PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday August 21, 2012


[1.] Introduction to Analytic Philosophy.[1]


Disclaimer: There is no universally agreed upon account of what analytic philosophy is or of what makes it different from other traditions and styles of philosophy. What follows in this section of notes is my best attempt to put forward an accurate and clear description of the things that get called “analytic philosophy.”



[1.1.] What is “Analytic Philosophy”?


The phrase “analytic philosophy” is ambiguous (it has multiple meanings, and it is not always clear which meaning is intended). It is used variously to refer to:

·         a tradition within late 19th century and 20th century philosophy;

·         one or more of the philosophical doctrines held by philosophers within that tradition; and

·         a style of doing philosophy engaged in by philosophers within that tradition, as well as by philosophers outside that tradition.



[1.2.] The Tradition of “Analytic Philosophy.”


In the first sense of “analytic philosophy,” it refers to a tradition: a group of philosophers from continental Europe, England, and the U.S. who wrote from the late 19th and well into the 20th century. They were united by

·         relationships of influence

·         a common belief that philosophers ought to concern themselves with language, in at least two different ways:

(i)                 We can solve, or at least help to solve, traditional philosophical problems by examining language. We can answer philosophical questions about what there is and what we can know by paying close attention to the meaning of our words and to the nature of linguistic meaning itself.

(ii)               Language is an interesting subject of philosophical investigation in its own right. Questions like “How does language manage to mean something?” are of philosophical importance in themselves.


The founding figures in this tradition are:

·         Gottlob Frege

·         Bertrand Russell

·         G. E. Moore

·         Ludwig Wittgenstein

·         the Logical Positivists, including Rudolph Carnap and A. J. Ayer


The tradition continued into the mid to late 20th century--

·         Peter Strawson

·         W. V. O. Quine

·         Donald Davidson

·         David Lewis

·         Michael Dummett

·         Hilary Putnam

·         Saul Kripke

·         and many, many more.



[1.3.] The Doctrines Called “Analytic Philosophy.”


The phrase “analytic philosophy” is sometimes used to refer to one or more of the following philosophical doctrines:


1)      logical atomism (df.): the view that language and/or the world consists of ultimate logical “parts” that cannot be logically broken down any further.


When/who: early 20th century: Bertrand Russell; the early Ludwig Wittgenstein.


This is associated with a very narrow sense of the word “analysis,” in which it means breaking something down into its smallest components. (Compare analytical chemistry, which examines samples of physical substances to determine their fundamental chemical makeup.)


2)      logical positivism (df.): the view that there are only two types of meaningful statement:  those that are true or false solely because of the meanings of the words that they contain (“All bachelors are unmarried”; “Some squares have only three sides”) and those that can be shown to be true or false only by way of sense experience (“This thermos contains water”; “The earth is orbited by two moons”). All other statements are meaningless… including religious claims (e.g., “God exists”), aesthetic judgments (e.g., “The Avett Brothers make beautiful music”) and moral judgments (e.g., “Killing innocent people is immoral”).


When/who: early-mid 20th century: the Vienna Circle, including Rudolph Carnap; also A. J. Ayer.


(This list could continue; I’ll limit it to two.)


These doctrines have practically no defenders today.


However, very many contemporary philosophers continue to refer to themselves as “analytic philosophers.”


To understand exactly what they mean, we need to go beyond AP-as-tradition and AP-as-doctrine to the third meaning of the phrase “analytic philosophy”…



[1.4.] The Style Called “Analytic Philosophy.”


When a contemporary philosopher identifies herself as an “analytic philosopher,” it is likely that she means that she is engaged in a particular style of philosophical activity.


The Style of Analytic Philosophy: attempting to solve “philosophical problems by means of rigorous clarification of concepts and consideration of arguments.”[2] (This is how philosopher Dale Jaquette (University of Bern, Switzerland) describes it.) It is a way of doing philosophy that emphasizes argumentation and evidence, clarity, precision, avoidance of ambiguity, and close attention to detail. Philosophers engaged in this sort of philosophy do not shy away from using formal (symbolic) logic, and they respect the work and results of contemporary science and mathematics.[3]


Some have referred to this style of philosophy as a method, but it is a method only in the very loosest sense of the word “method.” It is not a step-by-step procedure for conducting philosophical inquiry or writing philosophical works. It is more like a general way of approaching or thinking about philosophy.


This is associated with a very broad sense of the word “analysis”: “an evaluation that sheds light on a presumed problem, without necessarily being atomistic in its conclusions. ... An analysis in the generic sense is expected to clarify a situation, help us understand its meaning and implications, and possibly help to solve or resolve a difficulty.”[4] “Analysis” in this broad sense...

·         does not require that we break concepts or language or the world down into their component parts.

·         is consistent with synthesis, in the sense of bringing together and uniting into a system various results of one’s research. [Synthesis is frequently contrasted with analysis, but the analytic style of philosophy is congenial to synthesis.]



·         everyone who belongs to the “Tradition Called Analytic Philosophy”;

·         to varying degrees, this way of doing and thinking about philosophy goes back at least to Socrates;

·         today there are too many living philosophers to list who practice this style of philosophy; it is by far the dominant style in the Anglo-American world.


There are no philosophical doctrines that all philosophers who practice this style have in common. There is no single view of truth, of inquiry, of reality, of knowledge, of value, etc. that is shared by everyone who practices the analytic style of philosophy.


However, very many analytic philosophers do embrace:


naturalism (df.): “A view that [A] locates human beings wholly within nature and [B] takes the results of the natural and human sciences to be our best idea of what there is.”[5]


As philosopher James Lenman (University of Sheffield, England) puts it, naturalism maintains that we should “do what good scientific practice itself does in deferring to our present background state of general scientific understanding as the best story we now have about the universe and its furnishings. It is no doubt a flawed, imperfect story still very much in progress, but far more to be trusted than the rival guidance we might seek from theology...”[6]


They do not even limit themselves to working in specific areas of philosophy.


For much of the 20th century, those who do philosophy in the analytic style were concerned with questions primarily within these areas:

·         philosophy of language

·         philosophy of science

·         metaphysics

·         epistemology (philosophical theory of knowledge)

·         philosophy of mind

·         symbolic logic and philosophy of logic

·         meta-ethics (asks questions about the nature of morality rather than questions about which acts or types of act are moral or immoral)


In the late 1960s and 1970s, more philosophers who approach philosophy in this way became interested in:

·         normative ethics (asks broad questions about which general types of act are moral)

·         applied ethics (asks questions about the morality of specific actions/policies are moral)

·         political philosophy


And today the list includes

·         aesthetics

·         philosophy of law

·         philosophy of religion[7]

·         history of philosophy (which cuts across all the other areas)[8]

·         many other, even more specialized areas.



[1.5.] “Philosophy as Inquiry.”


The analytic style of philosophy is in harmony with the idea that philosophy is a form of inquiry (i.e., truth-seeking, research), an attempt to discover and articulate accurate, correct, true answers to a certain type of question. I’ll call this idea “Philosophy as Inquiry.”


Bernard Williams (1921-2003; British philosopher) expressed this conception well when he wrote:


...what is at issue is the identity of philosophy as a subject that can sustain ongoing, cumulative research. If it can do this, it can make a claim which the humanities do not always find it easy to make, except to the extent that they are branches of history: that there is something to be found out within their disciplines, that they can add to knowledge. It has been part of the attraction of analytical philosophy that, without the procedures of the experimental or theoretical sciences and with a more human subject matter, it can claim to achieve results which command, if not agreement, at least objective discussion, and which represent intellectual progress. It has achievements that are not arbitrarily personal, and they compare favourably to those of the social sciences...

                ...Quite certainly, no philosophy which is to be worthwhile should lose the sense that there is something to be got right, that it is answerable to argument and that it is in the business of telling the truth.[9]



If you accept the conception of philosophy as inquiry, it is hard to understand how you can object to the analytic style of philosophy. Presumably, when you are

·         reasoning (using arguments, providing evidence) …

·         in a way that is careful, clear, free from ambiguity, and that uses precisely defined concepts, etc. …

you are more likely (although never guaranteed) to reach a true conclusion.


So there is good reason for thinking that if philosophers attempt to reach true conclusions, they ought to be engaged in the style of philosophy called analytic.



[1.6] The Focus of This Course.


This course will focus on: selected members of the tradition of analytic philosophy, including (but not limited to) those who held the doctrines called logical atomism and logical positivism, and all of whom practiced the style of analytic philosophy:



Stopping point for Tuesday August 21. For next time, read:

·         the short introduction to your textbook, by Martinich and Sosa (pp.1-5)

·         Brian Leiter, “’Analytic’ and ‘Continental’ Philosophy,” online at

·         William Blattner, “Some Thoughts on ‘Continental’ and ‘Analytic’ Philosophy,” online at




[1] With some help from Stephen Hales (“A Brief Introduction to the Nature and Origins of Analytic Philosophy”) and Dale Jacquette (“A History of Early Analytic Philosophy of Language”), both in S. Hales, ed., Analytic Philosophy: Classic Readings. Wadsworth, 2002.

[2] Jacquette 12.


[3] Brian Leiter describes the tradition of analytic philosophy as follows: “Analytic philosophy today names a style of doing philosophy, not a philosophical program or a set of substantive views. Analytic philosophers, crudely speaking, aim for argumentative clarity and precision; draw freely on the tools of logic; and often identify, professionally and intellectually, more closely with the sciences and mathematics, than with the humanities.” (“Analytic’ and ‘Continental’ Philosophy,” The Philosophical Gourmet < >, retrieved August 15, 2012. This is one of your readings for next time.)


[4] Jacquette 12.


[5] Norman Melchert, The Great Conversation, glossary, G-4. Naturalism has been so widely embraced among those who engage in the analytic style of philosophy that the possibility of being an analytic philosopher while rejecting naturalism has struck many as being an interesting one. For example, see the collection of essays entitled Analytic Philosophy without Naturalism: .


[6] James Lenman, "Moral Naturalism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >.


[7] Alvin Plantinga, who you may have studied in UWG’s Philosophy of Religion class, identifies himself as an analytic philosopher who is not a naturalist. See his contribution to the aforementioned book, Analytic Philosophy without Naturalism.


[8] Philosophers study the history of their field in order to (i) arrive at a clearer understanding of the positions taken and arguments used by earlier philosophers and (ii) as a way of helping to solve philosophical problems. E.g. a philosopher interested in the question “What is justice?” may conduct research into Plato’s and Aristotle’s positions on justice, not only to deepen and clarify present understanding of what those two philosophers held, but also to help answer the question “What is justice?”


[9] Williams, Bernard. “Contemporary Philosophy: A Second Look,” in N. Bunnin and E.P. Tsui-James, eds. The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, 25-37.


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