I first heard about the concept of dormitive explanation in university. Ever since, it’s been one of my basic tools for errors in logic and thinking more clearly.
The concept has been articulated several times in the last few centuries, but, so far as I can tell, the person who named it was system theorist Gregory Bateson. The name comes from Moliére’s play The Imaginary Invalid (aka The Hypochondriac), in which a doctor claims that opium puts people to sleep “because there is a dormitive principle in it.”
In other words, opium puts people to sleeve because it puts people to sleep. When the statement is reworded, the circular cause and effect is obvious, but an essential part of a dormitive explanation is that the circularity is hidden by changing the word being used. Often, as in Moliére’s play, the change in word involves using a word with a Latin word rather than a Germanic one, or, at the very least, a more impressive, mufti-syllabic word. In any case, the effect is to leave the impression that something has been explained when it has only been renamed.
Or, to explain the concept another way, dormitive explanation is a fallacy, an indicator of an illogical argument that the classical Greek and Roman studies of rhetoric somehow missed.
Dormitive explanations rarely exist in the hard sciences, although at first they might appear to. Explanatory principles like “gravity” or “mass” might act like dormitive explanations for the semi-trained – for example, things fall because of gravity, which is the tendency for things to fall – but the fact that they can be used to calculate other behaviors indicates that they are more than circular causality hidden by a change in terminology.
However, on the fringes of science, dormitive explanation becomes more common.. For instance, consciousness is often described as the capacity for self-awareness. Often, words like “syndrome” or “complex” or “effect” are used, so that feelings of inadequacy become “impostor syndrome”with no attempt to classify symptoms systematically.
Similarly, in many New Age philosophies, explanations are give in terms of “energy,” which – since the term obviously does not refer to any sort of energy recognized by physics – amounts to just another name for a dormitive principle.
In some ways, dormitive explanation can become an appeal to authority, either to the authority of the explainer, or to the force or principle evoked as an explanation. For example, if you say that men have evolved to be better at mathematics than women, not only are you suggesting an evolutionary tendency whose existence is unproved, but you are mentioning evolution in the hopes of presenting an argument that others cannot challenge.
In fact, dormitive explanation is all about authority. It makes the person who gives it sound authoritative, and, if accepted, gives listeners a sense that something that concerns them has been explained. In practice, no explanation has been given at all, but unless the listeners can analyze while someone else speaks, they are unlikely to recognize what is happening until later.
Many, of course, never recognize it all, and have no desire to do so. After all, which would you rather do: suffer from joint pain, or have arthritis? The problem is not that arthritis doesn’t exist, but that it is a generic term that covers dozens of different conditions. That means that being told you have arthritis actually does people little good. Yet, having a scientific-sounding name for their condition is reassuring for many people, even if the name does little to suggest treatment or prognosis.
What makes the concept of dormitive explanation so important to me is the fact that it is generally unrecognized and used to assert authority and give false reassurance. By contrast, by being aware of the concept, you can learn to notice it when you encounter it, and reject the lack of logic behind it. The result can be not only clearer thinking, but a clearer sense of what to do next.