Analysis and synthesis

by Neil Rickert

I’ll start with some definitions, from Dictionary.com:

  • synthesis: the combining of the constituent elements of separate material or abstract entities into a single or unified entity;
  • analysis: the separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements.

In order to carry out a synthesis, you must start with the component parts.  Otherwise there is no way to proceed.

In order to perform analysis, you must start with some sort of methods for separating into parts.

In recent posts, I have been discussing the idea of carving up the world.  That more or less fits the definition of analysis.

My starting assumption, based on what I know about biology, is that an organism starts its life without much knowledge of what exists in the world, but with some innate abilities (methods).  So it would seem that analysis, rather than synthesis, should be the basis of learning how to cope in the world.

An example

As a child, maybe at around 12 years of age, I remember taking my bicycle completely apart.  And then I reassembled it.  That would be an example of analysis, followed by a synthesis.

I learned a lot about bicycles from doing that analysis.  I mainly used standard mechanics tools — mostly wrenches, though in Australia we called those “spanners”.  I also used tire irons to remove the tires and tubes.  And I think I used a hammer to knock out the cotter pins.

The reassembly served of a test of what I had learned in taking the bike apart.

Description

For this post, I am particularly interested in how we find ways to describe the world.  This includes part of what philosophers do, and part of what scientists do.

Within mathematics, logic is mainly a tool for synthesis.  And geometry is better suited to analysis.

Within philosophy, logic appears to be the primary tool used.  And that would seem to make analytic philosophy a mainly synthetic discipline, at least in terms of how it deals with descriptions.  Philosophers make ontology an important part of their discipline.  Presumably, this is because you cannot start using synthesis until you already know the component parts that you are planning to put together.

By contrast, the classical explorers of history had to use analytic methods.  They went into an unknown territory, often with know prior knowledge of what they would find.  Their primary way of recording their discovery, was with map making.  And that fits in with the use of geometry.  They would find the most obvious features to use as landmarks — mountains, large rivers, etc.  And they would build maps around those.  And then they would look to filling in more detail.  They did not need prior knowledge of the components of the world that they were exploring.  The early explorers of Australia had no advance knowledge of kangaroos or koalas or echidnas or platypuses.  Evidently, if the methods of analysis are used, it is not necessary to start with ontology.

Propositions

I normally talk of statements rather than of propositions, because it is contentious as to whether there are such things as propositions.  For the purposes of this post, however, I’ll use the term “proposition”.  Feel free to interpret that as “statement.”

When using the methods of synthesis to form descriptions, one starts with basic concepts (presumably coming from ontology), and puts them together to form propositions.  These are typically contingent propositions.  Whether they are true depends on whether you got the description right.  Or, in other terminology, they are synthetic propositions.

With the methods of analysis, it works out differently.  One starts by dividing up the world (or what is being analyzed).  And the component parts and the propositions connecting those parts tend to emerge as whole from the analysis.  Often a component part will be definded in terms of how it was found.  And this definition will look like a proposition describing the world in terms of that component part.  So we will often get propositions that appear to be true by virtue of the means of the terms used.  That is to say, we often finish up with analytic propositions (or necessary truths).

It is sometime said that an analytic proposition has no descriptive content.  To me, this seems obviously wrong.  If one can form contentful descriptions using analytic methods, and if those methods result in analytic propositions, clearly those propositions have descriptive content.  But I think there’s a tricky point here.  The descriptive content of an analytic proposition comes from the meanings of the terms.  It does not come from the form and structure of the proposition.

Science

In my experience, science uses both analysis and synthesis.  It’s a bit like the example above, with my bicycle.  A new area in science starts with analysis, which provides the basic components.  And then the methods of synthesis are used to test how well that analysis worked.

Unfortunately, most philosophy of science seems to describe science as mostly synthesis.  And, at least to me, this seems to badly misdescribe science.  So a science is described as a system of beliefs, whereas it should really be described as a system of methods used for analysis.  Much of the literature on empiricism is based on assuming synthesis.  And how scientific theories arise is left a bit of a mystery — presumably because the theories arise from the analysis done by scientists, and that is not easily describable as if it were a matter of synthesis.

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4 Comments to “Analysis and synthesis”

  1. Neil,

    This is a wonderful post and subject.

    Unfortunately, most philosophy of science seems to describe science as mostly synthesis.

    Neil, I often ask WHY NOT more interdisciplinary sciences and sub-sciences on any and every subject!? Doing so only hedges well against (innocent?) biases, errors, and misconceived theories! And on this subject, I am SO NOT A FAN of incessant specialization of education/under-grad degrees and occupations for the mere fact that it makes your populace, your workforce, your voting citizens, HELL… even your Presidents grossly ignorant of other disciplines and experts! Grrrrrrrrrr. What is so bad, so scary about diversity? 😡

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    • Neil, I often ask WHY NOT more interdisciplinary sciences and sub-sciences on any and every subject!?

      My personal opinion — this is mostly a consequence of the “publish or perish” system in the universities. It is easier to get published in a narrow specialty than with interdisciplinary research.

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      • Does that “fast narrow” publishing mentality (at the expense of accuracy & broader impact/support) pander to increased ignorance or increased knowledge? Or perhaps something in between?

        Like the Hubble Space telescope, when we utilize it for MORE THAN one tiny window of deep resolution and immense discoveries and better understandings of our Cosmos, and use it for MANY 360-degree 3-D windows everywhere out into the Cosmos for much, much more… why the tunnel-vision rather than both the entire kaleidoscope and the sub-atomic, so to speak? Are economics playing into this as well… as they so often do?

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        • Fifty years ago, there was more consideration of “broader impact” than there is today. Now there is more emphasis on raw counts of papers, citation index entries, etc. This is partly because raw counts are more objective, less subject to racial bias, gender bias, etc.

          It’s good to try to avoid biases. But I think we have lost something valuable along the way.

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