On the end of analytic philosophy

In his blog post ‘The End of Analytic Philosophy’, Liam Bright paints a starkly pessimistic — almost Spenglerian — view of the current state of what we still call analytic philosophy.

I choose that last phrase with care. Once there may have been a coherent conception of philosophy as the discipline whose task it is to analyse concepts, to take the pre-existing concepts of the sciences and clarify them, a discipline which therefore could be called ‘analytic philosophy’. But that is clearly not what today’s practitioners are engaged in. When a contemporary philosopher defends an A-theory or B-theory of time, she is not just analysing the scientific or everyday concept of time. Indeed, one of the most basic questions she has to grapple with is precisely the relation between science and the everyday, the question whether there is, for instance, an epistemic hierarchy between them. How could that be a question of conceptual analysis?

There once may have been a coherent conception of philosophy as the discipline which analyses concepts. But there are reasons for suspicion. This idea has all the characteristics of a foundational myth, suggesting a cohesion and clarity of purpose that may never have existed even in the past and serving now only as the focal point of an unproductive nostalgia. It is certain that already at the very beginning of analytic philosophy an instability was present; that already in the opening moves of the game, the very possibility of the game was being questioned. Schlick’s 1930 article Die Wende der Philosophie, surely as good a starting point for this tradition as any, already makes the (Tractarian) point that the insight of philosophy cannot be expressed and cannot be a form of knowledge. It ends on the note that when the new philosophy is successful, there will no longer be philosophical questions. Instead everyone will end up discussing all questions “philosophically, that means: meaningfully and clearly.”

It would be interesting to trace the suicidal tendencies of philosophy; to investigate how and why, again and again, philosophers can see the purpose of philosophy fulfilled only in the death of philosophy — a theme that we find in thinkers as different from each other as Wittgenstein, Schlick, Heidegger, Quine and Rorty. Is it that once we give up the idea of finding the Platonic Truth, there is then nothing else that philosophy can be? That there is only the therapeutic project of overcoming the urge of overcoming the urge of overcoming the urge of overcoming the urge…

Clearly one may doubt that Schlick’s positive vision makes much sense. How could there be a class of people, the philosophers, who have been trained to be good at meaningful and clear thinking, quite independent of context and subject matter, and who help the scientists achieve these same levels of meaningfulness and clarity? Schlick would not doubt answer: formal logic! But few among us still believe that the cure to the ills of the sciences lies in formalising scientific theories. There are to be sure still some desperate attempts to see philosophers as people who can help science apply Bayesian schemes of inference — but this is surely to walk away from philosophy and turn yourself into a particular kind of statistician.

Liam Bright writes:

For what I think is gone, and is not coming back, is any hope that from all this will emerge a well-validated and rational-consensus-generating theory of grand topics of interest. We can, and we will, keep generating puzzles for any particular answer given, we will never persuade our colleagues who disagree, we will never finally settle what to say about the simple cases in order to be able to move on to the grand problems of philosophy. My anecdotal impression is that junior philosophers are hyper aware of these bleak prospects for anything like creation of a shared scientific paradigm.

If my analysis above is at all right, then the prospects for such a shared paradigm have always been extremely bleak, even at the very inception of analytic philosophy. If philosophy does not have its own subject matter, its own truths, if it is in fact not a body of doctrine but a method for clarifying the sciences, then it is not even the kind of field in which there could be a paradigm. This is not to say that there was no desire to be like the sciences, to turn philosophy into a science and give it a paradigm. There surely was, and I think the most obvious example of this is Quine’s naturalism, the point of which is to allow philosophy to share in the paradigms (and hence the reliability, progress and prestige) of the sciences. But, again, this is merely a disguised suicide attempt. Philosophy can only achieve a shared scientific paradigm by turning itself into a science; and it can only do that by no longer being philosophy, by giving up, among many other things, the ability to ask about the nature and the status of science.

A paradigm — Kuhn is admirably clear about this — achieves it unifying social purpose only by imposing severe limitations; by setting aside a whole realm of questions as questions that cannot be asked. This is the very antithesis of philosophy. For what is philosophy? It is the attempt to “understand how things, in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together, in the broadest possible sense of the term” (Sellars). It is the attempt to always take a step backwards; the wish to question every presupposition; the eternal inability to take for granted the ideas that have been bequeathed to us; the desire to think everything through for ourselves. While the individual philosopher may desire to achieve the perfect understanding that will be the inescapable paradigm for all later thinkers (this desire is, of course, the violence of metaphysics that people like Heidegger, Derrida and Vattimo warn against), nevertheless the method of philosophy is always and necessarily pre-paradigmatic; or rather, since we will never arrive at a paradigm, a-paradigmatic and even anti-paradigmatic.

So when I read Bright’s paragraph, I call out: good! This means that philosophy is still alive! And if that means the end of analytic philosophy, then analytic philosophy is something we are well rid of.

To be clear, I love analytic philosophy. I read much analytic philosophy. I sometimes write analytic philosophy. But while I do not object to analytic philosophy, I do object to analytic philosophers. I object to any philosopher identifying herself with a specific way of doing philosophy, with a specific subset of authors, and of course, also, with opposition to another way of doing philosophy and another set of authors. If philosophy is anti-paradigmatic, then it is a grave mistake to join a clique. It’s fine (and obviously necessary from a practical point of view) that some people have read more David Lewis and other people have read more Jacques Derrida, but it is not fine to turn the fact that we are always limited into a justification for self-limitation. There should be no analytic philosophers, just as there should be no Continental philosophers; and indeed no ethicists and political philosophers and philosophers of science either. Any philosophical problem is all philosophical problems. You will have known nothing if you have not known everything.

Again, I love analytic philosophy. But it has an original sin, and that original sin is the idea that philosophy could be like a science. The idea was never consistently adhered to (even in Schlick, Carnap or Neurath) and it has never stopped philosophers from doing very non-scientific things. But there is one crucial respect in which it has had an enormous and disastrous practical influence. It has made analytic philosophy, and thereby philosophy in most of the academic world, eager to embrace the institutional trapping of modern science. Perhaps we would have been dragged into a world of short journal articles, selective peer review, research projects, and increasing specialisation anyway; but the very least we could have done was kick and scream the whole time. Instead, we went with a smile. This is what we wanted.

For I do share one part of Bright’s pessimism. His most basic message is that philosophy requires a rebirth that isn’t happening; that there is something lifeless, something belated, something tired in academic philosophy. That for all the stuff that is happening, we nevertheless seem to be stuck in a rut. I agree. But I believe that this has nothing to do with the need for a new paradigm and everything with the way that philosophy is practised in modern academia.

What do you need to do to get into and remain in academia? You’ve got to show (again and again and again) that you are good at writing and publishing a very specific kind of text: the 8000 word article suitable for the peer-reviewed journal. This is kind of text requires one to choose a very specific topic; to delve into the pre-existing literature on that topic; to formulate a new argument or new position concerning the topic; and then to have it deemed relevant and acceptable by other people who have been writing on the same topic.

One hardly needs to spell out the obvious. This kind of publication is very good for the specialist and very bad for the generalist; it is very good for making a small contribution to an existing debate and very bad for trying to formulate new questions and new debates; it is very good for philosophy that relies on argumentation, which always requires a pre-existing context, and very bad for philosophy that relies on the imagination; it is very good for philosophy that speaks in the way that people expect you to speak and that can thus be judged by ready-to-hand standards, while being very bad for philosophy that speaks in unexpected, weird ways that nobody knows how to judge. It is, in other words, a way of writing that puts every possible obstacle in the way of rejuvenation, rebirth, originality, idiosyncrasy, having a strong sense that any philosophical problem is all philosophical problems, and having the ability, necessary to any innovator, to ignore or misinterpret her predecessors. Even when our students come to us full of newness and unforeseen sparks, we make them into scholars and specialists. And we make ourselves into scholars and specialists. Perhaps with the idea that later on, once we have tenure, once we have published enough, once our reputation is secure, then they will write the great and original works we know we are here to produce. But will we ever recapture the grand ambitions we started out with? Will we even desire to?

Lest I be misunderstood, let me say that I love scholars and specialists. It’s an honest and useful job. Perhaps, in the current scene, it is the only honest way of being a philosopher. I also love, to some extent, the academic journal article. Certainly many great ones have been written. But it is a disaster for philosophy that we require the young philosopher to become productive immediately, and then productive in a very specific, scholarly/specialist way. Think of all the texts that cannot be written. The Birth of Tragedy would not survive a referee coming from classics. The Tractatus would have been dismissed even by the greatest specialist of the day, Frege. Even a much more academic work like Being and Time would, first of all, not be suitable for cutting up into article-length pieces; and, second, would immediately be dismissed as ignoring most of the existing literature on “all these topics”. The possibility space of philosophical publishing has been immensely impoverished.

If we want philosophy to be more vigorous, more interesting, in one word, better, then we need to throw open the gates. We should allow people to get away with all kinds of things they are not now getting away with: writing dialogues and poems and jokes and books in strange undefinable genres; writing about topics and authors that they do not have specialist knowledge about but do have some unique, idiosyncratic perspective on; writing texts that make large, vague, visionary claims that cannot be immediately cashed out in terms of theses; writing texts that do not contain argument but work in different rhetorical registers. We need to be quick with encouragement and helpful ideas, slow with criticism and dismissal. We need to get rid of the most hostile of reading practices, the anonymous referee with his ‘decline’ or ‘accept’. If that means we need to get rid of the ridiculous system of artificial scarcity that is the ‘top journal’, well, that is surely a sacrifice we can make without falling into despair. We need to accept that much may be written that is bad, but that the gems will make it worth it. We need to be careful to also reward good scholarship and specialisation, because philosophy most certainly needs that as well. Most of all, we must stop dreaming about some paradigm, some final set of methods or answers, some way of doing philosophy that we can all get behind; and accept that the most interesting and fruitful philosophy will result from a practice that is splintered, that allows for small groups doing their own things, as long as this is not isolation, as long as it is balanced by an eagerness to engage with other groups, hopefully in highly unexpected ways.

Marx wrote:

“For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

May we read Kant in the morning, write about formal logic in the afternoon, compose a Platonic dialogue about love in the evening, and talk with our friends about the Tale of Genji after dinner. That is the life, my friends; the life, that is, of the mind; the life that is philosophy.

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