explanation

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explanation

Any account in which an occurrence or general phenomenon is made intelligible by identification of its CAUSE, nature, interrelations, etc. In more formal terms, the occurrence or phenomenon explained is the explanandum, the explanatory account, the explanans, which, in physical science, will usually involve SCIENTIFIC LAWS, EXPLANATORY THEORIES, etc, but in the social sciences may also involve actors’ meanings, REASONS, and so on. Thus in sociology, explanation may take any one of a number of forms (which are not necessarily always mutually exclusive):
  1. causal explanation, which may embrace various types of explanation, but in its most basic form involves the identification of an immediate precipitating cause or causes of a particular occurrence, e.g. the cause of a fire identified as the dropping of a cigarette. In their more limited forms, causal explanations usually involve numerous unstated background assumptions about physical laws, etc. (see also CAUSALITY AND CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP);
  2. deductive explanation, in which an explanandum is deduced, i.e. follows logically from established generalizations of general laws (see HYPOTHETIC-DEDUCTIVE EXPLANATION, VERSTEHEN, INTERPRETATIVE SOCIOLOGY, COVERING-LAW MODEL AND DEDUCTIVE NOMOLOGICAL EXPLANATION, FORMAL THEORY;
  3. probablistic explanation, in which a specifiable probability (a chance of less than 100% and more than 0%, i.e. in probability theory a chance less than 1 and greater than 0) is taken as explaining the occurrence of an event, e.g. the appearance of breast cancer in a woman whose mother and sisters have already had the disease. Strictly speaking, rather than explaining a single event, probability explanations relate to the likelihood of a particular distribution of occurrences in an infinite series of events. On their own they are usually seen as unsatisfactory as explanations, at least until further background factors explaining the probabilities are also identified, e.g. in the case of breast cancer, the discovery of genetic predispositions, etc.)
  4. ‘meaningful’ and ‘purposive’ explanations, in which actors’ meanings and/or desires, reasons, intentions, purposes, etc, explain an event or a social situation (see MEANINGFUL UNDERSTANDING AND MEANINGFUL EXPLANATION, PURPOSIVE EXPLANATION);
  5. functional(ist) explanations, in which the ‘functional requirements’ of systems explain outcomes (see FUNCTIONAL(IST) EXPLANATION);
  6. evolutionary or ecological explanations, which explain the persistence of natural species, types of social system, etc, in terms of their selection by and adaptation to an external environment (see EVOLUTIONARY THEORY);
  7. teleological explanations (see also TELEOLOGY), in which purposes, goals, or system end-states, rather than antecedent causes, are seen as decisive. Such explanations may be made with reference to human or animal purposes, to the needs and goals of human societies, or to the more arcane operation of processes such as ‘world spirit’ (as for HEGEL) or human destiny. Functional explanation in many of its sociological forms also involves teleological explanation, although, in this case, recourse to such explanation is not always regarded as incompatible in principle with a reduction to antecedent causes.
References in classic literature ?
I have promised you an explanation of my conduct," she said, in accents that trembled a little in spite of herself.
Another fact of which he became convinced, after reading many scientific books, was that the men who shared his views had no other construction to put on them, and that they gave no explanation of the questions which he felt he could not live without answering, but simply ignored their existence and attempted to explain other questions of no possible interest to him, such as the evolution of organisms, the materialistic theory of consciousness, and so forth.
Vanstone's character which Miss Garth, after many years of intimate experience, had never detected, she accepted the explanation as a matter of course; receiving it all the more readily inasmuch as it might, without impropriety, be communicated in substance to appease the irritated curiosity of the two young ladies.
I must confess that this puerile explanation gave me great pleasure.
He had stopped in London on his way from Hampshire, had seen his solicitor, had read the documents forwarded by me, and had travelled on to Cumberland, anxious to satisfy our minds by the speediest and the fullest explanation that words could convey.
For example, I might give you what they call the rational explanation, to begin with.
But at college I discovered evolution and psychology, and learned the explanation of various strange mental states and experiences.
There is a sort of ridiculous delicacy about him which requires the fullest explanation of whatever he may have heard to my disadvantage, and is never satisfied till he thinks he has ascertained the beginning and end of everything.
Hem's theory, in so far as it professes to be an adequate explanation of "mysterious disappearances," is open to many obvious objections; to fewer as he states it himself in the "spacious volubility" of his book.
Chateau-Renaud was at his post; apprised by Beauchamp of the circumstances, he required no explanation from Albert.
My father had often, during my imprisonment, heard me make the same assertion; when I thus accused myself, he sometimes seemed to desire an explanation, and at others he appeared to consider it as the offspring of delirium, and that, during my illness, some idea of this kind had presented itself to my imagination, the remembrance of which I preserved in my convalescence.
Where was the explanation of her incomprehensible apathy when my name was twice pronounced in her hearing?