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Functional explanation

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q119-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

Article Summary

Explanations appealing to the functions of items are common in everyday discourse and in science: we say that the heart pumps blood because that is its function, and that the car fails to start because the ignition is not functioning. Moreover, we distinguish the functions things perform from other things they do: the heart makes a noise, but that is not one of its functions. Philosophical discussions in this area attempt to specify conditions under which it is appropriate to ascribe functions to items and under which it is appropriate to appeal to those functions in explanations. Difficulties arise because functions are normative: there is some sense in which items ought to perform their functions; failure to perform is a kind of error. Philosophical discussions investigate whether and how this normativity can be understood in scientifically respectable terms. This is important, because biological entities are among the most characteristically functional items. This issue gives rise to differing views as to what it is that functional explanations explain. One view is that they explain how a containing system achieves some goal or effect. Another is that functional explanations explain causally why the functional item exists.

Citing this article:
Manning, Richard N.. Functional explanation, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q119-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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