The Explanatory Virtue of Abstracting Away from Idiosyncratic and Messy Detail (2016)

Philosophical Studies 173: 1429-1449

Final Draft (Open Access)

doi.org/10.1007/s11098-015-0554-6 (Requires Subscription)

Abstract: Some explanations are relatively abstract: they abstract away from the idiosyncratic or messy details of the case in hand. The received wisdom in philosophy is that this is a virtue for any explanation to possess. I argue that the apparent consensus on this point is illusory. When philosophers make this claim, they differ on which of four alternative varieties of abstractness they have in mind. What's more, for each variety of abstractness there are several alternative reasons to think that the variety of abstractness in question is a virtue. I identify the most promising reasons, and dismiss some others. The paper concludes by relating this discussion to the idea that explanations in biology, psychology and social science cannot be replaced by relatively micro explanations without loss of understanding.