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History Of Analytic Philosophy

The revolt against idealism

During the last decades of the 19th century, English philosophy was dominated by an absolute idealism derived from the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. For English philosophy this represented a break in an almost continuous tradition of empiricism. As noted above, the seeds of modern analytic philosophy were sown when two of the most important figures in its history, Russell and Moore, broke with idealism at the turn of the 20th century.

Absolute idealism was avowedly metaphysical, in the sense that its adherents thought of themselves as describing, in a way not open to scientists, certain very fundamental truths about the world. Indeed, in their view what passes for truth in the sciences is not really truth at all, for the scientist must, perforce, treat the world as composed of distinct objects and can describe and state only the relationships supposedly holding among them. But the idealists held that to talk about reality as if it were a multiplicity of objects is to falsify it; in the end, only the whole, the absolute, has reality.

In their conclusions and, most important, in their methodology, the idealists were decidedly not on the side of commonsense intuition. The Cambridge philosopher J.M.E. McTaggart, for example, argued that the concept of time is inconsistent and that time therefore is unreal. British empiricism, on the other hand, had generally started with commonsense beliefs and either accepted or at least sought to explain them, using science as the model of the right way in which to investigate the world. Even when their conclusions were out of step with common sense (as was the radical skepticism of David Hume), the empiricists were generally concerned to reconcile the two.