In common language, the words explain and explanation refer to different scenarios, discourse genres and interactions. Ethnomethodology proposes to grasp the ongoing intelligibility of ordinary actions and interactions through the concept of “accounts” (justifications, explanations). Text linguistics considers the explanatory sequence as one of the basic sequence types (Adam 1996, p. 33), along with narration, description and argumentation. The relations between text types are complex: a justificatory (vs. deliberative) argument explains, or accounts for a decision by enumerating the good reasons having motivated the decision made in the past.
1. Structure of explanatory discourse
From the conceptual point of view, explanatory discourse connects a less well-known, local phenomenon, something to be explained (explanandum) to a better known and complex explanatory domain (explanans). Explanation promotes understanding. An explanation is an abduction@. One can distinguish between different kinds of explanation according to the kind of field-related principles invoked to connect the explanandum to the explanans:
— Causal explanations, allowing prediction and action, as in the following explanatory definition, S. Causality:
Rainbow: A luminous meteorological phenomenon […] produced by the refraction, reflection and dispersion of the colored radiations composing the white light (of the sun) by drops of water. (PR, Art. Rainbow).
— Functional explanations:
Why does the heart beat? — To circulate the blood
Why religion? — To strengthen social cohesion
Why do oranges have slices and chocolate bars have squares? — So they can be more easily divided among children.
The atom is like the solar system
— Intentional explanations, S. Motives: “He killed to steal”.
— Interpretive explanation; when it comes to an obscure text, the explanation provided is an interpretation@ of the text.
The specific conceptual structure of explanatory discourse in science depends on the definitions and operations governing the field considered: one can explain in history, in linguistics, in physics, in mathematics. As it relies upon a less known / better known differential, explanation also depends on the previous knowledge of the person to whom it is addressed. A good explanation must “reach home”; the explanation provided to someone having no knowledge of the given field, will not be the same as that given in a research paper in that same field.
2. Ordinary explanations
1.1 Explain: The word and its usages
The actors of the verb to explain are human (S1, S2 …). Explanatory discourse connects the explanandum to a possible explanans.
— Explanation typically bears upon an external phenomenon which one wishes to better understand:
In “S1 explains M to S2” the explanation is a conceptual interactional sequence.
In “E explains M”, the explanation is phrased as an objective conceptual monologue, containing no reference to an interactive event.
— S1 can summon another person S2 to explain his or her (= S2‘s) behavior. Then, S1 wants to clarify an interpersonal misunderstanding, or something that could be taken as an offense O, committed by S2 against S1:
You owe me an explanation! (1)
The so-called “explanation” required is actually a justification. (1) constitutes a rather threatening opening, said in an angry tone, and anticipating an animated, even violent discussion. The “explanatory” interaction to follow will probably be an argument2 (S. Argument – Conclusion), made with the aim of either restoring the relationship between the two individuals, or redefining it.
In everyday usage, the word explanation refers to segments of speech or to interactive sequences opened by a speaker who:
— does not understand:
“(Explain to me) what does ‘zoon politikon’ mean?”: Arequest for a definition, a paraphrase, a translation or an interpretation.
“(Explain to me) what really happened?”: A request for a convincing narrative.
“(Explain to me) why does the shape of the moon change?”: A request for a theory, diagrams and images.
— does not know how to do something:
“(Explain to me) how does it works?”: A request for directions for use, a leaflet, a manual, a practical demonstration.
The structure of the explanation provided will be as diverse as the kind of activity involved.
The question of the unicity of the concept of explanation thus arises, as well as that of the varieties of interactional explanatory discourses. At the most general level, the need for explanation comes from the feeling of surprise (novelty, anomaly) before something astonishing. Any answer that can satisfy this astonishment and rid the speaker of any sense of surprise may be considered to be a satisfactory explanation.
1.2 In ethnomethodology
Ethnomethodology (Garfinkel 1967) attaches central importance to accounts in everyday interactions, that is to ordinary explanations, justifications or good reasons given by the participant in regard to the meaning of what they are doing and expecting. Accounts are given at two levels; firstly, as explicit explanations “in which social actors give an explanation for what they are doing in terms of reasons, motives or causes” (Heritage 1987, p. 26). Secondly, implicit accounts are provided as explanations inscribed in the ongoing flow of actions and social interactions (ibid.). Such implicit accounts are intended to ensure the mutual intelligibility of “what is going on”, on the basis of action scripts, social expectations or practical moral standards. These explanations are said to be situated, i.e., context bound.
When it comes to conversation, explicit explanations often manifest themselves as repairs, when an initial turn is followed by a non-preferred sequence, for example if an invitation is rejected, the refusal will often be accompanied by a justification: “I’m afraid I can’t come with you, I have to work”. This kind of explanation or reason is required in view of a social norm, as can be seen in the conflictive turn taken by the interaction when explanations are not provided (Pomerantz 1984).
1.3 Explanatory sequences
Beyond the question “why are things so?”, the quest for an explanation is defined as a cognitive, linguistic, interactional activity, triggered by the feeling or expression of doubt, ignorance, by a disturbance in the normal course of action, or a mere “mental discomfort” (Wittgenstein 1974, p. 26). Explanations seek to satisfy such a cognitive need, to appease doubt and so produce a sense of understanding and (inter)comprehension.
The explanatory interaction between an “explainer” and an “explainee” can be schematized as a succession of stages. The first stage is a demand for an explanation addressed to an explainer by an explainee, and the last one a ratification of the explanation by the explainee:
Ee has a curiosity, a doubt, concern, a mental block … about M.
Ee looks for an explanation from Er
Er provides an explanation
Ee ratifies this explanation, or not.
According to this scheme, the explanation is an answer to a request. As an epistemic-interactional act, an explanation is satisfactory if it appeases Ee’s “mental discomfort”. This means that, if not based upon Ee’s interrogations, the most sophisticated and true explanation, will be satisfactory, at best, for the explainer Er.
3. Explanation and argumentation
3.1 Explanation and justificatory argumentation
Explanations are on the side of the justificatory arguments, S. Justification:
— Explanation and argumentation both originate in a state of doubt about a statement which does not fit with the individual’s stock of beliefs and knowledge.
— Explanation and argumentation develop from an interrogation.
— Both are connecting processes which develop a given stock of beliefs. Explanation integrates an unquestionable fact, the explanandum into the explanans system. Deliberative argumentation develops arguments taken in this stock of beliefs towards a conclusion, which will be integrated in this same stock of beliefs. Justificatory argumentation integrates a challenged known fact into an established coherent system of representation.
In deliberative argumentation, the argument is given as assured, doubt is attached to the consequent, the conclusion. In justificatory argumentation, the search for argument goes the opposite way:
My client is entirely innocent, how can I prove / explain this to the jury?
as in explanation, where the explanandum is an established fact, and the explanans must be identified:
No doubt, the face of the moon change; how can I make sense of that?
3.2 Explanation as argumentative move
The opposition between argumentation and explanation may have an argumentative import. Explanation projects unequal interaction roles: the explainee is the ignorant profane in a low position, whilst the explainer is the expert in a high position. In argumentative situations, the roles of proponent and opponent are more equal; one “explains something to somebody” vs. “argues with or against somebody about something”.
The question “why?”, which typically introduces a request for explanation, may also be used to call into question an opinion or a behavior. In the latter case, it opens an argumentative, egalitarian, discussion. But the recipient of this question may re-frame the argumentative situation as an explanatory situation, “Wait, let me explain!”, whereby the relations becomes asymmetric, the explainer trying to have the upper hand over the explainee.