In spirit and style Analytic philosophy has strong ties with the Empiricist tradition, which stresses the data received through the senses and which, except for brief periods, has characterized British philosophy for some centuries, distinguishing it from the more Rationalistic trends of continental European philosophy. It is not surprising, therefore, that Analytic philosophy should find its home mainly in the Anglo-Saxon countries. In fact, the beginning of modern Analytic philosophy is generally dated from the time when two of its major figures, Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, both Cambridge philosophers, rebelled against an anti-Empiricist Idealism that had temporarily captured the English philosophical scene. The most famous British Empiricists–John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, and John Stuart Mill–had many interests, doctrines, and methods in common with contemporary Analytic philosophers.

Most Empiricists, though admitting that the senses fail to yield the certainty requisite for knowledge, hold nonetheless that it is only through observation and experimentation that justified beliefs about the world can be gained; i.e., a priori reasoning from self-evident premises cannot reveal how the world is. This view has resulted in a sharp dichotomy among the sciences: between the physical sciences, which ultimately must verify their theories by observation, and the deductive or a priori sciences–e.g., mathematics and logic–the method of which is the deduction of theorems from given axioms. Thus, the deductive sciences cannot give justified beliefs, much less knowledge, of the world. This consequence was one of the cornerstones of two important movements within Analytic philosophy, logical atomism and Logical Positivism.

In the Positivist’s view, for example, the theorems of mathematics are merely the result of working out the consequences of the conventions that have been adopted for the use of its symbols. The question then arises whether philosophy itself is to be assimilated to empirical or to a priori sciences. Early Empiricists assimilated philosophy to the Empirical sciences. They were less self-reflective about its methods than contemporary Analytic philosophers are. Being preoccupied with epistemology (theory of knowledge) and the philosophy of mind, and holding that fundamental facts can be learned about these subjects from individual introspection, they took their work to be a kind of introspective psychology. Analytic philosophers in the 20th century, on the other hand, have been less inclined to appeal ultimately to direct introspection. Moreover, the development of rigorous methods in formal logic seemed to promise help in solving philosophical problems–and logic is as a priori as a science can be. It seemed, then, that philosophy must be classed with mathematics and logic.

The question remained, however, what philosophy’s function and methodology are. For a great many Analytic philosophers who do philosophy in the minute and meticulous manner of G.E. Moore and, in particular, for those who have made Oxford the centre of Analytic philosophy, its business is the analysis of concepts. For them, philosophy is an a priori discipline because the philosopher in some sense already possesses the concept in which he is interested and needs no observations in order to analyze it. Philosophy can be seen either as conceptual or as linguistic analysis. In the analysis of the concept of seeing, for example, the philosopher is not expressing purely linguistic concerns–with, say, the English verb “to see”–though an investigation of what can be said using that verb may be relevant to his conclusions. For a concept is independent of any particular languages; a concept is something that all languages, insofar as they are capable of expressing the concept, have in common. Thus, philosophers who stress that it is concepts that they analyze attempt to rebut the charge that their problems and solutions are merely verbal. In contrast, other Analytic philosophers have been concerned with how expressions are used in a particular, nontechnical, everyday language. Thus, the term ordinary language philosophy has been applied by critics as a term of opprobrium to such philosophers.

An influential study, The Concept of Mind (1949), by Gilbert Ryle, a prominent Oxford Analyst, is an example of a work that some critics took to depend in large part on a trivial appeal to how English speakers talk; but many of Ryle’s arguments could equally well have been given by Analytic philosophers who would look upon the term ordinary language with horror.

The problem of perception illustrates how Analytic philosophers who do conceptual analysis think of the goal of philosophy as both different from and complementary to science. Physiologists, psychologists, and physicists–through experiments, observations, and testable theories–have also contributed to man’s understanding of perception. There is in the sciences, however, a strong tendency to advance beyond earlier positions, which seems to be absent from philosophy. In philosophy, for example, the account of perception given by such 20th-century Analytic philosophers as G.E. Moore and the Positivist A.J. Ayer has a close connection with that of Locke in the 17th century. The difference between philosophy and science is that, whereas the scientist investigates an actual occurrence, such as seeing, the philosopher investigates a concept that he already possesses quite independently of what he might discover through the occurrence. Whereas the scientist begins by supposing that he can recognize examples of seeing and is already exercising the concept, the philosopher wants to know what is involved in seeing in the sense of what conditions one can use to classify cases as examples of seeing. He may want to know, for example, whether certain conditions are necessary or sufficient. In testing the philosophical theory that, for an observer to see an object, the object must cause a visual experience in him (the causal theory of perception), one does not set up a scientific experiment. It would be of no use to set up situations in which various physical objects are not causing any visual experiences in order to see whether they still can be seen. For if the theory is correct, no such experimental situation will be an instance of seeing; and if it is wrong, merely describing a hypothetical situation would suffice. The question is one about how situations are classified, and for that purpose hypothetical situations are as good as real ones. For some philosophers in the Analytic tradition, especially those influenced by Wittgenstein, the analysis of concepts has therapeutic value beyond the intrinsic enjoyment of doing it.