Analytic Philosophy

To analyse means to break something down into its constituent parts. Analytic philosophy attempts to clarify, by analysis, the meaning of statements and concepts. Analytic philosophy has been important in the in the English speaking academic world since the beginning of the 20th century. Following Kant a split occurred between Anglo-American academic philosophy and the philosophy practised on the European continent. 'Continental' philosophy took off in an Idealist direction with Hegel, took an existentialist turn via Nietzsche and Heidegger and entered a less certain phase with post-structuralism.

Analytic philosophers on the other hand, saw the German philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) as the most important thinker since Kant. Frege wanted to put a rigorous logic at the heart of philosophy. He was influential in the philosophy of mathematics, logic and language. He thought that the basis for mathematics could be securely derived from logic and that a rigorous analysis of the underlying logic of sentences would enable us to judge their truth-value.

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell combined Frege's logical insights with the influence of David Hume's empiricism. Russell thought that the world was composed of 'atomic facts'. Sentences, if they were to be meaningful, had to correspond to these atomic facts. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) studied under Russell, his early ideas influenced the Vienna Circle and help form the logical positivism of the 1920's and 30's.

There is a radical break between the early and the later works of Wittgenstein. In his earlier work Wittgenstein saw language as picturing the world, in his later philosophy he understands language by using the metaphor of a game. This change in direction spurred the development of 'Linguistic philosophy', in the mid 20th century. Linguistic philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle (1900-76) thought many of the traditional problems of philosophy could be dissolved by the careful study of language as it is used.

By the 1970's there was a growing dissatisfaction with linguistic philosophy, and philosophers began to show more interest in the philosophy of mind and the application of philosophical methods to wider issues in politics, ethics and the nature of philosophy itself. Richard Rorty (1931-) has used the methods of analytic philosophy to deconstruct its assumptions. Rorty is influenced as much by Heidegger as he is by Wittgenstein, and his approach echoes the ideas of the post-structuralists. It may be that the future will see the concerns of 'analytic' and 'continental' philosophies converge.

Bertrand Russell: Logical Atomism

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) began his philosophical career as an Idealist, but was converted by G E Moore (1873-1958) to a common sense empiricism. He worked with A N Whitehead (1861-1947) on the philosophy of mathematics, where, like Frege, he attempted to show how mathematics could be derived from logic. His work in logic led him to examine language. Russell thought that the grammar of ordinary language was misleading. He thought that the world was composed of atomic facts, and that propositions, if true, would correspond to these atomic facts. One of the tasks of philosophy was to analyse propositions to reveal their 'proper logical form'.

Russell thought that terms such as 'the average man' could lead to confusion. In the sentence, 'The average woman has 2.6 children'; the term 'average woman' should be understood as a logical construction. The term is not an atomic fact but a complex mathematical statement relating the numbers of children to the numbers of women. Russell thought that terms like 'the State' and 'Public Opinion' were also logical constructions and that philosophers were mistaken in treating these concepts as though they really existed.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Tractatus

Wittgenstein came to study under Russell in 1912 and contributed to the theory of logical atomism. His Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was published in 1921. In the Tractatus Wittgenstein put forward the picture theory of meaning. A picture may mirror reality by showing objects and arrangements of objects. Wittgenstein argued that sentences, if they are to mean anything, must mirror reality in the same way that a picture does. Sentences contain names that refer to objects or states of affairs in the world. Like Russell, Wittgenstein thought that the surface grammar of statements disguised their logical form. Through analysis a true statement would be shown to consist in elementary particles which pictured the world and logical constants such as 'if', 'not', 'and' and 'or'. A sentence, which did not picture the world, was devoid of meaning.

If only statements which picture the world, i.e. statements about facts, are meaningful then statements about ethics, religion and much of philosophy are not, strictly speaking, meaningful. This applies as much to Wittgenstein's ideas in the Tractatus as other philosophical ideas. As he says at the end of the Tractatus, "My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb up beyond them. He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it."

The Vienna Circle: Logical Positivism

The Vienna Circle consisted of a group of philosophically minded scientists and logicians. Moritz Schlick (1882-1936) was the official leader; other members included Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970), Otto Neurath (1882-1945) and Kurt Gödel (1906-78). The Circle was heavily influenced by the work of Frege and Russell. Wittgenstein, although not a member of the group, discussed philosophy with Schlick and Carnap. The group was active from the mid 1920's. However, the combination of Schlick's assassination by a deranged student in 1936 and the growing hostility of the Nazis forced the Circle to disperse.

The logical positivism that the Circle practised can be seen as a development of Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Only verifiable statements were meaningful, as Schlick put it: "The meaning of a proposition is the method of its verification". Anything that was not empirically verifiable was meaningless. Statements about God, ethics, art and metaphysics, were, for the Circle, literally nonsense. This emphasis on positivism was a reaction against the romantic Idealism that had been influential in German philosophy. The role of philosophy was no longer to outline the self-awareness of Geist; rather it was seen as a handmaiden to science, content simply to clarify concepts.

Wittgenstein: Language Games

In the 1930's, Wittgenstein became critical of his earlier picture theory of meaning. In his latter work, he uses a tool metaphor for language: the meaning of a word is no longer it's relation to some atomic fact: the meaning of a word is in its use. We use language in a variety of ways, to talk about science, religion, art and so on. The latter Wittgenstein does not agree with the logical positivists that only scientific statements have meaning: science is only one way to talk about the world, only one 'language game'. A language game reflects a human activity, a form of life. As well as a scientific language game, we can participate in a religious language game, an aesthetic language game and many others. Words derive their meaning from the function they perform within the language game.

Words are no longer seen as having a particular essence, or to refer to a particular object. A word may have a variety of usages: what these different usages have in common Wittgenstein calls a 'family resemblance'. Members of a family bear a resemblance to each other, but no two members of a family (apart from identical twins) look exactly alike. The same is true for the use of words. The word 'game', for example, is used to talk about board games, card games, Olympic games, soccer games etc. These games do not hold one essential quality in common, rather there are overlapping and criss-crossing similarities.

Wittgenstein thought that philosophical problems arise when "language goes on holiday", that is, when we take a word and try to look at it in isolation from its language game. If we try to define the essence of beauty or knowledge, rather than seeing how these concepts are used in context, we will become confused. The job of philosophy for the latter Wittgenstein is therapeutic: "The philosopher's treatment of a question, is like the treatment of an illness". The "illness" in question is the bewitchment of intelligence by language.

The Private Language Argument

Since Wittgenstein's death there has been much discussion around Wittgenstein's assertion that there could not be a 'private language'. Philosophy since Descartes began from the assumption that the most secure knowledge is based on our private experience, indeed Descartes distinction between the mental and the material rests on this assumption. The British empiricist Hume also begins from the starting point of the certainty of the individual's private experience.

Wittgenstein sees language as a rule governed social activity. Wittgenstein thought that it was incomprehensible to imagine an individual creating their own private language. How would this person know if, when they used a word, that they were using it correctly? To rely on their own memory would be "as if someone were to buy several copies of the morning newspaper to assure himself that what it said was true." As this individual has no way of externally checking the way he is using a concept, he cannot be said to be using a language. If a private language is not possible then the rug has been pulled from under the feet of modern philosophy's Cartesian foundations. Meaning is no longer understood as private or individual, but as public and social. The individualistic first-person certainty which underlies both rationalist and empiricist approaches to philosophy is shown to be in error.

Richard Rorty: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

Richard Rorty (1931-) is an American philosopher who was trained in the analytic tradition. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has been influenced as much by Sartre and Heidegger as by Wittgenstein. Rorty has been able to articulate the post-modern concerns of 'continental philosophy' in the language game of Anglo-American academia. Rorty argues that ever since Descartes' "invention of the mind" philosophy has attempted to provide rock solid foundations for our understanding of the World. Kant thought that we interpret the world through universal timeless categories. The distinction was made between a mirroring non-natural mind and a mirrored natural world. The purpose of philosophy was to expose the shape of this mirror.

For Rorty human understanding is not based some objective structure of 'mind'. Rather we interpret the world through a variety of paradigms. If there is no objective philosophical standpoint then the idea that philosophy should be seen as the "queen of sciences", clarifying what counts as knowledge, is unsustainable. For Rorty the aim of philosophers should be, "to help their readers, or society as a whole, break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than to provide 'grounding' for the intuitions and customs of the present."


1879 Frege publishes "Begriffsschrift"

1910-13 Russell & Whitehead Publish "Principia Mathematica"

1912 Wittgenstein comes to study with Russell at Cambridge

1918-19 Russell lectures on Logical Atomism

1921 Wittgenstein publishes "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus"

1922 Schlick awarded chair of Philosophy in Vienna, birth of the Vienna Circle

1925 Death of Frege

1929 Wittgenstein returns to Cambridge, resumes philosophy

1936 Murder of Schlick, Vienna Circle disperses from continental Europe.

1949 Ryle publishes "The Concept of Mind"

1951 Wittgenstein dies of cancer

1953 Posthumous publishing of Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations"

1970 Death of Russell

1980 Richard Rorty publishes "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature"

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