Explanation and Argument

The primary goal of an argument is to show that some proposition is true, while the primary goal of an explanation is to show why it is true. In an argument, we reason forward from the premises to the conclusion; in an explanation we reason backwards from a fact to the cause or reason for that fact.

Example:

Why does ice float in water? How do salmon find their way back to the streams they were spawned in? Why do human beings so often make war on one another? In all these cases, we know that a certain proposition is true: ice floats, salmon find their way, etc.

The established proposition is the explanandum. What we want to know is the cause or the reason for the explanandum. That which explains the explanandum is called the hypothesis.


Comprehension Questions

1 The primary goal of an argument is
a) to show that some proposition is true
b) to show why some proposition is true
2 The primary goal of an explanation is
a) to show that some proposition is true
b) to show why some proposition is true
3 Identify whether the passage below is an argument or an explanation.

When I proposed to my wife, I placed the ring in the ice bin of the refrigerator. When Cathy came over, I asked her to get me some ice. However, she had a bad day at work, so she said she didn't want any ice.

a) argument
b) explanation
4 Identify whether the passage below is an argument or an explanation.

My wrinkles disappeared. The doctor injected the area around the wrinkle with an extract of the deadly toxin that accounts for botulism. The extract caused the muscle to become paralyzed, thus eliminating the wrinkle.

a) argument
b) explanation
5 Identify whether the passage below is an argument or an explanation.

Nino Noriega went to his daughter's apartment, where he found a burglar. He called the police, and the burglar was arrested. However, the judge let the burglar go, saying that since Noriega did not live in the apartment and it was not his property that was stolen, he had no basis for determining whether the person living in the apartment had given the accused burglar permission to be in the apartment.

a) argument
b) explanation
6 Identify whether the passage below is an argument or an explanation.

A lady, who had a steel rod placed in her leg, was supposed to show in court to testify in a burglary. When she came to the officer with the metal detector, the lady naturally beeped. The officer refused to let her through, saying, "You are not getting into the court room if any part of you beeps."

a) argument
b) explanation


Diagramming Explanations

© Copyright 1998, W.W. Norton & Co.