Juliet Floyd: Recent Themes in the History of Early Analytic Philosophy


The April 2009 issue of the Journal of the History of Philosophy contains an article by Juliet Floyd (Philosophy, Boston University) that will likely interest some readers of this blog. It is entitled “Recent Themes in the History of Early Analytic Philosophy” (click on essay title to access). Here is the essay’s abstract, and below that, the first few paragraphs of the introduction:


A survey of the emergence of early analytic philosophy as a subfield of the history of philosophy. The importance of recent literature on Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein is stressed, as is the widening interest in understanding the nineteenth-century scientific and Kantian backgrounds. In contrast to recent histories of early analytic philosophy by P.M.S. Hacker and Scott Soames, the importance of historical and philosophical work on the significance of formalization is highlighted, as are the contributions made by those focusing on systematic treatments of individual philosophers, traditions, and periods in relation to contemporary issues (rule-following, neo-Fregeanism, contextualism, theory of meaning).

1. Introduction: An Emerging Field of Contemporary Importance

Since the 1980s, writing on the history of early analytic philosophy has grown remarkably in scope and philosophical subtlety as analytic philosophy has stepped forward to claim its own, distinctive intellectual ancestry and legacy. As I see it, the growing resistance of scholars to historical oversimplification since the late 1980s reflects progress within contemporary philosophy, whether it goes under the name ‘analytic’ or not. The once commonplace idea that analytic philosophers define themselves by denying the relevance of historical understanding to philosophical insight has been questioned, and philosophers trained in the analytic tradition have begun to develop their own accounts of its contributions to the history of twentieth-century philosophy. As this history is written, the account of early analytic philosophy is likely to impact directly on present research programs in all areas of philosophy; this is one of its most interesting and important features.

The main aim of this essay is to discuss some notable trends in the field over the last quarter century, with the non-specialist in mind. Since a survey of work on even one subfield or main figure would vastly exceed the confines of a single essay, I shall not delve deeply, but paint partially and with broad brushstrokes, attempting two things: 1) to sketch a portrait of the emergence and character of the field, and 2) to emphasize the signal importance of work on Frege and Wittgenstein within it.

“Early analytic philosophy (including Wittgenstein)” is now acknowledged by the Leiter report as an area of professional specialization in which graduate programs in the English-speaking world can excel, forming one of eight in the history of philosophy overall. By stopping with Wittgenstein, a rough chronological line is drawn around ‘early’; singled out by name, Wittgenstein is enshrined, like Kant, as a pivotal figure standing somewhat on his own, while linked to others in a clustered tradition. This is appropriate. While Wittgenstein scholarship forms a subfield in its own right, overlapping with many areas of philosophy, a good deal of the most influential interpretive work on Wittgenstein over the last twenty-five years has gained its force from locating his work against the background of those who immediately influenced him, those whom he immediately influenced, and those contemporaries with whom he may be compared. How and where best so to locate him is, of course, a matter of ongoing discussion; this will be one of my themes in what follows.

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