Insight and Analysis
Can conceptual analysis provide genuine insight? Can it increase our knowledge of the world? Consider the concept of breathing: how should it be analyzed? Not as absorbing oxygen by means of the lungs—that would rule out organisms that absorb some other gas and don’t have lungs (unless we define lungs as whatever organ processes the gas in question). A better definition would be: absorbing a gas that aids life—including absorbing hydrogen directly into the blood stream via a membrane. There is a generality to the concept of breathing that is not captured simply by the way organisms on earth happen to breathe. This is typical of conceptual analysis: the actual extension of the concept is a subset of its possible extension—the concept covers more than its actual instances. We have developed concepts that are more capacious than what we strictly need to describe the actual world. But the generality is limited: not just anything can be breathed–bread or wine can’t. You can only breathe a gas—but any gas can in principle be breathed. Breathing is definable (more or less) as absorbing a gas for the purposes of life.
Then what is drinking? Not swallowing H2O down the throat, since an organism can drink other things than water (pure or impure) and doesn’t need a throat (unless we define a throat as whatever aids the intake of what is drunk). You could drink sulfuric acid and not have a long tube like the typical terrestrial throat. Rather, drinking should be defined as absorbing a liquid for the purposes of life (survival): it doesn’t matter what the liquid is and it doesn’t matter what the means of absorption are. An organism could absorb sulfuric acid through its pores and still be a drinker. It is the absorbing of liquid that defines the concept of drinking. And again, we have that combination of generality and limitation: any liquid will do, but you can’t drink bread or stones. The concept is open-ended, but also closed off.
What about eating? The same pattern applies: it is possible to eat things that no terrestrial organism does, say coal or sand, so long as you have the right kind of digestive system; but you can’t eat gas or liquid. Nor can you eat gravity or electricity or space or time. Eating requires the intake of solids, not gases or liquids. The concept is free to include things not actually eaten, but not so free that it can include anything that exists (numbers, Cartesian souls, etc). So now we have three ordinary concepts lined up next to each other, exhibiting certain similarities and certain differences. All involve the idea of the intake and absorption of some kind of substance for the purposes of life or survival, but the substance in question has to be matter in only one of its three forms—gas, liquid, or solid. Necessarily, organisms breathe gas; necessarily, organisms drink liquid; necessarily, organisms eat solids. The actions in question must have a specific kind of object, with no crossovers allowed. That is the way the concepts are built—what they insist on.
Given this parity, we can discern a family of concepts here, with a family resemblance (though not in Wittgenstein’s sense). Breathing, drinking, and eating are all alike—they have something in common, namely survival-directed material absorption. They are not as various as we may have initially supposed—so much so that it would be forgivable to say that breathing is a kind of eating, as we more easily say that drinking is a kind of eating. Not that breathing and drinking are literally eating, since you can only eat solids, but that the similarity between them puts breathing and eating in the same conceptual category (as distinct from defecating and fornicating). They all involve the intake of some material substance that aids the processes of life and survival. Breathing and eating may feel very different to us, but from a more abstract perspective they have the same structure—assimilation of the environment. We have achieved this insight (if that is not too strong a word) by means of conceptual analysis, and it is illuminating. We have added something to our understanding of the world and increased our knowledge. And how else could we have done that? Conceptual analysis is necessary to achieve some kinds of knowledge. In a simple case like this we can appreciate its potential. There is a structure to our concepts that invites this kind of investigation.