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Philosophical analysis is a general term for techniques typically used by philosophers in the analytic tradition that involve "breaking down" (i.e. analyzing) philosophical issues. Arguably the most prominent of these techniques is the analysis of concepts (known as "conceptual analysis"). This article will examine the major philosophical techniques associated with the notion of analysis, as well as examine the controversies surrounding it.
Method of analysis
While analysis is characteristic of the analytic tradition in philosophy, what is to be analyzed (the analysandum) often varies. Some philosophers focus on analyzing linguistic phenomena, such as sentences, while others focus on psychological phenomena, such as sense-data. However, arguably the most prominent analyses are of concepts or propositions, which is known as conceptual analysis (Foley 1996).
Conceptual analysis consists primarily in breaking down or analyzing concepts into their constituent parts in order to gain knowledge or a better understanding of a particular philosophical issue in which the concept is involved (Beaney 2003). For example, the problem of free will in philosophy involves various key concepts, including the concepts of freedom, moral responsibility, determinism, ability, and so on. The method of conceptual analysis tends to approach such a problem by breaking down the key concepts pertaining to the problem and seeing how they interact. Thus, in the long-standing debate on whether free will is compatible with the doctrine of determinism, several philosophers have proposed analyses of the relevant concepts to argue for either compatibilism or incompatibilism.
A famous example of conceptual analysis at its best is Bertrand Russell's theory of descriptions. Russell attempted to analyze propositions that involved definite descriptions (such as "The tallest spy"), which pick out a unique individual, and indefinite descriptions (such as "a spy"), which pick out a set of individuals. Take Russell's analysis of definite descriptions as an example Superficially, definite descriptions have the standard subject-predicate form of a proposition. For example, "The present king of France is bald" appears to be predicating baldness of the subject the present king of France. However, Russell noted that this is problematic, because there is no present king of France (France is no longer a monarchy). Normally, to decide whether a proposition of the standard subject-predicate form is true or false, one checks whether the subject is in the extension of the predicate. The proposition is then true if and only if the subject is in the extension of the predicate. The problem is that there is no present king of France, so the present king of France cannot be found on the list of bald things or non-bald things. So, it would appear that the proposition expressed by "The present kind of France is bald" is neither true nor false. However, analyzing the relevant concepts and propositions, Russell proposed that what definite descriptions really express are not propositions of the subject-predicate form, but rather they express existentially quantified propositions. Thus, "The present king of France" is analyzed, according to Russell's theory of descriptions, as "There exists an individual who is currently the king of France, there is only one such individual, and that individual is bald.". Now one can determine the truth-value of the proposition. Indeed, it is false, because it is not the case that there exists a unique individual who is currently the king of France and is bald--since there is no present kind of France (Bertolet 1999).
While the method of analysis is characteristic of contemporary analytic philosophy, its status continues to be a source of great controversy even among analytic philosophers. Several current criticisms of the analytic method derive from W.V. Quine's famous rebuke of the analytic-synthetic distinction. While Quine's critique is well-known, it is highly controversial. Further, the analytic method seems to rely on some sort of definitional structure of concepts, so that one can give necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of the concept. For example, the concept 'bachelor' is often analyzed as having the concepts 'unmarried' and 'male' as its components. Thus, the definition or analysis of 'bachelor' is thought to be an unmarried male. Thus, several critiques of the analytic method are derived from a critique of definitions (Margolis & Laurance 2006). This criticism is often said to have originated primarily with Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. A third critique of the method of analysis derives primarily from psychological critiques of intuition. A key part of the analytic method involves analyzing concepts via "intuition tests". Philosophers tend to motivate various conceptual analyses by appeal to their intuitions about thought experiments. (See DePaul and Ramsey (1998) for a collection of current essays on the controversy over analysis as it relates to intuition and reflective equilibrium.)
In short, some philosophers feel strongly that the analytic method (especially conceptual analysis) is essential to and defines philosophy--e.g. Jackson (1998), Chalmers (1996), and Bealer (1998). Yet, some philosophers argue that the method of analysis is problematic--e.g. Stitch (1998) and Ramsey (1998). Some, however, take the middle ground and argue that while analysis is largely a fruitful method of inquiry, philosophers should not limit themselves to only using the method of analysis.
- Note that this explication is only of a part of Russell's theory of descriptions and is quite brief and oversimplified.
- Bealer, George. (1998). "Intuition and the Autonomy of Philosophy". In M. DePaul & W. Ramsey (eds.) (1998), pp. 201-239.
- Beaney, Michael. (2003). "Analysis". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link).
- Bertolet, Rod. (1999). "Theory of Descriptions". Entry in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, second edition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Chalmers, David. (1996). The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- DePaul, M. & Ramsey, W. (eds.). (1998). Rethinking Intuition: The Psychology of Intuition and Its Role in Philosophical Inquiry. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Foley, Richard. (1999). "Analysis". Entry in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, second edition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Jackson, Frank. (1998). From Metaphysics to Ethics: A Defense of Conceptual Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Margolis, E. & Laurince, S. (2006). "Concepts". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link).
- Ramsey, William. (1998). "Prototypes and Conceptual Analysis". In M. DePaul & W. Ramsey (eds.) (1998), pp. 161-177.
- Stitch, Stephen. (1998). "Reflective Equilibrium, Analytic Epistemology, and the Problem of Cognitive Diversity". In DePaul and Ramsey (eds.) (1998), pp. 95-112.
- "Analysis" - an article by Michael Beaney in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- "Concepts" by Margolis & Laurince in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - section 5 is a good (but short) presentation of the current issues surrounding conceptual analysis in philosophy.
- "Water's water everywhere" by Jerry Fodor - a review of C. Hughes's book Kripke: Names, Necessity and Identity at the London Review of Books (Fodor goes into several issues regarding the philosophical method of analysis).
- Analysis and Synthesis: On Scientific Method (PDF) - based on a study by Bernhard Riemann; from the The Swedish Morphological Society
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