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Don't Blame the British

September 06, 1987

Although what you say about the influence of British philosophy ("Allan Bloom As Best Seller," Book Review, August 30) may offer a useful corrective to the view of the role of German philosophy that Allan Bloom sets forth in his book, the account you give of it is not really accurate. By far the greatest influence on American philosophy over the last several decades has been neither specifically British nor German but an international movement that is most commonly referred to as "analytical" or "linguistic" philosophy. It is true that Bertrand Russell was a commanding figure in that movement; but so was Rudolf Carnap, a German, and so were a good many other German and Austrian and Polish philosophers. It is also true that one phase in the development of analytical philosphy was centered in Oxford; and in the '50s and '60s the influence of a specifically British style of philosophical analysis was indeed very strong in this country. But this kind of philosophy produced an effective critique of the emotivistic theory of value that many earlier analaytical philosophers had esoused; and this fact by itself makes the idea that this British philosphical influence may have fostered nihilism seem quite dubious.

In any case, the heyday of Oxford philosophy of this type was brief and a science-based version of analytical philosophy has long since resumed its ascendancy in most American universities. Whether this kind of analytical philosophy has itself made a contribution to the formation of nihilistic attitudes in this country is a question well worth raising. It is hard to answer, however, if only because the role of philosophy generally is so marginal in this country; and I am sure you are right when you suggest that it would be more profitable to look elsewhere for an explanation of the trends that trouble Allan Bloom--and many others as well.

FREDERICK A. OLAFSON

La Jolla

Frederick A. Olafson is Professor of Philosophy, University of California, San Diego.

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