Analytic Philosophy

views updated


ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY . In a broad sense, the practice of seeking better understanding through the analysis (i.e., the breaking down and restatement) of complex, obscure, or problematic linguistic expressions has been present within philosophy from its pre-Socratic origins to the present. More narrowly considered, analytic philosophy ("linguistic analysis") is a style of philosophizing originating within twentieth-century English-language philosophy and drawing much of its inspiration from the later thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951).

The remote ancestry of analytic philosophy is well illustrated in the dialogues of Plato, where Socrates is shown to be concerned with delineating the meaning of key concepts like "piety," "justice," or "soul." In the Phaedo, Socrates, in one of his last moments with his disciples, is shown teasing Crito about the corrupting power of familiar but misleading language. Crito has asked how Socrates should be buried. Socrates points out that one should not confuse the person designated "Socrates" with his body and thus should not speak of burying a "you," a person. Unanalyzed speech, as in this case, Socrates warns, can lead to unreflective materialism in thought and life. A major strand or concern in the rest of the history of Western philosophy can be read in a similar light, as overt or covert analysis of language.

The more immediate origins of analytic philosophy, however, lie in the reaction of British philosophers at the beginning of the twentieth century against the then-dominant Hegelianism of such thinkers as F. H. Bradley (18461924), who placed all emphasis on finding meaning in the "whole" rather than any partial expressions and thus placed in jeopardy, it was feared, all finite human understanding. Leaders in the attempt to counter the exaggerated stress on "synthesis" with clarifying analyses of philosophical obscurities were G. E. Moore (18731958) and Bertrand Russell (18721970). Moore, appealing to "common sense" arguments, provided detailed ordinary language analyses of such important terms as "good" and what it means to have "certain knowledge" of something. Russell, on the other hand, offered more technical translations, using the symbolic logic he had created with Alfred North Whitehead to express, for instance, his "theory of definite descriptions" as a means of analyzing problematic sentences about nonexistent but still meaningful entities (like "Hamlet" or "the present king of France") and thereby of removing puzzlements and para-doxes.

To this philosophical context Ludwig Wittgenstein, a former student of Russell's, returned in 1929, to Cambridge from Vienna, fresh from conversations with members of the Vienna Circle, with whom he had helped to develop the logical rule ("the verification principle of meaning") that the meaning of all nontautological statements is to be identified with the method of their sensory verification. Wittgenstein's Tractatus logico-philosophicus (completed in 1918 and first published in 1921) had carried to its limit the quest for a powerful and simple formalization of ideal language, rooting all factual meaning in basic propositions naming atomic facts. These ultimate simples had later been identified with sensory observations by the radical empiricists of the Vienna Circle in the creation of logical positivism. Now Wittgenstein began to have misgivings, not only about the empirical interpretation given to his more general theory of language but also about the theory itself. In its simplicity lay its great power, but its application in logical positivism showed also its oversimplicity when compared to the many actual uses of human languagefor instance, in asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying. The assertion of sensorily verifiable fact, Wittgenstein saw, is only one among a vast range of functions of language. Such a function is doubtless of great importance in natural science and in ordinary life, but even such an important function hardly begins to exhaust the richness of speech.

Wittgenstein's subsequent meditations on the limitations of his own Tractatus and on the rich complexity of language, published posthumously in 1953 as Philosophical Investigations (henceforth abbreviated as PI), were enormously influential, particularly after World War II. Philosophically puzzling expressions, Wittgenstein contends, did not need verification so much as analysis of their use. In the use would be found the meaning. "Look at the sentence as an instrument," he advises, "and at its sense as its employment" (PI, 421). In this way philosophical confusions can be eliminated by the method of returning a puzzling expression to its origins in ordinary use. "The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing work" (PI, 132). This method will not involve the application of a single procrustean technique, like the verification principle, but a generally open attitude toward the various uses that language may be given. Thus philosophical method will be fitted to each occasion. "There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies" (PI, 133). Wittgenstein liked and repeated his therapeutic analogy: "The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness" (PI, 255).

The application of this style of philosophical analysis to theological and religious speech differs in tenor depending on whether the assumption is made that theological discourse is, ipso facto, an "idling" form of language or whether it is capable of "doing work." If the former, then the "therapy" called for might be termed "eliminative analysis." If the latter, however, then the point of analysis will be to show what sort or sorts of "work" constitute the meaning of theological utterances. These, which might be termed "illuminative analyses," further divide according to the range of functions found.

For the most part the philosophical climate created by linguistic analysis is not hospitable to eliminative analysis. Such an enterprise would bear too much resemblance to the pugnacious days of logical positivism. Indeed, most attempts to show that a "systematic misuse of language" necessarily infects theological talk, and that people should not talk that way, rest on verificationist assumptions. On the other hand, "illuminative" analysis can be perceived by believers as no less threatening than eliminative analysis if the linguistic functions identified are too meager to accord with the user's own sense of the dignity or importanceor intentof the speech-act involved. The logical positivists themselves had granted at least that the utterances of religious people perform the function of expressing or evoking emotion. The shift to linguistic analysis from logical positivism called for penetration. As Wittgenstein himself said: "What am I believing in when I believe that men have souls? What am I believing in, when I believe that this substance contains two carbon rings? In both cases there is a picture in the foreground, but the sense lies far in the background; that is, the application of the picture is not easy to survey" (PI, 422).

One answer attempting to penetrate beyond the logical positivist's analysis of religious utterance as merely emotive was offered in 1955 by R. B. Braithwaite (b. 1900) after his conversion to Christianity. Though remaining a philosophical empiricist, and on such grounds finding it impossible to affirm the doctrines of his religion in a traditional sense of belief, Braithwaite suggested that Christian speech can in fact function otherwise, by making and supporting ethical commitments to the "agapeistic" way of life. Images of Christian love (agapē) are vividly presented in the sacred writings, all of which, he claimed, refer to or reduce to the love commandment. Uttering words from these writings is not like asserting a matter of factthough the form of the words may suggest thisbut is committing oneself to a way of life authoritatively pictured in these stories. Such is the legitimate "work" of religious speech, which thus supplies the needed "application of the picture."

Braithwaite's analysis, though not widely accepted as adequate to the full functioning of Christian language, showed how a more flexible approach to "how we do things with words" could be applied to the theological context. The highly regarded Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin (19111960) further spurred such attempts with his stress on the "performative" significance of language. His influence brought much attention to the fact that sometimes we are not so much describing the world as performing in it when we speak: making promises, uttering commands, taking oaths, naming, bidding at auctions, pronouncing marriage vows, accepting invitations, and the like. In Canada, Donald Evans (b. 1927) offered a detailed account of religious speech, demonstrating the logic of "self-involvement" as performative.

To such analyses were added others aiming to show how the belief-statements of theology might also play an important role, though not, of course, in making simple empirical claims. R. M. Hare (19192002), in Oxford, provided an analysis of religious belief-statements as "bliks," or unshakable preconditions for seeing the world in a certain way. Some "bliks" might be insane, as in delusional paranoia, but others might be both sane and essential, as in the conviction that the world is causally bound together in a regular way. Neither kind is falsifiable, like an empirical hypothesis, but either may function to shape a world-picture within which particular empirical observations make sense in one way or another. Likewise John Wisdom (19041993), at Cambridge, stressed the way in which certain utterances, though not themselves factual, may direct attention to patterns in the facts that otherwise might be missed. A metaphor of the Taj Mahal, applied to a woman's hat, could change not the facts but the way the facts were seen; the metaphor of the world as a garden could have a similar effect in directing attention to patterns among the facts of everyday life as well as in influencing attitudes toward them.

Such analyses of the heuristic power of theological images, especially if they are taken (as with Wisdom) as illuminating or (with Hare) as potentially sane or insane, go far toward reestablishing theological discourse, with regard to at least one aspect of its "work," as making claims that could be supported or attacked in normative ways. That such claims are often in fact intended by religious believers had long been evident to any analyst who might care to ask (or to participate in) the community of religious-language users; but, perhaps because of the legacy of logical positivism's animosity to metaphysics, some analytical philosophers were slow to shake the curious supposition that analyses of linguistic use might proceed as though the intentions of the primary users could be ignored or corrected. Genuine analysis aims at revealing, not changing, what the user is doing with words.

A linguistic philosophy that is not tied to an a priori supposition that certain functions of speech, such as metaphysical ones, are "impossible" will be hospitable to all the various sorts of "work" that are done by religious utterances. These will include, among others, factual claims (e.g., "The Shroud of Turin dates from early in the first millennium ad"), historical claims (e.g., "Ramses III was the pharaoh of the Exodus"), poetic utterances (e.g., "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light"), ethical prescriptions (e.g., "Turn the other cheek"), parables, folk tales, and complex theoretical doctrines. Several functions may be performed by a single type of utterance. Telling the parable of the prodigal son under certain circumstances, for example, may involve at the same time the act of self-commitment to a way of life, the receiving of emotional support, the expression of remorse and hope for personal forgiveness, and the affirmation of a doctrine of God's nature. Standing in church and reciting an ancient creed, on the other hand, may sometimes function more as a ritual of group-membership and reverence for continuity with the past than as an assertion. Part of the work of linguistic philosophy as applied to religion is to clarify the subtle differences between these functions and to help the users themselves see more clearly the range of lively possibilities afforded by their speech.

At least in some important cases, as we have seen, religious discourse makes claims and bears resemblances to other putatively referential speech. This was acknowledged by Wittgenstein in the passage (PI, 422), cited above, in which he compared belief in the soul with belief in carbon rings. In both cases a model, or a "picture," must be connected by indirect means to a sense that lies "far in the background." Another part of the work of linguistic philosophy, therefore, is to trace the similarities and differences between such puzzling cases. Perhaps the vivid poetical "pictures" of religious first-order discourse provide conceptual parallels to the scientific models "in the foreground" that interpret theoretical concepts functioning to unify and illuminate experience. If so, the range of relevant data to be organized is typically much broader for religious concepts, since scientific conceptsthough often less open to observational verification or falsification than the logical positivists had claimedare always kept deliberately close to some specifiable observational domain. This is typically not the case with the "omnirelevant" concepts of theology. Another key difference is that the sacred stories, myths, and "pictures" of religious thinking play a more important, historically and valuationally primary, role in the discourse of religious communities than do models in scientific discourse. Both considerations help one understand why religious concepts are not used to make readily falsifiable claims. At the same time, however, such considerations show that theological theory based on the imagery of primary religious speech may function to aid in efforts of conceptual synthesis, the attempt to hold together a unifying world-picture that is both theoretically intelligible and framed in terms of sacred values.

Linguistic analysis is not merely "about language," then, as one unfortunate misconception would have it. The aim of analytic philosophy pursued in the spirit of the later Wittgenstein is to illuminate the varied functions of speech and the many meanings of "meaning." Its efforts are spent in allowing whatever is said to be said more effectively and with greater awareness for both speaker and listener. Like all philosophy, it is engaged in the serious exercise of consciousness-raising. This does not entail, of course, that analytic philosophy must somehow "oppose" movements toward conceptual synthesis. All of metaphysics and much of science are engaged in conceptual synthesis. Just as analysis is identifiable from the beginning as a major strand or concern in Western philosophy, so also is the quest for synthesis found in all periods. Mature analytic philosophy recognizes that analysis and synthesis need one another as poles in never-ceasing interaction. Overweening claims on behalf of synthesis helped to stimulate analytic philosophy early in the twentieth century, but similar overweening attitudes, though sometimes unfortunately encountered today, have no proper place among the analysts who themselves have become dominant in English-speaking philosophy.

For theologians, as for simple religious believers, then, there is nothing to fear and much to be gained from analytical philosophy. Properly construed, linguistic analysis claims only at lifting to clarity and self-awareness the complex and powerful human acts of speech. Sometimes, no doubt, self-awareness may lead some persons in good conscience to a questioning of hitherto unreflective uses of speech, perhaps to a restatement, perhaps even to abandonment. At other times self-awareness may allow for ever more meaningful reaffirmations. Analytic philosophy is not a doctrine either in favor of or opposed to religious belief or metaphysical thinking. Its prime objective is, in the Socratic mood, the prevention of intellectual confusion due to language and the consequent "corruption of the soul."

See Also

Logical Positivism; Socrates; Wittgenstein, Ludwig.


The indispensable book for understanding analytic philosophy is Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, 2d ed. (Oxford, 1968); it is a posthumously published compilation of Wittgenstein's thoughts from various years after 1929, many of which (part 1) were prepared by him for publication in 1945 but were not actually brought out at that time. For a useful aid to the understanding of Wittgenstein's philosophy and the Investigations, see part 2 of George Pitcher's The Philosophy of Wittgenstein (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1964). A succinct history of the transition to analytic philosophy can be found in J. O. Urmson's Philosophical Analysis: Its Development between the Two World Wars (Oxford, 1956). Good examples of the analytical style on general topics are represented in J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words, 2d ed., edited by J. O. Urmson (Cambridge, Mass., 1975), and Gilbert Ryle's Dilemmas (1954; reprint, Cambridge, 1966). Specifically directed to cosmological and religious issues, the book Metaphysical Beliefs (London, 1957), by Stephen Toulmin, Ronald W. Hepburn, and Alasdair MacIntyre, offers three rather extended treatments, all with a critical stance. Tending to show the use of analysis in defense of religious concerns are the essays in Faith and Logic: Oxford Essays in Philosophical Theology, edited by Basil Mitchell (London, 1957). The application of performative analysis to theological questions is shown in Donald D. Evans's The Logic of Self-Involvement: A Philosophical Study of Everyday Language with Special Reference to the Christian Use of Language about God as Creator (London, 1963). A treatment of the emergence of analytic philosophy from logical positivism and the possibilities for constructive theological applications of functional rather than verificational analysis may be found in my Language, Logic and God (New York, 1961).

New Sources

Badious, Alain, Oliver Feltham, and Justin Clemens, eds. Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy. New York, 2003.

Dejnozka, Jan. The Ontology of the Analytic Tradition and Its Origins: Realism and Identity in Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, and Quine. Lanham, Md., 1996.

Heck, Richard, Jr., and Michael Dummett, eds. Language, Thought, and Logic: Essays in Honour of Michael Dennett. Oxford, 1998.

Levine, Michael P. "Contemporary Christian Analytic Philosophy of Religion: Biblical Fundamentalism, Terrible Solutions to a Horrible Problem, and Hearing God." International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 48 (October 2000): 89119.

Prado, C. G., ed. A House Divided: Comparing Analytical and Continental Philosophy. Amherst, N.Y., 2003.

Schneewind, J. B. "Recovering the Pastness of the Past." Journal of Religious Ethics 28 (June 2000): 285294.

Smith, Quentin. Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language. New Haven, 1998.

Frederick FerrÉ (1987)

Revised Bibliography