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analysis


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The process of breaking a concept down into more simple parts, so that its logical structure is displayed. At its most elementary this may be revealed by a dictionary definition (‘to be a vixen is to be a female fox’). But analytic philosophy, as practised by Russell, the early Wittgenstein, and Moore, took the successes of logic at the beginning of the 20th century to open the way to a general programme, in which the meaning or truth conditions of propositions would be displayed by a process that revealed hidden logical structure beneath the surface form of statements (see logical atomism, logical form). Philosophical analysis would provide a scientific, objective approach to traditional problems. Just as a mathematician can provide a definition of a complex notion, revealing its identity in terms of a sequence of simpler operations, so the philosopher should be able to identify the nature of a complex concept in terms of simple constituent ideas and operations. The programme of analysis reached its zenith with the early work of the logical positivists, and especially Carnap, although it influenced almost all Anglo-American philosophy for the first half of the 20th century, and much of it beyond that.

Although the ideal of analysis had a profoundly healthy effect on philosophy, by insisting on rigorous attention to meaning at all stages of philosophizing, the original confidence in the method proved over-optimistic. First, it turns out that remarkably few interesting concepts admit of uncontroversial analyses. Secondly, it is plausible that there is good reason for this, in that concepts gain their identity not so much through internal structure, as through their place in a larger theory or network of doctrines and practices with which they are associated (see holism). Thirdly, apart from empiricist or atomistic doctrine, there is no principled way of determining where a process of analysis ought to stop, or even, perhaps, determining in which direction it ought to set out. Finally, the test for a successful analysis, namely the display of a complex structure that is actually synonymous with the original concept, is uncertain in its application, and rather than being an objective arbiter of philosophical doctrine, will be contested in the light of such doctrines.

Subjects: Philosophy.


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