Sunday, August 13, 2006

A pomo incursion; and the perennial Continentals

Some fifteen years ago I went to an enlightening lecture at Columbia University delivered by Richard Mohr. A professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois-Urbana, Mohr is also a prolific contributor to the theory of gay studies. He is not, I am happy to say, an adept of “queer theory.”

At any rate, the theme of the presentation was the invasion of the field of law by postmodernism. Clearly I was not up to speed in these matters, because I was incredulous at the revelation. As I have great respect for the law and hardly any for postmodernism, I could not understand how the one could fall prey to the other. What could the law, with its dedication to precision and the continuity principle incarnated in stare decisis—what could the law have to do with this relativistic nihilism? Alas, Mohr’s account proved accurate, and postmodernism—in the guise of “critical legal studies”—continued to ravage law schools.

During the question period after the talk I asked Professor Mohr what could be done to counter a development that he and I both deplored. “Don’t worry,” I recall him saying. “The Analytic school of philosophy will demolish the monster.” Well, the Analytic school may be good for many things, but slaying pomo dragons doesn’t seem to be one of them. Critical legal studies rumbled on, until at length it began to run out of steam of its own accord. As far as I can tell, Analytic philosophy had nothing to do with the matter.

A few days after this discussion my mind flashed back to my undergraduate days at UCLA in the fifties. I did not major in philosophy, but my closest friend did. He very kindly filled me on the latest trends in those days. (If my memory falters in some details now, it is probably because I was insufficiently attentive to the valuable lessons my friend gave.)

At any rate the UCLA philosophy department was dominated by a latter-day version of the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. In its way, this approach was the godfather--or one of them--of today’s dominant Analytic trend. At all events, the logical positivists in California applied a severe Occam’s razor to flense away preoccupations they deemed obsolete and dysfunctional. This useless bric-à-brac included metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics. To the extent that any value resided in these pursuits it lay, at best, in their “poetry.”

By this standard all modern Continental philosophy, especially that of such figures as Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger, was rubbish. These thinkers were hopelessly muddled and imprecise, and in consequence were already reposing on the ash heap of history. Alas, for the logical positivists and their Analytic successors, these gentlemen did not stay put on their midden. Today, many regard Heidegger as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. Some would say that we are witnessing the return of the repressed.

On a personal note, during the last few weeks I have plunged back into the texts of Friedrich Nietzsche, who has detained me intermittently since high-school days. To be sure, the German philosopher’s show-boating grandiosity and village-atheist fulminations quickly become tiresome. Steering clear of these excesses, though, one can concentrate on the serious questions he poses. These, or some of them, will be the subject of a future piece on this blog.

By contrast I have not reverted to Hans Reichenbach or Rudolf Carnap, the guiding lights of the UCLA group in former days. I feel no such temptation. Nor have I taken up once more the writings of such Analytic founders as Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin. Indeed, the latter seems to be read nowadays mainly for his influence on Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler.

Were the UCLA professors and their students completely wrong? Isn’t there, after all, still something woolly and imprecise about Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger-—not to mention Derrida? Well, maybe so. But it looks as if the general educated public (as distinct from professional philosophers) has voted with its feet. And those feet take them in the camp of the dreaded Continental imprecisionists.

PS. After reading the above my old friend commented as follows: “If one wandered into the UCLA Philosophy Department today, needless to say, one would find a very different climate from fifty years ago. The domination of the department by David Kaplan (who was an undergraduate when we were) and others who do 'possible-worlds semantics' has taken it far away from where it was in our day. Some of the possible-worlds semanticists--Saul Kripke, Alvin Plantinga, David Lewis--are unabashedly metaphysical. Indeed when David Lewis died, a few years ago, the NY Times obituary called him "the greatest metaphysician since Leibniz." Well, that's unlikely to be history's judgment of him, but that metaphysics (of a kind also far removed from Continental Philosophy) is alive (and ironically practiced by some of Reichenbach and Carnap's students, like David Kaplan and Hilary Putnam) shows that is can't be buried as easily as the Positivists hoped (bless them, for they did seek to banish a lot of cant, along with a lot of Kant).”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your "sense" of Ango-American ("analytic") philosophy is accurate. Wittgenstein, Frege, and Russell are the "type" of philosophy pursued in American academics, and those "types" remain central. Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger rarely register, although Nietzsche or Heidegger gets an airing every so often, but not Husserl, Sartre, Frankfurt School, etc.

Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and U.C. Berkeley are the top university with the top philosophers. Only McGill's Charles Taylor, NYU's Thomas Nagel, Chicago's Martha Nussbaum, Tuft's Daniel Dennet, and U. T. at Austin's Robert Solomon have standing outside the four ivory towers. The latter is best at synthesizing Continental thinking, especially existentialism, within the Analytic framework. Princeton's Lewis rarely registers.

Nozick, Rawls, Putnam are Harvard's tirumvirate, Searle, Davidson, Dreyfus, Williams, Wollheim are Berkeley's quintvirate. Rorty is not even "acknowledged" as a philosopher, only as a Humanities Instructor, because of his ideological associations.

Why the chasm? Why little if any Continental thought in most British and American universities? In a word: Ideology. Continentals are deeply ideological with overt agendas, while the Analytic tradition is anti-ideology to the core. Indeed, slaying ideology is an implicit mission of the Analytic tradition, ignoring ideology overt. It is the one discipline in the Humanities that is aggressively anti-ideological.

There are other factors also. The Analytic paradigm is to determine the relationship between the world, ourselves, and our ideas in clear, coherent, consistent, and rational arguments. I'd be hard pressed to find a Continental who fit that paradigm. Too many Continentals enjoy deconstructing that paradigm, e.g., Derrida, Lacan, Adorno, Habermas, and the list could stretch for pages. Their ideology negates them to start, their meandering claims without support, often without clarity, rarely with coherence, and deliberately unintelligible cast them into the Inferno.

Solomon's "Joy of Philosophy" is a joy to read, steeped in "life's central issues," but done in an analytic framework. Nussbaum is similar, but clearly inferior. But after Solomon's great synthesis of Continental thought (or at least those portions that can cohere), it makes an obvious question answer itself: What then? Well, I don't know. I guess the "questions" have been answered. Next.

The Analytic tradition is often criticized for its "narrow focus," often rightly, but wrestling within those "narrow confines" it still elucidates. Whether the elucidation is of "value" each individual has to decide for himself. The alternative, espousing ideologies, is just not in the cards.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

As far as I can tell, the first part of this comment is an accurate description of the current landscape of Anglo-American academic philosophy.

I still have the question: What is Analytic philosophy good for? For the most part, these productions seem to be read only by other Analytic philosophers. As I noted in my piece, when it came to cutting critical legal studies down to size Analytic philosophy was nowhere to be found.

With a few exceptions, such as Dennett and Nussbaum, this stuff is not interesting to read and is ineffectual in other realms of life. Who needs it? The answer is of course that the abstruse and trivial writings that mostly make up the corpus of academic Analytic philosophy help people to gain tenure. That is not enough to constitute a serious intellectual contribution.

I'm afraid that an epithet like "ideology" does nothing to address the problem of the irrelevance of Analytic thought. So I am afraid, gayspecies, we must agree to differ on this matter.

3:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your reposte is spot on. Analytic philosophy is arcane, deliberately. It takes the "customary and usual" characters and demands they meet logical standards. It's the "logical" test that has the ideologues in a fit. Why can't we just espouse whatever we want to espouse, logic, especially, be damned?

Look back historically to Freud and Marx, to take two examples. Not even the preeminent Idealist Plato could match their grandiose conceptual schemes. Despite their different "first principles," their archetonics was superlative, imaginative, creative, idealistic, and every other superlative one can find.

The "Analytic" tradition was persistent nay-sayers, saying both conceptual schemes were utter nonsense. (Actually, their assessment was far more critical and devastating, but respecting great ideologues, whatever their schemes, they understood the Idealistic attraction. Idealism is inherently more attractive. Marx himself was a "materialist" who found Hegelian Idealism wanting, only to create a new Idealism, based on materialist conditions, but after the "material conditions," took Idealism in flight, never having looked back.) The apotheosis of "HISTORY" as a natural FORCE was a joke whether in Hegel's or Marx's conception.

LONG BEFORE communism and psychoanalysis were PROVEN impractical AND impossible (not to mention "dangerous,"), the "Analytic" tradition KNEW from reason they were incoherent, illogical, inconsistent, and untenable. Maybe that does not count for much, but tell that conclusion to the millions who wasted their earnings in search of a psychoanalytic cure, or those who failed to conceive the apotheosis of dialectical materialism who, if they survived Lenin's, Mao's, and Stalin's purges, were not happier in the gulags Marxism consigned them in order to "redeem them."

I agree that the Analytic tradition can be myopic, indeed arcane. But it is not STUPID. Faced with ideologies of pure dogma from an intellectual's mental maturbation, or insisting that REASON, EVIDENCE, and LOGIC at least be considered, the "Analytics," despite themselves, have rescued those the HERD from those who would impose their ideologies on the defective.

Myopia vs. grandiose intellectual schemes? Personally, despite a deference for Continental thought, given the basic and insoluable dichotomy, I'll take myopia any day, any time, any place, any where. The IDEOLOGIES are too scary and too hazardous to humanity for me to think otherwise.

10:15 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

This posting makes good points.

With all due respect, however, I still do not see the use of Analytic philosophy. During the heroic days of half a century ago H.J. Eysenck made devastating critiques of of psychoanalysis. At the same time Arthur Koestler and Isaiah Berlin attacked the Marxist theory of history. Where were the Analytics then? The case of Wittgenstein is instructive. Not only did he dabble in psychoanalysis, he positively adored the sexist, anti=Semitic work of Otto Weininger (Geschlecht und Character). And Wittgenstein even contemplated moving to the Soviet Union!

By contrast, Karl Popper (not a favorite of the Analytics) showed that both Marx and Freud elude the criterion of refutability. That is, their grandiose claims are devised in such a way that they are automatically protected against critique. As such they are useless.
Many years ago I was fortunate to attend some classes of Karl Popper at the London School of Economics. One day he brought in a newspaper. "I have been reading in The Times," he said, "that we must all strive to be as good as Oxford and Cambridge. Nonesense, we must do much, much better than Oxford and Cambridge." That is the way I feel about Harvard and our other fancy universities. Let those teaching there prove the value of what they are doing, just like the rest of uw, and not try to bamboozle us with the Harvard mystique. I was, btw, admitted to Harvard graduate school, but declined to go, and attended NYU as well. That was possibly the best decision I ever made.

When I was in Germany I noted some important new books on the interpretation of Nietzsche. On the other hand, I am not wild about what I know about current Continental philosophy.

It may be that we have to concede that philosophy came to an end about half a century ago. What we have, and it is a rich compensation, are the classic texts of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Descartes, Hume, and Kant--to name a few. Those are enough for me.

7:04 AM  

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