It seems like many of the papers I've read and the goal of many fields in Philosophy is to come up with an "account" for something.

For example, one of the goals of Epistemology is to come up with an account for knowledge. (For example, some accounts are coherentism, foundationalism, etc.)

The paper I'm currently reading (What Good Is an Explanation? by Peter Lipton) seems to be testing different accounts of explanations.

What is an "account" of something? What sorts of properties do "accounts" have? How can I tell whether something is an account of something else or not?

(Of course, as with most philosophical questions, I'm not expecting one fundamental answer; I'm actually expecting multiple different accounts for what an "account" is.)

  • 'Account' used this way is used roughly in the same sense as 'theory'.
    – J D
    Apr 7, 2020 at 3:43
  • Hi :) This seems like a definition-related question that belongs more to the English.SE. There isn't, to my knowledge, a certain different use of the English word "account" in philosophy as opposed to other areas of research. Apr 16, 2020 at 8:47
  • I agree that this is a definition-related question, but I’m also fairly certain that the English SE would not provide a definition similar to the currently accepted answer. I’m not sure why this is, but my guess is that the language used would be more rooted in English terminology, whereas I’m particularly looking for an answer in terms of philosophical terminology. (“Metaphysical”, examples from philosophy, etc.)
    – Pro Q
    Apr 17, 2020 at 14:49

1 Answer 1


Contrary to your hope, I don't think this will inspire a large number of divergent answers (I suppose for researchers on the topic of explanation there is a lot of room to disagree about the nitty-gritty, but for most philosophers they haven't put that much thought into what "account" means -- we just use the term). "account" is a term of art in contemporary analytic philosophy.

An account is an explanation in terms of the underlying metaphysical elements. So in the paper, you are reading differing accounts of what an explanation is would need to include:

  1. a definition of explanation including criteria and features.
  2. ways to test the criteria
  3. features that any and all explanations must have
  4. how this account of explanation overcomes problems that other accounts face.

Basically, an "account" is the story of how something works with all of the relevant features. Often, we associate these accounts with individuals: Kripke's account of proper names and rigid designators, the rationalist account for perception, the Utilitarian account of morality.

Some samples from the SEP:

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