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The Explanation of Action in History

1 June 2006


This paper focuses on two conflations which frequently appear within the philosophy of history and other fields concerned with action explanation. The first of these, which I call the Conflating View of Reasons, states that the reasons for which we perform actions are reasons why (those events which are) our actions occur. The second, more general conflation, which I call the Conflating View of Action Explanation, states that whatever explains why an agent performed a certain action explains why (that event which was) her action occurred. Both conflations ignore the fact that there are at least two distinct objects that legitimately qualify as objects of action explanation2. As Jennifer Hornsby (1993) has previous suggested, one thing we might wish to explain is ‘why did A do what she did?’ another is, ‘why did the event of her doing it occur?’

I shall argue that when these two views are combined they give rise to a futile debate about explanation in the philosophies of history and the social sciences, and to an almost identical debate in moral psychology and the philosophy of mind. In so doing, I shall also examine a proposed distinction between explaining a phenomenon, and rendering it intelligible. I conclude by distinguishing between four different objects of historical understanding, each of which is to be understood in the light of the aforementioned distinctions between event and thing done, and explanation and intelligibility.


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