The Origins of Analytic Philosophy


“I find the usual story exaggerated, incomplete, and mistaken in various ways.”

So says Fraser MacBride, professor of philosophy at the University of Manchester, in a recent interview about analytic philosophy with Richard Marshall at 3:16AM.

[Arthur Dove, “The Critic”]

He continues:

Generally I think that formal logic isn’t as important to analytic philosophy as we’re taught to think it is. There’s something Whiggish about the Frege-Russell-Wittgenstein narrative as well—that philosophy got better with them and just kept on getting better afterwards. But we need to remember that the value of our intellectual stock can go down as well as up. There are indeed plenty of respects in which analytic philosophy is more sophisticated than it was a century ago—it’s hard to deny, for example, that Tarski and Montague took our understanding of language to a new level of sophistication by applying logical and mathematical techniques hitherto unavailable. But, I argue in my book, that there are other respects, primarily metaphysical respects, in which the earlier analytic philosophers were wiser than we are.

As he elaborates in the interview, Professor MacBride believes that part of the wisdom of the earlier analytic philosophers was to be found in their coming to a kind of naturalism, by which he means “limiting the role of a priori philosophy in favour of reliance upon a posteriori investigation.”

When asked to defend analytic philosophy against the charge that it’s “scientistic, positivist, overly technical, boring, trivial, empty and narrow in its field of interest,” Professor MacBride says:

When you start looking closely at the conditions which made possible the emergence of early analytic philosophy in Cambridge in the late 1890s, you find great variety and a host of influences at work—from engagement with the great dead philosophers, other philosophical schools in England, Scotland and further afield from the continent, and other disciplines as well, including mathematics, the natural sciences and classics. Early analytic philosophy was an interdisciplinary and Pan-European achievement. I think that Russell and Moore’s intellectual stature didn’t consist solely in their intrinsic brilliance, although they had that too, but in their capacity to channel these forces even for a while. And we can say something similar about the Polish School and the Vienna Circle which succeeded Moore and Russell at the forefront of developments in analytic philosophy.

The lesson I take from history is that philosophy most often makes its greatest strides and most lasting contributions to human knowledge when philosophers are open to influences from beyond their immediate boundaries. Saying this doesn’t commit me to scientism because it doesn’t require the natural sciences to have some privileged epistemic or normative status any more than the social sciences, arts or humanities which we ignore at our peril.

The whole interview is here.


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