a reader’s thoughts on analytic philosophy

July 1, 2009

These remarks were actually sent in early June, but I’m still catching up with the past month’s worth of e-mail.

The author is Cameron, who has much experience in both philosophy and the hard sciences. (And no, he is not the same person as the Caemeron who sometimes comments at the Larval Subjects blog.)

“You’ve brought up a couple of interesting points lately. You just mentioned the attitude of analytic philosophers to the issue of style. And some time last week or the week before, you mentioned the fact that a philosophy isn’t reducible to its arguments. I think these two points together get at what’s distinctive about the analytic approach to reading philosophy. This is most obvious in their approach to the history of philosophy, but I imagine it also pertains to how they read works by their contemporaries.

Analytics seem to think that a philosophy is nothing but the arguments in which it is expressed. That is, they deny that there is such a thing as a philosophical position. They are anti-realists with regard to philosophy itself.

When I think about these issues, I’m always reminded of the passage in Bergson where he discusses his view that each philosopher has one or two main ideas, which are expressed over and over again in their work. You stress a pretty similar notion in your expositions of Heidegger. In Bergson’s case, that view of philosophy is also connected to his view of the relationship between intuition and language. His view is that the philosophical position, that the philosopher holds, can never be adequately captured in language, and that the task of putting philosophical thought into writing involves a basic violence to the inherent unity of the intuition – the violence of its analysis into discrete conceptual terms.

The analytics seem to take away from the stories about Socrates and the sophists the idea that anything that isn’t strictly logical is mere sophistry. But of course, logical argumentation, with whatever level of rigor, is merely one rhetorical or explanatory strategy that a writer can use to facilitate the expression of a philosophical position. Ironically, by focusing only on argumentation, and ignoring the philosophical positions that underlie the arguments, analytics tend to read texts only at a superficial rhetorical level. Basically, they start from the assumption that everyone is a sophist, because they don’t think it’s possible to be a philosopher.

Thus even analytics who claim to be realists tend to be anti-realists when it comes to their hermeneutic strategy in reading works of philosophy. They deny, in effect, that there’s a position-in-itself beyond the arguments – let alone beyond the non-logical (dramatic, poetic, stylistic, etc) textual phenomena.”

One other disturbing trait about analytic philosophy (which, to repeat, I do not generally dislike as much as most continentally trained people of my generation) is that not only does it see philosophy as a matter of arguments… it tends to push things a step further and identify “arguments” with “arguments expressed orally during verbal duels.”

For instance, I recently saw that video clip of Timothy Williamson (Chair at Oxford) being interviewed in Peru, or wherever it was. I should say that I like Williamson quite a bit and find him a kindred spirit on many issues.

However, one thing I disliked about the interview was the usual trope of how he went to some meetings of Derrida/Foucault people and found that they couldn’t answer his questions. By contrast, he said, analytic philosophy is more democratic, because in principle an unknown person can come and make an objection to a famous person, whereas continental philosophy runs on the authority principle. But there were a number of different points mixed together here by Williamson…

1. It’s quite possible that these particular Derrida/Foucault people didn’t know what they were talking about, sure. We’ve all met plenty of those. But I don’t see why inability to rapidly answer Timothy Williamson’s oral objections on their feet is proof that they don’t know what they are talking about. Analytic philosophy, as a culture, tends to place a very high value on rapid oral dispute, and this is in fact a very specific human talent. Even some great philosophers and scientists have lacked it. Hegel comes to mind, as does Niels Bohr. These people were indisputably geniuses, yet floundered quite a bit if they had to engage in debate. In politics this may be an understandably deadly flaw– but in philosophy, which is in fact largely a written medium, it wouldn’t seem lethal to me even if Williamson had stumped Derrida himself in a debate.

Philosophy is not a court of law. If I compare the list of the most formidable debaters I know and the most gifted and productive thinkers I know, the list has some overlap, but it’s far from total, and a few of the best debaters I’ve known have been outright intellectual hacks with little of interest to say at all.

Analytic philosophy as a profession seems to think not only that there is an entity called an “argument” that can exist in near-perfect abstraction, but that the medium in which this argument is expressed is fairly indifferent. One should be able to express it “clearly,” whether in speech or in a written article, and any faltering in oral debate must indicate that the desired “clarity” has not yet been achieved. This explains both the strength and weakness of analytic prose… It is very good at getting to the point and being very honest about what is known and unknown in the topic at hand, and also very good at organizing problems and drawing distinctions. It is also wretchedly lacking in suggestive and rhetorical power. The value of the latter is defined out of existence by describing it as “fuzziness” or the like.

But this is actually an intellectual error, and not just a stylistic disaster. For Whitehead is right– a verbal statement really is an inadequate statement of any proposition. There is too little respect in analytic philosophy for vague intuitions, a respect that incidentally is not generally lacking in the hard sciences. The history of modern physics is riddled with gut hunches and half-cooked ideas that were tried out before their precise verbal formulation had been found.

No doubt the weirdest aspect of my career so far is that I have been accused several times of being “an analytic philosopher,” a club to which few analytics are likely to be willing to admit me. Why this designation? Just because I try to be clear about the claims I am making? But this is one of the salutary features of analytic philosophy, as is the self-confidence found in the discipline vis-à-vis the history of philosophy, which many continentals face with a crippling insecurity.

2. As for Williamson’s claim that analytic philosophy is more democratic, I suspect there is some truth to this charge. One of the advantages of viewing philosophy as pieced together from arguments is that, in principle, even an unknown 16-year-old might come up with the best argument in the room. This seems healthy to me. By contrast, the star system in continental thought exists not only at the very top levels. Just go to a conference like SPEP, and you will find an extremely rigid social-academic hierarchy that is nearly impossible to penetrate in short order no matter how good your work is. Everyone used to (and perhaps still does) speak of “the SPEP mafia,” and that is indeed what it feels like to outsiders, and it is most unhealthy.

My only objection to this part of Williamson’s interview was, again, his assumption that “arguments” should be the ticket to democracy. For it is far too easy to nitpick any philosophical position with “arguments.” I can easily imagine some slick analytic grad student picking apart Leibniz or Bergson in a question period by needling them about hair-splitting difficulties. But that’s not my idea of democracy, and I’m sure I would want them to shut up so that I could hear what Leibniz and Bergson had to say. Democracy should mean free house-building licenses for everyone who wants them, to try what they want to try. It shouldn’t mean a universal spitwad fight. That just slows everything down in the construction zone. As Whitehead observed, philosophies are not refuted, but abandoned. Only peripherally do philosophies fail because of “arguments,” since there are arguments available to counter every theory that has ever been developed. Philosophies are generally abandoned due to shallowness, implausibility, insufficient scope, excessive abstraction, and so forth, far more than due to logical blunders.

To take just one example, I teach Plato every semester, and my often 16-year-old freshmen are ceaselessly finding new problems with the arguments made by Socrates. Literally every semester they find new fallacies uttered by Socrates. Fair enough; I’m proud of them for doing so. But why are my 16-year-old students not greater philosophers than Plato? No one would claim that they are, obviously. This should be sufficient to indicate that there is a lot more at issue than correct and incorrect arguments. Incorrect arguments should be avoided, but this is the merest skin of the philosophical thought-process.

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