Explanations for Arguments Help

Updated on Sep 28, 2011

Introduction to Explanations for Arguments

"You are today where your thoughts have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts take you."

—James Allen, British philosophical writer (1864–1912)

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, you'll learn how explanations are different from arguments. You'll also learn the criteria for determining whether the explanation you're being offered is good or not.

You are an hour and a half late to work. The moment you walk through the door, your boss calls you into his office. "Where have you been?" he asks. "I demand an explanation."

Explanations are very closely related to arguments, but they're not quite the same thing. Whereas an argument generally aims to convince you that a certain claim is true, an explanation aims to convince you why a claim is true. For example, compare the following examples:

  1. You should be more careful going down these stairs. They're steep and lots of people fall.
  2. He fell down the stairs because they're very steep and he wasn't careful.

The first example is an argument. The writer is trying to convince you to be more careful on the stairs (conclusion) because the steps are steep (premise) and lots of people fall (premise). The second example, on the other hand, is an explanation. The writer here is telling you why someone fell down the stairs—because they're steep and because he wasn't careful.

So explanations are different from arguments. But what does this have to do with critical thinking and reasoning skills?

Well, just as you will be presented with arguments of all types almost every day of your life, you will also be presented with explanations of all kinds. And just as you need to evaluate arguments carefully before you decide whether or not to accept them, you should also evaluate explanations carefully before you decide whether or not they're valid.

When it comes to explanations, there are four criteria that you should look for:

  1. Relevance
  2. Testability
  3. Circularity
  4. Compatibility with existing knowledge


Think back to your English classes again. Remember all of those essays, book reports and research papers you wrote? Remember your teacher emphasizing that you needed to include details, anecdotes and/or statistics—as long as they were relevant? She didn't want to see lines covered in useless information and other fillers. The same is true in arguments: everything should be relevant.


One of the first tests any explanation should undergo is the test for relevance. Is the explanation that is provided clearly relevant to the issue being explained? That is, is there a clear and obvious connection between the issue and the explanation?

For example, you might say to your boss, "I'm late because the electricity went off during the night and my alarm never went off." Is that relevant? Absolutely. Your ability to arrive on time depends upon your ability to wake up on time. However, an explanation like the following is certainly not relevant:

"I'm late because Macy's is having a sale this weekend."

Macy's sale—while it may be important to you—has no bearing on your ability to get to work on time. This is obvious, of course, but that doesn't prevent people from offering irrelevant explanations.

One important thing to keep in mind about explanations is that an explanation can pass the relevancy test and still not be a good explanation. For example, "I'm late because last night I was at a Super- Bowl party" is not a good explanation, but it is a relevant explanation—because you were out late, you didn't get up in time for work.

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