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An explanation is a set of statements
Statement (logic)
In logic a statement is either a meaningful declarative sentence that is either true or false, or what is asserted or made by the use of a declarative sentence...

 constructed to describe
Description is one of four rhetorical modes , along with exposition, argumentation, and narration. Each of the rhetorical modes is present in a variety of forms and each has its own purpose and conventions....

 a set of facts which clarifies the cause
Causality is the relationship between an event and a second event , where the second event is understood as a consequence of the first....

s, context, and consequence
Consequence may refer to:* In logic, consequence relation, also known as logical consequence, or entailment* In operant conditioning, a result of some behavior...

of those facts.

This description may establish rule
Rule of inference
In logic, a rule of inference, inference rule, or transformation rule is the act of drawing a conclusion based on the form of premises interpreted as a function which takes premises, analyses their syntax, and returns a conclusion...

s or law
In traditional logic, an axiom or postulate is a proposition that is not proven or demonstrated but considered either to be self-evident or to define and delimit the realm of analysis. In other words, an axiom is a logical statement that is assumed to be true...

s, and may clarify the existing ones in relation to any objects, or phenomena examined. The components of an explanation can be implicit, and be interwoven with one another.

An explanation is often underpinned by an understanding
Understanding is a psychological process related to an abstract or physical object, such as a person, situation, or message whereby one is able to think about it and use concepts to deal adequately with that object....

 that is represented by different media such as music, text, and graphics. Thus, an explanation is subjected to interpretation
Interpretation (logic)
An interpretation is an assignment of meaning to the symbols of a formal language. Many formal languages used in mathematics, logic, and theoretical computer science are defined in solely syntactic terms, and as such do not have any meaning until they are given some interpretation...

, and discussion.

In scientific research, explanation is one of the purposes of research, e.g., exploration
Exploration is the act of searching or traveling around a terrain for the purpose of discovery of resources or information. Exploration occurs in all non-sessile animal species, including humans...

 and description. Explanation is a way to uncover new knowledge, and to report relationships among different aspects of studied phenomena. Explanations have varied explanatory power
Explanatory power
Explanatory power is the ability of a theory to effectively explain the subject matter it pertains to. One theory is sometimes said to have more explanatory power than another theory about the same subject matter if it offers greater predictive power...


Explanations and arguments

While arguments attempt to show that something is, will be, or should be the case, explanations try to show why or how something is or will be. If Fred and Joe address the issue of whether or not Fred's cat has fleas, Joe may state: "Fred, your cat has fleas. Observe the cat is scratching right now." Joe has made an argument that the cat has fleas. However, if Fred and Joe agree on the fact that the cat has fleas, they may further question why this is so and put forth an explanation: "The reason the cat has fleas is that the weather has been damp." The difference is that the attempt is not to settle whether or not some claim is true, but to show why it is true.

In this sense, arguments aim to contribute knowledge, whereas explanations aim to contribute understanding.

Arguments and explanations largely resemble each other in rhetoric
Rhetoric is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the facility of speakers or writers who attempt to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. As a subject of formal study and a productive civic practice, rhetoric has played a central role in the Western...

al use. This is the cause of much difficulty in thinking critically
Critical thinking
Critical thinking is the process or method of thinking that questions assumptions. It is a way of deciding whether a claim is true, false, or sometimes true and sometimes false, or partly true and partly false. The origins of critical thinking can be traced in Western thought to the Socratic...

 about claims
In logic and philosophy, the term proposition refers to either the "content" or "meaning" of a meaningful declarative sentence or the pattern of symbols, marks, or sounds that make up a meaningful declarative sentence...

. There are several reasons for this difficulty.
  • People often are not themselves clear on whether they are arguing for or explaining something.
  • The same types of words and phrases are used in presenting explanations and arguments.
  • The terms 'explain' or 'explanation,' et cetera are frequently used in arguments.
  • Explanations are often used within arguments and presented so as to serve as arguments.

Explanations and justification

Justification is the reason why someone properly holds a belief
Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.-Belief, knowledge and epistemology:The terms belief and knowledge are used differently in philosophy....

, the explanation as to why the belief is a true one, or an account of how one knows what one knows. In much the same way arguments and explanations may be confused with each other, so too may explanations and justifications. Statements which are justifications of some action take the form of arguments. For example attempts to justify a theft usually explain the motives (e.g., to feed a starving family).

It is important to be aware when an explanation is not a justification. A criminal profiler may offer an explanation of a suspect's behavior (e.g.; the person lost their job, the person got evicted, etc.). Such statements may help us understand why the person committed the crime, however an uncritical listener may believe the speaker is trying to gain sympathy for the person and his or her actions. It does not follow that a person proposing an explanation has any sympathy for the views or actions being explained. This is an important distinction because we need to be able to understand and explain terrible events and behavior in attempting to discourage it.

Types of explanations

There are many and varied events, objects, and facts which require explanation. So too, there are many different types of explanation. Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

 recognized at least four types
Four causes
Four Causes refers to a principle in Aristotelian science that is used to understand change. Aristotle described four different types of causes, or ways in which an object could be explained: "we do not have knowledge of a thing until we have grasped its why, that is to say, its cause", He argued...

 of explanation. Other types of explanation are Deductive-nomological, Functional, Historical, Psychological, Reductive, Teleological, Methodological explanations.

See also

  • Abductive reasoning
    Abductive reasoning
    Abduction is a kind of logical inference described by Charles Sanders Peirce as "guessing". The term refers to the process of arriving at an explanatory hypothesis. Peirce said that to abduce a hypothetical explanation a from an observed surprising circumstance b is to surmise that a may be true...

  • Cogency
  • Epistemology
  • Explanatory gap
    Explanatory gap
    The explanatory gap is the claim that consciousness and human experiences such as qualia cannot be fully explained just by identifying the corresponding physical processes. Bridging this gap is known as "the hard problem"...

  • Explanans
  • Inductive reasoning
    Inductive reasoning
    Inductive reasoning, also known as induction or inductive logic, is a kind of reasoning that constructs or evaluates propositions that are abstractions of observations. It is commonly construed as a form of reasoning that makes generalizations based on individual instances...

  • Inquiry
    An inquiry is any process that has the aim of augmenting knowledge, resolving doubt, or solving a problem. A theory of inquiry is an account of the various types of inquiry and a treatment of the ways that each type of inquiry achieves its aim.-Deduction:...

  • Knowledge
    Knowledge is a familiarity with someone or something unknown, which can include information, facts, descriptions, or skills acquired through experience or education. It can refer to the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject...

  • Scientific method
    Scientific method
    Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of...

  • Unexplained
    Unexplained means not explained and may refer to:* Unexplained EP, a 1992 rock music album by EMF-Television:* The Unexplained, a 1990s documentary television series* Unexplained Mysteries, a 2003 documentary television series...

  • Rationalization
  • Theory
    The English word theory was derived from a technical term in Ancient Greek philosophy. The word theoria, , meant "a looking at, viewing, beholding", and referring to contemplation or speculation, as opposed to action...

  • Wesley Salmon

Further reading

  • Moore, Brooke Noel and Parker, Richard. (2012) Critical Thinking. 10th ed. Published by McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-803828-6.

External links