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Argument vs. Explanation Study Guide

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Updated on Sep 20, 2011

Lesson Summary

Discussion is an exchange of knowledge; argument an exchange of ignorance.

Robert Quillen, American journalist and humorist (1887–1948)

So far, we've talked a lot about arguments—things like how to make them, what makes them valid or invalid, and how people use misleading techniques in them. In this lesson, you'll discover how to tell the difference between an argument and an explanation. You'll also find out how to judge explanations—what makes them effective or ineffective.

Ever hear or say this before? "You've got some explaining to do!" We all, at one time or another, have had to explain ourselves or hear explanations from others. It might have been a simple incident, like showing up late to a movie. Other times, an explanation can make or break things, or end up with a terrible result. We often take explanations for granted, thinking we can explain our way out of anything. But, as with arguments, explanations can be effective or ineffective. They can get someone off the hook, or deeper into trouble. It's important to understand what a good explanation is, and how it differs from an argument.

What Is an Explanation?

At first glance, this seems like a simple question. Someone asks, "Why did you do that?" Your reply is an explanation, giving reasons why you did what you did. But basically, an explanation is a statement or set of statements that give new information about something that's been accepted as fact. When answering the question, "Why did you do that?" you won't say you didn't do it, which would be an argument. It's an accepted fact that you did something, so you have to give information about why you did it.

An explanation has two parts: what will be explained, called the explanadum; and the statements that do the explaining, called the explanans. To answer the question, "Why did you buy that car?" someone might explain, "I bought it because it gets great gas mileage." The phrase "I bought it" is the explanadum. "It gets great gas mileage" is the explanan.

When an explanation is accepted, it removes or lessens a problem. The "why?" is solved. In the previous example, the person asking the question does not understand something (why someone bought a certain car). After the explanation, he or she will. In addition, a good explanation is relevant. That is, it speaks directly to the issue. If someone asks, "Why are you late?" and you reply, "I was late because my shirt is blue," you have given a poor explanation. It is not relevant to the question asked.

The four qualities of a good explanation are:

  1. it gives new information
  2. the topic is accepted as fact
  3. when given, it removes or lessens a problem
  4. it is relevant

Deductive Fallacy Study Guide explains the fallacy of circular reasoning. "I like chocolate chip because it is my favorite flavor" is an example of circular reasoning, because the premise (it is my favorite flavor) is the same as saying the conclusion (I like chocolate chip).

Explanations may be circular as well. When they are, they offer no new information.

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