|| intro || 1
|| 2 || 3
|| 4 || 5
|| 6 || 7
|| 8 || 9
|| 10 || Epil
Description to Explanation
Now the principal technique in effecting the transition from
description to explanation is measurement.1
(1) In the context of geometry, (a) Describe a point. (b)
Describe a line. (c) Describe a circle.
(2) In the context of geometry, (a) Define a point. (b)
Define a line. (c) Define a circle.
(3) John thinks that the tea is too hot; Mike thinks the same
tea is too cold. Is the tea really hot or cold?
(4) To person of sound common sense the table is brown,
solid, smooth and stable. As a scientist Eddington declared that the same table
is composed mainly of empty space, with a few tiny particles, moving at great
speed; that it has no color and is extremely uneven. Which is the real table?
(5) John says, "The sun rises in the East and sets in
the West." Mike says, "The sun is not moving." Is there a
contradiction between these two statements? 
We identified three stages of meaning in our opening chapter,
common sense, theory and interiority, without giving a precise analysis of
common sense and theory. It is now time to focus on this distinction which
hinges on two diverse kinds of insights, namely, those of description and those
of explanation.2 We continue our
program of self-appropriation in searching for a precise meaning to these
commonly used terms. We have already identified the basic act of understanding
and its five characteristics; now we expand our familiarity with understanding
in appropriating two different spheres of knowing, describing and explaining. We
will start with a history of attempts to get this distinction right; most of
them failed. Through examples drawn from our own experience we will establish
that there are two kinds of insights: those that relate things to us and those
that relate things to one another. We will need to define these clearly and
precisely as they have a universal relevance. This proves to be very fruitful
and many apparent contradictions, confusions and paradoxes disappear in the
light of this distinction.
1. Historical Background
Plato was very perturbed by the fact that a wind, which is
judged chilly by one person, can at the same time be judged warm by another (Theaetetus
152ff). The same problem arises with things, which are large to some and small
to others, heavy to some and light to others, sour to some and sweet to others.
Plato feared that this would prove that Protagoras was right in saying, 'Man is
the measure of all things alike of the being of things that are and of the
non-being of things that are not.' Is knowledge relative to the perceiver? To
admit that would be to surrender to the Sophists.3
Plato was deeply convinced that there is knowledge which is not relative to the
observer. But how was he to cope with the above examples? Plato seems to have
given his answer in the analogy of the divided line and of the cave in the Republic.
The divided line says that there are two kinds of knowledge:
sense knowledge (doxa) subdivided into opinion and belief, and
intellectual knowledge (episteme) subdivided into knowledge of the Forms
and of the mathematicals. Intellectual knowledge is real knowledge of things
that do not change, of what is, and is infallible. Sense knowledge is of the
changing and so is not really knowledge. The same message is driven home in the
metaphor of the cave.  Sense knowledge is the kind of knowledge that the
prisoners have of the shadows on the wall and the statues casting the shadows.
The prisoners have intellectual knowledge when they come to the entrance to the
cave and see individual real things and the sun as the source of light.
Plato cannot consider knowledge, which is relative to an
observer and changes, to be true knowledge. Knowledge of warmth, sweetness,
weight, size, as in the above examples, would be classified as sense knowledge
and distrusted by him as knowledge of shadows of imitations. In contrast, by way
of intellectual knowledge we know the Forms that are permanent and unchanging.
He seems to have surrendered the field of sense knowledge to the Sophists in
order to hold on to real knowledge of the permanent realities in intellectual
Galileo, Descartes and Newton were confronted with much the
same problem in their efforts to understand the world in the language of science
and mathematics. There were some aspects of nature that could be measured and
subsumed under laws but there were also aspects which seemed to depend on the
perceiver and which could not be measured. It was thought that some aspects of
reality resemble the ideas that we have of them, and that the qualities we
perceive belong to the object in reality as well as to the perceiver. For other
aspects of reality there was thought to be no resemblance between what is in
reality and what is in the perceiver; the real thing only has the power to
produce these sensations in us. John Locke formulated this distinction
explicitly in terms of primary and secondary qualities.4
Primary qualities are those qualities of a body which
really belong to the body and cause our ideas of that body and our ideas really
resemble that body. There are five primary qualities, extension (size), figure
(shape), motion (or rest), number and solidity. These qualities are inseparable
from the matter and are found in every part of it. If you subdivide a quantity
of gold, the primary qualities will still belong to each and every one of the
smallest parts. Significantly, the primary qualities can easily be  measured
and so it was claimed that they were 'objective' and belonged to science. It can
also be noted that primary qualities are usually perceived by more than one
Secondary qualities are perceived qualities like color,
taste, smell, sound, warmth or cold, etc. They are causes of our perception of
them but the ideas in our mind do not resemble the qualities of the bodies in
reality. Secondary qualities are not true qualities of matter but merely powers
in the objects to produce sensory effects in us. Secondary qualities can be
influenced by the conditions of the sense organs, health or sickness of the
perceiver, conditions of lighting, etc. If you have three bowls of water, one
hot, one medium, and one cold, and you put one hand in the hot and one in the
cold; if after a few moments you plunge both hands into the medium, it will feel
both hot and cold at the same time. Hence, heat cannot be an intrinsic quality
of things because our perception of it varies so much. It would be the same with
different perceptions of the color of a pond, which depend on conditions of
lighting and the angle of perception. It is difficult to measure secondary
qualities, as they are often the object of one sense only. Hence, Locke
concluded, these secondary qualities are not real and do not belong to bodies
and are to be excluded from science. For a slightly different reason then Plato,
Locke claimed that we cannot have reliable knowledge of such qualities as
sweetness, warmth, feel, etc.
Locke's distinction does not seem to hit the mark. Primary
qualities are also subject to great variations depending on the view of the
perceiver; for example, bodies which are close will seem to be large and those
far away seem to be small. Secondary qualities can often in fact be measured
(e.g. heat by a thermometer) and do play a part in science. There are
difficulties to this distinction that he did not face. But the main problem lies
not so much in the definitions but in how he asked the question: can you compare
what is in reality with what is in your mind? How can you say that they are the
same or different?
This kind of thinking lasted in the scientific community up
to the beginning of the 20th century, when Eddington presented his dilemma of
the two tables.5 By that time science
had shown that atoms were mostly empty space and that the particles were 
constantly moving. The table of the scientist is mostly empty space, with a few
particles whizzing around at enormous speeds and it has no color. But the table
of common sense is very solid, is certainly not moving and is very clearly
brown. Which is the real table? How do you resolve the apparent contradiction?
Following the tradition inherited from Locke and others, Eddington had to hold
that the scientific table was real and that the table of common sense was merely
an illusion. We are not so sure.
This confusion throughout history continues to the present
day. Our solution is to investigate the mental operations we perform when we are
describing and then the mental operations we perform when we are explaining. If
we keep closely in touch with real examples we will be able to grasp how our
perspective shifts when we move from describing to explaining. We discover that
both are valid forms of knowing with their own advantages and disadvantages.
We do not seem to have much difficulty in describing things.
When asked to describe a point, students will usually suggest words like, a dot,
a mark, a spot, a small stain, a little dot, etc. A line will usually be
described in terms of a path, a long mark, a series of dots very close together,
an infinite series of dots, etc. A circle can be described as a round ball or an
even wheel or a regular curve. Even more easily we can describe trees, tables,
landscapes, objects. Clearly, we have little difficulty describing, but what
exactly are we doing when we are describing?
Our definition of the activity of describing is that we are
'relating things to ourselves.' We are assuming that we are the center and that
things are to be related to us. We are saying how it seems to us, how it appears
from our perspective. We do this via the senses and so descriptive knowledge is
dominated by how we see things, hear them, feel, taste, and smell them. To
describe a table is to say what it looks like to us, how it feels, smells, seems
to us. To describe a point or a line will be to say what it looks like to us;
what image can best be used to describe it. To describe the heavenly bodies is
to say how  they seem to be moving from our point of view assuming that they
are moving relative to us.
The most obvious thing about description is that it is
relative to us. The point of reference is presumed to be ourselves. Terms like
right/left, up/down, there/here, now/later, all presume ourselves as the term of
reference. But they may be different for another observer because he is relating
things to his own position. So, descriptions will relate to the point of
reference of the observer. Consequently, ordinary descriptive knowledge will be
ambiguous and approximate. 'I have a terrible fever,' approximately describes
your problem but doctors will usually treat this with a little skepticism and
check with a thermometer. 'There was a huge crowd at the demonstration;' well,
that assessment may depend on whether you are for the cause or against it. It is
rarely that a chemistry book tells you to add some concentrated acid, simmer for
a while, mix a pinch of this with a little of that. When we use works like
large, heavy, warm, many, bright, far, fast, soon, sweet, easy, we are usually
using descriptive terminology. Even though we may have a fair idea of what we
mean by those terms, there is no guarantee that another person will have exactly
the same idea.
Descriptive knowledge forms the bulk of the common sense of
mankind. Common sense is a specialization of intelligence relating to the
practical, the particular, and the short-term. It is genuine knowledge but it is
largely descriptive. It is very practical and eschews theoretical
considerations. It is short-term and prefers immediate results to the long-term
expectations of a better course of action. Common sense is related to the
particular place and time and the fund of conventional wisdom that has been
built up by the community as to how things are done, how one is to behave,
dress, relax, play, etc. Because it is relative to time and place, there are
many different brands of common sense.
Description is where all our knowledge begins. The child is
incurably egocentric and has to relate everything to itself. Even when
intelligence has emerged, the sensible still predominates. Traditional cultures
like the early Greeks were predominantly descriptive; all cultures must begin at
that level. Hence confusion over meaning - magic and religion, art and science,
poetry and  philosophy - was inevitable at that stage. Most of the empirical
sciences begin by describing the materials that they study.
So far we have emphasized the limitations and relativity of
descriptive knowing; now we must insist that describing does involve acts of
understanding and that descriptions can be either correct or incorrect. Insights
are involved because you are expressing yourself in words. Seeing red is an
experience; animals can see red; but distinguishing and naming red, blue,
purple, etc. is a work of intelligence and has to be learned. To describe the
movements of the heavenly bodies involves recognizing the meaning of words,
being able to distinguish different shapes and sizes and colors, being able to
discern and to compare movements. To describe involves being able to classify
things according to their sensible similarities and dissimilarities; discerning
which qualities are significant and which are not. Data is given in experience;
facts are judgments passed through correct understanding.
Descriptions, despite their limitations, can be labeled
correct or incorrect. If you are observing the movements of the heavenly bodies
and one person says the stars are not moving, another says they are moving at
random, and another that they are moving from East to West, then, there is a
problem. There comes a point when descriptions have to agree. If serious
discrepancies occur then we have to look for the source of misunderstanding: are
we looking at the same thing; what do we mean by movement; do we include
movements which can only be detected after hours of observation, etc.
Discrepancies are usually resolved when we look again, more carefully, more
intelligently, more systematically. If two witnesses in court give quite
different accounts of one event, there comes a point when we can correctly
conclude that one of them must be lying.
But as well as ordinary description there is also scientific
description, i.e. description as it prepares the way for explanation;
description as it is controlled and guided by theoretical intelligence. Here
description can become very sophisticated and refined. Looking at the heavenly
bodies with the naked eye means that your observations are going to be very
approximate and of little value. But as a person advances in the science of
astronomy, refines his  techniques of measuring, begins to use
sophisticated telescopes, and directs his attention by way of theory to search
for something specific, then he is using scientific description. It is still
description because he is still reporting what he sees and how it appears to
him, but it is no longer vague and approximate.
The sciences begin with descriptions, how things relate to
us, in order to move on to explanation. Sciences begin with classifications
based on sensible similarities in order to go on to defining things according to
their intelligible relations. Botany will start with descriptions of plants,
their color, size, shape, etc. in order to go on to define the species in terms
of the functions of different systems in relation to the whole; the relation of
this species to other species in an evolutionary model.
Turning back to Plato for a moment, we can sympathize with
him in the problem of different perceptions of warmth, sweetness, size,
distance, etc. At the level of ordinary descriptive knowledge there is no final
resolution to this ambiguity and disagreement. Because descriptive knowledge is
relative to the perceiver, the element of relativity cannot be overcome. Plato
solved his problem by discarding this kind of knowledge as intrinsically flawed
and not real knowledge. We would incline to the opinion that it is true
knowledge even though it is only descriptive. To escape from the relativity of
descriptive knowing we have to shift our perspective, prescind from the observer
and jump to explanation. Plato asked the question, is the wind really cold? is
the food really sweet? His answer was to escape into a noetic heaven where pure
coldness, sweetness, oneness, being, etc. existed perfectly and permanently. We
can ask the same question but find the answer in a slightly different direction.
We accept the limitations of descriptive knowledge but seek a way to escape the
relativity of this kind of knowing and get something which is more accurate,
objective and permanent.
To explain things is 'to relate things to one another,' to
prescind from the observer's point of view to the extent that that is possible.
 This usually involves a shift to a technical language, definition and
often measurement. It is a shift to a theoretical point of view, which will
eventually return to the concrete by way of verification. It enables tremendous
precision to be reached in measurement and calculation, as well as in the use of
technical terms and definition. There seem to be two principal ways to move into
an explanatory framework, by way of measurement or by way of definition; we will
consider them in turn. Our concern is still the identification of different
kinds of insight as they actually occur in our own thinking and knowing.
The technique of explanatory measurement was discovered by
ancient civilizations when descriptive categories proved to be inadequate. You
could hardly build the pyramids on the basis of 'big stones', 'long ropes',
'slanting', etc. Nor was it easy to divide out equal plots of land as a reward
for the soldiers on the basis of 'large', 'small', 'pretty large', etc. Nor
could you anticipate much progress in astronomy if you were confined to
descriptive language such as ‘over there’, 'up there', 'far away', etc.
The basic breakthrough was to adopt a standard length then
line up the object and see how many times the standard measure measures it off.
This is one basic example of relating things to one another. Instead of relating
things to individual perception of size, you have a standard measure on which
everybody is agreed. If you wish to compare two distances, since lining them up
might be difficult, measure each of them in terms of the standard and then
compare the measurements. Simple arithmetic can, then, be used to divide a field
into five equal sections, to determine how many blocks of what size would be
needed for a pyramid of a determinate size, to discover how long it would take
to complete various journeys. Geometry can also be utilized in the calculation
of areas of fields of different shapes, and extended to capacities and volumes
Early standards were rather loosely defined and usually based
on human dimensions; the cubit was a measure from the elbow to the tip of the
index finger, about 18 inches; a span was the span of the  hand, about 8
inches; a foot was the length of a foot, approximately 12 inches; a hand was the
width of the palm, about three inches. Small variations did not matter much in
those days but in more modern times it became necessary to define standards more
accurately. So we have the preservation of the standards of the yard and the
meter, which are generally accepted, recognized and used as the basis for all
calculations of length and distance.
The same technique can be used for weight. Adopting a
standard of reference by which to measure quantities of vegetables, or corn, by
weight was fundamental for the progress of trade and business; the difficulty
was to ensure that everybody recognized the standard and adhered to it. In
biblical and Greek times, people were aware of the danger of false weights which
could favor the trader. The Greeks did not develop this technique of
measurement, and were happier in the field of pure geometry and proportions. It
was the Scientific Revolution that was to exploit the possibilities of
explanatory measurement to the full.
There is an arbitrary cultural element involved in the choice
of the particular standard. Each early culture developed its own rudimentary
weights and measures. As they came in contact with other civilizations they had
to agree on standards if there was to be any trade and exchange between them.
Then you can have agreement and communication across cultures and over time
which will not be ambiguous or open to misinterpretation. In our day we are left
with yards and meters, miles and kilometers, pounds and kilos, which are a
result of historical struggles and choices. Either will do, as long as the same
standard is preserved, recognized, used and respected by everybody.
One further advantage of explanatory measuring is to be seen
in the precision that is possible in calculations. Once you have a standard it
can be subdivided into as many smaller units as you wish. Similarly, it can be
extended by multiplication to cover huge distances as far as the circumference
of the earth. With fractions and decimals and eventually calculus you can deal
with infinitely small areas and lengths. Now it is no longer a case of big,
small, pretty large, but one and a half inches, three miles, a half kilo, a half
gram. Distance and weight can be specified to any degree of accuracy that 
you wish. Provided that everybody is following the same standard, there is no
possibility of misinterpretation or ambiguity.
Once you have the basic standards of distance, weight, time
and angles then you can extend the technique by the use of scales. How do you
measure warmth? Is there a way of shifting to an explanatory framework? How can
you relate things to one another here? You discover that metals expand in a
regular manner with an increase in heat. You find a metal like mercury, which is
easy to handle, and note the way it expands and contracts depending on heating
or cooling. The trick now is to fix the scale at the top and the bottom. What
can we take as a standard or fixed point? Let us just assume that the freezing
point of water is zero and the boiling point of water is the other fixed point
on the scale. Divide the intervening degrees of heat into a hundred equal parts.
Now you have the centigrade thermometer; you are relating systematically the
expansion of the volume of mercury, with the increase or decrease in heat, and
the freezing point and boiling point of water are giving you your limits. You
are setting up a system of relating things to one another. Now it is possible to
specify in degrees the exact temperature of a patient; we have shifted from heat
as felt to temperature. The more accurate the instrument the more accurate can
the measurements of temperature become. We have shifted from describing how warm
I feel, to an explanatory concept of temperature. We have managed to prescind
from the observer and relate things to one another. Precision, accuracy and
communication are now possible.
The same happens in so many other fields where instruments
are constructed to relate different factors and to measure the differential by
means of a scale. A barometer measures air pressure in inches. Noise can be
measured in decibels. Water density, viscosity, torque, wavelength, intensity of
light, electricity, etc. can be measured using similar kinds of techniques. Part
of the development of modern science is the development of the sophistication of
techniques of measurement. It is the advance of applied technology, which makes
even more accurate systems of relating things to one another possible. We are
not interested in the details of this progress but in the simple principle that
these measurements are explanatory and  hinge on an insight that relates
things to one another and prescinds from the point of view of the observer.
Measurement is a technique of marking off, but it is guided
by concepts and definitions. The invariance of standards in scientific work
resides not in the physical bars or weights but in the invariance of laws and
concepts. All understanding involves some pivoting between the abstract and the
concrete; this becomes explicit in the field of explanation. Standards of
length, temperature, mass, specific gravity, the laws of motion, point, line and
circle are abstract concepts. Ideas emerge from images; concepts are formulated
ideas; in moving to an explanatory treatment of heat we move from feeling heat
to a concept of temperature; you cannot feel temperature, nor do you have an
image of temperature. We use the standards in measuring and understanding the
concrete reality of particular cases.
It may be surprising to realize that a yard or a meter is a
concept. But just as a circle is a concept to which concrete actual circles
approximate, so a yard is a concept to which various measures approximate. There
can be no perfect coincidence between the concrete and the abstract. The bar of
metal preserved at the same temperature and pressure is the closest the concrete
can come to the abstract concept of meter. But if you ask where is the precise
end of the bar, you realize there is a problem because the end of the bar is
uneven; even if it seems to be even to the naked eye, a microscope reveals that
concrete is always uneven. We will explore this more deeply when we deal with
When one moves from physics and chemistry to the biological
sciences and especially when one comes to the human sciences, measurement loses
its primacy. But that does not mean that these higher sciences cannot be
explanatory. The way to explanation in the higher sciences is largely the way of
explanatory definition, where the terms define the relations and the relations
define the terms. Measurement, standards, counting are not entirely replaced but
yield in importance to the power of explanatory definition. Let  us
consider nominal definition, descriptive definition, explanatory definition and
Nominal definition tells us of the correct use of names. It
is a genuine and important kind of insight as is illustrated clearly in the
dramatic example of Helen Keller. Her insight was simply into the relation of
the letters w a t e r with the sensible feeling of water flowing over her hand.
But it was a breakthrough. Most of our early learning is of the correct use of
words. Children are continually being corrected when they use the wrong word.
Nominal definition gives us an insight into the correct use of words, but it
does not give us an insight into the objects referred to. This can be a trap;
because we have a word to refer to the object we often presume that we know what
we are talking about. Nonetheless, nominal definition it is a first step in the
learning process and prepares the way for future progress.
In descriptive definition we define things in terms of their
relations to us. We classify things in terms of sensible similarities. They are
genuine insights but somewhat limited. Descriptive definitions prepare the way
for explanatory. Gradually classifications of things in terms of sensible
similarity give way to classifications based on their relations to one another.
A botany, which divided trees into those of the same size and color, would not
be very satisfactory. The principle of sensible similarity has to give way to
the principle of relating things together in an explanatory framework of
definitions and concepts and principles.
Explanatory definition goes beyond nominal definition in that
it includes knowledge of the object, as well as knowledge of the correct use of
terms. Explanatory definition goes beyond descriptive definition, because it
relates things to one another, rather than relating them to oneself. We have
noted how the descriptions of the point, line and circle are usually given in
terms of visual images, like dot, path, even round figure. How would we define
the same things in an explanatory definition?
Usually students with a little help will reach a definition
of a point as something like 'position without magnitude'. It does not have
size, magnitude, physical dimensions; it does have position, it is a place, a
point on a map or a diagram. Eventually, they will come  up with a
definition of a line as a distance between two points, which has length but no
breadth. But a difficulty arises when you ask, Can you see a point or a line? If
a point has no magnitude then it cannot be seen; if a line has only length then
similarly you should not be able to see it. But you cannot do geometry without
drawings of lines and points on the board in chalk. Lines and points as defined
are concepts. There is an intelligibility, a meaning, that is grasped in insight
and formulated in the definition yielding a concept. Images are products of
imagination and concepts are products of intelligence.
The definition of the circle presupposed the definition of
the point and the line, but grasps the necessary relation that all the radii be
equal and that one point be fixed and the other rotates. So you eventually reach
the definition as 'the locus of a point moving equidistant from a fixed point on
the same plane'. But this is a definition not a description. It is relating
things to one another in a necessary relation. It is an insight into the
necessity of the equality of the radii, of the fixed and moving point and of the
same plane. The problem recurs when you ask, Can you see a circle? A circle as
defined is a concept, a product of insight and conception; if you cannot see a
point or a line, then, similarly you cannot see a circle. Understanding grasps
the forms in the images; we use the images to get the insights. But explanatory
definitions go beyond the images to necessary relations between the terms.
Images play a different role in explanation than they do in description, as we
There is a logical conundrum, which is often brought up at
this point. To define one word you need a whole series of words to express the
definition. But logically it would seem that for clarity you would then need to
define individually each of these words. Then the words of those definitions
would need to be defined, and so on. Our answer to this is that insight comes
first, then expression and conception. A single insight can settle the meaning
of a cluster or circle of terms and relations. In the example of the circle,
there is a basic insight incorporating a cluster of terms and relations, such
that the terms fix the relations and the relations fix the terms and the insight
fixes both. The insight into the definition of the circle fixes the relation
between points and distances and lines in a necessary  way; at the same
time, that process also helps define the meaning of point, line and distance.
All the concepts are needed for the insight.
Hence, we can get some idea of the importance of system for
explanatory definition. It is often not possible to define one element
explanatorily in isolation from everything else, as Socrates found to his cost.
When you move into the context of explanatory definition, you usually move into
a system of terms and relations such that the relations fix the terms and the
terms fix the relations. The periodic table in chemistry is a typical process of
setting up such a system of terms and relations; arrange the known elements
according to their atomic weight; notice that they seem to fall into a pattern;
each element is defined in relation to the previous one, the next one and its
place in the pattern; it becomes so systematic that you could predict unknown
elements even though they had not yet been discovered.
Technical terminology is part of the process of moving from
description to explanation. In description terms are usually vague non-technical
and ex pressed in visual images or image language. ‘Form’ and ‘matter’
were words with a commonsense meaning in the time of Aristotle and he sometimes
used them in that way. But he also assigned a technical meaning to those words
and then they became part of his explanatory system. Sometimes new words have to
be invented for the new system but more commonly ordinary words are used and
assigned a technical meaning within a context of definitions and postulates. ‘Person’
and ‘nature’ were words, which were assigned a special meaning in the
history of theology by way of the doctrinal definitions of the creeds.
Explanation needs this shift to technical meaning because the definition does
assign a precise explanatory meaning to that use of the word.
Implicit definition is a special kind of explanatory
definition; it is explanatory definition without nominal definition. It is
characterized by extreme generality. Nominal definition ties down the use of
terms to certain images. But implicit definition concentrates on the purely
relational character of the terms. D. Hilbert's geometry is characterized by the
use of implicit definitions. For him the meaning of both point and straight line
is fixed by the relation that two and only two points determine a straight line.
This  definition fits Euclid’s definitions but it also fits the
coordinates and equations of coordinate geometry.
3.3 Verifiable and Non-verifiable Images
Let us examine more closely the role of images in description
and in explanation. When you describe something you are relating how it looks to
you, how you perceive it, hear it, touch, smell or taste it. You are relating
things to yourself by way of sensible properties. If there is a disagreement
with someone, then, you go back to the data and the images. You might have a
disagreement as to whether a certain star is twinkling, whether smoke from the
flame is black, gray, white, or a mixture; whether a flame makes a noise;
whether the heavenly bodies are moving. How do you solve such disagreements? You
look again more carefully, more attentively, more honestly. In description there
is always a sensible image and our description must be in conformity with the
image as sensed.
When you explain something you are relating things to one
another; you are setting up a framework of concepts; you are prescinding from
the observer and how it looks to you. Concepts are products of intelligence and
not of the imagination. Insight abstracts the forms from the images. At the
level of explanation there are no verifiable representative images. We can have
an image of warmth, but we do not have an image of temperature; we have an image
of weight but we have no image of mass. Theory, system, explanation, definition,
measurement go beyond the field of representative images, because by definition
they are relating things to one another.
On the other hand, we have already said that we cannot think
or know without images. So what do we do? In the field of explanation we
construct useful, heuristic, symbolic images to help us to think clearly and
make progress. Niels Bohr suggested a very successful image of the atom. He gave
us the picture of the atom with its nucleus of protons and neutrons at the
center with layers of electrons spinning round in fixed orbits much like the
planetary system. It was an image that embodied all that had been learned about
the atom up to that time; it suggested fruitful questions as to the relations
between the subatomic particles; it was helpful in studying the  relations
between elements and suggested possible explanations of how elements bond
together to form molecules. But it is not, and was not, what atoms look like in
reality. It is a constructed, symbolic, heuristic image. It is not verifiable as
an image. To verify an image you must have the corresponding sensation. To see
what atoms look like in reality, you must be able to see them. At the moment it
is not possible to see individual atoms; it may eventually be possible to
construct a microscope to produce a visual image of the atom. Bohr would not be
surprised if it did not look like his constructed image. Others might be
disappointed. The unfortunate thing is that we often confuse the constructed
symbolic images of explanation with representative verifiable images of
The same paradox recurs in the other sciences such as botany
and biology. You can describe a tree but can also define a tree. Most of us can
describe a tree but the botanist cannot be satisfied with description and must
move on to explanatory definition. The definition of a tree is to be found in
botany textbooks, where each species is classified in terms of their relation to
one another; in terms of structural and functional similarities and
dissimilarities with other plants; in terms of the chemical and physical
processes needed for the functioning of the tree. It is only the botanist who
can define the tree in terms of relations, systems, functions and correlations.
The description of the tree leads up to the definition. The tree, as defined,
cannot be imagined; there is no verifiable image of the tree as defined;
relations, functions, structures, systems, intelligibilities cannot be imagined.
We use various kinds of symbols to help us to think and the
more apt the symbol the better. Letters are symbols but some alphabetical
systems are more apt than others; the Egyptians had their hieroglyphics, the
Babylonians had theirs, the Hebrews had theirs; somehow our alphabet emerged as
the most flexible and appropriate. Numerals are symbols; the Egyptians had their
lines by which they counted; the Romans had their notation but it was very
cumbersome and was abandoned for our present system. Leibniz and Newton both
invented the calculus, but the symbolism of Leibniz was more suggestive and
helpful and was adopted. Letters  and numbers are constructed images and
can aid or hinder conceptual thinking.
There is an important principle here, which applies not only
to the atom but also to all of the explanatory sciences, including philosophy
and theology. Once you start creating technical terminology, defining and
explaining things as they relate to one another, then, you have left the field
of verifiable images and entered the field of constructed symbolic images.
Explanation prescinds from observers and therefore prescinds from observables
and from verifiable images.
Every scientific discipline moves from description into
explanation. The kind of thinking, imagining, verifying, is quite different in
the two realms of knowing. Endless confusion arises when these two realms are
not clearly distinguished. Scientists often confuse the verifiable images of
description with the unverifiable, symbolic images of explanation. Instead of
asking, What is it? They are often asking, What does it look like? Instead of
telling us what has been verified, they give us a picture of what scientific
reality looks like. We do need images to think but it should be intelligence
that is in control. If imagination takes control it tends to become the
criterion of what is real and we are back to picture thinking of description. We
tend to be more at home in the world of description and images. To move into the
world of theory, concepts, relating things to one another, verifiable relations,
demands an intellectual asceticism, which is difficult to sustain. Yet it is
clear that this distinction must be made and that it is of fundamental and
4. Description and Explanation
There is a continuity between description and explanation. It
is the same object, which is first described and, then, defined and verified. If
it were not so, then, description would not be preparing the way for
explanation. Describing the chemical elements prepares the way for their
definition in terms of atomic weight and empirically verified relations with
other elements. Biology starts with descriptions of the appearance of animals,
their sensible  similarities with other animals, descriptions of their
anatomy etc. to lead into explanation of where they fit in the evolutionary
tree, whether they are mammals, vertebrates, crustaceans, etc. Description is
the 'tweezers' which holds the sample until scientific explanation can be
brought to bear.
Description and explanation are complementary procedures.
They are both valid forms of human knowing. All you have to do to avoid
confusion is to continually add the proviso, from the point of view of
description, from the point of view of explanation. Does the sun rise in the
East and set in the West? From the viewpoint of description it is certainly
true. Any student who reports that he sees the sun rising in the West and
setting in the East needs to have his coordinates straightened out. Does that
mean that we disagree with Copernicus? No, because Copernicus is looking at the
solar system from the point of view of explanation. If we prescind from the
observer and relate the movements of the planets and the sun to one another,
then, you can state that the earth is rotating on its axis and revolving around
the sun. They are two different valid points of view. All we have to do to avoid
confusion is to be clear whether we are adopting a descriptive or explanatory
point of view. Nothing but confusion can and does ensue when these points of
view are not distinguished.
The explanatory view will have an effect back on our
description and our images. The common sense of the twentieth century is
different from the common sense of the seventeenth. The technical language of
the scientists has been popularized and become part of our culture. The big
bang, black holes, curved space, fission, fusion, genes, chromosomes, etc. is
part of the common language of the twentieth century. Within the context of
science they have an explanatory definition. In popular culture they are
interesting pictures, images, stories. In simple, traditional cultures it was
easy to think in terms of occult forces and properties that had a life and power
of their own; it was easy to think of the heavenly bodies as alive, as active,
as perfect, as Gods; that was the common sense of those times.
Now we are in a position to respond to the attempts of John
Locke, Immanuel Kant and others to formulate this distinction.  Locke used
the terms primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities were real and
belonged to science; secondary qualities were not real but merely apparent and
to be discarded. We drew our distinction between description and explanation on
a different basis. We drew it on the basis of our experience of two different
kinds of insight which we have identified in many examples and which ground two
different but related points of view. Both description and explanation can be
verified and so are human knowing. Description usually prepares the way for
explanation and explanation leads back to description. All the data is to be
admitted and accounted for. We do not allow of an arbitrary brushing aside of
data, as Locke did with secondary qualities, just because it is difficult to pin
down. We appeal to our own experience of knowing to identify this pivoting
between description and explanation and to show that both kinds of knowing are
valid and have their own advantages and disadvantages.
4.1 Transition from Description to Explanation
To illustrate the transition from description to explanation,
let us first consider the development in philosophy represented by the shift
from Socrates to Aristotle and secondly we will consider the same transition in
theology. Description and explanation involve two different kinds of thinking,
imagining and knowing. The transition occurs in all sciences but I think it is
useful to show it actually, historically occurred in philosophy and theology.
Socrates was deeply convinced that there was a permanence to
truth, which the Sophists were undermining by their relativism and skepticism.
But Socrates had great difficulty formulating his convictions and demonstrating
their truth. He was searching for wisdom, but had to admit that he was not sure
what wisdom was. He was sure of his own ignorance and easily demonstrated the
ignorance of his foes. His method was to seek 'inductive arguments and universal
He initiated his discussions by asking one of the group to
propose a definition of 'virtue', 'courage', 'justice', etc. One of the group
usually obliged, thinking he had the correct answer. Socrates took that
definition as his starting point and invited the group to think of 
particular examples, and then tested the definition against the examples. It
usually did not take long before an example came up which did not fit the
definition. Hence the definition had to be rejected because it was not
universal. To be universal it would have to cover all the concrete cases of
'justice' or 'courage' or whatever was being defined. Discussion continued along
these lines and usually did not result in finding a satisfactory definition. We
are entitled to ask, why was Socrates such a consistent failure?
Our answer would be because he remained at the level of
description and was not able to set up a theoretical framework of terms and
relations, which would shift the discussion into an explanatory framework.
Description will rarely give you universal definitions. Description is concerned
with the concrete and the particular; it has few theoretical aspirations; it is
content with the short-term, the practical, what appeals to imagination and
feeling. It is very difficult to set up one explanatory definition because the
terms of the definition will remain at the descriptive level. What is needed is
a jump to a system of terms and relations, where the terms define the relations
and the relations define the terms and the insight fixes both. Such a major
shift was not possible at the time of Socrates, the groundwork had not yet been
We can consider Aristotle's Ethics as embodying that
explanatory system, which was being sought. Aristotle's earlier work in logic
had been indispensable as a preparation. In his logical works he had laid down
the requirements for definition and division, the process of demonstration and
induction, propositions with their contraries and contradictories and their
various types. Next it was important to define ethics and separate out the
subject matter and aim of ethics and politics in the framework of the
productive, the theoretical and the practical sciences. His work in these areas
was an indirect help in clearing the ground for the ethics.
He realized that terms cannot be defined individually, and so
he set himself to build up a set of fundamental terms going to the very basis of
ethics and then working out the details. In Book One of the Nicomachean
Ethics he attempts to define 'the good', 'happiness', 'final end',
'self-sufficient', and other terms in their relations with one another. He
appealed to the concrete for descriptions of examples of these but  his aim
was explanation; theoretical universal definitions in a system.
In the context of these clarifications he was able to go on
to habits and to define virtue as a mean and vice as one of the extremes (Book
2). Then he was able to clarify the notions of voluntary and involuntary,
choice, deliberation and wish (Book 3). It was only then that he set out to
define individual virtues (Book 4 and 5). Here he was setting up a system where
each virtue was flanked by the vices, which erred, by defect and by excess. It
was an explanatory system something analogous to the periodic table in
chemistry. Each virtue and each vice was defined in terms of one another.
Sometimes words already existed to cover these terms and he gave descriptive
terms an explanatory meaning. Sometimes he had to stretch already existing words
to give them a new explanatory meaning. Sometimes he had to invent new words to
fit in his explanation.
After this he was able to distinguish moral and intellectual
virtues, discuss friendship and to finish it all off with reflections on
pleasure, happiness, the good life, and his ideal of the contemplative life
(Book 10). He ends with a return to the concrete, the kind of way of life which
he values most as worthy of man, the kind of life that produces true happiness.
His achievement can be judged by the fact that his text has survived two
millennia of attempts to do better and some reputable scholars still think that
nobody has surpassed him.
We are just looking at this as an example of explanation at
its best. Socrates was swimming in confusion and not even realizing why, nor
what might be the way out. Plato begins to sort out the issues, clarify the use
of terms, distinguish true and false kinds of knowing, experiment with different
methods and move towards theory and explanation. But it is only Aristotle who
realizes that 'he shall be as king who can define and divide'. Aristotle starts
from the concrete from the opinions of other philosophers, from common sense and
from concrete examples. He moves into an explanatory framework because his
desire to understand forces him to shift from description to explanation. He
wants to be clear, to have universal definitions, he wants to cover every
concrete case imaginable, and to do that he has to shift to theory. So he sets
up his technical terminology, shifts the meaning of the words he is using and
invents  new words in order to set up his cluster of terms and relations.
But the end is to return to the concrete, to return to describe the way of life
to be prized above all as worthy of man. Aristotle was not a conceptualist. He
did not want to remain at the level of abstractions; concepts were not an end in
themselves; they were to be used to illuminate the concrete and to guide
We took the example of Aristotle because it is such a clear
example of the successful shift from description to explanation in the field of
philosophy. But any philosophy worthy of its salt will have to be explanatory.
The questions that a philosopher asks reveal the inadequacy of the descriptive
approach; it is too ambiguous and approximate; it does not have sufficient
clarity and cannot support the burden of criticism too deeply. One can expect
that the terms of philosophy will be defined in terms of explanatory relations
with other terms. We can expect that it will abstract from the concrete by way
of insight into the universal. It will need a network of concepts, not as an end
in itself but as a way of illuminating and clarifying the concrete. We cannot
expect a professional philosophy to be expressed in the language of the
newspapers; we cannot expect it to appeal immediately to people of common sense;
we cannot expect an appeal to imagination, to examples, symbols, and stories.
Just as we do not expect to understand theoretical physics without a long and
thorough preparation and study, so we cannot expect to take up a book of
philosophy and grasp its message unless we have some training in philosophy.
4.2 Transition in Theology
The same transition can be identified in the development of
theology. Let us just have a brief look at the transition from the scriptures to
the systematic theology of Thomas Aquinas. Needless to say this can only be a
sketch and our interest in this is simply as an example of shifting from
insights of the descriptive type to those of explanation.
The Scriptures are almost entirely descriptive. They were
written by men of common sense, for people of common sense in the Hebrew culture
which had a practical wisdom but little by way of a theoretical differentiation
of conscious ness. The gospels teach by  way of examples, stories,
proverbs, rules of thumb, appeal to symbols. It is full of analogies,
allegories, myths, admonitions, promises and threats. It is only very slowly
that rudimentary creeds emerge expressing some grasp of the essentials of the
story of Jesus of Nazareth. In understanding the gospel stories we have to be
prepared for ambiguity, for confusion, for apparent contradiction; even though
the faith of the apostles was deep, strong and clear on the core of Jesus
message, yet it was expressed in descriptive terminology and we have to use
careful exegesis to get at what is meant by the various titles given to Jesus,
allusions to the Old Testament, etc.
Further questions arise in the early Church, especially
through the missionary work of the Church and its contact with Hellenistic
culture. Transferring a teaching from one culture to another is a hazardous
occupation at the best of times. But here a teaching is being transferred from a
largely descriptive culture to one in which the theory of philosophy,
mathematics, music, astronomy, etc. was influential. Eventually the question
about Jesus was expressed unequivocally, was He God? or man? or both? And if the
latter how could this be? Similarly questions were raised about the Trinity,
giving rise to a whole series of formulations most of which we judge by
hindsight to be heretical. Questions were asked about Mary, about baptism and
rebaptism, about ministry, moral teaching, authority in the church, etc.
Answers that were clear and unequivocal were required. The
gospels had spoken in allegories and symbols; now these had to be shifted into
an explanatory framework. It was literally a matter of life and death. Technical
terms had to be invoked to answer these questions. Gradually these were invoked
by the creeds and the definitions of the early Councils and the teachings of
Augustine, Athanasius, etc. Elements of systematic meaning were invoked to
preserve the authentic understanding of the tradition and to express it
unambiguously in a systematic manner.
Perhaps it was only in the Middle Ages that theology became
completely explanatory and systematic. Aristotle was invoked as providing some
of the background as well as the terms and relations that made this possible. It
was a question of seeking a coherent,  comprehensive, unambiguous,
theoretical expression of the Christian faith. This was required by the level of
the culture, the questions that were being asked and the challenges from secular
culture, and the exigencies of mission.
In Aquinas we have one great example of such a system. The
way had been prepared by the study of the teaching of the Fathers, by the
distinction that had been drawn between the natural and the supernatural, by the
creeds of the Patristic period, by the work of Augustine. The system of
Aristotle presented a basic challenge; was the Christian understanding of man's
relationship to God to be integrated with the greatest wisdom of the time or was
it to be marginalized and isolated. Aquinas opted for integration and used the
philosophy of Aristotle as a basis for setting up a comprehensive systematic
theology. It involved distinguishing and relating the natural and the
supernatural, reason and faith, the natural virtues and the infused virtues,
defining person and nature, processions and relations, sacraments, different
kinds of grace, freedom, truth, etc. etc.
Again we are talking of an explanatory system of terms and
relations. Systematically he starts from God, his existence, his attributes, as
known by reason and as known by faith; then creation as coming from God, nature
and man as the crowning point of nature; then man's way back to God by way of
the natural virtues and the infused supernatural virtues; Christ who has made
this possible, the sacraments and the Church; finally the last things. This is
presented by was of the Quaestio; the statement of the truth; apparent contrary
arguments; an exposition of the truth and a reply to the objections. The
questions unfolded systematically until a particular theme was exhausted and all
possible objections answered. Terms were defined, divided and given a technical
meaning. Apparent contradictions were resolved.
In catechism class children are taught what is a sacrament,
that there are seven sacraments and each can be defined. It is surprising to
think that Peter the apostle did not know what a sacrament was, nor how many
there were. Theory goes beyond the immediate appeal of the stories and persons
of the gospels. The difference is so great that some are tempted to abandon the
achievement of  systematic meaning and to go back to the scriptures. Our
understanding of the purpose of the shift from description to explanation shows
us why that is not possible. We seek an understanding at the level of our times.
Our culture sets the questions, problems and challenges that have to be answered
clearly and unequivocally whenever possible. Authenticity does not consist in
returning to the beginning, in abandoning permanent achievement, in primitivism.
Authenticity is to be faithful to the exigencies of questioning, which lead
inexorably over time to more apt and clear expressions of our faith seeking
Explanation and system is not to be thought of as a flight
from reality into the safe world of concepts and theories. It is the culture
that sets the questions, problems and challenges that a systematic theology has
to tackle. The purpose of the definitions and explanations is to facilitate the
return to the concrete in a way that will be faithful to the original message.
Aquinas was not a conceptualist but an intellectualist. The modern theologian
similarly has to do theology at the level of his time and that requires an
explanatory framework appropriate to the culture of today.
5. Balance between Description and Explanation
We have tried to show in the foregoing how natural and
necessary is the transition from description to explanation. It is part of
authentic development of understanding that we shift from relating things to
ourselves to relating them to one another. We have illustrated the various
shifts in terminology, definition and point of view involved. Common sense is
inherently limited to the practical, concrete and imaginary; seeking to go
beyond common sense, we are led to relate things to one another whether it is in
the empirical sciences, the human sciences, philosophy or theology.
Our procedure in this text is, similarly, to start with
description and move on to explanation. Our data is the data of consciousness,
not the data of sense. Our questions are about the activities involved in
thinking, in science and in common sense. We started with general descriptions;
we described the activity of insight; we gave different historical examples for
comparison and identification; we  distinguished insights of description
and insights of explanation. We will continue to describe inverse insight,
reflective insights, classical and statistical methods, etc. We are moving
towards a definition of insight but we have not yet set up all the pieces that
are necessary for the full explanatory definition. When we reach Cognitional
Structure in Chapter 8, we should be in a position to put all of the pieces
together in a fully explanatory fashion and define insight in relation to the
other components that are central to the activity of human knowing.
When we have done that, we will be in a position to
reconsider in greater depth and with greater clarity some of the implications of
the act of understanding. We will be able to see the methodological implications
of insight. We will be able to consider aberrant views on human knowing and
grasp why they are wrong. We will be in a position to understand the foundations
of knowing and to move to the structure of the known. We will be in a position
to give an account of human misunderstanding; how is it that philosophers are
always getting it wrong? What is the basic source of continual confusion on
knowing and the real?
Let us conclude this chapter with a reminder of some of the
imbalances which occur between descriptive and explanatory thinking.
There is a danger of clinging to the descriptive and thinking
that the explanatory is needless, useless, theoretical nonsense. Much of modern
theology seeks to be popular by remaining at the descriptive level; by appealing
to what is relevant, what catches the imagination, what is easy to communicate,
what is deemed immediately practical. The return to the sources is sometimes
interpreted as a return to description and the abandonment of explanatory
understanding. This brand of common sense decries the need for theory, mocks the
systematic theologians, and appeals to the simplicity of the scriptures. But the
price paid by these theologians is very high; in confusion, ambiguity, and
stifling further questions. Because they are relevant and appealing to symbols
that are popular today, they become irrelevant when the fashion and symbols
change tomorrow. Because they appeal to this particular people, it will not
appeal to people of a different culture  across the border. Staying at the
descriptive level can only be an illusion.
One of the great advantages of explanation is that it, to
some extent, rises above the culture of the time and place and can be
transmitted across cultures. There is a permanence to genuine achievement. No
one could have been more Greek than Euclid, yet few would claim that teaching
Euclidean geometry today is cultural imperialism.
On the other hand, you can have theories that remain at the
theoretical level, that never return to the concrete, that become conceptualist
in being wrapped up in themselves. The conceptualist is content in dealing with
the interrelationship of concepts with one another. He is not concerned with a
return to the concrete. This is an abuse of the explanatory viewpoint. Although
explanation aims at abstraction it is an enriching, not an impoverishing
abstraction. It is an enriching abstraction because it confers intelligibility,
meaning, definition and law on the concrete. There is a reference back to the
concrete, a reorganization of description in the light of explanation and a
posing of further questions in a dynamic on-going process.
Finally, there is confusion when there is a mixture between
description and explanation and an inability to distinguish two different points
of view. Much of the popularization of modern sciences and the philosophy of
science cannot discriminate between description and explanation. We still have
people who are puzzled and confused by Eddington's dilemma. Theologians also are
torn between the call to be relevant, popular, inspiring and the exigence of
theory and system. In this text we are working towards the world of interiority.
We can distinguish between description and explanation because we have
identified two different kinds of insights in our own cognitional experience. We
can distinguish concepts from images, explanation from description, not on the
basis of the authority of some author but on the basis of our own experience of
We have spent much time and energy on this distinction
because of its fundamental importance for any development of understanding. A
grasp of this distinction would illuminate many modern debates in theology,
philosophy and science, where the confusion of primary qualities and secondary
qualities and other inadequate distinctions still reign.
Comments on the Exercises.
All of the preliminary exercises have been discussed and
solved in the text of this chapter.
2 Insight, see index on
description, explanation, description-explanation, measurement, definition.
3 The Sophists were a group of thinkers who
held that our knowledge is relative; that intellectual skills should be used to
win arguments in court cases regardless of truth. They were skeptical of moral
values and truth. Protagoras was one of these.
4 Paul Edwards (Ed), The Encyclopaedia
of Philosophy, (London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1967) See article
on "Primary and Secondary Qualities" by R. J. Hirst .Also John Locke,
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, (London: Dent, 1947)
5 Sir Arthur
Eddington, The Nature of
the Physical World, (Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 1928),