The Philosophical Chimera of Conceptual Analysis

Published by timdean on

Now I firmly believe that “conceptual analysis,” taken as a search for necessary and sufficient conditions for the application of terms, or as a search for criteria for application by reference to which a term has the meaning it has, is a confused program, a philosophical chimera, a squaring of the circle, the misconceived child of a mistaken view of the nature of language and thought.

– Ruth Garrett Millikan, 1989

I’m with Millikan. Disappointing that the chimera still haunts philosophy.

Categories: philosophy


JW Gray · 25th November 2011 at 2:31 pm

What’s the alternative?

Tim Dean · 25th November 2011 at 2:38 pm

The alternative is to propose theories that account for particular phenomena or language use. When a scientist proposes that water is H2O, that’s an account of what water is, that’s a theory to account for the phenomenon, and it isn’t conceptual analysis. And I’d say it’s a damn sight more useful.

Paul · 26th November 2011 at 3:24 am

While I understand that “squaring a circle” is a figure of speech for something difficult or impossible to do, haven’t we suceeded in squaring the circle using the tools of the calculus and the transcendental number pi?

But what exactly is the problem with conceptual analysis? Are there no instances of a necessary and sufficient conditions for the use of a term? Is the problem one limited to natural language or does it also apply to the languages that have been developed for programming computers? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I would like to know more.

Tim Dean · 27th November 2011 at 4:59 pm

“Squaring the circle” actually harks back to an ancient geometry problem of whether it’s possible to create a square with the same area as a circle using only a compass and straight rule in a finite number of steps. It was in a similar vein to other fun geometry problems of the time, except this one proved impossible, and has since been demonstrated mathematically so. So the term refers to some endeavour that is doomed, even though it appears intelligible from the outset.

And the tool of conceptual analysis isn’t all bad. There are cases where it is a useful approach. It can help tease out inconsistencies in our speech, and even clean it up. But I agree with Millikan that the deeper meanings and definitions it seeks often don’t exist.

It’s like seeking a clear definition of ‘life,’ and saying if we think hard enough, we can figure out what it is. We can then have the necessary and sufficient conditions for what qualifies as life as distinct from non-life.

But the world, and life, don’t appear to be that clearly defined. So instead you have a theory of life that attempts to explain the phenomenon, and explain why we apply a certain word – “life” – to it, and hopefully even explain the exceptions and the fuzzy cases. Such a theory of life is far more useful than seeking a clean definition of life and trying to shoehorn the messy phenomena to fit.

GTChristie · 11th December 2011 at 10:33 pm

I tracked down and read a few of Millikan’s papers, which she graciously provides to us on one webpage as .PDFs rather than hiding them behind paywalls scattered hither and yon. But her style is so dense and technical, I began to doubt my ability to follow what she means. I’m having a lot of trouble sorting that out. She does manage to show how traditional epistemology makes certain assumptions about the logic of language/rhetoric which are not justified, but following the arguments (ie figuring out the logic) is extremely difficult for me.
I’m sure this is my own fault, but in a similar fashion I was baffled by the post above; my first reaction was close to Gray’s. How do we analyze our mundane plain-language opinions/rhetoric without building or defining a conceptual framework within which we are judging the rhetoric? Most professors teach in rhetoric, “First define your terms.” Now maybe “conceptual analysis” is a technical method of a particular stripe which I am mistaking for a generic term, so that what you are referring to is something we might call “conceptualism” (neolog alert!), and maybe I’ve been over-trained in rhetoric or analytic philosophy — or both! — but I don’t see how a philosopher can enter any subject without engaging in some level of “conceptual analysis” as part of the exercise. Or is “conceptual analysis” a specific method (as in a brand name) which I have failed to recognize, which falure has left me disoriented, ignorant, and confused? Like Gray, above, I’m wondering how we do without such exercises. I’m not suggesting there are no other ways to examine ideas, but I do think “conceptual analysis” is at least half of what philosophy is about: clarification. And your reply or explanation just doesn’t go far enough to eliminate all the ???? swirling around my peripheral vision field right now. So … maybe you can elaborate a bit, or educate/orient me on what this is about … ?

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