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1st Semester 2023/24: Philosophical Foundations of Explanation

Dean McHugh

All humans by nature desire to know why things happen. Children go through a why-phase (and some, it is said, never grow out of it). We seek to explain; to be reasonable, rational animals. What principles underlie our practice of giving and interpreting explanations?

We will approach this question using tools from philosophy, logic and linguistics. In particular, we will discuss what the words cause and because mean, and what information we take into account when we interpret them; that is, what information a causal model should contain.

This will require diving into the nature of hypothetical reasoning. For a common idea is that when we interpret an explanation, we imagine scenarios where the explanatory factor is present and scenarios where it is absent, and compare what happens in each. For example, when we interpret a sentence like “Sea levels are rising because we continue to burn fossil fuels”, the thought is that we imagine scenarios where we continue to burn fossil fuels and scenarios where we do not, and compare them. In this course we will discuss the principles underlying which scenarios we choose to consider, and what exact kind of comparison we use.

Along the way we will discuss new developments in the semantics of conditionals, evaluating proposals based on similarity, premise semantics and truthmaker semantics.

If time permits, we will discuss other areas where explanation plays an important role, such as the nature of moral responsibility and legal cases where there has been disagreement over how to interpret explanations.


The first two weeks (January 8–19) will consist of lectures, with three lectures per week. There will then be supervision meetings for students to come up with their own research questions. There will be student presentations in week 3, and time to write a research paper in week 4.


The assessment for this project will be a presentation during week 3 and a paper (written individually or in groups) submitted at the end of week 4.



Sander Beckers & Joost Vennekens (2018). A principled approach to defining actual causation. Synthese.

Matthew Braham & Martin van Hees (2012). An anatomy of moral responsibility. Mind.

Kit Fine (2017). Truthmaker semantics. In the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Language.

Ned Hall (2004). Two concepts of causation. In Causation and Counterfactuals.

Irene Heim & Kain von Fintel (2011), Intensional Semantics. MIT textbook.

Angelika Kratzer (2012). Modals and Conditionals. Oxford University Press.

Judea Pearl & Dana Mackenzie (2018). The Book of Why. Penguin.