Course Summary:

The ideas prevalent in our own time are influenced heavily, for better or worse, by the development in England and America of a methodology that came to be known as analytic philosophy or (sometimes) linguistic analysis. Its development is best told as a narrative, since there were great differences of style and substance among those thinkers who are grouped in the 'analytic' category. One common element might be a serious and sustained attention to language as the place where philosophical problems surface and where they might either be resolved, dissolved, or their originators absolved.

We begin our study with G. E. Moore at Cambridge University at the turn of the twentieth century and his efforts to save realism from the hands of the Hegelians who dominated British philosophy at that time. Turning next to Moore's classmate and colleague, Bertrand Russell, we observe the effort of logical atomism to develop a perfect language for the empirical sciences. Russell was joined by Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian who studied at Cambridge and met Moore and Russell there.

Logical atomism generated excitement among some scholars in Austria who hoped to make use of it to show the superiority of scientific methodology and the poverty and irrationality of metaphysical thinking. They named their group the Vienna Circle and developed the Verification Criterion of Meaning as the weapon of choice for dispatching meaningless strings of words posing as truth claims. Difficulties within and without the camp of the Logical Positivists (as they were later known) led to serious depletion of the ranks, though not to total abandonment of the project.

Some who sympathized with the emphasis on language but not with the restrictions of verificationism turned instead to a close analysis of language as it is used in everyday life. These 'ordinary language' philosophers (most of whom disliked that label) made fewer claims about what is or isn't the case and focused instead on what our language seems to commit us to. Common commitments or relations among concepts might thus be exposed to view, even if there is no further attempt to defend these as true or applicable to real things. Wittgenstein provided the major impetus to this movement, just as he had earlier provided inspiration to the Vienna Circle, and a related ordinary language approach was piloted by J. L. Austin at Oxford.

After the 1960's, philosophy could be said to be in a post-positivist phase, more pluralistic, less confident in scientific rationality, less likely to label alternative approaches as "nonsense." The course does not treat of the later decades of the twentieth century in detail, but briefly considers three paths taken by many analytic philosophers in recent years: a revival of a (moderately chastened) positivism, a revival of a (likewise chastened) realism, and a spirited defense of anti-realism (which shows few signs to date of much chastening). Comments on the reactions of Catholic and other Christian philosophers to analytic philosophy are included, along with a concluding assessment of some of the implications of the method of analysis for moral and religious beliefs.


  • A. P. Martinich and David Sosa, eds. Analytic Philosophy: An Anthology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001). This collection contains selections from most of the philosophers whose work is covered in the course and includes some of the more influential criticisms of logical positivism. 

  • A. P. Martinich and David Sosa, eds. A Companion to Analytic Philosophy (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001). The editors gather an impressive array of contemporary philosophers to comment on the legacy of 39 major figures of 20th century analytic philosophy, including post-positivists such as John Rawls, Thomas Kuhn and Richard Rorty.

  • Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, eds. New Essays in Philosophical Theology (New York: Macmillan, 1955). Reflections on the prospects for the rationality of religious faith given the dominance (at that time) of the assumptions of logical positivism. Includes a famous discussion among Oxford philosophers Flew, R. M. Hare, and Basil Mitchell. Out of print, but available through www.alibris.com and at most college libraries.

Other Resources 

Erich Reck, From Frege to Wittgenstein: Perspectives on Early Analytic Philosophy (New York: Oxford, 2002).

Routledge Encylopedia of Philosophy. There is a hardback version and an online version (REP Online) that can be accessed in most university libraries. Helpful and up-to-date brief articles on both individuals and topics in philosophy.

There are excellent bibliographies at the end of each article in the assigned textbooks.


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