Page 51 - MODES of EXPLANATION

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by tracing the subject’s lineage but rather by articulating its (essential) definition. And as is
well known, the Platonic tradition concerning definition is that to explain something is to
provide a description that “reflects” the Platonic form in which the
essence
of that which is
being defined “partakes.”
According to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and, in fact, according to philosophers until
the middle of the twentieth century (Quine, 1970b), a constitutive definition must identify the
metaphysical ground
or
essence
of whatever is being defined, and this it must do by
identifying its
substance
. Lurking behind the push for foundational definitions is the
assumption that true and proper definitions connect the phenomenal thing under investigation
with the Real (by which is meant a non-sensible – capital R – Reality). A substance,
foundationalist metaphysics follows directly from such an approach: proper definitions must
exclude inessential and secondary sensory traits, or those that refer to the merely contextual
or local. To explain natural phenomena, definitions must tap into the eternal, universal, or
unchanging ground; following the tradition established by Anaximander, the logic of all
proper explanation must trace that natural phenomenon (now logically, if not temporally) to
Reality, which itself is not available to the senses even though it is the source of all that exists
in the phenomenal realm. One can call this “the myth of the (tap) root,” a philosophical
approach that can still be seen in the widespread assumption even today that everything will
ultimately be explicable in terms of the workings of subatomic particles, none of which is
available to the senses, and some of which are only inferable by their trajectories in the
Hadron Collider, for example.
That assumption common to much of basic physical science thus continues to reflect
the belief that phenomenal reality must somehow be derived from or originate in something
that is neither changing, nor contextual, nor local, nor particular. Proper explanation,
therefore, must spell out a derivation of that which is being explained from this non-natural
ground, its metaphysical tap root, which penetrates deep into ontological ground. The lesson
that philosophy and science both take from this metaphor is that their task is either to
discover or to articulate the one correct method, be it scientific method, Cartesian innate
ideas, the sensory data of the empiricists, or in ethics the categorical imperative or the
principle of utility. In modern times the myth of the tap root emerges strongly in Galileo’s
claim that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics; understanding this
abstract, universal, acontextual language is the key that will allow us to tap into truth, which
itself is also absolute, unchanging, and eternal.
Umberto Eco’s
The Search for the Perfect Language
and most of Richard Rorty’s
work in the 1970s were among the earliest to criticize the possibility of a final language, but
despite these critics, later elaborated by postmodernists and deconstructionists among others,
philosophical and scientific practice continues to believe in the possibility of a theory of
everything, an explanation that must accordingly be structured as a derivation. Even in
today’s theories of management and business, for instance, we find pronouncements referring
to
the
total quality management technique that when properly implemented will provide all of
management’s answers because it is
the
method that in fact contains the truth and the most
efficient way of dealing with organizational issues.
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