Learning Analytic Philosophy

I recently received a query from a reader who is eager to learn more about analytic philosophy, and to develop the skills and strategies valued by analytic philosophers, in order to apply them in his own field (which is not philosophy). Since I’ve been asked similar questions in the past, I thought it would be good to post something here about how to “get into” analytic philosophy and how to learn the “tools of the trade”. No doubt there are many people who could give better advice here, but since I’m the one who received the query, I ought to give it a shot! (I welcome comments from any other readers who work in analytic philosophy.)

LogicIn my view, the most important skill in analytic philosophy is knowing how to argue: how to identify an argument, how to follow an argument, how to evaluate an argument, and how to construct an argument (preferably a good argument!). And that in turn requires various “sub-skills”: knowing how to define terms, how to identify (and avoid) equivocations, how to draw conceptual distinctions, how to formulate premises, how to justify premises (if they need to be justified), how to make good inferences, how to identify (and avoid) fallacious inferences, how to logically divide a field of different views, how to anticipate counterexamples, and so forth. The hard truth is that like many other skills in life, these elementary skills cannot be acquired merely by reading instruction manuals: they have to be developed through observation and application. And that takes time. Sad to say, there are no shortcuts!

Nevertheless, reading a good textbook or two on logic and argumentation will certainly give you a running start. Here are three I particularly recommend:

The Little Logic Book (2013) by Lee Hardy, Del Ratzsch, Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, and Gregory Mellema. This is a nice introduction to logical thinking and argumentation which covers a good range of bases, including modal logic (i.e., the logic of necessity and possibility), counterfactuals (i.e., what would be the case if the world were different in certain respects), probabilistic arguments, arguments from analogy, explanatory arguments, and scientific inferences. The last chapter, on the ethics of argument, is a valuable inclusion. (Go to Amazon.com to see the full table of contents.) Unlike many books on critical thinking, this one isn’t afflicted with anti-religious prejudice. (The authors are all professors of philosophy at Calvin College.) Free downloadable exercises for each chapter are available here.

Introduction to Logic (14th ed., 2010) by Irving Copi and Carl Cohen. This is probably the most widely-used textbook for college-level logic courses. It’s painfully expensive to buy new in the latest (14th!) edition, so don’t do that; just get a used copy of a slightly earlier edition instead. One feature of Copi-Cohen is that it has chapters devoted to language (how language functions to express thoughts and arguments) and definitions (how terms in arguments are defined). You certainly don’t need to read it from cover to cover; particular chapters will be more relevant to some readers’ interests than others. But it does cover all the main bases, and then some.

The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods (2nd ed., 2010) by Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl. Here’s the authors’ own description of the book (from its preface):

Philosophy can be an extremely technical and complex affair, one whose terminology and procedures are often intimidating to the beginner and demanding even for the professional. Like that of surgery, the art of philosophy requires mastering a body of knowledge, but it also requires acquiring precision and skill with a set of instruments or tools. The Philosopher’s Toolkit may be thought of as a collection of just such tools. Unlike those of a surgeon or a master woodworker, however, the instruments presented by this text are conceptual — tools that can be used to analyse, manipulate and evaluate philosophical arguments, concepts and theories.

It’s largely geared towards analytic philosophy, although chapter 6 gives a nod to the Continentals. (Again, you can go to Amazon.com to see the full table of contents.)

Once you’ve gained a firm grounding in the basics of argumentation and critical thinking, the next stage would be to learn through observation by digesting some exemplary works of analytic philosophy. Routledge’s Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy series would be a great place to start, particularly the volumes on metaphysics (Michael Loux), epistemology (Robert Audi), and philosophy of language (William Lycan). For a more historical approach, work through the selections in Blackwell’s Analytic Philosophy: An Anthology.

I assume most readers of this blog are fellow Christians and will therefore be especially interested to see the tools and techniques of analytic philosophy applied to matters of Christian faith. Two undisputed masters in the field are Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne. Even when one disagrees with their conclusions (which I often do) one cannot help but admire the clarity, precision, and rigor (not to mention, in Plantinga’s case, the delightful dry wit!) with which they develop and defend their arguments. The Analytic Theist (edited by James Sennett) offers a nice selection of Plantinga’s writings; follow it up by working through his magnum opus, Warranted Christian Belief. As for Swinburne, perhaps start with The Coherence of Theism or Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. (In case I need to repeat the point: I’m recommending these books because they illustrate well the style and methodology of analytic philosophers, not because I endorse the positions they defend!)

Once you’ve mastered the basics of logical argumentation and observed the tools of analytic philosophy in the hands of its leading practitioners, the third stage would be to learn through practice. I suggest two steps here:

1. Write something. Construct an argument using the tools of analytic philosophy. Either make a case for a positive thesis of your own (some well-defined claim in your field of interest) or engage in an analytical critique of someone else’s thesis. (How do they define their terms? Are their definitions adequate? How do they argue for their claims — and are their arguments cogent? Can you find any counterexamples which undermine either their premises or their conclusions? If their argument is flawed, how could it be fixed?)

2. Criticize what you wrote. This second step is even more important and instructive than the first. If you happen to have some acquaintances who work in analytic philosophy (or analytic theology) you could ask them to critique your argument, but it’s often hard to find people who are competent in the discipline and have the time and willingness to give you good feedback. A better option, then, is simply to argue against yourself. Having written something in the analytic style, in defense of certain claims, now switch hats: assume the position of an opponent of your argument and engage in a full-throttle critique of it.

Try to imagine that your life (or at least your job!) depended on refuting the argument before you. How would you do it? (And do it in a way that has intellectual integrity; no rhetorical cheap shots!) What are the weakest points of the argument? What are its most disputable premises or inferences? Does it rely on equivocation or vagueness at key points? Does the argument prove too little (i.e., it doesn’t establish all that it was supposed to establish)? Does the argument prove too much (i.e., it entails further things that even the argument’s author wouldn’t concede)? Put all of the tools of the analytic philosopher to work and see if you can pick apart what you’ve written. How well does it stand up to critical scrutiny? Don’t give the “first you” an easy pass! If you perform this step with honesty and vigor, you’ll find it to be an extremely valuable exercise.

Once you’ve completed that second step, you can then add a third: try to repair your original argument. Put the first hat back on again. How could your argument be defended against the criticisms of the “second you”? Do you need to tighten up your definitions? Do you need to tweak your original premises or introduce additional premises? If the latter, do those additional premises need to be supported by further arguments? Did your original argument overreach? Could you get what you need with a less ambitious argument? You get the idea.

And of course, these steps can be continued back-and-forth in the same fashion indefinitely. Wash, rinse, repeat — until either you or your alter ego cries uncle.

Postscript: One thing I haven’t done in this article is to define analytic philosophy. You might think that’s a conspicuous omission, since analytic philosophy places such emphasis on defining terms! But like most ‘movements’ or ‘schools’ of philosophy, the history is rather messy and the label doesn’t admit of any simple definition. For a good overview, read the article “Analytic Philosophy” by Aaron Preston in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (See also §6 of the entry on “Analysis” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the supplementary document, “Conceptions of Analysis in Analytic Philosophy”.) For a book-length treatment, see A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: From Russell to Rawls by Stephen Schwartz. (At 368 pages, it’s not quite so brief at the title suggests; but like I said, the history is messy.)

7 thoughts on “Learning Analytic Philosophy”

  1. Excellent article, thank you for the specific recommendations. This was particularly relevant for me because I am currently an undergrad at Biola university that is considering switching major’s from Biblical Studies to Philosophy. I plan on doing graduate work in theology and hope to end up teaching philosophical theology from the analytic method in one form or another some day. While I love philosophy as a tool for clarity and precision, my true love is teaching theology. Basically, I’d like to have a job like yours someday, a philosophically trained theologian. That said, how should I begin this academic path? Undergrad in Bible, masters in philosophy, and doctorate in theology? Undergrad in philosophy, and both graduate degrees in theology? Something else? Suggestions appreciated!

    1. Zack,

      Greg Welty has given you some excellent advice (see below, in case you missed it). I would only add this: it concerns me greatly that many Christian philosophers today seem to have a shaky grasp of Christian theology (even mere orthodoxy) and don’t know how to responsibly interpret and apply the Bible. So whatever academic route you take, just make sure you get well grounded in biblical theology — the earlier the better!

      Remember: in philosophical theology, ‘philosophical’ is the adjective and ‘theology’ is the noun. :)

      1. Thank you for your advice as well! I wholeheartedly agree that there is an awful deficiency of biblically grounded philosopher theologians so I take that encouragement seriously. I’ll continue in my personal study of theology either way. :)

  2. Zack,

    I know you wrote your comment to James, but here are my thoughts nevertheless on your goal of teaching philosophical theology:

    Undergraduate in philosophy from the best school you can enter.
    Masters in theology from the best school you can enter.
    Doctorate in philosophy of religion, or philosophical theology, from the best school you can enter.

    ‘Best’ needs to be carefully thought through, at each stage. In my view, the master’s in theology needs to be from a doctrinally sound, evangelical seminary that takes academics seriously, or at least allows *you* to take academics seriously. This is a crucial time for biblical and theological foundation, and you don’t want to cut corners by being stuck in a place that doesn’t really care about sound exegetical theology, or the biblical languages, or systematic theology, or church history.

    At both the undergraduate and doctoral level, things are different. If you believe you are mature in your faith, study philosophy at the best secular university you can enter. Only do this if you can find a healthy church community to be a part of at the same time. If you instead find yourself fairly untaught in the faith, or you find yourself tossed to and fro in your convictions every time you study philosophers, or you are needing guidance on how to integrate philosophy with the study of Christian theology, then study philosophy at the best Christian university you can enter. The professors there will be able to guide you and aid you, while exposing you to all the primary sources and iconic arguments you need to get familiar with.

    At the doctoral level, you will be specializing, and who you study with will matter (though it is not all important, of course). At this point you will hopefully have been influenced by some significant philosophers or theologians through your exposure to primary readings at the undergraduate and master’s level. Try to see if you can study with one of them. If this is a secular university, then the advice in the previous paragraph applies. And even at this stage, you may find that getting a PhD from a seminary is more appropriate. I had a student back when I was at Southwestern Seminary who did well in the master’s program, and then went to a secular university to do PhD work in philosophy. But in his case, he found his soul shriveled up without a supportive Christian community, so he got a second master’s there and came back and got the PhD from Southwestern. It was a total success, and he did good work in the philosophy of religious language. In his case, that was the best choice for him, even though it wouldn’t have been the best choice for everyone.

    So to make this decision, you have to know yourself. Am I grounded enough in the faith that I can flourish in a secular environment? Are there counselors on my shelves, at least, who can help me sort through crucial issues while I am there? Whose writings have benefited me the most? Can I study with them? Would a cross-cultural experience give me needed challenge and breadth? And where do I want to end up teaching? Christian college? Christian seminary? Secular university? A ministry among local churches? An independent voice in the public square? Cross-cultural missions? Answers to these questions will help narrow it down for you.

    This answer would have been longer if I had taken the time to recount my path from UCLA to Westminster Seminary to Oxford. I had to wrestle with these questions at every stage.

  3. Greg,

    Thank you so much for your excellent advice. Considering my current appreciation of Biola and the Honor’s program I am apart of there (which integrates primary source readings of both philosophy and theology) I am going to stay at that university for the next three years. In light of the advice from yourself and a number of other faculty that I have talked to I am going to make the switch to Philosophy before going on to do a Masters in theology. Right now my desire would be to end up teaching in a Christian seminary although I also would love to have a voice in the public square. My academic dream would be to study at Oxford as well so I’d love to hear your story if your ever able to share it! Thank you again!

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