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.