Thursday, 7 January 2010

Analytical Philosophy

The subject of analytical (or analytic) philosophy is far more complex than often appears at first sight. This subject is sometimes divided into two strongly defined phases, meaning the circa 1900-1960 trend of developments, and the post-1960 contemporary version. Thus entries 2-6 on this blog refer to the preliminary period.

The contemporary analytical trend is widespread in Britain, America, Canada, and Australia. It is not a uniform model, and exponents differ markedly in their views. Contemporary analytic is frequently viewed as a rival of what is known as “continental philosophy,” one exemplar of which is Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), whose “deconstruction” of texts has been strongly queried. See my web entry
Jacques Derrida and deconstruction (2008).

Many contemporary analytical philosophers emphasise clarity of argument via logic and language analysis. However, they have exhibited varying tendencies and methods of exegesis. Not infrequently, they have actually rejected basic ideas found in the pre-1960 phase of the analytic phenomenon. It is no longer easy to keep track of all the formulations and dispositions involved. Language philosophy is sometimes said to have been relegated as a primary pursuit, having become a secondary support, though nonetheless visible.

A fair number of contemporary analytical philosophers have integrated the natural sciences into their worldview. This has sometimes tended to converge with earlier attitudes of the Vienna Circle and logical positivism, though again, there are variations.

The logical positivists are noted for rejecting many traditional problems of philosophy, especially anything relating to metaphysics. Their emphasis upon empiricism opted for the conclusion that philosophy must decode to the strictly scientific and logical clarification of thoughts and concepts. The truths of science were regarded as verifiable, with logic and mathematics the runners-up for accuracy. These interests comprised the only meaningful statements. Everything else amounted to an irrelevant statement, not actually being true or false, but meaningless. Ethics, metaphysics, and aesthetics were placed in the category of meaningless statements.

Logical positivism met a challenge in the 1950s, and notably in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), a work strongly associated with language philosophy. Some British philosophers emphasise the influence of Wittgenstein in the 1960s and 1970s, and lament the fact that developments in American analytical philosophy during the 1970s offset that British trend by the new fascination with computers, neurophysiology, and other matters.

In Britain, the “contemplative philosophy” associated with Wittgenstein was argued as part of a new approach to the philosophy of religion, said to have revived when logical positivism fell from favour. Some have reflected that “contemplative philosophy” is very sparse in Wittgenstein’s published output, a factor contributing to my own interpretation in entry no. 2, which does not deny any significance of the innovated phrase, but instead meaning that the new language philosophy failed to express complexities inherent.

The trend to philosophy of religion illustrates the diversity of contemporary analytical approaches. Indeed, metaphysics was reinstated in the form known as “analytic metaphysics.” This is quite detailed, and has involved a deference to scientific realism via such data as is afforded by quantum physics. The friction with logical positivism has entailed strong debates.

Karl Popper devised the theme of falsification in his philosophy of science. He is viewed as being in reaction on this point to the logical positivists. The falsifiability criterion met with varied denials. The philosophy of science continued into the paradigm theory of Thomas Kuhn and the relativism of Paul Feyerabend, who is often viewed as overturning the formerly assumed priority of the natural sciences. Feyerabend’s “cognitive relativism” gained a strong degree of popular acceptance, though objections have been lodged. See, for example, my web article
About Science and Paul K. Feyerabend (2008).

Logical positivism effectively restricted ethical philosophy in the pre-1960 phase. The prevalence of sceptical vogues was stifling for this neglected subject. Value was demoted. A revival occurred at the end of the 1950s, restoring the Aristotelian emphasis on virtue. Kantian ethical philosophy was evoked in the 1970s, and was thus a partner to virtue ethics. Utilitarianism has also survived. Ethical philosophy became noted for a concern with environmental issues and animal rights.

The “logical atomism” of Wittgenstein’s early Tractatus (1921) was obscurantist about values, affirming that (philosophical) language can say nothing about them. Such a tenet was welcome to logical positivism, which deliberated that ethical and aesthetic judgments cannot be true or false, but merely constitute a subjective attitude. The confusion of ethics with art is a serious shortcoming, and can mean a science without scruple and a science lacking objectivity. However, Wittgenstein himself was resistant to logical positivism, furthering a somewhat different orientation.

What is known as the philosophy of mind struggled to emerge from the grip of behaviourism that is associated with Gilbert Ryle (see entry no. 5). Basic forms of mind-brain cognitivism developed, known by different names. Eventually, dualism emerged as a minority element in contemporary analytical philosophy, though such matters are contested.

All things considered, analytical philosophy has a very different face to the one presented half a century ago. There are many unresolved issues, and strong debates. Despite Brian Magee’s reflection about a “bankrupt tradition” (see entry no. 5), one can be more optimistic here. Bankruptcy might indeed have occurred if the more limited vistas had prevailed after 1960, but the new mood of expansion and daring acted as a compensator to poverty.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 7th 2010

ENTRY no. 7


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