Philosophical analysis

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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.

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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, etc. 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.[1] 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 king 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 king of France (Bertolet 1999).

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