Analytical philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD091-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 05, 2022, from

4. The end of analytical philosophy?

Just when analytical philosophy was coming to self-consciousness in the early post-war period, two of the assumptions of traditional methods of logical and epistemological analysis were called into question by W.V. Quine: (1) the assumption that there is a clear distinction (the ‘analytic/synthetic’ distinction) between logic and other disciplines which enables one to conduct the logical analysis of a statement without reference to these other disciplines; (2) the assumption that there is a single chain of justification from observation to more speculative claims about the world which enables one to construct an epistemological analysis of the latter in terms of the former (Quine 1953). In both cases Quine argued that in fact we find only a complex network of interdependent relationships which undermines the prospect of establishing definitive logical or epistemological analyses. Further, he argued later (Quine 1960), our understanding of each other, and in particular of each other’s utterances, is generally underdetermined by our observations of each other, and, as a consequence, the meaning of most of our utterances must be intrinsically indeterminate since there cannot be anything more to their meaning than is available to an intelligent observer (see Analyticity; Radical translation and radical interpretation).

Despite the fact that Quine’s writings employ the standard techniques of logical analysis, some hold that his conclusions signal the end of analytical philosophy (Rorty (1980) gives an influential statement of this thesis). In thinking about this, however, one must bear in mind that already by 1945 most analytical philosophers had abandoned any commitment to simple meanings and basic certainties, and that the positivist thesis that philosophy could only be analytical philosophy was also soon rejected. Instead, the practice of analytical philosophers rested only on the assumption that methods of analysis can clarify conceptual and epistemological relationships in a way which contributes to the resolution or dissipation of philosophical problems. Do Quine’s claims show that this assumption is unfounded? His indeterminacy thesis implies that the results of analytic inquiries can only be relative to one of an indefinite number of alternative systems of ‘analytical hypotheses’ between which there is nothing to choose (Quine 1960: 68), and thus that little of intrinsic significance can be detached from them. But Quine’s arguments for the indeterminacy thesis are problematic since he allows only a narrow, behaviourist characterization of the evidence that is admissible to determine questions about the meaning of utterances. In order to question this restriction one need only invoke his own criticisms of ‘foundationalist’ approaches to questions of justification which imply that no such restriction on admissable evidence is legitimate. Quine’s earlier arguments, by contrast, point to the holistic structure of our language and beliefs, and few analytical philosophers would want to dispute this (though there are exceptions, such as Dummett). But they will argue that indeterminacy does not follow from holism; on the contrary, talk of holism implies a system of normative relationships that is itself a legitimate subject for analytical inquiry. Admittedly, if there is no absolute analytic/synthetic distinction, the significance of these inquiries must itself remain open to question in the light of the broader theoretical concerns that influence one’s choice of logic and epistemology. But this, so far from being the end of analytical philosophy, just reiterates the anti-positivist thesis that philosophy is not just analysis.

Analytical philosophy can, therefore, survive the contemporary prophets of doom by retreating to the pre-positivist thesis of the merits of philosophical analysis as an ingredient of philosophical inquiry, with a core commitment to the explicit articulation of the normative relationships, involving inference and justification, that connect concepts, beliefs and statements. This may seem too minimal a commitment to be worth a distinctive characterization as a kind of philosophy, but one has only to sample contemporary philosophical writings that do not share this commitment to recognize its value. To say this is not to say, however, that the methods of philosophical analysis are equally valuable in all areas of philosophy. There are those, such as Bernard Williams, who hold that in ethics and aesthetics the characteristic virtues of philosophical analysis may actually obstruct the proper exercise of a philosophical inquiry that aims to be truthful or imaginative (Williams 1995).

None the less, the robustness of analytical philosophy thus understood is best seen in the remarkable expansion in the acceptance and use of its methods that has taken place during the last half-century. This expansion has been both geographical and disciplinary. There has been an explosion of interest in analytical philosophy within non-anglophone countries, both in Europe and elsewhere (for instance, South America), leading to new dialogues between philosophers who had previously remained isolated in their own traditions. At the same time the ideas and methods of analytical philosophy have been applied to advance debates in areas of philosophy which had previously appeared remote from analytic concerns, such as the study of ancient philosophy (see Owen, G.E.L.; Vlastos, G.) and Marxism (Cohen 1978). By putting down roots around the globe and throughout the academy, analytical philosophy has shown that it is far too early to write its obituary (see Analytic ethics; Analytical philosophy in Latin America).

Citing this article:
Baldwin, Thomas. The end of analytical philosophy?. Analytical philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD091-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

Related Searches


Related Articles