The Birth of Analytic Philosophy Out of the Spirit of McCarthyism

Analytic philosophy, the hegemonic branch of the discipline in the US, often thinks of itself as above history and politics. But its rise, and its enduring influence, are owed to McCarthyism, which purged radicals from postwar philosophy.

Senator Joseph McCarthy (C) speaking at a hearing on June 7, 1954. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Anyone who comes into contact with academic philosophy today quickly discovers that the field is dominated by a certain style. The style is straight-talking but jargon-laden. Arguments are finely crafted and discussion takes the form of the exchange of quick-fire objections and replies. The weighty questions one might imagine to be central to philosophy quickly dissolve into more trivial puzzles. This is analytic philosophy.

Analytic philosophy today is in a peculiar condition. This is reflected in the tendency of analytic philosophers to profess that analytic philosophy no longer exists. This phenomenon is more interesting than it seems. It might appear as if professional philosophers are now just more relaxed about cleaving to some narrowly defined approach, and perhaps more open to approaches that their ancestors had set their teeth against. This would certainly fit a story that analytic philosophers tell themselves, according to which in the past there was a clearly definable “program of analysis,” but what has grown out of it is so variegated and nuanced as to elude definition.

To understand the peculiar condition of America’s dominant philosophical tradition today requires seeing that more or less the opposite of this story is true. It is not that, in the old days, there was a clearly definable “program of analysis” that has given way to greater diversity. Precisely not. Before World War II, there was no identifiable thing called “analytic philosophy” (and the term was not used). Instead there was a set of distinct and competing movements. These movements were welded together under highly specific political and cultural conditions in the United States after World War II. The act of baptism whereby “analytic philosophy” came to be solidified the previously distinct movements into a new amalgam. The history of this new creation has been — contra the analysts’ favored story — one of rigidification, not diversification.

The Origins of Analytic Philosophy

Analytic philosophy, and the ancestor movements that were brought together to create it, have tended to think of themselves as suspended above the changing scenes of history. But it is impossible to understand the present condition of analytic philosophy without subjecting it to a kind of treatment to which it is constitutionally averse: an examination of the social and political forces that have shaped it.

A crucial factor in the story is the seismic shift in the makeup of the intellectual world from the 1930s to the late 1940s. The political scene of the 1930s was characterized by a contest between fascism and communism; many intellectuals embraced Communism in this period. Even mainstream Oxford philosophers energetically discussed dialectical materialism. By 1945, as the United States emerged as the one shining, unequivocal victor from World War II and American neoliberalism was imprinted on the economic and political structure of the “free” world, everything was different.

Before 1945, there was no single thing called “analytic philosophy.” (If the term was used at all, it was pejoratively, as by the English philosopher R. G. Collingwood in 1933 to group together philosophers he thought united by error.) Instead, there was a panoply of different approaches that might be seen retrospectively as marching under the banner of “analysis.”

In Cambridge, Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore joined forces in instigating a new philosophy in 1898, but the two quickly diverged from each other. Russell, who had begun as a mathematician, envisaged his “logico-analytic method” as a tool for building an ambitious new “scientific” philosophy. Moore, originally a classicist, instigated “commonsense analysis” to take down the ambitious pronouncements of philosophers a notch or two. Russell’s technical advances were tremendously influential, but his philosophical project was widely seen as a failure; Moore, by contrast, exerted enormous institutional influence, and Cambridge philosophy was more or less shaped in the image of “Moorean analysis,” and by the insistent question Moore wielded in discussion: “But what exactly do you mean?”

One place where the “new logic” to which Russell had contributed so fulsomely was studied with excitement was Vienna. Here a group of scientists of all stripes (physicists, mathematicians, social scientists) gathered around Moritz Schlick to discuss philosophical issues concerning the foundations of the sciences. From the discussions of this group, who came to call themselves the Vienna Circle, “logical positivism” was born.

Logical positivism was a strident, modernist movement, seeking to cut away the excess of ornament that had characterized Habsburg Austria-Hungary. Its members enthusiastically embraced opportunities to lecture at the Bauhaus in Dessau. Its highly ambitious program was to bring about the “unity of science,” along with a happy and rationally organized society. These projects were linked: the rigorous application of empiricism throughout science was thought to be coextensive with the production of an enlightened populace through the “total socialization” of universal education and housing.

Enthusiasm about the social project varied among members of the group (some preferring to “remain on the icy slopes of logic”), but the sociologist Otto Neurath was sufficiently committed to it to act as an economic planner for the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic. The Vienna Circle was importantly distinct from both Russell and Moore in how they regarded philosophy. In a manner much starker than either of the Englishmen could countenance, the Viennese relegated philosophy to the role of merely inspecting, organizing, and regimenting the statements that the empirical sciences delivered. Philosophy was no longer the queen of the sciences: it was their mere handmaiden.

In Vienna, the logical positivists were seen as a radical movement — rightly so, insofar as the program of the Circle sought to oppose the forces of populist irrationalism unleashed by the Nazis. By the time of the Austrian Civil War of 1934, as a result of which fascist chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss was replaced by another fascist, Kurt Schuschnigg, their position had become decisively untenable. As the poet Ingeborg Bachmann would later put it, in Vienna itself, the Vienna Circle was dead. Many of its members emigrated to the United States. In the States they reinvented themselves as philosophers of science. This was something they had, on the whole, never been: they had been scientists. But they importantly now came to shape philosophy departments and thereby the institutional discipline of philosophy.

From a Hundred Flowers to Just One

The scene that the European émigrés found in America was one of a wild profusion of philosophical approaches. The journals contained grand system-building efforts by speculative idealists, but there were also critical realists and pragmatists. Then there were Thomists, philosophers working in the Aristotelian tradition as reshaped by the theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas. Even contemporary — as opposed to ancient — work by Indian philosophers was discussed in the pages of the Philosophical Review, then as now one of the most prestigious journals in the field.

This would all quickly change, as logical positivists took a leading role in reshaping philosophy. What they did was essentially to weld together their own approach with others they felt to be in broad sympathy with them. Into this orbit were drawn the work of Russell and Moore, the Austrian but Cambridge-educated philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (in some sense a bridge between Russell and themselves), and elements of the American pragmatist tradition.

American philosophy underwent a rapid transformation. From the “let a hundred flowers bloom” regime that had prevailed before World War II, the newly forged analytic philosophy now quickly took over departments and journals. Given America’s dominant position in the world, this new analytic philosophy would now set the tone in other English-speaking countries and beyond (especially Scandinavia).

Why was this effected with such ease and rapidity? This cannot be explained by the “force of ideas” alone, but must be understood in terms of the political climate that reigned in the United States, beginning in the 1940s. This is reflected in the transformation that logical positivists underwent as they were transplanted from Europe to the States. Figures such as Rudolf Carnap (a leading light of the Vienna Circle) and Hans Reichenbach (who headed the counterpart Berlin Circle) had been outspoken socialists in Europe; in America they kept shtum about their politics, and the social dimension disappeared from their work.

Analytic Philosophy and the “Red Scare”

As the United States sought to cement its newfound dominance in the world, counterposed against that of the Soviet sphere of influence, it entered a period of rigorous political control of the academy. The epithet usually applied to this era of persecution and paranoia is “McCarthyism,” but the phenomenon is wider than the term suggests. The persecution extended well beyond the notorious McCarthyite House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The chief motor of the surveillance and persecution was, in fact, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Both Carnap and Reichenbach were subjected to surveillance and harassment from the FBI. Since the FBI regularly intercepted letters, anyone could be drawn into its realm of suspicion (they had got onto Carnap by reading the correspondence of another Vienna Circle member, Philipp Frank). Mere association with the whiff of Communist ideas or activity could be enough to prompt warranted anxiety.

The climate of fear operated according to a very simple logic. Academics who were suspected of being Communists were called before HUAC, or before various associated committees (the Rapp-Coudert Committee in New York, the Canwell Committee in Washington State). They were called as witnesses, but effectively they were defendants. If they were found guilty, either because they admitted to being or having been Communists, or by remaining silent, then dismissal followed, by means of the following straightforward argument, schematized by Victor Lowe in the pages of the Journal of Philosophy:

(1) Professor X is a Communist.

(2) A Communist has no respect for freedom of inquiry or for objectivity in teaching; to put it positively, he indoctrinates for the party line and the Soviet dictatorship.

Therefore (3) X is not fit to be a professor.

In other words, the professor’s actual political views need not be examined, nor their teaching record. (In the case of the philosophers subjected to this treatment, their teaching records were always impeccable; in fact, they were among the most popular and successful teachers in their respective departments.) The picture was as depicted in the film The Manchurian Candidate. A Communist was, by definition, a puppet controlled from Moscow with no independent power of thought of their own.

Philosophers Appear Before the Committee

The philosophers who actually appeared before such committees, and were almost invariably fired as a result, represent only the sharp end of the wedge. The much more important function of McCarthyism was to spread a general fear that meant retreat to the political status quo, in thought and in action, was the best policy. The general climate of fear is now, by its nature, impossible to gauge, not least thanks to the veil of secrecy that has since understandably descended over the phenomenon of McCarthyism in academia. In light of this, the best sense we can get of what it was like is by attending to the testimony and experience of the direct victims of the purges.

Of the direct victims, some were Marxists in their philosophy, while for others their political commitment did not enter into their work. An example of the latter type was the distinguished logician William T. Parry, who had joined the Communist Party after witnessing the University of Vienna being shut down by fascist rioting in the 1930s. Parry got off relatively lightly after appearing before HUAC: his tenure was revoked and he was placed on “annual appointment” as associate professor. The only indication of flirtation with Marxism in his philosophical career was a paper he cowrote with another victim of McCarthyism, V. J. McGill, called “The Unity of Opposites.” McGill was fired by Hunter College, New York, in 1956 not for being a Communist himself, but for refusing to “purge himself” by naming others who had been members of the Communist Party.

In the case of those who pursued a Marxist approach in their philosophical work, it is clear that a direct counterforce to analytic philosophy was severely injured in its efficacy insofar as their careers were suppressed by McCarthyism. Among these were Barrows Dunham and Stanley Moore, who both joined the Communist Party in the 1930s. Dunham made himself into a test case before HUAC by refusing to answer all questions except those concerning his name, age, and address, and then invoking the Fifth Amendment (which protects against self-incrimination).

He was duly fired by Temple University. In the wake of this, previous support for Dunham quickly ebbed away. Perhaps the most famous American pragmatist philosopher, John Dewey, had enthusiastically endorsed Dunham’s Marxist work of intellectual history Man Against Myth when it was sent to him at proof stage. Prior to its publication, Dewey became aware that Dunham was in trouble with Red-hunters. All of a sudden Dewey could not remember having ever given his endorsement and withdrew it. Dunham was not restored to his position at Temple until 1981.

Dunham was able to support himself as a freelance writer for the rest of his life. Another Marxist philosopher called before HUAC, Stanley Moore, similarly managed to piece together a career after being fired by Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Others were not so lucky. Herbert J. Phillips, an early victim of McCarthyism, was fired from his position at the University of Washington purely for membership of the Communist Party. Since Phillips was evidently an excellent instructor who was open about his Marxist views and discussed them freely with students, he could be indicted for nothing else than his sheer membership of the party; the Phillips case helped to shape the general approach that university regents would subsequently adopt, according to which being a Communist equated to an inability to think independently and thus uphold the freedom of expression characteristic of university of life. Phillips subsequently worked in a furniture factory and on a construction site. A younger victim, Morris Judd, a talented instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who had been unanimously recommended for promotion to a proper position by his department, gave a virtuoso performance in front of HUAC. It resulted in his employment being terminated. Judd worked for the rest of his life running a junkyard.

These philosophers are, of course, now mostly entirely unknown. One who dramatically disappeared without trace after an auspicious beginning is Forrest O. Wiggins. Wiggins had made history by becoming the first black person to hold a full-time appointment at a “white” institution when he obtained a position in the philosophy department at the University of Minnesota. This was trumpeted at the time in the press as a great advance.

In 1951, however, Wiggins became a cause célèbre for a different reason. He gave a speech on campus called “The Ideology of Interest,” in which he mounted a forceful argument linking capitalism with racism and imperialist war (as he had done campaigning for Henry A. Wallace’s presidential bid in 1948). The speech was enough to get Wiggins fired, although the grounds cited were (with flagrant implausibility) deficiency in professional competence and scholarship.

Previously, the FBI had spread rumors that Wiggins was a homosexual, and also that he had sex with white female students. The Wiggins case provoked a huge uproar among students, more than two thousand of whom signed a petition to the University of Minnesota’s president. Many of these students will have subsequently been blacklisted. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) became involved. But Wiggins stood no chance. His wife divorced him, and his career lay in tatters.

It must not be imagined that McCarthyite persecution of philosophy professors ended with the death of Joseph McCarthy in 1957. The radical black Marxist philosopher Angela Davis in her Autobiography aptly described the process that led to her being fired by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), in 1969 as an “inquisition à la McCarthy.”

Nevertheless, the Davis case indicates how things had shifted in various respects. For one thing, she had been appointed by a staunchly analytic department at UCLA (after Donald Davidson had a year earlier tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit her for the similarly staunchly analytic department at Princeton). For another, being a Communist was now no longer sufficient for dismissal. Davis, who was in fact fired not once but twice, made a point of demonstrating this. The first time, Davis replied to a letter from the chancellor’s office asking her to state if she was, or was not, a Communist Party member by boldly stating that she was. The move to dismiss her was overturned. But the second time around, she was indicted not for being a Communist but for making statements deemed incompatible with university life. In one of the speeches she had held around campus, Davis had — outrageously — called academic freedom a “real farce” unless used “to unveil the predominant, oppressive ideas and acts of this country.”

It is clear enough that McCarthyism and its legacy were sufficient to make life hard for a particular strand of opposition to the analytic mainstream, characterized by its general adherence to empiricism and liberalism: those who were broadly Marxists. But its power in cementing the analytic mainstream went beyond this. The whole tendency of the period was to block out alternatives to a paradigm that stretched across disciplines. This paradigm, which consisted of methodologies developed for the purposes of Cold War research and development such as rational choice theory, operations research, and game theory, functioned to reinforce a vision of society, and of inquiry, reliant on the classical liberal idea of the autonomous rational individual as the fundamental unit of society.

According to this worldview, each participant is welcome to enter the marketplace of ideas and offer their wares as they see fit. Philosophy was apparently such an arena in its purest form; all that mattered in it was the contest of ideas, taking place in a space void of power interests. What this ignores, of course, is the central insight which Marxism, critical race theory, feminism, and other critiques of the social order have difficulty impressing on analytic philosophers: that relations of power structure the marketplace before anyone has even entered it.

It was only in 1971 that analytic philosophy finally acquired a political philosophy of its own, after decades of barrenness, in the form of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. It is no surprise that this work, within whose framework all subsequent analytic political philosophy was conducted, should take the form of an extended apologia for American liberalism. In his quest for what he called a “well-ordered society,” Rawls simply assumed a matrix of individuals each pursuing their vision of the good life, and then devised an elaborate scheme for allocating resources to them. The individuals were to do this by placing themselves under a “veil of ignorance” that prevented them from knowing who they would be in the society. The very viability of individuals deliberating in such a power vacuum was never considered.

It is not merely political philosophy in the analytic mold, however, that suffers from such self-imposed constriction. The problem with the analytic philosophy that was created in the late 1940s, as logical positivism was amalgamated with other philosophical movements and shorn of its political dimension, is that its whole discourse takes place within the space of the liberal marketplace of ideas. This accounts for the strange convulsions that analytic philosophy is currently going through in its attempts to incorporate the insights of critical race theorists and feminists. It may be more receptive now than it was when Wiggins or Davis sought to bring similar insights in the 1950s or ’60s. But still, it cannot help but spew these insights back out in a strangely deformed shape: as moves in the liberal marketplace of ideas that those thinkers precisely seek to subvert and close down.

Share this article


Christoph Schuringa is associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern University London and the editor of the Hegel Bulletin. He is the author of two forthcoming books: A Social History of Analytic Philosophy from Verso and Karl Marx and the Actualization of Philosophy from Cambridge University Press.

Filed Under