On Analytics & Aristotle, Sans Toga

If anyone asked you about the relationship between Aristotle and analytics, your immediate response might be, "What does philosophy have to do with number crunching?" Of the times SAS CEO Jim Goodnight has spoken at analytic conferences, he's not been seen wearing a toga, after all.


However, Aristotle’s influence on analytics is represented by categorical logic, his system of subject/predicate analysis.

Categorical logic purports that there are three types of subject/predicate (or variable/value) relationships: 1) synonyms; 2) homonyms; and 3) paronyms.

Synonyms (univocals) are relationships in which multiple variables map to a single value. Homonyms (equivocals) are relationships in which a single variable maps to multiple values. Paronyms (derivatives) are relationships in which multiple but distinct variable/value pairs represent divisions of a broader concept. In his work Categories, Aristotle expressed his thoughts on subject/predicate relationships:

    Things are said to be named 'equivocally' when, though they have a common name, the definition corresponding with the name differs for each. Thus, a real man and a figure in a picture can both lay claim to the name 'animal'; yet these are equivocally so named, for, though they have a common name, the definition corresponding with the name differs for each. For should any one define in what sense each is an animal, his definition in the one case will be appropriate to that case only.

    On the other hand, things are said to be named 'univocally' which have both the name and the definition answering to the name in common. A man and an ox are both 'animal', and these are univocally so named, inasmuch as not only the name, but also the definition, is the same in both cases: for if a man should state in what sense each is an animal, the statement in the one case would be identical with that in the other.

    Things are said to be named 'derivatively', which derive their name from some other name, but differ from it in termination. Thus the grammarian derives his name from the word 'grammar', and the courageous man from the word 'courage'.

In short, Aristotle classified objects and their characteristics into three major groups. First, he noted that many objects share the same names but had different characteristics. Second, he noted that many objects have different names but have the same characteristics. And third, he noted that many objects have distinct names and characteristics but share a common origin.

The following table exhibits the association among these three components of categorical logic and how they are associated with analytics:

Table 1: Analytics & Aristotle's Categorical Logic

Type Function Nature of Relationship IT Relevance Analytic Significance Example
Synonyms Univocals -– many speak as one. MANY : 1 Multiple variables map to the same idea. When multiple variables share the same meaning, extract only one variable. Since 'SEX' and 'GENDER' typically mean the same thing, keep only one of the two variables.
Homonyms Equivocals -- one speaks as many. 1 : MANY One variable maps to multiple ideas. When one variable has multiple values, transform all the values into a common value. The attributes of GENDER typically map to 'F' or '1' for FEMALE, and 'M' or '2' for MALE. Use either the character or numeric value to represent GENDER.
Paronyms Derivatives –- one idea is expressed by subsets of distinct voices. MANY(1 : 1) : 1 Multiple unique variable/value pairs map to the same idea domain. When designing fact and dimension tables, load the data elements with discrete but related attributes into the same table. Name, Street Address, Phone Number, City, State, and ZIP logically fit together on a CONTACT INFORMATION table.

Aristotle’s ancient work provides a modern framework for preparing data for analysis:

  1. During the extraction process, identify the synonyms and eliminate the excess variables.
  2. During the transformation process, identify the homonyms and eliminate the excess values.
  3. During the loading process, identify the paronyms and group all of the similar analysis variables and classification variables.

This data preparation framework works for me. What works for you?

Bryan Beverly, Statistician, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bryan K. Beverly is from Baltimore. He has a BA in sociology from Morgan State University and an MAS degree in IT management from Johns Hopkins University. His continuing education consists of project management training through the ESI International/George Washington University programs. He began his career in 1984, the same year he was introduced to SAS software. Over the course of nearly 30 years, he has used SAS for data processing, analytics, report generation, and application development on mainframes, mini-computers, and PCs. Bryan has worked in the private sector, public sector, and academia in the Baltimore/Washington region. His work initially focused on programming, but over the years has expanded into project management and business development. Bryan has participated in in-house SAS user groups and SAS user group conferences, and has published in SAS newsletters, as well as company-based newsletters. Over time, his publications have expanded from providing SAS technical tips to examining the sociological, philosophical, financial, and political contexts in which IT is deployed. He believes that the key to a successful IT career is to maintain your skills and think like the person who signs your paycheck.

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Re: History prevails
  • 5/28/2013 10:40:01 AM


Yes I will be sure to keep my day job - quantitative epistemologists don't make it to the Want Ads   ;-)

Re: History prevails
  • 5/26/2013 10:53:51 PM

@Bryan   Great point, Western Civilization owes many foundational principles to the works of Rome and Greece.   I hope all students still have the opportunity and take advantage of the chance to study the various great Philosophers during their undergrad years, because it does promotion exposure to various types of critical thinking. 

One of my favorites !   Just don't get too carried away, I hear the market is weak for philosophers!  : )

Re: History prevails
  • 5/26/2013 1:14:54 PM

Hi Louis,

Thanks for the feedback; glad the info was useful!  Yes - nothing has changed in the last 2,500 years except the tools that we use to understand the world around us.  With all of the degree programs in the natural, social and behavioral sciences, much of what is taught was birthed out of the branches of philosopy.  Those folks (from the pre-socratics forward) put in some serious thinking time about every aspect of life - what it is and methods for investigation and analysis,

Re: History prevails
  • 5/25/2013 3:52:26 PM

@Bryan   Thank you for this very high minded piece on the association between the work of Aristotle and Analytics.  In essence, critical thinking was the goal then as it is now.

Re: History prevails
  • 5/24/2013 11:59:19 AM

Bryan, good advice -- and no doubt we'll see lots of interesting new companies, services, and products result as people apply some of this ancient wisdom to big-data and get innovative!

Re: History prevails
  • 5/24/2013 10:02:17 AM

@Bryan - Shakespeare? Not sure I ever knew the origin (or I had forgotten it).  I tend to be better at discovering and relating facts, than I am at remembering them - I'm terrible with names. 

It may be that in grade school, for years, 'education' consisted of practically nothing but memorization of facts; so much so, that it's as if I've developed an allergic reaction to having to memorize anything.  That means that I often have to 'reinvent the wheel': figure out, what others know because they can recall, what yet others, had figured out; but that's not always a bad thing.  Quite a few facts 'stick' in my memory, though - if they interest me.  It's likely that I'll be able to recall your layout of Aristotle's categorizations and corresponding ER mappings. 

We all have our gifts; exact and detailed recollection of facts is not one of mine.  I can recall the origin of one quote, though: 'A man has got to know his limitations' - Dirty Harry (Magnum Force).

Re: History prevails
  • 5/23/2013 3:17:59 PM


Thank you for the feedback and for adding value to the information shared; nice application of Shakespeare!

Re: History prevails
  • 5/23/2013 2:08:11 PM

@Bryan - Excellent piece.  A fine transcription from the original phrasing to tabular form.  For all the important points made (by Mr. A., and yourself); we have to keep in mind that the '...identify the...and...' bits (which we can term encoding and decoding between formal and informal systems), will never be free of all ambiguities.  These categorizations, along with his syllogistic logic, do form the basis of the First-order Logic/Predicate Calculus, on which  E.F. Codd drew to create the Relational Model (ask Fabian Pascal for more exact information there); and on the framework of the RM hang the most reliable data management and processing practices.  Yet, as soon as people begin to make assumptions about definitions, translations and semantic correspondence, the worm in the bud emerges to spoil our plans for perfect concord. 

Thank you for authoring the post (helps me explain some principles to others).  It's of the quality expected of a Brian (even if you spell it funny). 

Re: History prevails
  • 5/23/2013 1:15:28 PM

@Lyndon - truth in that; yet a weakness of the Aristotelian approach is its reliance on  a priori assumptions.  The very self evidence of many of his views caused them (or inferences drawn from them), to become encrusted as dogma.   I think Galileo would suggest we consider that, as we would apply them to analytics.  

Re: History prevails
  • 5/23/2013 12:53:20 PM

Hi Beth,

In many ways, the fundamental issues of social concern were first addressed by these ancient thinkers.  What I discovered in college was that many of these folks were wealthy or had a stream of financial support (private and/or public) which gave them the time to enagage in serious observation, reflection, teaching and writing. 

These folks did not have computers, but the foundation for today's analytics were dug centuries ago.  They did not have our technology, but folks like Aristotle had already arrived at the ideas for which many of us still seek.

I hope this posting encourages our community to dust-off their old humantiies books - there's a lot of old gold ready to be rediscovered and reinterpreted for this era. 

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