The never-ending death of analytic philosophy

Christoph Schuringa
12 min readMay 28, 2020

The death of analytic philosophy has been announced many times. Talk of ‘postanalytic philosophy’ has started up, then fizzled out again, repeatedly for more than three decades. And yet analytic philosophy somehow seems to continue to be with us as the dominant force in academic philosophy.

It might be thought that analytic philosophers have experienced a healthy (and mild) identity crisis. They have come to see that they have much in common with other approaches, so are less inclined to insist on their own identity. On the other hand, so the thought continues, there is still a distinctive style in philosophy that can be aptly called ‘analytic’ (characterized, perhaps, by clarity of argumentation in its self-presentation and by openness to vigorous, non-hierarchical debate).

Or perhaps the point is that there are different ways of conceiving of ‘analytic philosophy’—there is, after all, considerable disagreement about what analytic philosophy is. If that’s so, then perhaps it is alive in one of these senses, but not in others. Perhaps in the past analytic philosophy thought of itself as a substantive programme, but the viability of such a programme came to seem questionable. And so what we are left with is a more modest kind of analytic philosophy — a modesty perhaps reflected in a less strident opposition to alternative approaches to philosophy among analytic philosophers today.

Analytic philosophy may seem more diffident today, and more sensitive to the other. It is true that a recent growth of historical self-awareness within analytic philosophy, and the growth of the history of analytic philosophy as a subdiscipline, have helped make it more self-questioning. This development reflects a remarkable overcoming of analytic philosophy’s previously staunchly ahistorical self-conception, which had tended to keep its past buried and hidden from view. Nevertheless analytic philosophy is by no means faltering or on the way out, but is an undeniable, and dominant, part of the social reality of academic philosophy. Despite seemingly being endlessly in its death throes, it appears as alive as ever. I will now try to tell the story that explains how this can be.

The birth of analytic philosophy is often thought to be located in a revolt by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore against the British Idealism into which they had been educated at Cambridge. Such a revolt undoubtedly took place, even if the break with Idealism was not quite as clean as the traditional myth imagines. But the truth is that what we know as ‘analytic philosophy’ was not set in motion by Russell and Moore, or earlier by Gottlob Frege, or by anyone else. It is, instead, a post-1945 construct in which a variety of disparate earlier approaches were welded together in a deliberate act of creation.

Herbert Feigl
Herbert Feigl
Wilfrid Sellars
Wilfrid Sellars

If there is a decisive moment of birth, it is the publication in 1949 of Readings in Philosophical Analysis, whose editors, Herbert Feigl and Wilfrid Sellars, consciously set out to shape the teaching of philosophy in the United States in an ‘analytic’ mould. This publication, and others such as Arthur Pap’s Elements of Analytic Philosophy (also published in 1949), helped crystallize the idea of ‘analytic philosophy’, in which a number of different approaches to philosophy were combined: the ‘logico-analytical method’ of Russell, the commonsense/realist ‘analysis’ of Moore, the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, the logic of the Lwów-Warsaw school, and American approaches flowing from the pragmatist and realist traditions. By 1958 a group of curious French philosophers could invite leading Anglophone philosophers to a conference at Royaumont under the title La philosophie analytique, to see what all the fuss was about. In the very same period, however, the death knell was already being sounded for analytic philosophy in various quarters. In 1956 the Oxford philosopher J. O. Urmson published a history of analytic philosophy, Philosophical Analysis, which ends in an obituary for what he calls ‘the old analysis’. The obituary notices have kept coming. In his book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), the apogee of a sustained self-critique of analytic philosophy that had begun with the publication of W. V. Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ in 1951, Richard Rorty wrote: ‘I do not think that there any longer exists anything identifiable as “analytic philosophy”, except in some […] stylistic or sociological way’. In the wake of Rorty’s pronouncement there was much talk of ‘postanalytic philosophy’ (see in particular John Rajchman and Cornel West (eds.), Post-Analytic Philosophy, 1985). Since then we have never quite stopped hearing about ‘postanalytic philosophy’, although no such thing has ever decisively taken over from analytic philosophy.

The claim that analytic philosophy was born after 1945 will seem startling to many. Wasn’t there widespread talk of ‘analytic philosophy’ (or ‘analytical philosophy’) before that? The answer is no, at least if what is said in print is our guide. This by itself doesn’t settle whether analytic philosophy existed—perhaps it wasn’t necessary to use the phrase. But it is striking that philosophers felt the need to self-apply the label only after 1945. This Google Ngram (showing the incidence of the phrases ‘analytic philosophy’ and ‘analytical philosophy’ in books published over the period 1900–2010) illustrates the point well:

The term ‘analysis’ was, certainly, much used by both Russell and Moore (even if they meant different things by it), and the founding of the journal Analysis in 1933 was a significant event (not least since the question of how to do philosophical ‘analysis’ was much discussed in its pages). But the phrase ‘analytic philosophy’ is in no way commonplace until after 1945. In the first appearances in print of the phrase ‘analytic philosophy’, the authors use it to express a critical attitude to the approaches they see as falling under it (R. G. Collingwood in An Essay on Philosophical Method and W. P. Montague in ‘Philosophy as Vision’, both published in 1933) — although John Wisdom had written with approval of ‘analytic philosophers’ (in a book on Jeremy Bentham) in 1931. There seems to be nothing earlier than this, other than a lone use of ‘the analytical philosophy’ in an anonymously authored report of a meeting of the Aristotelian Society in 1915, where the phrase appears in a description of a point made by Russell in the discussion session. (The recent paper by Andreas Vrahimis from which I know this, by the way, documents a fascinating episode in the demonization of the French philosopher Henri Bergson tirelessly prosecuted by Russell, through the story of Russell’s interaction with the little-known philosopher, psychoanalyst and defender of Bergson, Karin Costelloe-Stephen.)

The idea that there was one thing that philosophers were doing prior to 1945 that could be called ‘analytic philosophy’ is, then, a retrospective interpretation. In this interpretation, a number of different approaches were welded together, as per Feigl and Sellars’s conception. The separate strands had earlier been nicely laid out in a two-part paper by Ernest Nagel, published in The Journal of Philosophy in 1936, and entitled ‘Impressions and Appraisals of Analytic Philosophy in Europe’. (This is apparently the first publication with ‘analytic philosophy’ in its title.) Nagel had been trained in the United States, and the articles are effectively a travel diary of a year in which he tried to meet representatives of various kinds of what he identified as ‘analytic philosophy’ in Europe (including Britain). Nagel’s four big categories (mapping pretty closely onto those of Feigl and Sellars, except for their specifically American category) are: Moorean analysis as practised in Cambridge; logical positivism; the work of Wittgenstein; and Polish logic. Although Nagel sees these approaches as sharing a common spirit that is aptly designated as ‘analytic philosophy’, he also draws attention to the conflicts and disagreements between them. For the logical positivists, the point was to bow down before the natural sciences and restrict oneself to the analysis of empirical statements. Others thought that the work of analysis was more substantive than this: there was independent philosophical understanding to be gained through it, not merely the clearing up of any mess that the empirical sciences might leave. What Nagel further draws our attention to is that the approaches he groups together were not always friendly to each other. Logical positivism, for instance, was by no means well-received among the majority of British philosophers. (As Michael Dummett later wrote, when he was student in Oxford ‘the enemy was Carnap’, a key figure in the Vienna Circle, not Heidegger.)

Reconstructing this story not only helps to dispel the idea that there was ever a unified kind of philosophy called analytic philosophy, and to show that instead ‘analytic philosophy’ is an amalgam created after World War II. It also displaces a standard narrative about analytic philosophy, in which its founding act is the so-called ‘linguistic turn’, through which the problem of meaning was made central to philosophy. This story is told in its most ambitious versions by Michael Dummett and by Ernst Tugendhat, both of whom have taken the idea of a substantive programme of ‘analytic philosophy’ very seriously. Dummett finds the ‘first clear example’ of the linguistic turn to be Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic of 1884.

It is true enough that from the 1950s onwards Frege was a major fixture. But this was largely a new development; only now did study of Frege become mainstream, with Foundations of Arithmetic being published in English translation for the first time in 1950. In a UNESCO report entitled The Teaching of Philosophy of 1953, Foundations of Arithmetic is included in a list of typical readings for a British philosophy undergraduate, with the specification ‘contemporary in impact in the United Kingdom’.

The Teaching of Philosophy (UNESCO, 1953)—typical philosophy readings compiled by Donald MacKinnon

As Greg Frost-Arnold has persuasively argued, the question of meaning wasn’t really central to the canon of analytic philosophy before World War II. A notable exception, Frost-Arnold points out, is Susanne K. Langer — a philosopher, incidentally, with ties to ‘continental’ schools of thought through her interest in Ernst Cassirer. Soon enough, however, meaning would occupy a central place in analytic philosophy, especially in the so-called ‘Davidsonic boom’ inspired by the attempts of Donald Davidson to provide a ‘theory of meaning’ for natural languages on the model of the logician Alfred Tarski’s truth-theory for formal languages. This period instructively shows up tensions in what analytic philosophy had become. Wittgenstein, for one, had poured cold water on the idea of explaining meaning, and yet this is what the Davidson-inspired theories seemed to be in the business of doing (a productive tension that can be seen animating some of the most creative work in analytic philosophy in this period).

Then things took a different turn. Analytic philosophy now entered a phase marked by a new methodological insouciance. Metaphysics was fine again, as was political philosophy (an area driven almost entirely by a single book, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, published in 1971). To many it now didn’t seem to matter anymore whether there was a programme of analytic philosophy or not: it was evident enough that there was work to get on with. The methodological self-awareness that had seemed so refreshing in the 1950s had gone, giving way to a sense of easy familiarity with established protocols and procedures. By contrast with the searching work of G. E. M. Anscombe in the 50s to understand the nature of human action ‘for the sake’ of practical philosophy, for instance, there now developed ‘action theory’ no longer particularly concerned about its raison d’être. And much metaphysics seemed to think of itself as like physics, but deeper.

From here on, Rorty’s diagnosis seems borne out: analytic philosophy now existed only ‘in some stylistic or sociological way’. It was a set of well-recognized procedures without much need to explain to itself why it was following these procedures. To say that analytic philosophy was now a stylistic or sociological phenomenon may make it seem like it had been effectively defanged and rendered harmless. Lacking distinctive doctrines or aims, it was no longer really in contest with other approaches: it was really just careful, clever thinking. But this is very far from the case. That the analytic philosophy we have ended up with exists as a ‘sociological’ phenomenon is a very important fact about where academic philosophy has been since, and still is today.

Analytic philosophy was once (in the 1950s) a strident, crusading movement. Having been constituted by Feigl and Sellars, and others, it quickly gained control of American philosophy departments. It was particularly well-placed in this regard in the period of McCarthyism, thanks to its apolitical credentials. While some analytic philosophers were on the left, and both Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin travelled to the Soviet Union, their philosophical work remained untainted by politics (with the exception of the lone Marxist logical positivist, Otto Neurath).

An object lesson in the tendency of analytic philosophy to mark itself out as distinctive from the rest of philosophy is the divide that it created between itself and what it called ‘continental philosophy’. The distinction (a commonplace which anyone who has participated in academic philosophy is familiar with) is sometimes criticized as somehow mistaken or silly. After all, Frege, Schlick, Carnap, Wittgenstein, Waismann, Feigl, et al., were obviously from continental Europe. And, as Bernard Williams pointed out in a lecture given at the opening of a Centre for Post-Analytic Philosophy (long since defunct) at Southampton University in 1997, it seems oddly misplaced—as he put it, a bit like ‘classifying cars as Japanese and front-wheel drive’. Sure enough, ‘analytic’ is a methodological term, whereas ‘continental’ is a geographical one, and so Williams rightly indicts the distinction as what Gilbert Ryle called a ‘category mistake’. Crucially, however, it is analytic philosophers who are the originators of the label ‘continental philosophy’, to designate an out-group to their in-group. In doing so, they treated a wide array of disparate approaches as if they belonged together—phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics, deconstruction, as well as forms of ‘theory’ that think of themselves as anti- or post-philosophical. This made sense from the point of view of analytic philosophy: continental philosophy was what could, by its lights, be safely ignored. No one ever called themselves a ‘continental philosopher’, until this label had stuck in places where analytic philosophy possessed academic hegemony, such as the United States and Britain. But as a result of analytic philosophy’s act of creation of continental philosophy, there has since then really been such a thing as continental philosophy (reflected in MA programmes in continental philosophy, societies for continental philosophy, and so on). Social reality is reality, too.

Analytic philosophers may speak in conciliatory tones about healing the rift with continental philosophy (a rift, to be sure, of their own making). But in order for this to happen effectively, analytic philosophy must regain methodological self-awareness. In today’s world, analytic philosophy faces a range of new challenges. It has heard the call of feminism, of critical race theory, and of the movement to decolonize the curriculum, and it is actively in the business of trying to heed these calls. Academic philosophy faces a particularly acute inclusivity problem, even by the standards of the academy: representation of women and of non-whites in the profession is shockingly poor.

Whatever its enthusiasm to do so, however, there are specific reasons why analytic philosophy is peculiarly underequipped to meet these challenges. Although it places emphasis on open and non-hierarchical debate, it conceives of such debate within a problematic framework. In line with the apolitical profile it gave itself in the years following World War II, analytic philosophy tends to conceive debate on the liberal model of a ‘marketplace of ideas’. This is unsurprising, since the ‘apolitical’ are, just by virtue of sealing themselves off from political engagement, particularly susceptible to unwittingly falling into line with the prevailing ideology and its structures. The problem with the marketplace of ideas, as with the commercial marketplace of classical and neoclassical economics on which it is modelled, is that it treats each participant in the marketplace as de facto engaging in exchange on equal terms. Just as in the neoclassical commercial marketplace property qualifications are irrelevant (the propertied and the non-propertied enter ‘on equal terms’ in the sense that their property ownership is irrelevant), in the liberal marketplace of ideas everyone is just assumed to enter on equal terms. If the points of feminists and critical race theorists that analytic philosophers are seeking to take on board are right, however, this whole conception of equal engagement stands in need of critique. And the very ideas of feminism and critical race theory are deprived of their very point and rendered impotent if discussion takes place on these terms.

There is great promise in the prospect that analytic philosophy might develop and grow by taking on these challenges. But it must overcome the illusion that it is already equipped to do so. Analytic philosophy is not innocent. There is a dangerous childlikeness in its insistence that anyone can come and argue, and everything will be considered from scratch, treating everyone as equals. It will grow out of this only through active engagement with approaches that it claims no longer to despise, including the work of other humanities disciplines. It will not be enough to regiment some of the ideas in, say, critical race theory, extracted from another literature using its own procedures and on its own terms, into its own format. It will need to open itself to immersion in cultural, social and political reality. It will then have the prospect of being, for the first time, truly alive.

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Christoph Schuringa

write/teach philosophy • fight hostile environment and immigration detention • edit Hegel Bulletin