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Lesson Explainer: Analysis, Synthesis, Abstraction, and Generalization Philosophy

In this explainer, we will learn how to explain four philosophical thinking skills: analysis, synthesis, abstraction, and generalization.

Analysis is the skill of breaking something whole down into its component parts to explain and understand it. Analyzing a large topic makes understanding it more manageable. This skill has applications in many aspects of life.

Key Term: Analysis

Analysis is the skill of breaking a whole down into its component parts to explain and understand it.

For example, analysis can help young people choose a career. Choosing a career is one of the most complicated and difficult decisions that a young person must make.

Because of the difficulty of making the right choice, many people pursue the most obvious options. They try to succeed in highly sought-after careers such as medicine and engineering. However, because of the competition for these careers, not all of those who attempt them can succeed. On top of that, the prestige of these careers attracts people who may not be well suited to them.

Choosing a career path can be made more manageable if you use analysis to separate the different things that you should take into consideration. Then, you can consider things like the salary and working conditions, available job prospects, and how well your temperament and abilities are suited to each of the careers you are considering. You can consider each of these factors in a systematic way.

For example, you might be attracted by the prestige of a medical career. On the other hand, you might worry about the long hours that this career requires.

Similarly, your friend might be attracted by the job prospects that a career in engineering might offer. However, they might find that a career in software development might offer even better job prospects.

Analyzing a topic allows us to tackle its component parts one by one or to focus in on the parts that we consider most important. If we do not analyze the topic, it is likely to be too broad and complex for us to achieve a clear understanding of it.

Slicing a Pizza
Figure 1: Just as slicing a pizza makes it easier to eat, analyzing a topic makes it easier to think about.

Example 1: The Skill of Analysis

How can analyzing a problem help solve it?

  1. It can help by making the problem more manageable.
  2. It can help by giving us a way to put part of the problem off until later.
  3. It can make the problem seem smaller by showing us the big picture.
  4. It can help us explain to others why the problem should go away.
  5. It can help by making the problem more complicated.

Answer

Neither putting a problem off until later nor making the problem more complicated is likely to help solve it. Doing this may even make it harder to solve.

Explaining why a problem does not matter may help us avoid it, but it will not help us solve it.

Seeing the big picture may help to solve a problem, but this is not something that is achieved directly by analysis. Rather, it is achieved by synthesis.

When we analyze a large problem by breaking it down into parts, it can help to make the problem more manageable and therefore easier to solve. The correct answer is A.

Analysis and synthesis are two sides of the same coin. In analysis, we break problems or questions down into parts, while in synthesis we bring different aspects of our understanding together.

Key Term: Synthesis

Synthesis is the skill of bringing different aspects of a problem together to understand it in full.

Bringing different aspects of our understanding together is important because it allows us to make connections between them.

Synthesis provides us with a broader perspective of the matter at hand.

Let’s go back to our example of choosing a career. Once you have analyzed the decision by breaking it down into considerations regarding the salary, individual temperament and abilities, and job opportunities, you can weigh them up against each other.

Your analysis may have shown that one career is attractive because it offers a high salary, but that it is not well suited to your temperament and abilities. This raises a problem: how can you decide which of the considerations should be given the most weight? Making a decision requires you to bring the considerations into relationship with each other. That is what is meant by synthesis.

Puzzle, placing an orange piece
Figure 2: Just as solving a puzzle requires us to put the pieces together, understanding things requires us to bring different bits of information together.

Example 2: The Skill of Synthesis

How does a mechanic employ synthesis while repairing an engine?

  1. By inventing a new kind of engine that will avoid the original problem
  2. By taking the engine apart to find out what the problem is
  3. By comparing a malfunctioning engine to working engines
  4. By putting the engine back together after fixing it
  5. By identifying the type of engine and the type of problem they are dealing with

Answer

Each of the possible answers gives an example of the use of a different thinking skill, only one of which is synthesis.

Taking an engine apart to find the problem is an example of analysis.

Comparing a malfunctioning engine to a working one is an example of comparison.

Inventing a new kind of engine is an example of creative thinking.

Identifying the type of engine and problem is an example of categorization.

Putting the engine back together after fixing the problem is an example of synthesis. Therefore, the correct answer is D.

Abstraction is a skill that we employ whenever we want to say something about the characteristics that things possess rather than the actual things themselves.

Key Term: Abstraction

Abstraction is the skill of understanding the world by thinking about the characteristics that things possess rather than those things themselves.

For example, when Galileo studied the way that a ball travels through the air, he made experiments using an actual ball.

However, he was not interested in that actual ball itself. He was only studying the way that the ball moved through space.

He was interested in motion, an abstract characteristic. He used the actual ball and its motion to study motion in the abstract.

That required Galileo to abstract from the actual ball he was observing. Setting aside everything else about the ball that he observed, he only thought about its motion. To do that, he ignored many other characteristics of that particular ball, such as its color, texture, and the substance it was made of.

Figure 3: Galileo was not interested in the motion of the particular objects he experimented on, but in motion in general and in the abstract.

Example 3: The Skill of Abstraction

If there is a chair in front of you and you abstract from it, what do you have on your mind?

  1. A list of the characteristics of the chair
  2. A mental image of that particular chair
  3. An idea of a chair in general
  4. A prediction of what will happen to the chair if you sit on it

Answer

Having a mental image of a particular chair does not involve abstraction from the chair because it only concerns that specific chair and not all things of its type.

A list of the characteristics of the chair will involve some characteristics that are shared by other things. However, in a complete list, there is no distinction between the characteristics that belong to that chair alone and those that belong to things in general.

A prediction of what will happen to the chair will require an abstraction from the particular chair in order to apply universal laws to it. However, it is not the direct product of abstraction.

An idea of a chair in general is one of the things that the process of abstraction could result in.

The correct answer is C.

Galileo’s understanding of the motion of the ball in the abstract allowed him to go on to think about motion in general. He could think about the way that physical objects in general move and not just the way that that particular ball moved.

This involved the thinking skill of generalization. Generalization is the application of the abstract characteristics to an entire class of things.

It allows us to make claims about a class of things rather than just one thing.

Key Term: Generalization

Generalization is the application of abstract characteristics to an entire class of things.

For example, the usefulness of Galileo’s ideas would be far too limited if they were only about that one particular ball. To make them significant, he had to generalize his claims so that they referred to all physical objects.

Galileo could generalize about the motion of physical objects because he correctly identified physical objects as the class of things that his observations about motion apply to.

Let’s summarize some of the key points we have covered in this explainer.

Key Points

  • Analysis is the skill of breaking something down into its component parts to explain and understand it.
  • Analyzing a large topic makes understanding it more manageable.
  • Synthesis is the skill of bringing different aspects of a problem together to understand it in full.
  • Synthesis allows us to understand the topic as a whole.
  • Abstraction is the skill of understanding the world by thinking about the characteristics that things possess rather than those things themselves.
  • Generalization is the application of abstract characteristics to an entire class of things.
  • Generalization allows us to make broad claims about the natural world.

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