Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Significs and the Origins of Analytic Philosophy

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Significs and the Origins of Analytic Philosophy

Article excerpt


Studying the literature on the history of analytic philosophy may leave the impression that the members of the Vienna Circle - or more appropriately, the Schlick Circle and the associated advocates of logical empiricism - were the main agents leading philosophy to take the so-called linguistic turn. One may also think that the Circle's inspiration was, in turn, born out of the philosophical and logical contentions of Ernst Mach,1 followed by Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, and the young Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is true that the seemingly rapid penetration of logical empiricism into early twentieth -century thought widely influenced the choice of markedly analytic topics in the philosophy of language, among them accounts of reference, predication, truth, and intentionality. It is equally true that some damage control has recently been deployed to overcome the rift between "continental" and "analytic" philosophies that defined the better part of the last century.2

However, I aim at a perspective that makes an exception. Before proceeding, a caveat: it is not in the nature of my argument to delve into what analytic philosophy is or is not. Such a task will invariably be frustrating. The Rt. Hon. Lord Quinton takes analytic philosophy to have begun when Wittgenstein arrived in Cambridge in 1912 to study with Russell.3 Sir Michael Dummett prefers Frege and the Context Principle. But it is also known that Wittgenstein's encounters with Frege were, at best, inconclusive, and that before Frege, thinkers such as Wilhelm Wundt expressed ideas similar to Frege's Context Principle. Accordingly, Dummett's characterization amounts to the anomalous position that both the psychologism supported by Wundt and the anti-psychologism supported by Frege would have to be admitted by analytic philosophers. The upshot is that the early development of analytic philosophy is likely to be so convoluted as to be nearly impossible to trace.

On balance, though, the question of the origins is not that easy to avoid. Such an investigation is challenging but worth the effort. Unfortunately, many received publications have either been content with clearing up the historical details, or sought to outline the most salient features of these traditions. My purpose is not to discuss what has been perceived as mainstream early twentieth -century European philosophical thought, but to bring to light a scientific and philosophical development that took place at the same time as the formation of early analytic philosophy but has received much less attention. I intend to examine the historical research of Friedrich Stadler, among others, on the Vienna Circle,4 in order to explain the stages of development in European intellectual history that contributed to the shaping of views on the role of language in contemporary philosophy.

What was the intellectual environment in which the Vienna Circle was functioning? Where did its members inherit their interest in logical analysis of language? It is easy to home in on such general factors as modernism, scientific positivism, and monism, as well as a variety of multilateral culturally- and politically-inclined motives. My plan is to offer a connection with the Signifies Movement (Dutch: significa), a predominantly Dutch intellectual movement that scrutinized the philosophical underpinnings of language. The limited recognition of this movement is due not so much to individuals as it is to the philosophical community at large. During the last decades, philosophers have been guilty of a "crime against science" by withholding credit from developments in the history of linguistics, logic, and mathematics. The genetic origin of some of the key ideas routinely relegated to the analytic genre may often be traced back to these largelyforgotten developments.

The intellectual and cultural milieux of signifies persisted even longer than those of the Vienna Circle. Driven by linguists or linguistically-minded philosophers and cultural reformists, this movement, nearly unknown today, was a strong candidate to form the basis of the science of communication and meaning of the new century. …

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