But in the history of analytic philosophy, we don't really have either a standard syllabus or adequate companion books. Over the years several people have asked me how I teach my history of analytic classes. Unfortunately, I have tried out several different ways of organizing a Frege-Russell-Wittgenstein course and have always had trouble with the Russell part. My latest experience in Taiwan has convinced me that we should have a few basic goals when organizing such a course.
First, as with any history of philosophy course, the readings should be mostly drawn from the primary texts of the philosophers themselves. These readings should cover several different philosophers and span various areas of philosophy. It is not that useful, I would argue, to just focus on philosophy of language, for example, or just philosophy of mathematics. Picking just one area of philosophy would give a misleading impression of early analytic philosophy.
Second, there should be some attempt to relate the readings together into some kind of sustained narrative. One problem with some introductory books out there right now is that they cover just one philosopher. So, they miss the important interactions and disputes between philosophers that are crucial to the development of analytic philosophy. The narrative need not be some kind of continuous advancement of understanding, but could just as easily include several false starts or strange innovations on a given issue.
Third, students should learn not only the material covered, but also come to appreciate its remoteness from many of our contemporary ways of doing philosophy. As I put this point in my most recent course, early analytic philosophy was done in a different context, where a context includes a choice of problems, methods and standard positions. So, we should acquaint our students with this different context and help them to see how radical a transformation was effected by people like Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein.
On this last point, I can imagine the reply
Aren't we analytic philosophers, after all? If we are analytic philosophers, then surely we share more or less the same philosophical context of earlier analytic philosophers. So, the sorts of misunderstandings that result from variation in philosophical context simply cannot arise when we look back at these writings.I want to suggest that this sort of response is misguided. What it ignores is that in its early stages analytic philosophy involved a radical change in the way philosophy was done. If this is right, then these early analytic philosophers were operating in a very different philosophical context from the one we enjoy now. This is for the simple reason that their philosophical contributions changed the philosophical context in many respects. These include all the features of a context: what problems are important, which methods are appropriate and which answers are viable. Many more traditional aspects of philosophy were thrown out and many new problems and techniques were imported into philosophy. The revolutionary character of early analytic philosophy, then, means that we must be careful in our approach to these writings, perhaps even more careful than when reading Aristotle or Aquinas where the difference in philosophical context is obvious and uncontested.
In future posts I hope to flesh out more how this sort of course would proceed, but for now I would be interested in hearing from teachers and students what their thoughts are on this sort of issue.