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Analytic philosophy is based on the idea that philosophical problems can be solved through an analysis of their terms, and pure, systematic logic. Many traditional philosophical problems are dismissed because their terms are too vague, while those that remain are subjected to a rigorous logical analysis.
For example, a traditional philosophical problem is “Does God exist?” Various philosophical schools have proposed answers to this question, but analytic philosophy approaches it by saying, “What do you mean by God?” Different religions have wildly different ideas about what the word “God” means, so before you can approach the question of God’s existence you have to define your terms more clearly.
Analytic philosophy is more interested in conceptual questions—questions about the meanings of words and statements and their logical relations–than it is in spiritual or practical issues such as morality or the meaning of life. Because of this focus, it has a reputation for being dry and technical. Analytic philosophers rely heavily on the vocabulary, assumptions, and equations of symbolic logic in their arguments.
The advantage of reading analytic philosophy is that once you understand a particular author’s terms, and the vocabulary of logical analysis, their arguments should be clear and precise. You may or may not agree with what they say or find it interesting, but if you can understand their language, you should know exactly what they are saying, which is an advantage over some other philosophical schools. Unless of course, you believe that clear and precise language does not represent reality well.
Analytic philosophy covers all major branches of philosophy – from social and political philosophy to metaphysics and logic. It’s defined more by its method than by any particular set of questions, arguments, or viewpoints. And its method informs most professional philosophical argumentation today to some degree, especially in America and England.
II. Analytic vs. Continental Philosophy
Most professional philosophers contrast analytic philosophy with continental philosophy, and consider both as the most dominant in Western philosophy. Although of course, there are many alternative styles of philosophy with slightly less recognition. Analytic and continental philosophy are not defined on equal terms though; analytic philosophy is defined in terms of its beliefs and methodologies (founded on the western system of logic with its roots in ancient Greece), whereas continental philosophy refers to a wide variety of philosophies associated with continental Europe, especially France and Germany.
However, continental philosophies tend to roughly have certain values in common which distinguish them from analytic philosophy—they worry less about mathematical logic, and are more shaped by “the humanities,” such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, linguistics, history, political science, and literary analysis. Continental philosophy frequently deals with questions like the meaning of life – questions that are inherently interesting but also inherently vague. Analytic philosophy, avoids such questions, viewing them as unsolvable and badly-framed due to their lack of clear definitions.
In addition, analytic philosophy is usually not concerned with political issues (with the obvious exception of analytic political philosophy!). Nearly every branch of continental philosophy, however, has strong political leanings, usually to the left. Continental philosophers tend to be interested in social issues, such as feminism, Marxism, and queer theory, and try to challenge structures of political oppression against women, racial minorities, the poor, etc. Continental philosophers argue that these concerns are relevant to all branches of philosophy, whereas analytic philosophers argue that they are not relevant to fields like logic or philosophy of mind.
III. Quotes About Analytic Philosophy
“The true function of logic [is to show] the possibility of hitherto unsuspected alternatives more often than the impossibility of alternatives which seemed prima facie possible. Thus, while it liberates imagination as to what the world may be, it refuses to legislate as to what the world is.” (Bertrand Russell)
In this quote, analytic philosopher Bertrand Russell responds to one of the main criticisms of analytic philosophy – that it’s closed-minded and not open to the possibilities explored by continental philosophy. But the truth, Russell says, is the opposite; analytic logic allows us to see new possibilities for how the world may be, but never firmly shows that one of them is true. Thus, according to Bertrand Russell, logical analysis makes us more open-minded than the unstructured arguments offered by continental philosophy.
“I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.” (Alan Turing)
Alan Turing, the inventor of the computer, never described himself as a philosopher; he was a mathematician first. And his work heavily influenced the development of analytic logic. Turing’s theoretical a-machine was the basis for all the programming languages we use today, and its structure was informed by arguments in formal logic at the time. Today, computer scientists still learn to think in clear, precise, line-by-line logic in order to communicate with their machines – the sort of thinking analytic philosophers developed. So Turing was right: in our century, it’s common to talk about machines thinking or “processing” information, and that’s true for two reasons. First, our machines are better at thinking than they used to be, and second, a lot of our thinking today imitates the machines!
IV. The History and Importance of Analytic Philosophy
Analytic philosophy was founded by a group of British philosophers who agreed primarily on one thing: they couldn’t stand Hegel. A highly influential German philosopher of the 19th century, Hegel theorized brilliantly about history, language, and consciousness, but he wrote in a disorganized way, with story-like arguments, rather than making the systematic, line-by-line proofs preferred by the Brits.
In opposition to Hegel’s flexible but vague style of philosophy, these British scholars developed a rigorous system for making their arguments as mathematically precise as possible. Their efforts produced a powerful new system of logic that made great strides in the analysis of statements and arguments – a field that had seen little progress since the time of the ancient Greeks.
Analytic philosophy proved so powerful that it became a weapon in World War II. As the Nazis steamrolled their way across Europe, the British military realized that they could never be stopped purely by strength on the battlefield. Nazi technology was too advanced, their population too large, and their industries too fast. If the Allies were going to turn the tide, they would have to do it through superior intelligence.
In order to outsmart the Axis powers, the Allies had to crack the Enigma code, a German technology thought to be unbreakable. However, over the course of the war, a group of mathematicians and analytic logicians, including Alan Turing, gathered at Bletchley Park to analyze Nazi communications and try to break their code. Thanks to the power of analytic logic (and some impressive spy work by British undercover agents), the Bletchley Park code-breakers successfully built a machine that could crack the Enigma code, allowing them to see right into the heart of the Nazi war machine. Thanks to this information, the Allies were able to plan a surprise attack at D-Day and ultimately bring down the Axis.
V. Analytic Philosophy in Popular Culture
The Oscar-winning movie Imitation Game covers the life of Alan Turing. The movie somewhat unfairly suggests that Turing was a solitary genius who single-handedly cracked the Enigma code, when in fact he was a team player with a friendly personality, who worked alongside other brilliant thinkers. The movie is accurate, though, in portraying Turing as gay (but in the closet), and in showing the consequences of this orientation in British society at the time.
Star Trek’s Mr. Spock seems to embody the ideals of analytic philosophy. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original show, was famous for his intense interest in philosophy and religion, and he was probably aware of the developments in analytic philosophy during the 1960s, when Star Trek was first made. Many of Spock’s attributes – his precise speech, his suspicion of emotion, and his incredible clarity of thought – mimic the ideals of analytic philosophy.