Analytic philosophy

The term analytic philosophy refers to a stream of thought that has developed since the early 20th century, mainly as a result of the work of Bertrand Russell, George Edward Moore, the various members of the Vienna Circle, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. By extension, we refer to the entire subsequent philosophical tradition influenced by these authors, now dominant throughout the English-speaking world (Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia), but also active in many other countries, including Italy.

The term “analytic philosophy” refers broadly to a group of philosophical methods that emphasize detailed argumentation, attention to semantics, the use of classical and non-classical logic, and clarity of meaning above all other criteria. Although the movement expanded, it was a coherent school in the first half of the century. Analytic philosophers were strongly influenced by logical positivism and were united by the idea that philosophical problems could and should be solved by attention to logic and language.

Russell and Moore believed that philosophy should be based on the analysis of propositions. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein argued that the problems of philosophy were simply products of language that were actually meaningless. Wittgenstein later changed his view of how language works, arguing instead that it has many different uses, which he called language games.

The logical positivists of the Vienna Circle argued that the arguments of metaphysics, ethics, and theology were meaningless because they could not be verified logically or empirically. This was based on their division of meaningful statements into analytic (logical and mathematical) statements and synthetic (scientific) statements. Moritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap argued that science is based on direct observation, but Otto Neurath noted that observation already requires theory to have meaning. According to the logical positivists, philosophy must aspire to the methodological rigor of science. Central to this is the issue of verificationism and its principle of verification as an epistemological solution to the problem of demarcating science, pseudoscience, and metaphysics.

If logical positivism was inspired by the theses of Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus, it is possible to link the development of analytic philosophy to the revisions and developments that Wittgenstein himself subjected his own early philosophy to, suggestions that were later taken up and elaborated by other thinkers. The philosophy of the late Wittgenstein does not adopt the same tools as the neo-positivists-logical analysis and the scientific method-but rather focuses on the actual purposes and different contexts of language use.

Early analytic philosophy and logical positivism shared a general anti-metaphysical attitude, with the latter focusing on the principle of verification. The philosophers Karl Popper, with his falsificationism as early as 1934, and George Edward Moore, in an article published in 1938, considered the verificationist principle developed by the neo-positivists to be itself a metaphysical theory, that is, an assumption subject to the same criticism that the Vienna Circle levelled at almost all classical philosophies. On the level of the analysis of language, then, analytic philosophy will shift its research primarily to the proper aspects of all forms of linguistic assertion – abandoning the neopositivist project of constructing a formalized language on a purely logical basis – and focus its attention on the actual use of language, as suggested by Wittgenstein’s theory of language games.


What distinguishes analytic philosophy is not a set of theses but rather a philosophical method, or style. In particular, we can identify four distinguishing elements. The first is the value of argumentation. When presenting a thesis one must support it through an argument, one must make explicit the reasons for (and possibly against) what one is asserting. In order for theses and arguments to be evaluated, it is essential to use as much clarity as possible, such as giving definitions of all terms not in common use. The second is the use of formal logic techniques in the exposition of theory.

For example, modal language (of possibility and necessity) is analyzed through the semantics of possible worlds developed by Ruth Barcan Marcus and Saul Kripke, among others. The third element is respect for the results of the natural sciences. Not all analytic philosophers work on problems that are close to those treated by the natural sciences, although many do. But it is generally accepted that it is not permissible for a philosopher to contradict widely accepted results in the natural sciences unless he actually provides an argument of scientific value to support his rejection. Finally, the value of common sense is often emphasized.

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