History of Literature, Fhilosophy and Religions


Part III

A Brief History of Western Philosophy

Introduction Phylosophy

The nature of Western philosophy

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy

Medieval philosophy

Renaissance philosophy

Modern philosophy

Contemporary philosophy


Western Philosophy







Western philosophy

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Western philosophy

History of Western philosophy from its development among the ancient Greeks to the present.


Contemporary philosophy

Contemporary philosophy » Analytic philosophy

It is difficult to give a precise definition of analytic philosophy since it is not so much a specific doctrine as an overlapping set of approaches to problems. Its 20th-century origin is often attributed to the work of the English philosopher G.E. Moore (1873–1958). In Principia Ethica (1903), Moore argued that the predicate good, which defines the sphere of ethics, is “simple, unanalyzable, and indefinable.” His contention was that many of the difficulties in ethics, and indeed in philosophy generally, arise from an “attempt to answer questions, without first discovering precisely what question it is which you desire to answer.” These questions thus require analysis for their clarification. Philosophers in this tradition generally have agreed with Moore that the purpose of analysis is the clarification of thought. Their varied methods have included the creation of symbolic languages as well as the close examination of ordinary speech, and the objects to be clarified have ranged from concepts to natural laws and from notions that belong to the physical sciences—such as mass, force, and testability—to ordinary terms such as responsibility and see. From its inception, analytic philosophy also has been highly problem-oriented. There is probably no major philosophical problem that its practitioners have failed to address.

The development of analytic philosophy was significantly influenced by the creation of symbolic (or mathematical) logic at the beginning of the century. Although there are anticipations of this kind of logic in the Stoics, its modern forms are without exact parallel in Western thought, a fact that is made apparent by its close affinities with mathematics and science. Many philosophers thus regarded the combination of logic and science as a model that philosophical inquiry should follow, though others rejected the model or minimized its usefulness for dealing with philosophical problems. The 20th century thus witnessed the development of two diverse streams of analysis, one of them emphasizing formal (logical) techniques and the other informal (ordinary-language) ones. There were, of course, many philosophers whose work was influenced by both approaches. Although analysis can in principle be applied to any subject matter, its central focus for most of the century was language, especially the notions of meaning and reference. Ethics, aesthetics, religion, and law also were fields of interest, though to a lesser degree. In the last quarter of the century there was a profound shift in emphasis from the topics of meaning and reference to issues about the human mind, including the nature of mental processes such as thinking, judging, perceiving, believing, and intending, as well as the products or objects of such processes, including representations, meanings, and visual images. At the same time, intensive work continued on the theory of reference, and the results obtained in that domain were transferred to the analysis of mind. Both formalist and informalist approaches exhibited this shift in interest.

G. E. Moore
British philosopher

born Nov. 4, 1873, London, Eng.
died Oct. 24, 1958, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

influential British Realist philosopher and professor whose systematic approach to ethical problems and remarkably meticulous approach to philosophy made him an outstanding modern British thinker.

Elected to a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1898, Moore remained there until 1904, during which time he published several journal articles, including “The Nature of Judgment” (1899) and “The Refutation of Idealism” (1903), as well as his major ethical work, Principia Ethica (1903). These writings were important in helping to undermine the influence of Hegel and Kant on British philosophy. After residence in Edinburgh and London, he returned to Cambridge in 1911 to become a lecturer in moral science. From 1925 to 1939 he was professor of philosophy there, and from 1921 to 1947 he was editor of the philosophical journal Mind.

Though Moore grew up in a climate of evangelical religiosity, he eventually became an agnostic. A friend of Bertrand Russell, who first directed him to the study of philosophy, he was also a leading figure in the Bloomsbury group, a coterie that included the economist John Keynes and the writers Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster. Because of his view that “the good” is knowable by direct apprehension, he became known as an “ethical intuitionist.” He claimed that other efforts to decide what is “good,” such as analyses of the concepts of approval or desire, which are not themselves of an ethical nature, partake of a fallacy that he termed the “naturalistic fallacy.”

Moore was also preoccupied with such problems as the nature of sense perception and the existence of other minds and material things. He was not as skeptical as those philosophers who held that we lack sufficient data to prove that objects exist outside our own minds, but he did believe that proper philosophical proofs had not yet been devised to overcome such objections.

Although few of Moore’s theories achieved general acceptance, his unique approaches to certain problems and his intellectual rigour helped change the texture of philosophical discussion in England. His other major writings include Philosophical Studies (1922) and Some Main Problems of Philosophy (1953); posthumous publications were Philosophical Papers (1959) and the Commonplace Book, 1919–1953 (1962).


Contemporary philosophy » Analytic philosophy » The formalist tradition » Logical atomism

The first major development in the formalist tradition was a metaphysical theory known as logical atomism, which was derived from work in mathematical logic by the English philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970). Russell’s work, in turn, was based in part on early notebooks written before World War I by his former pupil Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1953). In The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, a monograph published in 1918, Russell gave credit to Wittgenstein for supplying “many of the theories” contained in it. Wittgenstein had joined the Austrian army when the war broke out, and Russell had been out of contact with him ever since. Wittgenstein thus did not become aware of Russell’s version of logical atomism until after the war. Wittgenstein’s polished and very sophisticated version appeared in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which he wrote during the war but did not publish until 1922.

Both Russell and Wittgenstein believed that mathematical logic could reveal the basic structure of reality, a structure that is hidden beneath the cloak of ordinary language. In their view, the new logic showed that the world is made up of simple, or “atomic,” facts, which in turn are made up of particular objects. Atomic facts are complex, mind-independent features of reality, such as the fact that a particular rock is white or the fact that the Moon is a satellite of the Earth. As Wittgenstein says in the Tractatus, “The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.” Both Russell and Wittgenstein held that the basic propositions of logic, which Wittgenstein called “elementary propositions,” refer to atomic facts. There is thus an immediate connection between formal languages, such as the logical system of Russell’s Principia Mathematica (written with Alfred North Whitehead and published between 1910 and 1913), and the structure of the real world: elementary propositions represent atomic facts, which are constituted by particular objects, which are the meanings of logically proper names. Russell differed from Wittgenstein in that he held that the meanings of proper names are “sense data,” or immediate perceptual experiences, rather than particular objects. Further, for Wittgenstein but not for Russell, elementary propositions are connected to the world by being structurally isomorphic to atomic facts—i.e., by being a “picture” of them. Wittgenstein’s view thus came to be known as the “picture theory” of meaning.

Logical atomism rested upon a number of theses. It was realistic, as distinct from idealistic, in its contention that there are mind-independent facts. But it presupposed that language is mind-dependent—i.e., that language would not exist unless there were sentient beings who used sounds and marks to refer and to communicate. Logical atomism was thus a dualistic metaphysics that described both the structure of the world and the conditions that any particular language must satisfy in order to represent it. Although its career was brief, its guiding principle—that philosophy should be scientific and grounded in mathematical logic—was widely acknowledged throughout the century.


Bertrand Russell
British logician and philosopher
in full Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell of Kingston Russell, Viscount Amberley of Amberley and of Ardsalla

born May 18, 1872, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, Wales
died Feb. 2, 1970, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merioneth, Wales

British philosopher, logician, and social reformer, founding figure in the analytic movement in Anglo-American philosophy, and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Russell’s contributions to logic, epistemology, and the philosophy of mathematics established him as one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. To the general public, however, he was best known as a campaigner for peace and as a popular writer on social, political, and moral subjects. During a long, productive, and often turbulent life, he published more than 70 books and about 2,000 articles, married four times, became involved in innumerable public controversies, and was honoured and reviled in almost equal measure throughout the world.

Russell was born in Ravenscroft, the country home of his parents, Lord and Lady Amberley. His grandfather, Lord John Russell, was the youngest son of the 6th Duke of Bedford. In 1861, after a long and distinguished political career in which he served twice as prime minister, Lord Russell was ennobled by Queen Victoria, becoming the 1st Earl Russell. Bertrand Russell became the 3rd Earl Russell in 1931, after his elder brother, Frank, died childless.

Russell’s early life was marred by tragedy and bereavement. By the time he was age six, his sister, Rachel, his parents, and his grandfather had all died, and he and Frank were left in the care of their grandmother, Countess Russell. Though Frank was sent to Winchester School, Bertrand was educated privately at home, and his childhood, to his later great regret, was spent largely in isolation from other children. Intellectually precocious, he became absorbed in mathematics from an early age and found the experience of learning Euclidean geometry at the age of 11 “as dazzling as first love,” because it introduced him to the intoxicating possibility of certain, demonstrable knowledge. This led him to imagine that all knowledge might be provided with such secure foundations, a hope that lay at the very heart of his motivations as a philosopher. His earliest philosophical work was written during his adolescence and records the skeptical doubts that led him to abandon the Christian faith in which he had been brought up by his grandmother.

In 1890 Russell’s isolation came to an end when he entered Trinity College, University of Cambridge, to study mathematics. There he made lifelong friends through his membership in the famously secretive student society the Apostles, whose members included some of the most influential philosophers of the day. Inspired by his discussions with this group, Russell abandoned mathematics for philosophy and won a fellowship at Trinity on the strength of a thesis entitled An Essay on the Foundations of Geometry, a revised version of which was published as his first philosophical book in 1897. Following Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), this work presented a sophisticated idealist theory that viewed geometry as a description of the structure of spatial intuition.

In 1896 Russell published his first political work, German Social Democracy. Though sympathetic to the reformist aims of the German socialist movement, it included some trenchant and farsighted criticisms of Marxist dogmas. The book was written partly as the outcome of a visit to Berlin in 1895 with his first wife, Alys Pearsall Smith, whom he had married the previous year. In Berlin, Russell formulated an ambitious scheme of writing two series of books, one on the philosophy of the sciences, the other on social and political questions. “At last,” as he later put it, “I would achieve a Hegelian synthesis in an encyclopaedic work dealing equally with theory and practice.” He did, in fact, come to write on all the subjects he intended, but not in the form that he envisaged. Shortly after finishing his book on geometry, he abandoned the metaphysical idealism that was to have provided the framework for this grand synthesis.

Russell’s abandonment of idealism is customarily attributed to the influence of his friend and fellow Apostle G.E. Moore. A much greater influence on his thought at this time, however, was a group of German mathematicians that included Karl Weierstrass, Georg Cantor, and Richard Dedekind, whose work was aimed at providing mathematics with a set of logically rigorous foundations. For Russell, their success in this endeavour was of enormous philosophical as well as mathematical significance; indeed, he described it as “the greatest triumph of which our age has to boast.” After becoming acquainted with this body of work, Russell abandoned all vestiges of his earlier idealism and adopted the view, which he was to hold for the rest of his life, that analysis rather than synthesis was the surest method of philosophy and that therefore all the grand system building of previous philosophers was misconceived. In arguing for this view with passion and acuity, Russell exerted a profound influence on the entire tradition of English-speaking analytic philosophy, bequeathing to it its characteristic style, method, and tone.

Inspired by the work of the mathematicians whom he so greatly admired, Russell conceived the idea of demonstrating that mathematics not only had logically rigorous foundations but also that it was in its entirety nothing but logic. The philosophical case for this point of view—subsequently known as logicism—was stated at length in The Principles of Mathematics (1903). There Russell argued that the whole of mathematics could be derived from a few simple axioms that made no use of specifically mathematical notions, such as number and square root, but were rather confined to purely logical notions, such as proposition and class. In this way not only could the truths of mathematics be shown to be immune from doubt, they could also be freed from any taint of subjectivity, such as the subjectivity involved in Russell’s earlier Kantian view that geometry describes the structure of spatial intuition. Near the end of his work on The Principles of Mathematics, Russell discovered that he had been anticipated in his logicist philosophy of mathematics by the German mathematician Gottlob Frege, whose book The Foundations of Arithmetic (1884) contained, as Russell put it, “many things…which I believed I had invented.” Russell quickly added an appendix to his book that discussed Frege’s work, acknowledged Frege’s earlier discoveries, and explained the differences in their respective understandings of the nature of logic.

The tragedy of Russell’s intellectual life is that the deeper he thought about logic, the more his exalted conception of its significance came under threat. He himself described his philosophical development after The Principles of Mathematics as a “retreat from Pythagoras.” The first step in this retreat was his discovery of a contradiction—now known as Russell’s Paradox—at the very heart of the system of logic upon which he had hoped to build the whole of mathematics. The contradiction arises from the following considerations: Some classes are members of themselves (e.g., the class of all classes), and some are not (e.g., the class of all men), so we ought to be able to construct the class of all classes that are not members of themselves. But now, if we ask of this class “Is it a member of itself?” we become enmeshed in a contradiction. If it is, then it is not, and if it is not, then it is. This is rather like defining the village barber as “the man who shaves all those who do not shave themselves” and then asking whether the barber shaves himself or not.

At first this paradox seemed trivial, but the more Russell reflected upon it, the deeper the problem seemed, and eventually he was persuaded that there was something fundamentally wrong with the notion of class as he had understood it in The Principles of Mathematics. Frege saw the depth of the problem immediately. When Russell wrote to him to tell him of the paradox, Frege replied, “arithmetic totters.” The foundation upon which Frege and Russell had hoped to build mathematics had, it seemed, collapsed. Whereas Frege sank into a deep depression, Russell set about repairing the damage by attempting to construct a theory of logic immune to the paradox. Like a malignant cancerous growth, however, the contradiction reappeared in different guises whenever Russell thought that he had eliminated it.

Eventually, Russell’s attempts to overcome the paradox resulted in a complete transformation of his scheme of logic, as he added one refinement after another to the basic theory. In the process, important elements of his “Pythagorean” view of logic were abandoned. In particular, Russell came to the conclusion that there were no such things as classes and propositions and that therefore, whatever logic was, it was not the study of them. In their place he substituted a bewilderingly complex theory known as the ramified theory of types, which, though it successfully avoided contradictions such as Russell’s Paradox, was (and remains) extraordinarily difficult to understand. By the time he and his collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead, had finished the three volumes of Principia Mathematica (1910–13), the theory of types and other innovations to the basic logical system had made it unmanageably complicated. Very few people, whether philosophers or mathematicians, have made the gargantuan effort required to master the details of this monumental work. It is nevertheless rightly regarded as one of the great intellectual achievements of the 20th century.

Principia Mathematica is a herculean attempt to demonstrate mathematically what The Principles of Mathematics had argued for philosophically, namely that mathematics is a branch of logic. The validity of the individual formal proofs that make up the bulk of its three volumes has gone largely unchallenged, but the philosophical significance of the work as a whole is still a matter of debate. Does it demonstrate that mathematics is logic? Only if one regards the theory of types as a logical truth, and about that there is much more room for doubt than there was about the trivial truisms upon which Russell had originally intended to build mathematics. Moreover, Kurt Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem (1931) proves that there cannot be a single logical theory from which the whole of mathematics is derivable: all consistent theories of arithmetic are necessarily incomplete. Principia Mathematica cannot, however, be dismissed as nothing more than a heroic failure. Its influence on the development of mathematical logic and the philosophy of mathematics has been immense.

Despite their differences, Russell and Frege were alike in taking an essentially Platonic view of logic. Indeed, the passion with which Russell pursued the project of deriving mathematics from logic owed a great deal to what he would later somewhat scornfully describe as a “kind of mathematical mysticism.” As he put it in his more disillusioned old age, “I disliked the real world and sought refuge in a timeless world, without change or decay or the will-o’-the-wisp of progress.” Russell, like Pythagoras and Plato before him, believed that there existed a realm of truth that, unlike the messy contingencies of the everyday world of sense-experience, was immutable and eternal. This realm was accessible only to reason, and knowledge of it, once attained, was not tentative or corrigible but certain and irrefutable. Logic, for Russell, was the means by which one gained access to this realm, and thus the pursuit of logic was, for him, the highest and noblest enterprise life had to offer.

In philosophy the greatest impact of Principia Mathematica has been through its so-called theory of descriptions. This method of analysis, first introduced by Russell in his article “On Denoting” (1905), translates propositions containing definite descriptions (e.g., “the present king of France”) into expressions that do not—the purpose being to remove the logical awkwardness of appearing to refer to things (such as the present king of France) that do not exist. Originally developed by Russell as part of his efforts to overcome the contradictions in his theory of logic, this method of analysis has since become widely influential even among philosophers with no specific interest in mathematics. The general idea at the root of Russell’s theory of descriptions—that the grammatical structures of ordinary language are distinct from, and often conceal, the true “logical forms” of expressions—has become his most enduring contribution to philosophy.

Russell later said that his mind never fully recovered from the strain of writing Principia Mathematica, and he never again worked on logic with quite the same intensity. In 1918 he wrote An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, which was intended as a popularization of Principia, but, apart from this, his philosophical work tended to be on epistemology rather than logic. In 1914, in Our Knowledge of the External World, Russell argued that the world is “constructed” out of sense-data, an idea that he refined in The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (1918–19). In The Analysis of Mind (1921) and The Analysis of Matter (1927), he abandoned this notion in favour of what he called neutral monism, the view that the “ultimate stuff” of the world is neither mental nor physical but something “neutral” between the two. Although treated with respect, these works had markedly less impact upon subsequent philosophers than his early works in logic and the philosophy of mathematics, and they are generally regarded as inferior by comparison.

Connected with the change in his intellectual direction after the completion of Principia was a profound change in his personal life. Throughout the years that he worked single-mindedly on logic, Russell’s private life was bleak and joyless. He had fallen out of love with his first wife, Alys, though he continued to live with her. In 1911, however, he fell passionately in love with Lady Ottoline Morrell. Doomed from the start (because Morrell had no intention of leaving her husband), this love nevertheless transformed Russell’s entire life. He left Alys and began to hope that he might, after all, find fulfillment in romance. Partly under Morrell’s influence, he also largely lost interest in technical philosophy and began to write in a different, more accessible style. Through writing a best-selling introductory survey called The Problems of Philosophy (1911), Russell discovered that he had a gift for writing on difficult subjects for lay readers, and he began increasingly to address his work to them rather than to the tiny handful of people capable of understanding Principia Mathematica.

In the same year that he began his affair with Morrell, Russell met Ludwig Wittgenstein, a brilliant young Austrian who arrived at Cambridge to study logic with Russell. Fired with intense enthusiasm for the subject, Wittgenstein made great progress, and within a year Russell began to look to him to provide the next big step in philosophy and to defer to him on questions of logic. However, Wittgenstein’s own work, eventually published in 1921 as Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922), undermined the entire approach to logic that had inspired Russell’s great contributions to the philosophy of mathematics. It persuaded Russell that there were no “truths” of logic at all, that logic consisted entirely of tautologies, the truth of which was not guaranteed by eternal facts in the Platonic realm of ideas but lay, rather, simply in the nature of language. This was to be the final step in the retreat from Pythagoras and a further incentive for Russell to abandon technical philosophy in favour of other pursuits.

During World War I Russell was for a while a full-time political agitator, campaigning for peace and against conscription. His activities attracted the attention of the British authorities, who regarded him as subversive. He was twice taken to court, the second time to receive a sentence of six months in prison, which he served at the end of the war. In 1916, as a result of his antiwar campaigning, Russell was dismissed from his lectureship at Trinity College. Although Trinity offered to rehire him after the war, he ultimately turned down the offer, preferring instead to pursue a career as a journalist and freelance writer. The war had had a profound effect on Russell’s political views, causing him to abandon his inherited liberalism and to adopt a thorough-going socialism, which he espoused in a series of books including Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916), Roads to Freedom (1918), and The Prospects of Industrial Civilization (1923). He was initially sympathetic to the Russian Revolution of 1917, but a visit to the Soviet Union in 1920 left him with a deep and abiding loathing for Soviet communism, which he expressed in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1920).

In 1921 Russell married his second wife, Dora Black, a young graduate of Girton College, Cambridge, with whom he had two children, John and Kate. In the interwar years Russell and Dora acquired a reputation as leaders of a progressive socialist movement that was stridently anticlerical, openly defiant of conventional sexual morality, and dedicated to educational reform. Russell’s published work during this period consists mainly of journalism and popular books written in support of these causes. Many of these books—such as On Education (1926), Marriage and Morals (1929), and The Conquest of Happiness (1930)—enjoyed large sales and helped establish Russell in the eyes of the general public as a philosopher with important things to say about the moral, political, and social issues of the day. His public lecture “Why I Am Not a Christian,” delivered in 1927 and printed many times, became a popular locus classicus of atheistic rationalism. In 1927 Russell and Dora set up their own school, Beacon Hill, as a pioneering experiment in primary education. To pay for it, Russell undertook a few lucrative but exhausting lecture tours of the United States.

During these years Russell’s second marriage came under increasing strain, partly because of overwork but chiefly because Dora chose to have two children with another man and insisted on raising them alongside John and Kate. In 1932 Russell left Dora for Patricia (“Peter”) Spence, a young University of Oxford undergraduate, and for the next three years his life was dominated by an extraordinarily acrimonious and complicated divorce from Dora, which was finally granted in 1935. In the following year he married Spence, and in 1937 they had a son, Conrad. Worn out by years of frenetic public activity and desiring, at this comparatively late stage in his life (he was then age 66), to return to academic philosophy, Russell gained a teaching post at the University of Chicago. From 1938 to 1944 Russell lived in the United States, where he taught at Chicago and the University of California at Los Angeles, but he was prevented from taking a post at the City College of New York because of objections to his views on sex and marriage. On the brink of financial ruin, he secured a job teaching the history of philosophy at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Although he soon fell out with its founder, Albert C. Barnes, and lost his job, Russell was able to turn the lectures he delivered at the foundation into a book, A History of Western Philosophy (1945), which proved to be a best-seller and was for many years his main source of income.

In 1944 Russell returned to Trinity College, where he lectured on the ideas that formed his last major contribution to philosophy, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits (1948). During this period Russell, for once in his life, found favour with the authorities, and he received many official tributes, including the Order of Merit in 1949 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. His private life, however, remained as turbulent as ever, and he left his third wife in 1949. For a while he shared a house in Richmond upon Thames, London, with the family of his son John and, forsaking both philosophy and politics, dedicated himself to writing short stories. Despite his famously immaculate prose style, Russell did not have a talent for writing great fiction, and his short stories were generally greeted with an embarrassed and puzzled silence, even by his admirers.

In 1952 Russell married his fourth wife, Edith Finch, and finally, at the age of 80, found lasting marital harmony. Russell devoted his last years to campaigning against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, assuming once again the role of gadfly of the establishment. The sight of Russell in extreme old age taking his place in mass demonstrations and inciting young people to civil disobedience through his passionate rhetoric inspired a new generation of admirers. Their admiration only increased when in 1961 the British judiciary system took the extraordinary step of sentencing the 89-year-old Russell to a second period of imprisonment.

When he died in 1970 Russell was far better known as an antiwar campaigner than as a philosopher of mathematics. In retrospect, however, it is possible to see that it is for his great contributions to philosophy that he will be remembered and honoured by future generations.




Ludwig Wittgenstein
British philosopher
in full Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein
born April 26, 1889, Vienna, Austria-Hungary [now in Austria]
died April 29, 1951, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, Eng.

Austrian-born English philosopher, regarded by many as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Wittgenstein’s two major works, Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung (1921; Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922) and Philosophische Untersuchungen (published posthumously in 1953; Philosophical Investigations), have inspired a vast secondary literature and have done much to shape subsequent developments in philosophy, especially within the analytic tradition. His charismatic personality has, in addition, exerted a powerful fascination upon artists, playwrights, poets, novelists, musicians, and even filmmakers, so that his fame has spread far beyond the confines of academic life.

Wittgenstein was born into one of the wealthiest and most remarkable families of Habsburg Vienna. His father, Karl Wittgenstein, was an industrialist of extraordinary talent and energy who rose to become one of the leading figures in the Austrian iron and steel industry. Although his family was originally Jewish, Karl Wittgenstein had been brought up as a Protestant, and his wife, Leopoldine, also from a partly Jewish family, had been raised as a Catholic. Karl and Leopoldine had eight children, of whom Ludwig was the youngest. The family possessed both money and talent in abundance, and their home became a centre of Viennese cultural life during one of its most dynamic phases. Many of the great writers, artists, and intellectuals of fin de siècle Vienna—including Karl Kraus, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Sigmund Freud—were regular visitors to the Wittgensteins’ home, and the family’s musical evenings were attended by Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Bruno Walter, among others. Leopoldine Wittgenstein played the piano to a remarkably high standard, as did many of her children. One of them, Paul, became a famous concert pianist, and another, Hans, was regarded as a musical prodigy comparable to Mozart. But the family also was beset with tragedy. Three of Ludwig’s brothers—Hans, Rudolf, and Kurt—committed suicide, the first two after rebelling against their father’s wish that they pursue careers in industry.

As might be expected, Wittgenstein’s outlook on life was profoundly influenced by the Viennese culture in which he was raised, an aspect of his personality and thought that was long strangely neglected by commentators. One of the earliest and deepest influences upon his thinking, for example, was the book Sex and Character (1903), a bizarre mixture of psychological insight and pathological prejudice written by the Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger, whose suicide at the age of 23 in 1903 made him a cult figure throughout the German-speaking world. There is much disagreement about how, exactly, Weininger influenced Wittgenstein. Some allege that Wittgenstein shared Weininger’s self-directed disgust at Jews and homosexuals; others believe that what impressed Wittgenstein most about Weininger’s book is its austere but passionate insistence that the only thing worth living for was the aspiration to accomplish work of genius. In any case, it remains true that Wittgenstein’s life was characterized by a single-minded determination to live up to this latter ideal, in pursuit of which he was prepared to sacrifice almost everything else.

Although he shared his family’s veneration for music, Wittgenstein’s deepest interest as a boy was in engineering. In 1908 he went to Manchester, England, to study the then-nascent subject of aeronautics. While engaged on a project to design a jet propeller, Wittgenstein became increasingly absorbed in purely mathematical problems. After reading The Principles of Mathematics (1903) by Bertrand Russell and The Foundations of Arithmetic (1884) by Gottlob Frege, he developed an obsessive interest in the philosophy of logic and mathematics. In 1911 Wittgenstein went to Trinity College, University of Cambridge, in order to make Russell’s acquaintance. From the moment he met Russell, Wittgenstein’s aeronautical studies were forgotten in favour of a ferociously intense preoccupation with questions of logic. He had, it seemed, found the subject best suited to his particular form of genius.

Wittgenstein worked with such intensity on logic that within a year Russell declared that he had nothing left to teach him. Wittgenstein evidently thought so too and left Cambridge to work on his own in remote isolation in a wooden hut that he built by the side of a fjord in Norway. There he developed, in embryo, what became known as the picture theory of meaning, a central tenet of which is that a proposition can express a fact by virtue of sharing with it a common structure or “logical form.” This logical form, however, precisely because it is what makes “picturing” possible, cannot itself be pictured. It follows both that logic is inexpressible and that there are—pace Frege and Russell—no logical facts or logical truths. Logical form has to be shown rather than stated, and, though some languages and methods of symbolism might reveal their structure more perspicuously than others, there is no symbolism capable of representing its own structure. Wittgenstein’s perfectionism prevented him from putting any of these ideas in a definitive written form, though he did dictate two series of notes, one to Russell and another to G.E. Moore, from which one can gather the broad lines of his thinking.

In the summer of 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Wittgenstein was staying with his family in Vienna. Unable to return to Norway to continue his work on logic, he enlisted in the Austrian army. He hoped that the experience of facing death would enable him to concentrate his mind exclusively on those things that mattered most—intellectual clarity and moral decency—and that he would thereby achieve the degree of ethical seriousness to which he aspired. As he had told Russell many times during their discussions at Cambridge, he regarded his thinking about logic and his striving to be a better person as two aspects of a single duty—the duty, so to speak, of genius. (“Logic and ethics are fundamentally the same,” Weininger had written, “they are no more than duty to oneself.”)

While serving on the Eastern front, Wittgenstein did, in fact, experience a religious conversion, inspired in part by Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief (1883), which he bought at the beginning of the war and subsequently carried with him at all times, reading and rereading it until he knew it practically by heart. Wittgenstein spent the first two years of the war behind the lines, relatively safe from harm and able to continue his work on logic. In 1916, however, at his own request, he was sent to a fighting unit at the Russian front. His surviving manuscripts show that during this time his philosophical work underwent a profound change. Whereas previously he had separated his thoughts on logic from his thoughts on ethics, aesthetics, and religion by writing the latter remarks in code, at this point he began to integrate the two sets of remarks, applying to all of them the distinction he had earlier made between that which can be said and that which must be shown. Ethics, aesthetics, and religion, in other words, were like logic: their “truths” were inexpressible; insight in these areas could be shown but not stated. “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words,” Wittgenstein wrote. “They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” Of course, this meant that Wittgenstein’s central philosophical message, the insight that he was most concerned to convey in his work, was itself inexpressible. His hope was that precisely in not saying it, nor even in trying to say it, he could somehow make it manifest. “If only you do not try to utter what is unutterable,” he wrote to his friend Paul Engelmann, “then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be—unutterably—contained in what has been uttered.”

Near the end of the war, while he was on leave in Salzburg, Austria, Wittgenstein finally finished the book that was later published as Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In the preface he announced that he considered himself to have found “on all essential points” the solution to the problems of philosophy. “The truth of the thoughts that are here communicated,” he wrote, “seems to me unassailable and definitive,” and, “if I am not mistaken in this belief, then the second thing in which the value of this work consists is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.” For the most part, the book consists of an austerely compressed exposition of the picture theory of meaning. It ends, however, with some remarks about ethics, aesthetics, and the meaning of life, stressing that, if its view about how propositions can be meaningful is correct, then, just as there are no meaningful propositions about logical form, so there can be no meaningful propositions concerning these subjects either. This point, of course, applies to Wittgenstein’s own remarks in the book itself, so Wittgenstein is forced to conclude that whoever understands his remarks “finally recognizes them as senseless”; they offer, so to speak, a ladder that one must throw away after using it to climb.

Consistent with his view that he had solved all the essential problems of philosophy, Wittgenstein abandoned the subject after World War I and instead trained to be an elementary school teacher. Meanwhile, the Tractatus was published and attracted the attention of two influential groups of philosophers, one based in Cambridge and including R.B. Braithwaite and Frank Ramsey and the other based in Vienna and including Moritz Schlick, Friedrich Waismann, and other logical positivists later collectively known as the Vienna Circle. Both groups tried to make contact with Wittgenstein. Frank Ramsey made two trips to Puchberg—the small Austrian village in which Wittgenstein was teaching—to discuss the Tractatus with him, and Schlick invited him to join the discussions of the Vienna Circle. Stimulated by these contacts, Wittgenstein’s interest in philosophy revived, and, after his brief and unsuccessful career as a schoolteacher came to an end, he returned to the discipline, persuaded, largely by Ramsey, that the views he had expressed in his book were not, after all, definitively correct.

In 1929 Wittgenstein returned to Trinity College, initially to work with Ramsey. The following year Ramsey died at the tragically young age of 26, after a spell of severe jaundice. Wittgenstein stayed on at Cambridge as a lecturer, spending his vacations in Vienna, where he resumed his discussions with Schlick and Waismann. During this time his ideas changed rapidly as he abandoned altogether the notion of logical form as it appeared in the Tractatus, along with the theory of meaning that it had seemed to require. Indeed, he adopted a view of philosophy that rejected entirely the construction of theories of any sort and that viewed philosophy rather as an activity, a method of clearing up the confusions that arise through misunderstandings of language.

Philosophers, Wittgenstein believed, had been misled into thinking that their subject was a kind of science, a search for theoretical explanations of the things that puzzled them: the nature of meaning, truth, mind, time, justice, and so on. But philosophical problems are not amenable to this kind of treatment, he claimed. What is required is not a correct doctrine but a clear view, one that dispels the confusion that gives rise to the problem. Many of these problems arise through an inflexible view of language that insists that if a word has a meaning there must be some kind of object corresponding to it. Thus, for example, we use the word mind without any difficulty until we ask ourselves “What is the mind?” We then imagine that this question has to be answered by identifying some “thing” that is the mind. If we remind ourselves that language has many uses and that words can be used quite meaningfully without corresponding to things, the problem disappears. Another closely related source of philosophical confusion, according to Wittgenstein, is the tendency to mistake grammatical rules, or rules about what it does and does not make sense to say, for material propositions, or propositions about matters of fact or existence. For example, the expression “2 + 2 = 4” is not a proposition describing mathematical reality but a rule of grammar, something that determines what makes sense when using arithmetical terms. Thus “2 + 2 = 5” is not false, it is nonsense, and the philosopher’s task is to uncover the multitude of more subtle pieces of nonsense that typically constitute a philosophical “theory.”

Wittgenstein thought that he himself had succumbed to an overly narrow view of language in the Tractatus, concentrating on the question of how propositions acquired their meaning and ignoring all other aspects of meaningful language use. A proposition is something that is either true or false, but we do not use language only to say things that are true or false, and thus a theory of propositions is not—pace the Tractatus—a general theory of meaning nor even the basis of one. But this does not imply that the theory of meaning in the Tractatus ought to be replaced by another theory. The idea that language has many different uses is not a theory but a triviality: “What we find in philosophy is trivial; it does not teach us new facts, only science does that. But the proper synopsis of these trivialities is enormously difficult, and has immense importance. Philosophy is in fact the synopsis of trivialities.”

Wittgenstein regarded his later book Philosophical Investigations as just such a synopsis, and indeed he found its proper arrangement enormously difficult. For the last 20 years of his life, he tried again and again to produce a version of the book that satisfied him, but he never felt he had succeeded, and he would not allow the book to be published in his lifetime. What became known as the works of the later Wittgenstein—Philosophische Bemerkungen (1964; Philosophical Remarks), Philosophische Grammatik (1969; Philosophical Grammar), Bermerkungen über die Grundlagen der Mathematik (1956; Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics), Über Gewissheit (1969; On Certainty), and even Philosophical Investigations itself—are the discarded attempts at a definitive expression of his new approach to philosophy.

The themes addressed by Wittgenstein in these posthumously published manuscripts and typescripts are so various as to defy summary. The two focal points are the traditional problems in the philosophy of mathematics (e.g., “What is mathematical truth?” and “What are numbers?”) and the problems that arise from thinking about the mind (e.g., “What is consciousness?” and “What is a soul?”). Wittgenstein’s method is not to engage directly in polemics against specific philosophical theories but rather to trace their source in confusions about language. Accordingly, Philosophical Investigations begins not with an extract from a work of theoretical philosophy but with a passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions (c. 400), in which Augustine explains how he learned to speak. Augustine describes how his elders pointed to objects in order to teach him their names. This description perfectly illustrates the kind of inflexible view of language that Wittgenstein found to underlie most philosophical confusions. In this description, he says, there lies “a particular picture of the essence of human language,” and “in this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.”

To combat this picture, Wittgenstein developed a method of describing and imagining what he called “language games.” Language games, for Wittgenstein, are concrete social activities that crucially involve the use of specific forms of language. By describing the countless variety of language games—the countless ways in which language is actually used in human interaction—Wittgenstein meant to show that “the speaking of a language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” The meaning of a word, then, is not the object to which it corresponds but rather the use that is made of it in “the stream of life.”

Related to this point is Wittgenstein’s insistence that, with regard to language, the public is logically prior to the private. The Western philosophical tradition, going back at least to Descartes’s famous dictum “Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”), has tended to regard the contents of one’s own mind as being foundational, the rock upon which all other knowledge is built. In a section of Philosophical Investigations that has become known as the private language argument, Wittgenstein sought to reverse this priority by reminding us that we can talk about the contents of our own minds only once we have learned a language and that we can learn a language only by taking part in the practices of a community. The starting point for philosophical reflection, therefore, is not our own consciousness but our participation in communal activities: “An ‘inner process’ stands in need of outward criteria.”

This last remark, along with Wittgenstein’s robust rejection of Cartesianism generally, has sometimes led to his being interpreted as a behaviourist, but this is a mistake. He does not deny that there are inner processes, nor does he equate those processes with the behaviour that expresses them. Cartesianism and behaviourism are, for Wittgenstein, parallel confusions—the one insisting that there is such a thing as the mind, the other insisting that there is not, but both resting on the Augustinian picture of language by demanding that the word mind has to be understood as referring to some “thing.” Both theories succumb to the temptation to misunderstand the grammar of psychological descriptions.

Related to Wittgenstein’s rejection of theorizing in philosophy are two more general attitudes that have to be taken into account if one is to understand the spirit in which he wrote. The first of these attitudes is a detestation of scientism, the view that we must look to science for a “theory of everything.” Wittgenstein regarded this view as characteristic of 20th-century civilization and saw himself and his work as swimming against this tide. The kind of understanding the philosopher seeks, Wittgenstein believed, has more in common with the kind of understanding one gets from poetry, music, or art—i.e., the kind that is chronically undervalued in our scientific age. The second of these general attitudes—which again Wittgenstein thought isolated him from the mainstream of the 20th century—was a fierce dislike of professional philosophy. No honest philosopher, he considered, could treat philosophy as a profession, and thus academic life, far from promoting serious philosophy, actually made it almost impossible. He advised all his best students against becoming academics. Becoming a doctor, a gardener, a shop assistant—almost anything—was preferable, he thought, to staying in academic life.

Wittgenstein himself several times considered leaving his academic job in favour of training to become a psychiatrist. In 1935 he even thought seriously of moving to the Soviet Union to work on a farm. When he was offered the prestigious chair of philosophy at Cambridge in 1939, he accepted, but with severe misgivings. During World War II he worked as a porter in Guy’s Hospital in London and then as an assistant in a medical research team. In 1947 he finally resigned his academic position and moved to Ireland to work on his own, as he had done in Norway before World War I. In 1949 he discovered that he had cancer of the prostate, and in 1951 he moved into his doctor’s house in Cambridge, knowing that he had only a few months to live. He died on April 29, 1951. His last words were: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Ray Monk



Contemporary philosophy » Analytic philosophy » The formalist tradition » Logical positivism

Logical positivism was developed in the early 1920s by a group of Austrian intellectuals, mostly scientists and mathematicians, who named their association the Wiener Kreis (Vienna Circle). The logical positivists accepted the logical atomist conception of philosophy as properly scientific and grounded in mathematical logic. By “scientific,” however, they had in mind the classical empiricism handed down from Locke and Hume, in particular the view that all factual knowledge is based on experience. Unlike logical atomists, the logical positivists held that only logic, mathematics, and the special sciences can make statements that are meaningful, or cognitively significant. They thus regarded metaphysical, religious, ethical, literary, and aesthetic pronouncements as literally nonsense. Significantly, because logical atomism was a metaphysics purporting to convey true information about the structure of reality, it too was disavowed. The positivists also held that there is a fundamental distinction to be made between “analytic” statements (such as “All husbands are married”), which can be known to be true independently of any experience, and “synthetic” statements (such as “It is raining now”), which are knowable only through observation.

The main proponents of logical positivism—Rudolf Carnap, Herbert Feigl, Philipp Frank, and Gustav Bergmann—all immigrated to the United States from Germany and Austria to escape Nazism. Their influence on American philosophy was profound, and, with various modifications, logical positivism was still a vital force on the American scene at the beginning of the 21st century.


Rudolf Carnap
German-American philosopher

born May 18, 1891, Ronsdorf, Ger.
died Sept. 14, 1970, Santa Monica, Calif., U.S.

German-born U.S. philosopher of Logical Positivism. He made important contributions to logic, the analysis of language, the theory of probability, and the philosophy of science.

From 1910 to 1914 Carnap studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy at the universities of Jena and Freiburg im Breisgau. At Jena he attended the lectures of Gottlob Frege, now widely acknowledged as the greatest logician of the 19th century, whose ideas exerted a deep influence on Carnap.

After serving in World War I, Carnap earned his doctorate in 1921 at Jena with a dissertation on the concept of space. He argued that the conflicts among the various theories of space then held by scholars resulted from the fact that those theories actually dealt with quite different subjects; he called them, respectively, formal space, physical space, and intuitive space and exhibited their principal characteristics and fundamental differences.

For several years afterward Carnap was engaged in private research in logic and the foundations of physics and wrote a number of essays on problems of space, time, and causality, as well as a textbook in symbolic, or mathematical, logic (Abriss der Logistik, 1929; a considerably different later German version appeared in English translation: Introduction to Symbolic Logic and Its Applications, 1958).

Career in Vienna and Prague.
In 1926 Moritz Schlick, the founder of the Vienna Circle—a small group of philosophers, mathematicians, and other scholars who met regularly to discuss philosophical issues—invited Carnap to join the faculty of the University of Vienna, where he soon became an influential member of the Circle. Out of their discussions developed the initial ideas of Logical Positivism, or Logical Empiricism. This school of thought shared its basic Empiricist orientation with David Hume, a Scottish Empiricist, and Ernst Mach, an Austrian physicist and philosopher. Its leading members, informed and inspired by the methods and theories of contemporary mathematics and science, sought to develop a “scientific world view” by bringing to philosophical inquiry the precision and rigour of the exact sciences. As one means to this end, Carnap made extensive use of the concepts and techniques of symbolic logic in preference to the often inadequate analytic devices of traditional logic.

Carnap and his associates established close connections with like-minded scholars in other countries, among them a group of Empiricists that had formed in Berlin under the leadership of Hans Reichenbach, an eminent philosopher of science. With Reichenbach, Carnap founded a periodical, Erkenntnis (1930–40), as a forum for the new “scientific philosophy.”

The basic thesis of Empiricism, in a familiar but quite vague formulation, is that all of man’s concepts and beliefs concerning the world ultimately derive from his immediate experience. In some of his most important writings, Carnap sought, in effect, to give this idea a clear and precise interpretation. Setting aside, as a psychological rather than a philosophical problem, the question of how human beings arrive at their ideas about the world, he proceeded to construe Empiricism as a systematic-logical thesis about the evidential grounding of empirical knowledge. To this end, he gave the issue a characteristically linguistic turn by asking how the terms and sentences that, in scientific or in everyday language, serve to express assertions about the world are related to those terms and sentences by which the data of immediate experience can be described. The Empiricist thesis, as construed and defended by Carnap, then asserts that the terms and sentences of the first kind are “reducible” to those of the second kind in a clearly specifiable sense. Carnap’s conception of the relevant sense of reducibility, which he always stated in precise logical terms, was initially rather narrow but gradually became more liberal.

In his first great work, Der logische Aufbau der Welt (1928; Eng. trans.—with a smaller work—The Logical Structure of the World: Pseudoproblems in Philosophy), Carnap developed, with unprecedented rigour, a version of the Empiricist reducibility thesis according to which all terms suited to describe actual or possible empirical facts are fully definable by terms referring exclusively to aspects of immediate experience, so that all empirical statements are fully translatable into statements about immediate experiences.

Prompted by discussions with his associates in Vienna, Carnap soon began to develop a more liberal version of Empiricism, which he elaborated while he was professor of natural philosophy at the German University in Prague (1931–35); he eventually presented it in full detail in his essay “Testability and Meaning” (Philosophy of Science, vol. 3 [1936] and 4 [1937]). Carnap argued that the terms of empirical science are not fully definable in purely experiential terms but can at least be partly defined by means of “reduction sentences,” which are logically much-refined versions of operational definitions, and “observation sentences,” whose truth can be checked by direct observation. Carnap stressed that usually such tests cannot provide strict proof or disproof but only more or less strong “confirmation” for an empirical statement.

Sentences that do not thus yield observational implications and therefore cannot possibly be tested and confirmed by observational findings were said to be empirically meaningless. By reference to this testability criterion of empirical significance, Carnap and other Logical Empiricists rejected various doctrines of speculative metaphysics and of theology, not as being false but as making no significant assertions at all.

Carnap argued that the observational statements by reference to which empirical statements can be tested may be construed as sentences describing directly and publicly observable aspects of physical objects, such as the needle of a measuring instrument turning to a particular point on the scale or a subject in a psychological test showing a change in pulse rate. All such sentences, he noted, can be formulated in terms that are part of the vocabulary of physics. This was the basic idea of his “physicalism,” according to which all terms and statements of empirical science—from the physical to the social and historical disciplines—can be reduced to terms and statements in the language of physics.

In later writings, Carnap liberalized his conception of reducibility and of empirical significance even further so as to give a more adequate account of the relation between scientific theories and scientific evidence.

Career in the United States.
By the time “Testability and Meaning” appeared in print, Carnap had moved to the United States, mainly because of the growing threat of German National Socialism. From 1936 to 1952 he served on the faculty of the University of Chicago. During the 1940–41 school year, Carnap was a visiting professor at Harvard University and was an active participant in a discussion group that included Bertrand Russell, Alfred Tarski, and W.V.O. Quine.

Soon after going to Chicago, Carnap joined with the sociologist Otto Neurath, a former fellow member of the Vienna Circle, and with an academic colleague, the Pragmatist philosopher Charles W. Morris, in founding the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, which was published, beginning in 1938, as a series of monographs on general problems in the philosophy of science and on philosophical issues concerning mathematics or particular branches of empirical science.

Since his Vienna years, Carnap had been much concerned also with problems in logic and in the philosophy of language. He held that philosophical perplexities often arise from a misunderstanding or misuse of language and that the way to resolve them is by “logical analysis of language.” On this point, he agreed with the “ordinary language” school of Analytic Philosophy, which had its origins in England. He differed from it, however, in insisting that more technical issues—e.g., those in the philosophy of science or of mathematics—cannot be adequately dealt with by considerations of ordinary linguistic usage but require clarification by reference to artificially constructed languages that are formulated in logical symbolism and that have their structure and interpretation precisely specified by so-called syntactic and semantic rules. Carnap developed these ideas and the theoretical apparatus for their implementation in a series of works, including Logische Syntax der Sprache (1934; The Logical Syntax of Language) and Meaning and Necessity (1947; 2nd enlarged ed., 1956).

Carnap’s interest in artificial languages included advocacy of international auxiliary languages such as Esperanto and Interlingua to facilitate scholarly communication and to further international understanding.

One idea in logic and the theory of knowledge that occupied much of Carnap’s attention was that of analyticity. In contrast to the 19th-century radical Empiricism of John Stuart Mill, Carnap and other Logical Empiricists held that the statements of logic and mathematics, unlike those of empirical science, are analytic—i.e., true solely by virtue of the meanings of their constituent terms—and that they can therefore be established a priori (without any empirical test). Carnap repeatedly returned to the task of formulating a precise characterization and theory of analyticity. His ideas were met with skepticism by some, however—among them Quine, who argued that the notion of analytic truth is inherently obscure and the attempt to delimit a class of statements that are true a priori should be abandoned as misguided.

From about 1945 onward, Carnap turned his efforts increasingly to problems of inductive reasoning and of rational belief and decision. His principal aim was to construct a formal system of inductive logic; its central concept, corresponding to that of deductive implication, would be that of probabilistic implication—or, more precisely, a concept representing the degree of rational credibility or of probability that a given body of evidence may be said to confer upon a proposed hypothesis. Carnap presented a rigorous theory of this kind in his Logical Foundations of Probability (1950).

Carnap spent the years from 1952 to 1954 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he continued his work in probability theory. Subsequently, he accepted a professorship at the University of California at Los Angeles. During those years and indeed until his death, Carnap was occupied principally with modifications and considerable extensions of his inductive logic.

Carl G. Hempel



Contemporary philosophy » Analytic philosophy » The formalist tradition » Naturalized epistemology

The philosophical psychology and philosophy of mind developed since the 1950s by the American philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine (1908–2000), known generally as naturalized epistemology, was influenced both by Russell’s work in logic and by logical positivism. Quine’s philosophy forms a comprehensive system that is scientistic, empiricist, and behaviourist (see behaviourism). Indeed, for Quine, the basic task of an empiricist philosophy is simply to describe how our scientific theories about the world—as well as our prescientific, or intuitive, picture of it—are derived from experience. As he wrote:

The stimulation of his sensory receptors is all the evidence anybody has had to go on, ultimately, in arriving at his picture of the world. Why not just see how this construction really proceeds? Why not settle for psychology?

Although Quine shared the logical postivists’ scientism and empiricism, he crucially differed from them in rejecting the traditional analytic-synthetic distinction. For Quine, this distinction is ill-founded because it is not required by any adequate psychological account of how scientific (or prescientific) theories are formulated. Quine’s views had an enormous impact on analytic philosophy, and until his death at the end of the century he was generally regarded as the dominant figure in the movement.

Willard Van Orman Quine
American philosopher

born June 25, 1908, Akron, Ohio, U.S.
died December 25, 2000, Boston, Massachusetts

American logician and philosopher, widely considered one of the dominant figures in Anglo-American philosophy in the last half of the 20th century.

After studying mathematics and logic at Oberlin College (1926–30), Quine won a scholarship to Harvard University, where he completed his Ph.D. in 1932. On a traveling fellowship to Europe in 1932–33, he met some of the leading philosophers and logicians of the day, including Rudolf Carnap and Alfred Tarski. After three years as a junior fellow at Harvard, Quine joined the faculty in 1936. From 1942 to 1945 he served as a naval intelligence officer in Washington, D.C. Promoted to full professor at Harvard in 1948, he remained there until 1978, when he retired.

Quine produced highly original and important work in several areas of philosophy, including logic, ontology, epistemology, and the philosophy of language. By the 1950s he had developed a comprehensive and systematic philosophical outlook that was naturalistic, empiricist, and behaviourist. Conceiving of philosophy as an extension of science, he rejected epistemological foundationalism, the attempt to ground knowledge of the external world in allegedly transcendent and self-validating mental experience. The proper task of a “naturalized epistemology,” as he saw it, was simply to give a psychological account of how scientific knowledge is actually obtained.

Although much influenced by the Logical Positivism of Carnap and other members of the Vienna Circle, Quine famously rejected one of that group’s cardinal doctrines, the analytic-synthetic distinction. According to this doctrine, there is a fundamental difference between statements such as “All bachelors are unmarried,” which are true or false solely by virtue of the meanings of the terms they contain, and statements such as “All swans are white,” which are true or false by virtue of nonlinguistic facts about the world. Quine argued that no coherent definition of analyticity had ever been proposed. One consequence of his view was that the truths of mathematics and logic, which the positivists had regarded as analytic, and the empirical truths of science differed only in “degree” and not kind. In keeping with his empiricism, Quine held that both the former and the latter were known through experience and were thus in principle revisable in the face of countervailing evidence.

In ontology, Quine recognized only those entities that it was necessary to postulate in order to assume that our best scientific theories are true—specifically, concrete physical objects and abstract sets, which were required by the mathematics used in many scientific disciplines. He rejected notions such as properties, propositions, and meanings as ill-defined or scientifically useless.

In the philosophy of language, Quine was known for his behaviourist account of language learning and for his thesis of the “indeterminacy of translation.” This is the view that there are always indefinitely many possible translations of one language into another, each of which is equally compatible with the totality of empirical evidence available to linguistic investigators. There is thus no “fact of the matter” about which translation of a language is correct. The indeterminacy of translation is an instance of a more general view, which Quine called “ontological relativity,” that claims that for any given scientific theory there are always indefinitely many alternatives entailing different ontological assumptions but accounting for all available evidence equally well. Thus, it does not make sense to say that one theory rather than another gives a true description of the world.

Among Quine’s many books are Word and Object (1960), The Roots of Reference (1974), and his autobiography, The Time of My Life (1985).



Contemporary philosophy » Analytic philosophy » The formalist tradition » Identity theory, functionalism, and eliminative materialism

Logical positivism and naturalized epistemology were forms of materialism. Beginning about 1970, these approaches were applied to the human mind, giving rise to three general viewpoints: identity theory, functionalism, and eliminative materialism. Identity theory is the view that mental states are identical to physical states of the brain. According to functionalism, a particular mental state is any type of (physical) state that plays a certain causal role with respect to other mental and physical states. For example, pain can be functionally defined as any state that is an effect of events such as cuts and burns and that is a cause of mental states such as fear and behaviour such as saying “Ouch!” Eliminative materialism is the view that the familiar categories of “folk psychology”—such as belief, intention, and desire—do not refer to anything real. In other words, there are no such things as beliefs, intentions, or desires; instead, there is simply neural activity in the brain. According to the eliminative materialist, a modern scientific account of the mind no more requires the categories of folk psychology than modern chemistry requires the discarded notion of phlogiston. A complete account of human mental experience can be achieved simply by describing how the brain operates.

Contemporary philosophy » Analytic philosophy » The informalist tradition

Generally speaking, philosophers in the informalist tradition viewed philosophy as an autonomous activity that should acknowledge the importance of logic and science but not treat either or both as models for dealing with conceptual problems. The 20th century witnessed the development of three such approaches, each of which had sustained influence: common sense philosophy, ordinary language philosophy, and speech act theory.


Contemporary philosophy » Analytic philosophy » The informalist tradition » Common sense philosophy

Originating as a reaction against the forms of idealism and skepticism that were prevalent in England at about the turn of the 20th century, the first major work of common sense philosophy was Moore’s paper A Defense of Common Sense (1925). Against skepticism, Moore argued that he and other human beings have known many propositions about the world to be true with certainty. Among these propositions are: “The Earth has existed for many years” and “Many human beings have existed in the past and some still exist.” Because skepticism maintains that nobody knows any proposition to be true, it can be dismissed. Furthermore, because these propositions entail the existence of material objects, idealism, according to which the world is wholly mental, can also be rejected. Moore called this outlook “the common sense view of the world,” and he insisted that any philosophical system whose propositions contravene it can be rejected out of hand without further analysis.


Contemporary philosophy » Analytic philosophy » The informalist tradition » Ordinary language philosophy

The two major proponents of ordinary language philosophy were the English philosophers Gilbert Ryle (1900–76) and J.L. Austin (1911–60). Both held, though for different reasons, that philosophical problems frequently arise through a misuse or misunderstanding of ordinary speech. In The Concept of Mind (1949), Ryle argued that the traditional conception of the human mind—that it is an invisible, ghostlike entity occupying a physical body—is based on what he called a “category mistake.” The mistake is to interpret the term mind as though it were analogous to the term body and thus to assume that both terms denote entities, one visible (body) and the other invisible (mind). His diagnosis of this error involved an elaborate description of how mental epithets actually work in ordinary speech. To speak of intelligence, for example, is to describe how human beings respond to certain kinds of problematic situations. Despite the behaviourist flavour of his analyses, Ryle insisted that he was not a behaviourist and that he was instead “charting the logical geography” of the mental concepts used in everyday life.

Austin’s emphasis was somewhat different. In a celebrated paper, A Plea for Excuses (1956), he explained that the appeal to ordinary language in philosophy should be regarded as the first word but not the last word. That is, one should be sensitive to the nuances of everyday speech in approaching conceptual problems, but in certain circumstances everyday speech can, and should, be augmented by technical concepts. According to the “first-word” principle, because certain distinctions have been drawn in ordinary language for eons—e.g., males from females, friends from enemies, and so forth—one can conclude not only that the drawing of such distinctions is essential to everyday life but also that such distinctions are more than merely verbal. They pick out, or discriminate, actual features of the world. Starting from this principle, Austin dealt with major philosophical difficulties, such as the problem of other minds, the nature of truth, and the nature of responsibility.

Contemporary philosophy » Analytic philosophy » The informalist tradition » Speech act theory

Austin was also the creator of one of the most original philosophical theories of the 20th century: speech act theory. A speech act is an utterance that is grammatically similar to a statement but is neither true nor false, though it is perfectly meaningful. For example, the utterance “I do,” performed in the normal circumstances of marrying, is neither true nor false. It is not a statement but an action—a speech act—the primary effect of which is to complete the marriage ceremony. Similar considerations apply to utterances such as “I christen thee the Joseph Stalin,” performed in the normal circumstances of christening a ship. Austin called such utterances “performatives” in order to indicate that, in making them, one is not only saying something but also doing something.

The theory of speech acts was, in effect, a profound criticism of the positivist thesis that every meaningful sentence is either true or false. The positivist view, according to Austin, embodies a “descriptive fallacy,” in the sense that it treats the descriptive function of language as primary and more or less ignores other functions. Austin’s account of speech acts was thus a corrective to that tendency.

After Austin’s death in 1960, speech act theory was deepened and refined by his American student John R. Searle. In The Construction of Social Reality (1995), Searle argued that many social and political institutions are created through speech acts. Money, for example, is created through a declaration by a government to the effect that pieces of paper or metal of a certain manufacture and design are to count as money. Many institutions, such as banks, universities, and police departments, are social entities created through similar speech acts. Searle’s development of speech act theory was thus an unexpected extension of the philosophy of language into social and political theory.


Gilbert Ryle
British philosopher

born Aug. 19, 1900, Brighton, Sussex, Eng.
died Oct. 6, 1976, Whitby, North Yorkshire

British philosopher, leading figure in the “Oxford philosophy,” or “ordinary language,” movement.

Ryle gained first-class honours at Queen’s College, Oxford, and became a lecturer at Christ Church College in 1924. Throughout his career, which remained centred at Oxford, he attempted—as Waynflete professor of metaphysical philosophy (1945–68), in his writings, and as editor (1948–71) of the journal Mind—to dissipate confusion arising from the misapplication of language.

Ryle’s first book, The Concept of Mind (1949), is considered a modern classic. In it he challenges the traditional distinction between body and mind as delineated by René Descartes. Traditional Cartesian dualism, Ryle says, perpetrates a serious confusion when, looking beyond the human body (which exists in space and is subject to mechanical laws), it views the mind as an additional mysterious thing not subject to observation or to mechanical laws, rather than as the form or organizing principle of the body. What Ryle deems to be logically incoherent dogma of Cartesianism he labels as the doctrine of the ghost-in-the-machine.

In Dilemmas (1954) Ryle analyzes propositions that appear irreconcilable, as when free will is set in opposition to the fatalistic view that future specific events are inevitable. He believed that the dilemmas posed by these seemingly contradictory propositions could be resolved only by viewing them as the result of conceptual confusion between the language of logic and the language of events.

Among his other well-known books are Philosophical Arguments (1945), A Rational Animal (1962), Plato’s Progress (1966), and The Thinking of Thoughts (1968).




John Langshaw Austin
British philosopher

born March 28, 1911, Lancaster, Lancashire, Eng.
died Feb. 8, 1960, Oxford

British philosopher best known for his individualistic analysis of human thought derived from detailed study of everyday language.

After receiving early education at Shrewsbury School and Balliol College, Oxford, he became a fellow at All Souls College (1933) and Magdalen College (1935), where he studied traditional Greco-Roman classics, which later influenced his thinking. After service in the British intelligence corps during World War II, he returned to Oxford and eventually became White’s professor of moral philosophy (1952–60) and an influential instructor of the ordinary-language movement.

Austin believed that linguistic analysis could provide many solutions to philosophical riddles, but he disapproved of the language of formal logic, believing it contrived and inadequate and often not as complex and subtle as ordinary language.

Although linguistic examination was generally considered only part of contemporary philosophy, the analytical movement that Austin espoused did emphasize the importance of language in philosophy. Austin’s theoretical essays and lectures were published posthumously in Philosophical Papers (1961), Sense and Sensibilia (1962), and How to Do Things with Words (1962).



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