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The Rise of Analytic Philosophy 1879–1930: From Frege to Ramsey

Michael Potter
Chapman and Hall/CRC
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Frederic Morneau-Guérin
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Michael Potter is a Professor of Logic at the Faculty of Philosophy of Cambridge University and a Life Fellow of Fitzwilliam College. His research mainly addresses the history of analytical philosophy, the philosophical fundamentals of mathematics and philosophical logic.
His most recent book, The Rise of Analytic Philosophy, 1879-1930, offers an informative perspective of the beginnings of analytical philosophy through an in-depth, but accessible study of the work of four philosophers who made the greatest contributions to shaping it in its initial phases of development, namely Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Frank Ramsey. The work covers the remarkably effervescent period from an intellectual standpoint and the philosophical proliferation that began in 1879 with the publication of Begriffsschrift, the magnum opus of Frege, and ended with the sudden unexpected death of Ramsey in 1930. 
The book, which is over 500 pages long, is divided into four parts (one for each philosopher), which are themselves subdivided into short chapters that all end with a section reserved for suggested additional readings. Each part opens with a biographical notice situating the philosopher in question in the context in which he operated. Then, there is a thematic journey of the subject’s work, all presented chronologically. Along the way, the author carefully analyzes changes and developments with the various theories addressed. The work winds up with a vast bibliography as well as a detailed index.
The first part of the book, which covers 139 pages divided into 21 chapters, is devoted to Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), the German mathematician, logician and philosopher who is generally associated with the development of predicate calculus as well as a symbolism for logic. In the first chapters, Potter offers an overview of logic prior to 1879. He briefly addresses the stoics, Aristotelian logic, transcendental logic, the empiricist and idealistic movements and the first murmurings of modern axiomatic logic under the impetus of George Boole. The author dedicates a major part of the following chapters to the detailed study of Frege’s flagship work Begriffsschrift. In the other chapters, he addresses the other works and central ideas developed by Frege, including those presented in Die Grundlagen der Arithmetik and Grundgesetze der Arithmetik.
Part II, which covers 167 pages divided into 24 chapters, addresses the philosophical thought (and more specifically in mathematical philosophy) of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) over the period studied. The author retraces the intellectual trajectory of Bertrand Russell through his initiation to mathematics, his first writings on geometry and the influence (a mutual one in certain cases) of thinkers such as J. M. E. McTaggart, Alfred North Whitehead, G. E. Moore, Giuseppe Peano and later, the young Ludwig Wittgenstein. The second half of this part details the evolution of his thought in terms of mathematical logic and logicism.
The third part, which features 103 pages split into 18 chapters, addresses what it has become common to call the first period of the intellectual life of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). The author first provides an overview of the development of the ideas of Wittgenstein and discusses the first versions of what eventually became the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Potter then discusses the changes made by Wittgenstein in subsequent versions until the crystallization of the text in a final version that was published. However, the thinking of a philosopher as original but untimely as Wittgenstein could not permanently harden. The author also takes the time to address the influence of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, both on the current of analytical philosophy and on the future evolution of the philosophical thought of its author.
The final, considerably shorter part of the book, (56 pages in 10 chapters), is devoted to the life and work of Frank Ramsey (1903-1930), the British mathematician, economist and logician taken from us prematurely by a liver disease. The author addresses Ramsey’s work on questions related to the fundamentals of mathematics. In so doing, he meticulously retraces the sources of ideas and discusses the influence that Wittgenstein’s writings possibly had on the philosophical journey of Ramsey.
Although there were already several in-depth studies of the roots of analytical philosophy (one need only think of the work of giants such as Michael Dummett), this book represents an ideal starting point for anyone attempting to understand the work of Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein and Ramsey, as well as their interactions with their respective intellectual environments. It should be of considerable interest for anyone interested in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of the mind, or the work of one or more of the four philosophers addressed.
Frederic Morneau-Guérin is a professor in the Department of Education at Université TELUQ. He holds a Ph.D. in abstract harmonic analysis.