Analytic philosophy

From New World Encyclopedia

Analytic philosophy has been the dominant academic philosophical movement in English-speaking countries and in the Nordic countries from about the beginning of the twentieth century up to about the 1970s or 1980s, and possibly since then. It is distinguished from Continental philosophy, which takes its name from the European continent and is the dominant philosophy in most non-English speaking countries.

The main founders of analytic philosophy were the Cambridge philosophers G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. Perhaps its strongest impetus came from their reaction against British Idealism, and their rejection of Hegel and Hegelianism. However, both Moore and Russell—especially Russell—were heavily influenced by the German philosopher and mathematician Gottlob Frege, and many of analytic philosophy's leading proponents, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Kurt Gödel, Karl Popper, Hans Reichenbach, Herbert Feigl, Otto Neurath, and Carl Hempel have come from Germany and Austria.


Analytic philosophy developed primarily in English-speaking countries.

In Britain, Russell and Moore were succeeded by C. D. Broad, L. Susan Stebbing, Gilbert Ryle, A. J. Ayer, R. B. Braithwaite, Paul Grice, John Wisdom, R. M. Hare, J. L. Austin, P. F. Strawson, William Kneale, G. E. M. Anscombe, Peter Geach, and others.

In America, the movement was led by many of the above-named European emigres as well as Max Black, Ernest Nagel, Charles L. Stevenson, Norman Malcolm, Willard Van Orman Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, Nelson Goodman, and others, while A. N. Prior, John Passmore, and J. J. C. Smart were prominent in Australasia.

Logic and philosophy of language were central strands of analytic philosophy from the beginning, although this dominance diminished greatly in the latter part of the twentieth century. Several lines of thought originate from the early, language-and-logic part of this analytic philosophy tradition. These include: logical positivism or logical empiricism, logical atomism, logicism and ordinary language philosophy.

Central to logical positivism and logical empiricism were the Vienna Circle, the work of Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap and other members of the Circle, the principle of verificationism, the analytic-synthetic distinction, the rejection of metaphysics, and emotivism in ethics and aesthetics. A.J. Ayer's small but highly influential book, Language, Truth, and Logic can be thought of as a summary statement of and introduction to logical positivism for the English-speaking world. In the 1930s, with the coming of Nazism, there was a large immigration of logicians and scientists from continental Europe to Britain, America, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere in the non-Nazi world. (See Logical positivism and Vienna Circle)

In the 1950s the programs of the logical positivists and logical empiricists began to unravel for both internal and external reasons. Quine's 1951 essay, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," disposing of the supposed analytic-synthetic distinction, and of reductionism, "the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience" as Quine put it, was central to the demise of logical positivism. Hempel's essay, "Problems and Changes in the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning," published in 1950, also showed logical and other problems inherent in the notions of experiential testability, verifiability, falsifiability, confirmability, and translatability into an empiricist language as a criterion of cognitive meaning. Those works and others, written by former proponents of logical positivism or logical empiricism, proved devastating to the program.

It is possible to divide analytic philosophy into two strains or camps: ordinary language philosophy, led by John L. Austin and carried on by his followers—this has sometimes been known as "Oxford philosophy"—and the other camp containing everything else. This break comes over the question whether analysis should be carried on primarily through and on ordinary language, or whether it should have a component of formal logic and formal language.

Subsequent analytic and post-analytic philosophy includes extensive work in ethics, such as carried out by Philippa Foot, R. M. Hare, J. L. Mackie, Alasdair MacIntyre, and others; political philosophy as done most notably by John Rawls and Robert Nozick; aesthetics as investigated by Monroe Beardsley, Richard Wollheim, and Arthur Danto; philosophy of religion as studied by Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne; philosophy of language carried out by many philosophers including David Kaplan, Saul Kripke, Richard Montague, Hilary Putnam, W.V.O. Quine, Nathan Salmon, and John Searle; and philosophy of mind as studied by Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers, Hilary Putnam and others. Analytic metaphysics also came into its own with the work of Saul Kripke, David Lewis, Nathan Salmon, Peter van Inwagen, P.F. Strawson, and others.

The term analytic philosophy

The term analytic philosophy is slightly ambiguous and generally has three meanings: doctrine, method, and tradition.

  1. The doctrines most often called "analytic philosophy" are logical positivism and logical atomism. More loosely, the term can also refer to ordinary language philosophy, common sense philosophy, or some amalgam of the above. This usage made some sense until the 1950s, when most prominent "analytic" philosophers were commonly engaged in a few related research programs and committed to similar basic theses; but it is increasingly misleading, as very few contemporary analytic philosophers adhere to any of these schools, let alone all of them. To equate modern analytic philosophy with logical positivism or to assume that it is substantially like logical positivism is a common mistake.
  2. The method of Analytic philosophy is a generalized approach to philosophy. Originally associated with the projects of logical analysis, it nowadays emphasizes a clear, precise approach with particular weight being placed upon argumentation and evidence, avoidance of ambiguity, and attention to detail. This has made many philosophical subjects more suited to specialization and precision work, and also made many writings more technical than they were in the past. Arguably it has also resulted in philosophy having less of the sweeping "meaning of life" scope that is popularly associated with the term, and the critics of analytic philosophy sometimes level this point against it. On the other hand, it has arguably added focus and rigor, allowing for debate and a reduction in philosophers talking past each other.
  3. The tradition of Analytic philosophy began with Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore at the turn of the twentieth century, and, just over a decade later, with Ludwig Wittgenstein, and includes all those who work in their vein and on the various projects that have emerged out of the work of other analytic philosophers since. It is characterized, normally, by its effort to clarify philosophical issues by analysis and logical rigor—i.e., by method (2), above.

Relation to continental philosophy

The term "analytic philosophy" in part denotes the fact that most of this philosophy traces its roots to the early 20th century movement of "logical analysis"; in part the term serves to distinguish "analytic" from other kinds of philosophy, especially "continental philosophy." Continental philosophy mainly denotes philosophy that developed in continental Europe after Hegel, largely in response to Modernity or Modern philosophy that developed from Descartes through Hegel. The major philosophical movement of "continental philosphy" was phenomenology initiated by Edmund Husserl, followed by Martin Heidegger. Analytic philosophy developed as a reaction against the strong influence of Hegel, and especially against Heidegger. Most analytic philosophers considered themselves to be empiricists, and they took Hume to be their greatest and most important philosophical ancestor. Analytic philosophers viewed Hegel's philosophy to be "obscure and neologistic" and Heidegger's to be "aggressive and oppressive obscurantism, obfuscation, and opacity."

The split between the two began early in the twentieth century. The logical positivists of the 1920s promoted a systematic rejection of metaphysics, and a generalized hostility to metaphysical concepts that they considered meaningless or ill-conceived: for example, God, the immaterial soul, or universals such as "redness." This was at the same time that Heidegger was dominating philosophy in Germany and becoming influential in France, and his work became the object of frequent derision in English-speaking philosophy departments.

While continental philosophers pursued traditional metaphysical issues and socio-political-historical dimensions of knowledge, analytic philosophers focused on logical analyses of languages. These two movements took different paths without much communication. Analytic philosophers ignored continental philosophy as “obscure and meaningless,” and continental philosophers looked down on analytic philosophy as “superficial and shallow.” The split affected various philosophy departments of higher education. Most philosophy departments in England and USA were dominated by analytic philosophy and those of Germany, France, and other countries in the continental Europe were dominated by continental philosophy.

Each tradition, however, outgrew and evolved into diverse styles and forms. The division of these two movements today is no longer as sharp as that was at early half of the twentieth century.

The coinage of “analytic” and “continental” is also problematic. The term "analytic" conventionally indicates a method of philosophy, while the term "continental" indicates, rather, a geographical origin. The distinction is, for this reason, somewhat misleading. Analytic philosophy's founding fathers, Frege, Wittgenstein, Carnap, the logical positivists (the Vienna Circle), the Logical Empiricists (in Berlin), and the Polish logicians were all products of the continent of Europe. Much philosophy in Germany and Italy today, most of that in the Nordic countries, and a great deal scattered over the rest of the continent and in Latin America, is likewise analytic. The European Society for Analytic Philosophy [1] holds continental-wide conventions every third year. Conversely, continental philosophy is pursued today perhaps by more people in English-speaking countries than anywhere else, if primarily in comparative literature or cultural studies departments.

Many people now claim that the distinction fails: that the subject matter of continental philosophy is capable of being studied using the now-traditional tools of analytic philosophy. If this is true, the phrase "analytic philosophy" might be redundant, or maybe normative, as in "rigorous philosophy." The phrase "continental philosophy," like "Greek philosophy," would denote a certain historical period or series of schools in philosophy: German idealism, Marxism, psychoanalysis qua philosophy, existentialism, phenomenology, and post-structuralism.

Analytic philosophy, under one interpretation, failed by its own "systematic" lights to demonstrate the meaninglessness or fictitiousness of the concepts it attacked. As early as 1959 John Passmore declared that "Logical positivism … is dead, or as dead as a philosophical movement ever becomes." ("Logical Positivism," in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paul Edwards, Ed., Vol. 5, 56) Few analytic philosophers today would agree that they have anything like an exact and proven theory of which terms are meaningful and which meaningless. Contemporary analytic philosophy journals are—for good or ill—as rich in metaphysics as any continental philosopher.

Formalism and natural languages

The aim of the analytic approach is to clarify philosophical problems by examining and clarifying the language used to express them. This has led to a number of successes: Symbolic logic and other aspects of modern logic, recognizing the primary importance of sense and reference in the construction of meaning and the distinction between syntax and semantics in the study of language, Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, Bertrand Russell's theory of definite descriptions, Karl Popper's theory of falsificationism, and Alfred Tarski's Semantic Theory of Truth.

Ordinary language analytic philosophy

Two major threads weave through the analytic tradition. One seeks to understand language by making use of formal logic and formal or constructed language. That is, in one way or another it seeks to formalize the way in which philosophical statements are made.

The other thread seeks to understand philosophical ideas by a close and careful examination of the natural language (usually called "ordinary language," or the language commonly spoken by people, such as spoken English or German or French) used to express them – usually with some emphasis on the importance of common sense in dealing with difficult concepts. This philosophical movement or motif can be traced back at least partly to the work of G.E. Moore, and is usuallly held to have had its greatest exponent in John L. Austin and his work at Oxford, especially after WWII until his untimely death at the age of 59 in 1960. In fact, ordinary language analytic philosophy has frequently been called "Oxford philosophy." Besides Austin, ordinary language philosophy has been associated with such philosophers as Ryle, John R. Searle, and others. Although he was at Cambridge, not Oxford, the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, as embodied in his Blue and Brown Books and his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, was also especially important and seminal for this form of analytic philosophy.

The Oxford movement was carried on by Austin's successors, but none of them were as skilled or accomplished as he in his form of ordinary language analysis, and it has mostly disappeared today as a separate and clearly distinguishabble branch of analytic philosophy. But, at the time it came into prominence, for those philosophers who were attracted to analytic philosophy but who deplored what they saw as being the mistakes and narrowness of logical positivism or logical empiricism, the work of Austin and his fellows was often seen as a breath of new and invigorating air.

Rather than viewing philosophical problems through the lens of formal logic, ordinary language philosophy attempts to deal with the ordinary usage of the linguistic terms germane to such problems. While ledogical positivism focus on logical terms and logical relations, supposed to be universal and separate from contingent factors (such as culture, language, historical conditions), ordinary language philosophy emphasized the use of language by ordinary people. It may be argued, then, that ordinary language philosophy is of a more sociological grounding, as it essentially focuses on the use of language within social contexts.

Ordinary language philosophy was often used to disperse philosophical problems by exposing them as results of fundamental misunderstandings regarding the ordinary usage of the pertinent lingusitic terms. Indeed, this is apparent in Ryle (who attempted to dispose of what he called Descartes' myth of the "ghost in the machine"), as well as Wittgenstein, among others.

In addition to the work done at Oxford in the 1950s to the 1970s, the semantics of ordinary language has been investigated by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, and the philosophers Donald Davidson , P. F. Strawson, Michael Dummett, John McDowell, and others.

These two threads—formal language vs. ordinary language philosophy—intertwine, sometimes implacably opposed to each other, sometimes virtually identical. Wittgenstein, most famously, started out in the formalism camp, but ended up in the natural language camp.

Logical atomism

Analytic philosophy has its origins in Gottlob Frege’s development of predicate logic. This permitted a much wider range of sentences to be parsed into logical form. Bertrand Russell adopted it as his primary philosophical tool; a tool he thought could expose the underlying structure of philosophical problems. For example, the English word “is” can be parsed in at least three distinct ways:

  • in 'the cat is asleep: the is of predication says that 'x is P': P(x)
  • in 'there is a cat”: the is of existence says that there is an x: ∃(x)
  • in 'three is half of six': the is of identity says that x is the same as y: x=y

Russell sought to resolve various philosophical issues by applying such clear and clean distinctions, most famously in the case of the Present King of France.

The Tractatus

As a young Austrian soldier, Wittgenstein expanded and developed Russell's logical atomism into a comprehensive system, in a remarkable brief book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). According to this book, the world is the existence of certain states of affairs; the book's famous opening sentences are: "1 The world is all that is the case. 1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things." A few sentences later the declaration is made, "1.13 The facts in logical space are the world." Wittgenstein believed that these states of affairs can be expressed in the language of first-order predicate logic. So a picture of the world can be built up by expressing atomic facts in atomic propositions, and linking them using logical operators.

One of the central movements within analytic philosophy is linked closely to this statement from the Tractatus:

5.6 The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

This attitude is one of the reasons for the close relationship between philosophy of language and analytic philosophy. Language, on this view is the principal—or perhaps the only—tool of the philosopher. For Wittgenstein, and many other analytic philosophers, philosophy consists in clarifying how language can be used. The hope is that when language is used clearly, philosophical problems are found to dissolve. This view is sometimes known as quietism.

Wittgenstein thought he had set out the "final solution" to all philosophical problems, and so went off to become a school teacher. However, he later revisited the inadequacy of logical atomism, and further expanded the philosophy of language by his posthumous book Philosophical Investigations.

Philosophy of mind and cognitive science

One branch of analytic philosophy has been especially concerned with what is usually known as philosophy of mind or cognitive science. Some of the prominent figures here have been Paul Churchland, Patricia Churchland, and Daniel Dennett.

Ethics in analytic philosophy

As a side-effect of the focus on logic and language in the early years of analytic philosophy, the tradition initially had little to say on the subject of ethics. The attitude was widespread among early analytics that these subjects were unsystematic, and merely expressed personal attitudes about which philosophy could have little or nothing to say. Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, remarks that values cannot be a part of the world, and if they are anything at all they must be beyond or outside the world somehow, and that hence language, which describes the world, can say nothing about them. One interpretation of these remarks found expression in the doctrine of the logical positivists that statements about value—including all ethical and aesthetic judgments—are, like metaphysical claims, literally meaningless and therefore non-cognitive; that is, not able to be either true or false. Social and political philosophy, aesthetics, and various more specialied subjects like philosophy of history thus moved to the fringes of English-language philosophy for some time.

By the 1950s debates had begun to arise over whether—and if so, how—ethical statements really were non-cognitive. Stevenson argued for expressivism, R. M. Hare advocated a view called "universal prescriptivism." Phillipa Foot contributed several essays attacking all these positions, and the collapse of logical positivism as a cohesive research program led to a renewed interest in ethics.

Political philosophy

Analytic philosophy, perhaps because its origin lay in dismissing Hegel and Hegelian philosophers (such as Marx), had little to say about political ideas for most of its history. This was changed radically, and almost single-handedly, by John Rawls in a series of papers from the 1950s onward (most notably "Two Concepts of Rules" and "Justice as Fairness") which culminated in his monograph A Theory of Justice in 1971, adducing philosophical grounds for defending a liberal welfare state. This was followed in short order by Rawls's colleague Robert Nozick's book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a defense of free-market libertarianism.

Analytical Marxism

Another interesting development in the area of political philosophy has been the emergence of a school known as Analytical Marxism. Members of this school seek to apply the techniques of analytic philosophy, along with tools of modern social science such as "rational choice theory" to the elucidation of the theories of Karl Marx and his successors. The best known member of this school is Oxford University philosopher G.A. Cohen, whose 1978 work, Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence is generally taken as representing the genesis of this school. In that book, Cohen attempted to apply the tools of logical and linguistic analysis to the elucidation and defense of Marx's materialist conception of history. Other prominent Analytical Marxists include the economist John Roemer, the social scientist Jon Elster, and the sociologist Erik Olin Wright. All these people have attempted to build upon Cohen's work by bringing to bear modern social science methods, such as rational choice theory, to supplement Cohen's use of analytic philosophical techniques, in the interpretation of Marxian theory.


Communitarians such as Alasdair MacIntyre, philosopher Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer, and others advance a critique of liberalism—especially the libertarian form of liberalism—that uses analytic techniques to isolate the key assumptions of liberal individualists, such as Rawls, and then goes on to challenge these assumptions. In particular, communitarians challenge the liberal assumption that the individual can be viewed as fully autonomous from the community in which he lives and is brought up. Instead, they push for a conception of the individual that emphasises the role that the community plays in shaping his or her values, thought processes and opinions.

Post-Analytic Philosophy

In 1985 a book entitled Post-Analytic Philosophy, edited by John Rajchman (then at Fordham University) and Cornel West (then at Yale Divinity School), was published by Columbia University Press. The book consists of a series of essays, one each by the two editors and others by Richard Rorty, Hilary Putnam, Arthur Danto, Stanley Cavell, Donald Davidson, Thomas Kuhn, John Rawls, and six others. In the first essay in this book, entitled Philosophy in America, Rajchman claims that although "analytic philosophy has produced brilliant technical work and enjoyed a stunning institutional success" and has "become the dominant philosophy in capitalist countries today," its "basic programs … have been undermined precisely by its own technical work, leaving some doubt about how it may now continue." He writes, "The very idea of logical analysis has been challenged." And "There may be no such thing as the method of logic of science,"—a claim that was strongly argued by Paul Feyerabend in Against Method. Rajchman goes on, "There may be no such thing as analytic sentences,"—the notion of analytic sentences was central to logical positivism but was refuted in Quine's Two Dogmas of Empiricism—"and nothing for analytic philosophers to analyze." He concludes, "Rorty puts it bluntly: 'The notion of 'logical analysis' turned upon itself and committed slow suicide.'"

Rajchman goes on to say that the book is "about new directions in American philosophy after analysis." "It is not," he writes, "about an end to philosophy, but about new kinds of philosophy that may revitalize American intellectual debate." The book, he says, "focuses on three main areas of thought and research around which a post-analytic philosophy has crystallized: literary theory, history of science, and political philosophy." Later on he interprets political philosophy, especially in light of John Rawls' work, as moral theory.

The book was American, all the authors were Americans, and the focus was on post-analytic philosophy in America. Yet, by extension, it may also indicate that analytic philosophy as it was known at its zenith is now dead throughout the world and new methods and interests have now moved into the void left by its demise. This would mean that we are now in an era of post-analytic philosophy.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dummett, M. Origins of Analytic Philosophy. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994. ISBN 0674644727
  • Hempel, Carl G. "Problems and Changes in the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning," Review International de Philosophy 41 (1950): 41-63.
  • Hochberg, Herbert. Introducing Analytic Philosophy: Its Sense and its Nonsense, 1879-2002. Ontos Verlag, 2003.
  • Hylton, Peter. Russell, Idealism, and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy. Oxford Univ. Press, 1990.
  • Martinich, A.P. and E. David Sofa. Analytic Philosophy: An Anthology. (Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies), Blackwell, 2001. ISBN 0631216472
  • Quine, Willard Van Orman, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism," in The Philosophical Review 60 (1951): 20-43. Republished in From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1953; second, revised, edition 1961.
  • Rajchman, John, and Cornel West, (Eds.), Post-Analytic Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. ISBN 0231060661
  • Strawson, P. F. Analysis and Metaphysics: An Introduction to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 1992. ISBN 0198751184
  • Stroll, Avrum. Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. ISBN 0231112211

External links

All links retrieved July 26, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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