Can Normic Laws Save Hempel’s Model of Historical Explanation? a Critique of Schurz’ Approach

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
Gunnar Schumann FernUniversität in Hagen Hagen Germany

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I critically discuss Gerhard Schurz’ improved version of Hempel’s covering law model as the model appropriate for human action explanation in the historical sciences. Schurz takes so-called “normic laws” as the best means to save Hempel’s covering law model from the objection that there are no strict laws in historiography. I criticize Schurz approach in two respects: 1) Schurz falsely takes Dray’s account of historical explanations to be a normic law account. 2) Human action explanation in terms of goals and means-ends-beliefs are not based on normic laws at all, for the explanandum (the action) in an explanation follows from the volitional and doxastic premises (the explanans) alone. To show this, I argue that there is a conceptual connection between volition and action, rooted in our actual usage of volitional concepts. Ultimately, a difference in principle between the methods of explanation in science and historiography has to be acknowledged.


I critically discuss Gerhard Schurz’ improved version of Hempel’s covering law model as the model appropriate for human action explanation in the historical sciences. Schurz takes so-called “normic laws” as the best means to save Hempel’s covering law model from the objection that there are no strict laws in historiography. I criticize Schurz approach in two respects: 1) Schurz falsely takes Dray’s account of historical explanations to be a normic law account. 2) Human action explanation in terms of goals and means-ends-beliefs are not based on normic laws at all, for the explanandum (the action) in an explanation follows from the volitional and doxastic premises (the explanans) alone. To show this, I argue that there is a conceptual connection between volition and action, rooted in our actual usage of volitional concepts. Ultimately, a difference in principle between the methods of explanation in science and historiography has to be acknowledged.

1 Introduction: Causalism and Anti-Causalism in Theory of Action and Philosophy of Historiography1

There is a philosophical quarrel about the appropriate form of human action explanations. What we usually ask for when we ask why an agent did a particular action, is an explanation of the rationale of the action, of what it was that spoke in favor of the action, what may justify the action (maybe only from the standpoint of the agent). In short, we ask for reasons the agent had or presumably had, i.e. the agent’s purposes, goals, motives, intentions, and their means-ends beliefs. This is called a teleological explanation – and teleologists take it to be the appropriate form of action explanations. In contrast, causalists claim that teleological explanations of human actions are, taken by themselves, scientifically suspicious and at best superficial explanations, for proper explanations of human actions ought to state their causes – just as physical events are explained in the sciences. According to causalists, the true form of an explanation of a human action is that of a causal explanation (in which actions are taken to be physical events).

The connection of this quarrel between action theoretical causalists and teleologists and the problem of explanations in historiography lies in the question: What is the appropriate form of explanation of past human actions? Explanations of past human actions are at least an important sub-set of explanations in historiography.2 The question is especially virulent and far-reaching because it concerns the further and prominent question whether the method of historiographic explanation is the same as in the natural sciences and whether this marks a decisive difference between the sciences and the humanities, respectively the sciences and the social sciences.

The causal view of explanations of human action seeks to integrate human action in the scientific worldview. Causal theories of action therefore take on an important hinge function – if they are correct. If it can be shown that human actions in general require a causal explanation, then the central premise of a causalist theory of historical/social explanation can be taken for granted. Or conversely: If it can be shown that human actions cannot be appropriately explained causally then causalism about historiographical explanation collapses and the notion of a “historical cause” (“social cause”) cannot be taken to have the same meaning that the term “cause” has in the natural sciences. The debate between causalists and anti-causalists in philosophy of historiography is thus an application of the debate between causalists and anti-causalists in action theory. Philosophers of historiography have also contributed to the question of how to explain (past) human actions and what role causes and reasons play in this.3

The modern history of the debate between causalists and teleologists resembles the motion of a pendulum: First, there was a causalist mainstream in early 19th-century positivism (Comte, Mill, Buckle), which was countered by a strong movement of “Verstehen” of the late 19th-century hermeneuticists (Droysen, Dilthey, Windelband, Rickert). This in turn was countered by the unity-of-science movement of the logical positivist of the 20th century (Neurath, Hempel, Popper), followed by an anti-causalist counter by Collingwood, Wittgenstein, Anscombe, Melden, Dray, von Wright. From the early 1960s on, causalism again has become mainstream in philosophy of action (spearheaded by Davidson). Despite the contemporary dominance of causalism in philosophy of action, the dispute over the appropriate form of action explanation, with its implications for historical explanation, is not settled once and for all. The causalist mainstream seems to have come under fire (again) in recent years by an anti-causalist “fin de siecle movement” (Wilson 1989; Hacker 1996; Rundle 1997; Schroeder 2001; Schueler 2005; Sehon 2005; et al.).4 Still, it is just a minority of contemporary philosophers of action who maintain opposition to causal explanations of intentional human conduct.

The situation is similar in philosophy of historiography and theory of social sciences. Although Hempel’s famous DN-Model is no longer seriously debated as a paradigm of historical explanation (there are exceptions – cf. below), the view that historical and social explanations are causal explanations because human actions are to be explained by causes, is predominant in recent philosophy of historiography and theory of social sciences.5

Theorists of socials science like Hedström and Swedberg (1998: 21f.) invoke James Coleman’s model of explanations of collective actions, the “macro-micro-macro” model. According to that model, regularities (statistical correlations) between social macro phenomena have to be explained by “mechanisms” that involve individual agents and their actions. A proper social explanation has to show how phenomena on the macro level have an impact on individual agents and their social relevant behavior on the micro level and how the latter in sum has consequences for the macro level again. So, there are three types of “mechanisms”: (1) individual agents face certain social conditions that have an influence on them (“macro-micro mechanism”); (2) the agent’s desires, beliefs, and occasions generate certain actions (“micro-micro mechanism”); (3) these individual actions have intended or unintended collective consequences (“micro-macro mechanisms”). According to Hedström/Swedberg the first two are psychological or socio-psychological mechanisms, which have to be spelled out causally (though Hedström/Swedberg are silent on which account of causality). This model is the modern version of the physicalist picture of the workings of society which is around since early modern times, and it rests explicitly on a causal theory of action (Hedström and Swedberg 1998: 12). Hedström and Swedberg’s account has been taken as appropriate for historical explanations in contemporary philosophy of historiography.6

In the last decades, the concept of narratives dominated the issue of explanation in philosophy of historiography (Arthur Danto, Hayden White, Frank Ankersmit). Although narrativism has been invoked to draw a distinction between sciences and the humanities,7 the concept of narrative explanation was not introduced to oppose causal approaches of historiographical explanation, but was taken to be compatible with it, even with nomological accounts of historical explanantion.8 Sometimes narrative explanations were positioned against the claim that historiographical explanations are nomological in character; nonetheless narratives were still given the task of delivering a causal story about how a historical event came to be. Thus, narrativism in historiography does not normally differentiate between causal and teleological explanations and risks collapsing into a form of causalism.9

Others critics of nomological accounts of causation in historiography and social science have suggested that the DN-model of historical explanation should be substituted not by teleological explanations but by a conditional10 or counterfactual11 account of causation. The counterfactual account of causation in particular is often deemed to be capturing the form of explanation that operates in historiographic accounts of the past.12

Therefore, while philosophy of action has witnessed a certain teleologist backlash against causalism in the last two decades, causal explanation talk is alive and well in philosophy of history. The focus of the debate there has shifted from the quarrel between causalists and teleologists to a discussion concerning the role of narratives in historiography. Such a discussion tends, more often than not, to assume the adequacy of a causal, even if non-nomological, form of historical explanation. Although there have been some gentle dissenting voices,13 causalism is flourishing in recent analytic philosophy of historiography. In general, one could say that post-Hempelian theories of historical explanation attempt to defend causalist models of explanation – only without the assumption of strict laws between cause and effect: the causal mechanism approach, the narrative approach, counterfactual approaches, and also the normic law approach that will be discussed in detail here. (In a way, even Davidson’s Anomalous Monism attempts to have causal explanation without explicit reference to laws being necessary.) The once strong opposition to causalism in historiography and the alternative proposal of historical explanations as rational explanations of past actions14 have largely disappeared in recent discussions of the topic. It is fair to say that positions and arguments of teleologists like Collingwood, Dray and von Wright have not received the attention they deserve.

Also in academic historiography, sociology, and economics, there have been fierce methodological discussions about appropriate forms of explanation. The quarrel between causalism and anti-causalism is thus of ongoing interest. The issue is not only relevant for philosophers of action, or for philosophers of historiography, or for the philosophy of the human sciences. The dispute touches on our picture of human beings and their ability to act freely and voluntarily, and how far they can be considered responsible for their deeds. As it has been rightly noted, the quarrel between causalists and anti-causalists is not only of academic relevance but, in the end, of existential importance.15

One of the attempts to defend a causal account of historiographical explanation without invoking strict laws is the so-called normic law approach, lately advanced by the philosopher of science Gerhard Schurz and the philosopher of historiography Oliver Scholz.16 This approach tries to defend Carl Gustav Hempel’s basic idea that historical explanations rest on regularity statements. Let me remind you of some of the basic characteristics of Hempel’s account:

Hempel famously argued for that the methods of explanation are basically the same in science and in historiography (and ultimately in the humanities in general).17 The early statement of his claim was that historiographical explanations are to be based on general laws. The full explanation of a historical event consists of a set of true general laws of the form “Whenever Y happens, X happens” on the one hand, and a set of true statements that state the occurrence of particular events (antecedent conditions) on the other, as premises of a deductively valid syllogism from which the explanandum follows. To explain an action (taken as an event) is to regard it as an instance of a strict law. This “deductive-nomological” (DN) or “covering law” model was taken to be the standard form of explanation in general and particularly in historiography. That the practice of explanation in historiography is deviating from this model was clear to Hempel from the start. But he claimed that unless a historical explanation would state an universal law as its major premise, the explanation would be a mere explanation sketch that rests on a more or less vague provisional regularity statement which will have to be replaced by a fully explicit strict law as historiography progresses.18 By this, Hempel opposed the elder dualist doctrine that there is a difference in principle between the explanation methods of sciences and humanities, foremost historiography, that is characterized by the contrast of “Erklären und Verstehen” (“Explanation and Understanding”). With his approach, Hempel tried to make plausible and substantiate the unification-of-science-program of the Vienna Circle. Hempel’s model has been widely criticized as inappropriate for historiographical explanations. Nonetheless, the temptation to save Hempel’s model has not completely vanished, even after more than 70 years after Hempel’s seminal paper. Gerhard Schurz openly shares the aspiration of an “Einheitswissenschaft” and attempts to show that Hempel’s model just needs some qualification and elaboration to be made adequate.19 According to him, so-called “normic laws” are the best means to save Hempel’s model of human action explanation from the objection that historians do not use strict or probabilistic laws in their explanations of (past) human actions. Schurz makes use of normic laws to counter dualist positions in philosophy of science, i.e. positions that claim there is a principal difference between the methods of explanation in science and the humanities. All that remains from the allegedly false thesis that there is a dualism of methods of explanation in sciences and in the humanities, is: Whereas in the physical sciences explanations rest on strict general laws, in historiography and the humanities explanations are based on normic laws.20

In the following I want to argue that the appropriate form of human action explanations in terms of goals, purposes and intentions (which are applied in historiography) defies analysis by means of the normic law model proposed by Gerhard Schurz and Oliver Scholz. The normic law approach is expression of the continuing appeal of causalism about historical explanations. The strategical aim of this paper is not to resurrect the “Explanation vs. Understanding” contrast between sciences and humanities (least of all the “idiographic vs. nomothetic” contrast), but nonetheless to show that there is a difference in principle between the methods of explanation in science and historiography: past actions of individual or collective agents have to be explained teleologically, not causally or nomologically. I want to show this mainly by a new, improved version of the argument that there is a conceptual connection between the agent’s goals / intentions and their respective actions which is not to be found in causal explanations. I also defend this version of the so-called Logical Connection Argument (LCA) to some objections. In discussing Schurz’ approach, I will also say something about in what sense explanations of past actions can be taken to be deductive.

2 Schurz’ Normic Law Hypotheses Account of Explanation

Let’s turn to the normic law account of explanations. Normic laws are non-strict general statements that are governed by a “normal operator” which can be formulated in natural language as “As are normally Bs” or “If A, then normally B”. In contrast to “universal” or “strict laws”, normic laws admit of exceptions and are not falsified by a few counter instances unless these do not become the standard case. That a law hypothesis is “normic” means that the law is true “with high probability”, i.e. higher than 0.5, mostly close to 1, but no precise numerical value can be given.21 Normic laws imply “numerically unspecific high probability statements”.22 As Schurz argues,23 normic laws cannot be turned into strict laws by ruling out all possible exceptions in the law’s antecedent, because the class of possible exceptions is too heterogeneous and potentially infinite. Nonetheless, Schurz points out that normic laws do have empirical content (he rejects the Popperian falsification criterion for a general statement to have empirical content), for normic laws admit of empirical testing: “They may be gradually disconfirmed by the observation of sample frequencies which significantly deviate from the probability value predicted by the law”.24 So, for Schurz, normic laws are empirical statements.25 He stresses the importance of normic laws for explanations in everyday life and in non-physical sciences as biology, psychology, social sciences and humanities, but also technology.26 Examples of normic laws are:

  • Birds can normally fly.

  • Turning the ignition key normally turns on the engine of my car.

  • Governments normally try to keep the economy of their country intact.

  • People’s actions are normally goal-oriented, in the sense that if person x wants A and believes B to be an optimal means for achieving A, then x will normally attempt to do B.

Normic laws emerged from the controversy about Hempel’s model of explanation among philosophers of historiography in the late fifties and sixties of the 20th century. So let us first have a look at some aspects of that debate and what role normic laws played in it. The issue is pretty entangled. So, the following disentanglement will have to be somewhat lengthy, but most of these points also have a systematic relevance, therefore we cannot simply skip over them.

According to Schurz, normic laws were “discovered” by the philosopher of historiography William Dray.27 Dray, being a dualist, opposed Hempel’s unificationist covering law model of scientific explanation and pointed out that it was especially inept to account for explanations in historiography.28 Against Hempel, Dray developed his own model of historical explanation, so-called rational explanations. Their task is to show that an intentional action of an (historical) agent was rational or appropriate from the agent’s perspective. Schurz feels the need to confess that earlier he simply took over Hempel’s (and Wolfgang Stegmüller’s) understanding of Dray’s rational explanation as an explanation why an action was rational or appropriate, not why it in fact happened.29 Hempel objected against Dray’s model of rational explanation that it would simply be besides the point, for it would not explain why the action occurred, but would at best only show why the action was the right thing to do from the standpoint of the agent.30 But, according to Schurz’ more recent understanding of Dray, Dray’s rational-explanation-model does show why an action was in fact performed – such that Hempel’s charge against Dray’s rational explanation approach would simply be a non-starter.31 Schurz now understands Dray as claiming that rational explanations, too, rest on very general “normal case principles”. As mentioned before, Schurz even ascribes the “discovery” of normic laws to Dray. Schurz refers to Dray’s 1957 book Laws and Explanation in History, p. 132 and p. 13732 (sometimes pp. 132–137).33 Oliver Scholz shares this construal of Dray’s account and also proposes normic explanations as the adequate model for historical explanations.34 I think there are several problems with this.

3 Critique

3.1 Dray Never was a Proponent of Normic Law Explanations

Is it true that Dray is a normic explanation theorist?35 It is not. In fact this is a gross misrepresentation of Dray’s view. Neither in the passages Schurz refers to nor anywhere else in his writings did Dray actually analyze action explanations as normic explanations. The point of rational explanation as Dray conceived of them is very different from explanations resting on non-strict empirical generalizations. This issue is not merely of exegetical interest, for Schurz’ misunderstanding is very telling and of systematic importance: It reveals that, according to Schurz (and many other theorists like Hempel, Davidson and their followers), proper explanations of human actions are taken to be explanations of how the action (taken as an event) came to be and that in order to explain the action one would have to look for the event’s causes (“Seinsgründe”). But this, so I will argue below, is the cardinal error of all those who have not got the point of rational explanation of human actions, i.e. unity of science theorists, methodological monists, action theory causalists. In fact, human actions are explained by showing what the action had to commend it in the eyes of the agent. The point of an explanation of a human action is to show why it should have been done (from the point of view of the agent). I will elaborate on this below – for now, I want to discuss Schurz’ misreading of Dray.

For a start, I want to point out that Dray, in elaborating his rational explanation, does not talk about normic laws (not even under a different name) – although he talks about general sentences that are not falsified by a few counterexamples. But this makes him a normic law theorist only on a very superficial reading. Indeed Dray does speak of that rational explanations (“reasons for acting”) have a sort of generality or universality. But the generality involved here is spelled out by Dray as: “If y is a good reason for A to do x, then y would be a good reason for anyone sufficiently like A”.36 This is hardly the numerically unspecified law-like empirical regularity of a normic law. Dray wants to point out that reasons for actions are of universal character and not individual events or entities that caused the action at a given time and space. And he wants to point out that historians can find out and know the very same reasons the examined historical agent had – they are not “lost” or “over” like past events that caused other events. On pp. 132–137 of Laws and Explanation in History, Dray speaks of “principles of action” on which human action explanation rest. Admittedly, he is not overzealous to make clear what he means by “principles of action”, but it is nonetheless clear enough from his remarks in these sections that he talks about generalized norms. Dray stresses that the point of rational explanation is to make clear that the action to be explained was appropriate or reasonable given certain background conditions. “Appropriate” and “reasonable” have to be taken here as normative expressions, i.e. expressions that usually convey the sentence they are embedded in a prescriptive force. That’s why Dray (rightly) draws a distinction between an empirical law describing a regularity of action and a principle of action.37 Dray does not hold that rational explanations are to be distinguished from scientific explanations because the latter would contain strict laws whereas the former only contain looser, normic hypotheses – but that the difference between both is one of principle: human actions explanations are based on normative generalizations, not on descriptive generalizations.

It is true though that Dray says that “a large number of negative instances” to a principle of action would not force us to withdraw it38 – but this is not (as Schurz takes Dray to be saying) because principles of action admit of exceptions and were thus non-strict, normal case regularities, i.e. laws governed by a “normally” – operator. Dray’s point is rather that principles of action cannot be falsified at all, for principles of action are general normative sentences, i.e. sentences of the form “Whenever A, B should be done” or “Whenever an agent a is in condition C, he should do x”. A general norm of this sort clearly is not prone to withdrawal when counterinstances occur – but simply because it is no descriptive (empirical) statement at all – it has prescriptive force. Schurz gets that wrong in his writings of 2001 and 2011. It is only that it could not reasonably be said that an agent follows a norm if the number of counterinstances (norm contradicting actions) becomes too high. But nonetheless, there is a difference to be made between on the one hand “an agent following a rule” which employs a normative concept, because the agent commits himself to a prescription of his behavior and would regard exceptional behavior to it as mistakes, and, on the other, “an agent displaying a regularity in his actions” which is a purely descriptive characterization of his behavior, exceptions to which would be taken as anomalies to a regularity. (In what follows, I want to show that Dray’s normative understanding of principle of action makes good sense, for a agent’s intentions are to be understood as self-prescriptions of the agent.)

That Dray is far from being a normic law theorist is confirmed by Dray’s later reconsideration of his approach39 in which he explicitly discusses the normic law approach which in fact was originally proposed by Michael Scriven.40 There, Dray by no way identifies his own rational explanation account with that of Scriven’s, but criticizes it. Dray’s main objection to Scriven’s normic approach is that normic generalizations do not seem to bring any new aspect to explanations, for normic generalizations either collapse into ordinary strict or statistical laws or, given Scriven’s very disparate list of statements that may have to be interpreted normically (including “rules, definitions and certain normative statements in ethics”41) into the agent’s principles of action (in Dray’s sense42). But, I think, it should be clear from Scriven’s characterization of normic laws as empirical statements, that they only may be understood as ordinary non-strict generalizations that describe certain observable regularities and therefore could not represent a norm. So, it seems that Schurz’ original understanding of Dray’s approach43 was closer to the truth than his more recent understanding of Dray. Schurz’ original understanding of Dray’s rational explanation, was, as he writes, influenced by Hempel and Stegmüller.44 They took Dray correctly to be saying that rational explanation fulfills the role of showing that a human action was appropriate or the right thing to do from the standpoint of the agent. But then Hempel’s objection against Dray would not be discharged: namely, that historical explanations must explain why an historical action did in fact occur, not that it was just appropriate or the right thing to do from the standpoint of the agent. Schurz agrees that in this case Dray would not have provided a model of action explanation at all, but only of (agent-subjective) action justification.45 Hempel’s solution to this alleged shortcoming of Dray’s rational explanation model is to add to it the further premise that the agent was in fact rational and that every rational agent in the same conditions as the agent (i.e. having the same goal/intention-belief-pair) performs the action in question. To add a further premise to Dray’s rational explanation is basically also Schurz’ move. I disagree: a rational explanation as Dray developed it does show why an agent in fact performed an action (without further amendments) and the alleged difference between justification and explanation disappears. I will discuss Hempel’s objection to Dray’s rational explanation below. For now, it should be clear that Dray explicitly states that the goal of a rational explanation is “to show that what was done was the thing to have done for the reasons given, rather than merely the thing that is done on such occasions, perhaps in accordance with certain laws (loose or otherwise)”.46

3.2 A Critique of the Normic Approach to Human Action Explanations

Aside from the issue whether Dray suggested explanations of human actions on the basis of normic laws or not, certainly Schurz proposes such an account. In the following, I do not wish to discuss whether some or all scientific explanations require normic laws. I just want to argue that the role Schurz ascribes to normic laws in explanations in historiography and the humanities is not only not as important as Schurz thinks it is, but that in fact human actions are not explained on the basis of normic laws at all. Explanations of actions do not require normic laws and normic laws do not play any role in human action explanations.

3.2.1 Normic Explanations do not Provide Proper Explanations of Actions

It should be noted first, that Schurz’ attempt to save Hempel’s overall thesis that action explanations require empirical regularities come to a certain prize. One of the leading ideas behind Hempel’s original covering law model of explanation was that the explanandum can be deduced from the explanans.47 (Let’s call this the “deducibility requirement”.) Hempel demanded of an adequate explanation that the explanandum is deducible from the explanans and called explanations employed by historians (which do not happen to use strict laws) mere “explanation sketches”.48 To be sure, Hempel introduced inductive-statistical (IS-) explanations in which strict laws were replaced by probabilistic regularities.49 But this move already amounted to the abandonment of the deducibility requirement which he clearly demanded in his original concept of explanation. Scriven’s objection50 against probabilistic explanations that the explanans would be logically compatible with the non-occurrence of the explanandum applies in full force: When the task is to explain why an event E took place rather than not, then the explanation must rule out the possibility that E did not take place – and if the explanation is not deductive, i.e. if the explanans does not logically imply the explanandum, then the explanation cannot rule out the possibility of E not taking place and thus does not explain E.51

This is not a minor point, for it is plausible to demand that in a proper explanation (of human actions) the explanandum follows (in the classical, monotonic sense52) from the explanans, at least when the relevant intentions and means-end-beliefs of the agent are included. It is an adequacy condition of why-explanations of actions that we can see the connection between the explanans and the explanandum, i.e. that the explanandum follows logically from the explanans.53 If a particular action explanation, although fully made explicit, does not provide deducibility of the explanandum from the premises, we would not regard the offered explanans as an explanation of the action. It would seem there is a gap to fill, just like (to borrow an example from Anscombe54 which is put to a different use here) when an agent’s crossing of the street is explained by him by “There will be a solar eclipse in summer”. The explanandum simply does not follow (in the classical sense of “follow”) from the explanans by itself. To make this explanandum follow from this explanans, one would have to add e.g. that the agent wants to buy sunglasses in that shop across the street, because he wants to observe the eclipse without being blinded and believes that the sunglasses will help him do so and that he also believes that the shop across the street sells sunglasses and that he believes that in order to buy the sunglasses he will have to cross the street. As far as I understand Schurz, he wishes to hold on to the deducibility requirement for scientific explanations, at least in what he calls “the strict sense of explanation”.55 But then normic explanations which are allegedly relevant for historiography and the other humanities would not be explanations in the “strict sense”.

If normic laws are to be understood as non-strict empirical generalizations, i.e. are similar to statistical laws with a high probability, then normic explanations seem to face the same objection as Hempel’s IS-explanations concerning their appropriateness for historical explanations: Statistical explanations are silent about the singular case. They do not explain the single case under consideration. All they might be taken to say is that a singular event occurs with a certain probability (or within a certain probability range). But by this one is always referring to a set of cases and the ratio of certain outcomes to certain other outcomes in that set. So, to take Dray’s classical example again: When the task is to explain why Louis XIV of France died so unpopular and the explanation is “Well, he waged many wars and put heavy burden on his people” and “Normally, rulers who wage many wars and put heavy burden on their people become unpopular” is no explanation why Louis XIV of France died unpopular. In statistical explanations the non-occurrence of the explanandum is not excluded by the explanans – and therefore does not provide a sufficient explanation. No individual event can be explained by statistical laws, and thus also not by normic laws implying “numerically unspecific high probability statements”.

Schurz seems to forestall this objection and holds that the explanandum will not follow logically,56 but only according to a special, non-monotonic or default logic. “Monotony” here means that if a deductive syllogism is valid, then it keeps its validity even if further premises are added to it. Not so for non-monotonic syllogisms: Here the conclusion is derivable from the premises by a default logic, i.e. if we know that x is a bat, we may infer by default that x able to fly. But if we add the premise that x’s wing is broken, the inference is blocked.57 Schurz admits explicitly that non-monotonic logic systems are not truth-preserving and are thus not logics in the narrower, deductive sense, but rather a species of inductive logics – but he takes this to be a “more terminological than substantial question”.58 But if a “logic” is deductive or not is surely not a mere terminological question when the deducibility of the explanandum in an explanation is at stake!

Schurz further demands that the explanans is complete, i.e. our knowledge of all “relevant” details about the agent must be complete.59 Schurz gives an example of a politician who will not run for office again in the next elections, because he has a heart complaint.60 According to Schurz, the adequacy of this normic explanation for the politician’s not running for office again depends on the whole knowledge about the politician. For, the normic connection between heart complaint and not being able to run again for office will be disturbed when we learn that he already had heart complaints in the last election, when it did not stop him from running for office. When we also learn that this politician is bored by regional politics and aims for a national or international office the amended explanation seems sufficient again. But the politician may again only pretend to have this motive, in fact he wants to withdraw from politics altogether and spend more time with his family, a.s.o. So, the adequacy of the explanation is affected by the completeness of the explanans. But here Schurz just seems to establish the adequacy of the explanation by enriching the set of premises and excluding exceptions the normic laws admit of in order to make the explanandum follow deductively from the premises. But then, on the one hand it is not clear why Schurz would need a non-classical, non-monotonic “logic” at all. And, on the other, by his completeness demand, Schurz is just trying to turn the loose law into a strict one to make the explanation adequate. This is inconsistent, for Schurz earlier condemned Hempel’s attempt to transform probabilistic laws into strict ones by including all possible exceptions as impossible (see sec. II above).

Also, it seems that we could not know if we ever had complete knowledge about all the relevant facts such that it is safe to deduce the conclusion from the premises. This is hardly the way how explanations of actions work in everyday circumstances. When we explain intentional human actions, the respective intentions and the means-end-beliefs of the agent are sufficient; we do not have to gather a potentially infinite amount of knowledge in order to draw our conclusion. A fortiori, this applies to the first-person-case: If Schurz’ completeness demand was correct, we could never be sure to have adequately explained an action of ours because we might not know every potentially relevant thing about ourselves and so, in the end, any action explanation could only be regarded as provisional. But this seems absurd. And, to appeal to a special sort of logic in accordance with which the explanandum still “follows” from the explanans seems nothing than a trick to save the adequacy of the explanation while giving up the demand for a strict law. But now it seems that we are in a predicament between three results, for it seems 1) that the deducability requirement of explanations is right, but 2) there are no strict laws in historiography and human action explanations and 3) we may not use loose laws nor turn them into strict ones. However, as I argue in the next section, maybe it was wrong to try to secure the deducibility of the explanandum on the basis of a strict regularity statement in the first place.

3.2.2 Normic Laws are not Necessary for Human Action Explanations Preliminaries

There is another, more fundamental objection against the claim that the explanation of human actions is based on normic law hypotheses. According to Schurz, there is a general normic regularity which is specifically relevant for human action explanations and thus, for explanations in historiography:

People’s actions are normally goal-oriented, in the sense that if person x wants A and believes B to be an optimal means for achieving A, then x will normally attempt to do B.

Schurz calls this “a factual disposition of rationality of humans” and refers to it as “Dray’s principle”.61 According to Schurz,62 it is necessary to add this normic law to a classical explanation of human actions in the form of a practical syllogism, such that the appropriate logical form of human action explanations (in the simplest case) is:

(1) People’s actions are normally goal-oriented, in the sense that if person x wants A and believes B to be an optimal means for achieving A, then x will normally attempt to do B.

(2) Person x wants A and believes B to be an optimal means for achieving A.

(3) ∴ Person x attempts to do B.

So, Schurz proposes that there is required a third premise beside the goal and the means-end-belief premise: the “normic law” that people usually act rationally, i.e. they act in accordance with their goals and beliefs. (Let’s call (1) the “rationality hypothesis”.) Scholz endorses that view.63 But, as indicated before, Dray would not at all be happy with this addition to the logical form of rational explanation. This again, should be clear from Dray’s opposition against dispositional action explanations.64 Dray says that in a dispositional action explanation, i.e. when an action is explained by the fact that the agent regularly performs this action (in certain situations), the point of the action falls out of sight.65 Dispositional explanations may lower the degree of surprise which we may have regarding an agent’s behavior, but they do not show the point or reason of the action. “ ‘Disposition’ is a spectator word”, Dray says, “it belongs to the language of observing and predicting, rather than of deliberating and deciding”.66 When asked “Why did you do x?” and the agent answers by declaring what dispositions he actualized, his explanation would seem strangely irrelevant. To explain why an agent performed an action is not the same as subsuming it under a regularity, be it a strict or loose one. And, I think, Dray is right in pointing that out. An explanation of human actions makes clear why the action was to be commended, not why it was to be expected.

I want to show now that the “rationality hypothesis” premise is not necessary for the validity of the syllogism but a superfluous addition – just like the addition of the further premise to a Modus Ponens in Lewis Carrols’ famous paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise.67 Even more, the addition is not only superfluous, but harmful, because it is due to a descriptivist misunderstanding of human action explanations, for which actually a prescriptive syllogism is required.

When we want to explain human actions in everyday situations we state the goals, purposes, intentions or wants of people and their beliefs about the required means to achieve them. (Schurz speaks of “goals” and “wants” in his publications.) Virtually all action theorists (causalist or anti-causalist) accept practical syllogisms of this or a slightly modified form. (And hardly anyone of them felt the need to add a further premise to a practical syllogism.) Note that in everyday human action explanations we do not ordinarily explain human actions by first stating the goals and respective means-end-beliefs of an agent and then add that the agent normally acts rationally to complete our action explanation. Also in historiography it would be odd to find Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon explained by his goal to seize power in Rome and his belief that the crossing of the Rubicon was a (necessary, optimal) means to that and that people (or Caesar himself) ordinarily act rational. The thesis that a normic law of this sort is required becomes outright absurd when we consider explanations of our own actions: When asked to explain a certain action of ours, we do not state our goals / intentions and our relevant means-ends-beliefs and then add “And, furthermore, normally I act rationally” or “Normally, when I have that goal and believe that this is a (necessary, optimal) means for it, I do this” to make our explanation complete. Schurz probably will reply that this is just because we silently assume the rationality hypothesis. But things get worse.

It is telling that Schurz does not specify how the added normic rationality premise is to be tested. From what Schurz said before, the normic rationality premise is to be taken as an empirically testable hypothesis, but exactly what kind of evidence should we take as confirming or disconfirming it? “Goal-orientedness” or “instrumental rationality” (“Zweckrationalität”) is understood by Schurz explicitly as (For all persons, my addition:) “If person x wants A and believes B to be an optimal means for achieving A, then x will normally attempt to do B”.68 But the rationality hypothesis could only be confirmed by instances of agents acting in accordance to their goals and relevant means-end-beliefs. And in order for such an instance to count as confirmation for the rationality hypothesis we would have to be able to identify these instances without further reliance on the normic law. But if we can do this then we do not have any need of the rationality premise in the first place. In other words, the rationality hypothesis cannot be tested independently from the goal and the belief premise. Being “goal-oriented” or “instrumentally rational” is not a condition which we could ascertain without agents having goals and acting accordingly.

I do not even wish to dispute that the rationality hypothesis is correct. It is true that people normally act in accordance with their goals and beliefs, but this truth (or rather “truism”) is irrelevant to the explanation of human actions. The explanatory work of an action explanation is not done by any reference to a strict or loose regularity. This again becomes clear in the first-person-case: We do not find out that we normally do what our goals are. We do not find out: “Right, earlier I had the goal of going to the opera and now I have gone to the opera – this is evidence for my instrumental rationality.” And we also do not find out about ourselves: “I usually attempt to do what I previously wanted to do – so I must be mostly goal-oriented.” It is not the case that in explaining my action I refer to the regularity that the occurrence of my intention-belief-pair is (normally) followed by the respective action. That would not clarify my reason for doing the action at all. Intentions are misunderstood by causalists (and regularity theorists) as occurring entities or states, intention premises in their first-person use are misunderstood as (descriptive) statements. The Agent’s Intentions and Goals are Conceptually Connected to the Action, not Causally

The case of first-person-usage brings me to the core of my argument:69 There is a conceptual connection between having a goal / intending and the respective action, such that it follows from the goal- and belief-premises of a practical syllogism alone that the action is to be done – without reliance on any regularity hypothesis about the rationality of the agent. Furthermore, since the time of Hume’s criticism of the Rationalist notion of cause, it is commonly held that the relation between cause and effect is a contingent one, learned by experience. As Hume’s argues, we could analyze the notion of a specific cause as much as we want – yet never will we be able to derive its effect unless we have seen that cause in operation. If a person with normal perception and intellect but no experience would be placed in the world, she never would be able to predict the effect of an observed cause.70 Virtually all causalists about action explanation today accept this “Humean notion of cause”, i.e. the position that a cause can be described and identified in a conceptually independent way from its effect. The conceptual connection I wish to point out between goals / intentions and the action thus speaks against nomological and causal accounts of human action explanations.

For a start, note that “to have a goal” or “to intend x” are no ordinary predicates. They do not refer to what could properly be called an “mental entity” or “mental state”. They are not something felt, they are no occurrences, neurophysiological or “in our mind”. They also describe no mere disposition to act but express an agent’s commitment towards an action. This becomes obvious in the first person case: When I say: “I have the goal of doing x” I do not describe myself as having a certain mental occurrence or being in a mental state. This sentence cannot be taken to be true or false at all. What is true or false is that what can be known or what can be doubted and investigated and be found out. But it makes no sense to say: “I thought I intended to do X, but now I see that I was wrong” or “Either I my goal is A or B – I haven’t found out yet. Let me check again”.71 “To have a goal” / “to intend to do x” means to be committed to an action. This is the actual usage of “I have a goal” in our language community – it does not mean the report of the possession of a state or event or entity. It could not be said of someone who speaks of having the goal of becoming a painter but never ever performs any actions which are related to realizing that goal (i.e. e.g. acquiring brush and easel, informing himself about painting techniques, practicing drawing and painting, making sketches, etc.) that he uses these words (“to have a goal”) in the right way. In short, it could not be said of someone to have the goal of doing x unless he performs x or at least starts to perform x or performs some other action required as a preparation for doing x. This is a conceptual truth about our concept of having a goal, of intending. We would not know what it means to ascribe to someone to have a goal / intention when the agent does not perform the action when he has the ability and opportunity to do so. When the agent fails to perform the action although he is capable of doing the action, knows what means are to employ, is not physically or psychically hindered and has not forgotten about his intention then the ascription of having a goal loses any credence and we would take it back. The ascription of goals to an agent only makes sense insofar he displays behavior of being committed to the performance of the action. We have no independent criteria of goal / intention ascription apart from that the agent performs the action when he can.

Let me elaborate. Two cases need to be distinguished here: That of basic actions, i.e. action that can be performed directly without performing any other action and non-basic actions which are performed indirectly, i.e. by doing other actions. Basic actions, like raising an arm or nodding your head (in the regular case) are those that we are capable of just doing. The physical aspect of basic actions are bodily movements (or omissions thereof). Here the ascription of a respective intention requires the action itself. Unless I do not raise my arm although I have the opportunity to do so, it could not intelligibly be said of me that I have the intention of doing so. What does “opportunity to do so” mean here? It means a couple of things: that I must have the required skills to perform the action; that I am not physically hindered in performing my bodily movements. I must not be handcuffed or immobilized by someone else, e.g. by holding my arm. I also must not be psychically paralyzed by being in shock or in great fear. I also must not have forgotten my intention. Furthermore, certain criteria for intentional action have to be present in the performance of the action, as: the agent is not surprised by his bodily movement, he is capable of acting in response to request, he is capable to repeat the action, he is capable of performing the action with care (if applicable). If these conditions are fulfilled then the action is the direct and only expression of the goal / intention. (In fact, we do not speak of “goals” in the case of basic actions – in contrast to “intentions”. The notion “goal of an action” seems to be reserved for non-basic actions – actions which take a couple of basic actions to complete, often over longer periods of time and in continuous response to external circumstances.)

Non-basic actions like “going to the opera tonight” or “writing a doctoral thesis” (a fortiori collective actions like “conquering Rome”, “assault the Tsar’s residence”) involve a multitude of different bodily movements that make up the total action. Here, the ascription of an intention of the total action requires either the performance of the total action or at least the performance of some intermediary actions that are required to perform or complete the total action when it is time to act. The content of an intention of such a total action, which is in quite some distance (i.e. an action which takes one or more basic actions as means to be performed) can properly be called a “goal”. (It is this non-basic type of action, especially those which also require some sort of calculation or planning, that is relevant in historical explanations and that Schurz has in mind.) But again, when the agent does not display behavior that can be seen as the realization of that goal, or does not perform or complete the total action when he has the opportunity to do so, then we would take back the ascription of the respective intention.72

Do I want to make the dubious claims that the intention to do x is the same as doing x or that we only may ascribe intentions after the action was done? No, for we may ascribe an intention to an agent without him performing the action – but only when the action is, as it were, already in the “background”, as e.g. when the agent started the action, but was obviously hindered in executing his intention. But even then he has to show some behavioral signs of his intention, e.g. becoming upset, struggling, shouting, etc. – i.e. all signs which allow the ascription of trying to perform the action to the agent. When the ascription of intentions to more long-term, mediate and stepwise actions is considered, like going to the opera tonight or writing a doctoral thesis, then the agent on the one hand needs to display a kind of behavior which does not contradict his intention ascription. That it can be said of him to have the intention to go to the opera in London tonight he must not board a plane to China the same day. On the other hand he must also perform preparatory actions that will enable him to perform or complete the intended action when the time to act has come. Otherwise we would doubt the sincerity of his intention expressions or assume that he changed his plans or his means-end-beliefs. So, intention ascriptions require the action itself or preparatory steps undertaken to perform it or the struggle against hindrances of the action such that the ascription of the intention to do X is dependent on some description of behavior which makes reference to the intended action. From such cases of long-term actions or cases of hindrances the expressions “to have the goal” and “to have the intention to …” get their sense and meaning – we do not mean possession of (Cartesian or neuronal) entities – as it is commonly misunderstood by causalists – which then are taken to be causes (“Seinsgründe”) that effect the action. In non-basic actions the ascription of intentions is possible due to the verbal avowal of intentions by the agent73 – when we do not have doubts about the agent’s sincerity. Usually, we do not have doubts about the other’s sincerity of intention expression. But this is often because we know the other agents to be sincere by previously having done sufficiently often what they announced to be doing or we simply presume their sincerity unless proven insincere. (It is easier for us to believe the verbal expression of an agent’s intention when we can be sure that the intended action conforms to the agent’s general wishes but we are more observant in our full-breathed intention ascription when we know that it does contradict the usual wishes of the agent.) But the only touch-stone or criterion of the sincerity of an agent’s avowal in the end is that he performs the action he said he intended when he has the opportunity to do so.

Because of this conceptual connection between having a goal / intending and the action it follows from the premises of a practical syllogism alone that the action is to be done – without reliance on any further premise, e.g. the rationality hypothesis. What an explanation of an human action in terms of the agent’s goals and beliefs is about is not that people normally do what they intend – although they certainly normally do what they intend! They are rather conceptually called upon to perform the action when they have the opportunity – for otherwise they lose their status as being sincere (respectively rational) and in that case it could not be said of them to have the relevant intention (respectively belief) at all. More often than not it can certainly be said of people that they reach their goals and this is why it is true that people normally do what they intend – but this regularity has no explanatory value. The required connection between goals/intentions and actions for an action explanation is not founded on an empirical regularity statement at all. Thus, an explanation of human action cannot work along the line of the regularity theorist: If we cannot determine whether an agent has an intention independently from his action (for it makes no sense to ascribe an intention without the appropriate behavior), then we cannot observe the agent’s intention in a first step and then, in a second step, observe the subsequent agent’s action and notice a regularity between instances of the agent’s intentions and his actions. We do not establish the truth of “People do what they have the goal to” by observing that people (normally) do what they have the goal to (which is established independently), it is rather a semantical criterion of the concept of intending to perform the action at opportunity. In other words, Schurz’ added rationality hypothesis (“If people intend y and believe x to be an optimal means for achieving y, they will attempt to do x”) may be said to be true, but because it is a conceptual truth and not a synthetic statement which has to be verified empirically, as Schurz would have it. It is not a hypothesis (i.e. an empirically testable statement) at all, but belongs to our conceptual scheme regarding human agency.

When we explain why we did x, we do not say: “Well, I had the goal to do y, and believed that x is a necessary means to do y AND usually I am rational; therefore I did x”. Instead, we will try to make clear why we thought that the action was a good, the right or an appropriate one to do. To the conceptual distinctions among why-explanations one must add the distinction between explanations of “Why did event e occur?” and “Why did agent A do x?”. Action explanations do not have the task to explain why the action as a matter of fact occurred, but why it occurred as one the agent committed himself to. This is at bottom the great misunderstanding of Hempel, Davidson, Schurz and all other causalists74 in action theory, because they take the relation between explaining reasons (intention-belief-pairs) and the action to be a causal relation between occurring entities or events. Objections and Rejoinders

Davidson tries to defend the causalist account against the Logical Connection Argument by claiming that cause and effect can very well be connected logically.75 For Davidson, there can be causal statements that are analytically true. According to him it is all a matter of how we describe cause and effect in a causal statement. For, when we substitute “A” in “A caused B” by “The cause of B” we get “The cause of B caused B” which is analytically true. But I think that this is wrong, for the statement “The cause of B caused B” is a mere tautology and thus no causal statement at all. (It is not even a statement in the strict sense because it says nothing about the world.) It is like saying “B’s father fathered B” or “The employer of B employs B” – we know these sentences to be true a priori because the simply reiterate the meaning of the subject term. Causal statements are statements about what caused what and in order to verify them we have to conduct empirical investigations (like repeating the assumed cause and check for constant conjunction of cause and effect; produce the effect by producing the cause; ruling out competing candidates of causes, etc.) We cannot learn what caused B from “The cause of B caused B” and therefore it is no causal statement at all.

Davidson seems to concede the point that explanations must be informative and goes on that there are very well independent means to identify an agent’s intention (Davidson speaks of desires), e.g. feelings or actions that are not rationalized by these intentions.76 In other words, there is not one single test for intentions but several ones, such that intentions can be ascribed to an agent without invoking the action the intention is an intention to. But I think that this is mistaken: (1) I think it is telling that Davidson does not give an example for such an independent identification of an intention. It is hard to think of one. Admittedly, one can think of several ways of how wants or desires can be identified and described independently of the action that satisfies the desire. (I can very well have the desire or want to eat a cookie without doing so, although I am capable of eating it and I am not prevented from doing it.) Desires and wants can be expressed by bodily reactions (sweating, accelerating pulse, intense breathing, shaking); nonverbal behavior (watching the cookies, walking around the cookies); or verbal behavior (“May I have some cookies, please?”, “I want cookies!”). But my argument makes explicit use of the notion of intention resp. goal, not desires or wishes. One can wish or desire to eat cookies without intending to eat some (for, e.g., it is too embarrassing to have the cookies or because one is on a diet) and one can intend to do X without wishing or desiring to do X (like going to work on a Monday morning). By the subtle but significant shift to speak of “desires” instead of “intentions” Davidson makes his causalism look more plausible. (2) Unlike desires, intentions are not felt and do not have to be accompanied by feelings (as already mentioned above). I need not feel anything particular in order to be said to have an intention. In fact nothing specific must be in my mind at all in order to be said to have an intention. Also, if an intention was a feeling, it would be a passive experience or affect which is incompatible with the idea of intentional action. (3) Intentions may indeed be identified without the actual occurrence of the action and agents can be said to have an intention prior to their respective action. But, as already argued for, this applies only to intentions to non-basic actions or to cases of prevented basic actions. And, even ascriptions of intentions to non-basic actions require some intentional action(s) that are rationalized by them, like preparatory actions (to bring oneself in a position to be able to perform/finish the action when the time has come), to smooth out hindrances of the action, to overcome obstacles and resistances by other agents. The most common way by which we identify intentions of agents is probably that they announce the action. But any utterance of the form “I will do X / I have the intention do X” must be sincere in order to count as a proper expression of an intention. And “sincerity” just means that the agent performs the action she announced when she has the opportunity to do so.77

Schurz explicitly denies that it “belongs to the definition of an intention that one is acting accordingly” (my translation, GS).78 But, barring cases of the agent’s hindrance, oblivion or incompetence, this flies in the face of our actual usage of intention ascriptions.79 I am sure that Schurz himself would not ascribe an intention to someone who repeatedly speaks of his intention to do more physical exercises but never actually does it – although he has the opportunity to do it (i.e. he has the ability to do it, knows how to do it, is not hindered in doing it). I also guess that Schurz would not even leave it open if that agent had that intention or not – the agent’s behavior under these circumstances simply shows that the agent has not really the intention to do more physical exercises. It would simply make no sense to say in this case: “Maybe he has the intention, maybe not – how am I to know?” We would not and could not know what it means to ascribe an intention to someone who does not display behavior directed toward the performance of the intended action when he has the opportunity to do so. This also shows that finding out if some agent has a goal or an intention is no matter of (future) neurological or supernatural (mental) investigations.

I said above that action explanations have the task of showing that the action was the rational or appropriate thing to do from the standpoint of the agent. So, does the Hempelian objection against Dray from above, that justification of an action is not its explanation, apply in full force? We want to explain why the action happened, not merely why it was the right thing to do, right? But it would be another misunderstanding that a rational explanation could not explain the occurrence of the action: If an action was the appropriate or right thing to do, i.e. the one judged by the agent to be done, then he really has to perform the action when the opportunity arises for otherwise his value judgment was insincere and then he did not really think of x as the action to be done. The self-prescription that comes with setting oneself a goal / intending to do x (the first premise) is handed down to the conclusion and the only way of making sure that the self-prescription of the action was sincere is doing the action when the agent has the opportunity. The actual occurrence of the action must be understood as the manifestation (not the effect!) of the agent’s intention and belief, for otherwise it could not be called an intentional action at all but merely a physical event. (That is, it is not essential that if an agent has the intention to raise his arm the arm of the agent rises (it could also rise e.g. by wires operated by another person) but that by the rising of his arm the agent actualizes his intention: the rising becomes a raising.)

It might be objected that it is only in the first-person use of a practical syllogism that it might have a non-descriptive, prescriptive role. And, since we are concerned with the explanation of human actions all of the foregoing considerations might be beside the point because we are taking the standpoint of an observer. And in this case, we certainly describe an agent as having an intention (for we describe his observable behavior) and so the conclusion of the explanation will be a descriptive statement. But this objection would miss the point. It is true that in explaining human actions we take the standpoint of an observer but still, our concept of intention is such that the first-person use of “to have the intention to do X” is prescriptive (in regular cases) whereas its third-person use is descriptive. Nonetheless, both uses are part of one and the same concept (it is not that “intention” means something different in “I have the intention to do X” and “He has the intention to do X” like “bank” in “I will meet you at the bank” either could mean that I meet you at the river or at the credit institution) – such that we have grasped the concept of intention (or of a goal) only when we know that it expresses a commitment in the first-person use and describes a highly specific form of publicly observable behavior of an agent in the third-person use.

The point I am trying to make here is not an epistemological one. It is not that we could not know of a goal / intention of an agent unless he acts accordingly – whereas the goal / intention was already in his mind (or brain). The point I am trying to make is a semantical one: The very concept of an intention / goal requires that there is an according behavior, i.e. the performance of the action itself or preparatory steps towards its performance. Intentional action and intention ascription are conceptually interwoven; the publicly observable expressive behavior is part of the mental concepts “having a goal” and “intention”. We could not know what it means to say of an agent that he has a goal / intention (or belief) without these behavioral criteria (including verbal expressions of goal / intention (or belief)). That the point really is one of the semantics and not of the epistemology of intentions is shown by the fact that in the case in which an agent with a alleged intention does not perform the required action, we would not regard it as unsettled if the agent has the intention or not – we would say that the agent in fact lacks the intention to do x. We would not stay neutral regarding the question if the agent has the intention or not – the matter is made certain by his omission of the action when he has the opportunity to perform it. This is compatible with that the agent has had the intention at some time earlier – but has meanwhile changed his mind, i.e. abandoned his intention. The point is also shown by the fact that if the agent performs actions that contradict his intention, i.e. that make impossible that the intended long-term action can be performed or completed when the time is ripe, we also would take back our intention ascription or at least we would try to figure out why he performs a seemingly contradicting action. If this attempt is unsuccessful, we deny the intention to him. Here, an example borrowed from Anscombe is appropriate: “Why do you go upstairs?” – “To get my camera” – “But it is downstairs” – “Yeah, I know. Still I am going upstairs”.80 This only could make sense to us if going upstairs is a means to get downstairs (e.g. because the cellar is only accessible from an elevator upstairs).

This example should also make plain why the rationality hypothesis is out of place as a extra premise in an action explanation: If action explanations really contained such an extra element, it would make sense that we might encounter a case in which the goal / intention premise of an agent and the belief premise hold but the rationality premise does not. But when we observe an agent performing goal-contradicting actions, we simply deny the ascription of the respective goal (or means-end-belief) to him.81 We would not and could not know what it means to say of someone that he has the goal to go to the London opera tonight when he boards a plane to China the same day. Just like in the case of unrealized intentions (in which an agent does simply not perform the action in question), the case of performing contradicting actions amounts to the renunciation of the intention / goal ascription. If an agent displays behavior we have problems of seeing the point of, then we cannot ascribe to him an intention / goal (means-end-beliefs) at all. Only insofar the observable acting of an agent is in concordance with assumed intentions, we may ascribe them in a meaningful way to him at all. We could not understand the meaning of a goal ascription if the agent’s behavior does not fulfill the behavioral criteria of “having a goal”. That’s also why we do not and could not ascribe distant goals to any beings which are not capable of displaying the array of behavior which admits of their ascription, e.g. babies, lower animals, inanimate things. In short, there is no such thing as a not-goal-oriented or instrumentally irrational agent of whom it still can be said to have goals. This shows that the ascription of goals and (instrumental) rationality are not independent of each other, as Schurz improved version of Hempel’s covering law explanation suggests.

4 Conclusion

I think, the reason why Schurz considers normic laws so important for explanations is (aside from vestiges of the regularity theory of causality in Hempel) that they seem to provide a compromise between the conceded thesis that there are no strict laws in historiography and Hempel’s original deducibility thesis. For, if it is accepted that the explanandum must follow from the explanans and also that there are no strict universal laws in the humanities (maybe not even in most sciences) then non-strict generalizations, normic laws, suggest themselves. It may then be said that the explanandum follows from the explanans according to a non-monotonic logic. But it should be clear now that this line of thought is due to the idea that deducibility can only be provided by a syllogism in which a particular statement is deduced from a (strict or non-strict) general statement and another particular statement. From my point of view this is wrong, for the explanandum of a human action explanation follows from the premises (such that the deducibility thesis is fulfilled) without the explanandum containing a general premise. The explanandum, the action, follows in the strictest logical sense (although in form of an imperative logic) when taken to follow conceptually from the explanandum.82 To say of an agent to have an intention / goal to do y (and to have the belief that x is a necessary means to do y) is to say that he committed himself to do x. The conclusion of the syllogism therefore is of prescriptive force from the agent’s point of view. And because it could not be said that an agent treats the conclusion as prescriptive unless he actually does x when he has the opportunity to do so, this whole explanation does not only show that x is to be done, but why x was done by the agent.

In fact, we ascribe goals and means-end-beliefs as a bundle to an agent.83 The practice of understanding and explaining human actions consists in trying to figure out what the agent went after, what he judged to be the good or the appropriate thing to do, while having certain beliefs relevant for the execution of his action (means-ends-beliefs). Usually, we do not encounter problems in understanding or explaining the actions of contemporary agents for, being humans, we share a certain form of life (to use this Wittgensteinian notion). People have certain physical, social, psychological needs and inclinations we are familiar with, because we are human (maybe all too human). And so for historical agents the actions of which we know from historical sources. It is the task of historiographers to make sense of their actions by attributing certain (overall) intentions / goals and beliefs to them.

Since historical agents are usually dead such that asking them for their reasons is not an option anymore, historians have to investigate the context of the bequeathed action. We have to widen the perspective on the action to identify the reasons, i.e. the intentions and / or beliefs of the agent.84 Such contextual investigations are also called for when it is not immediately clear for which reason an agent performed a certain action. The fact that we can differentiate between possible reasons for an agent to act and the one or the ones for which he really acted, such that we may speak of the reasons that “effected” the action (as Davidson misleadingly did), does not speak for the causal character of these reasons.85 That a certain reason was in fact the reason for which an agent acted is determined by the context of the action, not by discovering some causal antecedent of the action. If Caesar really acted out of clemency towards an enemy or if he spared his life and possessions out of strategic expedience depends on a variety of factors of the context of Caesar’s action, especially what he did on similar occasions in which he could not count on gaining any advantage by being forgiving. Often, the question, for which reasons an agent acted, can be decided from the third-person perspective. And if the criteria available speak for Caesar’s clemency, then his clemency (and with it, his intention to be clement) is expressed in his forgiving action.

However, if even after longer examination of the context of the action no exact identification of an agent’s intention is possible, then there simply is no answer to the question what the real reason for his action was – for there is nothing that could count as a proper answer,86 except maybe the agent’s avowal of his intention (but only if he has proven to be sincere before). Sometimes, an agent’s action may be unexplainable to us first and we have to understand his action by ascribing unusual goals or means-end-beliefs to him. But if an agent displays behavior over a long time we are at an absolute loss of explaining, we change our attitude towards him. When we thus deny rationality to the agent we stop trying to explain his actions (which cannot be called intentional actions anymore) with the help of goals and beliefs at all, but explain it causally. (We might then e.g. say that it is the mental illness that makes the agent do this.) The rationality “hypothesis” is thus built into our concept of rational explanation – not a further, explicit premise in the logical form of an action explanation. Similarly, we explain the erratic bodily movements of lower animals (e.g. protozoa) by citing (physiological) causes, not reasons. It makes no sense to ascribe intentions, goals and means-ends-beliefs to them. A fortiori this holds for to physical events or technical systems, which also must be explained causally. This is why causal and teleological explanations exclude each other and apply to mutually exclusive cases. So, in the end, there is as a matter of principle a difference between the methods of explanation in the sciences and the methods of explanation of the disciplines that have human actions (or their results) as their subjects (humanities).87


The following introductory section contains paragraphs from G. Schumann, “Introduction”, in: G. Schumann (ed.): Explanation in Action Theory and Historiography. Causal and Teleological Approaches, Routledge 2019, sec. I, II.


R.G. Collingwood: The Idea of History, (rev. ed. by Jan van der Dussen, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1946 (1993), § 1, 5) holds that history is made up from human actions altogether. For the sake of argument I only make here the weaker claim that human actions explanations are a subset of historical explanations.


In fact, one of the roots of the reason vs. causes debate as it is discussed in contemporary analytic theory of action lies in philosophy of historiography resp. philosophy of social science (represented by Collingwood, Hempel, Winch, Dray, the other root (philosophy of action) is represented by late Wittgenstein, Ryle, Anscombe, Davidson, von Wright.


Cf. C. Sandis, ed. (2009). New Essays on the Explanation of Action. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 2; G. Horn and C. Löhrer, eds. (2010). Gründe und Zwecke. Texte zur aktuellen Handlungstheorie. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp: 7; G. D’oro and C. Sandis, eds. (2013). Reasons and Causes: Causalism and Anti-Causalism in the Philosophy of Action, 1st ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan: 28–33. G. Schumann, “Introduction”.


E.g. P. Hedström and R. Swedberg (1998). “Social Mechanisms. An Introductory Essay”. In: P. Hedström and R. Swedberg, eds., Social Mechanisms. An Analytical Approach to Social Theory, 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1–31. A. Tucker (2008). “Causation in Historiography”. In: A. Tucker, ed., A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, 1st ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 98–108. G. Macdonald and C. Macdonald (2008). “Explanation in Historiography”. In: A. Tucker, ed., A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, 1st ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 131–141. H. Kincaid (2009). “Causation in Social Sciences”. In: H. Beebee, C. Hitchcock and P. Menzies, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Causation, 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 726–743. D. Gerber (2014): “Causal Explanation and Historical meaning: How to solve the Problem of the Specific Historical Relation between Events”, in: M. Kaiser, O. Scholz, D. Plenge and A. Hüttemann, eds., Explanations in the Special Sciences: The Case of Biology and History, 1st ed. Dordrecht: Springer, 197–210. M. Risjord (2014). Philosophy of Social Science: A Contemporary Introduction. London: Routledge, 89ff.


D. Little, “Philosophy of History”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), E.N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>, sec. 3.3. D. Little: “Meanings and mechanisms: An actor-centered approach to historical explanation”, in: G. Schumann (ed.): Explanation in Action Theory and Historiography. Causal and Teleological Approaches, Routledge 2019: 234–48.


L. Mink (1998). “History and Fiction as Modes of Comprehension”. New Literary History, 1(3), 541–558.


A. Danto, (1965). Analytical Philosophy of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ch. XI.


Cf. K. Stueber (2012). “Understanding versus Explanation: How to Think about the Distinction between the Human and the Natural Sciences”. Inquiry, 55(1), 24.


J.L. Mackie (1965). “Causes and Conditions”, American Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 4, 245–264.


E.g. D. Gerber (2012). Analytische Metaphysik der Geschichte: Handlungen, Geschichten und ihre Erklärung. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.


But these accounts face objections against the respective theory of causation like (1) overdetermination: There might be cases, in which effect E would have been produced by another cause C2 regardless of whether C1 would have existed or not. In these cases, it could not be said that if C1 had not been, E would not have come into existence; (2) epiphenomenon: “If the iron bar did not glow white, the bar would not be liquid” might be true but we still would not say that the white glowing of the bar was the cause of its being liquid. (3) Insufficient differentiation between conceptual and causal relations: “If yesterday had not been Monday, today would not be Tuesday” or “If my sister had not given birth to a child, I would not be an uncle”. But these are conceptual relations; my sister’s giving birth is not the cause of me being an uncle. (4) The counterfactual slogan by itself does not give any criterion for cause-selection. Of all conditions that have a counterfactual relation towards effect E, we do not say all are a cause of the effect and do not state them in a causal explanation of E. The big bang or the successful prevalence of vertebrae at a certain point of evolution of species were counterfactual conditions for the occurrence of homo sapiens and thus of the battle of Waterloo. But it would be absurd to demand that the big bang or the successful prevalence of vertebrae ought to be included in any explanation of the battle of Waterloo. In any case, theoreticians that want to invoke counterfactuals will have to add important qualifications to their counterfactual theory. Apart from these objections there is the issue that counterfactuals are neutral with respect to teleological and causal explanations. Counterfactuals can be used, in the context of rationalizations, to identify the reason why an agent acted by ruling out other goals through the use of counterfactuals. For example: “Had Mary really intended to kill John she would not have done it in front of her children”. For example, S. Sehon (2005). Teleological Realism: Mind, Agency, and Explanation. (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press) treats counterfactuals in the context of teleological explanations as the means to provide an answer to Davidson’s Challenge.


E.g. F. Castellani (2007). “Causation and Teleological Explanation of Action”. In: F. Castellani and J. Quitterer, eds., Agency and Causation in the Human Sciences, 1st ed. Paderborn: Mentis, pp. 187–196; A. Rosenberg (2008). Philosophy of Social Science, 3rd ed. Boulder: Westview Press, ch. 2.


Collingwood: The Idea of History; W. Dray (1957). Laws and Explanation in History. Oxford: Oxford University Press; P. Winch (1958). The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy, 3rd ed. London and New York: Routledge; J. Passmore (1962). “Explanation in Everyday Life, in Science, and in History”, in: History and Theory, 2(2), 105–123; A. Donagan, “The Popper-Hempel Theory reconsidered”. In: W. Dray (ed.): Philosophical Analysis and History, New York 1966, 127–159; G.H. von Wright (1971). Explanation and Understanding. London: Ithaca.


von Wright, Explanation and Understanding: 32; J. Kim (1973). Review of ‘Explanation and Understanding’. The Philosophical Review, 82(3), 388.


G. Schurz, “Normic Laws, Nonmonotonic Reasoning, and the Unity of Science” in: S. Rahman et al. (eds.), Logic, Epistemology, and the Unity of Science. (Dordrecht, Kluwer, 2004). O. Scholz, „Erkenntnis der Geschichte – eine Skizze“, in: A. Frings, J. Marx (eds.): Erzählen, Erklären, Verstehen. Beiträge zur Wissenschaftstheorie und Methodologie der Historischen Kulturwissenschaften, (Berlin 2008). G. Schurz, (2011). „Erklären und Verstehen: Tradition, Transformation und Aktualität einer klassischen Kontroverse“. In: F. Jaeger and J. Straub, eds., Handbuch der Kulturwissenschaften, 1st ed. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 156–74. O. Scholz (2014). “Philosophy of History: Metaphysics and Epistemology”. In: M. Kaiser, O. Scholz, D. Plenge and A. Hüttemann, eds., Explanations in the Special Sciences: The Case of Biology and History, 1st ed. Dordrecht: Springer, 245–53. Also, the most philosophically elaborate account of narrative explanations, that of Danto, relies in its core on normic laws. (cf. Danto: Analytcial Philosophy of History, ch. X) such that the following criticism also fires against Danto’s theory of narrative explanation.


C.G. Hempel, “The Function of General Laws in History” in: Michael Martin / Lee C. McIntyre (eds.). Readings in the Philosophy of Social Science. (Cambridge (Mass.) 1942), 43–53.


Hempel, “The Function of General Laws in History”, 48.


G. Schurz, „Was ist wissenschaftliches Verstehen? Eine Theorie verstehensbewirkender Erklärungsepisoden“ in: G. Schurz (ed.): Erklären und Verstehen in der Wissenschaft 1988, 251; Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 156.


Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 172.


Schurz, “Normic Laws, Nonmonotonic Reasoning, and the Unity of Science”, 184.


G. Schurz, „Normische Gesetzeshypothesen und die wissenschaftsphilosophische Bedeutung des nichtmonotonen Schließens“, Journal for General Philosophy of Science 32 (2001), 70; Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 170.


G. Schurz, “What is ‘normal’? An Evolution-Theoretic Foundation for Normic Laws and Their Relation to Statistical Normality”. Philosophy of Science, 68(4) (2001), 477.


Schurz, “What is ‘normal’?”, 477f.


Schurz, “What is ‘normal’?”, 477.


Schurz, “What is ‘normal’?”, 476.


Schurz, „Normische Gesetzeshypothesen und die wissenschaftsphilosophische Bedeutung des nichtmonotonen Schließens“, 66; Schurz, “What is ‘normal’?”, 477; Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 163.


W. Dray, Laws and Explanation in History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1957), ch. V.


Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 162.


Hempel, Carl Gustav, “Aspects of Scientific Explanation” in: C. Hempel: Aspects of Scientific Explanation and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Science, (New York 1965), 470f.


Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 162.


Schurz, „Normische Gesetzeshypothesen und die wissenschaftsphilosophische Bedeutung des nichtmonotonen Schließens“, 66; Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 163.


Schurz, “What is ‘normal’?”, 477.


Scholz, „Erkenntnis der Geschichte – eine Skizze“, 115.


I think that it is very misleading that Schurz speaks again and again of Dray having “discovered” normic laws. For it suggests that normic laws are something “out there” which have been waiting for discovery by philosophers of science. But the task of the philosopher is not to make discoveries at all, he is not conducting empirical or quasi-empirical (so-called “ontological”) investigations and occupied with formulating and testing hypotheses which ultimately lead to an amendment in the corpus of our knowledge of the world. Philosophy is not a science but a conceptual endeavor, the task of which is to elucidate and clarify of the meaning of certain concepts, e.g. “explanation” and “explanation of human actions” (cf. P.M.S. Hacker: The Intellectual Powers. A Study of Human Nature. Oxford 2013, Appendix). The introduction of normic laws was an attempt to account for our concept of human action explanation (although, as I shall argue, not a very plausible one).


Dray, Laws and Explanation in History, 132.


Dray, Laws and Explanation in History, 133, 135.


Dray, Laws and Explanation in History, 132.


W. Dray, “The Historical Explanation of Actions Reconsidered” in: P. Gardiner (ed).: The Philosophy of History (Oxford Univ. Press. 1974), 78ff.


M. Scriven, “Truisms as the Grounds for Historical Explanations” in P. Gardiner (ed.): Theories of history: readings from classical and contemporary sources (Free Press, Glencoe, Ill.) 1959.


Scriven, “Truisms as the Grounds for Historical Explanations”, 464.


Dray, “The Historical Explanation of Actions Reconsidered”, 79f.


As expressed in Schurz, “Was ist wissenschaftliches Verstehen?”, 253.


Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 162.


Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 162.


Dray, Laws and Explanation in History, 124; Dray, “The Historical Explanation of Actions Reconsidered”, 78.


Hempel, “The Function of General Laws in History”, 44. Hempel, “Aspects of Scientific Explanation”, 246.


Hempel, “The Function of General Laws in History”, 48.


Hempel, “Aspects of Scientific Explanation”.


Scriven, “Truisms as the Grounds for Historical Explanations”, 464.


Cf. also Donagan, “The Popper-Hempel Theory reconsidered”, 132.


The appropriate form of a practical syllogism which serves as an action explanation contains one premise that expresses the goal / intention of the agent. This premise is in fact non-descriptive (prescriptive) in its first-person-use, as well as the conclusion (see below), whereas the second premise stating the means to the end is descriptive. Therefore, the validity of a practical syllogism must be defined in a more general concept than truth, e.g. commitment. Cf. G. Schumann: “Practical reasoning as normative reasoning”, XXIII. Deutscher Kongress für Philosophie 2014, 65, 8f.


Dray, “The Historical Explanation of Actions Reconsidered” leaves it open if the explanandum in a rational explanation will have to be deducible from the premises or not. Or rather: He explicitly subsumed both explanations that show why an agent had to do it and those which only show that it was alright to do so. You could also draw that distinction as the one between explanations that an action was rationally necessary and explanations that an action was rationally possible in the light of the premises. (The first position about the logical nature of the practical syllogism is taken by Georg Henrik von Wright (Explanation and Understanding, ch. III.4; “Black on Practical Reasoning”, in: Schilpp / Hahn (eds.): The Philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright, La Salle, Ill. 1989, 822f.), the second by Anscombe, G. Elizabeth M. (1974): “Von Wright on practical inference”, in: Schilpp / Hahn (eds.): The Philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright, La Salle, Ill. 1989, 377–404. Schumann, “Practical reasoning as normative reasoning” argues that von Wright’s position seems to be the correct one.


G.E.M. Anscombe, Intention. (2nd ed. Cambridge (Mass.) / London 1957), § 22.


G. Schurz, “Explanations in Science and the Logic of Why-Questions: Discussion of the Halonen-Hintikka-Approach and Alternative Proposal”, Synthese, Vol. 143, No. 1/2, The Process of Explanation (Jan., 2005), 151, 157f, 172.


In general, the case would be different if the conclusion contained the “normal”-operator. Then the relation between the premises and the conclusion was deductive. But neither in Hempel nor Schurz the conclusion is expressed like that but is the same in DN- and IS-explanations (cf. Hempel, “Aspects of Scientific Explanation”, 488).


Cf. Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 171.


Schurz, “Normic Laws, Nonmonotonic Reasoning, and the Unity of Science”, 188.


Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 172.


Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 171.


G. Schurz, Einführung in die Wissenschaftstheorie, (2nd edition, Darmstadt: WBG, 2008), 482.


Schurz, Einführung in die Wissenschaftstheorie, 236.


Scholz, „Erkenntnis der Geschichte – eine Skizze“, 114f, 127f.


Dray, Laws and Explanation in History, ch. V.6.


Dray, Laws and Explanation in History, 148.


Dray, Laws and Explanation in History, 149.


L. Carroll, “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles” in: Mind, n.s., 4 (1895), 278–80.


Schurz, Einführung in die Wissenschaftstheorie, 482.


The following paragraphs are partly based on: G. Schumann: “An anti-causal theory of action as basis for historical explanations. A sketch”, in: G. Schumann (ed.): Explanation in Action Theory and Historiography. Causal and Teleological Approaches, Routledge 2019: § 3.


D. Hume (2008). Enquiry into Human Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press, sec. IV, pt. I.


P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein – Mind and Will. Volume 4 of an Analytical Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations, Pt. 1 Essays, (Blackwell Publishers 2000), ch. 5.6c.


This claim needs a qualification for actions described by success verbs (like “scoring”, e.g. in football). “… display behavior related to the goal in a context that makes clear that he tried the action in question”.


As is pointed out by Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 164.


By the same argument (the one that shows, that there is a conceptual connection between goal / intention premise and action) all causal accounts of human action explanation are ruled out. The connection between intentions-belief-pairs and the action is not a causal one, but conceptual.


D. Davidson, “Actions, Reasons and Causes”. Journal of Philosophy, (1963) 60(23), 696.


Davidson, “Actions, Reasons and Causes”, 696.


For a defense of the teleological account of action explanations in historiography against Davidson’s positive argument for causalism see G. Schumann: “An anti-causal theory of action as basis for historical explanations”: 228.


Schurz, „Erklären und Verstehen“, 164.


G. Schumann, “Von Wright’s theory of action and the ‘Logical Connection Argument’” in: I. Niiniluoto, / T. Wallgren (eds.): On the Human Condition – Essays on Honour of Georg Henrik von Wright’s Centennial Anniversary. Acta Philosophica Fennica 93, 325–338, argues that this was what von Wright in his Explanation and Understanding originally was after but did not express unambiguously.


Anscombe, Intention, § 22.


Cases of so-called “akrasia” and von Wright‘s tyrant murderer case (von Wright, Explanation and Understanding, 116) do not count against this. There are no akratic people (in the sense that they can be said to have a full-fledged intention and show no according behavior at the same time) – only people that are sincere in their verbal intention expressions and those who are not. In “Von Wright’s theory of action and the ‘Logical Connection Argument’ ” I argue that von Wright‘s tyrant murderer case is conceptually impossible.


For an elaboration of this imperative logic, cf. Schumann, “Practical reasoning as normative reasoning”.


Hempel discussed this mutual interdependence between intention and belief ascriptions in “Aspects of Scientific Explanation”, ch. 10.3.3, but only as an epistemic, not as a conceptual interdependence.


For an elaboration of this point cf. G. Schumann: “An anti-causal theory of action as basis for historical explanations.”, § 4.


There also is the problem of deviant causal chains which has not been successfully answered by causalists. Davidson himself could not solve it. I do not discuss this objection here at all. For further arguments against Davidsonian causalism see S. Schroeder, “Are Reasons Causes? A Wittgensteinian Response to Davidson”, in: S. Schroeder, ed., Wittgenstein and Contemporary Philosophy of Mind, 1st ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2001: 150–170.


P. Hacker (2010). Human Nature: The Categorical Framework. Oxford: Blackwell: 225.


I am thankful to Theodor Berwe and Thomas Keutner for reading earlier drafts of this paper and their helpful comments.

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