The term "analytic philosophy", it has been said, marks a family resemblance across disparate philosophical views, or historical lines of influence. Broadly, analytic philosophy is characterised by its emphasis on clarity and argument, often achieved via modern formal logic and analysis of language, and a respect for the natural sciences.
The phrase "analytic philosophy" is also used to refer to a narrower range of traditions in early twentieth century philosophy, such as logical positivism and its philosophical antecedents (such as the work of Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege). In this narrower sense, analytic philosophy makes specific philosophical committments, not all shared by contemporary analytic philosophy, in particular :
In its narrower sense, "analytic philosophy" is used to refer to a specific philosophical program that is ordinarily dated from about 1900 to 1960.
The analytic program in philosophy is ordinarily dated to the work of English philosophers Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore in the early 20th century. They turned away from then-dominant forms of Hegelianism (objecting in particular to its idealism and purported obscurity), and began to develop a new sort of conceptual analysis, based on new developments in logic.
Russell in his early career, along with collaborator Alfred North Whitehead, was deeply influenced by Gottlob Frege. Most importantly Gottlob Frege helped to develop predicate logic. This permitted a much wider range of sentences to be parsed into logical form. Frege was also a key figure in philosophy of mathematics in Germany at the turn of the 20th century. In contrast to Husserl's Philosophy of Arithmetic, which attempted to show that the concept of the cardinal number derived from psychical acts of grouping objects and counting them, Frege sought to show that mathematics and logic have their own validity, independent of the judgments or mental states of individual mathematicians and logicians (which were the foundation of arithmetic in Husserl's "psychologism"). Frege's own work, the Begriffsschrift, developed the concepts of a specific form of modern logic by making use of the notions of the sense and reference. Frege further developed his philosophy of logic and mathematics in The Foundations of Arithmetic and The Basic Laws of Arithmetic where he provides an alternative to psychologistic accounts of the concept of number.
Like Frege, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead attempted to show that mathematics is reducible to fundamental logical principles. Their Principia Mathematica (1910-1913) encouraged many philosophers to take a renewed interest in the development of symbolic logic. In addition, Bertrand Russell adopted Frege's predicate logic 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:
Russell sought to resolve various philosophical issues by applying such clear and clean distinctions, most famously in his analysis of definite descriptions in "On Denoting," in Mind 14 (1905): 479-493. Online text
From about 1910 to 1930, analytic philosophers like Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein focused on creating an ideal language for philosophical analysis, which would be free from the ambiguities of ordinary language that, in their view, often got philosophers into trouble. This philosophical trend can be called "ideal-language analysis" or "formalism." In this phase, Russell and Wittgenstein sought to understand language, and hence philosophical problems, by making use of formal logic to formalize the way in which philosophical statements are made. Ludwig Wittgenstein developed a comprehensive system of logical atomism in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He there argued that the world is the existence of certain states of affairs and 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.
Logical positivists typically saw philosophy as having a very narrow role. For them, philosophy concerned the clarification of thoughts, rather than having a distinct subject matter of its own. The positivists typically adopted some type of verificationism, according to which every meaningful non-analytic statement is capable of being verified in terms of more basic statements about experiences or observables. This led the logical positivists to reject many traditional problems of philosophy, especially those of metaphysics or ontology, as meaningless.
After the War in the late 40s and 50s, analytic philosophy took a turn toward ordinary-language analysis. This movement followed in the wake of Wittgenstein's later philosophy, which totally departed from his earlier work. In contrast to earlier analytic philosophers (including early Wittgenstein) who thought philosophers should avoid the deceptive trappings of natural language by constructing ideal languages, ordinary language philosophers held that ordinary language already reflected a large number of subtle distinctions that had gone unrecognized in the formulation of traditional philosophical theories or problems. While schools such as logical positivism focus on logical terms, supposed to be universal and separate from contingent factors (such as culture, language, historical conditions), ordinary language philosophy emphasizes the use of language by ordinary people. Some have argued that ordinary language philosophy is of a more sociological grounding, as it essentially focuses on the use of language within social contexts. The most prominent ordinary language philosophers in the 1950s were Austin and Ryle. Some say that this movement marked a return to the common sense philosophy advocated by G.E. Moore.
Ordinary language philosophy often sought to disperse philosophical problems by showing them to be the result of misunderstanding ordinary language. See for example Ryle (who attempted to dispose of "Descartes' myth")) and Wittgenstein, among others.
In the 1950s and 1960s, analytic philosophy as it had existed came under heavy attack. In the early 1950s, logical positivism was critically challenged by Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations, Quine in Two Dogmas of Empiricism, and Sellars in Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. By 1960, these critiques had been widely read and were generally received favorably.
Following 1960, both logical positivism and natural language philosophy fell rapidly out of fashion. Many philosophers in Britain and America (although not all) began to move away from the distinctive linguistic analysis that had characterized analytic philosophy until this point. Far more than it had in the previous half-century, Anglophone philosophy began to incorporate wide range of interests, views, and methods, and has perhaps entered an age of eclecticism or pluralism, in which philosophers tend to specialize in very narrow and detached subfields.
Whether philosophy in general in this period should still be called "analytic" is a question of some dispute. Peter Hacker, for one, contends that much contemporary philosophy that calls itself analytic does not deserve the title. As he argues, philosophy’s center of gravity shifted from Britain to the US in the mid 70s (mostly for economic reasons), where, under the influence of the growing prestige of certain exciting scientific and technological developments, like computers, neurophysiology and Chomskyan linguistics, Wittgenstein’s arguments against his original Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus position were disregarded in the face of a somewhat vulgarised revival of that very position. This now calls itself analytic philosophy, though writers such as Hacker dispute its right to that title. “What from Wittgenstein’s perspective were diseases of the intellect, to many of which he had succumbed as a young man and which he had laboured long to extirpate, broke out afresh in mutated virulent forms’.
However, in general, most philosophers in Britain and America (who do not specialize in continental philosophy) still consider themselves to be "analytic philosophers." Largely, they have done so by expanding the notion of "analytic philosophy" from the specific programs that dominated Anglophone philosophy before 1960 to a much more general notion of an "analytic" style, characterized by precision and thoroughness about a narrow topic. Often the analytic style is thought to be opposed to "imprecise or cavalier discussions of broad topics." The state of so-called "analytic philosophy" after 1960 will be the focus of the next section.
In Britain and America, most philosophers still call themselves "analytic philosophers," in spite of the many differences from the work that defined analytic philosophy before 1960 (see the previous section). In the way these philosophers are using the term, "analytic philosophy" is not unified by any particular interests, premises, or methods (in all three areas, analytic philosophers have widely divergent positions). Instead, analytic philosophy, in its contemporary state, is usually taken to be defined by a particular style characterized by precision and thoroughness about a narrow topic, and resistance to "imprecise or cavalier discussions of broad topics."
A few of the most important and active fields and subfields in analytic philosophy are summarized in the following sections.
Motivated by the logical positivists' interest in verificationism, behaviorism was the most prominent theory of mind in analytic philosophy for the first half of the twentieth century. Behaviorists tended to hold either that statements about the mind were equivalent to statements about behavior and dispositions to behave in particular ways or that mental states were equivalent to behavior and dispositions to behave. Behaviorism later became far less popular, in favor of type physicalism or functionalism, theories which identified mental states with brain states. During this period, topics in the philosophy of mind were often in close contact with issues in cognitive science such as modularity or innateness. Finally, analytic philosophy has featured many philosophers who were dualists, and recently forms of property dualism have had a resurgence, with David Chalmers as perhaps the most prominent representative.
John Searle suggests that the obsession with linguistic philosophy of the last century has been superseded by an emphasis on the philosophy of mind, in which functionalism is currently the dominant theory. In recent years, a central focus for research in the philosophy of mind has been consciousness. And while there is a general consensus for the global neuronal workspace model of consciousness, there are many views as to how the specifics work out. The best known theories are Daniel Dennett's heterophenomenology, Fred Dretske and Michael Tye's representationalism, and the higher-order theories of either David M. Rosenthal—who advocates a higher-order thought (HOT) model—or David Armstrong and William Lycan—who advocate a higher-order perception (HOP) model). An alternative higher-order theory, the higher-order global states (HOGS) model, is offered by Robert van Gulick.
The first half of the twentieth century was marked by the widespread neglect of ethical philosophy and the popularity of skeptical attitudes towards value (e.g. emotivism). During this time, utilitarianism was the only non-skeptical approach to ethics to remain popular. However, as the influence of logical positivism began to wane mid-century, contemporary analytic philosophers began to have a renewed interest in ethics. G.E.M. Anscombe’s 1958 Modern Moral Philosophy sparked a revival of Aristotle's virtue ethical approach and John Rawls’s 1971 A Theory of Justice restored interest in Kantian ethical philosophy. At present, contemporary ethical philosophy is dominated by three schools: utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and Kantianism.
Another major development in the latter half of the twentieth century (c. 1970), has been contemporary ethical philosophy's overwhelming concern with practical applications, especially in relation to environmental issues, animal rights and the many challenges thrown up by advancing medical science.
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 specialized 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. Charles 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. Perhaps most influential in this area was Elizabeth Anscombe, whose landmark monograph "Intention" was called by Donald Davidson "the most important treatment of action since Aristotle", and is widely regarded as a masterpiece of moral psychology. A favorite student and close friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein, her 1958 article "Modern Moral Philosophy" introduced the term "consequentialism" into the philosophical lexicon, declared the "is-ought" impasse to be a dead end, and led to a revival in virtue ethics.
Plantinga, Mackie and Flew debated the logical validity of the free will defense as a way to solve the problem of evil. Alston, grappling with the consequences of analytic philosophy of language, worked on the nature of religious language. Adams worked on the relationship of faith and morality.
Analytic philosophy of religion has also been preoccupied with Ludwig Wittgenstein and his interpretation of Søren Kierkegaard's philosophy of religion. Using first-hand remarks (which would later be published in Philosophical Investigations, Culture and Value, and other works), philosophers such as Peter Winch and Norman Malcolm developed a fideist interpretation of Wittgenstein. Responding to this interpretation, Kai Nielsen and D.Z. Phillips became two of the most prominent philosophers on Wittgenstein's philosophy of religion.
Philosophy of religion is enjoying a rebirth after decades of neglect in academia. A significant portion of philosophy of religion is dedicated to Ludwig Wittgenstein's interpretation of Søren Kierkegaard's philosophy, and whether there is such a thing as Wittgensteinian fideism. Both New Wittgensteinians and postmodernists have participated in this discussion. In 2006, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: religion as a natural phenomenon discussed the taboo on religion, and proposed opening it up to scientific inquiry.
Although Marxism continues to be a major aspect of contemporary political philosophy, it must now compete for attention with various modern theories of liberalism. Particularly important are John Rawls' theory of justice as fairness (as presented in his book A Theory of Justice) and Robert Nozick's libertarian perspective (as presented in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia). Recent decades have also seen the rise of several critiques of liberalism, including the feminist critiques of Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, the communitarian critiques of Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre (though it should be noted both shy away from the term), and the multiculturalist critiques of Amy Gutmann and Charles Taylor. Another important—if controversial—figure in contemporary political philosophy is Jürgen Habermas, whose social theory is a blend of social science, Marxism, neo-Kantianism, and American pragmatism.
Current analytic political philosophy owes much to John Rawls, who, in a series of papers from the 1950s onward (most notably "Two Concepts of Rules" and "Justice as Fairness") and his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, produced a sophisticated and closely argued defence of 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. Isiah Berlin has had a notable influence on analytic political philosophy with his lecture entitled : Two Concepts of Liberty.
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 the sociologist Erik Olin Wright. All these people have attempted to build upon Cohen's work by bringing to bear modern social science methods, such as rational choice theory, to supplement Cohen's use of analytic philosophical techniques in the interpretation of Marxian theory.
Cohen himself would later engage directly with Rawlsian political philosophy in attempt to advance a socialist theory of justice that stands in contrast to both traditional Marxism and the theories advanced by Rawls and Nozick. In particular, he points to Marx's principle of from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
Communitarians such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel 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 emphasizes the role that the community plays in shaping his or her values, thought processes and opinions.
One striking break with early analytic philosophy was the revival of metaphysical theorizing in the second half of the twentieth century. Philosophers such as David Lewis and David Armstrong developed elaborate theories on a range of topics such as universals, causation, possibility and necessity, and abstract objects.
Among the developments that led to the revival of metaphysical theorizing were Quine's attack on the analytic-synthetic distinction, which was generally taken to undermine Carnap's distinction between existence questions internal to a framework and those external to it.
Metaphysics remains a fertile area for research, having recovered from the attacks of A.J. Ayer and the logical positivists. And though many were inherited from previous decades, the debate remains fierce. The philosophy of fiction, the problem of empty names, and the debate over existence's status as a property have all risen out of relative obscurity to become central concerns, while perennial issues such as free will, possible worlds, and the philosophy of time have had new life breathed into them.
Science has also played an increasingly significant role in metaphysics. The theory of special relativity has had a profound effect on the philosophy of time, and quantum physics is routinely discussed in the free will debate. The weight given to scientific evidence is largely due to widespread commitments among philosophers to scientific realism and naturalism.
Contemporary philosophy does retain its penchant for linguistic issues, however, as a topic underpinning all other areas of philosophy. In Europe, for example, philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-François Lyotard have all made significant contributions to poststructuralism and deconstruction, with language analysis constituting an important aspect of both their arguments and their conclusions. Similarly, the debate between Eternalists and Presentists—though still heavily influenced by the philosophy of science—has increasingly been put in linguistic terms and focused on linguistic issues.