Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Reduction or Connection?

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I should really be writing a book review right now, but I need a break. Who would have thought this project would turn into a new form of work avoidance? I need to get out more! Anyway, so far Strawson has provided the most enjoyable read, so I’m going back to read Chapter 2 of Analysis and Metaphysics today.

Strawson’s initial project in this chapter is to describe how we can construct complex and interesting concepts out of simple ideas or understand complex concepts by reducing them to their simplest elements and locating the ‘necessary and sufficient conditions of the correct application of the concept’.i

Now I happen to love this kind of philosophical investigation – whilst writing my PhD I often found myself stopping mid sentence to consider what I actually meant by the term I was using. In fact I spent several months during my first year just trying to build a better conception of the concept of cruelty and find necessary and sufficient conditions for it; it turned out to be pretty damned difficult. As a further aside – the paper that came out of that thinking it has produced some hilariously varied reviews from the deliberately offensive, to the extremely complimentary, gaining me a valuable insight into the peer review process. Sometimes I feel like a massive chunk of my philosophical practice is devoted to mastering language, which is awesome because understanding, communication, and expression are pretty dammed central to our shared existence and hugely enriching to boot.

Strawson goes beyond this fairly simple method to extend the project of conceptual analysis to include an exploration of the connections between items and systems. One reason to use this connective model is that reducing concepts to atomistic elements is often implausible because sometimes (or perhaps always) ideas simply cannot be understood in isolation (Strawson uses the example of trying to understand knowledge without reference to sense perception). Indeed, can any concept be reduced to components that do not themselves rely upon further concepts that themselves require analysis? Knowing that this is likely to occur when seeking necessary and sufficient conditions for a concept can make analysis quite a daunting prospect – you never know where conceptual analysis will lead you (of course, this is also a little exciting so long as you’re not pressed for time).

There’s lots more to this chapter, but I can hear a child stirring in his bed upstairs, so I’m going to leave this post here.

iP. F. Strawson, Analysis and metaphysics: an introduction to philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1992), 18.


Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

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