Nikolay Milkov: Early Analytic Philosophy and the German Philosophical Tradition

Early Analytic Philosophy and the German Philosophical Tradition Book Cover Early Analytic Philosophy and the German Philosophical Tradition
Nikolay Milkov
Bloomsbury Academic
Hardback £76.50
x + 296

Reviewed by: R.A. Goodrich (ARC Centre for History of Emotions – University of Melbourne & ADI Philosophy & History of Ideas – Deakin University)

The four sections of this review essay will each pursue a major facet of Nikolay Milkov’s monograph, a monograph mainly directed at professional philosophers and their postgraduate students, but not without interest for historians of ideas. Within the space available, we shall give particular attention to the opening chapters. Indeed, it is in these chapters that the fundamental framing of Early Analytic Philosophy and the German Philosophical Tradition is erected. They are finally re-engaged in the concluding pair of chapters, chapters that portray two dominant conceptions of analytic philosophy influencing its subsequent factional development; the consequent proliferation of incomplete often methodological definitions of analytic philosophy; and, finally, what amounts to the author’s manifesto for the future renewal of analytic philosophy. The questions governing the four sections of this critique can be summarised as follows. Firstly, how does Milkov construe the context of historical enquiries into early analytic philosophy? Secondly, what does he believe ought to be the task and goal of such endeavours? Thirdly, how do the demands of a case-study of the impact of a controversial major intellectual upon early analytical philosophers demonstrate his actual historical practice? Finally, to what extent do other significant, contemporaneous historical approaches invite further questions? Or, to recast this issue, do the assumptions Milkov makes about the very nature and crafting of the history of philosophy raise closer scrutiny and debate?


Milkov’s re-framing of the history of the early phase of analytic philosophy comes a half-generation after Daniel Garber’s reflection upon attitudes to the intellectual past by so many of its practitioners.  Garber’s own generation was “reacting against … a bundle of practices” that could be characterized by several trends (2004: 2). These included the tendencies “to substitute rational reconstruction of a philosopher’s views for the views themselves,” “to focus upon an extremely narrow group of figures,” “to focus on just a few works … that best fit with … current conception[s] of the subject of philosophy,” “to work exclusively from translations and to ignore secondary work … not originally written in English,” and “to treat philosophical positions as if they were those presented by contemporaries” (2004: 2).

Before assessing how Milkov differs in his historical approach, let us focus upon the first two theoretical chapters of his sixteen-chapter volume in order to examine the underpinnings of that approach. Whereas the vast majority of chapters draw upon a dozen articles and chapters published between 1999 and 2012, both introductory chapters implicitly provide Milkov’s readers with his most recent thinking. It occurs within the statement of his over-arching aim of transforming the “largely disparate efforts” (4), notably but not exclusively since the ‘’seventies when Michael Dummett (1981: 628ff. & 665ff.) began probing the development of Gottlob Frege and the philosophy of language (also succinctly critiqued by George Duke (2009)). Milkov believes this can be achieved by “developing a comprehensive account of early analytic philosophy as a movement that both inherited and transformed an entire spectrum of themes … in mainstream German philosophy” (4). A significant factor amongst English-speaking commentators in avoiding, if not disparaging, the role of Germanic thinking from the twentieth century’s first world war to the aftermath of the second was “socio-cultural animosity and clashing ideologies” (4).

Milkov is well aware that his effort to construct “a theoretically balanced and comprehensive, ideologically unbiased account” involves him in pursuing “pioneering figures” of analytic philosophy such as B.A.W. Russell and G.E. Moore. More particularly, it demands that he demonstrates how they probed “inherited problems and doctrines” originating in Germanic philosophical thinking “in the language and theoretical idiom of a far different cultural and intellectual environment” (5). By so doing, we find that Milkov overtly opposes five historical conceptions of what many scholars construe as the Anglo-Germanic intellectual relationship (or lack thereof) during the initial period of the analytic movement (and subsequently elaborated when dealing with “incomplete definitions” of the extended analytic movement’s “methodological” and “defining themes” (208-212)). In brief, they comprise the following objections:

[i] that, as the twelfth and sixteenth chapter in the first volume of Scott Soames (2003) might be interpreted, Kant’s analytic-synthetic dichotomy was central to early analytic projects (5, cf. 8, 11-12);

[ii] that, despite efforts to reconnect two historically divorced yet aligned traditions in Paul Redding (2007) and thereby contend that Hegel’s “grand … theories” were central, but not his methods which Milkov specifically upholds subsequently (e.g. 46ff.) (5);

[iii] that, as promoted by the likes of Kevin Mulligan and Barry Smith, Kant and his followers operated “in principle” with a “universe of ideas” totally independent of the analytic movement (5-6);

[iv] that neo-Kantians, notably Ernst Cassirer of the Marburg school, “were largely preoccupied with the philosophy of culture,” thereby ignoring their continuation of “the logicalization of philosophy initiated by Kant” (6, cf. 7, 221); and,

[v] as Dummett (e.g. 1981: xlii, 665-684) influentially maintained, that “Frege alone introduced analytic philosophy as a kind of philosophy of language” (6, cf. 12, 111, 209-210).

From the pivotal occurrence of Kant’s “recalibration” of occidental philosophy by “synthesizing logic with the rest of the field” (7), Milkov proposes the next major pivot to be neither Hegel nor Frege but Hermann Lotze. His investigations would later be identified, if not always acknowledged, as “signature concerns” of early Cambridge analyses, ranging “from the proposition, objective content—both conceptual and perceptual—of knowledge, and intentionality to the theory of logical forms, the objective nature of values and logical validity” (7). As Hans-Johann Glock (1999: 141ff.) emphasizes, the “logocentric” factor in what he regards as German analytic philosophy saw the pronounced rejection of the naturalist trend of reducing philosophy to an empirical science such as psychology to which the laws of logic were subservient and thereby functioning as little more than empirical, inductive generalisations.

The subsequent questioning of logocentric constraints rationalises Milkov upholding a distinctive, “discrete” second (or “middle”) phase of analytic philosophy initially associated with the Vienna Circle’s focus upon “problems of explanation in science” (9). Thereafter, he observes, a “clearly distinguishable” third (or “late”) phase emerged from the ’sixties with Van Quine, Thomas Kuhn, and John Rawls epitomizing “leading exemplars” of shifts into questions of translatability and interpretation, scientific revolutions and commensurability, and socio-political rules and cohesion. In sum, synoptic attempts to define analytic philosophy fail to “discriminate … different stages” (10) and thus distort historical actualities of its “multifacteted” development (11).

Chapter One ends by returning to its goal of “a fine-grained” investigation of topics “from alternative perspectives” that were “formative” of early analytic philosophy to be treated by way of its “methodology … which was more focused on descriptions than explanations” (11). Rather than impose a “monothematic,” if not hierarchical, interpretation upon actual analytic development, such as Soames’ singular notion of analysis or Dummett’s one of language (11-12), Milkov points elsewhere. We, in fact, face “concepts that survived the demise of the grand theories in which they originally figured” (13). At the same time, when “later recast by thinkers,” the “supersession of historically successive philosophical contexts, whereby seminal ideas make their way through history, explains why philosophically formative ideas are often difficult to recognize” (13). Furthermore, “the progress of these ideas was not always linear … nor was it always a function of a proximate influence” (13).


Chapter Two ends Milkov’s theoretical introduction by initially surveying attitudes of philosophers, be they analytic or other, towards their intellectual antecedents. Whilst so doing, he notes that even philosophers “cannot, in principle, write down their completely finished story” (18). This state of affairs holds irrespective of whether their successors, be they “friends or rivals,” develop “steps” suggested or even when others, attempting to demonstrate how their ideas are “constructed” or related, typically interpret such ideas as contributing to a “completely new problem” (18-19). Curiously, for a chapter devoted to the logical, systematic history of philosophy, Milkov does not pursue the conceptual consequences of history as retrospective narrative, a point to be expanded in our fourth section.

Milkov contends that the task of an historian of philosophy is fourfold, namely:

[i] explicating “elements” of the “different range and level of specific philosophical works”;

[ii] relating these elements within “a logical net” or, still metaphorically speaking, mapping them;

[iii] logically relating them to “the ideas of other philosophers: predecessors, contemporaries, successors” irrespective of whether they are “members of the philosopher’s school or group”; and, finally,

[iv] aiming to “develop them further in their authentic sense” (19).

That said, Milkov makes allowance for more implications arising from his four designated tasks. These include, for example, the need for historians—especially for those pursuing “logical connections” aiming to detail “a map without omissions” (26)—to adopt two directions. On the one hand, there is a diachronic quest for the “origins of particular concepts, problems, and theories” (20). On the other hand, there is a synchronic “reporting” about how other philosophers deploy these differently in order to “delineate … how the systematic philosophical problems and concepts, past and present, interrelate in formally determinate ways” (20). In his penultimate chapter, Milkov reframes this dual task along the lines of what Peter Strawson (1992: 17-28) once called “connective” as opposed to “reductive” analysis (203).

The foregoing may nonetheless leave readers wondering if Milkov’s fourfold set of tasks above is sufficiently explicated. Consider, for instance, why Milkov’s preferred “elements”—concepts, problems, theories—gradually focus upon the first two at the expense of the third. Consider again, how one is to construe Milkov’s metaphorical notions of “net” and “map.” The latter, as we shall consider in our final section, reveals some questionable presuppositions bedevilling theories of history applied to the realm of ideas. Finally. consider why his reference to “specific … works” omits the interpretive nature, let alone assumptions and consequences, of translations, transcriptions, and reconstructions of published and unpublished work or works; all the more so, when pitted against the goal of approaching its or their “authentic sense” (19). Is this appeal to “authentic sense” in danger of becoming embroiled in a potential dilemma? As argued in more literary circumstances by Saam Trivedi (2001), the underlying conception of communication ultimately “implies a commitment” to “the view that the correct meanings and interpretations … are fixed” or “at least … constrain[ed]” by their authors’ “actual intentions” in constructing their works (195). In other words, the problem is “an epistemic dilemma, a dilemma with redundancy as one of its horns, and indeterminancy as the other” (198). Imagine a situation in which Antonio and Alessia, archaeologists and keen students of accounts of the settlement of the Azores archipelago begin reading the fifteenth chapter of the 1894 Raymond Beazley history of “one continuous thread of Christian” European exploration and expansion across the Atlantic which “treat[s] the life of Prince Henry as the turning point” albeit one “clouded by the dearth of compete knowledge… but enough … to make something of … a hero, both of science and of action” (xvii). Both sense the above-mentioned danger of confronting them, namely, whether or not Beazley’s textual or oral sources are pervaded by ambiguity. If ambiguity is pervasive according to Antonio, the historian’s attempt to appeal to contexts if not conventions as a sufficient constituent of his sources’ meaning in cases of failed or indeterminate intentions begins to crumble. The dilemma remains if, as Alessia contends, ambiguity here is not pervasive because the sources threaten to become superfluous especially in the face of Beazley’s ideological pre-occupations.


Our previous section has in passing questioned Milkov’s conception of the goal and task of historians of (early) analytic philosophy in terms of retrospective narratives and metaphors of mapping. However, before turning to these issues in our final section, we shall pursue, albeit briefly, how the demands of a significant philosophical case-study demonstrate his actual practices. Here, we find a rich array from Chapter Three onwards. In practical terms, we would hardly expect a volume of under three hundred pages to present a fully “comprehensive,” let alone an “unbiased,” account (5); rather, it acts as a corrective by challenging engrained scholarly perspectives with alternative ones. An example of a complex major German thinker, initially rejected by Russell and Moore as intersecting with early analytic philosophy, should suffice, namely, Hegel, a pivotal figure for what is popularly called the European idealist movement.

Milkov acknowledges the recent role of Redding (2007) and Angelica Nuzzo (2010) in drawing parallels between analytic philosophy and Hegel’s approach to concepts (46). However, he elects to highlight an “unexplored” perspective of the “methods employed” not as the “genealogical connection between … two theoretical orientations, but rather … [as] their kinship” (47). His prime candidate is the “economic method of elimination” (as distinct from the “reductive” conception of analysis in which particular concepts were assigned to specific classes (cf. 49)). Early analytic philosophers, beginning with its “only one founding father,” Russell (221), deployed elimination to rid analysis of “a superfluous duplication of terms” (47). For instance, if Antonio knows the words comprising a proposition (“The Azores is Europe’s largest volcanic archipelago”), then by that very fact he knows its meaning. If his colleague Alessia can confirm that the hypogea of the Azores are products of human activity at least a millennium before European settlement from 1433, then, ipso facto, she can prove that there were ancient people and things before and beyond herself.

This method, asserts Milkov, is akin to Hegel’s mereological approach in logic to analysing the relationship between a whole or totality and its parts or elements. By so analysing the connections between parts of a whole by “the most economic type of connection between them,” Hegel can simultaneously characterize those between the parts and the whole which “are unities of individuals” (48), the latter, citing Hegel (1830: §158), functioning as “only moments of one whole.” Nonetheless, Milkov concedes that the above method specifically “related to Hegel’s dialectics” was “a major trend” amongst fin de siècle philosophers ranging from William James, a key contributor to the North America pragmatist movement, to Edmund Husserl, a major instigator of the European phenomenological movement, and not peculiar to the early analytic movement as such (49).

For Milkov, only the early Wittgenstein (1922) fully embodies Hegel’s dialectics where “every concept transforms into another concept” and thereby making it “more precise” (50). His other nominee is Rudolf Carnap who, during the middle or second period of the analytic movement’s trans-Atlantic debates over the logical quest for conceptual or definitional precision, “called the practice of analysis explication” (50). Thereafter, the relatively open-ended use of “explication”—nowadays known as “conceptual (re)engineering”—by advocates in philosophical and psychological fields has seized upon experimentally or experientially driven applications of theoretical enquiries. Whereas Milkov subsequently concentrates upon Susan Stebbing’s criticisms (e.g. 186-187), the contested arguments of Quine and Strawson amongst others continue to reverberate. These include, for example, the viability of securing necessary and sufficient conditions; the validity of distinctions between analytical and empirical truths; the separation of denotative and connotative meanings; the division between semantic and pragmatic kinds of context and reference; and the methodological question of whether “explication” ultimately alters the subject of enquiry or forcibly resolves it by way of implicit stipulation.

Hegel’s mereological approach above carries implications for its relationship to the “absolute” or “absolute idea” which Milkov construes more generally amongst German idealists as determining “the characteristics and behavior of all individuals that fall under it with necessity of a law” (62). Later, focusing upon the early Russell under the specific influence of Lotze, Milkov claims that Russell, when first emphasizing “the logical discussion of metaphysical problems,” conceptually distinguished between space and time “as consisting of relations” and “as adjectives to the absolute” (89). What is ignored here is an alternative account of the “absolute idea” which, according to Markus Gabriel (2016), is grounded in “methodological assumptions designed to guarantee the overall intelligibility of what there is, regardless of its actual natural, social or more broadly normative structure” (181). Gabriel’s challenging perspective centres upon “how reality as a whole is the main topic of Hegel’s philosophy” which includes the crucial task in the face of scepticism of “accounting for the presence of self-conscious thinking in nature” (2018: 383). Irrespective of the merits of this alternative, it compels intellectual historians to ask if early analytic philosophers realised that Hegel’s “absolute idea” was not a first-order metaphysical method for disclosing, in Gabriel’s words, “the composition of ultimate reality in the sense of the furniture of mind-independent fundamental reality” (2016: 185).

There is something else Milkov largely seems to overlook in his treatment of Hegel’s mereological mode of dialectical analysis which only tangentially comes to the fore when his sixth and seventh chapters delve into Lotze’s focus upon the logical relations within judgements and its influence upon Russell and Moore (e.g. 73-74 & 76-77). For many readers, especially those more familiar with the third (or “late”) phase of analytic philosophy and its persistent debates about semantic holism, curiosity centres upon the extent to which the early analytic phase and its German antecedents wrestled with holistic assumptions. Yet only passing mention of Moore’s widely disseminated and influential Principia Ethica is made. Milkov simply remarks that the volume was “developed around the concepts of ‘organic unity’” or organic whole in a “quasi-Hegelian manner” (49)—notably, it may be added, in terms of the intrinsic and non-intrinsic values of whole and parts (e.g. 1903: §18-23, 27-36)—without any explicit mention of Lotze.

From an historical perspective, amongst the basic conceptions upheld by the generation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the organic kind, as Dennis Phillips has long argued, took root in efforts to deny the adequacy of atomistic or mechanistic assumptions associated with the physical and chemical sciences of the day when applied, for example, to conscious beings, human societies, or even “reality as a whole” (1976: 6). Why? Because the “parts of an organic system are internally related to each other” (1976: 7). Internal relations are commonly explained by such propositions as the “whole determines the nature of its parts”; “parts cannot be understood … in isolation from the whole”; and, parts are “dynamically” inter-dependent or -related (1976: 6). To accept internal or intrinsic relations, continues Phillips, rapidly leads to the contestable belief that “entities are necessarily altered by the relations into which they enter” (1976: 8). Hegel’s mereological approach in, for example, The Science of Logic is replete with holistic assumptions. This becomes all the more so as Hegel probes the “essential relation” in that work’s 1813 The Doctrine of Essence as “the relation of the whole and the parts” wherein the whole “consists of the parts, and apart from them it is not anything” (1813: 449-450). Because the whole “is only relative, for what makes it a totality is rather its other, the parts” (1813: 451), Hegel unhesitatingly declares:

Nothing is in the whole which is not in the parts, and nothing is in the parts which is not in the whole. The whole is not an abstract unity but the unity of a diversified manifoldness; but this unity within which the manifold is held together is the determinateness by virtue of which the latter is the parts. (1813: 452)

In sum, we might ask, would focusing upon Hegel’s holistic commitments give us a more cohesive framework for explaining why the development of early analytic philosophy hinged upon overtly rejecting them for several decades at least? Or, if Milkov’s cryptic remarks about Hegel’s dialectical approach (e.g. 46-51, 75-76) tempt us to accept the reconstruction proposed by Gabriel (2011: 104-119), might this, in turn, explain why early analytic philosophers misinterpreted Hegel’s concept of the absolute in so far as it was premised on the “dialectical failure of transcendent metaphysics” from Kant onwards?


The last two chapters deftly portray three key issues motivating Milkov’s monograph which some readers may find worthwhile reading first of all before retracing earlier chapters for the expository details. These key issues include the emergence of two dominant conceptions of analytic philosophy influencing its subsequent factional development which, as Gordana Jovanović (2010) unwittingly demonstrates, echoes tensions within the early history of psychological theory and practice. Thereafter, Milkov turns to the resultant proliferation of incomplete, and often implicitly reified methodological, definitions of analytic philosophy. Finally, he ends Early Analytic Philosophy and the German Philosophical Tradition with what amounts to a manifesto for the future renewal of analytic philosophy partly by contrasting its fundamentally asymmetric relationship with “continental” philosophy and partly by looking to how reconnecting to scientific developments promises its theoretical interdisciplinary enrichment (217ff.).

Milkov’s closing chapters seek “to articulate a clear definition” based upon “the findings” of his preceding chapters and to “foster a more historically informed and theoretically nuanced understanding of analytic philosophy in general” (208). This statement returns us to his initial one about the ideal goals and tasks facing the historian of philosophy: “a theoretically balanced and comprehensive, ideologically unbiased account” (5). As noted in our previous sections, this left at least two historical issues in abeyance which we rather tersely associated with the retrospective character of narratives and the misleading metaphors of mapping. We shall briefly conclude by questioning the presuppositions of these and related issues whilst drawing upon recent re-conceptualisations of the crucial explanatory dimension of history of philosophy.

To ask Milkov what the criteria are that mark an historical account of analytic philosophy as balanced, comprehensive, and unbiased may well be accompanied by such questions as “From whose perspective?” or “By what objective measure?” More unsettling here is the possibility that we are dealing with an idealised set of attributes. How, were this the case, would we ever recognise a comprehensive or an unbiased historical account? The contrast with actual historical accounts immediately shifts our focus. For example, the question might now become whether any historical narration of the occurrences and persons said to be instrumental in the formation of the analytic movement—the role, for instance, assigned to the neglected Dimitri Michaltschew and Johannes Rehmke (153ff.) or Jacob Fries and Leonard Nelson (167ff.)—changes with each re-description by the historians involved, irrespective of whether their chronological, let alone intellectual, scope is relatively narrow or expansive.

Or, to change tack, do individual re-descriptions multiply other kinds of consequences facing historians of analytic philosophy? For example, if Dummett identifies Frege, Redding identifies Hegel, and Milkov identifies Lotze as pivotal to the development of early analytic philosophy, have we become trapped between Scylla and Charybdis, between accepting, on the one hand, a multiplicity of different pasts, different formative occurrences and persons, different causal sequences and accepting, on the other hand, an incapacity for historical accounts to become synthesized and for historical understanding to accumulate? Again, do we confront another consequence? To what extent is any historical narration ultimately a product of imaginative re-enactment where the historian has, as R.G. Collingwood proposed, “no direct or empirical knowledge of … facts … no transmitted or testimonial knowledge of them” (1936: 282)? Hence, when probing the formation of analytic philosophy, the historian is not engaging in an act of recollection where “the past is a mere spectacle” as distinct from being “re-enacted in present thought” (1936: 293). If so, how are we to defend the historical reconstruction’s claim to have disclosed the truth of the matter? Would it be feasible here to appeal to all narrated propositions within the account as not only constituting the facts but also corresponding to a past and actual state of affairs? Or would it feasible to presume that the narrative account is simply justified by an appeal to generalisations about intellectual influences, the Zeitgeist, which map particular occurrences and persons as necessary to the historical terrain being explored, namely, how the nineteenth-century German philosophical tradition or a pivotal figures within it influenced the early twentieth-century analytic movement? In turn, is that historical act of mapping or charting the means for automatically justifying what is therefore construed as significant and hence worthy of inclusion?

The foregoing questions, drawing upon the concerns of Louis Mink (1987) amongst others with the very idea and practice of history, emphasize that the past is not somehow immutable and unchanging, that the past is not somehow awaiting historical discovery to be told (by analogy with the excavations undertaken by our archaeologists, Antonio and Alessia, in the Azores archipelago). Rather, as Mink (1987: 140 & 79) contends, historical enquiries plumb developmental processes retrospectively. Being written from at least one particular perspective at the historian’s time and place, his or her account is thereby characterized by its “conceptual asymmetry” with the antecedent time and place under examination. In that respect, Milkov can be rightly seen as taking particular care over what might be implied and thus translated by Lotze’s concepts (e.g. 98ff.) that have misled Anglophone commentators and translators. Furthermore, Mink portrays a distinctive feature of historical accounts. Their significant conclusions are not so much a mathematical quod erat demonstrandum as what the preceding narrative “argument” aims to have “exhibited”: “they are seldom or never detachable” so that “not merely their validity but their meaning refers backward to the ordering of evidence” (1987: 79).

Finally, as Paul Roth (1989: 468ff.) suggests, there is a “logic internal” to the way in which a narrative account proves explanatory by using “cases … taken to be exemplary instances of problem solving.”  In the course of so saying, Roth seems to have provided us with a set of criteria by which any historian of philosophy, Milkov included, can be evaluated. Does the historical account under examination establish the significance of the occurrence or the event, the person or the puzzle; what is problematic about that occurrence or event, person or puzzle; why have other rational reconstructions failed; and how has the narrative presented solved the problem set (1989: 473).


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Sandra Lapointe (Ed.)
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Mind Association Occasional Series
Mark Sinclair (Ed.)
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