On the Analytic Tradition: Historical Roots

I have studied philosophy at Oxford as both an undergraduate and postgraduate. I have learned predicate logic, and have at least a passing familiarity with its extensions and deviations. I have read Frege, Russell, Moore; Quine, Kripke, Davidson. I have written on the metaphysical method of David Lewis and taken classes with Timothy Williamson. I am, in short, quite thoroughly entangled in those networks of influence constitutive of analytic philosophy.

A little more on how I understand analytic philosophy. As I have indicated, my primary category is one of influence. To import some themes from our discussion of revelation (we are after all still on the topic of tradition), I see analytic philosophy as a conversation. So far as I am concerned, the point at which the distinctively analytic conversation begins can only be Frege’s development of predicate logic. The role of predicate logic as a methodological resource, as setting a standard for argumentation, and as a stimulus to reflection in its own right, are above all else what mark out analytic philosophy (see bottom for more on this)

Of course, as Ed notes, it is foolish to pin either all the praise or all the blame on a single man. Indeed, Russell and Wittgenstein were of tremendous importance: however, situated as they were directly downstream of Frege’s influence, it is perhaps less interesting to consider their roles in detail. Instead, I will consider precursors to the analytic tradition who prepared the ground in each of the important places where analytic philosophy was to take root. In Cambridge, I would choose Henry Sidgwick. His Methods of Ethics was a considerable influence on Moore’s Principia Ethica, and its exactness in argument and careful attention to objections helped set the tone for the style of analytic philosophy conducted precisely, but within ordinary language, that Moore would pioneer. Moore himself was close to Russell, and thus at only one remove from Frege, even if he did not show much interest of his own in Frege’s logical innovations. Returning to a theme from my first post, it is worth noting that Moore’s earliest substantial works, his Trinity fellowship dissertations, were critiques of Kant.

In much the same vein is our Oxford precursor: John Cook Wilson. He has no magnum opus to compare with Methods of Ethics, but his role in ordinary language analytic philosophy was greater than Sidgwick and perhaps even Moore [1]. Indeed, he anticipated Moore in many respects. He opposed idealism while Russell was still a Hegelian, and emphasised fidelity to our ordinary concepts and judgements as well as the importance of grounding theoretical speculation in concrete examples. Unfortunately, he dismissed the new advances in logic, much as Quine would later dismiss the advance of modal logic. Still, he set the pattern of Oxford thought for almost a century [2], and his pupils were soon in conversation with the Cambridge philosophers influenced by Russell and Wittgenstein, who in turn lead back to Frege. Note in particular that his student Pritchard, like Moore, wrote an early work in criticism of Kant, thought to be largely derivative upon Wilson.

So much for Britain and ordinary language. The scientific orientation in analytic philosophy is due (somewhat ironically, in view of later developments) in large part to two continental thinkers: Ernst Mach and Franz Brentano. Brentano emphasised the importance of finding methods in philosophy that would approximate the rigour of natural science; Mach emphasised the unity of science, and the importance of an economical total theory of the world. Both thinkers were involved in the development of psychology as a scientific discipline. Brentano through his Polish students influenced the Polish school of logic, while Mach preceded Wittgenstein as the favourite of the Vienna Circle. Before long, both of these schools had joined conversation with Frege and his followers. Finally, it remains to mention the pragmatist C.S. Pierce, a skilled logician and, to my knowledge, the first philosopher explicitly to discuss inference to the best explanation. Analytic philosophy first emerged in America largely due to his influence at Harvard, particularly on Clarence Irving Lewis, who was an early critic of Russell’s logical work.

This has become a rather convoluted post, with much grand historical storytelling drawn problematically from SEP entries, so I will try to wrap up. We have common-sense realism and exactness within ordinary language from Oxbridge; we have an emphasis on science from mainland Europe. Finally, we have predicate logic from Frege. Analytic philosophy has largely been driven by the complex interaction of these influences. We have Russell, using his logical acumen to combat idealism. We have Wittgenstein, relentlessly pursuing logical purity, then repudiating his earlier ideas to look at how language is used. We have Davidson, offering both a regimented semantics for natural languages on the model of predicate logic, and providing a meta-semantic vindication of the basic assumptions of ordinary talk with the principle of charity. Indeed, we now see some interesting reversals: Americans (and recall that most analytic philosophers on mainland Europe left for America) such as Eli Hirsch insist on ordinary language and the common-sense encoded therein, while Williamson’s commitment both to realism and advanced formal languages leads him to accept the necessary existence of everything.

Finally, it behoves me to make explicit the somewhat revisionary slant of this discussion, which is (predictably) dependent on Williamson. In the past, Russell and Moore have been held up as the founders of analytic philosophy. Supposedly, they initiated a philosophical revolution by analysing their way out of British Idealism, thus originating analytic philosophy. There are two main problems with this view. Firstly, as we have seen, Oxford had already staged a revolt against idealism.

The main issue, however, is the stress laid on the method of the Cambridge revolt: analysis. As a matter historical fact, Moore talked a lot about analysis, and that’s how analytic philosophy got its name. This analysis was a linguistic or conceptual analysis, and Moore and Russell thought that this sort of analysis was at the heart of philosophy. But they were mistaken. There is no good reason to conceive of epistemology as a discipline specially concerned with the word ‘knowledge’, as opposed to the phenomenon of knowledge. The Cambridge methods of analysis were good, insofar as they were conducive to rigour, but the accompanying metaphilosophy was bad, and it is now out of favour. Of course, we can use ‘analytic philosophy’ restrictedly to refer to philosophy pursued by the method of analysis, informed by the metaphilosophy of analysis, but the term has taken on a life of its own even though Moore’s particular approach to philosophy is dead. I identify with the tradition that includes Russell and Moore, but extends to Timothy Williamson, and I identify with it under the tag ‘analytic philosophy’. And the Cambridge style of analysis just isn’t of foundational importance to this broader tradition: what is of foundational importance is predicate logic. Of course, the exactness in ordinary language favoured by Moore is important too: but that was practiced in Oxford before it was dressed up as ‘analysis’ in Cambridge,

1. Terminological note: there are two natural uses for the phrase ‘ordinary language (analytic) philosophy’. The first refers to a very general style of philosophical writing that favours natural languages over formal languages; the second to a specific philosophical project pursued in Oxford after the Second World War which took attention to ordinary usage to be the primary norm of philosophical inquiry. I will capitalise the phrase for this second sense. Cook Wilson was crucial for both ordinary language and Ordinary Language philosophy.

2. Almost a century? His star fell with that of the Ordinary Language school, when Dummett and Davidson took hold. However, his influence is now back with a vengeance due to Williamson, his successor in the Wykham Chair.


10 thoughts on “On the Analytic Tradition: Historical Roots

  1. Interestingly, Husserl’s primary influence was also Franz Brentano. Through that we get continental phenomenology, which is the core of the continental tradition.


  2. Welcome to the blog, Anatole! I was contemplating venturing in to an excursus on Husserl, but it was already going long, then I realised I had this whole revisionary argument going on which I hadn’t noticed, etc. Suffice to say that I think you raise a very important point.


  3. This is a really helpful and fantastically well written post. Certainly clarifies a good number of things! Thanks muchly.


  4. Many thanks for the welcome. A lot to catch up on… would quite like to chip in on the analytic theology discussion.

    Re Frege, that’s definitely true, though I’m not entirely sure of the extent of the influence. But though Husserl considered himself a logician, especially during the early years, the sort of logic he presented is a far cry from the formal logical languages we have today. Formal logic disappears altogether in his later works… that seems to be a fairly important diverging point.


  5. I’m not sure that’s so important: formal logic was hardly to be seen at Oxford until sometime after the Second World War (it seems Cook Wilson is largely to blame). I would say that eg Austin is an analytic philosopher, but Husserl is not, because Austin and not Husserl was part of the ongoing conversation that Frege started: ie, Austin read Moore, and Quine read Austin, but hardly any analytics continued to read Husserl. Which I think is shame. I’m reading a book at the moment on mereology in which Husserl figures prominently.

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  6. Re the Varsity race from idealism. The chronology at Oxford is unclear (apparently publication was considered vulgar), and Moore may well have preceded Cook Wilson in rejecting idealism. What matters for my argumentative purposes is that Cook Wilson’s views seem to have been largely independent of, though remarkably similar to, Moore’s.


  7. You write: “John Cook Wilson[‘s] … role in ordinary language analytic philosophy was greater than … perhaps even Moore.” I’m just curious: what’s your evidence for this claim?


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