To elucidate the meaning of a text — or a proposed cause of a state of affairs — is another take on the notion of explanation. Here the meaning or cause is obscure, hidden in darkness, and the explanations on offer seem equally obscure. To elucidate the meaning is to make it lucid, to shine a light on it so that what is dark can be seen.


The exposition of a text exposes its meaning and its underlying mechanism. Exposure removes a covering, it reveals, it makes visible. To expose a deceit or a fraud is to tacitly censure its perpetrator. To expose what, in a given situation, is out of place or contrary to propriety is to censure either the person so exposed or those whose actions are responsible for the situation so exposed. Exposure is neutral or even positive when it simply uncovers the mechanism by which an effect is created or a state of affairs has come to be.


To explain a text is to make plain — or expose — the mechanism of its meaning. To explicate the text is to unfold or untangle that meaning, to show the layers or strands which carry its meaning, the components and connections that are not obvious upon a first reading. Another etymology worth reflecting on: according to M-W from the Latin explicatus derived from ex-plicare meaning un-fold, but also plectere — which evokes a plectus as in solar plexus.


Donald Lopez, in the introduction to his Elaborations on Emptiness, describes explanation as a “leveling”, Etymologically this description is accurate, although I’ve never thought of “explanation” in those terms. To explain a text or statement is to make plain its meaning. To explain a state of affairs is to make plain the causal mechanism that gives rise to a it. The “plain” in “explain” means to make obvious or visible. The “plain” in ex-plain is not plain as in ordinary or homely, neither remarkable for beauty or ugliness, but “plain” as in undecorated, free of superficial ornament. Both plain and explain derive from the same Latin root. The Latin explanare, according to M-W, derives from planus, level or flat. Across a level or flat or unobstructed space it is possible to plainly see what is on the other side.