the problem of his
ie "Explanation p. 434n. in History," in Patrick Gardiner of reprinted (ed.), Theories that Hempel It might be noted, however, himself argues quite that what is said about makes explanations how-possibly only a a distinctive not and does structure point, identify explanatory in Mid-Century

History,

differently

'pragmatic' (New York, 1965) ,pp. 428-30. Aspects of Scientific Explanation IT of in R. (ed.), Philosophy History," "Philosophy Klibansky Vol. III, (Florence, 1958), p. 166.

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406

THE

MONIST

reign, or explaining how itwas thatHenry accomplished so much, and how itwas that his work lasted so long. Flabby cowards are not,
as a rule, upon policy successful the and revolutionaries, and measures which part solely tion's man do tyranny of one of a people's conscience.18 not become depend of a na

This example even mentions explicitly the general consideration it isn't quite a law-which helps generate the demand for explana tion: a typical feature of explanations how-possibly. It is virtually incredible, the historian implies, that a cowardly tyrant could have accomplished Henry's solid work. Something has to give. In this case the presumption of impossibility arises out of the way Henry's

character has traditionally been viewed. Since the historian obvious ly holds himself somewhat aloof from this "accepted" view, and he gives us reason to expect that he will show that Henry was not a illustrates very nice cowardly tyrant after all, Pollard's explanation a B. advanced W. Gallie about thesis historical ly by explanation: that it is usually given at a point in a narrative where the historian, having come across an inconsistency, neglected possibility or a blunder, finds it necessary to re-write a received account.19 As I argued

happen account develops. This suggests an objection tomy regarding how-possibly explan ations as both logically respectable and important in history which has on occasion been made to me, not by philosophers, but by historians. This is the suspicion that if the presumption which the historian's explanation rebuts itself arises out of the way his narra then tive develops, amounts to little more the so-called explanation than a game he plays with his reader, perhaps to keep up his interest. For unlike the radio announcer of our baseball example, the historian knowingly-even the false expec cunningly-arouses tation by the way he describes what occurred. He then, itmay be said, dramatically reveals its falsity by showing that an event con on to resolve an alto trary to what was expected occurred-going artificial few would care to be historians gether problem. Perhaps
is Factors inModern History (Beacon, 1960) ,p. 75.

formerly, however, the expectation of what does not in fact is just as often raised by the way the historian's own

Historical Understanding (NewYork, 1964) ,pp. 106ff. Philosophy and the

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from what many of them regard as the restrictions of theory at the price of accepting such an account of Hempelian narrative. The logical description of such story-telling explanatory tricks, itmight be felt, could scarcely, at any rate, contribute any thing to the theory of historical enquiry. At most it belongs to the logic of history as literature.

Now I am sure that how-possibly explanation is sometimes used in this way and for such purposes; and this can be both irritating and dishonest. It is not true, however, that the need for such explanation only arises when the problem is set up for the ignorant ex and more knowledgeable and unsuspecting by a manipulating a is and role for There real pert. important explaining how-possibly in the actual process of historical research, and, as the reference to work suggests, in the revision of historical Gallie's theses. The account the historian gives at any one time is always built up piecemeal out of elements, formany of which he has independent evidence. What he claims to know at any stage of the constructive is, of course, a never-ending one-can always raise process-which the problem of how one event could have occurred in the light of some other occurrences for which there is also good evidence. The

drive for consistency-that direction of enquiry which has led many philosophers of history to regard 'coherence* as the aim of historical be expected at every stage to raise the ques understanding-may tion 'How could this be, in the light of that?' It could surely be argued, therefore, without implying that it is the only proper model for the historian, that the functional significance of explaining how it an especially important kind of explanation in possibly makes historical work. W. H. DRAY TRENT UNIVERSITY
PETERBOROUGH, ONTARIO

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