Only Sentences

Ray Monk

  • Wittgenstein’s Place in 20th-Century Analytic Philosophy by P.M.S. Hacker
    Blackwell, 368 pp, £50.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 631 20098 3
  • Wittgenstein: Mind and Will, Vol. IV of an Analytical Commentary on the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ by P.M.S. Hacker
    Blackwell, 742 pp, £90.00, August 1996, ISBN 0 631 18739 1

A feeling has been growing that analytic philosophy is in crisis. Once proud and disdainful of other traditions, it has become unsure of itself; uncertain about its past and fearful of its future. One sign of this insecurity is the debate now being conducted among leading analytic philosophers about their own history. Previously, they cared little about this. Confident in the superiority of their methods over those of earlier philosophers, they regarded an interest in history as a perverse preoccupation with the mistakes of the past. History was for second-class minds; first-class minds could safely ignore it and get on with the job in hand.

Such an attitude, however, could only survive so long as there existed a rough consensus as to what the job in hand was. In the Fifties, the heyday of British analytic philosophy, this was expressed in a series of books with titles such as The Revolution in Philosophy, in which the leading philosophers of that time – Austin, Strawson, Ryle, Ayer – expressed, despite their many differences, broad agreement about the nature of their subject and a common belief that the method of analysis they had learned from Frege, Russell, Moore and Wittgenstein constituted a great advance over previous ways of doing philosophy and over the techniques of their Continental rivals.

Nowhere is this confidence better epitomised than in the notorious paper delivered by Ryle at the conference on La Philosophie analytique at Royaumont in 1960. Entitled ‘Phenomenology versus The Concept of Mind’, this contrasted the befuddlement of the German phenomenological tradition when faced with problems in the philosophy of mind with the clarity achieved by ‘Anglo-Saxon’ analytic philosophers. The Germans, Ryle suggested, had been misled by Husserl into attempting to reestablish the proud role philosophy had once played as ‘the Science of the sciences’, while we in Britain ‘have not worried our heads over the question Which philosopher ought to be Fuehrer?’ but have instead trusted in logical analysis.

That trust remained undimmed throughout the Sixties and Seventies, when the philosophy departments at the newly-established universities were filled, in the main, with graduates of Ryle’s Oxford B.Phil degree, who devised courses in which logical analysis occupied centre-stage, Hegel and Husserl were written out of history, and post-war trends in French and German philosophy completely ignored. Discontent with the narrowness of such an approach was expressed in the founding of the journal, Radical Philosophy, and in the establishment of popular graduate programmes in ‘Continental Philosophy’, but these remained marginal developments which troubled the mainstream – in so far as it was aware of them – very little. Meanwhile, outside philosophy departments, the work of contemporary French and German philosophers was studied by cultural theorists, literary critics and others.

The seeds of the present crisis, however, were sown, not by dissidents from the analytical tradition, but rather by analytical philosophers themselves, who, since the Eighties, have been increasingly divided about what, exactly, the ‘method of analysis’ is. One of the central questions has become: what is analytical philosophy?

An influential answer has been provided by Michael Dummett, until recently the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford and the author of several important books on Frege and the philosophy of language. Significantly, Dummett’s most recent books have been concerned with history, particularly his Origins of Analytical Philosophy, which broke sharply with the Rylean notion of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ philosophy by insisting on the Continental roots of the analytical tradition. ‘The roots of analytical philosophy,’ Dummett writes, ‘are the same roots as those of the phenomenological school.’ The two traditions ‘may be compared with the Rhine and the Danube, which rise quite close to one another and for a time pursue roughly parallel courses, only to diverge in utterly different directions and flow to different seas.’ The Rhine is Frege and the Danube Husserl, and the point of divergence is the ‘linguistic turn’ taken by the Fregean stream. Both Frege and Husserl, that is, were centrally concerned with the analysis of thought, but Frege took the decisive step of insisting that thought could be analysed only through language. Thus: ‘Analytical philosophy was born when the linguistic turn was taken’, and, in Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics, Dummett identified the precise moment of this momentous step: in paragraph 62 of The Foundations of Arithmetic, in which Frege begins by asking about the nature of numbers and ends by asking instead about the meanings of sentences containing number words.

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