In a recent answer, someone posted this quote from Michael Dummet:

What distinguishes analytical philosophy, in its diverse manifestations, from other schools is the belief, first, that a philosophical account of thought can be attained through a philosophical account of language, and, secondly, that a comprehensive account can only be so attained.

I've read things like this before and it has always struck me as bizarre. I've read a lot of analytical philosophy, and no more than a couple of times did I ever get the impression that the author believed something like this. It is fairly common to focus on analysis of language and linguistic features. It is fairly common to presume that the structure of language often reflects the structure of the abstract contents of thought. It is fairly common to claim that metaphysics is largely just a language game. But specifically to claim that a philosophy of thought can be reduced to a philosophy of language, I've almost never seen that.

So my question is, do all (or a large majority) of analytic philosophers really believe that?

  • Indeed in the sense of the essence of the linguistic turn of contemporary analytic philosophy analytic philosophy is nothing but philosophy of language to such a degree that logical statements like "A white horse is not a horse" makes sense and perhaps intersubjectively more accurate and exact compared to its negation... Jan 4 at 1:58
  • @DoubleKnot, I can't figure out what you mean. You don't have to be an analytical philosopher to think that "A white horse is not a horse" is meaningful, and I don't know why you would claim that analytical philosophy thinks the sentence is "intersubjectively more accurate and exact". I think most analytical philosophers would say merely that the sentence is false. Jan 4 at 2:47
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    Note the emphasis on language in Analytic Philosophy is waning. Searle, speaking about the progression of Analytic Philosophy, mentions philosophy of mind has overtaken philosophy of language in contemporary Analytic Philosophy. Jan 4 at 3:12
  • The statement is borrowed from East philosophy iirc and should be more correctly translated as White horse is not horse since there's no indexicals or quantifiers in the original language grammar. This actually makes more sense and thus more accurate in the sense of Frege's Sinn (not the usual reference). Semiotically it's likely enmeshed about the actual relationship between the supposed objective which is supposed to be independent with the supposed subjective use of language to the point that one no longer can differentiate between a real potlatch party and a pointer to the said party... Jan 4 at 7:37
  • Not, it's analysis if you wrote philosophy of language you involve all the things that happen to be a comprensive philosophy. Philosopher of Language is the most calculator of social sciences. Jan 5 at 10:22

2 Answers 2


That quote is from Michael Dummett's book, Origins of Analytical Philosophy. A short answer is that according to Dummett, we cannot have a philosophy of anything until we have a clear theory of meaning within the philosophy of language. He is not claiming that other branches of philosophy are reducible to the philosophy of language, but rather that they must presuppose it. Hence, paying careful attention to language and developing a theory of meaning is a primary concern of the philosopher.

A much longer answer is that the term 'analytic philosophy' does not have a simple and precise meaning. Arguably is has evolved over time, and there is no consensus on its meaning. To understand what is meant by it one must delve a little into the history.

Many philosophers prior to the late 19th century had no particular philosophical methodology, assumed that the language they used was straightforward and transparent, and pursued philosophical thinking on the basis of what seemed intuitively obvious. The result was frequently flights of metaphysical fancy.

Frege, who is widely regarded as the father of analytic philosophy, broke with this tradition. He chose to examine sentences with a view to understanding how they have meaning and what the components of this meaning are. Two important insights stand out. One is that sentences, rather than words, are the primary bearers of meaning, and words can be said to have meaning only by virtue of the systematic contribution they make to the meaning of the sentences that contain them. Another is that meaning can be understood as the combination of two separate concepts, sense and reference (Sinn and Bedeutung). Names, predicates and propositions all have a sense and a reference.

This allowed Frege to develop a formal system of logic, that we now somewhat confusingly call classical logic, that reflects his insights. This logic was so much more powerful and expressive than anything that had gone before that it proved useful within mathematics as well as philosophy. Kant had been compelled to conclude that much of mathematics is synthetic and a priori because he could not fit mathematical theorems into his limited definition of 'analytic'. Now Frege's logic seemed to promise the possibility of showing that all of mathematics is analytic.

Russell took up the challenge and pursued the project that we call logicism. He also developed the philosophy of logical atomism, under which all truths are ultimately atomic facts about individuals, stating some attribute of an individual or a relation between individuals. At this stage, Russell conceived philosophy as the task of conceptual analysis. It was the philosopher's job to examine, analyse and reconstruct complex concepts from simple ones. It was not the philosopher's job to engage in flights of metaphysical fancy. This understanding of philosophy as analysis is probably the origin of the term 'analytic philosophy'.

Others picked up the idea and ran with it. The Tractatus also embraced logical atomism, albeit of a different kind. The logical positivists developed the idea that the meaning of a sentence is given by its verification conditions and so metaphysical propositions are literally meaningless. The later Wittgenstein and the ordinary language school of philosophy at Oxford in the 1950s and 60s pursued the idea that many if not most philosophical problems are not real problems at all but just confusions arising from our language. Such problems are to be dissolved, rather than solved, by paying careful attention to the language. All of these schools of thought can be regarded as lying within analytic philosophy.

After that, usage of the term diverges. Some consider that analytic philosophy is primarily concerned with opposition to metaphysics. In this narrow sense, it has definitely declined, since many philosophers, including Quine, Kripke, Strawson and David Lewis were quite happy to write about metaphysics. But all of these would be regarded as philosophers within the analytical tradition in a broader sense. Broadly, the main identifying characteristics of analytical philosophy include being clear, using logic, and regarding scientific knowledge as the gold standard of knowledge. Note that I switched from 'analytic' to 'analytical' there. I think 'analytic' has unfortunate connotations and 'analytical' perhaps helps to emphasise the broader meaning.

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    "A short answer is that according to Dummett, we cannot have a philosophy of anything until we have a clear theory of meaning within the philosophy of language. […] A much longer answer is that the term 'analytic philosophy' does not have a simple and precise meaning." Now there's an ironic juxtaposition if I ever saw one. (An excellent answer, though, definitely worth a +1 from me.) Jan 3 at 18:04
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    Great answer but I have to ask about "the main identifying characteristics of analytical philosophy include being clear, using logic, and regarding scientific knowledge as the gold standard of knowledge" - Is there a more neutral way to put this, or is it really the case that other philosophers genuinely don't value clarity and logic?
    – Brian Z
    Jan 3 at 18:54
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    @BrianZ Many continental philosophers do not value logic at all and regard it as a barren exercise. Also I sometimes wonder whether they write so as to be deliberately obscure. Often they seem to me to be just throwing ideas around and hoping some of them stick. Analytical philosophers prefer rigorous presentation of arguments. For a more nuanced view, see D'Agostini, F. "From a Continental Point of View: The Role of Logic in the Analytic­Continental Divide". International Journal of Philosophical Studies, Volume 9(3), 2001.
    – Bumble
    Jan 4 at 2:44
  • +1 Damn good answer here. Jan 4 at 3:14
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    @BrianZ Chomsky once labeled Lacan a charlatan, and has taken a swipe at "Paris intellectuals" as well as calling out Zizek for meaningless language use. critical-theory.com/… Being and Time is like a second language where being and Being are distinct. You might get familiarity, but more often, one creates confusion instead of just coining new lexemes. The big Contintental philosophers also have a penchant for metaphors and other facon de parler, as they say in Paris. I bought a copy of What is Called Thinking? and found it... poetic.
    – J D
    Jan 4 at 19:20

Bumble's answer, already selected as the answer, outlines what Dummett knew, especially being an expert in the works of Frege, the widely acknowledged father of the analytical tradition, and a key contributor to contemporary discourse surrounding realism and anti-realism. Understanding the gulf between various positions of realism and anti-realism is important because it highlights major philosophical divisions in mathematics (neo-Platonism on one end and perhaps Brouwer's intuitionism or Pierce's empiricism in the other extreme) and science (perhaps a spectrum from scientific realism to Duhem's instrumentalism). And all of these divisions and disputes hinge upon, literally a turn of phrase. It is indisputable that language is indispensable to philosophy as a social activity and a means of creating personal meaning. Therefore, the philosophy that delves into the nature of language to a large extent determines the nature of other philosophies, because meaning itself is determined largely by the public artifact of language, a key concept Ludwig Wittgenstein explored. If you doubt it, provide of an example of philosophy where words aren't used. They're few and far between.

Contemporary philosophy of language owes a debt to both Pierce and de Saussure, and their contributions to understanding language as a social process, the use of signs in society and how meaning is constructed is undeniable. But much of their work was embraced by philosophers in Europe who had an interest in discussing philosophy as tool to understanding man in the context of society and politics. Continental philosophy is not so much a method as a devotion to contextualizing ideas within a social context. One need only think of Habermas, Foucault, Sartre, Camus, Derrida, Gramsci, and Arendt to see what analytical philosophy is not, and yet these philosophers weren't ignorant about language use. Deconstruction is very much a philosophy that is built on a view of language. Phenomenology repurposes language to explicate conscious existence. Philosophical anthropology recognizes how language bridges the gulf between human beings. But none of these really ask the question. What is going on with the syntactic-semantic divide? How do words bear upon truth? Do they merely bear the truth in propositions, or do they fundamentally determine it in some way? This, then is where analytic philosophy differs from the practices of the more European tribe of thinkers.

Russell should be recognized as transformative not only because he recognized the genius of Frege and Wittgenstein, or because he put forth a logical edifice with A. N. Whitehead that attempted to create the logical equivalence to Euclid's Elements, but because through his interest in paradox in language, he explored how logic relies on language and grew the symbolization of language that Frege had started with his simple formal systems. Russell's work in sets and particularly his type theory created a model for building language systems that is used for mathematical logic, computability theory, and modern computer languages today. The intersection of mathematics and logic, central to the logicist project, is fundamentally one of language. Kleene, Church, Turing, and Goedel were the sorts of men who combined math and logic in the same way that Mauchly and Eckert built physical systems that automated math and logic. The modern computer runs on an ALU, an arithmetic-logic unit. Thus, analytic philosophers have not only explored syntax, they have built machines that have elevated syntax to a medium of art, and if the computer scientists Newell and Simon are to be believed, the essence of intelligence itself. Computers are nothing more than the embodiment of the language of mathematical logic. This is about as far removed from the concerns of the Continental philosophers as one can get.

While early Wittgenstein was part of this movement with his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, late Wittgenstein went in a different direction, and began, as the Continental philosophers do, to reflect on language as a social enterprise. Three major contributions to philosophy are his notions of family-resemblance of meaning, the private-language argument, and the language-game. Along with Austin, Strawson, and eventually Searle, a philosophy of language has emerged as a fully fledged field of inquiry that makes use of the insights of literature, anthropology, linguistics, and cognitive science to explore just what language is. And unlike the artificial languages of mathematical logic whose primary preoccupation is truth-valued semantics, that is where meaning is largely determined by truth itself, modern linguistics and the philosophy of language that surrounds it has a variety of theories of semantics, some orthodox, and others not. Thinkers like Chomsky, Lakoff, and Jackendoff have teased out a view of how the brain is related to meaning, truth, and grammar, and have a mountain of scientific research to speak from. Chomsky rekindled cognitivist perspective when the Academy was rife with behaviorists. Jackendoff has a conceptual model that interrelates syntax, semantics, phonology, and other aspects of language supported by cognitive neuroscience. Lakoff has philosophical speculations that attempt to reorient semantics beyond truth-conditional sentences and in bodily experience. In fact, the philosophy of mind has never been more preoccupied with language use.

Analytic philosophy, in all its flavors, then presumes mathematical logic and scientific research as central to its interests and methods, and both of these endeavors rely heavily on an understanding of language. Logical positivists hit a wall with their observation sentences and underdetermination of theory, and the subsequent logical developments like Quine's attack on the analytic-synthetic dichotomy as well as alternative foundations of mathematics such as category theory have thoroughly defeated logicism. Post Kuhn, science and mathematics are engaged in a scramble to re-orient themselves in the continuing debate between realists and anti-realists. And all of these debates center around one's view on language. And Dummett's claim to fame is furthering this debate.

Moritz Schlitz says "We see that meaning and truth are linked together by the process of verification; but the first is found by mere reflection about possible circumstances in the world, while the second is decided by really discovering the existence or non-existence of those circumstances" in "The Future of Philosophy". Philosophy's purpose is to referee that process, and the tool to conduct it is language. Philosophy as an enterprise cannot be reduced to philosophy of language, but no philosophy that ignores it can be complete or reliable. That's all Dummett is claiming.

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