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A brief history of analytic philosophy
—as told by a frivolous interloper
Once upon a time the British were idealists. They just loved Hegel, couldn’t get enough of him. It was a dark and stormy night, however, when a one John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart finally had too much Hegel. He found that Hegelian idealism was inconsistent with the reality of time, which he understood as necessarily either an A-series (before-after) or a B-series (past-present-future). Time, he found, was irrational; hence for Hegel, it must be unreal—at least in the two identifiable forms. The two categories allowed time which we have outlined above, we may note, are also those of contemporary analytic philosophy. We might at this point wonder how analytic philosophy so easily adopted the work of such a staunch Hegelian.
The answer is readily apparent when we remember how much the British loved Hegel. They were the British idealists, after all—that is, until McTaggart ruined the party. One such character, both British and an idealist, was called Russell; and apparently he loved Hegel so much that he couldn’t let go. Instead he climbed into the machine and tinkered a bit, reversing the movement but more or less running everything the same. Hegelian idealism had grounded the reality of all things in a unicity to be achieved by a logical movement comprising higher and higher synthesis unto the Absolute Idea; Russell would move in the opposite direction and towards the opposite end.
We can see the outset of the analytic tradition most plainly in the name ‘logical atomism’: it maintains the logical movement of Hegelian idealism, and it maintains—contrary to Russell’s claimed escape—its basic idealism.1 The difference is that it sees the fundamental grounding of actuality as by many ‘atoms’ rather than one Absolute Idea; its method thus entails an analytic movement unto a foundational multiplicity.
Word has it that a depressive Austrian then ruined even this party, going so far as to pat Russell on the back and console him that he would never understand. There could be no ‘atomic’ basis for thought; language simply didn’t work like that. This cut the bottom out of Russell’s boat and we have been sinking ever since.2
“If I am successfully understood, my listener will have acquired the benefit that his life will have been made significantly more difficult for him than ever before, and therefore I will not urge anyone to accept this invitation.”
Russell seems to think he can dodge idealism by grounding actuality here in logical structures; it is still an idealism. The way out is not by a reversal but an inversion.
We being the analytic tradition, others dragged below in its wake merely drown.