How Journal Capture Led to the Dominance of Analytic Philosophy in the U.S.

How is it that analytic philosophy came to be the dominant philosophical style in the 20th Century in the United States? From inside the practice, the answer seems to be, “because it is a particularly good way of doing philosophy.” But “that it seemed good to them at the time” is not much of an historical explanation. For any other historical development, we’d want to know more, at least why its practitioners deemed it good—and not merely their justifications, but the cultural, social, economic, environmental, and professional factors that played a causal role. 

We’re now getting some temporal distance on the emergence of analytic philosophy in the U.S., which is allowing for a broader view of these factors. Among the contributions to this history is “On the Emergence of American Analytic Philosophy,” by Joel Katzav (Queensland) and Krist Vaesen (Eindhoven) in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy (ungated version here). The article was brought to my attention by Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam), who discusses it in a post at Digressions & Impressions.

Katzav and Vaesen describe their project like so:

The present paper contributes to what can be called the external history of twentieth-century philosophy. Rather than focusing on how the push and pull of argumentation affects the spread of philosophical ideas,and without denying that this push and pull has a role to play in explaining the spread of such ideas, we consider the influence of journal capture by proponents of specific approaches to philosophy on journal contents.

Katzav and Vaesen look at the influential journal, The Philosophical Review (PR). They write:

What we found is a journal that published work exhibiting a wide variety of approaches to philosophy (e.g., classical pragmatism, process philosophy, idealism, non-Western philosophy) andthat did so until about 1948, when mid-century analytic philosophy comes to dominate the journal.

The speed of the shift at PR, along with the absence of a similar, simultaneous shift in other publication venues, strongly suggests that its immediate cause is a change in editorial policy. This is confirmed by looking at the changes in the philosophy faculty at the Susan Linn Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell University, the school from which PR’s editors were drawn  during the period being considered. Our examination of the changes at Cornell, along with a consideration of the broader context in which philosophy in America was done in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, allows us further to conclude that the changes in editorial policy are not themselves primarily the result of the changing political climate in America or the passing away of rival approaches to philosophy. What appears to be more central to the changes is the replacement of editors who were open to a wide variety of approaches to philosophy—that is, who adopted what we will call ‘philosophical pluralism’—by editors without pluralist approaches to philosophy, a replacement that may have been helped by the pluralism of the first of these groups.


Their view is that:


analytic philosophy came to dominate American philosophy partly by analytical philosophers taking control of key institutions within academic philosophy and using these to promote analytic philosophy, and that crucial steps in the direction of such control occurred before 1950. The reason for the growing dominance of analytic philosophy appears to have been, at least in part, the suppression, by institutional means, of existing diversity and, possibly, the exploitation of American pluralism. The dominance of analytic philosophy was not just a matter of an inherent affinity of American philosophy for analytic philosophy, good arguments, more cogently stated doctrines or the lack of alternatives.


As Professor Schliesser notes, Mind, an influential and traditionally analytic philosophy journal, announced last year that from now on, “no area of philosophy, no style of philosophy, and no school of philosophy is to be excluded.” The journal Analysis made a similar announcement last year, as well. These announcements indicate some movement towards a less narrow view of what counts as worthwhile philosophy. It will be interesting to see what further effects these changes have.

UPDATE (1/25/17): Professor Katzav discusses the disappearance of modern Indian philosophy from Mind and Phil Review here .

František Kupka, “Mme Kupka Among Verticals” (detail)

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