Where Are All the Successful Analyses?

I promised a surprise for today’s post. It’s a nasty one.

Philosophical analysis is a search for the essential natures of such things as knowledge, justice, and causality. I’ve been defending analysis on two fronts. First, I’ve argued that it its inputs—the case judgments delivered by our “starter theories” of the categories in question—are sufficient to direct analysts toward the truth about essential natures. Second, I’ve argued that its outputs, the essential natures themselves, are substantive matters of fact that are well worth getting to know. 

But as anyone who’s played the analysis game knows, essential natures are rather hard to come by. In spite of all our efforts, we have yet to find an adequate analysis of knowledge or of singular causation. Not without reason, Timothy Williamson has written that philosophical analysis is “a degenerating research program.”

Should we worry? In Thinking Off Your Feet, I concede that we should. Analysis has come up short for the most discouraging possible reason: many categories of philosophical interest have no essential natures. There is no single thing, in other words, in virtue of which specimens do or do not qualify as category members—not even a very complicated thing.

The reason is that many philosophical categories (and indeed many basic natural kinds) function as “secondary explanatory organizers“. A primary explanatory organizer groups together things that share a single, but possibly complex, explanatory property. A secondary organizer, by contrast, groups together things that share a cluster of similar but distinct explanatory properties. There is no recipe that prescribes a strict criterion for belonging to the cluster. There is only a complex, multifaceted explanatory theory that we use, invoking inference to the best explanation, to decide category membership.

In the case of swans, for example, the theory lays down (among other things) a number of causal explanatory generalizations connecting swanhood to swans’ characteristic observable properties: something about swans causes whiteness of plumage, something about swans causes redness of beak, etc. We decide membership of the swan category by reasoning backward along the theory’s causal links. This organism has white feathers, a red beak, and so on. What could possibly explain this conjunction of features? That the organism is a swan. There are no competing explanations in the offing, so most likely, it is a swan. The swans are simply things that pass this explanatory test, for a fully informed categorizer.

Does that rule out the existence of a unified criterion for category membership? You might think not, reasoning as follows. Compile a complete specification of the circumstances under which an organism passes the explanatory test. Isn’t that an exceptionless criterion for swanhood, and so a plausible candidate for the essential nature of the swan category?

My answer (very roughly): It is indeed extensionally adequate, but we will nevertheless find it implausible as an essential nature because of its inductive character. It is manifestly a procedure for inferring swanhood; indeed, to all appearances, a defeasible procedure. So it can hardly be regarded as the definitive criterion for being a swan. But nothing else is in a position to play that role. No criterion, then, will strike the philosophical analyst as a convincing candidate for swanhood’s essential nature.

If most philosophical categories are, like swan, secondary explanatory organizers, then most will lack essential natures. Curtains for philosophical analysis?

I don’t think so. The analysis of a category can be highly rewarding even if there is no nature to be found. The analyst will, of course, fail to achieve their ultimate goal. But they will gain enough substantive philosophical knowledge along the way to have made the journey worthwhile. That knowledge may concern the category itself: we can learn that truth is necessary for a belief to count as knowledge, and that truth and justification are not sufficient. Or it may concern the underlying explanatory landscape: attempting the analysis of singular causation, we stand to learn a lot about event explanation.

The byproducts of analysis are so rich because philosophical categories, even when they lack essential natures, are—like basic natural kinds such as gold and water—potent explanatory organizers. In other words, they group together things with many explanatory similarities, that is, things, many of whose properties are explained in similar ways. Close scrutiny of the reasons that specimens fall or fail to fall into such a category is therefore close scrutiny of the explanatory landscape.



    A v. clear and well-laid-out analysis of the issues, and a half-awareness that Rome is about to fall, but in the end you don’t quite go all the way.

    Rome is the epoch of textual civilisation that died yesterday or so, and has been de facto (but not yet philosophically) replaced by multimedia civilisation. Our unimedium book of the world, cut off from the world, has already been superseded by our multimedia screen of the world, which is also a console connected to the world. That dramatically changes the way we look at the world, and will will transform the whole of science and philosophy.

    In the now old epoch, the word is God and the definitive if not near exclusive form of knowledge, and you suffer from the illusion that since words are uniform and rigiform, so must be the underlying concepts – exemplified by Plato’s archetypal delusion that, if there is one word for the category, then there must be one essential nature of CHAIR, .

    In the new epoch, we can see that all our different media and sign systems are interdependent and complementary. And the foundation of all knowledge is exactly what nature/evolution says it is – the movie – the movie that is consciousness. The word – language – is a superstructure built on top of, and dependent on, the movie.

    In textual civilisation, it is assumed that images mean the still images/illustrations that you find in a book. In the new world, it is obvious that movies – moving images of moving bodies – are foundational. We live in a world of moving bodies – continually changing and even transforming, their form – and fluidity of form becomes the new norm.

    In this world, we can recognize that the concepts that underlie words are multi- to- infiniform and flexiform. Fluid. Concepts are not artificial “blocks of thought”, they are artificial blobs/blobules of thought – like the blobules of a lava lamp, continually adjusting to their subjects and world around them. The idea that chairs have an essential nature, when like all technologies and all human behaviours, they are continually changing and evolving, is especially absurd.

    Now we can see – to address your main point – that there is no essential nature of anything, period. Concepts are creative not rational, designed to encompass a creative world. Your concept of CHAIR can and will embrace ever new forms of chair as they are developed and evolve. Everything in the world is changing, developing and evolving. Both in absolute terms and relative to our individual and cultural knowledge. Our conceptual system is adapted to that changing world.

    Trying to define an essential nature of things is like trying to freeze a moving stream.

    To some extent, it can be done and is useful – in that at any given point, you can argue with justification that a given category of subjects at a given point in time,may to a great extent, share common *structures* and *parts.* Human bodies and plasticine respectively can both be analysed in terms of their “anatomies.” But their forms are potentially infinite and everchanging. There is no essential nature of the *forms* of plasticine – the possible forms of PLASTICINE SCULPTURE. Ditto for the forms of the human body – the forms of human dance, or the forms of sexual intercourse, say.

    In the new epoch now being born, the first and foremost task of philosophy is to analyse the creative, ever changing natures of things, because first and foremost, everything in the world, is creative – designed like human bodies, plasticine sculptures and chairs to be ever sculptable anew in form, and also, if less frequently, in structure and parts.

  2. Ashley V Zappe

    But perhaps we are only looking for essential natures in the wrong places. Could it be that essential natures are not intrinsic properties but relational? As in, I cannot define an indestructive essence of a chair in itself, but just yesterday I took a crate, turned it over, sat upon it, and declared “Well, now it IS a chair.” And, I was absolutely correct. The one essential nature of the chair exists not within itself, but only in its *relationship* to a mind– my mind, at that moment– and perhaps to my back-side.


      I think you’ll have to give an example of an “essential nature”, incl. if you wish to define it that way, an “essential relationship” Your crate example does not define/ exemplify the essential nature or relationship of “chair.” “Something my backside can plonk on” won’t do it.

      Looking again over my example of PLASTICINE SCULPTURE, I think it’s more or less definitively anti-definitive. A chair is an object that is plastically sculpted/sculptable – and there are no limits either to its sculptability,. or to the modes of its sculptability. Constraints but no limits.

      My own chair for example is a plate shape embedded in the floor. No visible chair at all. But press a button and it springs up and becomes a chair.

      N.B. I think that you and others have merely assumed and never really questioned whether there are essential natures. You don’t actually have any examples to hand, do you? And neither I suspect does any other philosopher. But I stand to be corrected

    • Michael Strevens

      Many attempts at philosophical analysis posit relational natures. Belief and knowledge, for example, are generally taken to be relational. Most philosophers would say the same about chair, thinking that what makes something a chair has something to do with its intended function (or similar). They agree with you, then, but they still can’t find a perfect analysis.


        One further point – not in any way to argue, but purely because it is so important.

        Concepts are images, not words or any kind of symbols. Images are body images – embodied representations of bodies – body maps of various kinds. But conceptual images are higher-level than perceptual images. There are general images – essentially idiographic/ diagrammatic – boxes into which you can put almost anything – like the concepts of BODY, ACTION, GO TO. And classical images – essentially pictographic/iconic – which bear a v. loose resemblance to the forms of the class of bodies referred to – like those of CHAIR, TREE, CAT, PUNCH. (Writing began with these images – alphabetic, symbolic words came later). Normal, perceptual images are individual images – homeoform representations of individual bodies

        Images, incl. conceptual images are holistic. If you rely on a verbal analysis of them – incl. of the relationships between parts of bodies, and between bodies – and my impression is philosphers only do verbal analyses – you end up with fragmented parts floating in a vacuum, and no way to put Humpty Dumpty together again. As per the classic blind men and the elephant parable. Only imagistic analysis of concepts can show how the parts and relationships fit together (or not). Incl. the parts and backsides of and on chairs. Incl their infinite sculptability.

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