Analytic Philosophy

Paper originally published at Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The school of analytic philosophy has dominated academic philosophy in various regions, most notably Great Britain and the United States, since the early twentieth century. It originated around the turn of the twentieth century as G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell broke away from what was then the dominant school in the British universities, Absolute Idealism. Many would also include Gottlob Frege as a founder of analytic philosophy in the late 19th century, and this controversial issue is discussed in section 2c. When Moore and Russell articulated their alternative to Idealism, they used a linguistic idiom, frequently basing their arguments on the “meanings” of terms and propositions. Additionally, Russell believed that the grammar of natural language often is philosophically misleading, and that the way to dispel the illusion is to re-express propositions in the ideal formal language of symbolic logic, thereby revealing their true logical form. Because of this emphasis on language, analytic philosophy was widely, though perhaps mistakenly, taken to involve a turn toward language as the subject matter of philosophy, and it was taken to involve an accompanying methodological turn toward linguistic analysis. Thus, on the traditional view, analytic philosophy was born in this linguistic turn. The linguistic conception of philosophy was rightly seen as novel in the history of philosophy. For this reason analytic philosophy is reputed to have originated in a philosophical revolution on the grand scale—not merely in a revolt against British Idealism, but against traditional philosophy on the whole.

Analytic philosophy underwent several internal micro-revolutions that divide its history into five phases. The first phase runs approximately from 1900 to1910. It is characterized by the quasi-Platonic form of realism initially endorsed by Moore and Russell as an alternative to Idealism. Their realism was expressed and defended in the idiom of “propositions” and “meanings,” so it was taken to involve a turn toward language. But its other significant feature is its turn away from the method of doing philosophy by proposing grand systems or broad syntheses and its turn toward the method of offering narrowly focused discussions that probe a specific, isolated issue with precision and attention to detail. By 1910, both Moore and Russell had abandoned their propositional realism—Moore in favor of a realistic philosophy of common sense, Russell in favor of a view he developed with Ludwig Wittgenstein called logical atomism. The turn to logical atomism and to ideal-language analysis characterizes the second phase of analytic philosophy, approximately 1910-1930. The third phase, approximately 1930-1945, is characterized by the rise of logical positivism, a view developed by the members of the Vienna Circle and popularized by the British philosopher A. J. Ayer. The fourth phase, approximately 1945-1965, is characterized by the turn to ordinary-language analysis, developed in various ways by the Cambridge philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Wisdom, and the Oxford philosophers Gilbert Ryle, John Austin, Peter Strawson, and Paul Grice.

During the 1960s, criticism from within and without caused the analytic movement to abandon its linguistic form. Linguistic philosophy gave way to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of language gave way to metaphysics, and this gave way to a variety of philosophical sub-disciplines. Thus the fifth phase, beginning in the mid 1960s and continuing beyond the end of the twentieth century, is characterized by eclecticism or pluralism. This post-linguistic analytic philosophy cannot be defined in terms of a common set of philosophical views or interests, but it can be loosely characterized in terms of its style, which tends to emphasize precision and thoroughness about a narrow topic and to deemphasize the imprecise or cavalier discussion of broad topics.

Even in its earlier phases, analytic philosophy was difficult to define in terms of its intrinsic features or fundamental philosophical commitments. Consequently, it has always relied on contrasts with other approaches to philosophy—especially approaches to which it found itself fundamentally opposed—to help clarify its own nature. Initially, it was opposed to British Idealism, and then to “traditional philosophy” at large. Later, it found itself opposed both to classical Phenomenology (for example, Husserl) and its offspring, such as Existentialism (SartreCamus, and so forth) and also “Continental”’ or “Postmodern” philosophy (HeideggerFoucault and Derrida). Though classical Pragmatism bears some similarity to early analytic philosophy, especially in the work of C. S. Peirce and C. I. Lewis, the pragmatists are usually understood as constituting a separate tradition or school.

Table of Contents

  1. The Revolution of Moore and Russell: Cambridge Realism and The Linguistic Turn
  2. Russell and the Early Wittgenstein: Ideal Language and Logical Atomism
    1. The Theory of Descriptions
    2. Ideal-Language Philosophy vs. Ordinary-Language Philosophy
    3. Frege: Influence or Instigator?
    4. Logical Atomism and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus
  3. Logical Positivism, the Vienna Circle, and Quine
    1. Logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle
    2. W. V. Quine
  4. The Later Wittgenstein and Ordinary-Language Philosophy
    1. Ordinary-Language Philosophy
    2. The Later Wittgenstein
  5. The 1960s and After: The Era of Eclecticism
    1. The Demise of Linguistic Philosophy
    2. The Renaissance in Metaphysics
    3. The Renaissance in History
  6. References and Further Reading
    1. The Revolution of Moore and Russell: Cambridge Realism and The Linguistic Turn
    2. Russell and the Early Wittgenstein: Ideal Language and Logical Atomism
    3. Logical Positivism, the Vienna Circle, and Quine
    4. The Later Wittgenstein, et al.: Ordinary-Language Philosophy
    5. The 1960s and After: The Era of Eclecticism
    6. Critical and Historical Accounts of Analytic Philosophy
    7. Anthologies and General Introductions

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