Philosophy 8 - 1.2.3 Conceptual Analysis

One of the techniques that philosophers use to clarify and understand philosophical statements (either premises or conclusions) is conceptual analysis. Conceptual analysis involves the analysis of concepts, notions, or ideas as they are presented in statements or sentences. The term analysis has been a part of philosophical terminology and methodology since its beginning. In its most basic sense, analysis refers to the process of breaking apart complex ideas into simpler ones. Analysis also involves a cluster of related strategies that philosophers use to discover truths. Each of these techniques attempts to arrive at a clearer and more workable definition of the concepts in question.

When students are asked to give a definition of some concept or term, they frequently go to a dictionary. But a dictionary provides only a description of how a concept is used in ordinary speech. A dictionary cannot tell us what the word means in a fundamental sense because dictionary definitions never ask whether that common usage is coherent, accurate, or precise. It is up to the person engaged in reflection on the concept to figure out what the term means and whether that meaning fits within a larger understanding of the world. The next section illustrates four methods of analysis.

Predicates

When philosophers today talk about concepts, they are usually referring to a notion that comes from the work on logic done by German philosopher Gottlob Frege. Frege demonstrated that any sentence in natural language could be translated into a formal, symbolic language, provided that we consider the sentence to be a kind of function that describes a relationship between names (or objects) and concepts. This symbolic language is what has become modern logic. Frege modeled his logic on mathematics, with the idea that he could eliminate the ambiguity and vagueness of natural language by translating it into a purely symbolic notation. Following Frege, we can break sentences into parts, including names, or object identifiers, and concepts, or predicates.

A black and white portrait from 1879 shows the 30 year old German mathematician and philosopher Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege with a full beard and mustache.
Figure 1.7 Young Gottlob Frege in about 1879. (credit: “Young Frege” by Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Predicates are descriptive terms, like “yellow,” “six feet tall,” or “faster than a speeding bullet.” Simple sentences like “the flower is yellow,” or “Superman is faster than a speeding bullet” can be easily analyzed into object terms and predicates. But any sentence can be analyzed in multiple ways. And some sentences express multiple relations between predicates and objects. So the role of conceptual analysis is to identify the right predicates for analysis and to clarify the relationship between them. Predicates can help us clarify statements. For any sentence, we can ask, what is being predicated, and how is it being predicated?

Descriptions

While the concepts that describe or categorize objects can be analyzed using predicates, the objects themselves can be analyzed by using descriptions. Bertrand Russell identified definite descriptions as the way to analyze proper names or objects. His idea is that in a sentence like “the flower is yellow” or “my dog likes naps,” the subject term—“flower” or “dog”—can be substituted with a descriptive sentence that uniquely identifies this particular flower or dog. There are unique characteristics that differentiate my dog from all others, for instance: my dog was born on a certain day, lives in a certain city, belongs to me, or occupies a specific location. Similarly, the flower can be identified by its position in a garden, field, or particular geographical location. One of Russell’s insights was that proper names, such as “Max” (suppose it is the name I use to call my dog), are definite descriptions in disguise. That is, any proper name can be substituted with a description that identifies the one and only thing named.

A definite description is a way of analyzing names and object terms for the purpose of making them more like predicates. This way we can clarify what we are talking about without resorting to gestures, context, or direct experience. You probably do this in your everyday life when you encounter confusion about a name. For instance, suppose a coworker says, “Kevin used up all the paper in the printer.” If there is more than one Kevin in the office, you might answer, “Which Kevin?” And your coworker may then respond, “The one with brown hair whose workspace is right next to the entrance.” “Oh,” you might reply, “You mean the one with the picture of his kids on his desk?” In a sense, this process of disambiguating the reference for the name “Kevin” is a process of seeking a more definite description to supplement the proper name. Understanding that language is composed of definite descriptions and predicates can help us remove some of the ambiguity and vagueness that is a natural part of speech.

Enumeration

Sometimes, to understand the meaning of a concept, it is helpful to enumerate its component parts. For instance, we may say that a governmental body is composed of its legislature, its executive, and its judicial branches. Or we might recognize that a cell is composed of a nucleus, a cell wall, and organelles. The process of enumeration can help us specify the nature of the thing we are talking about. In effect, we are identifying the parts that make up a whole. Since claims about the whole can be analyzed as claims about its parts and claims about how the parts pertain to the whole, it is helpful to enumerate the parts and consider how claims about the whole relate to claims about the parts.

Just as enumeration is helpful in understanding material things, it can be used to understand abstract concepts. For example, Aristotle says that wisdom is composed of scientific knowledge, plus understanding, where understanding is the grasp of first principles and scientific knowledge is the grasp of demonstrated reasoning that follows from first principles. Whether or not Aristotle is correct, his enumeration may help us understand the nature of wisdom.

Thought Experiments

When philosophers want to clarify the relationship between concepts, they often consider hypothetical scenarios meant to isolate one or more features of a concept and place it in the appropriate relationship with other concepts. Such hypothetical scenarios are called thought experiments. These imaginative scenarios allow us to test or compare concepts to better understand their connections and logical consequences. Philosophers have used thought experiments for as long as we have a written record of philosophical thought. For instance, Plato devised an elaborate thought experiment in The Republic, in which he depicts Socrates and several of his friends describing an ideal city. The premise of this thought experiment is that if the philosophers could describe an ideal city in detail, they would be able to identify which part of the city gives rise to justice.

Aristotle, a Greek philosopher who followed Plato, arrives at the famous claim that “nature abhors a vacuum” (i.e., nature would not allow empty space between matter) by constructing a thought experiment. To argue for this conclusion, Aristotle assumes that there is such a void and then asks, how could one know the distance between two points in a vacuum? If there is any distance between two points, Aristotle reasons, that distance would have to be the property of something. But, by hypothesis, there is nothing between the two points: it is a pure void. Aristotle bases his reasoning on the idea that it is impossible for properties to exist without something they are the property of. This argument reveals that Aristotle thinks distance is a property of matter. Accordingly, it is impossible to measure distance in a pure void. Therefore, Aristotle reasons, it is not possible for a void to exist because it would occupy a distance that has no measure. Puzzles like this one can prompt fruitful philosophical reflection. What do you think about it?

Thought experiments are also common in ethics as a way of testing out moral theories. A moral theory could be supported by a thought experiment if the result of applying the theory to a hypothetical case made good moral sense. On the other hand, the thought experiment might undermine the moral theory by demonstrating that when the theory is applied, it results in an absurd or immoral outcome. In any case, thought experiments can help us clarify the relationship between our concepts and theories.

Table 1.2 summarizes these four methods of conceptual analysis.

Type of Conceptual Analysis Description Application
Predicates Predicates are descriptive terms, like “yellow” or “six feet tall”. The role of conceptual analysis is to identify the right predicates for analysis and to clarify the relationship between them. Predicates can help us clarify statements. For any sentence, we can ask, what is being predicated, and how is it being predicated?
Descriptions A definite description is a way of analyzing names and object terms for the purpose of making them more like predicates. This way we can clarify what we are talking about without resorting to gestures, context, or direct experience. Understanding that language is composed of definite descriptions and predicates can help us remove some of the ambiguity and vagueness that is a natural part of speech.
Enumeration The process of enumeration can help us specify the nature of the thing we are talking about. In effect, we are identifying the parts that make up a whole. Since claims about the whole can be analyzed as claims about its parts and claims about how the parts pertain to the whole, it is helpful to enumerate the parts and consider how claims about the whole relate to claims about the parts.
Thought experiments Thought experiments are hypothetical scenarios meant to isolate one or more features of a concept and place it in the appropriate relationship with other concepts. Thought experiments allow us to test or compare concepts to better understand their connections and logical consequences.
Table 1.2 - Four Methods of Conceptual Analysis

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax