Did early analytic philosophers reject metaphysics? Or did this rejection only come about with the rise of the logical positivists? By early analytic philosophers i mean, Frege, Russell, and Moore, and any other analytic philosopher before the logical positivists.


Early analytic philosophy did reject "metaphysics." But it's important to understand why they would be motivated to do so. The answer for English-speaking ones is the Oxford Hegelians. In other words, Hegel (or at least an interpretation of it) was the dominant philosophy in the English-speaking world in the 19th century. One of the humorous details of how this all works out is that McTaggart, now remembered for A-theory and B-theory of time was actually a Hegelian who rejected both in favor of C-theory: that time is an illusion.

More generally, these philosophers were arguing against a background of highly convoluted philosophy in general. The project of metaphysics and epistemology in their modern forms (here modern as opposed to contemporary) was largely getting out of hand to the point where there are dogmatic competing systems that seem broken. Thus, two main responses evolved: positivism, etc., that rejected metaphysics and phenomenology that side-stepped epistemological questions.

The rejection of this sort of idea of metaphysics by Russell is equally forceful with the later rejections by the logical positivists (though it must be admitted he accepts metaphysics under certain definitions). I don't have specific data on Moore and Frege. But my sense is that Moore's project in ethics is compatible with a denial of metaphysics but does not require it.

  • Interesting. But isn't logical atomism a metaphysical thesis? Was Russell aware of doing metaphysics when he came up with logical atomism, or was he ignorant of this?
    – user8083
    Sep 19 '14 at 21:38
  • "Metaphysics" is a word that admits of many definitions. In terms of how they defined, it meant speaking gibberish by coming up with elaborate frameworks. They didn't see themselves as doing it. I don't know what they did/would say to something like the question you raise. It's not my area of specialization or even a teaching competency for me.
    – virmaior
    Sep 20 '14 at 8:01
  • Frege and Russell did not reject metaphysics. They believed, and argued for, the existence of abstract objects.
    – Lukas
    Oct 14 '15 at 8:06
  • Fair enough on both counts.
    – virmaior
    Oct 14 '15 at 9:03

It goes back earlier than that, to the Vienna Circle in Austria that critiqued 'metaphysics' as empty posturing; their target then was Hegelianism.

This reaction appears in various guises in Philosophy. For example Kants Critical Philosophy reacted against the Dogmatic metaphysics of Aristotelianism - exemplified say by the Emanationist theory of Spinoza or the Monadology of Leibniz (its their reliance on the notion of substance and causes that allies them with Aristotle).

Still one musn't simplify a complex debate too far, for example Russell said in his Short History that a naive realism led to insuperable difficulties and in the preface to Wittgensteins Tractatus he also questioned how far the logical analysis of language into propositions together with the Correspondance theory of truth (and in one sense completing the Viennese programme) solved the higher questions; an assessment it seemed that was shared by Wittgenstein judging by the final section of the Tractatus.

Still those were early days for Analytic philosophy.

  • Your timeline is backwards here. Vienna Circle starts around 1922. Frege dies in 1925. Moore's principia ethica is published in 1903. But you're right about the target.
    – virmaior
    Sep 19 '14 at 0:30
  • @virmaior:ok; I was concentrating on Russell & Wittgenstein as early exemplars but I see that the OP mentions Frege and Moore. Sep 19 '14 at 0:56
  • 1
    Russell also predates the Vienna circle by about 20 years. Wittgenstein joins the Vienna circle after writing the Tractatus under Russell's supervision.
    – virmaior
    Sep 19 '14 at 1:27

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