4 Philosophical Analysis

Of any object that can experienced or conceived of there are two fundamental questions that we may ask:

  1. What does it do?
  1. How does it work?

The first question is practical in that it seeks to know what effect the object has on the world. To know what an object does allows us to give it use and value. For instance, to know that poison oak can harm us allows us to avoid it (which is a use). To know that compound interest creates wealth gives us options for investing (which is a use). Note that we can know what something does without knowing how it works (i.e. what makes it do what it does). I suspect that this is our situation with most objects in the world. We value them for better or worse and use them without understanding what they really are; that is, how they work.

Every object in our experience is complex because they all consist of parts. Whether there are simple objects in existence – objects that have no parts – is an ancient question that is still at issue in philosophy and science. That an object is complex implies that it can be analyzed. This is true of anything that you think and speak of.

The idea of an object here needs some explaining. By object I mean whatever can be expressed in thoughts or words. Physical objects are one kind, but there are many other kinds. In the sense used here, a song, an idea, a belief, a perception, a sentence, a process, a goal, a mathematical equation, a nation, a family, a university course, and a university degree are all objects. All of these objects are complex in that have parts that fit together in a way unique to that type of object.

Consider a university degree as an object. You may have thoughts about what degree may do for you, such as qualify you for a job. This makes the degree useful, which answers the first question as to what a university degree does. Of course you realize that a degree is not sufficient for getting a job. There are other significant factors (e.g., experience, resume, interview skills) that go into getting the job. Note that this means that getting a job is a larger complex of which a degree is one part, but an important part. I argue that the more you understand your degree, the better you are able to use it effectively.

To understand your degree use analysis. First, break it down into its parts. What are the parts of a university degree? Well, why does a degree help get a job? Because it certifies that the recipient has completed courses and requirements. So there – courses and requirements are parts that make up a degree. Listing all of the courses that went into your degree is a start. Yet a degree is not only a list of courses. Those courses must be related to one another to constitute a major. The requirements are rules for how the courses fit together to produce a complete major. At this point I suspect that you are thinking that the major courses are not the only parts of a degree. Great! If you are thinking that way, then you are using analysis.

The role of structure in an object is critical. The structure of an object is how the parts fit together to perform various functions. Even if you have not taken Anatomy and Physiology you know that your body consists of many parts (organs, tissues, cells) that combine to perform organic functions. If you want to understand how the body works, you must learn the major parts (anatomy) and how they are related (physiology). The total of the parts in their relations that produces a function is a complete analysis.

Can there be a compete analysis of an object? Well, that’s one of the controversial philosophical issues about knowledge and truth. A complete analysis would give us total knowledge of an object. At least that is an analytic view of knowledge. Yet every object is in relations to other objects, creating larger complexes. For instance, even if you had a complete analysis of your own body, it remains the fact that your body is in multiple relations with other bodies and objects in the world. If we must include those objects and relations into a more complete analysis, then the practical task becomes much more difficult, moreover this seems to imply that only a total analysis of the entire universe will be complete.

Some philosophers have theorized that the idea of a total analysis of the entire existing universe is the precisely the idea of absolute knowledge. Perhaps we humans cannot attain absolute knowledge, but the idea of it gives us a direction for increasing knowledge. Indeed, in much theology, the idea of God is that which has absolute knowledge of all existence. This is called omniscience, or all knowing. Science operates with an precept that in principle everything in the universe is knowable. This is called intelligibility meaning that it is all capable of being understood. This precept does not imply that current humans are capable of understanding the entirely of the universe. The point is that every object in the universe operates according to general principles, the laws of nature. Humans may not be able to know everything, but everything is ultimately knowable in principle. If there is anything in existence that is not knowable, then it is outside of nature, which is supernatural and we are back to theology. The issue of whether the universe it reducible to parts or is and irreducible whole is one of the persistent and fundamental problems of metaphysics.

Whether or not the totality of the universe is intelligible, we may make good use of the method of analysis by limiting our scope. Knowledge and understanding have purposes and our methods may be suited to them.

Analysis is a method of examining a complex concept or thing by identifying its parts and the relations among those parts. A thorough analysis provides a definition or explanation of its object by showing what it is made of (the parts) and it’s structure (how the parts fit together).

The word analysis comes from the Ancient Greek roots ana (up) and lysis (loosen), so it literally means to loosen up or to break up. In contemporary English we are more likely to say break it down which often means to make something clear by step by step, as in let me break it down for you. When we give this kind of explanation we are breaking the topic down into its parts and the relations of those parts to one another.

An analysis of an object results in a description. An accurate enough description defines and explains the object. Analysis is very valuable as a means of discovery. To study how an object works requires observing its parts by themselves and in relation. The effort of analysis frequently make us aware of parts and relations that we had not noticed before. The philosophical goal of self-knowledge is a process of discovery which is greatly aided by analysis. To analyze your own beliefs, values, and perspective promotes deeper awareness of who you are and how you work. You what you know about yourself to learn more about yourself. Learning more about yourself increased your consciousness, which opens the potential to make changes and choices about who you are.

Consider just a few examples of analysis as used in our current world.

Physics analysis: particle physics is conducted by literally breaking matter into smaller parts and examining the qualities of those parts. Physicists do this by smashing particles into one another so that they break apart into smaller particles and observing how they are alike and different from one another.

Chemical analysis: break down chemical processes and examine chemical reactions between elements of matter.

Market analysis: identify the consumers and suppliers of a product and how they interact in terms of supply and demand.

Psycho-analysis: identify the objects of a person’s mind that interact to produce mental and behavioral effects.

Literary analysis: pick out the elements of a text (e.g. characters, word choices, symbols, plot, etc.) and how they connect to tell a story.

Philosophical analysis: also known as conceptual analysis this method takes concepts or ideas as its objects. Your thoughts are complexes of concepts. To understand a thought by conceptual analysis involves identifying the conceptual parts of that thought and relating them to produce a coherent description. Your perceptions are also complex and so can be analyzed.

For any of these kinds and other kinds of analysis there are three steps:

  1. Suspend evaluative judgement.
  1. Divide the object into its main parts (elements, ingredients, components, qualities).
  1. Describe how the parts are related to one another and to the object as a whole.

Let’s consider each of these briefly.

  1. Suspend evaluative judgement: This is perhaps the most crucial point that I can make as a philosopher. Put analysis before evaluation. An evaluative attitude will always bias an analysis. This is why people across the political divides seem to operate with different facts. People commonly enter into a situation already knowing how they want it to turn out. If the evidence works in favor of the desired outcome, then it is accepted and emphasized. If the evidence seems to work against the desired outcome, it is denied or changed. Our biases are difficulty for us to detect, but we can adopt an attitude of suspended judgement. For instance, you have experienced a child who rejects new foods by asserting “I don’t like it!” In some cases this is before they have tasted it or even looked at it. The kid is in a defensive mind-set and responds with sheer evaluative judgement. In such a case they not only put evaluative judgement first, they don’t allow for analysis at all. They are not open to experience. I am confident that you can map this pattern onto other objects and behavior. When people put evaluation before analysis, they have concluded the “truth” before they consider the evidence.

Evaluative judgement and bias is a huge topic for philosophers and psychologists. You can study more about this by searching for different kinds of cognitive biases. A good place to start is Confirmation Bias. For our purposes, we may simply prescribe a mental attitude of suspended judgement in order to carry out an effective analysis. Note that we are not throwing out evaluation (e.g., true/false, better/worse, desirable/undesirable). We are putting evaluation into it’s proper place which is after analysis. In other words: Put analysis before evaluation.

  1. Divide the object into its main parts: Depending on what kind of object you are analyzing, you will do this in different ways. For most objects you can get a start with observation and identifying the parts of your observation. The observation may be perceptual or conceptual. For instance, suppose that you are taken to one of the trendy restaurants where you eat your meal in total darkness. You courses come one at a time. You wonder; “What and I eating?” because this place is so exclusive it does not have menu and the wait staff does not tell you what is being served. While you cannot see anything, you have other means of observing. So you do analysis with the sensory evidence that you do have; smell, taste, feel, sound. Some of the food objects are solid and others liquid; some soft and some firm; some smell pungent and others taste sweet; some are salty; and so on so that eventually you make inferences as to what is on your plate. With this evidence you are also able to decide what you like and what you don’t like about the meal, because with analysis you can make grounded evaluative judgement. Of course you did so by putting analysis before evaluation.
  1. Describe how the parts are related to one another and to the object as a whole: A list of parts does not make an object. You can have all of the parts of a ship, but until they are put together such that it can float and be navigated, it is not yet a ship.

This matter of parts and wholes is a deep philosophical problem itself, which we will not undertake here. You may be interested an ancient version of the problem, so let’s take a brief diversion here.  Plutarch (46-120 CE) was a Greek writer from whom we have many of the biographies and historic of people in antiquity. In his work Theseus he wrote;

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

The issue raised here is about the relation of an object to its parts. If we replace one board on the ship, it seem intuitively correct to say that it is still the same ship. Yet if over time all of the boards and nails and ropes and sails of the ship are replaced with new ones, is it still the same ship? That’s the question which Plutarch says that philosophers were in dispute about.

Consider this issue in relation to your own body. The cells that constitute your own body are continually dying and being replaced, except for those in the cerebral cortex. So at some point in your life all of original cells have been replaced. In one sense you have a new body, but there are reasons to maintain that it is the same body with new parts. Just as with the Ship of Theseus, the problem of identity can be contested with respect to human bodies. It is an issue that philosophers have proposed solutions to and disputed throughout the millennia.

One point that seems important about this problem is that we cannot merely identify an object with its parts. Ships and bodies have parts, but those parts are organized in ways that make an object. Perhaps even if we replace all of the parts we can have the same object so long as the relations of the parts remain the same. That is why the parts of a ship strewn out unconnected on the ground do not constitute a ship. You have all the parts but are missing the form. That is to say, an analysis must identify both the parts, the relations between the parts, and the relations of the parts to the whole.

In your analysis of the unseen meal mentioned above you do more than identify the parts. You also form a description as to how they are related. For example, there is something soft and sweet on the plate and it has a firm, thin, and salty exterior around the middle. This is likely two parts put together to form a complex menu item. In this case you decide that it is melon wrapped in prosciutto. In this case you have determined that the object has to main parts (melon + prosciutto) and they are combined to make the contrasts between the flavors and textures work together. You can describe the entire meal in these terms – flavors and textures (parts) balanced against one another (relations). This is a type of analysis.

So we have set out three main steps in analysis:

  1. Suspend evaluative judgement.
  1. Divide the object into its main parts (elements, ingredients, components, qualities).
  1. Describe how the parts are related to one another and to the object as a whole.

So far we have been considering examples of tangible objects that can be perceived. But what of objects that belong to the conceptual mind; such as concepts, ideas, meanings, argument, positions, and beliefs? Well, the key point is that the three steps of analysis still apply. We just use different means to make the distinctions and connections.

Take an ancient saying that is at least as old as Plutarch. The Latin is;

De gustibus non est disputandum.

Translated this means “taste cannot be disputed” or in the contemporary English idiom, “there is no accounting for taste.”1 Consider how a philosopher may analyze this saying.

  1. Suspend judgement. I’m not sure whether it is true that taste cannot be disputed, but I have noway to fairly judge that until I understan what this saying means.
  1. The object is a sentence and so the parts are words. Those words express concepts, which iswhat philosophers are typically concerned with. So what have we got?

Taste cannot be disputed

Four words (five in Latin, but that is a matter for Linguists).

So what is meant here by taste? It could be the sensation of taste, like sweet or salty. In that case the saying means How something tastes to you is not disputable. Perhaps, but I think there is more to this saying. I think that taste is meant in a broader sense in include judgments of various kinds. In the sense that we may say that a person has good taste in clothing. Another sense is when we say that something is in bad taste, such as a joke used in an inappropriate setting. These uses of taste have to do with a person’s discernment of what is fitting and appropriate. If that meaning is accurate, then the saying can be conceptually translated as;

An individual’s discernment of what is fitting and appropriate cannot be disputed.

You see that what I have done there is to substituted my expanded meaning for the word.

3. Describe how the parts are related to one another and to the object as a whole. Now we may investigate how the concepts of taste and dispute are related in the saying. To dispute a claim is to disagree with it or deny it. Well, if that’s all that dispute means here then the statement is rather silly. Of course someone can disagree with the taste of another. People do it all the time. Yet I think there is more to the meaning of dispute here and an important principle of reasoning, the Principle of Charity, requires that I give a claim the strongest interpretation that I can (i.e., most likely to be true). So I am led to look for a meaning of dispute that makes for a stronger claim of the whole.

Perhaps we should take cannot be disputed as a complex part unto itself, since the negation cannot be only makes sense in relation to an object. What might cannot be disputed mean? Not that people cannot disagree, because they can just by saying so. It may then be a claim about whether it is logical and reasonable to dispute taste. That is, is there is no reasoned basis for a disagreement, then disputing about it is unreasonable. For a matter to be disputable requires that there is some truth that may be reached about it and that with sufficient evidence we can arrive at the truth of the matter, thus ending the dispute.

But is taste like that? We each have our own tastes in clothes, music, food, company, and so on. For me to dispute your taste in music is really just me asserting my taste over yours. We can do that, but can we do it with reasoned evidence? Perhaps individual taste is a fact about a person. It is not.  an opinion or reasoned position, it is a feature of the individual like their age or height. It seems odd to maintain that we can dispute the age and height of other people. Whether you like it or not, that what they are. There is nothing to dispute because they cannot change that aspect of themselves. Maybe people can change their taste in music, but is that a matter of disputation?

Well, I expect that this is an open queestion.

What though about good and bad taste? We surely can and should dispute someone whose comments are inappropriate. For this I will step out of the frame of the saying ands consider it’s context. You may have heard a saying that could be related to the one onder consideration; Si fueris Rômae, Rômânô vîvitô môre; si fueris alibî, vîvitô sîcut ibî

Which translates as;

If you should be in Rome, live in the Roman manner; if you should be elsewhere, live as they do there.

and is attributed to St. Ambrose (340-397 CE). This saying has a contemporary verision;

When in Rome do as the Romans.

I think that there is a meaning relationship between the two sayings;

taste cannot be disputed


When in Rome do as the Romans.

The point they have in common is the idea that local customs and practices vary. What is good taste in one culture may be bad taste in another. Just as each individual has their own personal tastes. These tastes are facts about the cultures and people. They are not subject to dispute the way that beliefs and opinions are. If my interpretation is accurate then I may render the saying as equivalent to the following;

We cannot hold an individual’s and culture’s discernment of what is fitting and appropriate to the standards of reasoned argument.

So, you can see how this went. By breaking the statement into its component concepts and investigating the meaning of those concepts we result in expanded meanings, which are interpretations. By substituting the expanded meanings for the original words, we can test our interpretation against the original saying. Kind of like swapping new boards into the ship, we swap the original words out for our conceptual analysis. What do you think? Does my interpretation add any understanding to the original? Doing so is the point of conceptual analysis.

Two important points.

First, we have not said anything about whether the saying is true. Is taste disputable? Well, that’s an open question, because after all we are still in suspension of judgement. We are doing analysis here not evaluation. Though once we have an analysis, then we can begin evaluating. The point is that in order for you and I to have a dialog about whether a claim is true or not, we need to agree on the meaning of the claim. Even if this is a provisional agreement (i.e., for the sake of argument), we need a common meaning of what we are examining or else our thinking goes off in completely different directions.2 So a key lesson is: when you find yourself in dispute with others, step back to examine the meanings of what is being said. Think about the meaning of your own words, especially those that form your beliefs and opinions. Analysis is a tool to create deeper understanding of yourself and others.

First, interpretations are disputable. I gave you my interpretation above and I gave a few reasons for it, but it remains open to question. Perhaps you see a flaw in my interpretation or have a stronger version. That is something that we can have reasoned disagreement about. But note that the issue in question is whether the interpretation is a strong equivalent to the original. That is a very different issue than whether the claim is true.

Is it true that we cannot hold an individual’s and culture’s discernment of what is fitting and appropriate to the standards of reasoned argument? I have my doubts about thuis claim. It seems to me that we can reasonably dispute individual tastes and cultural practices in some cases. Yet my sole concern here has been to explicate (look it up) a saying as an example of how conceptual analysis works. You can do the same. Try your hand at analysis with a saying from the Roman author Aulus Gellius (c. 125-180 CE);

Philosophum non facit barba.3

which translates to;

A beard does not make a philosopher.

Try applying the tools of analysis to this saying to see what you come up with.


Perhaps it is likewise a source of the saying clothes do not make the man.

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