I was reading a philosophical article about analytic philosophy and I saw the claim:

Russell and many philosophers influenced by him asserted that complex statements can be reduced to simple components; if their logic does not permit such reduction, then the statements are meaningless.

What does the author mean by "reduced to simple components"? Would it be correct to say that analytic philosophers (such as Bertrand Russell) use a reductionist approach to determine the meaning of claims?

Or, to put it a different way, would it be correct to say that "reductionism" is a mechanism of logical analysis in the field of analytic philosophy? In what ways is this technique valuable or integral to the analytic tradition?

If not reductionism, what other tactics might be employed by an analytic philosopher?


2 Answers 2


The assertion that complex statements are reducible to statements about particulars standing in logical relations to one another is associated with logical atomism and the philosophical method of analysis popularized by Bertrand Russell, Moore and the early Wittgenstein. The doctrine is both metaphysical and methodological.

Metaphysically, logical atomism employs the method of logical analysis to discern the fundamental objects (the logical atoms) from which complex (atomic or molecular) statements are constructed and things are constituted. Traditionally, these atoms are non-inferentially known sensa. Methodologically, logical atomism proceeds by reducing complex statements into simple components (the logical atoms) in logical relations under the assumption that there exists a direct correspondence between logical language and the constitution of reality.

To Russell, there are two types of atoms. On the logical side, there are names and predicates. On the metaphysical side, there are particulars and properties. Simple names are demonstrative, denoting simple objects; simple predicates are properties, denoting qualities or sensa. The atoms are used to form complex propositions or objects. For instance, in atomic propositions a property or relation is predicated of names denoting one or more atoms. Complex propositions are formed via truth-functions, quantifiers and atomic propositions or other statements.

The doctrine of analysis was popular in analytic philosophy from Russell to the early Wittgenstein, primarily as a reaction to British Hegelianism and under the influence of recent successes in mathematical logic. Later analytic philosophers such as Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations), Quine (Two Dogmas of Empiricism) and Sellars (Empricism and the Philosophy of Mind) successfully attacked the fundamental epistemological assumptions underlying it. In this regard, it is not a useful method for doing philosophy, and is distinct from the method of conceptual analysis found in modern analytic philosophy. The SEP has a detailed article.

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    +1 This is a great answer. Although I have to admit, I still have no idea what 'mean' means in this case. Jul 26, 2011 at 9:35
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    Thanks. It's been a while since I've read Russell, however. Hopefully someone else can provide a more comprehensive answer. I still have no idea what mean means either!
    – emi
    Jul 26, 2011 at 11:00
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    The SEP article is very helpful about logical atomism but it's not clear how it goes beyond it; I don't see anything that nominally refers to 'a method of conceptual analysis' that is distinct from logical atomism. Any pointers or explanations or clarifications of terminology?
    – Mitch
    Jul 29, 2011 at 13:58
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    Sections II and III contain a discussion of Russell's method of analysis and an example application (the theory of definite descriptions). For an application to traditional philosophical problems, Problems of Philosophy and Our Knowledge of the External World are clear and accessible, although I haven't read them in some time. The reason you cannot sufficiently distinguish the method from logical atomism and related philosophies is because of the epistemological assumptions made by both, as I tried to point out.
    – emi
    Jul 29, 2011 at 22:11

I think yeah, we can. Because reductionism essentially means simplification (Microsoft Encarta Dictionary). The complete meaning is:

simplification: the analysis of something into simpler parts or organized systems, especially with a view to explaining or understanding it Microsoft® Encarta® 2008. © 1993-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

As you described analytic philosophy here like "complex statements can be reduced to simple components", therefore I believe that reductionism is completely used by analytic philosophy based on the provided definition.

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