Analytic and Transcendental Empiricism: Russell, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze

By Somers-Hall, Henry | Philosophy Today, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Analytic and Transcendental Empiricism: Russell, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze


Somers-Hall, Henry, Philosophy Today


At the beginning of the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell put forward the concept of an "analytic empiricism," an approach which he held to "eliminate Pythagoreanism from the principles of mathematics, and to combine empiricism with an interest in the deductive parts of human knowledge,"1 thus overcoming the limitations of both empiricism and rationalism which he saw to be at the heart of philosophy. Taking its support from atomistic scientific approaches, such as reflex psychology, Russell's analytic empiricism attempted to present a fundamentally atomistic view of both ontology and epistemology. In contrast to this form of empiricism, which was grounded for Russell in a model of the nervous system derived from reflex psychology, Merleau-Ponty developed an ontology which had its foundations in the work of Gestalt psychology. Following on from this, Deleuze took Merleau-Ponty 's approach further, reintroducing an explicit empiricist theme which was already present, if covered over in Merleau-Ponty's work. The aim of this essay is show how, with the failure of the atomistic scientific models that supported Russell's analytic project, a move away from the modular, analytic ontology of Russell's empiricism becomes possible. Following this, Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty move from the atomistic approach to philosophy of Russell, where the world mirrors the structure of the proposition to a genetic transcendental approach to an empiricism built on a new conception of synthesis. I will conclude by showing how the empiricisms of Russell, MerleauPonty, and Deleuze are all in the end transcendental empiricisms in their different ways. Central to my approach will be the thesis put forward by Russell that "in a logically correct symbolism there will always be a fundamental identity of structure between a fact and a symbol,"2 or rather its more general correlate, that one's approach to the world must have some sort of commonality with the world itself.

Russell's Analytic Empiricism

After a detailed survey of the precursors of his tradition, Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy leads us to the position where philosophy, finally rid of the "mysticisms"3 of thinkers such as Bergson, is at last capable of producing theorems which, at least in its own domain, "resemble science."4 The lynch-pin of this new system is a reconfiguration of the role of mathematics within the system. According to Russell, previous empiricist systems grounded their account of rationality on the psychologistic principles of association and habit. If this is the case, however, mathematical analysis becomes problematic, as if mathematics rests on the psychological acts of the individual, mathematics itself then must find its justification in the synthetic acts of the subject, leading to the veracity of logic being doubted. The origin of Russell's supersession of this dilemma is "in the achievements of mathematicians who set to work to purge their subject of fallacies and slipshod reasoning."5 This involves the essential project of the reduction of mathematics to the field of logic. On Russell's interpretation, mathematics is an axiomatic-deductive system, and as such, sidesteps the limitations previously attributed to it by the empiricists as well as the pretensions of the rationalists. As Russell puts it, "mathematical knowledge, it is true, is not obtained by induction from experience. ... In this sense, mathematical knowledge is still not empirical. But it is also not a priori knowledge about the world. It is, in fact, merely verbal."6 It is important to note, however, that although philosophical problems may result from badly analyzed sentences, where a proper characterization of the underlying grammar would result in the solution of a problem, this is not an attempt to show the dissolution of problems under proper analytical circumstances. Hence Russell would say, in reference to the later Wittgenstein, "philosophers from Thales onwards have tried to understand the world . …

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