Session Notes

What We Will Learn Today

  1. First, the nature of the analytic tradition in philosophy.
  2. Second, the goals of school called logical positivism.
  3. Third, the distinction between analytic, synthetic, and meaningless statements.
  4. Fourth, how analytic philosophy affected other academic disciplines.
  5. Fifth, the implications of the analytic tradition (positive and negative) for Christianity.


Almost a century ago, the world of Western philosophy split into two major camps

  1. The first is called the Analytic tradition, which became dominant in English speaking universities, and largely remains the most common perspective of philosophy departments in the UK and the United States.
  2. The second is called the Continental tradition, which is typically the perspective of philosophy departments in France and Germany.

These labels can be confusing for a variety of reasons

  1. Analytic philosophy was developed largely using the tools of thinkers from continental Europe.
  2. the UK and America increasingly offer programs in Continental philosophy.
  3. Some philosophers deny that the distinction is helpful in the first place.
  4. In the next module, we will explore the continental tradition. In this module, we will explore the analytic tradition.

By the end of the 19th century, philosophers themselves began to lament the failure of philosophy to produce tangible results.

  1. Into this context, the analytic tradition suggested it was time for some house cleaning.

Analytic philosophers emphasized several principles to accomplish this

  1. Typically, they emphasized the importance of clarifying concepts, terms, and statements through logical analysis.
  2. They wrote in style that attempted to be dispassionate and formal rather than the speculative and almost poetic style of the Continental tradition.
  3. For many, they believed that philosophy should focus on propositions, that is, statements about facts that can be verified or, at least, falsified.

A movement called logical positivism developed in the early twentieth century, hoping to find in philosophy the kind of clarity and rigor that exemplified the natural sciences.

  1. The principle of verification promised to be the best tool for cleaning up the life of the mind.
  2. Verificationism is the idea that the only cognitively meaningful statements are those that can be confirmed by empirical evidence or are logically necessary.
    1. The emphasis was on the truth-value of statements of fact, usually called propositions.

The logical positivists made use of an older distinction between types of statements. These included:

  1. Analytic
  2. Synthetic
  3. Meaningless utterances

Analytic statements are true by definition

  1. Such statements are called tautologies
  2. They are certainly true or false, and need no additional deliberation, once we are clear about the logic behind the claims.
  3. Analytic statements are common to the disciplines of logic and mathematics.

Synthetic statements are true or false based on empirical evidence

  1. Such statements allow one to assert that something is more or less probable
  2. Not all synthetic statements are as clear-cut, but they all say something about the world, and can be tested
  3. The best example of a disciplines that fits this sort of talk is natural science

Meaningless utterances are neither true nor false

  1. Their problem isn’t that they say something untrue, it’s that they don’t say anything at all

While most will admit that the exercise of bringing logical clarity to intellectual conversations can be helpful, the project of logical positivism eventually proved to have several shortcomings. For instance:

  1. First, the very claim that we should only believe things that are verifiable is itself not verifiable.
    1. To remedy this, some adopted falsificationism, the idea that any meaningful statement should at least have a way to disprove it, if it is in fact false
  2. Second, the analytic-synthetic-meaningless distinction was questioned by philosophers who observed that, even in domains like natural science, terms are not as clear cut as they might at first appear.
    1. Each term used in a statement depends on a vast network of beliefs, also known as paradigms.
  3. Third, Logical Positivism was too limited in scope and couldn’t account for the human need to explore ethics and aesthetics.
    1. If philosophy is interested in the good, the true, and the beautiful, Logical Positivism only possessed the tools to address claims to truth. It failed to account for the totality of human experience and offered little help with respect to existential concerns.

Whether they properly understood his project or not, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was a blueprint for the logical positivists.

  1. The seventh premise of this book was the famous statement: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
  2. analytic philosophy avoided flights of fancy and metaphysical speculation.
  3. Analytic philosophy forced most university disciplines to enhance the empirical grounding of their methods
  4. Theology was particularly problematic, and most of the early analytic philosophers were staunch atheists.
  5. Secular universities thus rejected serious discussions about the nature of God, and instead turned to the field of religious studies, which examines cultural evidence regarding the practices and beliefs of religious people (which is as verifiable as any social science), not the content of their beliefs (which they considered neither verifiable or falsifiable).

Nonetheless, in the late twentieth century, some thinkers, like the Lutheran analytic philosopher, lawyer, and lay theologian John Warwick Montgomery, noted that although analytic philosophical criticisms of religious belief did make the doctrines of most world religions technically meaningless, those criticisms did not address the unique claims of historic Christianity.

  1. To the extent that Christianity rests on a claim about the resurrection of the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth, and to the extent that history is a legitimate discipline that uses a methodology dedicated to empirical evidence, Christianity made a real truth claim. Christians like Montgomery thus applied an approach to Christian apologetics, that is defense of Christian belief, called evidentialism.
  2. Such apologists seek to avoid fideism, the approach to belief that asks a person to believe something without any evidence whatsoever.
  3. They claim that, whether or not an individual concludes that the evidence is strong for the historical resurrection of Jesus, the biblical claim is not fideistic, but based on historical, eyewitness testimony and strong manuscript evidence.
  4. Thus, one might conclude that Christianity asserts false synthetic claims, those claims ought not be called meaningless, since they are intelligible, and based on truth claims that analytic philosophers should recognize as synthetic claims

In this lecture, we have learned:

  1. First, that the analytic philosophical tradition emphasizes clear and formal analysis of concepts, words, logical terms, and statements.
  2. Second, that logical positivism sought to “clean house” by eliminating claims to knowledge that could not be verifiable, or at least falsifiable.
  3. Third, that analytic philosophers typically distinguished between analytic statements, which are true or false by definition, and synthetic statements, which are determined to be true or false based on empirical evidence, and meaningless statements, which are neither true nor false because they contain no intelligible or verifiable truth claims.
  4. Fourth, that analytic philosophy caused almost all university disciplines to demand that they offer empirical evidence for their claims.
  5. Fifth, though many analytic philosophers have been atheistic, there have also been many Christian philosophers in the analytic tradition who, in one way or another, have contributed significantly to the task of evidential apologetics.


  1. Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy
  2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
  3. John Warwick Montgomery, Tractatus Logico-Theologicus