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The Analytic Self-Image. Thoughts on Style, Procedures, and Precision

The very fact that this false platitude is reiterated endlessly, however, produces the cognitive illusion that it has some credibility.

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The Analytic Self-Image.
Thoughts on Style, Procedures, and Precision

Many essays, books and articles have been produced on the distinction between Analytic philosophy and Continental philosophy.

Several recent installments in the long-running and seemingly never-ending Analytic vs. Continental debate have been posted here at APP:

“Analytic” Philosophy vs. “Continental” Philosophy: Wtf? Why Does It Still Matter So Much?

“Analytic” vs. “Continental” Philosophy Revisited.

Which Brand Do You Identify With? Brand-Loyalty as Discrimination in Professional Philosophy.

Last of the Continental Philosophers.

Claiming the Continental Flag.

What is Continental Philosophy?

Analytic Philosophy and the Sciences.

Part of the problem with such perennial debates is that conceptual distinctions drawn early in the debate continue to exert their conceptual influence – as if they function on a subconscious, pre-reflective level and influence subsequent contributions to the debate, whether they are true or not, and whether they do useful conceptual work or not.

One of the most pervasive subconscious, pre-reflective distinctions is that Analytic philosophy is committed to careful, logical argumentation, working on philosophical problems in a piece-by-piece manner, not unlike the natural sciences.

Misleadingly, this platitude is included even on the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry on analytic philosophy[1]

Yet it asserts a claim that is patently untrue, misdirected, and a case of wishful thinking, as well as a semi-deliberate misrepresentation.

The very fact that this false platitude is reiterated endlessly, however, produces the cognitive illusion that it has some credibility.

The image of careful, meticulous analytic philosophers conjures up an image of conscientious scholars toiling away at deep philosophical problems utilizing precision tools, and advancing only step-by-step, checking the investigative process at every turn.

Notoriously, this image also evokes also the ideological mirror image of Analytic philosophers: Continental philosophers toiling away like scholarly gremlins or Orcs, fiendishly formulating unsound theories, idle conjectures, incomprehensible neologisms, and impossible conclusions, in order to corrupt the youth, or at least the immaturely-minded.

The distinction is clear: once one is analytically oriented, there is precision, rigor, and conscientious rationality—but when one works in the Continental tradition, one is nothing but an uncritically-respected charlatan.

In other words: one is “in” or one is “out.”

To be sure, there has been some rather embarrassing and imprecise theorizing  in French Post-Structuralism, and at least some of the criticisms directed towards Butler, Deleuze, Derrida, Serres, Baudrillard, and Althusser seems justified on this account.

However, the Schadenfreude with which the whole “Sokal hoax” affair was received indicates that the image of Continental philosophy I sketched 4 sentences above is or was at least to some important extent, a powerful tacit force in Anglo-American professional philosophy.[2]

The message is clear: EITHER one practices Analytic philosophy OR one is an obscurantist.

For example, in Pascal Engels’ (otherwise eloquent) account of the difference between analytic and Continental philosophy we find the following distinction:

Analytic philosophy is a collective enterprise, just like the sciences; it believes in a form of progress in philosophy; and it avoids philosophical system-building in favor of technical acumen and methodological rigor.

By sharp contrast, Continental philosophy is a largely solitary enterprise, whose proponents view criticism from peers as stemming from malevolent intentions; it does not believe in a form of progress in philosophy, much less in terms like truth and rationality; and, finally, it views philosophy not as a systematic activity, but more like an artistic practice, complete with ups, downs and eureka moments.[3]

We may, perhaps, forgive Engel the hard-and-fast, simplistic character of the dichotomy he introduces, as he was writing this essay as member of a minority position: Analytic philosophy hasn’t had and doesn’t have a large following in France, even today.

However, Engel has fallen in a trap that does too easily away with subtleties: surely not all Continental philosophers are suspicious about terms like “rationality” or “truth”; and surely some analytic philosophers view their practice of philosophical thinking more as an art than as a purely logical, systematic process.

Engel’s view is, I think, typical of a distinction drawn far too casually and invidiously: either one is “an Analytic,” possessed of all the prime intellectual virtues, hence very good, or else one is something else that is very bad indeed, its wicked opposite, possessed of all the prime intellectual vices, an anti-Analytic obscurantist.

As before, this reduces the philosophical spectrum to two positions: EITHER you’re “in” (and good) OR you’re “out” (and bad).

As always, such black-and-white oppositions are productive places to start questioning.

The distinction made is – I suspect – not really between two different types of philosophy in any substantive sense: on the contrary, it is really all about an ideological image that Anglo-American professional academic philosophy projects on itself – the self-image of the precise, conscientious, and therefore intellectually virtuous and good philosopher.

That this precise, conscientious, intellectually virtuous, and good philosopher is called Analytic may have historical reasons, notably the fact that the early Analytic movement defined itself by taking distance from other established forms of philosophy.

From the very outset, Analytic philosophy defined itself in opposition to other schools of thought, most notably, (neo-)Kantianism, (neo-)Hegelianism, phenomenology, and existential philosophy, even well after this was no longer strictly necessary—rather like Neoliberalism’s projection of long-dead Stalinist-era Communism as the eternal enemy.

It is easy to see how, in the early- to mid- 20th century Russell, Carnap, Moore, Ryle, Strawson, and Grice had to claim their places as youthful rebels and rising stars in opposition to an intellectual Establishment and heavenly order dedicated to perpetuating the philosophical errors of the past.

However, even long after the necessity for such outspoken, polemic assertion of their own position had disappeared, somehow, the image of Analytic philosophers as Angry But Brilliant Young Men—such clever little boys!—remained.

By claiming virtues like precision, rigor, clarity, and logically-airtight argumentation, one could always point disdainfully at the Others and dismiss their “woolly-minded” ways of thinking.

I would like to put forward the proposition that mainstream professional academic philosophy is not, strictly speaking, Analytic anymore, in the sense of following the research program its pioneers envisioned.

Imagine Russell or Moore, e.g., being confronted with Analytic Hegelianism or Analytic Feminism.[4]

Moreover, doctrines like Logical Atomism, Verificationism, and the strong tendency towards Behaviorism and other forms of naturalistic Reductionism to which these views gave rise, have long been superseded in favor of other very different models and ways of thinking within the Analytic tradition.

It is telling that the most recent phase of Analytic philosophy is marked by an explicit pluralism, as if its original narrow focus has been replaced by a more open, explorative mind-set.

What passes for Analytic philosophy nowadays is, in fact, not all that Analytic in terms of philosophical content and aspiration.

It looks and calls itself Analytic, however, because it developed some new stylistic commitments while also retaining a few deep-seated assumptions that the original Analytic research program contained.

For the sake of explaining this claim in more detail, I’ll make the following distinction:

The AP/ALP distinction:

There is a form of philosophy called “Analytic Philosophy” (AP) and its ideological counterpart, called “Analytic-Looking Philosophy” (ALP).

Broadly speaking, AP is the set of philosophical orientations found in Analytically-minded philosophy departments today.

AP’s methods vary considerably, and so does its mode of presentation—apart from the shared fact that, like other schools and styles of professional academic philosophy, it produces a great many papers, journal articles, and books.

Although proponents of AP stress the fact that it is ahistorical, this blatantly overlooks that AP boasts already more than a hundred years of history.

Over that century, the nature of its core research program has significantly, and even radically, shifted.

So much, in fact, that the question seems warranted whether one is justified to speak about a single, continuous Analytic tradition at all.

As I previously indicated, I am not sure Bertrand Russell would view Analytic Hegelianism as a direct descendant of his intellectual efforts.

What started out as a form of philosophy that was logico-mathematically driven, coinciding with Logicism, Logical Atomism, Logical Positivism, and Verificationism, evolved into Ordinary-Language Philosophy, then Conceptual Analysis, and subsequently towards the recent pluralist phases of its decaying research program, floating listlessly on the Dead Sea of the Professional Academic State, whose flag-ships are Analytic Metaphysics and Analytic Feminism.

During this evolution, AP became gradually more than the original research program: slowly but surely, the emphasis shifted from technical rigor to argumentative rigor, and from a logic-driven style of philosophy to a style of arguing centered on conceptual analysis and the clarification of distinctions, all the while emphasizing its logico-mathematical foundations.

A salient detail here is that the argumentative rigor functions as a stand-in for technical rigor.

Hence Daniel Dennett’s complaint that the puzzles with which ALP is largely concerned only appear to be deep philosophical problems, and the argumentation used to address these problems just looks meticulous.

However, what goes on in reality is a process that requires argumentative skills instead of the capacity to think technically through problems.[5]

One could say that the focus of ALP has shifted from content to form: the form justifies the way in which the content is addressed.

Indeed, Conant cites Grice’s well-known viewpoint that the philosophical apparatus designed to combat woolly ways of thinking had turned into a philosophical method that became increasingly scholastic.[6]

The emphasis on argumentation led not to more precise and determinate concepts, but to a series of schisms based on specialized niches.

This historical process of shifting from technical to argumentative rigor is well documented, and is nowadays commonly used a ideological backbone by referring to the so-called “five phases” of Analytic philosophy, as if we are dealing with a continuous tradition that remained true to its founding precepts.

The claim becomes suspect when one reviews the oeuvre produced by AP, as one finds vastly different outputs – in style, subject matter, and format.

Essays by Strawson, carefully assembled step-by-step arguments by Parfit, short and technical essays by Dennett, critical engagements with Hegel by McDowell and Brandom, books, short papers, long papers, and replies of varying length in the philosophy of language-and/or-mind by Chomsky and Co.—e.g., Katz and Fodor–Stich, Churchland, Kim, Searle, Chalmers and Co., Andy Clark and Co., etc.; elaborate liberal or libertarian political theories by Rawls, Nozick, and Co.; Analytic Marxism, professional-academic-style, as practiced by Jon Roemer and G.A. Cohen; Analytic left- and right-libertarian theories after Nozick; more Analytic reflections on liberal democratic egalitarianism by Dworkin, Scanlon, Kymlicka, and Co.; Analytic metaphysics by Kripke, Lewis, and Williamson and Co.; Analytic cross-overs to empirical psychology, and back, by early Putnam, Dretske, and Goldman, with increasingly strong critical reactions by Davidson, Nagel, and later Putnam; Analytic aesthetic theories by Goodman and Danto; an elaborate Analytic philosophy of punishment by Von Hirsch and Ashworth; and so-on….

This list does not even mention philosophy of religion, Analytic Feminism, or the explosion of epicyclical variants on the mainstream positions in epistemology and metaphysics, e.g., Contextualism in epistemology, and Compatibilism/Soft Determinism in the metaphysics of free will and agency.

All in all, then, AP has given rise to an impressively large number of philosophical undertakings, and covers impressively many different subject areas.

Indeed, if one looks carefully at the variety that the Analytic movement has produced, one may begin critically questioning whether all these authors actually fit under one single philosophical umbrella, or in one continuous tradition.

Is the obviously huge (conceptual) distance between, e.g., Habermas and Derrida really smaller than the obviously huge gap between Strawson and Goldman?

If it isn’t—and in my opinion, it actually isn’t—then there seems little reason to force either the Habermas-Derrida pair or the Strawson-Goldman pair together into distinct single-stream philosophical traditions, running alongside one another but without any substantive interaction whatsoever, like classical mind-body parallelism.

If we are to believe mainstream discussions about Analytic philosophy, then there is something X that sets a whole historical set of philosophers, geographically located in England and North America, essentially apart from other historical sets, geographically located in continental Europe.

Despite the variety of outputs, all Analytic philosophers share a mysterious something, a certain je ne sais quoi, that other philosophers do not possess, or that they possess to a substantively lesser degree.

Nevertheless, even despite the mystery, as James Conant notes amongst mainstream Analytic philosophers themselves, there is a clear and exclusivist sense of boundaries: Analytic philosophers will inevitably judge that some of their colleagues have overstepped the invisible line, and that therefore this or that work simply cannot be called “analytic.”[7]

In this case, works by McDowell and Rorty come to mind.

One is reminded of the equally mysterious, equally exclusivist, and equally normative concept of a “gentleman,” as applied in 19th century Victorian England.

Naturally, this introduces the question why some Analytic philosophers suppose they can rationally adjudicate whether disciplinary boundaries have been crossed.

One criterion for deciding whether a work should be in the Analytic canon could be its methodology.

Baseless conjecture, the use of neologisms, speculative and far-reaching conclusions are generally frowned upon, so these characteristics might spur reviewers to draw a line: works exhibiting these characteristics cannot be deemed Analytic.

However, what actually uniquely characterizes the Analytic methodology, if anything?

If we take a closer look at their actual methodology, the logical-analytical apparatus of reasoning is indeed one of the great gifts of the Analytic movement to philosophy as such.

Indeed, the AP approach developed in close conjunction with the development of late 19th and 20th century formal and natural sciences, and we might even endorse Scott Soames’s approach, which is simply to describe and then extol the advantages of “scientific philosophy.”[8]

It is undeniable that areas like epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, decision theory, and political philosophy have experienced a revival during the 20th century, that their methodology has been, broadly speaking, logical-analytical, and that this revival took, by turns, several creative and unexpected twists.

Nevertheless, the ideological assumptions embedded just below the surface of this triumphalist picture are, in fact, merely the result of philosophers hitching their wagons to the Big Science juggernaut.

And this is where we leave AP as research program or way of doing philosophy, and enter ALP as ideological image.

ALP represents in an idealized manner every aspect of philosophy done in a certain, “analytic” style, but held up as an ideal of the discipline, an unreachable ideal that is precise, reasonable, pro-science, naturalistic, meticulous and technical, and that is developed through careful argumentation, using the tools of logic and conceptual analysis.

Its early paradigmatic style developed in the writings of Russell, Moore, Carnap, and Ayer.

The idea of AP as “a certain style of argumentation” has been explicitly endorsed by Bernard Williams, one of its stylistic grandmasters.[9]

When writing down his definition, Williams talked about the research program, not the stylistic conventions that would eventually replace the research program.[10]

However, it seems like Williams’s style of writing has entered the collective Analytic consciousness as one of the pinnacles of Analytic philosophy.

But while one should admit that his prose is well-crafted and a joy to read, it seems a huge stretch from that to asserting that therefore all philosophy (or even all Analytic philosophy) should be done in like manner, or that all philosophy that is written in a similar style is therefore Analytic philosophy.

Likewise, Engel emphasizes that AP is not a style of philosophy, per se, but a “tradition and attitude.”

The tradition is formed by the core of three beliefs outlined earlier.

The attitude is the scientific attitude, with an emphasis on scientific rationalism.

Admittedly, not every philosopher accepts this emphasis on scientific rationality to the same degree, but it nevertheless serves as a “regulative ideal” in the Kantian sense.

This statement may seem to be obvious, but how does Continental philosophy fit in this picture?

It would be another huge stretch to say that Continental philosophers are not concerned with rationality at all, merely because they have not been all-out proponents of (or, even more to the point, uncritical cheerleaders for) scientific rationality.

Again, we have here a hard-and-fast, ideologically-loaded, distinction that is more like a distorted self-image than a true or even useful statement.

I suspect that the stereotypical image of AP as espoused in many discussions, articles and books is in fact ALP—a phantom image, and nothing but a way of presenting a style of philosophy to the world.

Notably, this image resembles, like a caricature or meme, the idealized picture of the careful, conscientious, precise philosopher.

Correspondingly, the style in which ALP is practiced reflects certain methodological characteristics of AP: clear chains of reasoning, a limitation on theorizing that is too radical, justification of each argumentative step, a cumulative approach to larger debates, and a certain formulation that safeguard neutrality.

Thus, someone working within ALP never states “X is the case,” but only “it appears that X,” in spite of the fact that X is clearly and distinctly present.

Along the same lines, the practitioner of ALP says “the upshot of all this is….,” “one could make the objection that…,” “it seems to follow that,” and so-on and so forth.

In all these small rhetorical devices, a certain distancing is present, as if the formulation is a safeguard against the beguiling threat of subjectivity.

Notably, ALP’s obsessive emphasis on precision-and-rigor has spawned an impressively large number of rival fractions that are nevertheless united by their linguistic and rhetorical conventions.

To stay merely within the realm of epistemology, we have Reliabilism, Externalism, Internalism, Contextualism, Fallibilism, Disjunctivism, etc., etc., all of them theoretical positions that are carefully constructed around well-fortified conceptual cores.

The debates going on between those camps are highly specialized and sometimes hard to follow, even for other professional academic specialists in philosophy.

And then once the attentive reader is past the rhetorical devices, logical constructions, possible worlds (Twin Earth), imagined persons (Swampman), walls of terminology, and multiple upshots of the argument, usually a very minor, tepid, tentative conclusion follows.

The conscientious defender of ALP interjects here: “Doesn’t the would-be critic understand that the apparently minor, tepid, tentative conclusion has earth-shattering consequences?,” followed by a well-rehearsed blank stare of incomprehension directed at the would-be-critic’s stupidity.

Given the careful rhetorical edifice that has been constructed, the objection is warranted by the collective endorsement of the many more-than-willing participants in the “scholarly debate,” and its impact should be taken seriously.

After this point, the whole argumentative cycle starts over, and ever finer precision tools are used to dissect what the core of the disagreement was, spawning new schools of thought in return.

The defence given for the “analytic” style of working is its putative rational necessity: given its clarity and structure, necessarily, it has the best chance to bring us closer to truth.

Moreover, the defender of ALP claims a direct line of succession with the early pioneers of AP, as if analytic-looking philosophy practiced now is the direct heir of the early analytic research program in a sort of apostolic succession.

Now, although the image I sketched above is (on purpose) anecdotal and paraphrases some stylistic conventions, I think its message is nonetheless clear: ALP generates its own PR by referencing the earlier research program of AP.

The objection made by the conscientious, card-carrying Analytic practitioner makes all serious criticism of issues of styles and degree of precision-and-rigor impossible: surely, the (stupid) would-be critic should understand the value of this precision-and-rigor and the methodical approach needed to undertake philosophical investigations?

Again, precision-and-rigor is used as a device of justificatory violence, an intellectual weapon to blow away wicked “Continentals” and other idiots.

Without precision-and-rigor, we cannot presume to approach truth at all.

Apart from the fact that this hegemonic ideal assumes all sorts of questionable  things about the notion of truth and our capacity to apprehend it, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to a different point here.

The defender of ALP is in this case being imprecise and unrigorous about precision and rigor.

Recall the distinction earlier in this essay: either one is Analytic, or one is an obscurantist.

Surely there are many more genuine positions on the philosophical map?

Why the insistence on ALP as the only rationally acceptable style?

The answer, I think, lies in the pre-occupation of ALP with an essentially distorted, flawed image of what AP actually represented.

This distorted, flawed image looks to me like a perfect case of what in German is called Selbsthistorisierung—the construction of a founding myth, a proto-historical perspective in which certain aspects of a certain series of events are highlighted, while others are obfuscated or deliberately overlooked.

The goal of this narrative is to construct a solid story about a certain discipline, group or practice that serves as a way of retro-actively explaining the ways in which things “are done now,” or to define what is normal, acceptable or intellectually respectable.

Looked at this way, one can easily see that the received story of Analytic philosophy is trying desperately to establish something merely by virtue of endlessly repeating it: namely, a few core tenets of ALP as practiced today.

PROCEDURES AND PRECISION

First, one detects the fervent hope that a certain way of doing philosophy will provide guaranteed results.

If philosophy is practiced through careful argumentation, by using a certain vocabulary, by working on piecemeal problems, avoiding jargon and by accepting certain conceptual frameworks, it must be successful.

ALP is in this sense essentially procedural: by following the procedure, reliable results will follow.

Engel has summarized this commitment as follows: (1) a belief in progress in philosophy, (2) communal research activity, and (3) the central place of mathematics and science for conducting philosophical inquiry.

To be fair, for a certain restricted class of problems, this thought might well be true.

Notably, in the areas where analytic philosophy (AP) has claimed its most significant contributions, an essentially procedural way of proceeding has, arguably, proven successful.

The list provided by Soames is in this respect arguably correct: the analytic toolkit has arguably proven its worth for a certain class of philosophical problems, and has in some cases, even exceeded expectations.

Nevertheless, other types of philosophical problems will not be well served by an essentially procedural type of philosophy.

They might, instead, require new approaches, the overthrowing of conceptual frameworks, or the rethinking of fundamental notions.

Historically, one can see that many great thinkers had to invent their philosophical tools while they were philosophizing, or that they invented new tools in response to seemingly insoluble problems.

Together with the idea of philosophy as a semi-linear process of knowledge accumulation, comes the idea of progress in the scientific sense.

Soames says:

Our knowledge of the universe and ourselves expands like a ripple surrounding a pebble dropped in a pool. As we move away from the center of the spreading circle, its area, representing our secure knowledge, grows. But so does its circumference, representing the border where knowledge blurs into uncertainty and speculation, and methodological confusion returns. Philosophy patrols the border, trying to understand how we got there and to conceptualize our next move.  Its job is unending.[11]

This sounds sympathetic, plausible even.

Of course, we now know more about the universe than 500 years ago.

Of course, many more conceptual issues are unresolved.

Of course, we are able to deal with more complex problems than ever before.

This is not the problem with what Soames is saying.

Instead, the problem is in what is not said but assumed, namely that given enough time, there is a teleological process of accumulative inquiry that must lead to the truth (what kind of truth is unclear) as long as one is vigilant for the specters of methodological confusion and insecure knowledge.

Error in all its forms is an enemy to be fought.

I have earlier directed attention to what Karl Popper called ‘the optimistic theory of truth’ – the idea that once the truth is found, we will recognize it immediately.[12]

Illuminating here is Gilles Deleuze’s insight into this assumption, as he wrote in the Preface to his 1968 book Difference and Repetition:

For example, we suppose that thought possesses a good nature, and the thinker a good will (naturally to “want” the true); We take as a model the process of recognition – in other words, a common sense or employment of all the faculties on a supposed same object; We designate error, nothing but error, as the enemy to be fought; And we suppose that the true concerns solutions – in other words, propositions capable of serving as answers. This is the classic image of thought, and as long as the critique has not been carried to the heart of that image it is difficult to conceive of thought as encompassing those problems which point beyond the propositional mode.[13]

When reading this passage, it is hard not to think that Soames has been refuted even before he wrote his essay.

In a few sentences, Deleuze diagnoses exactly what happens when one sticks to one mode of thought, and draws attention to the fact that when one limits the scope of tools, the problems and questions that can be taken on are reduced to the capabilities of the tools – and no more.

Moreover, the “optimistic theory of truth” supposes that everyone working in philosophy is a person “of good will.”

But as Dennett and Haack have pointed out, the pressure to publish or to specialize generate incentives to be smart rather than thorough; to focus on minor victories rather than major findings; to prioritize the fashionable instead of the relevant; and to substitute sophism for philosophy.

Second, ALP uncritically presupposes quite a lot about its own methods of conceptual analysis and about concepts in general.

If concepts are just shorthand notations for “ideas,” in the everyday sense of that term, then those ideas are applied as tools, as instruments to tackle a problem.

The danger of this procedure is that the problem is, in effect, reasoned away, precisely insofar as the conceptual toolkit falls short of comprehending it.

From this shortcoming, I suspect, derives the distinctly Analytic fascination of epiphenomenalism of all sorts.

Consciousness? Just a superveniently emergent property.

Selves? Just multiple mechanisms working in conjunction.

Introspection? Just self-presenting states.

And so-on and so forth.

Of course, one can discard concepts if one believes they lead to misguided, wrongheaded ways of thinking.

However, the Analytic procedure, as actually implemented, has been to reason away everything that is subjectively experienced, simply by pointing at formal or natural science–as if science weren’t a subjectively experienced activity!

If one accepts the Humean position that formal science is trivial stipulation-plus-deduction and that natural science is essentially an activity that does away with our metaphysical illusions, then this way of reducing subjectively experienced phenomena to scientific facts presents little problem.

Nevertheless, it leaves open deep critical questions that are not easily answered; and the more one pushes them out the door, using the reductionist broom, the more rudely these questions force their way back into the debate.

The use of concepts as shorthand notation for “ideas” assumes that concepts are packages of organizing information that structure philosophical debates, and that help in understanding texts from other philosophers.

Concepts thus assists in collective philosophizing, insofar as they aid communicative intersubjectivity: one’s ideas are immediately understood once one uses the correct concepts, as both sender and receiver share the same mental frame.

The characteristically Analytic practice of trying to be as objective as possible in formulation derives in part from this ideal: writing philosophy is best done in a common language, and subjectivity would just get in the way of understanding.

Formulations must be neutral, and this neutrality must convince the reader in the same way that “hard facts” in science convince scientists.

On this account, concepts are understood as empty containers for certain topic-specific content.

Once the contents of all these containers is understood, they can be combined or discarded.

As confirmation, two philosophers come to mind:

First, Russell and his early emphasis on atomistic/molecular logical analysis, and the corresponding possibility of recursively combining statements into larger wholes.

I think that this idea tacitly or explicitly provided the basis for reductive analysis that would prove crucial in the formulation of the aims of Analytic philosophy.

Second, Paulo Freire’s idea of “the banking model of education,” in which not concepts, but students themselves are viewed as empty containers to be filled up with content.

However, if we apply Freire’s critique of treating students like empty vats to concepts construed as empty vats to be filled up with content, we elicit the same results: by using concepts as mere tools for making finer distinctions, and insisting that this is the only way to use them, one reduces all philosophical activity to a certain form of conceptual analysis.

If one views concepts as vats containing a fixed content, then the application of concepts is a kind of shorthand notation that makes long and laborious definitions superfluous.

Surely, this is one way in which concepts may be sometimes used.

However, it is a world away from the idea that (especially philosophical) concepts should allow one to draw distinctions that would allow for ways to look at a subject matter from perspectives that were previously not possible or even thinkable.

The same standardizing strategy applies for terminology: specific terms are viewed as strict labels (approximately as “rigid designators”) that describe a fixed underlying package of content in all cases.

Ideally, these strict labels are understood in the same way by everyone participating in the debate, and make communication easier.

Emphasizing this use of concepts and terminology allows for philosophizing as a collective activity, and allows for structuring its institutional output along clear guidelines (conference papers, journal articles, books, reviews…).

In theory, the intersubjective character of the texts produced allows for critical (peer) reviews and well-informed debates in which all participants agree on the issues to be discussed and terms to be used or criticized.

Under the demands for precision and rigor, and professional standardization, is the unexamined expectation that when one sticks to a safe method, safe results follow that can be discussed scientifically.

As Engel contends, this tacit expectation is the “regulative ideal” at work.

By viewing philosophy as a technique, a fixed sequence of operations, one assumes or asserts that performing the procedure leads to results that are reliable or philosophically respectable.

Indeed, clarity, consistent argumentation, and careful explication are important pillars of philosophical activity.

Obfuscation of the content serves no good reason, and runs counter to the philosophical ideal of searching for the truth.

Therefore, one should focus on clarity, consistent argumentation, and careful explication of core theses.

However, even applying this rule tells us nothing about the intellectual substance or truth of the philosophical investigation.

No matter how well-crafted my prose, the conclusion I draw may be utterly trivial.

Obversely, no matter how dense and unreadable my prose, there may be accurate, insightful, or even profound observations in my text.

The supposed necessary connection between the style of philosophical writing and the substance or truth of the philosophical investigation seems to me a basic conceptual mistake.

Claiming a necessary connection between philosophical writing-style and philosophical substance or truth is sharply different from upholding a regulative ideal of clarity, consistency, and careful explication.

When one fails to articulate one’s thoughts in accordance with le bon style as dictated by mainstream Analytic philosophers, one is not necessarily a bad, stupid, or fake philosopher.

Notably, Wittgenstein complained in the Preface to the Philosophical Investigations that once he tried to force his thoughts into a certain format, their substance and truth would suffer.[14]

And when one reads the book, working through the short remarks,  the impression is not that of a sloppy philosopher who did not care for his argumentation: Instead, one is confronted with a meticulous, conscientious thinker, asking questions to the point where it almost hurts.

If there is one thing that makes reading Wittgenstein an intense experience, it is his willingness to question so insistently that the content of the thoughts themselves seems to disappear.

Here we have case in point: it was the format of presentation that influenced the quality of the outcome in a negative way.

Surveying the history of philosophy, many great thinkers did not write their thoughts down according to a predefined template: they invented the template as they went along, or as Wittgenstein had it: the format followed the natural inclination of thought.

They are analytic or observant in ways that undermine the reduction of philosophical practice to a certain type of conceptual analysis, let alone the idea that such analyses have to be presented in a prescribed format.

THE VERY IDEA OF ANALYSIS

If the first conceptual tenet of ALP is to assume or assert a necessary connection between the style of philosophical writing and the substance or truth of the philosophical investigation, then the second tenet is to portray philosophical analysis as the style of writing or arguing.

In other words: there is one type of philosophical analysis, and when this activity is carried out, it automatically looks (and reads) like ALP.

Even on first sight, this claim seems highly dubious.

Of course, one can refer to very different philosophical undertakings that are meant as analyses of one sort or the other, but that understand by the term “analysis” something very different than ALP postulates or recommends.

Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Brentano, Collingwood, Dewey, early Heidegger, early Deleuze, Canguilhem, and Bachelard, e.g., were in this sense all concerned with their own analytical projects, in which they sought to understand, rephrase, reframe or reduce certain concepts or philosophical problems.

Notably Bachelard saw his work as a critical (psycho)analysis of the scientific mind.

Heidegger framed his treatment of the question of Being as an analytic enterprise.

Deleuze viewed his Difference and Repetition as an analysis of the concept of difference.

However, even if one restricts one’s view for the purposes of comparison to the Analytic tradition itself, one encounters not only a broad diversity of styles, but above all a broad range of conceptions on what philosophical analysis—or more narrowly, conceptual analysis—actually amounts to.

It is this broad variety, as such, that undermines the idea of a single, well-focused, proto-scientific discipline of ALP, not only in matter of content, but also in its conception of philosophical analysis.

Even focusing on just one disciplinary corner of philosophy, it is obvious that the stylistic and conceptual distance between its leading figures is so vast that it makes hardly sense to put them into one disciplinary sub-group if one thinks from the viewpoint of content.

Moreover, in order to defend the idea of a narrowly-circumscribed discipline of Analytic philosophy, the defenders of ALP have to deploy its conception of methodology for drawing the boundaries of their territory, and to segregate itself from anything that is deemed “non-Analytic.”

No wonder, then, that such catch-all terms as analysis, clarity, argumentative consistency, precision, and rigor are used.

Indeed, the only way to maintain that there is in fact a shared basis underlying ALP is to insist on all its practitioners’ adherence to such self-identifying terms as analysis, clarity, argumentative consistency, precision, and rigor, in order to lay claim to and fortify its disciplinary domain.

What is precisely meant by these terms remains unclear – surely these terms admit of a broad interpretation, given the variety in the ALP mentioned earlier.

Whatever these terms really do mean, they are so hard to describe and so broadly applicable that it is simply a ruse to hold that they determine some sort of distinctive philosophical methodology.

Moreover, the claim that they determine what is good philosophy is, given the vagueness of the defining terms, simply unconvincing.

In fact, they’re simply proprietary labels—like trademarks:

analysisTM, clarityTM, argumentative consistencyTM, precisionTM, and rigorTM.

One additional point on precision can be made here: despite the manifest falsity of the claim that ALP has anything other than presumptive proprietary claims on its terminology or methodology, many of its practitioners self-confidently draw the distinction between ALP-style philosophy and non-ALP-style philosophy.

This seems wholly unwarranted, however, and yet another example of their being imprecise about precision.

A good case is Heidegger’s Being and Time—quite favorably reviewed in 1928 by the young Gilbert Ryle, no less.

Heidegger explicitly intended this philosophical work to be, to an important extent, an exercise in philosophical analysis: section II.5 in the Introduction is titled “The ontological analytic of Dasein as laying bare the horizon for an interpretation of the meaning of Being in general”; Division I of part I is called “Preparatory fundamental analysis of Dasein”; section V.28 is called “The task of a thematic analysis of Being-in”—and so on.

Reading the text closely, it is obvious that Heidegger was attempting to make his subject matter clear, working his way through it, and showing his thinking process along the way, meticulously describing his key terms or concepts.

The first chapters of his book are devoted to outline, methodology (using the viewpoint of Dasein) and the nature of the question alone, after which an explication of the key terms of his philosophical undertaking (phenomenon, logos, phenomenology) follows.

All in all, this preparatory work takes up about 40 pages.

Reading it, the reader is immersed in the work, and Heidegger introduces a number of conceptual pathways that are pursued in subsequent chapters.

Nevertheless, Heidegger’s work is taken by practitioners of ALP to be paradigmatically non-ALP.

But is it therefore not good philosophy?

If precision is the touchstone for philosophy to be counted as “good,” then obviously Heidegger must be included in the “good” camp introduced earlier.

However, given the fact that Heidegger’s work is often treated as “something non-ALP” and therefore “bad,” suggests that some other operative factors at work here.

And this line of critical questioning applies not only to Heidegger.

I leave the full answer up to the reader (as this essay is already quite long!), but hereby propose this:

The self-image of ALP is, at the very least to some non-trivial degree, responsible for a philosophical split that seems highly philosophically unproductive, apart from sustaining a proprietary, trade-marked self-image of contemporary Anglo-American professional academic philosophy that is itself desperately in need of correction and revision.

If ALP is not a continuous tradition, it makes no sense to keep the AP/CP split alive.

If ALP is a style of arguing it makes no sense to frame it as a philosophical tradition, but would make more sense as a methodological tradition.

However, each tradition is constituted by surrounding ideological factors, so maybe ALP is more of an ideological mirage than a proper (precision here!) philosophical distinction.

NOTES

[1] See this.

[2] See this.

[3] Pascal Engel, “Continental Insularity: Contemporary French Analytical Philosophy,” in: Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures (1987), pp. 3-4.

[4] James Conant, “The Emergence of the Concept of the Analytic Tradition as a Form of Philosophical Self-Consciousness,” in Jeffrey Bell, Andrew Cutrofello and Paul Livingston (eds.) Beyond the Analytic-Continental Divide: Pluralist Philosophy in the 21st Century (London: Routledge, 2016), p. 26.

[5] Although Dennett does not use the term “ALP,” I take it that he aims at a similar target. The paper in which he deals with this topic is: Daniel Dennett, “The Higher-Order Truth of Chmess,” Topoi (2006): pp. 39-41.

[6] Conant, 2016, p. 24.

[7] Conant, 2016, p. 34.

[8] Scott Soames, Philosophy’s True Home, The Stone, March 7, 2016.

[9] Williams uses the phrase in the Preface to his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, although he endorses the idea that analytic philosophy is somehow populated by practitioners who abhor obscurity, while suggesting that ‘other kinds of philosophers’ do not care for this commitment.

[10] In his later writings, Williams questioned the idea of a clear distinction between continental and analytic philosophy.

[11] Scott Soames, Philosophy’s True Home, The Stone, March 7, 2016. [https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/07/philosophys-true-home/?_r=0].

[12] See this.

[13] Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016),p. xiv.

[14] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), p. 3e.

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Otto Paans

Published a month ago