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Ethical and religious thought in analytic philosophy of language.

ETHICAL AND RELIGIOUS THOUGHT IN ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE. By Quentin Smith. New Haven: Yale University, 1998. Pp. xii + 255. $35.

Smith's beautiful and well-documented book does justice to the extension and depth of analytic philosophy by showing that theories of the ethical or religious meaning of human life follow directly from the methods of linguistic analysis used by many analytic philosophers. S. succeeds in documenting that analytic philosophers have always been dealing with the ultimate questions, and that the concern for language is not an end in itself but a method by which these questions are approached.

Since the 1970s analytic philosophy has paid increasing attention to questions of meaning. Renewed interest in theism, normative ethics, and moral realism has pushed authors like Adams, Brink, Feldman, Hurka, Plantinga and others to writing extensively about ethics and philosophy of religion in addition to writing about the philosophy of language. Yet, it needed to be shown that this concern has been there all along, beginning with the logical realism of the early G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and extending through logical positivism, ordinary language analysis, and linguistic essentialism.

Having defined the method of linguistic analysis in general terms as the method used by a philosopher when "the conclusions she reaches in the discipline of the philosophy of language are premises of central arguments developed in other philosophical disciplines" (ix), S. provides a careful, albeit somewhat selective, description of the history of analytic philosophy in relation to the question of the meaning of human life, linking each of its four movements to a particular version of the method of linguistic analysis employed. Since different versions of the method correspond to different theses about linguistic sense, it is possible to reconstruct the passage from logical realism, logical positivism, ordinary language analysis, and linguistic essentialism in terms of a progressive development within analytic philosophy about the sense, i.e. the semantic content, of words or sentences.

Part 1 of the book is about logical realism, logical positivism, and ordinary language analysis. Part 2 is about linguistic essentialism. Linguistic essentialism is given the most lengthy treatment because S. believes its history is the least known and the most inaccurately represented in the current literature. Moreover, he believes the movement has the greatest relevance to contemporary philosophical debate. In the end, different versions of the method of linguistic analysis correspond to different theses about linguistic sense and can be associated to different theses about objective meaning. S. shows why the philosophies of religion of the positivists and ordinary language analysts are mistaken and gives support to the view that statements about objective religious meaning have both sense and truth-values. By dwelling at length on the genesis of the different positions within contemporary analytic philosophy, S. is able to present a more complete account of linguistic essentialism and to show in details how certain philosophies of religion and ethics belong to this movement.

S. argues for the metaethical thesis that moral realism is true. His criticisms of the antirealist positions of the logical positivists and the ordinary language analysis, as well as of the more recent positions of Mackie and others, are intended to elaborate upon or to supplement the many arguments already given in the literature by contemporary moral realists such as Brink and Butchvaron. Relying upon Thomas Hurka's Perfectionism, arguably "the most important contribution to perfectionist ways of thinking since Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics" (190), S. puts linguistic essentialism to a relatively extensive use in constructing a global, naturalist perfectionism which he sees as a viable option to the current method of "reflective equilibrium" developed by John Rawls and to other normative ethics currently being discussed.

The final goal of S.'s endeavor is "to write a book on "the meaning of human life" that shows how this extremely vague and equivocal phrase can be defined in precise terms, so that it reduces to exactly specified topics in metaethics, normative ethics, and the philosophy of religion" (243). Philosophers and theologians moving out of different philosophical traditions, whether phenomenological, hermeneutical, or transcendental, will be instructed on the history of an unquestionably important part of contemporary philosophy and will therefore benefit from such reading. However, they will hardly overcome the impression that the only way to rescue the possible vagueness of the reflection on the meaning of human life is to embrace the method of linguistic analysis. In this sense, the development of analytic philosophy does not extend far enough to include a critical-transcendental reflection on the plausibility of its own presuppositions.


Georgetown University, D. C.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Dell'oro, Roberto
Publication:Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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