This two-volume work treats Anglo-American analytic philosophy from 1900 to roughly 1970. This means that the views of Michael Dummett, John Rawls and others are not treated. Soames explains the omission in an epilogue to the second volume. Too much good philosophy on too many topics has been done recently—much of it using technical devices—to allow him or anyone else, to master more than a few parts. That seems right to me.
The first volume consists of five parts: One: G. E. Moore on Ethics, Epistemology, and Philosophical Analysis; Two: Bertrand Russell on Logical and Linguistic Analysis; Three: Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus; and Four: Logical Positivism, Emotivism, and Ethics; and Five: The Post-Positivist Perspective of the Early W. V. Quine. The great figure associated with twentieth-century analytic philosophy who is missing from Volume 1, Gottlob Frege, Soames omits, because Frege's "concerns were, on the whole, more specialized and technical than the others, and for many years this limited his influence" (1:xiii n. 1). The second volume consists of seven parts: One: Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations; Two: Classics of Ordinary Language Philosophy: Truth, Goodness, the Mind, and Analysis; Three: More Classics of Ordinary Language Philosophy: The Response to Radical Skepticism; Four: Paul Grice and the End of Ordinary Language Philosophy; Five: The Philosophical Naturalism of Willard Van Orman Quine; Six: Donald Davidson on Truth and Meaning; Seven: Saul Kripke on Naming and Necessity.
What does twentieth-century analytic philosophy come to? Soames thinks its "two most important achievements" are (i) the recognition that philosophical speculation must be grounded in pre-philosophical thought, and (ii) the success achieved in understanding, and separating one from another, the fundamental methodological notions of logical consequence, logical truth, necessary truth, and apriori truth" (1:xi; see also 1:298-99 and 2:252). He admirably succeeds in making the case for these judgments, although many philosophers will think that these two together do not amount to a great deal, considering all the effort expended by analytic philosophers. I think that analytic philosophy has done more; it has given philosophers many techniques for attacking conceptual problems, a great deal of information about the structure and nature of language, and has decisively refuted various theses that were once thought attractive and even obviously true. In any case, those who think that analytic philosophy, especially conceptual analysis, accomplished nothing are, I think, refuted by these volumes. In his discussion of G. E. Moore's article, "A Defense of Common Sense," Soames explains what he takes to be the first great result of analytic philosophy. Moore showed that the beliefs of common sense should often be accepted "with more confidence" than any philosophical beliefs or propositions that conflict with them, and in these cases cannot be overthrown by philosophical beliefs. For example, "The skeptic assumes that we can be certain about what knowledge is before we decide whether what we all ordinarily take to be paradigmatic cases of knowledge really are genuine" [End Page 125] (23, entire sentence is bold in the original). (Soames uses boldface type to mark all of the significant propositions discussed in the book, a nice pedagogical device.)
In his discussion of Bertrand Russell's theory of descriptions, Soames gives the impression that linguistic interests primarily motivated Russell. I think the motivation was primarily ontological. Russell wanted to justify ridding philosophy of nonexistent entities. The doctrines of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Logical Positivism were two ways in which philosophical analysis developed. For Soames, what is most important in the Tractatus is the theory of names, and he holds, I believe, the minority belief (which I share) that properties are reducible to configurations of objects (1:206-6). What is most important in Logical Positivism is the verification theory of meaning. Strongly verifiable sentences "were supposed to be those the truth of which could, in principle, be completely established on the basis of sensory observations...