Despite analytic philosophy’s reputation for aridity, robotic rigidity, and sheer yawn inducing logomachy, analytic philosophy encompasses a rather diverse field only of which a couple rightly deserve it’s reputation. I wish to distinguish four such fields as a guide for those who are confused about it.
Analytic Philosophy Proper
The first aspect of analytic philosophy is probably the driest and most technical, however it is also the part to which most people are introduced to when they read up on analytic philosophy, which is pretty unfortunate.
I call this part “analytic philosophy proper” because it’s subject matter is almost exclusively studied by analytic philosophers alone. They include most parts of philosophy of language such as, sense and reference, theories of reference, meaning and use, truth theoretic models, conventions, etc, etc, and closely related to it, epistemology, etc. It also includes metaphysical topics like possible worlds, universals, truth conditions of realism, counterfactuals, etc.
Analytic philosophy proper is the “purest” part of analytic philosophy with an emphasis upon deductive rigor, to the point of mathematical in many cases (with actual use of mathematical logic and set theoretic concepts), and specificity of conceptual definition. Unfortunately most parts of it are inaccessible to the non-specialist and many parts of it would require actual mathematical training. (To understand an analytic philosophy’s reduction of conventions for example will require some knowledge of game theory.) It is also the driest part of analytic philosophy and in many instances of very little interest to people who lacks a specific interest in those fields. I would not recommend analytic philosophy proper as an introduction to analytic philosophy.
Second Order Reflections
Very closely related to the first but which can be distinguished from it are what I would call “second order reflections”. They are topics like philosophy of mathematics or philosophy of science or political philosophy, morality and ethics, philosophy of religion, etc. These are called “second order reflections” because they are reflections or rationalisation of some preexisting academic field in the world. They reflect upon those other topics and attempt to give a second order explanation and systematic account of it. It shares a lot with the first aspect in deductive rigor and conceptual specificity.
While these fields have a wider interest beyond analytic philosophers, again frequently one requires a rather forbidding command of the primary subject matter in order to understand them. For example, while the basic idea behind laws of nature as systems is easy enough to grasp, the objections to it bases on quantum mechanics is not. Non-specialists in those fields will normally find it very hard to follow the arguments here and very often they would also lose interest very rapidly.
Historical Analysis and Reconstruction
This is the part of analytic philosophy which probably holds more interest to the public. This part takes traditional philosophical texts, like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Scotus, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, etc, and provides either an exegesis or a contemporary systematic reconstruction.
Those who do exegesis will attempt to analyse those texts in the light of the author’s other writings and historical background and provide an accurate interpretation of the philosopher’s thought. The emphasis here is not in attempting to find a contemporary application for that thought, or even an attempt to harmonise tensions or contradictions which occurs in the writings of the philosopher in question, but in representing their ideas to us and helping us understand them. Representational accuracy is the goal here.
Then there would be those who will attempt to “reconstruct” the thoughts of these philosophers with an eye to contemporary application. While sharing much in common with the exegetical tasks of the former, their emphasis is more on making them relevant rather than in accurately representing them. As such they would attempt to discern the fundamental principles and ideas behind these philosophers but will feel free to depart from them whenever they disagree, go beyond what can be justified by the text in their inferences, or find a new application for those ideas. They would also sometimes attempt to formulate old thoughts in terms of new contemporary more rigorous concepts.
This part of analytic philosophy commands a much wider interest than the other two because it is specially aimed for the contemporary audience and presentist concerns.
Ordinary Language and Lived Use Analysis
This aspect, in my opinion, is the most interesting part of analytic philosophy. In the words of Wittengenstein, this part of philosophy “leaves everything as it is.” More specifically, it attempts to make sense of philosophical terms in relation to how it is understood in lived contexts and actual use in ordinary daily life. There is a lot of emphasis on actual lived practices, ways of thinking and use of words in concrete settings as well as a sensitivity to the historical context.
This is not to say that there is no rationalisation, or even systematisation going on. Ordinary language philosophers do formulate new concepts and terms. However unlike the purist analytic philosophers, ordinary language philosophers formulate them to help better understand the concrete phenomenon better, not as an axiom for philosophical deduction or logical derivation or in aid of system construction.
Philosophers like Thomas Nagel and Bernard Williams for example reflect on how people actually make moral judgements in lived contexts and how it doesn’t always line up with the systematisation of moral philosophers, from there they formulated the concepts of “moral luck” and the “incommensurability of values” to focus on the idea that we often attribute moral praise and blame for acts or effects beyond the control of the agent, as well as evaluate people’s actions based on non-moral principles.
Thus the ordinary language philosopher reflects on philosophical concepts, not as a creature in a deductive system, but as a lived idea in concrete historical and cultural contexts, in all its complexity and resistance to systematisation.