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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Aaron V Garrett
Aaron V Garrett
1 year ago

It’s strange that the story of analytic philosophy often does not include ethics, or the role of Sidgwick and his students and those who were influenced by him. As Hurka points out in the superb “British Ethical Theorists from Sidgwick to Ewing” it was Sidgwick who initiated the attack on idealism in the name of non-naturalist realism that became the rallying cry of Moore, Russell, and many others. Is this a retrospective reading back into history after Ayer? It seems like it would be profitable to look not only geographically beyond Russell and Moore — which is great and the book looks terrific — but to the role of ethics in general and Sidgwick in particular in this story.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
1 year ago

I think the ideas we have about both Analytic and Continental philosophy are often shaped by the worst examples. Bad Analytic philosophy can be arid and overly scientistic, sure, just as bad Continental philosophy drifts in to meaningless jargon and unrigorous mysticism. But we shouldn’t be judging on the worst but on the best.Report

Mohsin
Mohsin
Reply to  Will Behun
1 year ago

Can you give some of the best representative works on both, please?Report

Graeme
Graeme
1 year ago

Susan Stebbing needs mentioning in any story of the history of the origins of Analytic Philosophy. It was she, I’m told, that came up with the term ‘analysis’ to describe what Moorean common-sensism and the Vienna Circle had in common. She also founded the journal ‘Analysis’; the first journal dedicated to analytic philosophy. And she was definitely not a scientistic writer. Her Penguin popular books in the 1930s (e.g. Philosophy and The Physicists, Thinking to Some Purpose, Ideals and Illusions) are excellent examples of public philosophy that stand up pretty well today.Report

Graeme
Graeme
Reply to  Graeme
1 year ago

I might have over-claimed that Stebbing was the *first* person to use the word analysis, but in 1932/33 she had two papers thinking about the role of analysis that might be worth revisiting.

Interested readers might consider Frost-Arnold, G. (2017) “The Rise of ‘Analytic Philosophy’: When and how did people begin calling themselves ‘analytic philosophers’?” in Sandra Lapointe and Chris Pincock (eds.) Innovations in the History of Analytical Philosophy, Palgrave.Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
Reply to  Graeme
1 year ago

It would be more accurate to say that Stebbing was among the group who founded Analysis. This group included at least Austin Duncan-Jones (the first editor), C.A. Mace, and Gilbert Ryle (along with Stebbing the original editorial board), and perhaps also A.J. Ayer (author of the first article in the first edition), Margaret MacDonald (Stebbing’s student and the second editor after WWII), and John Wisdom (according to the biography of Ayer by Ben Rogers).

This is not to dispute her importance of the value of her work. She might have succeeded Moore at Cambridge (instead of Wittgenstein) were it not for the fact that women were barred from holding professorships there. (See the biography of her by Siobhan Chapman.)Report

Fraser MacBride
Fraser MacBride
Reply to  Michael Kremer
1 year ago

My book covers mainly the period from the late 1890s, when Moore and Russell initially conceived the ‘New Philosophy’, through to Frank Ramsey’s writings in the 1920s, covering Stout, Whitehead and Wittgenstein as well as Moore and Russell’s contributions between these dates. The guiding theme is how the early analytic philosophers’ evolving conception of universals influenced and was influenced by their conception of analytic philosophy itself. To respond to Graeme and Michael, Susan Stebbing does play a role in my discussion of Whitehead’s philosophy of nature, which Whitehead intended to supersede the metaphysic of particulars and universals, a theme upon which Stebbing wrote several important and influential papers during the 1920s. But her major contributions came in the 1930s which is outside the period covered by my book and merit being treated as being an important part of an independent phase of the development of the discipline.Report

Matt
1 year ago

I think MacBride’s book looks like a good counter to the overly dismissive discussion of Moore by Ray Monk linked to the other dayReport

Fraser MacBride
Fraser MacBride
Reply to  Matt
1 year ago

I think I agree with Matt here. It’s an exaggeration to say, as Monk does, that Moore’s philosophy is ‘almost completely forgotten’, see, for example, my book. But I think it’s also an exaggeration to say, as Monk does, that whilst Moore may have been impressive as an interlocutor, he looks ‘ a bit silly on paper’. It’s true that in later life Moore’s writing style may comes across as pedantic and repetitive. But, as I discuss in chapter 5 of my book, this wasn’t true of Moore’s earlier, revolutionary writings in the 1890s and early 1900s. Something happened to Moore that changed his style. Russell later told Virginia Woolf it was events in Moore’s personal life. Woolf wrote, ”Suddenly something went wrong with him; something happened to him and his work. Principa Ethica was nothing like so good as his Essay on Judgment. He was very fond of Ainsworth. I don’t know what happened – it ruined him. He took to putting out his tongue after that” (from Bell (ed.) The Diary of Virginia Woolf). Ainsworth, another Cambridge Apostle, is potrayed by E.M. Forster as Ansell in The Longest Journey.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Fraser MacBride
1 year ago

Principia Ethica is boldly and, especially in Ch. 6, briskly written. There’s nothing like the endless qualifications and repetitions of Moore’s later style. If there had been, how could the book have had the impact it did on Keynes, Strachey, etc.?Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  Fraser MacBride
1 year ago

“The Nature and Reality of Objects of Perception” was published in 1905 and may be the most tedious paper he ever wrote. Maybe that was the beginning of the end for him, stylistically.Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
1 year ago

In addition to the Frost-Arnold piece mentioned upthread, which is very good, Adam Tamas Tuboly and Joel Isaac each have a number of essays on the development of views during this period that are worth reading for those interested in the emergence of analytic philosophy.Report