Crítica, Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, Volume 7, number 21, December 1975
Dos concepciones de la elucidación filosófica
[Two Conceptions of Philosophical Elucidation]
J. Alberto Coffa
Sociedad Argentina de Análisis Filosófico


The aim of this paper is to describe two different views on the nature of explication, and to draw attention to the fact that philosophers sometimes accept both of these conceptions even though they are mutually inconsistent.

The first conception of explication is clearly and consistently developed by Quine. For him, the objects of explications are expressions that appear in some contexts that, as wholes, are clear and precise enough to be useful. To explicate such expressions is to identify other linguistic forms lo our liking that preserve the useful usages and ascribe definite but arbitrary truth-values to all remaining sentences in which the explicated expression occurs. The Wiener-Kuratowski explication of “ordered pair” is offered as a paradigm case of explication. The only context clear and precise enough to be useful which the expression “the ordered pair x, y” (or “ “) appears is

If = then x = z & y = w.

The Wiener-Kuratowski definition makes this context provably true (within set theory) and ascribes definite truth-values to all other grammatical contexts in which the expression ““ occurs.

The appropriateness of this conception of explication is questioned, particularly in connection with the question whether explications in this sense can help solve or dissolve philosophical problems. Although the strategy described by Quine is appropriate to ignore problems formulated in terms of the explicandum, nothing in the explicatory operation, as described by Quine, seems to contribute to the dissolution of problems relating to the explicandum.

Another problem arising in connection with Quine’s conception of explication relates to the ambiguity of the crucial appeal to usefulness, The context “to explicate an expression is to replace it by another one that preserves all contexts that, as wholes, are clear and precise enough to be useful” is, nearly enough, the only one in which the expression “explication” appears in Quine’s writings. And if this context, as a whole, is not clear and precise enough to be useful then the question arises, what would an explication of “explication”, as conceived by Quine, look like?

The second conception of explication has been defended by Tarski and Kreisel among others. According to this way of looking at things, 66 one must distinguish the following ingredients in an explication process: (i) the explicandum or concept that is to be explicated; (ii) a set of conditions that are identified by means of an analysis of the explicandum (these are conditions satisfied by the explicandum and they ought to be satisfied by any acceptable explicatum); (iii) the explicatum or clearly defined concept satisfying the conditions identified in (ii). The identification of the item in stage (ii) is not to be understood as a proposal or convention but (sometimes, at least) as a factual (though not necessarily empirical) claim.

Under this, construal explications can be right or wrong, true or false They will be wrong, for example, if they incorrectly ascribe to the explicandum features that do not correspond to it, or if they fail to ascribe to the explicandum features that are essential to it. Explications in this sense are arguably useful for the solution of philosophical problems, For example, when understood as above, it would become reasonable to say that Church’s explication of effectiveness provided the link necessary to interpret his undecidability result as a solution of sorts the Leibnizian problem of the decidability of all knowledge.

To hold a Quinean conception of explication is to hold that no intellectual process is accurately described by the Tarskian understanding of explication, the main reason for this contention being that the Tarskian idea of explication relies on philosophical notions (meaning, concept, etc.) that do not resist careful scrutiny.

In spite of the incompatibility between these two conceptions, explicators often associate themselves with both of these views. This claim is illustrated by an examination of Carnap’s explicatory activities. It is argued that in some contexts (in the field of semantics and also in connection with the tolerance principle) Carnap espoused a Quinean conception of explications, whereas in others (induction, and also in connection with the concepts of number and logical truth) he seemed to be relying on the Tarskian version of explication.

[Summary by J. Alberto Coffa]


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