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Foundations of Analytical Philosophy, Part 1: Early Analytical Philosophy

Daniel Hutto on the origins of a major 20th Century school of thought.

Many philosophers in the English-speaking world (and some in Scandinavia) unreservedly regard themselves as analytic philosophers. They
often wear this mantle with pride and contrast it with that of continental philosopher – a title to be treated with some scorn or suspicion. I have questioned the usefulness of this division in a previous article (Philosophy Now No. 4) and the conflict was put in a very useful and timely perspective by Mike Fuller in the last issue. In his article, Fuller was at pains to give an ‘up to date’ overview of the continental tradition in a way that might facilitate discussion and debate between the two traditions. My purpose is also to promote such debate – but the target of my exposition is a domestic one. Although many philosophers pledge allegiance to the analytical form of philosophy, they are often not very clear about what this entails or, in those cases when they are clear, they are not often very self-critical about the basic assumptions upon which their views rest. Hence, in a short series of articles I will be endeavouring to investigate the very notion of analytic philosophy itself. How to proceed?

1. The Unhistorical Approach

In the flavour of the tradition itself we might begin our inquiry by simply asking: What is analytical philosophy? As the name suggests, analytical philosophy proceeds by employing the methods of analysis, i.e., the breaking down of the complex into the simple for the purposes of a better understanding. According to this conception, philosophy is reductive in character and should mirror the methods employed by some of the natural sciences like physics and chemistry, except that it focuses on different subject matter.

For example, to give a physical or chemical analysis of some object a scientist would effectively break it down (in thought if not in reality) into its component parts to reveal its true, or underlying nature (or so it is hoped and assumed). In philosophy this notion of analysis would apply widely so as to include concepts as well as things. Sir Peter Strawson discusses (and partially supports) this picture of analytical philosophy as ‘reductive analysis’ in the first chapter of his recent book Analysis and Metaphysics. Nevertheless, even though some of the doctrines of early analytic philosophy can be captured by this account, on the whole it is much too narrow to serve as a full conception of what analytical philosophy is and has come to be. For reasons that will hopefully become clear as we examine the history of the tradition, I believe a more general understanding of analytical philosophy is gained by representing its fundamental axioms as (a) and (b), below:

(a) The underlying nature of the world is revealed by an understanding of the nature of thought.

(b) The underlying nature of thought is revealed “by an analysis of its linguistic expression” (Dummett, 1993, p.154).

I wish to stress, however, that even this characterisation of analytical philosophy is too crude to account for all the forms it has historically taken (for example, tenet (b) would not have been accepted by the early Bertrand Russell, a point I will return to later). Even so, for the purposes of this short history, it will be useful and appropriate to treat (a) and (b) as analytical philosophy’s basic assumptions.

2. History and Pre-History

I believe, as do several other recent authors (e.g. Hylton, Dummett), that in order to put analytical philosophy into sharper focus considerable attention must be given to its historical development. In these next few pages I will be discussing the early developments in very rough outline and expanding on some remarks made in Mike Fuller’s piece (cf. pp.10-11).

The birth of analytical philosophy marked the decline of various forms of Hegelian and Neo- Hegelian idealism which had dominated German and English philosophy at the end of the Nineteenth and the beginning of the Twentieth Century. That analytical philosophy sprang from the ashes of idealism is most apparent from an examination of its English roots. This is because Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, the principal proponents of analytical philosophy in England, were both for a time directly influenced by F.H.Bradley’s version of idealism. The connection is less obvious when we consider the German roots of analytical philosophy. This is because Frege, the German ‘grandfather’ of the tradition (to use Dummett’s title for him), was never much concerned to argue against the idealists. Nevertheless, as Dummett writes, “In a history of philosophy Frege would have to be classified as a member of the realist revolt against Hegelian idealism” (see Dummett, 1978, p.88). Given these connections it will be useful to describe idealism in a very crude way so that we may consider some of its central tenets. This should help us to better understand the philosophical project proposed by its successor tradition.

According to the idealists philosophy was a quest for complete, unqualified, non-relative truth. This kind of truth we may call philosophical or metaphysical – and for the idealists it was available only to those willing to engage in philosophy. The ideas that philosophy had a special (exclusive) nature and that its target was unqualified truth are as old as Plato but the idealists had special reasons for accepting them reasons based on logic.

The idealists regarded any attempt to say something true about the world as the putting forth of a premise concerning the nature of reality (i.e. a thesis). However, since the target of philosophy was reality-itself or the whole of nature (or some such), the predicate used when making such a thesis would have to be all-encompassing. Hitting on such a premise would be no simple task and hence the history of philosophy was viewed as a drawn-out philosophical dialogue in which individual philosophers would advance a thesis which was contested by an antithesis and finally, of need, culminated in a synthesis. For example, a real debate in the philosophy of mind concerns the thesis of dualism, its antithesis materialism and the various modern attempts to find a synthesis.

To take an absurd example, borrowed from Russell, we might advance a thesis like (1) below (less obviously absurd examples like the universe is one, spherical, or pure being etc., can be found in philosophy.)

(1) The universe is an uncle.

The point of choosing such a silly thesis is to enable the reader to focus on the form of the problem and to be less concerned with the content. If the idealists were right then the problems inherent in thesis (1) would infect any and all theses. But what, exactly, is the problem? Well, if we were to advance a premise such as (1) it would be rightly objected that it makes no sense to say the universe is an uncle since being an uncle demands that there be a relationship with other things (i.e. nieces or nephews). Nothing could be an uncle in isolation. Put otherwise, we cannot ascribe to the universe the concept of ‘uncle’ in complete isolation since the universe is everything and there can be no other objects outside of it with which it stands in relation.

We might say in this context it is not possible to use the concept unclehood with sense. In reactionary fashion, one might try to redress the balance by suggesting that:

(2) The universe is nieces and nephews.

Naturally, (2) is absurd for the very same reasons that (1) is. Hence, if we were to approach the truth of this matter with any seriousness we would need to say something like:

(3) The universe is somehow both an uncle and nieces and nephews (at the same time).

Again, the important thing to notice is that the natural limitations of the possible statements we might make about reality make it impossible to say anything philosophically true using ordinary predicates (i.e. abstractions from the whole). A good question to ask at this juncture is: why did the idealists think our statements about reality were limited to this form? The simple answer is that they saw thought and language as limited by traditional, subject-predicate logic. This meant that, as far as the idealists were concerned, all statements had to be a form ascribing a predicate to a subject – for example, S is P. In the case of philosophy the subject was always to be realityitself. Thus, using Russell’s silly example as a general model, and accepting these limitations, we can see that any attempt to ascribe the universe some ordinary property will always result in the thesis being inadequate and falling short of philosophical truth. The moral the idealists wished to draw was that the same problem will arise no matter what predicate we attempt to ascribe to reality. From this moral several points follow naturally and I shall briefly list them here to give a sense of what kind of philosophical enterprise was supported by idealist doctrine.

(i) Ordinary and ‘scientific’ judgements cannot have the status of philosophical truths. The reasoning here is quite simple and follows from what was said about above. If we try to ascribe an ordinary predicate to reality itself (what the Idealists called an abstraction) we will find that it only gives part of the truth. But philosophy is not concerned with partial or qualified statements of truth – hence ordinary judgements cannot be properly concerned with philosophical truth. While these judgements are perfectly sound in everyday contexts they are out of place in philosophy. From the philosophical perspective of idealism, the so-called truths of everyday life and science (i.e. “There is a table in the room”, “John is angry”, etc.) were only partially or relatively true – true to varying degrees in particular contexts.

(ii) Reality is one. It is not composed of many separate things. The view here is that although the world appears to be a collection of many separate things logic insists that it is not. This is apparent not only from the very form of subject-predicate statements (i.e. the ascription of a particular predicate to a single subject) but also from the fact that any attempt to ascribe the universe an ‘abstracted’ property will result in the need to ascribe it that property and some other (at the same time) in order to make sense of the first ascription. We can see that vividly by examining (3) above.

(iii) Reality is spiritual or psychological in nature. According to the idealists the object of judgement could not be separated from the act of judgement. This view was supported by the idea that in Reality there are no separate things and hence no relations between things. There could not be minds, on the one hand, and a mindindependent world, on the other, which stood in various relations to each other – hence, mind and world must be in some way united – ultimately, one and the same.

3. The Birth of Analytical Philosophy

Having now, very crudely, discussed the character of idealism it is possible to give an informed analysis of the tradition which replaced it – analytical philosophy. In many ways early analytical philosophy was the complete antithesis of its forebearer (which, ironically, should have been treated as good news by the idealists). Some of its recognisably central tenets stand out in stark relief against those of idealism. Roughly speaking, its earliest forms supported views such as:

(i) Reality (including thought itself) is mindindependent (This constitutes the extreme anti-psychologism for which analytical philosophy is famous).

(ii) Reality is composed of many separate objects and the relations between them are real (this is sometimes called pluralism).

(iii) Knowledge of reality is available piecemeal.

(iv) At least some domains of ordinary knowledge constitute true or ‘scientific’ knowledge in an absolute (or philosophical) sense.

The big question is: what provoked philosophers to reconceive their understanding of such fundamental matters? What made these views possible in a philosophical climate dominated by idealism (cf. Fuller, p.10)? I think it is possible to trace the source of change if we consider the fact that there was some level of consensus between the idealists and their latterday opponents. In effect they both agreed that:

(A) Metaphysical or Philosophical truth had to be absolute (i.e. unqualified).

(B) The nature of logic mattered crucially to the nature of metaphysics (i.e. what there is) and truth (i.e. what could be thought).

Bearing these two points of consensus in mind it will surprise no one to learn that the metaphysics of analytical philosophy was largely inspired by the Fregean revolution in logic (cf. Coffa, 1991, pp.62-63). One important change which Frege introduced was the importation of the notions of function and argument from mathematics into logic. His work made it possible to reconceive the very way in which propositions were structured. For example, take an algebraic formula such as (∂) below:

(∂) X2 + 2

In the above formula X is treated as a variable in the sense that it can be replaced by any number of arguments (i.e. specific numbers: 2, 3, 4, etc.). The formula itself is a function of these possible arguments and yields various values depending upon which argument we substitute for the variable. For example, if we were to replace X with the argument 2 we would get a result of 6 (i.e. a value).

One thing Frege noted was that not all values need be simply numerical in character (i.e. like the number 6 above). For example, take the function defined by (ß) below:

(ß) X2 + 2 = 6

In this case the value we get when we replace X with an argument will not be another number but rather the value True or False (i.e. it is yields the value True if X is replaced by 2, and yields the value False if replaced by anything else). Frege gave the name ‘concepts’ to those functions which always yielded a truth value.

These innovations became philosophically important when Frege carried them over to an understanding of the nature of thought [For Frege a thought was something “for which the question of truth can arise” (Frege, 1974, p.36)]. Hence, ordinary propositions like “Socrates is bald” were no longer to be treated as composed of a subject (Socrates) and an ascribed predicate (bald). In Frege’s view the expression would be re-interpreted as taking the argument ‘Socrates’ and applying it to the concept ‘is bald’. Many other names (e.g. Sally, Bob, etc.) each signifying a different person could be substituted for ‘Socrates’ and hence might yield various different truth-values when assigned to the concept ‘is bald’.

All of these changes in the conception of logic had profound effects on the way in which post- Fregean philosophers in the analytical tradition began to view metaphysics. For, apparently, a completed expression (a concept with an assigned argument or object) referred directly to either the True or the False – these being the only two options. Hence, ordinary judgements like ‘Socrates is bald’ were conceived to be True or False in an absolute sense.

Furthermore, Frege’s use of function and argument in logic suggested that Reality was not a single unity (or even a grand synthesis) but rather filled with many different and separate objects (and concepts too). This justified acceptance of tenets (iii) and (iv) above which lie at the heart of the modern view that specialisation in various subject fields (including philosophy) is essentially useful.

Although it offers no direct refutation of idealism the distinctively Realist position is the natural view to adopt if we reconceive the nature of logic in Fregean fashion and begin to think that we can complete various different functions by inserting various different arguments in the place of the variable. What we can see therefore is just how the realistic pluralism (as opposed to idealistic monism) of the early analytical philosophers was inspired by the technical changes in modern logic.

Another picture of the nature of reality was also being independently developed at the beginning of the Twentieth Century in the philosophy of the early Russell and Moore. They reacted against the English strain of Idealism and I think, following Hylton, we can give the generic title ‘Platonic Atomism’ to the view they initially formed. The centrepiece of Platonic Atomism was the view that the world is composed of a variety of terms which reside in the realm of being. These terms relate to one another in a multitude of ways.

For example, the term GRIFFIN is (internally) related to the terms LION and EAGLE (in particular ways) but not to the term EXISTENCE. Thus, although in the realm of thought (and for Russell and Moore this was reality-itself) the Griffin is, it is not the case that in our spatio-temporal world Griffins exist. This may be confusing at first glance but if one thinks of reality (as revealed by what could be thought) as consisting of terms timelessly standing in particular relations to one another it does make sense. This would also explain how it is possible to say “Griffins don’t exist” without saying something paradoxical. [Incidentally, it is also this picture of the nature of things that lends itself to the methodology of conceptual analysis – the breakdown of a term or concept into its simple parts ].

Furthermore, the early Russell and Moore held that apart from terms there were also certain complex objects called propositions which were made up from the various relations that held between terms. Propositions had the strange property of being either True or False. They were regarded as the mind-independent objects with which our minds were acquainted when we made judgements about the world. This view was naturally problematic for Russell and Moore because it suggested that even False propositions exist (or subsist) in some sense since they are objects of our acquaintance even though the states of affairs described by such propositions do not exist.

What is of interest to us is that the metaphysics (i.e. what there is) of Platonic Atomism was, like Frege’s realistic metaphysics, inspired in part by the new logic. Hence Russell was constantly repeating that it was the limitations of traditional subject-predicate logic that made “most philosophers… incapable of giving any account of the world of science and daily life” (Russell, 1914, p.55).

In reviewing the work of Frege and the early Russell we can easily see why it would be correct to say that analytical philosophers supported the view that the nature of the world was revealed by an examination of the nature of thought (which, in turn, is revealed by the nature or logic of propositions – i.e. the objects of thought). That explains why analytical philosophy can be characterised by maxim (a) above. But what then of the second fundamental maxim concerning the ‘linguistic expression of thought’? I will close this first instalment on the history of early analytical philosophy by quickly saying something concerning maxim (b).

In Frege’s case acceptance of maxim (b) came when he developed his famous sense/reference distinction. He developed that distinction in response to problems concerning the nature of identity (e.g. that a = b does not say the same thing, or carry the same information, as b = b). Recognition of problems in this domain effectively led him to emphasise the difference between a sign and the thing signified. In this way Frege began to see that language mattered to thought and hence, in turn, to what we might think there is. It also led him to believe that only a logically perfect language – in which there would be only one sign for each object – could effectively symbolise reality. Unsurprisingly the advocation of such a language became a central aim of his philosophy.

Russell’s respect for the nature of language did not come so easily or quickly. In his early, ‘Platonic Atomist’, period he was prone to think that language was a transparent medium (a clear window) through which our minds perceived thoughts (i.e. propositions). It wasn’t until later, when this vision was threatened, that he began to see the importance of language to philosophy.

As an initial introduction to early analytical philosophy I hope the above is thorough enough to allow the casual reader to get a sense of how important logic (as it related to what could be thought) was in forming the tradition. I also hope it is clear what consequences followed from the change over from idealism. In the next instalments I will be keeping to the same theme but looking at how analytical philosophy developed in its later periods.

© Dr. J.D.D. Hutto 1993


Coffa, J.A. 1991: The Semantic Tradition From Kant to Carnap. (CUP)
Dummett, M. 1993: Origins of Analytical Philosophy. (Duckworth)
Frege, G. 1952: Translations From the Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege trans. Geach & Black. (Blackwell)
Frege, G. 1988: “Thoughts” in Propositions & Attitudes ed. Salmon & Soames. (OUP)
Fuller, M. 1993: “The Continental Rift” in Philosophy Now. No. 7.
Hylton, P. 1991: Russell, Idealism and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy. (OUP)
Hutto, J.D.D. 1992: “A Job For Philosophy” in Philosophy Now. No. 4.
Hutto, J.D.D. 1994: “Minding our Language: The Role of Simulation in Linguistic Interpretation” (Forthcoming, Inside/Out, Leeds)
Russell, B. 1903: Principles of Mathematics. (Routledge)
Russell, B. 1914: Our Knowledge of the External World. (Routledge)
Strawson, P.F. 1992: Analysis and Metaphysics. (OUP)

Dr. Daniel Hutto is a lecturer in philosophy (and cognitive science) at the University of Hertfordshire.

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