Note, this is homework, but I'm NOT looking for someone to do my homework for me.

For my Critical Reasoning course, I'm tasked with categorizing the following passage as either a description, or an explanation. I've read up to the required chapter though, and I have yet to find a formal definition of either! Checking the index also didn't yield any results.

Searching around, the basic difference appears to be that an explanation is objective; it doesn't involve any kind of opinion. A description on the other hand is affected by the point of view of the author, so is subjective.

Are these definitions correct?

The passage is:

In Egypt, Persia, and Japan, orris powder was made from the dried root of the iris and used prodigiously in the art of perfumery. Orris has an odor not of iris but of violets. Until the recent development of chemical scents, most violet-perfumed products were made from orris, it being cheaper to produce than violet extract. Orris also has the ability to strengthen the odors of other perfumed substances and has been used for centuries as a fixative in the manufacture of powders and perfumes.

Orris came to prominence in Europe during the excesses of the French court prior to the Revolution. It was used to mask the unpleasant smells of stale body odor prevalent in high society, since bathing was considered unhealthy. One story tells of an argument between Louis XIV and his mistress Madame de Montespan that concluded with the lady telling the king that, for all her faults, she didn’t smell as badly as he. Orris powder was employed to scent and preserve the odoriferous and often lice-infested coiffures of the French aristocracy. Orris was mixed with flour to make a stiffener, so that the hair could be molded into fanciful sculptures studded with ribbons, pearls, beads, and artificial flowers. Large quantities of Iris germanica var. florintina are grown in Mexico today for their roots, which are shipped to France for use in the

By my above definitions, I'd classify this passage this an explanation, since it's from a matter-of-fact point-of-view.

  • Doing a categorization on this text is confusing. The first part of the text describes the Orris perfume composition and history. The second part of the text (from "It was used ...") explains its usage in different contexts.
    – Graffito
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 22:43
  • It's actually 2 paragraphs; SE's quoting mechanism eliminated the line break. Their intent may be for each paragraph to be categorized separately, even though that wasn't the explicit instructions. Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 22:54
  • You should edit your question by inserting an empty line (i.e. 2 line breaks) between the paragraphs.
    – Graffito
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 23:25
  • @Graffito That "unquotes" the second paragraph. How do I separate them but keep them in the same quote? Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 23:33

2 Answers 2


I believe you have Explanation and Description reversed.

According to the OED, Explain means to "Make (an idea, situation, or problem) clear to someone by describing it in more detail or revealing relevant facts or ideas" or to "Account for (an action or event) by giving a reason as excuse or justification." The use of "excuse" or "justification" suggests this to be the subjective point of view.

The origin of Describe, per OED, is stated as: Late Middle English: via Old French from Latin descriptio(n-), from describere 'write down'. It is further defined as "A spoken or written representation or account of a person, object, or event." Whether or not the word description can be claimed to be the objective point of view is not so clear.


Following Braithwaite, an explanation tells you why, by giving a theory of some sort, while a mere description doesn't do that.

  • This is the better answer, IMO. Explanation can, as @Katherine's answer suggest, be merely description (no why). But explanation that is not merely description includes reasons. Explanation does not distinguish itself as such from description (which is a subset of explanation) by being more detailed. IMO, it does so by providing reasons, which amounts to connections to (relations with) elements outside what is being described.
    – Drew
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 0:14
  • @Drew, yes, connections to elements outside what is being described is the heart of Braithwaite's account of explanation. Sometimes we refer to "independent motivation".
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 0:21
  • But note that I said this not about explanation in general, but about an explanation that is more than just a description. IOW, I agree with the other answer (and the OED) that a description is an explanation of sorts. But it is not an explanation that tells why. A purist might complain that a perfectly adequate description does not tell why, so it is not a good explanation. But it does explain things to some extent - any description does. A good explanation is generally expected to give reasons.
    – Drew
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 0:27
  • Are all descriptions really explanations? When asked why I ran away from that bear, I explained that I ran real fast into the barn.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 0:32
  • Yes, they are explanations of a sort (but I repeat myself). A nonsensical response to the question "why?" is not a good explanation. Why did you go to the store? Because the moon was an accountant. There you give a reason, but the explanation is still not great.
    – Drew
    Commented Oct 6, 2015 at 13:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.