Three conceptions of explaining how possibly—and one reductive account

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Philosophers of science have often favoured reductive approaches to how-possibly explanation. This article identifies three alternative conceptions making how-possibly explanation an interesting phenomenon in its own right.

The first variety approaches “how possibly X?” by showing that X is not epistemically impossible. This can sometimes be achieved by removing misunderstandings concerning the implications of one’s current belief system but involves characteristically a modification of this belief system so that acceptance of X does not result in contradiction.

The second variety offers a potential how-explanation of X. It is usually followed by a range of further potential how-explanations of the same phenomenon. In recent literature the factual claims implied by the second variety have been downplayed whereas the heuristic role of mapping the space of conceptual possibilities has been emphasized. I will focus especially on this truth-bracketing sense of potentiality when looking closer at the second variety in the paper.

The third variety has attracted less interest. It presents a partial how-explanation of X. Typically it aims to establish the existence of a mechanism by which X could be and was generated. The third conception stands out as the natural alternative for the advocate of ontic how-possibly explanations.

This article transfers Salmon’s (1984) view that explanation-concepts can be broadly divided into epistemic, modal, and ontic to the context of how-possibly explanations. Moreover, it is argued that each of the three above-mentioned varieties of how-possibly explanation occurs in science. To recognize this may be especially relevant for philosophers. We are often misled by the promises of various why-explanation accounts, and seem to have forgotten nearly everything about the diversity of how-possibly explanation
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPhilSci Archive
PublisherPhilSci Archive
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 2009
EventEPSA 09: 2nd Conference of the European Philosophy of Science - Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Duration: 2009 Oct 212009 Oct 24


ConferenceEPSA 09: 2nd Conference of the European Philosophy of Science

Bibliographical note

The information about affiliations in this record was updated in December 2015.
The record was previously connected to the following departments: The Vårdal Institute (016540000), Theoretical Philosophy (015001002)

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Philosophy


  • How-possibly explanation
  • Mechanism
  • How-explanation
  • Cause
  • Explanation


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