Bentham’s Contextualism and Its Relation to Analytic Philosophy


  • Silver Bronzo



This paper (i) offers an interpretation of some central aspects of Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy of language, (ii) challenges the received view of its relation to analytic philosophy, and (iii) seeks to show that this investigation into the prehistory of analytic philosophy sheds light on its history proper. It has been often maintained, most notably by Quine, that Bentham anticipated Frege’s context principle and the use of contextual definition. On these bases, Bentham has been presented as one of the initiators of a tradition that shares a common commitment to the “semantic priority of sentences” and that includes authors as otherwise diverse as Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein. In opposition to this narrative, I argue that Bentham did indeed anticipate the use of contextual definition, but was not a forerunner of Frege’s context principle. The two issues should be sharply distinguished. I show that Bentham’s philosophy of language is informed by a set of empiricist assumptions that Frege’s contextualism was centrally meant to oppose. I conclude that with respect to the question of the relation between propositional and sub-propositional meaning, we should distinguish two opposed strands in the history of analytic philosophy: an empiricist strand anticipated by Bentham, represented most notably by Russell, and an anti-empiricist strand, represented most notably by Frege and Wittgenstein.


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