Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Conceptual Reflection

Concept analysis is a philosophical technique for specifying differences of meaning.


Concept analysis is the process of breaking up a complex conceptual or linguistic entity into its most basic semantic constituents. One assumption of conceptual analysis is that the meaning of a concept lies largely in its usage. For example, in comparing two related concepts such as secrecy and lying, a conceptual analyst might ask: In what ways is the concept of “secrecy” used in everyday life? And in what situations and circumstances is the concept “lying” used? Are there situations where these concepts are interchangeable? Getting at the most basic meanings of a concept is accomplished by tracing its usages in different settings and in different domains of life.


Conceptual analysis can be a very helpful tool for phenomenology because concepts can reveal how human beings understand their world. For example, with respect to the concepts of secrecy and lying we may note differences in intent as well as moral value. The intent of lying is usually to deceive but the intent of keeping a secret is usually to keep something hidden. People may keep some things secret from others for reasons of discretion, privacy, or modesty. We simply do not like other people to know things that are very personal. Many of us probaly tell small lies throughout the day. For example, someone greets you and says “How are you?” and you say: “Fine.” However, you do not really feel fine. Nevertheless, lying generally tends to be seen as morally wrong; that is why an innocent lie is sometimes called a “white lie.” Small children who cannot yet differentiate between the concepts of truth and falsehood, and therefore cannot be blamed for telling lies. Interestingly, adults tend to use different words for the untruths that small children commit. Instead of saying: “You are lying, aren’t you? The adult says to the child: “You are telling a story, aren’t you?” And as the child gets older the adult may say that the child is “fibbing”. Clearly, with our ordinary language we show that we sense that lying carries a moral weight that cannot yet be applied to a small child as long as the child does not yet possess a concept of truth, falsehood, or deception.