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Analytic philosophy

Analytic philosophy is the dominant philosophical movement of English-speaking countries, although one of its founders, Gottlob Frege, was German, and many of its leading proponents, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Kurt Gödel and Karl Popper, were Austrian.

Logic and philosophy of language were central strands of analytic philosophy from the beginning, although this dominance has diminished greatly. Several lines of thought originate from the early, language-and-logic part of this analytic philosophy tradition. These include: logical positivism, logical empiricism, logical atomism, logicism and ordinary language philosophy. Subsequent analytic philosophy includes extensive work in ethics (such as Philippa Foot, R. M. Hare, and J. L. Mackie), political philosophy (John Rawls, Robert Nozick), aesthetics (Arthur Danto), philosophy of religion (Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne), philosophy of language (John Searle, Saul Kripke), and philosophy of mind (Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers). Analytic metaphysics has also recently come into its own (David Lewis, Peter van Inwagen).


1 The term analytic philosophy
2 Relation to continental philosophy
3 Formalism and natural languages
4 Formalism
4.1 Logical atomism
4.2 The Tractatus
4.3 Natural language semantics
5 Natural language
5.1 Reaction against idealism
5.2 Language as use
6 Logical positivism and logical empiricism
7 Philosophy of mind, cognitive science
8 Ethics in analytic philosophy
9 Political philosophy
9.1 Analytical Marxism
9.2 Communitarianism
10 References

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 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 programmes 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.

  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.

  3. On the other hand, it has arguably added focus and rigor, allowing for debate and a reduction in philosophers talking past each other.
    The tradition of Analytic philosophy began with Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein at the turn of the twentieth-century 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". The latter denotes mainly philosophy that has taken place on continental Europe after (but not including) Kant.

One term (analytic) conventionally indicates a method of philosophy, while the other indicates, rather, a geographical origin. The distinction is for this reason quite 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 Scandinavia, and a great deal scattered over the rest of the continent and in so called Latin America, is likewise analytic. The European Society for Analytic Philosophy 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 now claim that the distinction is worthless: that none of the subject matter of continental philosophy is incapable 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.

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 generalised hostility to certain 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.

Analytic philosophy, in the end, failed by its own systematic lights to demonstrate the meaninglessness or fictitiousness of the concepts it attacked. At least, 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: modern logic, recognizing the primary importance of sense and reference in the construction of meaning, Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, Bertrand Russell's theory of definite descriptions, Karl Popper's theory of falsificationism, Alfred Tarski's Semantic Theory of Truth.

Two major threads weave through the analytic tradition. One seeks to understand language by making use of formal logic. That is, in one way or another it seeks to formalise 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 used to express them – usually with some emphasis on the importance of common sense in dealing with difficult concepts.

These two threads intertwine, sometimes implacably opposed to each other, sometimes virtually identical. Famously, Wittgenstein 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 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, Ludwig Wittgenstein expanded and developed Russell's logical atomism into a comprehensive system, in a remarkable brief book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The world is the existence of certain states of affairs; 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.

The Tractatus is a dense and thought-provoking work; but perhaps its most interesting utterance from the point of view of the method of analytic philosophy is:

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

This shows clearly the reason for the close relationship between philosophy of language and analytic philosophy. Language is the principal—or perhaps the only—tool of the philosopher. For Wittgenstein, and for analytic philosophy in general, philosophy consists in clarifying how language can be used. The hope is that when language is used clearly, philosophical problems are found to dissolve.

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.


Natural language semantics

Davidson. Oxford in 1970s. Strawson, Dummett, McDowell, Evans.

Natural language

Reaction against idealism

G. E. Moore, Common Sense philosophy. Rejection of British Post-Hegel Idealism.

Language as use

Oxford School. Austin, Ryle, Searle. Teachings of later Wittgenstein. Ordinary language philosophy.

Logical positivism and logical empiricism

Vienna Circle, Carnap, Verificationism. Analytic-synthetic distinction. Rejection of Metaphysics, Ethics, Aesthetics. "Emotivism." Immigration of logicians and scientists from Europe in the 1930s. Philosophy of science. Quine. Behaviorism. See the separate article on Logical Positivism for further information.

Philosophy of mind, cognitive science

Turing, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Dennett. See philosophy of mind or cognitive science for further information.

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 programme led to a renewed interest in ethics.

Political philosophy

Analytic philosophy, perhaps because its origin lay in dismissing the relevance of 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 defence 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 sociologist, Erik Olin Wright. All these people have attempted to build upon Cohen's work by bringing to bear modern social science methods, like rational choice theory, to supplement Cohen's use of analytic philosophical techniques, in the interpretation of Marxian theory.


Communitarians such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer advance a critique of Liberalism that uses analytic techniques to isolate the key assumptions of Liberal individualists, such as Rawls, and then challenges 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.


P. F. Strawson, Analysis and Metaphysics: An Introduction to Philosophy (Oxford, 1992).