The idea and practice of explication is rooted in the verb to explicate, which concerns the process of "unfolding" and of "making clear" the meaning of things, so as to make the implicit explicit. The expression "explication" is used in both analytic philosophy and literary theory.

Carnap's notion of explication


Explication can be regarded as a scientific process which transforms and replaces "an inexact prescientific concept" (which Carnap calls the explicandum), with a "new exact concept" (which he calls the explicatum). An extended document, like an essay or thesis which describes and explains the new explicit knowledge, is usually called an "Explication". But an explication may also be contained and expressed in shorter formats, such as in paragraphs and sentences, which are deliberately drafted to emphasise the nature and impact of new explicit knowledge which draws on, and are improvements upon, previous knowledge.

On explication and truth

An explication in the Carnapian sense is purely stipulative, and thus a subclass of normative definitions. Hence, an explication can not be true or false, just more or less suitable for its purpose.(Cf. Rorty's argument about the purpose and value of philosophy in Rorty,(2003), “A pragmatist view of contemporary analytic philosophy”, in Egginton, W. and Sandbothe, M. (Eds), The Pragmatic Turn in Philosophy, Suny Press, New York, NY.)

Examples of inexact daily life concepts in need of explication are our concepts of cause and of conditionals. Our daily life concept of cause does not distinguish between necessary causes, sufficient causes, complete causes etc. Each of these more precise concepts is an explication of our natural concept of cause.

Natural language will only specify truth conditions for propositions of the form "If p, then q" for situations where "p" is true. (Most of us probably don't have any clear intuitions regarding the truth conditions of the sentence "If I go out in the sun, I will get sunburned" in situations where I never go out in the sun.) An explication of the conditional will also specify truth conditions for situations where "p" is not true.

Reviews of Carnap's argument

Carnap's argument provides a helpful foundation in understanding and clarifying the nature and value of explication in defining and describing "new" knowledge.

Others' reviews of Carnap's argument offer additional insights about the nature of explication. In particular, Bonolio's paper (2003) "Kant’s Explication and Carnap’s Explication: The Redde Rationem", and Maher's (2007) "Explication defended", add weight to the argument that explication is an appropriate methodology for formal philosophy.

Explication as a process versus explication as an outcome

When working with explication, it is essential to be clear, and to make clear whether you are dealing with the explication process (and hence working with the verb or gerund), or dealing with the outcomes of the process, such as a work which documents, describes and explains the new explicit knowledge.

Explication as an interpretative process

Based on the etymology of the word explication, studies using explication, and extended argumentation we can deduce that explication in the arts, humanities and social sciences is largely an interpretative process where the outcomes - the new explicit knowledge - is open to subsequent dispute, with the possibility of additional and/or different meanings being derived in the future.

On this argument, new explicit knowledge is therefore contingent and context specific. New explicit knowledge is also informed by the explicant's competence in dealing with the explication process, plus an ethical concern that the outcomes (i.e. the new explicit knowledge) can be considered to be an improvement and "true" (i.e. not yet disaffirmed). (cf. Harrison, 2006).

Explication, explication de texte, and literary criticism

The terms 'Explication' and 'Explication de texte' have different meanings.

As argued by Carnap (1950), in science and philosophy, "explication consists in transforming a given more or less inexact concept into an exact one or, rather, in replacing the first by the second. We call the given concept (or the term used for it) the explicandum, and the exact concept proposed to take the place of the first (or the term proposed for it) the explicatum. The explicandum may belong to everyday language or to a previous stage in the development of scientific language. The explicatum must be given by explicit rules for its use, for example, by a definition which incorporates it into a well-constructed system of scientific either logicomathematical or empirical concepts."

In this context, 'explication' is now regarded as "an appropriate methodology for formal philosophy". (Maher, 2007).

By contrast, in literary criticism, the term 'explication' is used as a proxy for the term explication de texte, where additional understandings and meanings are derived from the "close reading" of (say) a poem, novel or play.

In this process, explication often involves a line-by-line or episode-by-episode commentary on what is going on in a text. While initially this might seem reasonably innocuous, explication de texte, and explication per se, is an interpretative process where the resulting new knowledge, new insights or new meanings, are open to subsequent debate and disaffirmation by others.

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