Analysis of Analysis

The concept of analysis crops up in a variety of disciplines: we have chemical analysis, spectral analysis, psychoanalysis, linguistic analysis, anatomical analysis, analysis of political systems, market analysis, literary analysis, dream analysis, conceptual analysis, and so on. We can ask what all these types of analysis have in common, i.e. what the correct analysis of analysis is. The OED gives two definitions: “a detailed examination of something in order to interpret or explain it”, and “the process of separating something into its constituent elements”. Both definitions are evidently correct, the latter being more restrictive than the former. I would combine them into this: “a detailed examination of the constituent elements of something in order to interpret or explain it”. Such an examination is necessary because the constituent elements of something are not always (or often) evident or manifest: we need to work to reveal what they are. There is the surface appearance of the thing and there is its underlying constituent structure—analysis takes us from the former to the latter. It advances our knowledge by excavating what was hidden. It is informative. The paradigm is the analysis of light: light appears uniformly white under normal conditions but a prism can reveal it as consisting of a variety of different hues (as in a rainbow). We now know that this spectrum consists of varying wavelengths. There is not just a single unitary phenomenon here but a combination of distinguishable elements. Light may look simple but spectral analysis reveals it to be complex—a composite, a congeries. It consists of separable components. The same is true of a great many phenomena, which is why analysis is informative: things tend to be composed of more basic elements that combine in certain ways. Perhaps there are ultimate things that are simple and permit no analysis, but many things are susceptible to analysis. Accordingly, the different disciplines engage in analysis as part of their standard methodology. It would be odd if they didn’t. Isn’t this what the world expects of us? Certainly there is nothing suspect or illegitimate about the method of analysis.

It is worth bearing all this in mind when considering what is called conceptual analysis. For some reason, many philosophers have decided that conceptual analysis is not part of philosophical method.[1] They feel there is something misguided about it, perhaps unscientific. That would be very strange, given that analysis is part of virtually every other discipline, especially the sciences. Surely philosophy should expect that its subject matter is open to some sort of analysis—that the things it deals with exhibit constituent elements. For example, it is highly likely that knowledge consists of parts or aspects or properties in combination. The alternative is that it is a simple attribute or fact that admits of no analysis; and while that is not to be ruled out as a matter of logic, it seems pretty unlikely. We should at least attempt to provide an analysis of knowledge—as the physicist tries to provide an analysis of light or the chemist an analysis of water. It would be dogmatic to suppose that these things have no analysis, and they palpably do. Notice that I speak here of knowledge itself not of the concept of knowledge: it is the thing that has constituent structure (unless it is irreducibly simple) not the concept of it.[2] Of course, the concept too might have such structure, being made up of more elemental concepts, such as the concepts of belief and truth; but that is another question, given that we are interested in knowledge itself. You could believe in the analysis of knowledge but not believe in the analysis of the concept of knowledge, possibly because you don’t believe in concepts at all or believe that all concepts are simple. There is no contradiction in holding that knowledge is complex and analyzable while the concept of knowledge is simple and unanalyzable. Water is complex and analyzable even though the meaning of “water” may not be. There is the world on the one hand and our concepts of it on the other; and the twain might not meet, structurally speaking. In any case, it is entirely in line with other disciplines to expect that philosophy will include a substantial amount of analysis, either of things or concepts of things.

Sometimes people assume that the phrase “conceptual analysis” implies insulation from the world beyond concepts—that one who engages in conceptual analysis is concerned only with how we think of things not with things themselves, or worse with how we talk about things. They point out that chemistry and physics aren’t just concerned (or concerned at all) with concepts of chemical and physical things but with chemical and physical things themselves—that would make these subjects parts of psychology! Why then should philosophy concern itself only with our concepts? But that protest is confused—though the phrase “conceptual analysis” can certainly invite the confusion (which may be shared by those who applaud the activity of conceptual analysis). For the phrase is ambiguous: does it mean a method of analysis or does it mean an object of analysis? The former corresponds to the idea that we can analyze something X conceptually, i.e. by reference to our concepts of X—or as we might as well say, by a priori reflection. The latter is the idea that we can analyze concepts as such, whether a priori or a posteriori. So we might seek to analyze knowledge (the thing) by reflecting on our concept of knowledge, or we might analyze the concept of knowledge itself by whatever means we please (psychologically, neurologically). These are quite different ideas, one being a method, the other a subject matter. Thus there is no redundancy in the phrase “conceptual analysis of concepts”: this just means the a priori (conceptually based) analysis of concepts (a certain sort of mental entity). Likewise, there is no contradiction in the phrase “conceptual analysis of X”, where X is not a concept. And there is also “non-conceptual analysis of concepts”—the empirical investigation of concepts, such as might be undertaken by a cognitive psychologist. These would each be types of analysis, but employing different methods. One might naturally suppose that philosophers would focus on a priori analysis, given their interest in definition, though they might also take into account a posteriori types of analysis. In any case, they would be engaged on analysis, i.e. the discovery of constituent structure by means of detailed examination.

The only real alternative to this conception would be the view that nothing of interest to philosophers admits of analysis because everything of philosophical interest is simple. Not just concepts, but things—knowledge as well as the concept of knowledge. That seems highly implausible: why should philosophy alone concern itself with the logically simple? All the other disciplines deal in complex things that can be broken down into parts, so why should philosophy be any different? You might reply that philosophy is only interested in concepts, but (a) that is not true and (b) why should concepts alone be simple? Obviously there are complex concepts, typically expressed by complex phrases; and why shouldn’t simple words correspond to complex concepts, e.g. “knowledge”? Concepts don’t have to mirror words in their internal structure (especially words of the public language). So there is really no escaping analysis in philosophy: the goal of philosophical analysis is mandatory. Similarly, philosophy must be, in some departments at least, analytic philosophy—as chemistry must be analytic chemistry, literary studies analytic literary studies, etc. This simply reflects the fact that all disciplines deal in complex entities that can be broken into parts. Whether all philosophical analysis, properly so-called, is a priori analysis is another question, which I have not addressed (though I believe it is); what can’t be seriously denied is that philosophy is at least in part an analytical enterprise. There is room for something called “synthetic philosophy”, but there must also be a place for analytic philosophy, because philosophy discusses complex things with constituent structure. It may also identify unanalyzable elements as part of its analytical purpose, but it can’t avoid wholes and parts, because that is just how reality is constituted.[3]

How should the results of philosophical analysis be formulated? We have become accustomed to providing necessary and sufficient conditions, but that is not strictly entailed by the notion of analysis; and the former might carry commitments not integral to the latter. Thus we have become obsessed with the bogeyman of circularity. But a chemist doesn’t typically report his findings by saying things like, “x is water if and only if x contains hydrogen and x contains oxygen and there are two parts of hydrogen for every one part of oxygen”, and then anxiously waiting for any counterexamples to be produced. Rather, he says things like, “water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen in the ratio of two to one”. The epistemologist could mimic this mereological style by saying, “knowledge is composed of truth, belief, and justification”. Maybe it contains further ingredients (see Gettier) but at least it contains those ingredients. This is an interesting and informative statement, showing that philosophical analysis (of the a priori kind) can produce substantial results—and many other examples could be provided of informative philosophical analyses.[4] And it deemphasizes questions of circularity: it puts things in a way that is true to the spirit of the enterprise—the discovery of constituent elements. Non-circular definition becomes less central than illuminating constituent analysis. A literary scholar might analyze poems into stanzas, lines, phrases, and words, commenting on how the poem works, without undertaking to define the concept of a poem. Similarly for the atomic physicist, who might be hard-pressed to define the concept of matter. The philosopher can tell us how things are composed by the method of conceptual analysis without undertaking the arduous task of definition (though that is no doubt a worthy object). To change the example, we learn a lot about perception by discovering that perception has three constituent elements–a sense experience, a matching physical object, and a causal relation between the two—without troubling ourselves over whether this can be converted into a strict definition (which is difficult to do). Thus we could drop the habit of parading putative necessary and sufficient conditions and speak instead in mereological terms—the terms appropriate to the enterprise of analysis.

It is a question whether philosophy can do more than analyze, granted that it must at least analyze. I don’t propose to discuss this question here, except to observe that a broader conception of philosophy would inevitably call upon the results of analysis. Suppose we thought that philosophy also interprets and explains: it gives the meaning or significance of things and it produces explanatory theories. It doesn’t just analyze individual things but relates them together and elucidates their human importance. Thus it resembles other disciplines that also go beyond analysis—as chemistry and physics do in producing laws and theories, or as literary studies does. Philosophy can be theoretical and hermeneutic as well as analytic. Well and good: but these other dimensions are not unconnected to analysis—indeed, they feed off it. Analysis tells us what something is, its nature, its essence. There is no theoretical chemistry without analytical chemistry, and likewise there is no theoretical philosophy without analytic philosophy. An explanatory theory of knowledge, or an account of its human significance, needs an analysis of what knowledge consists in—of what constitutes it. Analysis is thus methodologically primary. So even if philosophy is not limited to analysis, it still depends upon it. Without conceptual analysis it is groping in the dark. Analytical philosophy must be the foundation of philosophy.


[1] I discuss this in detail in Truth by Analysis (2012); I won’t repeat that discussion now.

[2] Russell wrote two books entitled The Analysis of Mind and The Analysis of Matter, speaking of the things not the concepts. It was Ryle who introduced the analytic conceptual turn in The Concept of Mind. I self-consciously reversed the trend in The Character of Mind.

[3] A generalized primitivism might motivate resistance to analysis, but so might a generalized holism. This would be the idea that reality never divides into constituent parts but consists of “organic wholes” that go beyond their so-called constituents. Everything is an interconnected web that can never be constructed from more primitive constituents; the totality is the primary unit of reality. To break wholes into parts is always to falsify them—metaphysical holism rules. In fact, this type of metaphysics was what prompted by reaction the type of analytic philosophy favored by Russell and Moore. I take it that the opposition to analysis today is not motivated by this kind of metaphysics.

[4] Bernard Suits’ analysis of games is a noteworthy example: see The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia (1978). I would also mention Grice’s work on meaning.


9 responses to “Analysis of Analysis”

  1. Joseph K. says:

    Very insightful analysis of a complex concept.

    How would the a priori analysis of knowledge the concept differ, in terms of the actual work involved, from the a priori analysis of knowledge the thing? It seems to me that the two tasks, though differing in respect of what they aim to explain, would be highly similar in terms of the actual work. Both tasks would essentially consist in analyzing the concept of knowledge, only one would analyze the concept of knowledge in order to analyze knowledge itself, while the other would analyze the concept of knowledge simply in order to analyze the concept of knowledge. If this is correct, how is it that the same analysis can be an analysis of the concept of knowledge and an analysis of knowledge itself?

    • That’s a good question and shows you have a solid grasp of the issues. I think the work is essentially the same in the two cases: to analyze the thing you have to analyze the concept (or at least reflect on it). The reason this works is that the concept is fixed by the property, so that we are not moving from a concept to something that lies beyond it (this is a kind of externalism about concepts). The amazing fact is that reality is revealed by our concepts of it.

  2. Joseph K. says:

    Is the concept fixed by the properties of the thing by being causally dependent on them? Our concept-constructing mental machinery takes as an input the causal properties of the thing to somehow construct a concept that reflects those properties accurately?

    • That would be a natural empiricist theory of how the concept is formed, but it is not the only possible theory. What we really need is for the property to be a constituent of the concept.

  3. Joseph K. says:

    So properties are subjective building blocks of representation not objective features of reality, but somehow map or mirror objective reality?

  4. Joseph K. says:

    Excuse my ignorance, it’s clear that I must when I have time refer to your book Mental Content for a better grasp of these issues.

    What else do concepts consist in besides the external, objective properties which form their content? If content is external are content is a part of concepts then concepts are partially external. Yet concepts are also partially internal. What is that part of concepts which is internal?

    • Some speak of “narrow content”, others of “character”, others of “conceptual role”–it’s the part that’s “in the head”. I discuss the two parts in “The Structure of Content”, 1980.

  5. Joseph K. says:

    and content is a part of concepts***

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