Philosophical term for analysing the assumptions behind a concept?
February 15, 2018 5:23 PM   Subscribe

I think that it is often very fruitful to look at the assumptions behind a particular concept or the connotations that are tied to it and examine situations where these don't apply or even break. I'm already aware of the term Conceptual Analysis, but this seems to cover trying to create a definition that is consistent, simple and in line with our intuitions, as opposed to analysing assumptions without necessarily having a definition as the end goal.

As an example, the conceptual analysis of a table would be pretty boring, as this seems to merely be a question of taxonomy. In contrast, identifying the assumptions we make about tables has the potential to be rather fruitful. For example, we tend to think of tables as static objects, but companies like Microsoft are working on smart tables that you can interact with. Additionally, the assumption is usually that you have a chair and that you sit down at a table, but some people are now using standing desks as they are better for your health. Additionally, you generally sit down on a chair in front of a table, but sometimes it is actually convenient to attach a mini-table to the chair. This is all very pragmatic; after all, someone had to be the first to think of these ideas.

As another example because of the need to get things done, people have a tendency to value answers over questions. Someone could push back against this by arguing that answers tend to lose their value over time, while questions keep them ( They might also argue that sometimes finding the right question to ask gets you 90% of the way to an answer and that focusing so much on the answer can actually be counter-productive if it prevents you realising that you need to reframe.

Two more points to clarify the scope I'm imagining: 1) These need not actually be positions that people explicitly endorse or defend, in fact given how much happens unconsciously in our brains, the majority of such analysis might concern beliefs or tendencies that people don’t even know what they have 2) This analysis does not need to necessarily involve trying to delve into matters like, “What exactly are questions and answers?”. All you need to know is a pattern of thought and cases that aren't covered by that line of thinking.

Just to reiterate, I'm trying to discover if there is already a philosophical term for this kind of analysis?
posted by casebash to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds very close to set theory and truth conditions in semantics. Here is a pithy intro.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 5:31 PM on February 15, 2018

I don't think there's one term that covers all the ground in your question, because I think what you're describing is philosophy itself. I don't know how much of it you've studied, but when I was an undergraduate this is what we all spent our first couple of years talking & thinking about - generally via different historic and contemporary approaches to exactly these questions.
posted by rd45 at 2:59 AM on February 16, 2018

Criticism and deconstruction might be what you're looking for.
posted by clawsoon at 4:56 AM on February 16, 2018

posted by effluvia at 6:49 AM on February 16, 2018

I would argue that you could appropriate the term "Socratic questioning" for this. In its current usage the term sort of refers to a didactic approach, but in the works of Plato I'm familiar with the character of Socrates is often finding truth by digging at the assumptions people have about a topic, particularly the assumptions of people who are supposed to be experts on that topic or by asking a random passerby about a "common sense" subject, as it were, that otherwise might be regarded as intuitively understandable.
posted by XMLicious at 7:01 AM on February 16, 2018

A term that is often used in philosophy is debunking, even though that might not be what you're after as it's too narrow and too tied to discrediting "positions that people explicitly endorse or defend". Questioning is a good one indeed. Problematizing also seems to fit the bill.

The thought process in relation to the table that you describe is similar too a technique which, in phenonomenology, is called eidetic variation or reduction. It's a form of imaginitive variation that is often used in philosophy, generally - hence the use of so many thought experiments which are essentially about finding counter-examples to any proposed claim or definition.

I agree that there's no one word, though, because what you describe is indeed the basis of all philosophical questioning.
posted by Desertshore at 7:14 AM on February 16, 2018

Response by poster: Hmm, for some reason none of the answers seem to refer to the concept I'm trying to pick out. Responding in order:
* Set theory/truth conditions are useful for conceptual analysis, but I already explained that I'm not trying to define objects, but identify assumptions we tend to make about them
* I've actually got a degree in philosophy. Most of what I studied was based upon trying to find the true nature of things, rather than just analysing the assumptions we make and cases where these assumptions might not hold. For example, you don't need to define what a table is to note that we assume tables are static and it is possible to make a "smart table" like Microsoft does. Whether or not a "smart table" is actually a table does not need to be considered.
* Deconstruction tends to say that certain concepts are incoherent, but this is about the reliability of our assumptions, not the coherence of concepts themselves
* Socratic questioning is too broad
* Eidetic reduction seems to be about creating a definition, which not the goal here

Thanks everyone for your answers though.
posted by casebash at 9:53 PM on February 16, 2018

I'm a bit confused as to why Whether or not a "smart table" is actually a table does not need to be considered if you're trying to examine situations where [the assumptions behind a particular concept or the connotations that are tied to it] don't apply or even break; it seems to me a vitally important question, because if a "smart table" simply isn't a table then any departure from the concept of a table or the connotations tied to it is no more significant than those things not applying or breaking when considered in relation to a Chihuahua.
posted by XMLicious at 8:32 AM on February 17, 2018

Response by poster: @XMLicious. You can realise that we normally assume tables are static, that it would be possible to take a table and make it non-static and that this is useful if you do this by making a smart-table. Whether or not the resulting thing is still a table is irrelevant as what you've produced is just as useful regardless of what you label it. (Sure the idea already exists, but there was a time when it didn't).
posted by casebash at 3:25 AM on February 18, 2018

But if at some point in the future the most common form of the thing referred to as a table is more similar to the smart-table than to the current most common form, static tables, and if that fact were evidence regarding the assumptions we make about tables, would that not demonstrate that your "realization" that we normally assume tables are static is incorrect?

The current existence of tables that have entire or partial surfaces which move mechanically, such as a table saw or rotary table or tilt table, as well as applications of the label such as water table or tables of information in print or applications related to computing, makes it appear to me that staticness isn't actually inherent to the concept of a table; and that hence a smart-table doesn't involve an innovation in the idea of a table or a departure from preceding assumptions (solely with respect to its staticness or lack thereof, at least.)

You say in the OP "identifying the assumptions we make about tables has the potential to be rather fruitful", but it seems as though from these recent statements you're actually skipping the part that involves identifying those assumptions if you're disregarding the question of whether a smart-table is a table.

(And hence, is there possibly more refinement needed to the description of the type of analysis you're thinking of?)
posted by XMLicious at 2:54 PM on February 18, 2018

(Like, maybe you're thinking of analysis of a category of statements which would be better called something other than "assumptions", or which are assumptions with a very specific context?)
posted by XMLicious at 3:25 PM on February 18, 2018

Response by poster: @XMLicious: This analysis would not be universal and apply to all possible contexts, but would instead analysis the assumptions that are likely within a specific context.

"The current existence of tables that have entire or partial surfaces which move mechanically, such as a table saw or rotary table or tilt table" - Sure these exist, but ask someone to imagine a table and they'll probably imagine a static object. Even if they wouldn't assert, "All tables are static" if asked explicitly, they might still unconsciously make this assumption or at least be biased towards considering static possibilities.

"disregarding the question of whether a smart-table is a table" - It is possible to realise that there is this conceivable object (the smart table) that is not contained in some people's assumptions about tables, but which is also table-like in many ways. This is a useful insight by itself and does not depend on providing a precise definition on a table.
posted by casebash at 3:56 PM on February 18, 2018

ask someone to imagine a table and they'll probably imagine a static object.

I've read a couple of books which have talked about the way that we tend to have ideal types - or at least ideal features - in mind for words. "Animal" is a good word for thinking about that. When you ask a normal person to think of an animal, they will almost always think of a furry mammal that walks on four feet. Some people won't be sure if a bird counts as an animal; most people will think of insects as being a separate category from animals; only the oddest of biologists will immediately think of a sponge when you ask them to think of an animal.

Is that related at all to what you're thinking of?

Unfortunately, I can't remember at the moment what those books were, since it has been years since I read them.
posted by clawsoon at 4:16 PM on February 18, 2018

If you're thinking about assumptions made by particular people, or particular categories of people, in practical situations and in particular places and times, and in the absence of precise definitions, maybe you'd want to take your search for terminology beyond philosophy.

Root cause analysis, for example, is a term used in fields like safety and statistical process control, where a component of the analysis will often be the assumptions made by a worker or machine operator, when the output of a manufacturing process isn't within tolerance or an injury or death has occurred. (And further analysis will often dig into why particular flawed assumptions were made, such as a misleading or incomplete part of the way people are trained or a poor design for machinery or interfaces which deceives or misdirects the thought process of the person interacting with them.)

(I'd expect that any term matching up with what you're thinking about would probably be an instrumental one within a discipline like root cause analysis, as opposed to the term "root cause analysis" itself.)
posted by XMLicious at 5:00 PM on February 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

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