The ideal explanatory text in history: Plea for ecumenism

This article presents Peter Railton's analysis of scientific explanation and discusses its application in historiography. Although Railton thinks covering laws are basic in explanation, his account is far removed from Hempel. The main feature of Railton's account is its ecumenism. The "ideal explanatory text," a central concept in Railton's analysis, has room for not only causal and intentional, but also structural and functional explanations. The essay shows this by analyzing a number of explanations in history. In Railton's terminology all information that reduces our insecurity as to what the explanandum is due is explanatory. In the "encyclopedic ideal explanatory text," different kinds of explanation converge in the explanandum from different starting points. By incorporating pragmatic aspects, Railton's account is well suited to show how explanations in historiography can be explanatory despite their lack of covering laws or tendency statements. Railton's account is also dynamic, showing how the explanatory quest is a never-ending search for better illumination of the ideal explanatory text. Railton's analysis is briefly compared to, and found compatible with, views on explanation presented by David Lewis, C. Behan McCullagh, and R. G. Collingwood. Confronted with Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutics and Donald Davidson's insistence on the indeterminacy of interpretation, the essay suggests that the objectivity of the ideal explanatory text should be regarded as local, limited to the description under which the action is seen.