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Analytic Philosophy

Analytic Philosophy (or sometimes Analytical Philosophy) is a 20th Century movement in philosophy which holds that philosophy should apply logical techniques in order to attain conceptual clarity, and that philosophy should be consistent with the success of modern science. For many Analytic Philosophers, language is the principal (perhaps the only) tool, and philosophy consists in clarifying how language can be used.

Analytic Philosophy is also used as a catch-all phrase to include all (mainly Anglophone) branches of contemporary philosophy not included under the label Continental Philosophy, such as Logical Positivism, Logicism and Ordinary Language Philosophy. To some extent, these various schools all derive from pioneering work at Cambridge University in the early 20th Century and then at Oxford University after World War II, although many contributors were in fact originally from Continental Europe.

Analytic Philosophy as a specific movement was led by Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, G. E. Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Turning away from then-dominant forms of Hegelianism, (particularly objecting to its Idealism and its almost deliberate obscurity), they began to develop a new sort of conceptual analysis based on new developments in Logic, and succeeded in making substantial contributions to philosophical Logic over the first half of the 20th Century.

The three main foundational planks of Analytical Philosophy are:

  • that there are no specifically philosophical truths and that the object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts.
  • that the logical clarification of thoughts can only be achieved by analysis of the logical form of philosophical propositions, such as by using the formal grammar and symbolism of a logical system.
  • a rejection of sweeping philosophical systems and grand theories in favor of close attention to detail, as well as a defense of common sense and ordinary language against the pretensions of traditional Metaphysics and Ethics.

Early developments in Analytic Philosophy arose out of the work of the German mathematician and logician Gottlob Frege (widely regarded as the father of modern philosophical logic), and his development of Predicate Logic. Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, particularly in their groundbreaking "Principia Mathematica" (1910-1913) and their development of Symbolic Logic, attempted to show that mathematics is reducible to fundamental logical principles.

From about 1910 to 1930, Analytic Philosophers like Russell and Wittgenstein focused on creating an ideal language for philosophical analysis (known as Ideal Language Analysis or Formalism), which would be free from the ambiguities of ordinary language that, in their view, often got philosophers into trouble. In his "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus" of 1921, Wittgenstein suggested that the world is merely the existence of certain states of affairs which can be expressed in the language of first-order predicate logic, so that a picture of the world can be built up by expressing atomic facts in atomic propositions, and linking them using logical operators, a theory sometimes referred to as Logical Atomism.

G. E. Moore, who along with Bertrand Russell had been a pioneer in his opposition to the dominant Hegelianism (and its belief in Hegel's Absolute Idealism) in the British universities of the early 20th Century, developed his epistemological Commonsense Philosophy, attempting to defend the "commonsense" view of the world against both Skepticism and Idealism.

In the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Russell and Wittgenstein's Formalism was picked up by the Vienna Circle and Berlin Circle which developed into the Logical Positivism movement, which focused on universal logical terms, supposedly separate from contingent factors such as culture, language, historical conditions. In the late 1940s and 1950s, following Wittgenstein's later philosophy, Analytic Philosophy took a turn toward Ordinary Language Philosophy, which emphasized the use of ordinary language by ordinary people.

Following heavy attacks on Analytic Philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s, both Logical Positivism and Ordinary Language Philosophy rapidly fell out of fashion. However, many philosophers in Britain and America after the 1970's still considered themselves to be "analytic" philosophers, (generally characterized by precision and thoroughness about a narrow topic), although less emphasis on linguistics and an increased eclecticism or pluralism characteristic of Post-Modernism is also evident.

More contemporary Analytic Philosophy has also included extensive work in other areas of philosophy, such as in Ethics by Phillipa Foot (1920 - ), R. M. Hare (1919 - 2002) and J. L. Mackie (1917 - 1981); in Political Philosophy by John Rawls (1921 - 2002) and Robert Nozick (1938 - 2002); in Aesthetics by Arthur Danto (1924 - 2013); and in Philosophy of Mind by Daniel Dennett (1942 - ) and Paul Churchland (1942 - ).

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