Analytical Philosophy

views updated


It was only in the 1960s that the phrase "analytical philosophy" came into frequent use as a way of describing the kind of philosophy characteristic of much English-language philosophy of the twentieth century. But occasional references to "analytical" (or "analytic") philosophy as a new kind of philosophy can be found much earlier, where it is primarily used to introduce a contrast with "speculative philosophy." The thought here is that whereas traditional philosophers have attempted by means of speculative arguments to provide knowledge of a kind that is not otherwise possible, "analytic" philosophers aim to use methods of philosophical analysis to deepen the understanding of things that are already knownfor example, concerning the past or concerning mathematics. In doing so analytic philosophers will seek to clarify the significance of essentially uncontentious historical or mathematical truths and to explain the possibility of our knowledge of them. This program does not require that analytic philosophers deny the possibility of speculative philosophy; but many did so, most famously those associated with the Vienna Circle such as Rudolph Carnap (18911970), who held that "all statements whatever that assert something are of an empirical nature and belong to factual science" and went to claim that, for philosophy, "What remains is not statements, nor a theory, nor a system, but only a method: the method of logical analysis" (1932; 1959, p. 77).

Methods of philosophical analysis are in fact as old as philosophy, as in Socrates' dialectic. The method was especially prominent in the theory of ideas characteristic of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century philosophy, which involved the analysis of complex ideas into simple ones. One of Immanuel Kant's (17241804) insights was to recognize the priority of complete judgments over ideas, or concepts, and this led him to hold that analytic methods of inquiry were subordinate to the elucidation of synthetic unities, such as the unity of consciousness. Kant's successors in the tradition of German idealism took this subordination much further as they sought to articulate the internal relations that hold together ever more encompassing "organic wholes" such as the state and the universe. For them, analysis was only ever a preliminary stage of inquiry, a kind of falsification to be transcended once a relevant organic whole and its relationships had been identified.


A good place to mark the start of analytical philosophy is therefore with the young G. E. Moore's (18731958) emphatic denunciation of this idealist philosophy. Moore rejected internal relations and organic wholes, and in their place he gives priority to individual judgments, or propositions, and their constituent concepts. Since he holds that true propositions are real structures that do not represent facts, but constitute them, it follows that an analysis of a proposition into its constituent concepts is equally an analysis of a fact into its elements: as he puts it "A thing becomes intelligible first when it is analysed into its constituent concepts" (1899; 1993, p. 8). Thus in Moore's early work a method of conceptual analysis is employed to identify the basic properties of things. This is manifest in Moore's Principia Ethica (1903), where Moore famously argues that goodness is the basic ethical property and thus that ethical theory is the theory of the good. It should be observed, however, that Moore's method of analysis does not specify the content of his theory of the good, even though this is also supposed to be a priori. Moore's method of metaethical analysis is therefore combined with an appeal to intuitive reflection concerning synthetic a priori ethical truths; and one of the issues that has remained a matter of debate is just what contribution conceptual analysis has to offer to ethical theory.

Russell, Frege, Wittgenstein

The decisive development that gave a distinctive character to analytical philosophy was that whereby the young Bertrand Russell (18721970), freshly converted from idealism by Moore, used his new logical theories to enhance the possibilities for philosophical analysis. For what is special about analytical philosophy is the preeminence given to logical analysis. In Russell's early work this development is manifest in his "theory of descriptions," whereby he uses his logical theory to provide an analysis of propositions in which particular things are described. Russell argued that he was thereby able to resolve long-standing metaphysical puzzles about existence and identity, and equally to show how it is possible for us to have knowledge ("by description") of things of which we have no direct experience. Indeed as Russell became increasingly adept at developing and applying his logical theory, he came to think that its use was really the only proper way of doing philosophy. Thus in 1914 he gave some lectures that included one with the title "Logic as the Essence of Philosophy," and he here declares: "every philosophical problem, when it is subjected to the necessary analysis and purification, is found either to be not really philosophical at all, or else to be, in the sense in which we are using the word, logical" (1914, p. 33).

Russell here describes his method as "the logical-analytic method of philosophy" (p. v) and he goes on to add that the first clear example of this method is provided by Gottlob Frege's (18481925) writings. Russell has in mind here Frege's development in 1879 of a radically new logical theory (first order predicate logic, as we would now call it) in his Begriffsschrift ("Concept-script"). Although Frege does not here apply his logic to philosophical debates, he does offer it as "a useful tool for the philosopher" who seeks to "break the domination of the word over the human spirit by laying bare the misconceptions that through the use of language almost unavoidably arise concerning the relations between concepts" (1879; 1970, p. 7). This contrast between the new logical "concept-script" and the apparent structure of ordinary language brings to the surface a concern with the proper understanding of language that is characteristic of analytical philosophy. The relationship between logic and ordinary language remains a contested matter, but the identification of "logical form" is one enduring strand of analytical philosophy, as in Donald Davidson's theories of action and causation.

As indicated, Russell looked back to Frege when describing his "logical-analytic method of philosophy"; but in truth Russell's philosophy also contained much more besides, in particular a problematic emphasis on the priority of the things that are presented in experience, the things that we "know by acquaintance." One of the achievements of Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951), who had studied with Russell and through him made contact with Frege, was to set aside this aspect of Russell's philosophy and present a purified logical-analytic method in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922). Wittgenstein maintains here that "Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences"; instead "Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity" (4.111112). There is a sharp disagreement here with Russell, whose philosophy certainly does offer "a body of doctrine" based on his theory of knowledge by acquaintance. By contrast Wittgenstein holds that one should be able to demonstrate to anyone who seeks to advance a philosophical proposition that in doing so they have fallen into talking nonsense (6.53).

The Vienna Circle

Whether Wittgenstein altogether succeeds in explaining his own position without convicting himself of nonsense remains debated. But there is a different element in his position that requires attention: the thesis that logic has a special a priori status because it articulates the rules that make language possible. This thesis is often associated with the claim that logic is "analytic" because logical truth depends only on the definition of logical vocabulary. In fact there is a distinction here: it is one thing to hold that logic is a priori because it is integral to language, it is another to hold that logic is "analytic" in the sense that it is just true by definition. But this distinction was not drawn by the members of the Vienna Circle whose "logical empiricism" constitutes the next phase in the development of analytical philosophy. As indicated by the passage cited earlier from Carnap, a leading member of this group, their starting point was an empiricist presumption that the understanding of language is rooted in perceptual experience; but they recognized that ordinary experience does not exhibit the complex laws and structures of which the natural sciences speak. So they invoked logic to make the connections between observation and theory. In order to remain true to their empiricism, therefore, they emphasized the "analyticity" of logic, such that logic was not to be thought of as a body of abstract nonempirical doctrine but simply a way of working out the conventions of language.

Ordinary Language Philosophy

Although there was much disagreement among the logical empiricists their position constituted an immensely influential antimetaphysical paradigm for mid-twentieth-century philosophers, especially after the rise of the Nazis had led to the emigration of the leading philosophers of the group from Central Europe to the United States. While traditional philosophers complained, quite rightly, that the antimetaphysical rhetoric of the position concealed its own metaphysical assumptions, two other lines of criticism were especially important for the subsequent development of analytical philosophy. In Britain, especially after 1945, the logical empiricists' emphasis on logical analysis was felt to be excessively restrictive. It was argued by the defenders of "ordinary language philosophy" such as J. L. Austin and Peter Strawson that formal logic does not adequately capture the complex conceptual structures of our thought and language, and thus that a much more heterogeneous and informal approach to conceptual analysis is required. This work led to the development of a variety of approaches to the study of language, especially speech act theory, which treats speech as a kind of action and therefore conceives of its meaning in the light of the things speakers do by means of their speech acts (for example, making a promise or naming a child). At much the same time Wittgenstein's later Philosophical Investigations (1953) were published, with a similar emphasis on the need to understand our ordinary "language-games" instead of relying on formal logic to capture the structure of thought. One of the most challenging features of Wittgenstein's later investigations was his critical discussion of psychological concepts, and this, together with other work, has helped to direct recent analytical philosophers at least as much to the philosophy of mind as to the philosophy of language.


The other main criticism of logical empiricism came from the American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine (19082000), who argued that the logical empiricists had been mistaken in regarding logic as "analytic"that is, true by definition. Quine argued that logic is of the same type as other beliefs: it is an element of the web of belief through which we make sense of our experience as experience of an objective world. Hence logic is not analytic, since it concerns the world, and it is not a priori, since it is revisable in the light of experience. Quine's arguments remain disputed, but his work has certainly helped to encourage philosophers to address broader disputes in the natural sciences and other areas. There is no enclosed domain for a priori logical and conceptual analysis. Some critics, most notably Richard Rorty, argue that it follows that there is now nothing worth calling "analytical philosophy." But these claims are exaggerated. Although Quine was a critic of the analyticity of logic, he was a distinguished logician and used logical analysis throughout his philosophy; so his practice shows that analytical philosophy does not depend on the analyticity of logic. Second, although Quine's arguments call into question the "linguistic" conception of the a priori as analyticity it is widely accepted that some distinction between the a priori and the empirical has to be made if we are to be able to reason coherently; and as long as that distinction is in place, analytical philosophers can draw on it to characterize the significance of their conclusions. Analytical philosophy today, therefore, continues the tradition captured by Russell and Wittgenstein at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is not "a body of doctrine," it is a "method," typically "logical-analytic," but often informal, of using reasoning to capture and criticize conceptual structures. As such one finds it regularly employed across the whole spectrum of contemporary philosophical debate, by feminists and political philosophers as much as by metaphysicians and epistemologists.

Analytical and Continental Philosophy

Throughout much of the twentieth century analytical philosophy was very different from the approach to philosophy characteristic of "continental" philosophers such as Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. One reason for this was simply their ignorance of logic, which excluded them from any serious understanding of analytical philosophy. Conversely analytical philosophers, by and large, remained uncomprehending of the phenomenological project of recovering the basic structures of intentionality. By the end of the twentieth century, however, with translations of all the main works involved into the relevant languages, a much greater degree of mutual comprehension has been achieved. As a result, while continental philosophers such as Jacques Derrida have sought to appropriate analytical techniques such as speech-act analysis, analytical philosophers have turned their attention to the theme of intentionality, though sometimes with conclusions far removed from those of continental philosophers. Thus the situation is now one of dialogue despite profound disagreements.

See also Continental Philosophy ; Idealism ; Language, Philosophy of: Modern ; Philosophy of Religion ; Positivism .


Analysis (1933). A journal founded to promote analytical philosophy. See the statement in vol. 1, which remains a characteristic expression of this kind of philosophy.

Austin, John Langshaw. How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962. Austin here begins to develop speech-act theory.

Ayer, Alfred J. Language, Truth, and Logic. London: Gollancz, 1936. A brilliant statement of the logical empiricist position.

, ed. Logical Positivism. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1959. An excellent collection of papers.

Baldwin, Thomas. Contemporary Philosophy: Philosophy in English since 1945. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A book in which the author of this entry discusses the main themes of analytical philosophy since 1945.

Butler, R. J., ed. Analytical Philosophy. 2 vols. Oxford: Blackwell, 19621965. Two collections of papers characteristic of mid-twentieth century analytical philosophy.

Carnap, Rudolph. "The Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language." 1932. In Logical Positivism, edited by A. J. Ayer, 6081. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1959. Originally published in German as "Uberwindung der Metaphysik durch logische Analyse der Sprache," this is Carnap's classic statement of his logical empiricism.

. "Empiricism, Semantics and Ontology." Revue Internationale de Philosophie 4 (1950): 2040. Reprinted in The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Methods, edited by Richard Rorty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. 2nd ed., 1992. Carnap here introduces a distinction between "internal" and "external" questions to clarify his defense of analyticity. Rorty's collection is a useful resource, and the 2nd ed. contains two interesting skeptical retrospective essays.

Cohen, G. A. Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978. A work showing how analytical philosophy can be applied to the study of Marxism; the starting point of "analytical Marxism."

Davidson, Donald. Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980. This collection includes Davidson's discussions of "logical form."

Derrida, Jacques. "Signature, Event, Context." In his Margins of Philosophy. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Derrida's critical discussion of Austin.

Frege, Gottlob. Begriffsschrift. 1879. In Frege and Godel: Two Fundamental Texts in Mathematical Logic, edited by J. van Heijenoort. Translated by S. Bauer-Mengelberg. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970. Frege's revolutionary new logical theory.

Fricker, Miranda, and Jennifer Hornsby. The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A collection of papers showing how issues in feminist philosophy are addressed by analytical philosophers.

Montefiore, Alan, and Bernard Williams. British Analytical Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1966. A useful collection in which the British conception of analytical philosophy is expounded and discussed.

Moore, G. E. "The Nature of Judgment." 1899. In G. E. Moore: Selected Writings, edited by Thomas Baldwin, 119. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. Moore's early rejection of the idealist theory of judgment.

. Principia Ethica. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1903. Rev. ed., edited by Thomas Baldwin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Moore's classic presentation of his analytical ethics.

Quine, Willard van Orman. From a Logical Point of View: 9 Logico-Philosophical Essays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953. A collection which includes some of Quine's early papers, especially "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" in which he launches his critique of analyticity.

. Ways of Paradox. New York: Random House, 1966. A collection that includes two of his main papers on logical empiricism, "Truth by Convention" and "Carnap on Logical Truth."

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. Rorty here sets out his skeptical critique of analytical philosophy.

Russell, Bertrand. "On Denoting Mind." 1905. In Logic and Knowledge: Essays, 19011950, edited by R. Marsh, 4156. London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1956. Russell's presentation of his theory of descriptions.

. Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method in Philosophy. Chicago, Ill.: Open Court, 1914. Russell's presentation of his logical-analytic method in philosophy.

Strawson, P. F. Logico-Linguistic Papers. London: Methuen, 1971. A collection that includes Strawson's early criticisms of Russell's logic and his later reflections on logic and language.

Wisdom, John. Problems of Mind and Matter. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1934. An early example of an exposition of "analytic" philosophy as such.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell, 1953. Wittgenstein's later discussion of language-games, rule-following, and psychological concepts.

. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by C. K. Ogden. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1922. Wittgenstein's early attempt to present philosophy as logical analysis.

Thomas Baldwin