What Was Analytic Philosophy?

Mr Nemo
15 min readOct 18, 2021


By Robert Hanna


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What Was Analytic Philosophy?

Contemporary Analytic philosophers like to self-present as normative models of clear-&-distinct thinking, talking, and writing, and also as veritable cognitive engines of critical, cogent, and incisive reasoning: that’s their self-advertised philosophical stock-in-trade.

Hence it might come as an ironically amusing surprise to you to learn that the term “Analytic philosophy” itself isn’t univocal and that in fact it’s sixways semi-systematically ambiguous, by which I mean that “Analytic philosophy” has six partially overlapping but still saliently different and non-equivalent senses, and that multiply muddling these senses is endemic in contemporary Analytic philosophy.[i]

In order to avoid these endemic confusions, however, “Analytic philosophy” should be defined according to those six subtly but importantly different senses, as follows: 1.prior to 1950, the tradition of late 19th century and early 20th century Anglo-European philosophy that presents and defines itself as essentially distinct from and opposed to all forms of idealistic philosophy, especially Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism[ii] and 19th century neo-Kantian philosophy, and G.W.F. Hegel’s absolute idealism and late 19th century British neo-Hegelian philosophy;[iii] 2. philosophy carried out by means of the methods of logical or linguistic analysis; 3. philosophy committed to the thesis that there exists one and only one kind of necessary truth: logical truths or analytic truths; 4. philosophy principally concerned with formulating and knowing logical or analytic truths; 5. philosophy that mirrors and valorizes the formal sciences (especially logic and mathematics) and the natural sciences (especially physics); and 6. after 1950, the tradition of mid- to late-20th century and early 21st century Anglo-American philosophy that presents itself as essentially distinct from and opposed to so-called “Continental philosophy.”

As regards that sixth sense of “Analytic philosophy,” Richard Rorty was bang-on-target when he pointed out in 1982[iv] that, by 1980, there was in fact nothing that’s universally doctrinally or methodically shared by all who self-identify as “Analytic philosophers,” apart from the strictly social-institutional fact that, as members of the “IN” group possessing hegemonic ideological domination over professional academic philosophy as a whole, they presented themselves as essentially distinct from and intellectually superior to so-called “Continental philosophers,” i.e., the non-Analytic and intellectually inferior philosophers who belonged to the “OUT” group; and so it has remained, for more than four decades, right up until 6am this morning.

Let me explain.

The 140-year tradition of Analytic philosophy has two importantly distinct phases: classical Analytic philosophy (from roughly 1880 to 1950), and post-classical Analytic philosophy (from roughly 1950 to the present).

Classical Analytic philosophy began in the 1880s with the work of Gottlob Frege (especially his Foundations of Arithmetic, and his logical and semantic writings, especially his Concept-Script [Begriffsschrift] and “On Sense and Meaning [or Reference]” [Über Sinn und Bedeutung]), and then got fully underway in late 19th and early 20th century with the work of G.E. Moore (especially his essays “The Nature of Judgment” and “The Refutation of Idealism” and his book Principia Ethica) and Bertrand Russell (especially his co-authored book with A.N. Whitehead, Principia Mathematica, and his essay “On Denoting”).

Frege, Moore, and Russell were the founding Trinity of classical Analytic philosophy: the Father (Frege), the Son (Moore), and the Holy Ghost (Russell).

In 1921, Russell’s research student and subsequently his collaborator, Ludwig Wittgenstein, published the most important book in classical Analytic philosophy, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which heavily influenced the Logical Empiricist, aka Logical Positivist, doctrines of the Vienna Circle, whose most important members or fellow-travellers included Rudolf Carnap, Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, Frank Ramsey, A.J. Ayer, Kurt Gödel, Alfred Tarski, and W.V.O. Quine.

During the period from 1900–1940, classical neo-Kantian philosophy in Germany and France, and British neo-Hegelian philosophy (carrying over somewhat into the USA — see, for example, T.S. Eliot’s Harvard PhD dissertation on F.H. Bradley, and the philosophy of Josiah Royce more generally[v]), both came to a more or less bitter end.

Slamming the door behind the idealists, and triumphantly (indeed, even triumphalistically) replacing them, and just as often also taking up their vacated university positions, a group of Young Turk avant-garde philosophers carrying the banner of the new tradition of (what I’m calling “classical”) Analytic philosophy came onto the scene, following on from Frege but led by Moore, Russell, the young Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle Logical Empiricists/ Positivists (especially Carnap), and Quine.

Classical Analytic philosophy also stands in an important elective affinity with the rise of what James C. Scott calls high modernism, especially in the applied and fine arts and the formal and natural sciences.[vi]

At the same time, the classical Analytic philosophers were engaged in a serious intellectual competition with phenomenology, especially Husserlian transcendental phenomenology[vii] and Heideggerian existential phenomenology.[viii]

Simultaneously, however, there was also an emerging organicist movement in philosophy, including Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory in 1896, Creative Evolution in 1907, Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity in 1920, John Dewey’s Experience and Nature in 1925, and especially A.N. Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” in Process and Reality in 1929.

Moreover, it’s essential not to confuse early 20th century philosophical organicism, on the one hand, with organic nationalism, aka organic romanticism,in the arts, science, and sociopolitics,[ix] as it occurred during the rise of fascism and militarism in Germany, Italy, and Japan — for example, in Nazi architecture and visual art[x] — on the other.

Organic nationalism followed on from J.G. Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation, and postulates a root analogy between a nation-State on the one hand, and either a single massive complex organism or a distributed organic totality like a beehive on the other, thereby identifying individual citizens with unicellular organisms or worker bees whose individuality is absorbed into the single life of the whole nation or the whole hive.

Thus organic nationalism is authoritarian up to and including totalitarianism, anti-dignitarian, anti-democratic in its focus on the Führerprinzip and/or Strong Man dictator or emperor (playing the functional role of the Queen Bee), and pervasively historically backward-looking, insular, reactionary, and regressive.

Sharply on the contrary, early 20th century philosophical organicism is essentially intertwined first, with the anti-authoritarian, anti-totalitarian, dignitarian, and democratic versions of socialism, and second, with the search for a humane modernity that would avoid the excesses of the Industrial Revolution and extreme urbanization.

This historical and sociocultural point about philosophical organicism is crucial for understanding how early 20th century philosophical organicism crashed upon the rocky shores of early 20th century Analytic philosophy and was lost, and how classical Analytic philosophy sailed away triumphantly from the scene of the wreck, refusing to take any survivors or salvage any of its philosophical cargo.

For one of the most influential propagandist strategies that Russell used to establish classical Analytic philosophy over its leading contemporary philosophical competitors (i.e., phenomenology and organicism), was to criticize Bergson’s cosmological-&-metaphysical organicism — and, by implication, also Russell’s former co-author and mentor Whitehead’s cosmological-&-metaphysical organicism — by intentionally and sophistically blurring the difference between early 20th century philosophical organicism and organic nationalism, thereby effectively impugning the former via political-guilt-by-association with the latter.[xi]

Over and above Russell’s role as the leading propagandist for classical Analytic philosophy up to 1950, it’s also clear from Russell’s correspondence and other biographical evidence, that he was jealously annoyed by Bergson’s great fame during the first three decades of the 20th century, and also that he and Whitehead had a falling-out during World War I for personal and political reasons alike.

Moreover, it’s hard to overestimate the knock-on effect of Russell’s anti-Bergsonian (hence anti-French, hence anti-continental-European) philosophical propaganda on the later “Great Divide” between post-classical Analytic philosophy and so-called Continental philosophy.

In any case, by the end of World War II, the early Cold War, and the period of the sociopolitical triumph of advanced capitalism and technocracy in the USA, classical Analytic philosophy had triumphed in a social-institutional sense; organicist philosophy had virtually disappeared except in a vestigial form, as an aspect of American pragmatism; and existential phenomenology and all other kinds of non-Analytic philosophy, under the convenient and pejorative catch-all label, “Continental philosophy,” gradually became the social-institutional Other and professional academic house slave of Analytic philosophy.[xiii]

Nevertheless, classical Analytic philosophy was in fact theoretically hobbled in the 1930s and 40s by Kurt Gödel’s profoundly important first and second incompleteness theorems,[xiii] bearing witness to the facts that (i) adding the axioms of Peano arithmetic to Principia Mathematica-style logical systems yields undecidable, unprovable true sentences and (ii) that no such system can demonstrate its own consistency, which, when they’re taken together with Alfred Tarski’s semantic conception of truth, bearing further witness to the categorical distinction between truth and logical proof,[xiv] collectively amount to a logico-mathematical 1–2 punch that permanently KO’d the classical Frege-Whitehead-Russell logicist project for reducing mathematics to logic.

And on top of that, delivering the coup de grâce, by 1950 Quine’s devastating critique of the analytic-synthetic distinction in “Truth by Convention,” “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” and “Carnap and Logical Truth,” had effectively ended the research program of classical Analytic philosophy and thereby initiated post-classical Analytic philosophy.

In the early-to mid-1950s, post-classical Analytic philosophy produced a Wittgenstein-inspired language-driven alternative to Logical Empiricism/Positivism, ordinary language philosophy.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, powered by the work of H. P. Grice and Peter Strawson, ordinary language philosophy became conceptual analysis.[xv]

In turn, during that same period, Strawson created a new “connective” — that is, holistic — version of conceptual analysis, that also constituted a descriptive metaphysics.[xvi]

In the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, Strawson’s connective version of conceptual analysis gradually fused with Donald Davidson’s non-reductive naturalism about language, mind, and action (sometimes rather misleadingly called semantics of natural language), John Rawls’s holistic method of “reflective equilibrium,” and Noam Chomsky’s psycholinguistic appeals to intuitions-as-evidence, and ultimately became what can be called The Standard Model of mainstream post-classical Analytic philosophical methodology, by the end of the 20th century.[xvii]

In the late 1990s and first two decades of the 21st century, a domestic critical reaction to The Standard Model, combining direct reference theory, scientific essentialism and modal metaphysics,[xviii] yielded recent and contemporary Analytic metaphysics.[xix]

In contemporary mainstream post-classical Analytic philosophy, co-existing and cohabiting with The Standard Model and Analytic metaphysics, is also the classical Lockean idea that philosophy should be an “underlaborer” for the natural sciences, especially as this idea was developed in the second half of the 20th century by Quine and Wilfrid Sellars, and their students, as the materialist or physicalist (whether eliminativist, reductive, or non-reductive) and scientistic doctrine of scientific naturalism, and again in the first three decades of the 21st century, in even more sophisticated versions, as experimental philosophy, aka “X-Phi,” and the doctrine of second philosophy.[xx]

More precisely, scientific naturalism includes four basic theses: (i) anti-mentalism and anti-supernaturalism, which says that we should reject any sort of explanatory appeal to non-physical or non-spatiotemporal entities or causal powers, (ii) scientism,[xxi] which says that the formal sciences (especially logic and mathematics) and the natural sciences (especially physics) are the paradigms of knowledge, reasoning, and rationality, as regards their content and their methodology alike, (iii) materialist or physicalist metaphysics, which says that all facts in the world, including all mental facts and social facts, are either reducible to (whether identical to or “logically supervenient” on) or else strictly dependent on, according to natural laws (aka “naturally supervenient” or “nomologically supervenient” on) fundamental physical facts, which in turn are naturally mechanistic, microphysical facts, and (iv) radical empiricist epistemology, which says that all knowledge and truths are a posteriori.

So, to summarize, scientific naturalism holds first, that the nature of knowledge and reality are ultimately disclosed by pure logic, pure mathematics, fundamental physics, and whatever other reducible natural sciences there actually are or may turn out to be, second, that this is the only way of disclosing the ultimate nature of knowledge and reality, and third, that even if everything in the world, including ourselves and all things human (including language, mind, and action), cannot be strictly eliminated in favor of or reduced to fundamental physical facts, nevertheless everything in the world, including ourselves and all things human, is metaphysically grounded on and causally determined by fundamental physical facts.

Generalizing now, the central topics, or obsessions, of the classical Analytic tradition prior to 1950 were meaning and necessity, with special emphases on (i) pure logic as the universal and necessary essence of thought, (ii) language as the basic means of expressing thoughts and describing the world, (iii) the sense (Sinn) vs. Meaning, aka reference (Bedeutung) distinction, (iv) the conceptual truth vs. factual truth distinction, (v) the necessary truth vs. contingent truth distinction, (vi) the a priori truth vs. a posteriori truth distinction, and (vii) the analytic vs. synthetic distinction.

Correspondingly, a common and profoundly embedded thread running through all of these sub-themes is the following rough-and-ready multiple identity (or at least necessary equivalence):[xxii]

So, a very useful way of characterizing classical Analytic philosophy from late 19th century Frege to mid-20th-century Quine, is to say that it consisted essentially in the rise and fall of the concept of analyticity.

By vivid contrast to classical Analytic philosophy, however, the central commitment, and indeed dogmatic obsession, of post-classical Analytic philosophy since 1950 until today at 6am, continues to be scientific naturalism, which in turn is metaphysically grounded in the mechanistic worldview, which is arguably fundamentally false.[xxiii]

And this is where, by way of concluding, I make a brief but fateful appearance on the philosophical stage, brandishing a copy of my book, The Fate of Analysis.[xxiv]

More precisely, The Fate of Analysis: Analytic Philosophy From Frege To The Ash-Heap of History,[xxv] And Toward A Radical Kantian Philosophy of The Future[xxvi] is a comprehensive and critical revisionist history of Analytic philosophy from the 1880s to the present, with special reference (i) to its Kantian provenance, (ii) to the unique, subversive, and indeed revolutionary contributions of Wittgenstein, both early and late, (iii) to illuminating comparisons and contrasts with phenomenology during the period of the intellectual and social-institutional emergence and ascendancy of classical Analytic philosophy, from 1880 to 1950, (iv) to its steady decline and ultimate fall during the period of post-classical Analytic philosophy, from 1950 to the third decade of the 21st century — a dive, crash, and burn that are partially due to its dogmatic obsession with scientific naturalism (especially including the sub-doctrines of scientism and natural mechanism), but also intimately entangled and synchronized with the emergence, triumph, and finally domination and cultural hegemony of academic hyper-professionalism in the larger context of the neoliberal nation-State, together with what, riffing on Eisenhower’s famous phrase, “the military-industrial complex,” I’ve dubbed “the military-industrial-university-digital complex,” aka The Hyper-State; and finally (v) to how, from the ashes of the Analytic tradition, a radical Kantian philosophy of the future can and should arise like a phoenix during the next two decades of the 21st century.

— Hence my use of the past tense in the title of this little essay.


[i] See, e.g., M. Beaney (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of the History of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).

[ii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, Kant and the Foundations of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 2001).

[iii] See, e.g., P. Hylton, Russell, Idealism, and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 1990).

[iv] R. Rorty, “Philosophy in America Today,” in R. Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis, MN: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 211–230.

[v] See, e.g., B. Kuklick, The Rise of American Philosophy (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1977).

[vi] See J.C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1999); A. Janik and S. Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973); The Vienna Circle, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” in S. Sarkar (ed.), The Emergence of Logical Empiricism: From 1900 to the Vienna Circle (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996), pp. 321–340, also available online at URL = <http://www.manchesterism.com/the-scientific-conception-of-the-world-the-vienna-circle/>; P. Galison, “Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism and Architectural Modernism,” Critical Inquiry 16 (1990): 709–752; G. Reisch, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005); and J. Isaac, “Donald Davidson and the Analytic Revolution in American Philosophy, 1940–1970,” Historical Journal 56 (2013): 757–779.

[vii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Transcendental Idealism, Phenomenology, and the Metaphysics of Intentionality,” in K. Ameriks and N. Boyle (eds.), The Impact of Idealism (4 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013), vol. I, pp. 191–224.

[viii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Kant in the Twentieth Century,” in D. Moran (ed.), Routledge Companion to Twentieth-Century Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 149–203, at pp. 149–150.

[ix] See, e.g., Wikipedia, “Romantic Nationalism,” (2020), available online at URL =<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romantic_nationalism>.

[x] See, e.g., Wikipedia, “Art of the Third Reich,”(2020), available online at URL =<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_of_the_Third_Reich>.

[xi] See, e.g., A. Vrahimis, “Russell Reads Bergson,” in M. Sinclair and Y. Wolf (eds.), The Bergsonian Mind (London, Routledge: forthcoming), available online in preview at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/41702088/Russell_Reads_Bergson>.

[xii] See, e.g., Rorty, “Philosophy in America Today”; J. McCumber, Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era (Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univ. Press, 2001); T. Akehurst, “The Nazi Tradition: The Analytic Critique of Continental Philosophy in Mid-Century Britain,” History of European Ideas 34 (2008): 548–557; T. Akehurst, The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe (London: Bloomsbury, 2011); A. Vrahimis, “Modernism and the Vienna Circle’s Critique of Heidegger,” Critical Quarterly 54 (2012): 61–83; A. Vrahimis, “Legacies of German Idealism: From The Great War to the Analytic/Continental Divide,” Parrhesia 24 (2015): 83–106; J. McCumber, The Philosophy Scare (Chicago IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2016); S. Bloor, “The Divide Between Philosophy and Enthusiasm: The Effect of the World Wars on British Attitudes Towards Continental Philosophies,” in M. Sharpe et al. (eds.), 100 Years of European Philosophy Since the Great War (Cham, CH: Springer, 2017), pp. 201–213; J. Katzav and K. Vaesen, “On the Emergence of American Analytic Philosophy,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 25 (2017): 772–798; J. Katzav, “Analytic Philosophy, 1925–1969: Emergence, Management and Nature,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 26 (2018): 1197–1221; Vrahimis, “Russell Reads Bergson”; and A. Gare,“Against Posthumanism: Posthumanism as the World Vision of House-Slaves,” Borderless Philosophy 4 (2021): 1–56, available online at URL = <https://www.cckp.space/single-post/bp-4-2021-arran-gare-against-posthumanism-posthumanism-as-the-world-vision-of-house-slaves>.

[xiii] K. Gödel, “On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems,” in J. Van Heijenoort (ed.), From Frege to Gödel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 596–617.

[xiv] A. Tarski, “The Concept of Truth in Formalized Languages,” in A. Tarski, Logic, Semantics, and Metamathematics (Oxford: Oxford Univ., 1956), pp. 152–278 (originally published in Polish in 1933); and A. Tarski, “The Semantic Conception of Truth and the Foundations of Semantics.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1943) 4: 342–360.

[xv] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Conceptual Analysis,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 10 vols., ed. E. Craig (London: Routledge, 1998), vol. 2, pp. 518–522, available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/11279103/Conceptual_Analysis>.

[xvi] See P.F. Strawson, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (London: Methuen, 1959); and P.F. Strawson, Analysis and Metaphysics: An Introduction to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992).

[xvii] See, e.g., F. Jackson, From Metaphysics to Ethics: A Defense of Conceptual Analysis (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998).

[xviii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “A Kantian Critique of Scientific Essentialism,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 58 (1998): 497–528; R. Hanna, “Why Gold is Necessarily a Yellow Metal,” Kantian Review 4 (2000): 1–47; R. Hanna, Kant, Science, and Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), chs. 3–4; and R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, vol. 5) (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), section 4.5.

[xix] The leading figures of Analytic metaphysics include David Lewis, David Chalmers, Kit Fine, John Hawthorne, Theodore Sider, and Timothy Williamson; and some of its canonical texts are Lewis’s On the Plurality of Worlds (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), Sider’s Writing the Book of the World (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), Chalmers’s Constructing the World (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), and Williamson’s Modal Logic as Metaphysics (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).

[xx] See, e.g., W.V.O. Quine, “Epistemology Naturalized,” in W.V.O. Quine, Ontological Relativity and Other Essays (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 69–90; W. Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963); J. Knobe and S. Nichols (eds.), Experimental Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008); and P. Maddy, Second Philosophy: A Naturalistic Method (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007).

[xxi] On the crucial distinction between science and scientism, see also S. Haack, Science and its Discontents (Rounded Globe, 2017), available online at URL = <https://roundedglobe.com/books/038f7053-e376-4fc3-87c5-096de820966d/Scientism%20and%20its%20Discontents/>.

[xxii] I’m grateful to Otto Paans for creating and sharing this diagram.

[xxiii] See, e.g., R. Hanna and O. Paans, “This is the Way the World Ends: A Philosophy of Civilization Since 1900, and A Philosophy of the Future” (co-authored with Otto Paans), Cosmos & History 16, 2 (2020): 1–53, available online at URL = <http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/viewFile/865/1510>.

[xxiv] R. Hanna, The Fate of Analysis: Analytic Philosophy From Frege to The Ash-Heap of History, and Toward a Radical Kantian Philosophy of The Future (New York: Mad Duck Coalition, 2021), now affordably available in hardcover, softcover, and epub at URL = <https://themadduckcoalition.org/product/the-fate-of-analysis/>.

[xxv] My use of “the ash-heap of history” repurposes Petrarch’s and Trotsky’s famous/ notorious good-riddances to Rome and the Mensheviks respectively.

[xxvi] My use of “a philosophy of the future” repurposes the sub-title of Nietzsche’s brilliantly edgy 1886 book, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 18 October 2021

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.