Saturday, September 12, 2009

Analytic philosophy: it it time to ditch it?

Many years ago Mad Magazine did a piece on a fictional American company, the North American Veebelfetzer Corporation. It seems that no one knew what the actual purpose of the Veebelfetzer was. From time to time rumors circulated that the company president would give an speech revealing the use of the device. But he never got round to doing that.

That anecdote captures something of what I feel about contemporary philosophy. I’ll be darned if I can see that it is of any use.

Truth to tell, I probably have no aptitude for philosophy. But then neither do most people in America. That is the case not just for the masses, but also for most of us intellectuals--except of course for those ensconced in university departments of philosophy, who have a vested interest in taking in each other’s laundry. Of course most people, including intellectuals, do not regularly read poetry either; that is a problem I must defer for another occasion.

Why are we, most of us, so churlish as to deny the benefits of a discipline that promises to nourish us, by cleaning up and improving our thinking? The short answer, I suppose, is that we have divined, perhaps wrongly, that contemporary academic philosophy is too abstruse and technical to perform this service. Or perhaps it might perform it up to a point. However, the reward, none too substantial, does not seem commensurate with the effort.

Brian Leiter (born 1963) is an American philosopher and legal scholar who is currently John Wilson Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, and Director of Chicago's new Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values.. He earned both his J.D. and Ph.D. (in philosophy) from the University of Michigan. He was trained in the analytic tradition, and is sometimes considered overly partial to it. To his credit, though, Leiter has broad interests. His scholarly writings have been in two main areas: legal philosophy and Continental philosophy. In his writing on German philosophy, Leiter defends a reading of Nietzsche as a philosophical naturalist, notably in "Nietzsche on Morality" (London: Routledge, 2002) and in subsequent papers.

Leiter has many achievements (see his Wikipedia entry). In what follows I concentrate on one particular area of his expertise. Brian Leiter is the editor of the Philosophical Gourmet Report, an influential and controversial ranking of graduate programs in philosophy. The Report provides an annual evaluation of philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, based on a survey of philosophers who are nominated by the Report's Advisory Board. Its purpose is to provide guidance to prospective Ph.D students, particularly those students who intend to pursue a professional career in academic philosophy. First compiled and distributed in 1989. the Report began to appear on the web in 1996; it has been distributed by Blackwell since 1997.

In the roundup that follows my prime reference will be to Leiter’s posting, entitled “Analytic” and “Continental” Philosophy (, which has appeared in the latest (2009) online version of the Report. Although the writer allows some pertinent criticisms, on the whole the piece “tilts” to the analytic side. Leiter’s contribution is too long to reproduce here. Instead of doing that I will set forth his main arguments in capsule form, together with my responses.

I stress that my observations are merely a draft. I feel confident that my good friend at Gay Species, who has received a very thorough training in analytic philosophy, will assist me in improving this posting.

Perhaps I have been overmodest in conceding lack of aptitude in philsoophy. To be sure, I have only taken a few undergrad courses fifty years ago. However, as someone who believes in the mission of the humanities, and as a devoted reader of a number of the great philosophers of the past, I have found it useful to monitor this field from time to time. And yet . . . Since I am but a poacher in this realm, what gives me the chutzpah to offer the judgments I am about to state? In my many years of service as a college professor, I have been on a number of academic committees analyzing the credentials of applicants, often at high level, for employment. From this experience, I know that, given adequate information, one can make with some confidence an informed assessment of individuals and disciplines outside one’s field.

Let us now get down to business. In a piece that amounts to an apologia for analytic philosophy, what are Leiter’s arguments?

1) He holds that there is a clear demarcation between analytic and Continental philosophy. This is of course the conventional wisdom. Leiter cites eleven major figures: “Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, the young Ludwig Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore; other canonical figures include Carnap, Quine, Davidson, Kripke, Rawls, Dummett, and Strawson.” In this list three rather distinguished members (Frege, Wittgenstein, and Carnap) were born on the European Continent.

One can go further. In his “What Is Analytic Philosophy?” Cambridge, 2008. Hans-Johann Glock makes a forceful case that the most important roots of the analytic tradition are--with Frege, Wittgenstein, and the Wiener Kreis--to be found on the European Continent. Without the crucial, foundational input of Continental thinkers there would simply have been no analytic philosophy.

Eventually the movement was embraced in English-speaking countries, where some supporters had the temerity to suggest that it is particularly and distinctively the product of the superior Anglo-Saxon spirit (the Common Law, empiricism, fair play, and so forth). That is obviously ethnocentric nonsense--and untrue to the actual facts of the gestation of the analytic approach.

The purported distinctiveness has been undermined in another way. Returning to its roots, analytic philosophy is also now practiced in many Continental countries.

2) Next, there is the matter of precision. Leiter: “Analytic philosophers, crudely speaking, aim for argumentative clarity and precision; draw freely on the tools of logic; and often identify, professionally and intellectually, more closely with the sciences and mathematics, than with the humanities.”

The first part of this statement, namely that analytic philosophers are notable for their clarity and precision, is generally true. Point taken. However, one can be clear and precise about minor things, leaving those who tackle major issues to sketch out important matters in broad strokes. This contrast is seen in the field of psychology. Most academic psychologists reach conclusions that are well founded, but they tend to be about minutiae like reaction times and the habits of rats and pigeons; psychiatrists, especially Freudians, are unreliable to say the least, but they have had the guts to address major issues of human functioning, happiness, and the goal of life--all themes neglected by academic psychologists, who somehow cannot come up with the right metrics.

In addition, Leiter’s statement may have been true in the past, but not necessarily so today, as he in fact acknowledges: “It is fair to say that "clarity" is, regrettably, becoming less and less a distinguishing feature of 'analytic' philosophy.”

Moreover, there was a downside even in the good old days. Leiter: “Criticisms of 'analytic' philosophy are familiar: arid, insular, boring, obsessed with logic-chopping, irrelevant. The criticisms are not without some truth.” More than “some” I would say.

3) As the sentence above shows, Leiter holds that there is a special affinity with science and mathematics.

This affinity may have been true of logical positivism, the immediate progenitor of the analytic approach. Yet it is not certain that this alliance was meritorious. Too close imitation of the methods of natural science is rightly castigated as scientism. The term scientism serves to describe the view that natural science is sovereign over all other interpretations of life, including philosophical, religious, mythical, spiritual, and humanistic inquiries, and over other fields of study, such as the social sciences. It is consequently the duty of practitioners in these fields humbly to align themselves with science. This view has been generally abandoned.

Since the time of Wilhelm Dilthey (in fact since Giambattista Vico in the eighteenth century), it has been recognized that the humanities have their own special status and authority. Science and the humanities are two independent magisteria, and one must not seek to rule over the other.

Moreover, the love that Leiter confesses is not reciprocated.

Professor Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics is one of our most distinguished scientists. He has an impressive and wide-ranging interest in the humanities. But this interest does not include philosophy. Here are a few of his pithy comments from his book on the quest for the final theory in physics. “Can philosophy give us any guidance toward a final theory? . . . The insights of philosophers have occasionally benefited physicists, but generally in a negative fashion--by protecting them from the preconceptions of other philosophers. . . . [My strictures are not meant] to deny all value to philosophy, much of which has nothing to do with science. . . [A]t its best [philosophy seems to offer] a pleasing gloss on the history and discoveries of science. But we should not expect it to provide today’s scientists with any useful guidance about how to go about their work or what they are likely to find.” Weinberg goes on to make some autobiographical observations. “After a few years’ infatuation with philosophy as an undergraduate I became disenchanted. The insights of the philosophers I studied seemed murky and inconsequential compared with the dazzling successes of physics and mathematics. From time to time since then I have tried to read current work in the philosophy of science. Some of it I found to be written in a jargon so impenetrable that I can only think that it aimed at impressing those who confound obscurity with profundity.”

I am not a scientist, but I suspect that Steven Weinberg and I would enjoy a pleasant meeting of minds.

Exceptionally, Karl Popper has attracted considerable support from scientists. But Popper is not an analytic philosopher.

4) The analytic tradition is exceptionally rich. Leiter: “‘Analytic’ philosophy, today, is the most richly interdisciplinary of all the humanities, engaging with psychology, linguistics, biology, physics, law, computer science, and economics in way that no other traditional ‘humanities’ field does.”

Apparently, analytic philosophy has many suitors; it does not content itself with “hitting on” science, but has many love objects.

At all events, Leiter’s megilla sounds more like a definition of dilettantism than an affirmation of interdisciplinary commitment in any profound sense.

5) The superiority of the analytic approach is demonstrated by the fact that it dominates university departments throughout the English-speaking world. “In the U.S., all the Ivy League universities, all the leading state research universities, all the University of California campuses, most of the top liberal arts colleges, most of the flagship campuses of the second-tier state research universities boast philosophy departments that overwhelmingly self-identify as "analytic": it is hard to imagine a "movement" that is more academically and professionally entrenched than analytic philosophy.”

The fact that these departments have been captured and are now carefully controlled by this faction is not a reliable indicator of natural superiority. After all, studies have shown that some 90% of faculty members in the humanities are political liberals who generally vote Democratic. However, only about a third of the US population regards itself as liberal. And there are numerous formidable thinkers who are either conservative or skeptical of the liberal tradition. Few of these thinkers have conventional jobs in academia, where they are not wanted. One viewpoint is hegemonic, and it is not necessarily the best.

In somewhat similar fashion most institutes of psychiatry are dominated by Freudian psychoanalysis. However, Freudianism has been widely discredited; clinging to its institutional redoubts cannot change that fact.

6) While some criticism may be appropriate, the situation with analytic philosophy is not as bad as in, say, departments of English. “Whatever the limitations of "analytic" philosophy, it is clearly far preferable to what has befallen humanistic fields like English, which have largely collapsed as serious disciplines while becoming the repository for all the world's bad philosophy, bad social science, and bad history.”

This is a red herring. As with a traffic violation, it is not a defense to say that others have done worse. To be brutally frank, Leiter’s comparison is a little like saying that cowshit is preferable to bullshit. Agreed: but neither is a desirable commodity--except as manure.

7) Analytic philosophy ranks as the latest chain in the Great Tradition of the field. “[W]hat gets called “analytic” philosophy is the philosophical movement most continuous with the "grand" tradition in philosophy, the tradition of Aristotle and Descartes and Hume and Kant. Only analytic philosophers aspire to the level of argumentative sophistication and philosophical depth that marks the great philosophers—even as analytic philosophers typically fail to achieve the grand visions, the "ways of seeing" of the great historical figures.”

Setting aside the qualification, this statement seems truly self-serving and grandiose--boosterism at its worst. Only time will tell whether analytic philosophy has achieved this exalted status. At the outset, Leiter emphasized that analytic philosophy is a style, a “way of doing philosophy.” Yet that style seems so different from that characterizing the great thinkers of the past that it is legitimate to wonder whether the two even belong to the same species. Indeed, in the early days analytic philosophers treated their predecessors with haughty disdain. They held that this vast body of work, a product of the “infantile diseases” of philosophy, could be safely disregarded. In fact it was mandatory to do so. Now the tables are turned, and in its senescence analytic philosophy seeks shelter in the shade of the great ones.

By the way, I have never understood the need for the resort, which seems almost complusory in these pieces, to the odd phrase “doing philosophy.” Does one do philosophy the way Debbie did Dallas; or is it rather the way one does the dishes? In fact this curious turn of phrase seems to be a clumsy attempt to render the German verb philosophieren, which has no exact equalent in English. At bottom this curious phrase is just another piece of unacknowledged Continental bric-a-brac.

8) Because of its distinctive hallmark of precision, training in the analytic mode is very useful even for those planning to specialize in Continental philosophy.

Well, perhaps. But by the same token wouldn’t a prolonged immersion in Continental philosophy be a valuable prelude to concentrating on analytic philosophy? Despite much blather about “category mistakes,” it often wise to study one discipline before undertaking another.

For example, a young friend of mine is an actor, and an excellent one. However, his original training was in music, a background he finds of great value in his final choice of profession.

I do give Brian Leiter credit for his substantial work in the study of Nietzsche, a prime Continental thinker. However, most of those in the analytic camp prefer to ignore Continental philosophy altogether. All too often they seem content with contemplating their own navels.

Now it is time to take the gloves off. One looks in vain in the above account for any reason that compels us to conclude that analytic philosophy m a t t e r s. It may be, as I acknowledged at the outset, that my own lack of aptitude is at fault. But it may also be that analytic philosophy has now reached the end of its life cycle. Perhaps it is is time to give the thing its parting gold watch and send it on its way.

As Friedrich Schiller remarked, “Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht.” world history is the court of final appeal. The chances that analytic philosophy will prevail in that tribunal are murky and uncertain.

There is one thing we can know, though. Time will tell whether the epigones of analytic philosophy can truly be compared with the great exemplars of the past, with Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Hume, Kant and Hegel. Those giants never lose their luster.




Blogger Burk said...

However, one could say that with exemplars like Lyotard and Derrida, the continental school doesn't have a lot to crow about either. Both seem equally remote from representing serious progress in philosophy. Any field that comes close to dealing with reality is soon captured by science, as will depth psychology as brain contents become better understood.

I enjoyed Matthew Stewart's The truth about everything..., though I can't even presume any credentials whatsoever, only some arguments with pathetic theists trying to find cover in the destabilization of all knowledge by postmodernism.

11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part I

This summation rightly points to many defects in modern analytic philosophy. Since the field is that "left" after all other other fields have established their own sovereignty, it may be worthwhile to note what philosophy endeavors to do.

It is the guardian, of course, of critical thinking, specifically formal deductive logic and inferential reasoning. This entails an understanding of language itself, since even symbolic language (Boolean Logic) operate with the understanding in helping us form more consistent, coherent, and cogent claims and defenses with clarity and concision.

The "analytic" tradition is as you write (I'd include A. J. Ayer), and perhaps Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper are the paradigm of clear exposition which philosophers extol. But this "period" in analytic philosophy is over, even if its influence lingers -- especially "form more consistent, coherent, and cogent claims and defenses with clarity and concision."

One of the problems is the pettiness of some philosophers, as it analyzing sentences all day is what the "analytic" is supposed to accomplish. Many philosophers in the academy today reject that proposition, and I share their rejection. Philosophy's chief objective is the mantra "form more consistent, coherent, and cogent claims and defenses with clarity and concision."

12:26 PM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Jacques Derrida, I freely concede, is bullshit. But much of analytic philosophy is cowshit. The difference is less significant than is usually claimed.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part II

It's chief subspecialties (which it retains) are:

Epistemology (Theory of Knowledge)
(True/False Decisions)

Axiology (Theory of Values)
(Good/Bad Decisions)

Ontology (Theory of Reality)
(Is/Is-Not Decisions)

Praxeology (Theory of Action)
(Right/Wrong Decisions)

The role of "metaphysics" is too complex either to include or exclude, while rational psychology and theory of language are indispensable to understanding any of it.

Of the four subspecialties [supra.], no other endeavor of study approaches these subjects so broadly and integrally. While epistemology and the "linguistic turn" of the 20th century distorted philosophy's original vision, those influences are receding as students show more interest in axiology and praxeology -- which I happen to find encouraging. They want a philosophy they can take into the world, not one that they bemoan, "I had this philosophy course and understood nothing." (to quote an uncle)

The "problem" the discipline presents is that: "One does philosophy for a lifetime." Thus, how do academies prepare students to become lifetime "pursuers of wisdom and prudence," while fitting the current academic environment. Philosophical study is not intended as a "destination," but rather as a "resource" and "tool" for a life of philosophical engagement. And since "one DOES philosophy for a lifetime," rather than "studies" it for period-x, this puts academic departments in a quandry -- over their careers and their objectives.

Do departments provide "courses" that students like, or provide "courses" that students "need?" Moreover, since philosophy is first and foremost an "avocation," not a "vocation" (save for professionals), what is the role of the "professional philosopher?" (1) pedagogy or (2) abstruse publications in a "publish or perish" environment?

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part III

As computer science and mathematics absorb "logic" courses, what role does "formal logic" serve as distinctly "philosophical?" Most academies don't even touch "philosophy of logic" until the graduate level. And what about "logic" independent of arguments (e.g., I understood logic applied far better than formally taught in isolation); beyond axioms, propositional, and predicate calculus, and questions of philosophical interest, what role does logic serve in "actual life" outside of the computer?

Logic involving "natural sentences" seems distinctly philosophical, but where does the academic prowess divide the baby? (Math and CS Departments want the child.) Then, when one turns to inductive reasoning, other departments require the "problem with induction" be not raised, lest their very methodology be questioned (which some of us might argue is precisely the point).

I have to question small liberal arts "programs" as nothing more than superficial navel gazing, while some of the "great centers" like Oxford, Harvard, and Berkeley are often too impersonal for a true Socratic-style education. But as these problems are increasingly understood by the "holders of the keys," so to speak, I think we will see more robust programs in major centers, more theoretical and less applied, in order that one encounters philosophy as something one DOES the entirety of a lifetime, not as a major to achieve a useless degree. As the departments become emaciated by other disciplines demanding "no overlap," the problems facing analytic philosophy remain significant. The good thing is most professional philosophers recognize it.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Searle wrote:

"postmodernism gives bullshit a bad reputation."

And who was in the forefront slaying that "Postmodernism Bullshit?"

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger are the top five continental philosophers and they will never be forgotten.

However, Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Lacan, Butler and the rest of the continentals are just plain shit; and unfortunately they taint the first five philosophers, making analytic philosophy the only feasible alternative.

12:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous insists, "Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger" are the only Continental philosophers worth their time.

I would delete all by Nietzsche and Heidegger. When Marx was vogue, so was Hegel. Now both are historical curiosities, in the same way that Thomas Aquinas and Boethius are.

Nietzsche, I would argue, remains the most vibrant, but if obtuse is a complaint, surely Nietzsche (and definitely Heidegger) are guilty. I've little acquaintance with either, as most of their methodologies and writings are unintelligible (not unlike Wittgenstein, and the late LW, I would argue, is most Continental). I notice that none of the Frankfurt School scholars are mentioned. Boy, when Marxism expired, whole academies collapsed.

I tend to agree with Karl Popper that the Pre-Socrates remain the best and most pregnant source for reflection, despite my personal affinities for Aristotle, Epicurus, Sextus Empiricus, Thomas Aquinas, William of Occam, Rene Descartes, David Hume, Adam Smith, and late-20th century philosophy. But the enterprise of a "complete" philosophy at this stage of human evolution and development no longer allows such a comprehensive approach, although several current philosophers come close:

Donald Davidson
Hillary Putnam
John Searle
Bernard Williams
Nicholas Rescher
John McDowell
A. C. Grayling

and for Continental thought done in the analytic style

Robert Solomon

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must add that Kierkegaard is making a comeback from his existentialist stereotyping back in the 60s and 70s. He's more sophisticated than Heidegger and stylistically closer to Nietzsche. Indeed, modern analytic philosophy is beginning to Kierkegaard much more seriously with books like
"Either Kierkegaard or Nietzsche" and "Kierkegaard and the Limits of the Ethical". Unfortunately with the demise of Analytical Marxism, Marx is losing vogue I agree.

3:03 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

Kierkegaard is one of the most important thinkers of modern times. His searing wit comes across even in translation. He is one of the few philosophers who can be read for the sheer verve of his work alone. I would willingly trade the entire lot of analytic thinkers for the work of Kierkegaard. It is true that he was for a long time entangled with existentialism--and also used as a kind of feather bed for Christians seeking to escape from the bonds of their earlier orthodox indocrination. Today a number of new translations and studies are appearing. We do not know what the "new Kierkegaard" will be like. But the prospect is exhilarating.

5:48 PM  
Blogger Solidarityof theShaken said...

I have to say I was more than a little surprised to read a critique of analytic philosophy only to have it followed by "Derrida is shit."

6:33 PM  
Blogger Micah Zehnder said...

I am curious why Karl Popper is said not to be an analytic philosopher? It seems to me like he is widely considered one.

I would also like to see specific examples of everything in this blog post.

Specifically, where is jargon too think to ever be deciphered? It's not like physics and mathematics journal articles are easy to it?

Finally, the value of philosophy comes mostly form it's relative freedom. As has been mentioned, philosophy is an incubatory field. When anything becomes established in philosophy it splits off into a science. It seems like that should be sufficient reason to keep funding it, even if there are no others.

Modern philosophers fancy themselves quite tied to science/mathematics/logic though, so it would be nice to see someone showing how they never are, or fail to be in a common, and widespread manner.

1:10 AM  

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