analytic and holistic reasoning about social questions

“President Biden’s student loan cancellations will bring relief.” “Retrospectively forgiving loans creates a moral hazard.” “At this college, students study the liberal arts.” “An unexamined life is not worth living for humans.”

These claims are, respectively, about a specific act (a policy announced yesterday), a pattern that applies across many cases, an assessment of an institution, and a universal principle.

These statements may be related. An ambitious defense of Biden’s decision to forgive student loans might connect that act to liberal education and thence to a good life, whereas a critique might tie the loan cancelation to cost increases. A good model of a social issue or question often combines several such components.

In this post, I will contrast two ways of thinking about models and their components.

  1. Analytic reasoning

Analytic reasoning seeks characteristics that apply across cases. We can define government aid, moral hazard, and education, defend these definitions against alternatives, and then expect them generally to have the same significance wherever they apply. For example, becoming more self-aware is desirable, all else being equal or as far as that goes (ceteris paribus or pro tanto). We need a definition of self-awareness that allows us to understand what tends to produce it and what good it does. The same goes for loans, loan-forgiveness, and so on.

Methods like controlled field experiments and regression models require analysis, and they demonstrate that it has value. Ethical arguments that depend on sharply defined universals are quintessentially analytic. Qualitative research is often quite analytic, too, particularly when either the researcher or the research subjects employ general concepts.

Analytic reasoning offers the promise of generalizable solutions to social problems. For instance, let’s say you believe that we should spend more money on schools in poor communities. In that case, you are thinking analytically: you view money as an identifiable factor with predictable impact. Note that you might advocate increasing the national education budget while also being sensitive to local differences about things other than money.

  1. Holistic reasoning

Holistic reasoning need not been any less rigorous, precise, or tough-minded than analytic reasoning, but it works with different objects: whole things. For example, we can describe a college as an entity. To do that requires saying many specific things about the institution, but each claim is not meant to generalize to other places.

At a given (imaginary) institution, the interplay between a rural setting, an affluent student body, an applied-science curriculum, a modest endowment, and a recent crisis of leadership could produce unexpected results, and those are only some of the factors that would explain the particular ethos that emerges at that college.

Holistic reasoning is wise if each factor is closely related to others in its specific context. For instance, often a statistic about a place is the result of decisions about what and how to measure, which (in turn) depend on who’s in charge and what incentives they face, which depends on prior political decisions, and so on–indefinitely. From a holistic perspective, a statistic lacks meaning except in conjunction with many other facts.

There is a link here to holistic theories of meaning and/or language, e.g., Robert Brandom: “one cannot have any concepts unless one has many concepts. For the content of each concept is articulated by its inferential relations to other concepts. Concepts, then, must come in packages” (Brandom 2000).

Holistic reasoning is also wise if values change their significance depending on the context, a view labeled as “holism” in metaethics. We are familiar with the idea that lying is bad–except in circumstances when it is good, or even courageous and necessary. An ethical holist believes that there are good and bad value-judgments, but they are not about abstract categories (such as lying). They are about wholes.

Finally, holistic reasoning is wise if we can gain insights about meaning that would be lost in analysis. In Clifford Geertz’ classic interpretation of a Balinese cockfight (Geertz 1972), he successively describes that phenomenon as “a chicken hacking another mindless to bits” (p. 84); “deep play” (p. 71), or an activity that has intrinsic interest for those involved; “fundamentally a dramatization of status concerns” (p. 74); an “encompassing structure” that presents a coherent vision of “death, masculinity, rage, pride, loss, beneficence, chance” (p. 79); and “a kind of sentimental education” from which a Balinese man “learns what his culture’s ethos and his private sensibility (or, anyway, certain aspects of them) look like when spelled out externally in a collective text” (p. 83).

Geertz offers lots of specific empirical data and uses concepts that would apply across cases, including terms like “chickens” and “betting” that arise globally. However, he is not primarily interested in what causes cockfights in Bali or what they cause. His main question is: What is this thing? Since Balinese cockfighting is a human activity, what it is is what it means. And it has meaning as a whole thing, not as a collection of parts.


This discussion may suggest that holistic reasoning is more sensitive and thoughtful than analytic reasoning. But recall that ambitious social reform proposals depend on analytic claims. If everything is contextual, then there is no basis for changing policies or priorities that apply across cases. Holistic reasoning may be conservative, in a Burkean sense–for better or for worse.

Then again, a “whole” need not be something small and local, like a cockfight in Bali or a college in the USA. A nation-state can also be analyzed and interpreted holistically and changed as a result.

It is trite to say that we need both analytic and holistic reasoning about policy, but we do. Instead of jumping to that conclusion, I’ve tried to draw a contrast that suggests some real disadvantages of each.

References: Brandom, Robert B. Articulating reasons: An introduction to inferentialism. Harvard University Press, 2001; Geertz, Clifford. “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight.” Daedalus 134.4 (2005): 56-86. See also: against methodological individualism; applied ethics need not mean applying ethical systems; what must we believe?, modeling social reality; choosing models that illuminate issues–on the logic of abduction in the social sciences and policy; choosing models that illuminate issues–on the logic of abduction in the social sciences and policy; different kinds of social models etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.