Explication Assignment
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

Short description

An explication is a one-page paper summarizing one argument from one book by one of the authors in our course. I assign an explication by assigning one of our author's conclusions. You find the author's argument for that conclusion and summarize it in outline format. Omit everything from the author's text that is not relevant to that particular argument. Clarify the author's language by restating it your own way. Write clearly enough to help a peer in class who found the argument confusing in the author's original exposition. Find all the premises for the particular conclusion on which the author actually relied, whether or not the author stated them all explicitly. Put the premises in logical order. State each premise as a single, complete sentence. Number the premises. Cite the text for each premise. If a premise needs its own explication, indent it out of the way so that we can ignore it when we want to. That's it! Here's a checklist:

Sometimes I use an elementary version of this assignment in entry-level courses. You may want to take a look at my explication hand-out for those courses.

Long description

We'll do a good number of explications during the semester. In my experience, students must write several of them before they get the hang of the assignment. During this learning period, it helps to have a longer description of the assignment for reference.

The task of an explication is simple to state, hard to accomplish: restate one of the author's positions with its supporting argument. By "restate" I mean to summarize with astonishing clarity and succinctness. An explication is a miracle of conciseness made possible by intense clarity, not a simplification made possible by omission.

To "explicate" an argument is to make it "explicit", which etymologically is to "unfold" it. Explications provide a textually accurate and logically luminous reconstruction of the argument (reasons, grounds, support) that the author used to justify a conclusion. Arguments in their natural habitat are not nearly as crystalline as the arguments in a logic textbook. Your job, however, is to make them that crystalline —without oversimplifying them.

Explications summarize without judging. If the original argument is weak, an explication won't patch it up but expose it. (I partially retract this claim below.) If the original is strong but draws on premises scattered over a large area, some of which are vaguely stated or even unstated, and mixed together with arguments for other conclusions and irrelevant matter, then the explication drops the claims irrelevant to that argument, no matter how important they may be to other arguments made by the author, gathers all the relevant premises together, no matter how obscure and scattered they may be, makes them explicit, restates them with new clarity, puts them in logical order, and presents the argument in crystalline purity.

The point of explicating arguments, of course, is that arguments are much easier to understand and assess when laid out in this way than when they lie camouflaged in their natural habitat.

This is another way of saying that you need not agree with an argument to explicate it well. In fact, you should always explicate an argument before you decide whether you ought to accept it, indeed, as part of the decision whether to accept it.

The test of success is not whether a specialist on the author's works could tell after two readings that your explication somehow addressed the author's position. The test is whether one of your peers from class, baffled by the author's text, would (1) recognize that your explication presents an argument, (2) recognize that it presents the author's very own argument, and (3) leap to her feet after a single reading, wave your paper high over head, and shout, "Aha! Now I understand!"

Cite the text for each proposition attributed to the author, either as premise or conclusion. If a necessary premise was unstated in the text but clearly presupposed or taken for granted, then reconstruct it, tell us that it was not explicit in the text, and cite the passages suggesting to you that the author assumed it.

Quotation is not important; indeed, it is a danger since you must be clearer than the author. Moreover, quotation does not show that you understand what was said, and does not help the student baffled by the original who turns to your paper for enlightenment. Do not, then, quote whole phrases or sentences. (Quoting important key terms can be useful if you can help us understand them.)

You should be more explicit than the author and reconstruct the premises that he or she left tacit or implicit. This requires that you also be more complete than the author, omitting no premises that the author thought could safely be taken for granted. Include every premise that is logically required for the conclusion (given the author's approach), not just those premises that the author historically thought it necessary to expound. It follows that you will also be more rigorous than the author, making the arguments explicit and complete as arguments, perhaps for the first time.

You can be clearer than the author in several ways. The author's order of exposition may differ from the order of inference. Since you will use the latter, your version of the argument will already be clearer qua argument. If the author's language is obscure, you can put it in more familiar terms even if it takes more words.

State the premises and conclusion in a list or outline, not in regular paragraph prose. Give each premise a number to enable cross-reference and to show structure. Indent to show subordination. Visual clarity can contribute significantly to logical clarity.

If a proposition follows from earlier propositions in the explication, you might want to cite them by number (as you would in a logic proof). This will help your reader more than a simple "therefore..." or "it follows that...".

Limit each numbered entry to a single proposition. This will help you and your baffled reader see whether the argument has any gaps or weak links.

If one of the propositions you find yourself recording is obscure or controversial, then provide an indented sub-explication for it. Without this, the baffled reader will learn only that the author's argument depends on a certain difficult premise, not what that premise means or why the author thought that we should accept it.

Use subordination and indentation in this way: if an argument has five premises, then number them so that we (your audience) can read 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 to get the skeleton of the argument. Your comments on those premises, or sub-explications of those premises, should be subordinated and indented so that we can skip them when we want to read just the argument itself.

In short, each premise in the leftmost list should be necessary for the conclusion. "Embroidery" should be subordinated and indented. Roughly speaking, a premise is necessary for the conclusion when rejecting it prevents the argument from establishing the conclusion. Conversely, the leftmost list of your explication is successful when accepting every proposition on the list requires us to accept the conclusion.

There are a few classical ways to fail: to fail to cite the text by page, to omit some premises from the argument; to decide that the author didn't include a premise that he or she did include; to include more than one proposition in a numbered entry; to list a lot of assertions instead of reconstructing an argument; to quote instead of using your own language; to include claims important to the author but not relevant to the particular argument being explicated; to focus on one passage in the text instead of all the places where premises are actually asserted; to write a little essay instead of an outline reconstructing one argument proposition by proposition; to fail to improve on the author's text in clarity, precision, explicitness, completeness, or rigor.

However, almost all the faults in the explications I have seen would be remedied if the students had remembered (1) to put only one proposition in each numbered entry and (2) to put only necessary premises in the leftmost level of the outline.

This leads me to make a partial retraction: there is one sense in which you must "patch up" the argument you find. You should supply all the necessary premises even if the author omitted one or more of them, and even if some premises you end up listing are false or implausible. This will typically convert an invalid argument to a valid one. This does not distort our analysis of the author's position for two reasons. (1) We are supposing that the author really relied on the unstated premises anyway. We are only making them explicit. (2) This method will not make a bad argument good. At most it will convert the flaw in the argument from bad reasoning to false premises (or in logic terminology, from invalidity to unsoundness).

If an author omits a premise needed for the conclusion, it can be a very difficult task for scholarship to determine whether the author (1) affirmed and relied on the implicit premise and hence reasoned validly or (2) denied the implicit premise and hence reasoned invalidly. Basically I want us to resolve all controversies of this kind in favor of the author. This is one version of what logicians call the principle of charity.

This has the advantage of giving us a whole argument to examine, letting us study the argument on its merits apart from its historical connection to this author, shifting the burden from validity to soundness, and making unnecessary a long trip to the library. Note that for a different kind of assignment or scholarly project we would we wise not to take this shortcut.

Of course the author might have used invalid reasoning with explicit premises. If so, supplying implicit premises will not make the argument valid. In cases of this kind, you cannot make the argument valid without distorting it. But you should still try to make all implicit premises explicit.

When making implicit premises explicit, you will not be able cite page numbers in the usual way. If there are textual clues that the author relied on such premises, however, supply those clues and give their page numbers.

So unless your interpretation of the author's argument is that it uses invalid reasoning, the propositions in the leftmost list of the outline should not only be necessary for the conclusion, but also sufficient for it. That is, the leftmost list should present a valid argument, and I will use this as a criterion in grading.

Try to respect the one-page limit. If you cannot fill a page, then you probably have not reached a fine enough level of detail. If you cannot limit yourself to a page, then you probably have not finished reaching clarity.

If your explication is much shorter than a page, then look for the premise which bears the most weight, and give it ample sub-explication.

The longer papers for this course, and oral presentations, may build on relevant work done in any of the explications.

Because the explications will be used in part to aid discussion, I cannot give extensions. The success of class discussion depends in part on their promptness and quality. If an assigned explication is not ready to submit at class time (written, typed, proofread), then it will receive a NP.

This assignment does not presuppose that arguments are the only contents of importance in a philosophical text. However, it does assume that they are among the most important. It also assumes that finding and explicating arguments is a skill philosophers must cultivate.

Optional additions to the basic assignment

  1. Reply to the argument you have explicated. Evaluate the strength of the premises, conclusion, and/or reasoning. Answer the questions, (1) Are you persuaded? (2) Why or why not? Address the argument as a whole, not just the conclusion. These are ungraded additions, so feel free to take risks. Moreover, the longer essays for this course will require evaluation (see the syllabus and generic hand-out). You might want to include some evaluation solely for practice, or for my comments, or because the spirit has moved you.

  2. Ask a really good question or two (or ten or twenty) about the argument. You may find that simply posing the questions, without feeling obliged to have answers, helps bring the author's inquiry to life, makes you a more active and critical reader, makes your thinking more concrete and pointed (which helps in writing papers and contributing knowledgeably to discussion), sensitizes you to the text where faint clues to answers might be found, and sharpens your understanding of the doctrine and its issues.

  3. After you state the argument with numbered premises, draw a diagram to show the relations of those premises to one another and to the conclusion. I will introduce "diagram notation" for expressing arguments after the first week or so of class.

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A.
peters@earlham.edu. Copyright © 1997, Peter Suber.