Analytic philosophy

This anniversary guest post is from the brilliant John Emerson.

“It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
`By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me ?…..

He holds him with his skinny hand,
`There was a ship,’ quoth he.
`Hold off ! unhand me, grey-beard loon !’….
(Coleridge, “The Ancient Mariner”)

“I alone have escaped to tell thee. ”
(Job 1:19)

When I attack analytic philosophy, a very common response is bafflement: why do I dislike it so much, and just what it is that I would prefer? I have recently come to understand that this bafflement is sincere and real, and that no one younger than forty-five or so can remember a time when analytic philosophy was not dominant. Even by the time of my own undergraduate years (1964-7) the kind of thing I wanted to see was being phased out, and by now I am effectively a fossil. This post is my attempt to clarify my objections to analytic philosophy, and to sketch what it is that I would have wanted.

I think that it is agreed that analytic philosophy descends from Frege, and the short way of expressing my dissatisfaction is to say that Fregean philosophy does some of the things philosophy used to do much better than any earlier philosophy did, but at the cost of ceasing entirely to do some of the other things that philosophy used to do. Analytic philosophers speak with condescension and scorn of anyone who regrets the loss of the old “big picture” philosophy, but I think that their condescension and scorn are not justified and, in fact, justify my own low opinion of them.

By and large the problems I see in analytic philosophy come from the attempt to make philosophy into a scientific, technical, professional activity. In particular, I think that the standards of truth and clarity, the general bias toward analysis as opposed to synthesis, and the skittishness about “thick” or mixed discourse have played a malicious role. The philosophy I would prefer would be more inclusive and more enterprising, but less certainly true, and in this would resemble the pre-Fregean philosophies.

I’ve put my criticisms / proposals in four categories, which I will just sketch. By and large, my criticisms are especially of analytic philosophy’s approaches to social, political, historical, ethical, and other “humanistic” questions, though I suspect that the analytic philosophy of science is dubious too.

First, I think that at least some philosophers should reverse the priority that analytic philosophers give to rigor over comprehensiveness. Rather than reducing problems to a size which can be successfully handled with rigor and certainty, I think that philosophers should try as best possible to handle large questions in their entirety. And these should be actual, real questions in all their thickness, and not questions about formalized models or imaginary hypothetical questions.

Second, if questions have both a normative (political or ethical) and a factual component, as most do, both components should be discussed together, rather than simplifying them by the “bracketing-out” process, and assigning the separate parts to the respective specialists.

Third, discussions should be oriented both to persuasion and to truth, and this means, to a degree, the renunciation of expert professionalism. The kinds of philosophical questions I’m talking about are of very general concern, and to treat them as specialized subjects not accessible to laymen has not only the disadvantage of elitism or even authoritarianism, but also that of presumption. The technical devices by which philosophers exclude laymen from their discussions have the effect of excluding very intelligent, concerned
non-philosophers from the argument. There are reasons why fluid dynamics, for example, should be a specialized topic, but ethics and politics should not be. (To put it differently: philosophy can be as
difficult as it wishes, but it cannot intentionally reserve itself for professional philosophers alone. And yes, Kant and Hegel were more accessible than contemporary philosophy is, because they did deign to address “the things that matter in [people's] little lives”. )

Finally, philosophy should be constructive, and for that reason cannot be truth-functional. Every writer and every reader faces an uncertain future which can be influenced by his or her actions. Comprehensive
philosophies are by nature, and absolutely should be, constructive proposals or projects about how we should make our futures. And proposals and projects cannot be true, but can only be constrained by truth.

All past philosophies exaggerated their claims to truth, and the Fregean critique was a powerful one. But Fregean philosophy cannot produce a thick, constructive, persuasive, comprehensive world view,
and has thus renounced one of the functions of philosophy. Not all analytic philosophers fail on all four of the counts I have listed, but as far as I know they all fail on at least one of them. In effect, the philosophy profession has delegated some of the most important traditional functions of philosophy to journalists, freelancers, politicians, administrators, and charlatans.

26 thoughts on “Analytic philosophy

  1. You see, I really am a fossil. I could just as well have published an essay on John Wesley’s commentary on II Chronicles.

    My guess is that a.) this might not have been the right place for my piece, b.) non-philosophers have become totally uninterested in philosophy, and c.) philosophers in the biz do not believe that analytic philosophy needs any defense and just think that I am — a fossil. I have evidence for #3.

  2. John, as far as I understood your piece I am with you on all counts. Especially this:

    “Finally, philosophy should be constructive, and for that reason cannot be truth-functional. Every writer and every reader faces an uncertain future which can be influenced by his or her actions.”

    There are similarities to the function(ing) of the arts and the media.

    It is just that I, for one, am one of those neophytes and totally unaware of what is going on in philosophy right now and am therefore afraid to comment on anything to do with philosophy.

    What I am sure of is that philosophy, and the arts, have a HUGE task to perform nowadays. Chaos abounds in the minds of people and we need something new to hold on to.

  3. I completely agree. I’m a mathematician and not a professional philosopher, but it seems to me that we are ALL amateur philosophers because we navigate an uncertain world. We have to choose beliefs and criteria for calling something ‘knowledge’ just to go shopping. I tried to read ‘Taming of the True’ by Niel Tennant because I was working on a project dealing with assessing meaning. I’m sure the book is well-written, but it reminded me of a chess book on opening moves. It’s simply exhausting to try to figure out the nuances of all this theory. I eventually worked from a practical perpective that any analytic philosopher would probably consider hopelessly naive (http://www.coker.edu/assessment if you’re interested–click on “Assessing the Elephant”).

  4. “You see, I really am a fossil.”

    John, don’t get so disheartened, just because people don’t comment doesn’t mean they don’t read, and that they don’t think. Essentially I agree with the sentiments of the last two comments.

    Actually I’m an economist, but that doesn’t mean that philosophy isn’t important to me. I think if Wittgenstein hadn’t been around, and if the Bloomsbury set hadn’t existed, then we would never have seen Keynes write the general theory he actually did write.

    Really the problem goes deeper for me, since while I think that economics is what I’m good at, when I went up to university (just after you finished you undergraduate studies) what I discovered there was a way of thinking about and doing economics which seemed to me to be wholly inadequate (and even wrong), but I had the problem that, as a young snotty-nosed boy hitting the bright lights of the big city from the dark Northern recesses of a then fashionable Liverpool, I didn’t really know enough to decide why it was wrong and in adequate. I lacked the cultural resources to be able to satisfactorily address this issue. So off I went in search of them. I think my own personal Saul on the road to Jerusalem moment came when I read Marcel Mauss’ The Gift. There I foud a group of people described – the Inuit – who generate value for themselves by giving, rather than by receiving (rather like the contemporary free software people). In the society Mauss describes the more you give the higher your status, and the ‘wealthier’ you are. How can this be, I thought, as I scratched my head. The thing is this conformed much more to the patterns of human behaviour I was seeing around me than the ‘homo economicus’ that was there in the text books ever did.

    I got into philosophy via the philosophy of science really (this was the time of the height of the Kuhn, Popper, Feyeurabend debate, since I was interested in why economics wasn’t, and still isn’t, a science (more on this later). After acquiring an initial interest I then found myself getting drawn deeper and deeper in, and so I basically spent the next ten years of my life studying philosophy in one way or another. But I never was attracted by analytic philosophy. I started out with what was then disparagingly known as ‘Continental Philosophy’. Since I felt myself to be a European this seemed like an admirable starting point to me (I mean basically I think I’m arguing here that at some level you can’t separate the penchant for a certain kind of philosphical environment in the UK from other cultural prejudices). Of course since analytic philosophy would in some sense claim to have extracted itself from this kind of ‘contextualisation’ (and of course if their prejudices hadn’t prevented them from reading Husserl the analytic philosophers would have realised just how naieve all this is, or indeed if they had bothered to take the time to try and understand what Derrida was getting at).

    So I got into reading a lot of people whose name begins with the letter H, plus Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and then eventually the Greeks.

    Now what is the point of all this? Well in the first sense to say to you John you are not alone, you do not go ‘where no man has gone before’. Others, as you can see from the earlier comments, are, in their way, travelling the same road.

    Basically I finally came to a conclusion: philosophy is something you do, not something you write about. Since I was very clear I didn’t have the necessary gift to ‘do’ philosophy, I decided to go back to what I *was* good at, economics – which also incidentally is something you do rather than something you write about. Paraphrasing Woody Allen: those who can do, those can’t do, write about, and those who can’t either do or write about become theoretical economists.

    I mean the kind of identity crisis which philosophy faces under the weight of the analytic ‘burden’ is very similar to a situation I find in contemporary economics.

    i) The obsession with using symbols. I had this issue with the symbollic logic ‘heads’ right from the start. I am sure all of those symbols they use have some technical value in the face of specific problems, but I think to get a useful philosophical discussion going all you need is some sort of simple start point like “all men are liars”. My feeling is sociologists could better explain to you why some professional practitioners feel the need to hide their insecurity behind the veneer of technical rigour.

    ii) An appeal to intuitions. This is fine, as long as you don’t assume that these intuitions are universal, and of course this is exactly what is normally assumed. I mean in this sense at the end of the day I still have a lot of sympathy with a Wittgensteinian restricted behaviourism: all I know about the other guy or gal over there is that he or she has just lifted their hand over their head, maybe they are waving to me, but maybe its safer just to leave this as a hypothesis, since I have no access at all to what might be going on inside the head.

    This unjustified appeal to intuitions is very common in economics, and really is one of the key reasons the whole rational expectations thing falls apart when you touch it. I mean, maybe you have noticed that the central bankers right now are very worried about ‘inflationary expectations’ . How do people form such expectations? They have no idea (Keynes, who started this whole thing of, was of course miles more sophistocated). They could ask some sociologists to look into this, especially by conducting some qualitative research, but this is probably the last thing they would dream of doing. Basically what I am saying is that deciding what people mean when they say > is possibly best considered by asking them (again, as Derrida would remind us were he still here, > can mean a lot of things, it depends).

    iii) An obsession with breaking things down into manageable pieces to the detriment of considering the whole and its interconnection:

    “Second, if questions have both a normative (political or ethical) and a factual component, as most do, both components should be discussed together, rather than simplifying them by the “bracketing-out” process, and assigning the separate parts to the respective specialists.”

    I agree with this very much. In economics this ‘simplification’ is normally achieved by using a process of partial analytics, the justification for which is normally some version or other of the Laplace correction, ie the assumption that non-linear feedback processes are not important, when of course actually they form a large part of the picture.

    Basically I think we very often need to start from the whole, and look at its properties. Part of the problem obviously comes from the academicisation of these things in the sense of creating a career structure which rewards publication in such a way as to spawn more and more sub-disciplines. Most academics unfortunately don’t realise that in the course of a working life they’d be a lot better off writing one or two ‘defining’ papers, than having a string of papers as long as your arm that everyone else is going to quietly forget about, if they are even able to read them in the first place that is.

    One final thing. This summer I have been reading a lot of theoretical biology (evo-devo, molecular biology, genomics) since I am interested in the economic dynamics of ageing populations and I find I have the need to understand something more about the ageing process in order to be able to form an opinion (this sort of thing, as you can imagine, is virtually unheard of among economists, who tend to generally look down on the practitioners of other disciplines whose contents might impinge on theirs. I guess this is really an insecurity complex).

    But the point is I really found this experience most refreshing (all of this does have a broader signbificance, since modern economics has taken physics as a role model, and again has always rather looked down on biology, although biology, of course, studies living organisms). I mean it is a very exciting area, since there is a lot of discovery going on. But also the practitionaers are aware, to some extent at least, of what they don’t know. They are aware that there are rival models, and that no-one has ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’. So there is more debate. (this could be because in many areas things are still in what Kuhn would call a ‘pre-paradigmatic’ state, but then this would seem to be a virtue in some ways. One thing economics and philosphy certainly have in common is that they are both ‘sciences’ in a pre-paradigmatic state, with the important difference in these cases that most of the practitioners are not aware of the fact.

    So lastly I would say that theoretical economics and philosophy have one more thing in common. To ‘do’ them you need only time, a sharpened pencil, and a blank piece of paper. No other technical apparatus or mechanical device is needed. And both are worlds were the ability to carry out ‘thought experiments’ has considerable importance.

    “I could just as well have published an essay on John Wesley’s commentary on II Chronicles.”

    Well, this would have been interesting too. Could it form the subject matter of your next post :).

  5. Sorry for being so grumbly, but I thought that I’d start the ball rolling with an auto-comment, and it seems to have worked. Thanks for the comments.

    Even very nice, aware, literate analytic philosophers seem entirely impervious to what I’m saying. They really want to keep their philosophy as a specialist science while relegating public philosophy and generalist thinking into an inferior, amateur, hobbyist sort of activity.

    Edward, much of what I think about philosophy also applies to neo-classical economics. I’ve done a few things on econ (at my URL) and plan to do more. I have a piece on Becker’s loony treatise on the family at the link, and at the bottom are a couple of other links.

    More later, there’s a lot going on in your comment and I’ll get back to it.

  6. Oh, I’m glad you mentioned Becker, I mean I think he was one of the principal reasons I effectively threw the towel in for the best part of 25 years. I think someone recomended his work to me when I was an undergraduate as being an economist who was interested in ‘social issues’, and then when I looked at what he was doing I found it was the same old story, not listening to and learning from other disciples, but trying to tell them using a horrendous economic reductionist methodology, how things worked in their area too.

    But there is more. You probably don’t know it, but my principal interest these days is in demographic processes (fertility, ageing, the demographic transition, things like that). Well, on my travels one of the areas I have been looking at is the interface between evolutionary biology and evolutionary anthropology, and there you can find a thing called Life History Theory. Life history theory uses models based on trade-offs, and guess what, many of the trade-offs are similar to ones that Becker uses, only the biologists who developed these could claim prior work.

    In particular there was a guy called Lack who studied birds (since birds also bring up their young to some extent) and clutch size in the early 1950′s and developed two trade offs, and what do you know, these are reproduce-now/reproduce-later and quality/quantity, and they are, of course, exactly the framework which Becker uses. Same goes with the household time allocation issue. But as far as I can see Becker NEVER mentions Lack, or this tradition. Now I know Newton and Liebniz are supposed to have invented the calculus independently, but I don’t buy this one. Becker’s Nobel should have been shared by Lack (even if that would have been psothumously).

    I have actually been pig-headed enough to mail Becker twice asking him nicely if he was aware of this prior work, but he has not, of course, replied. One of these days, if I can find the time to do an exhaustive check and can confirm that he offers no recognition anywhere, then I will do everything in my power to ‘out’ him. I am just ‘old fashioned’ like this.

  7. Incidentally, most of my criticisms of economics are external (and some are just “handwaving”, because I get pissed off), but I think that my criticism of Becker is valid as economics.

    For Becker a child is sometimes a commodity, sometimes “human capital”, and sometimes, apparently, a family member (though he doesn’t say what “family membership” is — it seems to be sort of like being a worker for, or a part owner of, a firm).

    He also doesn’t deal with what happens when the child commodity / human capital becomes independent at age 18. (I suppose he would analyze as similiar to a firm spinning off an independent firm).

    Here I’m bumping up against the credential monopolization and paradigm-imperialism of academia. I think that my points are valid and powerful, and for all I know they’re original, but there’s no way to get Becker to pay attention to them. Established academics are like barons who are above the law.

  8. Sorry for butting in, but I just read your piece on Becker, John. His theory about children as commodities sounds exactly like the reason why I gave up on delving into philosophy: intellectual game playing with little or no relation to actual life.

    For me life is organized chaos, with the organisation consisting of various natural laws and chaos consisting, among others, of chance/our intellectual ability to go against the grain and defy those natural laws.

    I also believe that to define, as in positing a theory that proves almost all, is to confine.

    A number of economists seem to have a problem with chaos/unpredictability/diversity. It screws up their precious theories and therefore they need to dismiss a lot of the “noise” chaos produces and force the remainder of the “facts” into a theorie that is forced to work. Reality must fit the model.

    A truly worthy economic Nobel Prize would come up with a fluid model that adapts itself to changing circumstances and provides the best answers in the moment. Answers that change when the moment changes.

    Such a model may well be impossible, I do not know. In any case, some modesty would do some economists well.

    By the way, I am as modest as can be and acknowledge that I maybe should not have written this comment :-) I’ll probably need to zip up because my ignorance is showing.

  9. Oh, for the record: I am a translator, Jack of all trades master of none. But I had a lot of economics rammed down my throat in high school in preparation of graduate studies I never chose to follow. Learning 1.000 pages of economic theory by heart and then regurgitating them at an exam does leave some scars and resentment, even twenty odd years after the fact :-)

  10. Analytical philosophy passed the point of no return decades ago, when they stopped reading people they disagreed with. Now their skills have atrophied to the point where many analytical philosophers cannot even make sense of a page of Kant (without relying on translations).

    The result is the “strangely impervious” people you refer to, John. Some of them don’t react to your criticisms because, deep in their hearts, they have alrady accepted them–but they don’t have a clue what to do about it.

    Others, to be sure, are genuinely happy about their discipline, which means that they revel in their own ignorance of the real alternatives to it. They are a waste of resources, but can simply be ignored..

  11. Except that they control hiring, John.

    One way I look at this is just as rent-seeking through a credentials monopoly gained by bureaucratic infighting.

    Besides the pragmatists, I identify with the early humanists in their battle against the scholastics at the Sorbonne. I think that the comparison with analytic philosophy is exact: the scholastics were equally narrow, equally deaf, and equally well-entrenched.

  12. Analytical philosophers only control hiring in philosophy departments, which are really wretched places to do philosophy. (“Philosophy Department” is an oxymoron.)

    The real jobs of philosophy are getting done today, but in literature, political science, education departments, and other places like that.

  13. Analytical philosophers only control hiring in philosophy departments, which are really wretched places to do philosophy. (“Philosophy Department” is an oxymoron.)

    The real jobs of philosophy are getting done today, but in literature, political science, education departments, and other places like that.

  14. Agreed. I would add general science by working scientists who can write.

    But they’ve locked up a chunk of cash which could be much better spent elsewhere. (I am, among other things, a politico, and I think that the porkbarrel analogy is apt. They control the pork.)

  15. Guy,

    “A truly worthy economic Nobel Prize would come up with a fluid model that adapts itself to changing circumstances and provides the best answers in the moment. Answers that change when the moment changes. Such a model may well be impossible, I do not know.”

    This is a very interesting idea, I have no idea how to address this issue, but it certainly bears thinking about.

    What I can tell you is that I am currently working (over many months) on three papers (for interest purposes these are on, the demographic dividend, the demographic transition, and proportional life cycle rescaling). None of these are either complete or really publishable in their present form. But what I can tell you is that each time I ‘tamper’ with one, I then realise I have to go back and right parts of the others. The process to some extent feeds off itself.

    At the same time I now have 3 more drafts in my head, and then I will end up ‘juggling’ with all six. The whole thing is terrifying, but I can really see no other way. Partial solutions just don’t seem to be satisfactory.

    At the end of the day your idea seems to be the solution to some of this, but I have no idea how to get there.

  16. “At the end of the day your idea seems to be the solution to some of this, but I have no idea how to get there.”

    That is why this would be Nobel Prize stuff :-)

    Consider also the Two slit paradox, (link = http://home.btconnect.com/scimah/Quantumphenomena.htm )

    “Therefore the observer’s mind is in some way determining the outcome of the observations.”

    In other words: to observe is to change. I do believe quantum physics and chaos theory should come in handy in dealing with fluid models. In any case a complex theory like fluidity would have to be multidisciplinary.

  17. “In any case a complex theory like fluidity would have to be multidisciplinary.”

    And this, of course, brings our sidetrack right back on-topic.

    “Even very nice, aware, literate analytic philosophers seem entirely impervious to what I’m saying. They really want to keep their philosophy as a specialist science while relegating public philosophy and generalist thinking into an inferior, amateur, hobbyist sort of activity.”

    I’d say fluidity would be a serious job for open-minded philosophers as well.

  18. “Therefore the observer’s mind is in some way determining the outcome of the observations.”

    Of course, so think Alan Greenspan (or Ben Bernanke) and inflation expectations. I don’t think they have realised the implications of all this yet.

  19. Edward, Guy, I’ll get back to you.

    Guy: my teacher on questions of fluidity is Ilya Prigogine (Order out of Chaos) who actually got a Nobel prize in areas related to chaos in water flows, etc.

    Edward: “I think we very often need to start from the whole”: this is one of my main points, methodology these days is often analytic without ever returning to the whole, and there’s a tendency for the more successful partial science (e.g. econ) to claim precedence over the less (e.g. sociology), and using this precedence as an excuse to ignore the factors less successfully studied.

    ,a href=”http://www.idiocentrism.com/decision.htm”>Here is a fuller development of this idea.

  20. Ah, I remember the day – I don’t remember the exact day, but I do remember the feeling – when, aged about 30 or so, I read the introduction to Dummett’s logical basis of metaphysics, and realised that I didn’t give a toss. Alas for your lament, I reserve even more contempt for most of the other sort of philosophy (big theories), which is – at best, and not always, – only one step up from theology.

    David Hume is the glaring exception :-)

  21. Sorry, I didn’t propose big theories. My problem with theology is that it generally assumes a non-existent entity or grounds itself on a scripture, but I don’t do either. Hume had a corrective effect on earlier philosophy but wasn’t fruitful, except insofar as he stuck with analytic philosophy.

  22. Seems we’ll have to disagree. But nobody did it better than Hume. In the essays more than in the ‘Essay’. If you want to call that analytic, then I will cheerfully admit that I can see your point.

    In the old days, at this point, we would retire to Bannermans.

    Oh well.
    :-)

  23. P.S., But anyway, all complaints about Hume should really be directed at Aristotle, surely?