Explanation vs. Description


The later Wittgenstein is known for his reinforcement of the distinction between explanation and description.  The latter is what philosophers (of language) need to do, w hile it is the former that has caused so many paradoxes and logical inconsistencies.

 He indicates that philosophy is a sort of therapy, one that consists in describing the ways in which it is possible to use this or that word, where this or that word is the cause of some philosophical difficulty; that is, because of two or more seemingly paradoxical meanings associated with it.

 Philosophy is the therapy that gets us out of bewilderment about our linguistic confusions.  Description, not explanation, is the tool with which philosophers can dissolve, rather than solve, epistemological and ontological puzzles.

 That said, what exactly is the difference between an explanation and a description?  Wittgenstein’s use of the term “description” seems to rely on the sense of description as an activity more fluid, less rigid, more observational and more descriptive than explanation.  Whereas explanation might rely on explicit rules, or governed by standards of use, description shows us how the rules can be bent, or how a new use for a concept can express itself. 

I have struggled with this for some time, but that is my current line of thought.  Description seems theoretically innocent, merely observational for the sake of looking…explanation seems rigid, logical, rule-bound and systematic.  The former opens the possibility of examing the meaning of a term in a new way, whereas the latter considers all such instances to be merely anomalous. 

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10 thoughts on “Explanation vs. Description

  1. Is there any explanation/description of why Wittgenstein expects that description is the proper tool to ease our philosophical anxieties? If I understand you and Wittgenstein, the idea is that description can show us where our rules and logical conceptions fail to match the phenomena (which touches on a theme in Mark Wilson’s excellent Wandering Significance). It seems like there could be timese when rule-bound explanation is what is needed to ease our puzzlement about something, especially if the rules get things more or less right. Any thoughts?

  2. It just occurred to me, right after I hit post, that Wilfrid Sellars, who is Wittgensteinian in his own way, also uses the explanation/description distinction. I thnk his use is slightly different than Wittgenstein’s as he thinks they are two sides of the same coin, to use his phrase. I think he talks about that some either in his “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man” or “Counterfactuals, Dispositions, and the Causal Modalities”.

  3. Shawn,

    You might be on the right track. Certainly, I would agree with “the idea is that description can show us where our rules and logical conceptions fail to match the phenomena”–at the very least, what that means is consistent with the position I tried to explain (no pun intended).

    Wittgenstein frequently makes references to philosophy as a sort of therapy, so the sense of description has to be more or less akin to that: the sort of talk that goes on during therapy sessions is not rule-bound in the same way that a rule-bound logical or empirical explanation may be. I think in distinguishing between explanation and description–the latter being a sort of therapy–Wittgenstein was attempting to make an analogy between rationalization/justification and coming to terms with your (our) philosophical doubt about logical and/or semantic necessity.

    I’m going to write more on this later, because I think it deserves more attention than I’ve given it (or perhaps deserves a new way of attending to it)

    And please accept my apologies for failing to respond in a reasonable amount of time, I’ve been in Boston trying to find an apartment–I found one, so I won’t be homeless next semester for the start of graduate school–but I should be more active again within the next few weeks when I get settled in.

    Thanks for your input though, I really really do appreciate it.

  4. This I think is a little off. What he meant was more of a basic extension of what the very words themselves actually mean.

    Description: a statement, picture in words, or account that describes; descriptive representation.

    Explanation: something that explains; a statement made to clarify something and make it understandable; exposition: an explanation of a poem.

    Description is simply that, a statement of facts, of what precisely happens. An explanation is a farther reaching attempt that ultimately must revert back to our core fascination with “Why?” We wish to know more about the reason behind what is happening.

    For a very basic example let’s take the Washington DC area sniper. The description would be: “Two men began to snipe people secretively and at random, and the details are as follows…” The explanation would be an in depth psychoanalysis of their motivations and what led to them.

    But what is especially interesting about the dichotomy I think and as Wittgenstein put it is that all explanation becomes description if we merely know the physicality… that is, religion and “magic” are explanations because they are rationalizations we use when we don’t have a full description. Ultimately, explaining the psychology behind the snipers is actually just another description, it’s just that because of the position we are in, that is, not having the ability to measure precisely which chemical-mental processes led to their actions, we must rely on an “explanation.”

    I hope I’m fairly clear.

    Einstein described the energy mass equivalency theory. What he could not do was tell us at the very core what the ramifications are. It is inherent in us to ask “Why?” and even “How? What is doing this?” Clearly, Einstein hit upon a truth inherent in the universe: when atoms are split this will cause a chain reaction. What more could he tell us? All he could do is describe the physical truth of the situation.

  5. Description refers to “What or when?”
    Explanation refers to “Why or how?”

    If one attempts to ‘explain’ “why or how” birds fly, by declaring that they fly because they have wings, one has created a logical non-sequitur by offering a descriptive answer to an exploratory question. Descriptions are often used as easy outs to explanatory queries.

  6. The work of linguist Martin Haspelmath is partially focused on showing the difference between explanation and description (or, at least, in succeeds in doing so) in linguistic theory in particular and any kind of inquiry to which one can apply those concepts.

    Like some people have said, description pertains to the laying out of the facts (or assumptions) that one observes, by any means possible. This makes possible that in many cases different theories about the same object co-exist without contradicting each other. They are just different ways of describing the same thing, and sometimes they are laid out in a certain manner because that’s the one which is convenient to their proponents.

    Explanation, on the other hand, aims at actually finding out how (not necessarily why) something is like it is: the nature of things; how things work.

    Sometimes, it may seem that a theory is both descriptive and explanatory, when, in fact, it completely lacks explanation. Being consistent with the facts is not enough. For example, any kind of reasoning or theory that is proven to be circular, no matter how many rules or how sound is the logic it wields, necessarily lacks explanatory power.

    1. “any kind of reasoning or theory that is proven to be circular, no matter how many rules or how sound is the logic it wields, necessarily lacks explanatory power”.

      True enough if you limit yourself to two-dimensional descriptions; but mostly a falsifying half-truth when you expand into the third dimension: spirals describe circles but advance explanations forward and backward through time and space.

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