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17. Analytic Philosophy

By Paul Newall (2005)

Just like philosophy as a whole, explaining what analytic philosophy is (and isn't) unfortunately isn't straightforward. To help us understand the matter we'll begin by looking at some historical considerations before moving on to examples of analytic philosophers and the contributions they have made to philosophy.

Historical background

Although the earliest analytical philosopher is typically taken to be Frege (of whom more below), the history of analytical philosophy is largely a twentieth century story. As scientific approaches continued to yield results (even if they usually consisted in better ways for people to kill each other), some philosophers towards the end of the nineteenth century wondered if it would be possible to learn a lesson from the sciences and "do" philosophy in a similar way. In 1903, Moore's Principia Ethica spoke of analysis being vital in understanding (and answering) moral problems, and between 1910 and 1913 Whitehead and Russell published their Principia Mathematica, in which one of the aims was to reduce mathematics to logic.

As we saw in our fourth piece, the rigour of logic appeals to some people and it was perhaps to be expected that philosophy would eventually have its turn under the microscope. Indicative questions asked included:

  • Can philosophy be done in the way that science is (whatever that is)?
  • Can more rigour be introduced into philosophy by proceeding in a logical fashion?
  • Can philosophy be reduced to logic?
From what we learned in our sixth discussion, the first of these seems unlikely; nevertheless, we can appreciate the appeal that the clarity of logic and mathematics had for those philosophers who hoped to apply it to the problems they were studying. If philosophy had to be remodelled, however, what would become of it?

What is philosophy for?

Some people think or claim that philosophy is useless, a waste of time (and taxpayers money) or just worthless. Even with the small selection of areas we've covered in this series so far, however, we've seen that questions of value like this one are philosophical: they rely on philosophical assumptions, concepts and arguments, although they are not always explicit. A few philosophers have suggested that even if no ultimate justification can be found, it may be instead that the search for answers is what is important, not the answers themselves.

Even if the rejection of philosophy is itself philosophy, though, and if this unavoidable circularity is perhaps the point, we can leave this puzzle aside for the moment and yet still ask what precisely philosophy is for; that is, what is the province of philosophy, what kinds of questions can we ask and what use can we put it to? As we noted above, and with the development and apparent success of science in mind, some thinkers suggested that whatever philosophy is, it cannot be the attempt to find out about the universe because that is the task of science. Historically many different answers to this issue have been suggested, of which some are of interest to us here:

  • Philosophy deals with questions of value, not of what is; that is, philosophy and science are distinct.
  • Philosophy analyses the concepts used in science (and indeed everything else); that is, philosophy is fundamental to science, supporting (or extending) it but covering a different area.
  • Philosophy provides us with non-scientific truths; that is, science and philosophy are distinct but the latter can tell us facts about the universe.
The first two remind us of scientism, the idea that only science can lead to knowledge. Another related question would be to ask what philosophy ought to do: is it something we do, an activity to engage in, or should it instead be concerned with proposing and developing theories about the universe? The latter is obviously related to the third option above.

These are the kind of issues that early (and later) analytic philosophers were concerned with initially, taking a variety of positions on them—so much so that it isn't possible to state a clear, "analytic" answer. What is analytic philosophy, then?

Analytic Philosophy

Discussing metaphysics, H.L. Mencken wrote:


A metaphysician is one who, when you remark that twice two makes four, demands to know what you mean by twice, what by two, what by makes, and what by four.
Although Mencken was a master of satire, this remark is perhaps on the mark: we can understand analytic philosophy as the attempt to address philosophical questions through analysis, looking at the language and concepts used and drawing out their meanings as clearly as possible before trying to provide any answers. The basic principle is the eminently reasonable one of not wanting to tackle a problem until we know exactly (or insofar as possible) what it is.

To take an example, and also to use Mencken to help us, suppose someone asks, "can we know what happened before time began?" To unpack the problem before we jump into responding, we could ask further questions:

  • What do we mean by knowledge (a question introduced in our fifth discussion)?
  • What do we mean by time?
  • Does it make sense to ask about before time?
  • Even if the answer is yes, does it make sense to ask about events happening before time?
  • Did time begin at all?
And so on. No doubt this practice is where philosophy got its reputation for answering questions with still more questions, but responding without a clear appreciation of what the issue is seems unhelpful at best. In many instances, of course, this can lead to the inquirer being told that their question was flawed to begin with, which can be a deeply unsatisfactory response even when accurate. Is it better to encourage others to analyse their questions more before asking them or does the analytic approach encourage "ivory tower" stereotypes when philosophers should perhaps try to engage people in other ways?

The trouble with explaining analytic philosophy in such terms, however, is that there is no agreed method of analysis. The example is one approach; British empiricists tended to adopt an analogy with chemistry and try to break philosophical concepts (like knowledge, truth or existence) into their constituent parts, while still others used metaphors or skirted around an issue to try and gain a feeling for what was going on. Although it was contrasted with Continental philosophy (so called because analytic philosophy tended to be adopted by Anglo-American philosophers while those in Europe went in other directions), analytic philosophy is scarcely any easier to characterise than postmodernism—as we saw in our twelfth discussion. In much the same fashion, philosophers we might call analytic disagreed (and disagree) amongst themselves, leading some to consider it "hopeless" to try to define it.

Philosophical logic

As we touched upon above, some of the early analytic philosophers had two main aims:

  • To show that mathematics could be reduced to logic; and
  • To show that the resulting (mathematical) logic is an ideal language.
The first was called the logistic thesis and was the goal of Whitehead and Russell in their Principia Mathematica. Of more interest to us, perhaps, is the second: if true, it would mean that the imprecision and other difficulties associated with everyday language could be eliminated in favour of a formal mode of expression defined by logical rules. This was an attractive proposition to some philosophers; after all, it would mean that philosophical questions could be translated into the ideal language and addressed by applying the rules of logic. A question that was poorly thought out, or fallacious in some way, would then be exposed as such by logical analysis.

Although beyond the scope of this discussion, Goedel's first theorem—a famous result in mathematics—showed that this ideal language would be incomplete; that is, it would not be possible to find a language that could do everything the philosophers hoped. In spite of this, attempts at this new language was able to make important contributions, most notably the theory of descriptions. This will be considered later.

Logical atomism

A metaphysical theory that grew from this work was logical atomism, the idea that the structure of reality is essentially the same as that of mathematical logic. It followed, of course, that the study of the latter would thus tell us about the former. Some philosophers thought that the universe consisted of atomic facts that combined to form propositions according to the rules of logic. Analysis of a proposition, then, would consist in translating it into the ideal language, breaking the result up into its constituent atomic facts and checking if they have been combined in a meaningful way.

Technical criticisms of logical atomism meant that it was soon rejected, in part due to the advent of logical positivism. As we learned in our sixth discussion, too, there are and can be no such facts on which to base logical atomism. Even so, it was part of the development of analytic philosophy and can help us understand what was to follow.

Logical positivism

Positivism tends to be associated with the principle of verification, which we will come to shortly, but it traditionally had three strands. The first concerned analytic and synthetic propositions.

Recalling our fifteenth discussion, an analytic proposition (also called a priori or necessary) is one that is true by virtue of its definition, the typical example being "all bachelors are unmarried". There is no need to know anything about the world to conclude that this proposition is true because the term "bachelor" means someone who is unmarried. On the other hand, a synthetic proposition (also called a posteriori or contingent) is one that seems to be true but need not be, an example this time being "all men are mortal". All our experience points to men being mortal, but it could conceivably be the case that some future medical advance will mean otherwise. The point, of course, is that we have to refer to our experience of the world to decide whether the proposition is true or not.

To return to the point, the logical positivists first claimed that all propositions are either analytic or synthetic, but not both. This has interesting consequences: to begin with, the rationalist hope of learning truths about the universe via reason had to be rejected wholesale. After all, the results of reasoning had to be analytic propositions, but these do not tell us about the world. Next, whatever truths could be discovered had to be uncertain, since only synthetic propositions tell us things about the universe and they are always tentative. This is because circumstances may change, as in the example of men being mortal, or we may not be sure of what our senses tell us, or we may refer back to the problem of induction (as discussed in our fifth piece). Synthetic propositions are the business of science, of course, which acknowledges these skeptical restrictions on what we can know, so the logical positivists advocated science as the only tool to learn about our world.

Thinking back to our look at the philosophy of religion, we can see that an obvious criticism of this element of logical positivism would be to point to propositions that seem to be neither wholly analytic nor synthetic, such as "God is just" or "the universe is purposive". Responding to this objection, and thus giving their second tenet, the positivists appealed to the principle of verification, according to which only those propositions that can conceivably be verified are meaningful. Different forms of what "verified" should mean were tried, but the basic idea was that a person should be able to state an experiment that would make him or her accept or reject a proposition. Since this cannot be done (or so it was supposed) for most of the humanities—but especially metaphysics and theology—it followed that any claim made by these disciplines was cognitively meaningless. (That is, it might still have meaning insofar as it had emotive import or to act as inspiration, but not with regard to what is or is not real.) Note also that a proposition need not be verified, but it was necessary that it could in principle be verified at some time—like the theory that there was life on Mars or that there is life elsewhere in the universe.

The third aspect of logical positivism was called the reductive hypothesis, which spoke of the relationship between a synthetic statement and the observations that would verify it (or otherwise). The positivists held that this relationship could always be reduced to observation statements; that is, a statement about sense experience (also called a sense-datum).

As we said above, there were many attempts to state the principle of verification in a way that responded to the critique it was faced with but it is widely agreed that they all failed. One objection was to ask if the principle is analytic or synthetic: if analytic, it says nothing about the universe; but if synthetic it would have to verifiable. However, what could possibly count as an observation showing it to be either true or false? This means it is self-defeating. A second problem was identified by Hempel, who demonstrated in ingenious fashion that the principle could be used to make any proposition verifiable.

The distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions was challenged by Quine (of whom more below) via consideration of the example of a solidly analytic statement like "all bachelors are unmarried". This is true by virtue of the definition of "bachelor", of course, but how, asked Quine, do we know what "bachelor" means? Usually we know because we were taught it, or learned it from observing its use in conversation, or by looking it up in a dictionary, but all of these rely on experience. In that case, the separation of analytic and synthetic would have to be rejected.

Quine also addressed the reductive hypothesis, pointing out that terms or propositions do not retain their meaning when taken in isolation; that is, they often depend on the context of their use. Moreover, and as we saw in our sixth discussion, it was (at least in part) because observation is theory-laden that the sense-datum theory of knowledge was rejected, although in recent years it has begun a rehabilitation, especially in the philosophy of mind.

As a result of these and other criticisms, logical positivism was shown to be untenable.

Analytic Philosophers

Sometimes the best way to understand an aspect of philosophy is to look at a selection of the important thinkers therein, since a consideration of the questions they concerned themselves with can help us appreciate the overall areas within which they worked, as it were. This is especially so here because it's difficult to say exactly what analytic philosophy is. Although there is only space to touch on a selection of ideas and problems, they should make clearer the range and scope of what goes by that name.


Gottlob Frege lived from 1848 to 1925 and was probably the first analytic philosopher. He was not well known—even to other philosophers—until Carnap's writing made his ideas more widely available. His diary surprised his readers when it showed him to have been a virulent racist and anti-Semite. Even so, he set the ball rolling, as it were, by considering the ancient problem of the nature of identity (that is, what does it mean for two things to be identical?) in a new way.

Consider the following statements:

  • Wellington = Wellington (1)
  • Wellington = Capital of New Zealand (2)
Both are true (the first trivially so) and both express identity, insofar as we say that one side of the equality is identical with the other. Nevertheless, (1) doesn't seem to tell us anything new; whereas (2) gives us information about the world. If both are identity statements then there should be no difference between them (after all, if a = b and a = c then we say that b = c); and yet there seems to be something going on that we miss by calling them the same.

Frege's contribution was to realise this and formalise it. It is the new description of "Wellington" that makes (2) have a significance that (1) does not. He wrote that words (or indeed sentences) may have either or both a Sinn and a Bedeutung. These German words are translated in various ways (both being ways of saying "meaning") but the first implies a "concept" while the latter is a "referent". In our example, then, "Wellington" is a concept that is trivially identical with itself, but in (2) it also has a referent; that is, it refers to something in the world—the capital of New Zealand. The difference between (1) and (2) is thus that (2) has a referent that (1) lacks, hence (2) being significant while (1) is not.

This can be applied to many other examples. The sentence "the most beautiful sunrise", for instance, has a Sinn but no Bedeutung because although it means something to those who use it, it does not actually refer to anything. If we amend it slightly to "the most beautiful sunrise I have seen" then it takes on a different meaning because it now refers to a specific instance, in this case a particular judgement where the previous version was a general conception. Frege used to insight to build an entire philosophy of language.


As we noted above, Bertrand Russell was responsible for the theory of descriptions that we will return to later. He lived from 1872 to 1970 and was a prolific author on a wide variety of subjects, not limiting himself to philosophy. He was jailed for his opinions on several occasions and also received the Nobel Prize for literature. With Whitehead, he wanted to place philosophy on a firm logical basis and it is perhaps this aim that has been his lasting influence on a significant number of philosophers ever since.


Highly respected by his contemporaries, G.E. (George Edward) Moore lived between 1873 and 1958. Moore was a moral realist and developed an argument against the possibility of understanding ethics in natural terms. This was the naturalistic fallacy, discussed in our eleventh piece. He was also the author of a vigorous critique of idealism, which we'll consider later in this series, and tried to show that skepticism is self-contradictory.

He was perhaps most famous for his defence of common sense, that much maligned target of philosophical objection. In particular, his proof of the existence of the external world—which consisted in part in simply raising his hand—occupied Wittgenstein in the latter part of his life. He argued that although it is possible to be unsure of the correct analysis of some propositions, it is not possible to doubt their truth. These are the kind of propositions that everyone understands unmistakably, such as "this is a hand" (which he illustrated by raising his own). He dismissed the notion that a question such as "do you believe the earth has existed for many years past?" (to use another of his examples) requires a philosophical analysis in the Menckenian fashion before it can be answered with "yes", "no" or "I'm not sure".

There is an important distinction to appreciate here. The point is not that the proposition is easy to analyse (that is, we can still ask what existence means, what the nature of belief is, and so on), especially since—as we said before—there is no agreement about what analysis is, but rather that it is easy to answer the associated question.

Critics of Moore explained that he had begged the question. Saying "I know that x is so" does not make it so; in part, it is the evidential basis for the claim, its coherence with other beliefs, and so on, which convinces us. Indeed, rather than saying "I know" on the basis of his common sense argument, it would perhaps be better—and more accurate—to say "it is certain for me". This was part of Wittgenstein's great insight into the issue (one of many) that we'll come to shortly.


A group of philosophers used to meet in the Vienna of the early twentieth century, known as the Weiner Kreis (or Vienna Circle) and of which Rudolf Carnap was probably the central figure. He lived from 1891 to 1970 and his works are also too numerous to meaningfully summarise. His thinking was largely positivistic but he arrived at his ideas in interesting ways. In particular, he developed the notion of a constitutional system, consisting in a set of definitions of concepts and theorems that cover their relationships, all making up a logical framework. This was another example of the importance placed on ideal (logical) languages.

Carnap used this view to look at the analytic/synthetic distinction in a different way. He thought that the questions we ask concern either the structure within which we understand them (that is, the boundary or the outside of the constitutional system) or matters inside. For example, "is Wellington the capital of New Zealand?" is a question about the world around us, whereas "does the world around us really exist?" is something we could ask before we even get that far—a foundational question, as it were. Carnap called the former external questions and the latter internal, identifying them respectively as synthetic and analytic. Although subject to vigorous critique by Quine, this changed the debate about the distinction between the two.


It is widely agreed that Ludwig Wittgenstein was a genius, in the strongest possible sense of the word. He had such a deep influence on philosophy and many other areas that it would be impossible to do justice to him here. Born in Austria but spending much of his working life in Britain, he lived from 1889 to 1951, fighting at the front in the First World War (by his own request, one that he struggled for some time to have granted) and composing the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in the trenches. The only work published in his lifetime, it was to become—along with his later Philosophical Investigations—one of the most famous philosophical works in recent history. Both these and his other writings changed philosophy significantly, not least in their effect on other philosophers who felt that everything they had done was called into question by his brilliance. Returning from the war, he committed what was described "financial suicide" by insisting that his enormous wealth (inherited from his father, a successful industrialist) be transferred to the other members of his family, subsequently living in near-poverty himself in order to better dedicate time to his work. By all accounts, this intensity of purpose characterised him throughout his life.

Wittgenstein's philosophy is generally split into two parts: the earlier period, with the Tractatus; and a later period roughly based around the Philosophical Investigations. The former was used by the logical positivists to support their ideas but most critics agree that this was based on a misunderstanding of the work and in particular only by ignoring its metaphysical aspects, which can roughly be termed logical atomism. He also expounded what is called the picture theory of language, according to which language latches on to reality, so to speak, by means of propositions that are "pictures" of reality—much like a musical score can be viewed as a "picture" of a piece of music, to use one of Wittgenstein's examples.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Wittgenstein's early philosophy is an area that he continued to write on later in his life, namely the possibility of science (or indeed philosophy) touching on the important "problems of life". Let us take some examples:


The sense of the world must lie outside of the world.... In it there is no value—and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is value, which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.
Here Wittgenstein was speaking of what he would later call "running up against the barriers of language". The truly important questions of life can be shown but not said, he suggested, and if we could say them they would for that reason not be important. They transcend the world and hence lie beyond language. He applied this understanding to ethics, aesthetics, God and the mystical at various times. In this way, the solutions to these ultimate problems must lie outside of the domain of science and he wrote as much:


We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.
The last remark was the basis of what became understood as the therapeutic value of Wittgenstein's work: if the important questions in life lie beyond the world and our ability to express them—precisely because that is the point—then it is "perfectly hopeless" to try to get at them with language. "The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem." In that case, we can show what these problems are but they cannot be addressed in language because they lie beyond it. This approach was seen as mystical because many mystics claim likewise.

Wittgenstein ended the Tractatus with the most famous passages:


The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e., the propositions of natural science, i.e., something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—but it would be the only strictly correct method.

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognises them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder after he has climbed up on it.)
Here we return to the question we raised above: what is the purpose of philosophy? For Wittgenstein at this stage, it was therapeutic insofar as philosophy consisted in analysing propositions and showing that those in the domain of metaphysics are running up against and over the boundaries of what can be said and hence must be "climbed over". He does not say that they are worthless, but only that by asking them we are trying to put into words things that cannot be said. Elsewhere in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein explained in a different way:


Most propositions and questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false but senseless.
It is easy to see how this comment could be interpreted as supportive of positivism, which is indeed what happened. Nevertheless, the questions were only senseless in that they tried to use language to go where it cannot.

In his later philosophy, Wittgenstein defended the independence of philosophy rather than its therapeutic worth. He implicitly (never stating it in plain terms because it was in principle not possible to do so) explained that philosophical problems are a complex of presuppositions, ideas, theories and concepts, jumbled together. To make sense of them and address the issue it would first be necessary to untangle them. However, to tackle the problem requires a method that recognises this muddled beginning, coming at it from many different perspectives and hence getting a wider sense of it. Consequently, the Philosophical Investigations consists in aphorism after aphorism, replete with rhetorical questions posed in Socratic fashion that he sometimes only returned to after a lengthy discussion of some other aspect that eventually proved to shed light on the earlier part. Wittgenstein was not looking to explain problems but to describe them from multiple angles and thereby gain a deeper understanding.

Wittgenstein saw value in the older, traditional way of doing philosophy but believed that it had limitations. By imposing a model on the world it is often possible to see regularities or patterns that might otherwise be missed, but it also forces an array of particular instances into a general picture and hence cannot provide an accurate representation of all the smaller details. The more general we attempt to be, the more subtle distinctions are missed. In this way, we can become trapped by our picture of the world or a specific problem and hence not able to get beyond it.

Perhaps the best-known part of Wittgenstein's new method is what he called language games. He changed his earlier view of language such that meaning is to be understood as determined by use. When we want to understand a term, then, we should ask, "how is it used?" In this way the philosopher looks at how people behave within the language, rather than trying to think it out for themselves. His maxim became "Don't think. Look!"

A problem that Wittgenstein considered in two interesting ways was the question of whether we can know that an external world exists or not. The first was his celebrated private language argument, in which he asked if it would be possible for a person to know and use a language if they were the only person in existence. He concluded that they could not, since language—like games (hence language games)—is governed by rules; otherwise we would not know (or be able to say) if we had used a word or an expression correctly. However, if there was only a single person in existence, there could be no such rules; there would be nothing to refer to in order to call a usage correct or incorrect. Only by supposing that words have come to take their meaning publicly can we make sense of right or wrong usage, and thus there can be no private language. As a result, the external world must exist.

His other approach was given in his last work, On Certainty. Here he wrote that acting was the foundation of all language games. Statements such as "the external world exists" are neither true nor false but instead hinge propositions; that is, they are those presuppositions that we cannot do without. For example, it is not possible to ask, "does the external world exist?" without assuming that it does. After all, who are we asking? How did we learn to ask questions, or the language to pose them in? Even in asking the question we already defeat ourselves. Nevertheless, to call hinge propositions "true", "absolutely certain" or something similar is to miss the point: for something to be true it must have been possible that it could be false, but it is meaningless to talk of hinge propositions as having been otherwise. With this solution, Wittgenstein hoped to have shown that skepticism is self-defeating.


Gilbert Ryle lived from 1900 to 1976 and worked at Oxford with Austin, doing much to bring the ideas of the Cambridge philosophers (such as Russell and Moore) to that institution. One of his distinguishing features as a philosopher was his total lack of any pretension in his work. He was renowned as a writer of great clarity and insight who was able to explain difficult concepts in plain language—being in particular master of metaphor—hence making his writing accessible to a wide audience.

One of his main philosophical concerns was the philosophy of mind, specifically Cartesian dualism, which he attacked with much vigour. He held that dualism—or the idea that there is a ghost in the machine, as he termed it—is a mistake based on a category error. He used a nice story to explain the problem:


A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks "But where is the University?" [...] His mistake lay in his innocent assumption that it was correct to speak of Christ Church, the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum and the University; to speak, that is, as if "the University" stood for an extra member of the class of which these other units are members. He was mistakenly allocating the University to the same category as that to which the other institutions belong.
Anyone who has visited either can perhaps sympathise with the plight of the unfortunate tourist in this example. By analogy, however, Ryle insisted that it is an error to speak of the mind existing as the body does; "the mind" is here in the same situation as "the University" and the confusion of dualism lies in taking it to exist separately as the visitor does the University. The approach, then, was again to show that terms in language have been used incorrectly; and hence to demonstrate that the confusion in the philosophical problem disappears, as it were, when we employ language in a more logical fashion.

Although Ryle's analysis was immediately popular and discussed by many, it was soon passed over in favour of Wittgenstein's. Even so, he helped to bring the philosophies of mind and language together, such that modern work in these is almost invariably intertwined.


W.V.O. (Willard Van Ormond) Quine was born in 1908 and has had a varied philosophical career, too much so to effectively summarise here. We have already considered briefly above his objections to the analytic/synthetic distinction and he called this one of the "Two Dogmas of Empiricism", the title of perhaps his most famous paper. The second was the reductive hypothesis, which he also tackled.

Having made his criticisms, Quine then proposed "empiricism without the dogmas"—his own account of how empiricism should properly be understood. An important example of his ideas (which we'll take in sections) is as follows:


The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most causal matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field.
Here we have a form of holism, wherein Quine takes knowledge as a whole and assigns a much-reduced importance to experience (or experiment). Rather than a single idea being disproved or falsified by experiment, say, as some philosophers of scientists had supposed, knowledge for Quine is a web of ideas, notions and assumptions, some of which may be considered synthetic while others are presuppositions but all of which hang together. If a "conflict with experience" should occur, then (that is, experience reveals the opposite of or something different to what we expect), it occasions a change within the field of beliefs—not an abandonment of it. Moreover:


... Having re-evaluated one statement we must re-evaluate some others, which may be statements logically connected with the first or may be the statements of logical connections themselves. But the total field is so underdetermined by its boundary conditions, experience, that there is much latitude of choice as to what statements to re-evaluate in the light of any single contrary experience.
Here we run up against the problem of under-determination that we discussed in our sixth piece. Changes in beliefs may take place across the field he describes, in turn influencing others, but it is a mistake—according to Quine—to suppose that empiricism alone can decide matters for us. Furthermore:


... If this view is right, it is misleading to speak of the empirical content of an individual statement—especially if it is a statement at all remote from the experiential periphery of the field. Furthermore, it becomes folly to seek a boundary between synthetic statements, which hold contingently on experience, and analytic statements, which hold come what may. Any statement can be held true come what may, if we make drastic enough adjustments elsewhere in the system. Even a statement very close to the periphery can be held true in the face of recalcitrant experience by pleading hallucination or by amending certain statements of the kind called logical laws. Conversely, by the same token, no statement is immune to revision.
Now Quine addresses the analytic/synthetic distinction, claiming that it cannot hold because no statement is held to be true or false in isolation. Instead, being a part of a system of beliefs it may be amended as the whole changes, or it may be rescued by suitable alterations within the system. The distinction is thus revealed as too simplistic to account for the way in which beliefs are actually held. It is also a mistake, says Quine, to judge statements on their empirical content (that is, how well they are supported by evidence) because no statements are held solely with reference to experience.

Later Quine modified his opinions, calling for a more moderate holism and allowing that there could be a pragmatic use for the analytic/synthetic distinction, but he continued to maintain that beliefs are not held in isolation. Indeed, the other factors inside the systems that make up our knowledge might influence where and what kind of experience we look for or to in the first place. Nevertheless, his ideas (these and many others) have been subject to critique. In particular, it is argued that Quine did not remove the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements at all but merely replaced it as one of degree, not kind.


J.L. (John Langshaw) Austin was yet another British philosopher of this period (along with Russell, Moore, Ryle and still more not covered here), born in 1911 and dying of cancer in 1960. His best-known contribution to philosophy is speech act theory, discussed below, but it is reckoned that he would have had a far greater impact if his life had not been cut short.

Austin employed a methodological principle that is almost unique in philosophy, which he characterised as follows:


... the abnormal will throw light on the normal.
This approach is also found in Feyerabend and supposes that by studying the extreme or unusual case we will discover something about what typically obtains. Below we consider his investigations on performatives instead of the more usual propositions, for example.

Austin also used two further principles that Stroll calls the first word and ontological applicability principles. The former notes that language has a long history and the distinctions we find in it—like good and bad, true and false, free and un-free, and so on—have served a purpose (or purposes) in being employed and handed down to us. The latter extends this observation by claiming that such distinctions get at actual features of the universe. Although he acknowledged that exceptions exist, he thought that as a rule the (lengthy) existence of a distinction suggests that it tells us something rather than being arbitrary. In particular, he applied these to the problem of free will and used them to conclude that there are both free and un-free actions.

The multiplicity of analytic philosophy

In summary, by briefly looking at the work of these representative thinkers we can see the diversity of approaches, arguments and positions and hence why it is so difficult to characterise analytic philosophy. It is perhaps interesting to note that during this period (that is, the early twentieth century) it was still possible for individual philosophers to have a definitive impact on the rest of the (philosophical) world; nowadays, however, the sheer number of philosophers working in institutions around the world and the focus on current issues rather than the traditional (and largely unresolved) concerns of the past mean that the era of "superstar" philosophers may be past. As strange as this description may seem, some of those discussed above were famous in their time in a way that we now reserve for sportspersons, musicians and movie stars.

Analysing philosophical questions

In this last section we'll look at two of the most significant theories developed by analytic philosophers.

The theory of descriptions

Russell's theory of descriptions is recognised as having lasting import in philosophy. Consider the following propositions:

  • God does not exist (1)
  • The present king of France is not bald (2)
An objection frequently heard against (1) is that the atheist presupposes God's existence in making such a statement; that is, if He does not exist, then whom are we talking about in the first place? (2) is the standard example that Russell used, which presents us with a slightly different problem: given that republican France no longer has a monarchy, is (2) true, false or perhaps meaningless? If we say "true" then it would seem strange: after all, there is no king of France; conversely, if we say "false" then are we in fact implying that he has suffered undue stress from paying restaurant bills on trips to his capital? The technical term for such statements is to say that they lack a referent—the thing they refer to.

The theory of descriptions helped to clear up the confusion in these and other instances of language seemingly gone wrong. In the case of (2) to begin with, there are two ways we could read the proposition that have different consequences:

  • There currently exists a king of France who is not bald.
  • It is not the case that a king of France currently exists who is also not bald.
The first interpretation assumes that a king of France does worry about his hairline in Versailles, but the second avoids the problem by denying that anything exists that we could describe both as "king of France" and "not bald". This is because the denial applies only to the baldness in the first, but to the entire statement in the second.

We can go further, however, by splitting (2) into three separate propositions:

  • At least one thing is currently king of France (i)
  • At most one thing is currently king of France (ii)
  • Whomever is currently king of France is not bald (iii)
If there is a king of France with hair, each of (i), (ii) and (iii) are true and hence (2) holds. On the other hand, if any one of (i), (ii) or (iii) is false then (2) is also false: for example, (i) fails to hold if there is no king of France (as in a republic)—lacking a referent again; (ii) is false if there is more than one king (another circumstance that could potentially render (2) problematic); and (iii) is false if said king is lacking a full head of hair. Either way, this re-description in a more logical fashion has resolved the ambiguity.

Returning to (1), we can see another way in which the theory of descriptions uses logical clarification to remove the difficulty caused by (1) lacking a referent—according to the atheist in our example, at least. Russell's insight was to realise that the term "God" is not a name for something we assume exists but an abbreviation of a detailed description. Depending on the kind of God we have in mind, this might be "just, all powerful and all knowing", such that (1) now reads:

  • There is nothing that is just, all powerful and all knowing.
Now we have the sense of the proposition without any need to suppose that God exists beforehand.

By analysing propositions in terms similar to that we have done for (1) and (2) we are able to make sense of claims about things we take to be non-existent, like Father Christmas, Patrick Bateman or the character of Hugo Holbling.

In closing, we can remark on a famous instance of using the theory of descriptions in criticising a philosophical argument. Recalling our discussion of the ontological argument in our fifteenth piece and the argument above, when someone says "God exists" it is tantamount to stating that "something is just, all powerful and all knowing". In this rendering, the word "something" does not describe a property possessed by God and hence, or so Russell concluded, existence is not a property. This means that the basic step in the ontological proof of asserting that God must have the property of existence is faulty, since the whole argument can be recast with the theory of descriptions to remove any talk of existence. Russell's analysis of the ontological proof has found wide acceptance.

Speech Act theory

Sometimes called performative utterances, speech acts were considered by Austin in part as a counter-argument to logical positivism. Consider, say, a Christening ceremony in which a baby is named; the minister presiding might say, "I name you Hugo", for example. We could ask if this statement is true or false, but that would be to miss the point completely: the utterance performs a function—in this case naming—but does not make any claim that could be true or false. Since such a statement cannot be verified, it would have to be ruled meaningless according to the principle of verification. The problem with that, however, is that everyone appreciates the meaning of the statement (except, perhaps, baby Hugo).

Austin called such statements speech acts and developed his theory of them to include distinctions between many different types. His larger point was that language has far more uses than allowed by the early analytic understanding, particularly the view that language expressed propositions that could either be true or false. The set of speech acts that are meaningful to those using them but nevertheless neither true nor false he called performative. His work has since been extended by others and plays an important part in the philosophy of language, which we will consider in a future discussion.

Analytic Philosophy today

In spite of the concerns raised at the work of its early exponents, today analytic philosophy is active in many areas, particularly the philosophy of mind. Generally speaking, analytic philosophers reject Cartesian dualism and support either functionalism or eliminative materialism, all of which we discussed in our fourteenth piece. Questions of what we can call meaningful, how we find out about the world and what kind of facts (if any) it is composed of occupy philosophers just as surely as they did in the past. Indeed, some suggest that the questions of old have timeless relevance and hence need to (and ultimately will) be studied today and in future.

Dialogue the Thirteenth

The Scene: It's the following day and Trystyn has arranged to meet up with Brother Peter. The former is waiting in The Drunken Bishop with Steven.

Steven: Will he turn up?

Trystyn: Sure. Why not?

Steven: Maybe we put him off yesterday?

Trystyn: He seemed genuinely interested in us.

Steven: In you. What do you think he is? Some kind of theologian?

Trystyn: Could be. (He looks up.) Here he is.

(Brother Peter shakes hands with both, greeting them warmly.)

Peter: Hello again. How was your talk?

Steven: Pretty funny. I'd never realised the philosophical depths of rugby, for sure.

Peter: There's nothing more important, some say.

Steven: Apparently the angles at which Cullen would hit the line were enough to make mathematicians swear beauty is number. It was all Greek to me, however.

Trystyn: Touch .

Peter: Indeed. (He laughs.) Well, what shall we discuss?

Trystyn: My friend here wants to know what you do.

Steven: Er...

Peter: Of course. I'm an analytic theologian.

Steven: A what?

Peter: It's like I told you yesterday: I'm interested in religion, but I also want to bring philosophical analysis to bear on the questions that vex me.

Steven:What does "philosophical analysis" consist in, for you? I can guess...

Trystyn: No one really agrees what analysis is, although lots of people have suggested methods.

Steven: Why doesn't that surprise me?

Trystyn: You're always ahead of the game, like Cullen.

Peter: Like Trystyn says, it's hard to speak definitively. The easiest way to think of it is making clear all the terms in a question before trying to answer it. That way you can—hopefully, at least—decide if the question can be answered at all.

Steven: Is this where you take a question like "what's for breakfast?" and start asking (... he puts on a professorial air...) "but what do you mean by 'for', may I ask?"

Trystyn: That's it! (He laughs.)

Peter: It's true: you've already mastered the subject, I see.

Steven: Go on, please.

Peter: Well, sometimes this process can help us see where a question has resisted an answer because the terms were incorrectly understood. Other times it might be that the terms just made no sense, or were used wrongly. Occasionally it turns out that the way the question was phrased has caused the confusion, so if we ask it in a different way we can find an answer.

Steven: Give me an example.

Peter: Suppose one of my fellow theologians were to say to me that "God is unknowable."

Steven: (Interrupting...) I would ask him how he knows that.

Peter: Or she; but you're right. Do you see, though, that before we can even ask the counter question there is this issue of knowledge: what do we mean by knowable?

Trystyn: (Grinning...) Here we go.

Steven: Quiet, you. What do we mean by knowable?

Peter: That's the point. Perhaps the fellow who said that meant a different thing by it to me, or to you? Most likely he also had a different idea in mind to what my grandmother would say, and so on.

Steven: What would your grandmother say?

Peter: Probably something about finishing vegetables or "haven't you grown?"

Steven: Nothing about philosophy?

Trystyn: That'd be mine.

Steven: He's not joking, you know.

Peter: Still, if my friend is using an understanding distinct from my own then we're all but speaking different languages.

Steven: So it would be better if you could translate one into the other?

Peter: Exactly.

Trystyn: Or both into a clearer language altogether.

Steven: Like what?

Peter: Like logic. As he says, this is what philosophers tried to do during the early part of the twentieth century: you find an ideal language governed by logical rules and translate questions into it. Then, by applying the rules, you solve the question, find errors in the reasoning or show that it didn't make sense.

Trystyn: Except that it didn't work.

Peter: It turned out that it couldn't be done, but you can see why the idea was worth working on.

Steven: So how does this help us with your example?

Peter: Well, go back to it: "God is unknowable." We ought to ask...

Steven: ... what we mean by God? Oh no.

Peter: Unfortunately, yes. The problem is that "God" is here being used as a name or description of something else, a being with definite (or not so definite) characteristics from one or other religion. If we replace the name with a more accurate description—in particular, the one my friend is using—we can make sense of the claim. Suppose, for instance, that my friend is one of those theologians that defines God as unknowable; then all he has said is "an unknowable being is unknowable", or "x is unknowable, where x is an unknowable being." We would agree that his claim is uncontroversial because this analysis has cleared it up, making it transparent.

Steven: Fair enough.

Peter: This is a simple example, but that's one way of understanding philosophical analysis: the breaking down of a problem into its clearest possible form. There are others.

Steven: Why are you applying these analyses to God?

Peter: I want to know if it makes sense to talk about Him in various ways, or even if we can talk at all.

Steven: Is there much call for this kind of discussion these days?

Peter: I guess most people want to talk about rugby.

Trystyn: Angles and angels, you see. It all comes to the same thing in the end.

Curtain. Fin.


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