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Virtus Dormitiva Wednesday, 10 February, 2010

Posted by alexcabuz in Uncategorized.

“Virtus dormitiva” is a notion which appears in the play “The imaginary invalid” by Molière.

In the play, a character is asked to explain why opium causes sleep. He answers that opium contains a “dormitive principle” which is at the origin of its ability to cause sleep. In the original text the phrase is in latin: “virtus dormitiva”.

It is evident that the explanation does not explain anything, but only replaces one poorly understood phenomenon with another. The interlocutor is in no way wiser after the explanation than before it.

In fact, I would like to go further, and put forward the idea that all explanation suffers from the “virtus dormitiva” syndrome. There is no real distinction between real and fake explanations. All explanations are fake, in the sense of “virtus dormitiva”. The value of an explanation never resides in the fact of replacing a poorly understood idea with a better understood one, because the second is never better understood than the first. It always needs, in its turn, to be explained in terms of a third, a fourth, and so forth. The only things which we believe not to require explanation are the ones that we have agreed, that we have accepted, collectively, and at least for the time being, to not understand.

Where, then, is the value of an explanation?

It certainly is not in replacing one idea with another (an “explanatory” one, presumably), but in establishing a relation between the two (or perhaps more) ideas. The value of an explanation is not to help us “understand” an idea or phenomenon as an object in itself, but to draw our attention to a relation or interaction of the given idea or phenomenon to some others. The notion of understanding is therefore, a fundamentally relational notion: we can never understand things, but only relationships between them. When we say we have completely understood a phenomenon or idea, that is equivalent to providing a complete set of relationships in which the said phenomenon or idea participates. The difference may seem cosmetic at first: “so explanation is relational, so what?” Well, the relational conception differs from the object centered conception in that it is a process-centered view: it incorporates time/change from the start.

This is also why the notion of “definition” is fundamentally misleading. A definition claims to be an explanation which is definitive, total and exhaustive, and which fixes once and for all the description and meaning of an object. It is misleading in its finality; it creates an illusory impression of immutability, of something being impervious to change. When a definition requires an update, or modification, that does not mean the old version was “wrong”; instead what is wrong is our expectation that a final, “correct” version exists at all. There are no “correct” definitions, only definitions that may be more or less useful, in a given context. The attraction of western thought for this approach (of “defining” things) is clearly very closely related to its ontological, substance oriented approach since Parmenides (see also the Ontology, truth and politics post and the Philosophy page).

Among other things, this supports a view of science (and abstract thought in general) as a set of useful fictions.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. Alexandru Ioan Căbuz 2010.


1. Not incoherent, just wrong. | Stats Chat - Thursday, 9 February, 2012

[…] would probably like to say it’s due to better driving, but that’s a tautology, not an explanation, unless they can say why driving has […]

2. kmanthie - Saturday, 1 September, 2012

Very good – so many people use tautological, circular logic to try to explain things and that never really takes us anywhere, just back to the same place but in a new set of words.

3. David M. Brown (@editingwrite) - Thursday, 4 October, 2012

“All explanations are fake…” Uh huh. Including yours?

Skepticism always contradicts itself by asserting as knowledge that nothing can be known. The question is what counts as knowledge and how we acquire it, not whether it’s even possible.

alexcabuz - Friday, 5 October, 2012

If you had read more carefully, you would have noticed it’s not skepticism I am advocating, but relationism. And by the way, since you brought it up, skepticism may be self-defeating, but it is not inconsistent. Au contraire, its self-defeating nature is exactly what MAKES it consistent. Which cannot be said about almost any other philosophical position, with the possible exception of… you guessed it, relationism.

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