Carl G. Hempel

Carl Gustav “Peter” Hempel (08 January 1905–09 November 1997)

Today is the 117th anniversary of the birth of Carl Gustav “Peter” Hempel (08 January 1905–09 November 1997), who was born on this date in 1905.

Hempel is primarily remembered as a philosopher of science (perhaps best known for the paradox of the ravens, which you should read about if you don’t know it), but also was especially influential in mid-twentieth century analytical philosophy of history, and mostly as the result of three papers:

The Function of General Laws in History,” The Journal of Philosophy 39 (1942), 35–48.

“Explanation in Science and in History,” in R. G. Colodny, ed., Frontiers of Science and Philosophy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1962), pp. 9–33.

“Reasons and Covering Laws in Historical Explanation,” in S. Hook, ed., Philosophy and History (New York: New York University Press, 1963), pp. 143–63.

The 1942 paper set the agenda for analytical philosophy of history in the mid-twentieth century. A 2018 paper by Fons Dewulf quotes a 1966 paper by Lewis Mink to this effect: “Almost all of the philosophical literature on philosophy of history in the last decade has dealt with the logic of explanation. The locus classicus is of course C. G. Hempel.” Hempel’s paper put historical explanation at the center of analytical philosophy of history, and while many philosophers disagreed with Hempel’s approach to historical explanation, Hempel forced the issue into the open and in so doing forced other philosophers to offer alternative accounts of historical explanation.

The Dewulf paper is a good starting place to understand Hempel’s philosophy of history; Dewulf gives enough historical context to understand Hempel’s project, which is to contradiction the influence of Windelband, Rickert, Dilthey, and others who maintained that history has a method distinct from that of the natural sciences. Hempel wanted to show that an explanation in history is not fundamentally different from an explanation in other sciences, for example, an explanation in physics or biology or geology (to take three very different sciences as examples). Thus we see that Hempel was contributing to a fundamental debate in the philosophy of history, which we can follow like a thread from the Enlightenment to the present day, with Hempel representing the larger project of Enlightenment universalism, though now transmogrified into logical empiricism as the defender of nomothetic methods in history. Here is the concluding paragraph of Dewulf’s paper:

“The disappearance of the Windelbandian problem left open what kind of philosophical questions one could ask about the historical sciences. Here, Hempel’s paper saw its most visible contribution. It suggested the centrality of a philosophical concept that had not yet received much analytic attention, namely ‘explanation.’ In Hempel’s and Oppenheim’s 1948 paper, ‘Studies in the Logic of Explanation,’ explanation became a central concept for understanding scientific activity in general, and thus a prime object of analysis for the philosophy of science as a discipline. This in turn was refracted into an analytic philosophy of history that in the 1950s and 1960s focused its debate around ‘historical explanation.’ Thus, when Dray looks back at four decades of analytic philosophy of history and lauds Hempel’s 1942 paper, he testifies to these shifts that radically changed the methodological and conceptual norms for a philosophy of history. And when Kristeller laments the path of the philosophy of history in the twentieth century, he also attests to these shifts, but evaluates them differently, since it is his methodological and conceptual voice that became lost in the disciplinary norms of the philosophy of science and the philosophy of history after the Second World War.”

The opening paragraph of Hempel’s 1942 paper lays out his program in a straight-forward manner:

“It is a rather widely held opinion that history, in contradistinction to the so-called physical sciences, is concerned with the description of particular events of the past rather than with the search for general laws which might govern those events. As a characterization of the type of problem in which some historians are mainly interested, this view probably can not be denied; as a statement of the theoretical function of general laws in scientific historical research, it is certainly unacceptable. The following considerations are an attempt to substantiate this point by showing in some detail that general laws have quite analogous functions in history and in the natural sciences, that they form an indispensable instrument of historical research, and that they even constitute the common basis of various procedures which are often considered as characteristic of the social in contradistinction to the natural sciences.”

It is interesting to note in the above Hempel concedes that most historians have, in fact, been primarily interested in describing the uniquely particular in history, not in identifying and formulating laws of history, so that the program he is laying out for the philosophy of history is clearly at odds with the conventional program of historiography. Recently, sometime in just the past few weeks (I can’t remember the source) I happened upon a historian who explicitly stated that our interest in the French Revolution is what made it unique and distinctive; well, my interest is at least as much an interest in what makes all revolutions revolutions, and not some other kind of event. I would be at least as interested, if not more interested, in a history of revolutions that treated all revolutions throughout history as exemplifications of the same concept of revolution, in order to understand the conditions under which revolutions reliably occurred, how they developed, and what the outcome was.

Hempel does not say that historians should change their practices and start writing history on the basis of laws of history, and it seems to me it would be perfectly fine to adopt a scholarly division of labor such that historians described the ideographical facts of the past while philosophers of history endeavored to formulate laws of history, but I am not aware of anyone proposing this simple arrangement.

In “Explanation in Science and in History” Hempel makes explicit a distinction between deductive-nomological explanation and an inductive-statistical explanation, and then offers an interesting exposition of the incompleteness of most explanation, which he calls explanation sketches, which are sketches because they are elliptical or partial:

“…explanations put forward in everyday discourse and also in scientific contexts are often elliptically formulated. When we explain, for example, that a lump of butter melted because it was put into a hot frying pan, or that a small rainbow appeared in the spray of the lawn sprinkler because the sunlight was reflected and refracted by the water droplets, we may be said to offer elliptic formulations of deductive-nomological explanations; an account of this kind omits mention of certain laws or particular facts which it tacitly takes for granted, and whose explicit citation would yield a complete deductive-nomological argument.”

One might make a distinction between a rigorous and non-rigorous explanation such that a rigorous explanation is complete in the sense Hempel employs in the above passage, while an explanation sketch, being incomplete because elliptical or partial, is non-rigorous. Needless to say, most human thought is non-rigorous, but the possibility of a rigorous explanation remains an ideal, even if it is an ideal rarely realized in practice.

Hempel’s account of elliptical explanations reminds me of a famous passage in Descartes’ Discourse on Method in which Descartes relates why he gave up on the histories and fables of the classical world:

“…fables make us conceive of events as being possible where they are not; and even if the most faithful of accounts of the past neither alter nor exaggerate the importance of things in order to make them more attractive to the reader, they nearly always leave out the humblest and least illustrious historical circumstances, with the result that what remains does not appear as it really was, and that those who base their behaviour on the examples they draw from such accounts are likely to try to match the feats of knights of old in tales of chivalry and set themselves targets beyond their powers.”

Following the lead of Descartes, the Cartesians largely passed over history in their grand program to reconstruct the sciences on the basis of the certainty of the Cartesian cogito. This could be an historical explanation of the division between the methods of the physical sciences and the methods of the humanities, to which history has presumptively belonged, which is the division that Hempel sought to address. In the above sense of “rigorous,” what Descartes is saying is that all history has been non-rigorous because it has been elliptically formulated; what Hempel is saying is that history ideally can be made rigorous, and that arguments to the contrary, that history involves an intrinsically distinct method from the natural sciences, are essentially a cope for historians who haven’t got the bottle to formulate a proper deductive-nomological argument in history.

“Reasons and Covering Laws in Historical Explanation” is mostly a response to William Dray’s criticism of Hempel’s application of deductive-nomological reasoning to history. In the final paragraph of this paper Hempel states:

“To adopt the general conception I have presented here of explanation by reasons is by no means to deny that, as Mr. Dray rightly stresses, the historian adducing motivating reasons in explanation of an action normally does seek to show that the action ‘makes sense’ when considered in the light of the purposes and the beliefs that presumably prompted it; nor is it to deny that perceiving an action as thus making sense can be a source of great intellectual satisfaction. What I have tried to argue is rather that — apart from the problematic status of the requisite concept of appropriateness — the presentation of an action as being appropriate to the given situation, as making sense, cannot, for purely logical reasons, serve to explain why in fact the action was taken.”

Hempel thus gives Dray his full measure of a different perspective on historical explanation, while nevertheless maintaining that Dray has essentially missed the point of what a deductive-nomological explanation is in history, i.e., that the logic of rational, non-deliberative action is distinct from the logic of deductive-nomological explanation.

Further Resources


Dewulf, F. (2018). Revisiting Hempel’s 1942 Contribution to the Philosophy of History. Journal of the History of Ideas, 79(3), 385–406. doi:10.1353/jhi.2018.0023

Louis O. Mink, “The Autonomy of Historical Understanding,” History and Theory 5, no. 1 (1966): 26.




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