Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Dummett and the Origins of Analytical Philosophy

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Dummett and the Origins of Analytical Philosophy

Article excerpt

MICHAEL DUMMETT is perhaps the most prominent analytical philosopher to venture a book length account of the origins of his own tradition. In Origins of Analytical Philosophy (1993), Dummett compares and contrasts the work of Frege and Husserl, as representatives of the analytical and phenomenological schools respectively, in the course of arguing that the linguistic turn is the decisive moment in the birth of the analytical tradition and what distinguishes that tradition from other movements. (1) This characterization of analytical philosophy can be contested on a number of grounds, including that it does not take into account the centrality of British thinkers like Russell and Moore for early analytical philosophy, excludes much contemporary naturalism and philosophy of mind, and underestimates the role played by linguistic considerations in so called continental thought. In this paper, my initial concern is not with the limitations of Dummett's characterization of analytical philosophy as a school but with his account of Frege's role as its progenitor. (2) Certain considerations will arise in the course of examining Dummett's account of Frege's influence, however, which point the way towards a more complete characterisation of the origins of the analytical tradition.

Dummett's views on the historical significance of Frege are outlined in the final chapter of Frege: Philosophy of Language (1973). (3) From Dummett's perspective, Frege began a revolution in philosophy as overwhelming as that of Descartes. (4) Whereas the Cartesian revolution consisted in giving the theory of knowledge priority over all other areas of philosophy, Frege's primary significance consists in the fact that he made logic the starting point for the whole subject. (5) Dummett here means logic in the unusually broad sense of a theory of meaning or the search for a model of what the understanding of an expression consists in. (6) For Frege, in contrast to his contemporaries, who were still working within the epistemological framework of Descartes, "the first task, in any philosophical enquiry, is the analysis of meanings." (7) According to Dummett, therefore, Frege inaugurated an epoch in which "the theory of meaning is the only part of philosophy whose results do not depend upon those of any part, but which underlies all the rest." (8) This implies that the philosophy of language assumes the central place for philosophical investigation subsequent to Frege.

In his 1975 paper "Can Analytical Philosophy be Systematic, and Ought it to Be?" Dummett extends this account of Frege's historical significance. According to Dummett, it was "only with Frege" that "the proper object of philosophy" was "finally established." (9) This involves the thesis,

   first, that the goal of philosophy is the analysis of the structure
   of thought; secondly, that the study of thought is to be sharply
   distinguished from the study of the psychological process of
   thinking, and, finally, that the only proper method for analysing
   thought consists in the analysis of language. (10)

It is this view of Frege as having discovered the proper method of philosophical enquiry which informs Dummett's much quoted statement in the Origins of Analytical Philosophy that

   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. (11)

Frege's turn towards thoughts, or the senses of linguistic expressions, is exemplified by his rejection of the psychologistic assumptions of much late nineteenth-century philosophy of mathematics and logic. Dummett argues persuasively that Frege's great advance over conceptual analysis based on the description of psychic experience is found in the decision to begin with content rather than attempting to explain content in terms of our grasp of it. …

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