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Making the implicit explicit


Typically, articles that discuss explication draw their argument from etymology which makes the distinction between the verb ‘to explicate’, and the noun ‘explication’.

As the verb, etymology indexes ‘to explicate’ as the process of spreading out to view something which is currently implicit or folded up.

As a noun, etymology indexes ‘explication’ as being “[t]he process of developing or bringing out what is implicitly contained in a notion, proposition, principle etc.; the result of this process.” (Source: online OED).

Based on these entries from the online, OED, explication is therefore concerned with process and outcome, and in the context of the art and science of explication, explication is associated with reporting on, explaining, justifying or defending the product or outcome of the explication process.

In other words, explication is concerned with making the implicit explicit*.

Going beyond metaphor

If explication can only proceed on the basis that there already exists some form of implicit knowledge, it is sensible to inquire what is meant by implicit knowledge.

According to Baker (1999), implicit knowledge is something which is present but is “not ‘out in plain view.’ ” Like other writers, Baker uses metaphor to illustrate this proposition. He writes:

“If we want a more specific concrete image still to remind us of all this, we can think of a bud on a stem as an example of something that is mostly ‘implicit’: only the outer leaf is ‘explicit.’ When the bud blossoms, it performs a kind of ‘self-explication.’ If we want to see what’s inside before this comes about, our ‘explication’ of it would have to take the form of dissection.”

Initially comforting perhaps, the metaphor and the related analysis cannot be taken at face value because the metaphor holds implicit assumptions about both (a) our prior knowledge of the implicit, and (b) our prior knowledge of what we might expect to discover (and hence attempt to unwrap) inside the bud. Let me explain.

For someone who has no prior knowledge about, or who has no prior experience relating to a flower bud, the only knowledge which that individual can be said to possess is the experience of seeing the bud. As this is the first time the individual has ever seen a flower bud, then the individual has no simple or obvious way of telling herself or others what it is, or what the bud contains. For sure, the individual can (probably) be expected to describe the object, but without obtaining further knowledge (such as appealing for advice) or further experience (such as physically holding, touching, pinching the flower bud), the implicit is not defined by the explicit alone. Rather, the implicit is defined by the explicit in the context of the individual’s prior experience and knowledge which, in turn, will shape the questions, hunches and guesses she will make about the nature (and contents) of the implicit.

This argument is consistent with the proposition that meanings are “perspectival, contextual, and contingent” (Best and Kellner, 1997: 260). As implicit knowledge is defined by the explicit in the context of the individual’s prior experience and knowledge, and as individuals can be expected to possess different prior experience and knowledge, then it follows that when explicating the same identical object (in this case a bud on a stem), different individuals will end up holding different explicit knowledge. And at that stage, from the perspective of each explicator, their new explicit knowledge is as valid as the next person’s.

Implicit knowledge is contingent knowledge

Implicit knowledge, then, is contingent knowledge. Being contingent, an individual’s implicit knowledge is, in principle, open to further analysis. For instance, the possible dissection of a bud on a stem (cf. Baker) brings into focus the technologies and techniques available to those who want to reveal more about the implicit. Again we can argue that the application of identical technologies and techniques by individuals will lead to different outcomes according to the prior knowledge and the technical skills of the explicator. For sure the process of (say) dissection of the implicit is likely to reduce the amount of variation, but unless it is possible to replicate precisely every explication of the implicit, there will always remain some differences in the explicit knowledge derived through explication.

As we embellish this argument, however, we also have to be careful not to make the assumption that everybody will have the same objective when seeking to dissect the implicit. Some may be content with developing an understanding of the relationship between the bud and the stem; others might be concerned only with the charting the changing properties of petals contained in the bud; others might want to get a sense of the chemical changes taking place. The point that I am arguing here is that the implicit knowledge that I possess about the bud on the stem is partly determined by my prior “will to know” – and by my purpose in wanting to know more about the implicit. As my will to know changes, then I can expect to want to find out something more or something different about the bud on the stem. In that process, what was once implicit knowledge has become the base for further discovery; the implicit has become transformed into something explicit and hence offers the prospect of new implicit knowledge and the opportunity of a new explication.

Explicit knowledge is open to further analysis

Based on these arguments, we can go on to deduce that process of explication has no natural final cut-off point. Every explication generates new explicit knowledge, and as new explicit knowledge can be assumed to embed the prospect of new implicit knowledge, this new implicit knowledge is open to a new explication (now to be undertaken in the light of the experience of having completed prior explications) by oneself or others.

References are cited below.

Baker. “Critical concepts: Explication versus analysis”

Best, S. and Kellner, D. (1997). The Postmodern Turn, London: The Guilford Press.


* This expression is consistent with Carnap’s argument and Mautner’s explanation (see Replacing the explicandum…)

This page is adapted from Franklin, “Explication as a philosophical enterprise”, Organisations and People, August 2006.

Page last edited and published. 09 May 2013