Conceptual Analysis (WritePhilosophy Guide)

A central tool in the philosopher’s toolkit is conceptual analysis. Closely related to definition, a conceptual analysis is an attempt to provide a set of conditions which capture the meaning of a concept. Philosophers have attempted conceptual analyses of all manner of concepts, from ‘death’ to ‘love’, ‘good’ to ‘evil’, and ‘science’ to ‘art’.

For instance, suppose we want to know what ‘death’ is. We might try to provide a conceptual analysis of death. Usually, instead of trying to analyse the noun itself, we try to analyse the adjectival form (e.g. instead of trying to what “reality” is, we analyse what makes something “real”; instead of analysing the term “death”, we try to state what makes something ‘dead’). Here’s a conceptual analysis of death:

X is dead if and only if X is no longer capable of consciousness and X’s body no longer functions.

When you see the words “if and only if” (sometimes abbreviated ‘iff’), the author is trying to provide necessary and sufficient conditions.


Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

A is necessary for B when B can only occur when A occurs. In other words, a necessary condition for B is a requirement which must be fulfilled in order for B to take place.

For example:

In order to enter the library, you must have a library card.

In this case, having a library card is a necessary condition for entering the library. Necessary conditions can be phrased as “only if” sentences: “You can enter the library only if you have a library card.”

But, crucially, having a library card is not a sufficient condition for entering the library. Just having a library card isn’t enough for you to be able to get in. It is also necessary for the library to be open, for example.

So, necessary conditions state what must be the case in order for B to be able to happen, but don’t guarantee that B will actually happen.

A is sufficient for B when B must occur whenever A occurs. Sufficient conditions guarantee that B will occur. If we know that a sufficient condition for B has happened, then we know that B has happened. For example:

“If you have a billion pounds, then you are rich.”

Here, having a billion pounds is sufficient for being rich. If you have that much cash, then you must be rich. Necessary conditions are often phrased as “if” sentences: “You are rich if you have a billion pounds”.

But having a billion pounds isn’t necessary for being rich. You could be rich without having that much money, or you could be rich in assets. Everyone with a billion pounds is rich, but not everyone who is rich has a billion pounds.

A is necessary and sufficient for B when B always and only happens when A happens. A necessary and sufficient conditions combines the properties of necessary and sufficient conditions. So they are often called if and only if (or ‘iff’) statements.

The conceptual analysis of ‘death’ we attempted above was an attempt to provide necessary and sufficient conditions:

X is dead if and only if X is no longer capable of consciousness and X’s body no longer functions.

If our analysis is correct, then everybody who meets these two criterion (no consciousness and no bodily function) is dead, and nobody who does not meet both conditions is dead.

The goal of a conceptual analysis is to provide a set of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions. Every condition is necessary, and the combination of the all the criteria is sufficient.

Definitions often take the form of ‘if and only if’ statements. For example, the definition:

A bachelor is an unmarried man.

This could be re-phrased as: “X is a bachelor if and only if X is unmarried and X is a man”. There are two conditions (“X is unmarried” and “X is male”). Each is necessary for bachelorhood, and together they are sufficient.

REMEMBER:

Necessary = “only if”

Sufficient = “if”

Necessary and sufficient = “if and only if”


Evaluating a conceptual analysis

When you read an attempted conceptual analysis, like our analysis of death, you should ask two questions:

  1. Is each condition individually necessary?
  2. Are the conditions jointly sufficient?

There were two parts to our conceptual analysis of death—permanent loss of consciousness, and loss of bodily function. Take each question in turn:

  1. Is permanent loss of consciousness necessary for death?
    Is loss of bodily function necessary for death?

To show that a condition is not necessary, we need to give an example which we would all accept should have been included under the concept, but which does not fulfill the supposedly necessary condition. When this happens, we say that the analysis was too strong. It excludes some cases which it should include.

So, to show that ‘permanent loss of consciousness’ is not necessary for death, we would have to provide an example in which an individual was definitely dead, but had not permanently lost consciousness.

In this case, one might argue that loss of bodily function is not necessary for death, as some people who we agree are dead may have had parts of their body kept functional by means of life-support machinery—for instance, the case of Robyn Benson, who was brain-dead, but whose vital systems were kept functional so that her fetus could be allowed to develop in utero. We would need to debate whether we agree that Benson was dead in order to establish whether loss of bodily function is necessary for death.

  1. Are permanent loss of consciousness and loss of bodily function jointly sufficient for death?

To show that a set of conditions are not jointly sufficient, we must provide an example which meets all of the conditions, but which we agree that we don’t want to include under the concept. When this happens, we say that the analysis was too weak: it includes some cases which it should exclude.

If we can think of any cases in which a person has permanently lost consciousness and bodily function but whom we agree is not dead, then the conditions are insufficient. It’s not easy to provide any such examples in this case, so we can be fairly confident that our conditions are jointly sufficient (unless inventive philosopher can think up a counterexample).

It is possible for a conceptual analysis to be both too strong and too weak at the same time! In that case, some of the criteria are unnecessary, and the criteria together are insufficient. Some things are included in the concept which should be excluded, and some are excluded which should be included.

REMEMBER:

Too strong: excludes some things it should’ve included.

Too weak: includes some things it should’ve excluded.


Exercises

To check that you’ve understood the machinery of conceptual analysis, take a look at these exercises:

For each of these conceptual analyses, state whether the analysis is too strong, too weak, both or neither, and why.

  1. X is dead if and only if X has been beheaded.
  2. X is a bird if and only if X can fly.
  3. X is a university graduate if and only if X has been to university.
  4. X is human if and only if X is a mammal.
  5. X is a widow if and only if X has been married.
  6. X is a square if and only X has four sides.
  7. X is alive if and only if X can breathe.

When you’ve analysed these, scroll down for some answers:

Answers:

  1. X is dead if and only if X has been beheaded.

    This analysis is too strong. The condition is sufficient but not necessary. It excludes people who have died of other causes than beheading.
  2. X is a bird if and only if X can fly.

    This analysis is both too strong and too weak. The condition is neither necessary nor sufficient. It excludes some flightless birds (e.g. penguins) which it should’ve included. It also includes creatures which fly but aren’t birds (e.g. bats).
  3. X is a university graduate if and only if X has been to university.

    This analysis is too weak. The condition is necessary but not sufficient. It includes people who have been to university but did not complete their degree as ‘university graduates’.
  4. X is human if and only if X is a mammal.

    This analysis is too weak. The condition is necessary but not sufficient. It includes plenty of mammals as human which aren’t – e.g. cats.
  5. X is a widow if and only if X is a woman who outlived her husband.

    This analysis is quite close to the mark, but is probably too weak. It could be argued that a woman who had remarried is not considered a widow, or that a woman who divorced a man who subsequently died would not be considered a widow.
  6. X is a square if and only X has four sides.

    This analysis is too weak. The condition is necessary but not sufficient. To be a square, a shape would need to have sides of equal length and angles of equal size, as well as four sides.
  7. X is alive if and only if X can breathe.

    This analysis is too strong. The condition is sufficient but not necessary. All things that breathe are alive, but not every living thing breathes – plants, bacteria and viruses are examples of living things which don’t ‘breathe’ per se.

Last edited: 04/03/2021 by CJ Blunt