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.

Waiting With Baited Breath?

Will there or won’t there be an eleventh hour agreement on the new EU budget. Tony Blair is clearly burning the midnight oil, but the foreign ministers did not seem to be unduly impressed:

EU foreign ministers’ talks on the 2007-2013 budget ended after less than a minute on Monday (12 December), with the UK set to issue new proposals on Wednesday ahead of Thursday’s summit.

Britain is set today to publish revised proposals designed to broker a deal on a seven-year EU budget, with the new offer still expected to include heavy cuts to funding for eastern Europe. According to the FT:

Tony Blair, British prime minister, is expected to soften his proposals at the EU summit starting in Brussels on Thursday, including giving up more of the UK budget rebate and restoring some of the planned cuts in the new member states.

In pushing for a tighter EU budget for 2007-2013, the UK’s inital offer proposed cuts of almost 10 per cent in funding for eastern Europe in a total budget of €847bn ($1,000bn, £571bn).

Tony has also found a new argument, the cuts in Eastern Europe aren’t as bad as they seem, since these countries don’t know how to spend the money even when they get it (hmmmmm).

Britain claims there is little harm in reducing payments to poorer new members because they are already finding it difficult to spend the much smaller amounts they are being allocated in 2004-2006. But central Europeans say the British analysis is flawed because it looks at figures for this year, which give no indication of how well the billions of euros in structural funds will be spent.

Meantime, in a decision which is getting decidedly less coverage, French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy may have pulled the plug on the enlargement process itself by refusing to approve official EU candidate member status for Macedonia. I’m not sure what this implies. Any comments from our experts out there?

Promising Elections

The Guardian today has a short profile on Angela Merkel, while the FT looks at some of the proposals which may well form part of the SPD campaign manifesto. Far be it from me to worry about ‘sting the rich’ tax proposals, but as far as I can see the main isssue is getting Germany back to work, and Schr?der’s time might be better spent adressing this issue.

Talking of which, this could be a good moment to mention the whacky world of Hans Werner Sinn.
Continue reading

It’s Deficit Time Again

There’s a fair amount of talk again this week about the various government deficits and what to do with them. Earlier in the week the FT had a piece about the current state of play with the US deficit whilst the Economist is busy musing one more time over the ongoing saga of the EU growth and stability pact.

These two situations appear, on the surface, to be somewhat similar, but in reality it may be more interesting to consider how they differ.
Continue reading

The drafting of the constitution

For some reason, I stopped covering the constitution when I started AFOE. Since Cosmocrat has been on hiatus for two months, and Henry Farrell after joining CT generally restricts himself to subjects the US bloggers care about, there’s barely been any informed discussion of these things in the blogosphere, that I know of. That’s a shame. I will try to fill the gap, to the best of my ability:

This Economist article from a while ago is a good starting point.

“But the draft constitution has ambitious and arguably more important plans for the extension of EU powers in such areas as justice, foreign policy, defence, taxation, the budget and energy, all of which are now under attack. The most dramatic proposal is that EU policy on serious cross-border crime, immigration and asylum should be decided by majority vote. Several countries are now having second thoughts about this. The Irish dislike the idea that their system of criminal law could move towards the continental European model. Britain, Portugal, Slovakia and Austria are against the notion of harmonising criminal-law procedures. And if these articles on home affairs are reopened, the Germans, for all their determination to stick by the convention text, may be tempted to abandon their support of majority voting on immigration.

Britain, Ireland, Poland and Sweden also dislike the idea of calling the EU’s foreign-policy supremo a ?foreign minister?, since this smacks too much of a superstate. Provisions to allow a core group of countries to forge a closer defence union, from which they might exclude others, are also meeting opposition from Finland, the central Europeans and the British. Britain and Ireland, meanwhile, are leading the battle against any hint of tax harmonisation. And the British, after heavy lobbying by the big oil companies, are belatedly trying to insist on changes to proposals to create a common EU energy policy. A bevy of finance ministers are also keen to limit the European Parliament’s planned powers over the EU budget.

If many of these changes are made, defenders of the convention text will cry foul and start saying that the whole thing has been gutted. That would be melodramatic. Most of the details of the draft constitution are all but agreed: a big extension of majority voting, a binding Charter of Fundamental Rights, a president of the European Council, a ?legal personality? for the Union and the first explicit statement of the supremacy of EU law over national statutes. These are not small matters.”

Indeed, these aren’t small matters. What has been proposed is a fairly substantial transfer of sovereignty, as well as some other far-reaching proposals. The lack of attention paid to of these matters is bizarre and disconcerting.

The situation is particulary bad in Sweden and Great Britain, which are the two countries where I follow the debate. My impression is that while the there has been significantly more public discussion in some of the other countries, it has still been confined to an small segment of the population, and has nowhere gotten the attention it deserves. I’d love to hear that I’m wrong on that count.

The media bears a lot of responsibility for this. Are people even aware of what’s being proposed?

In coutries where there’ll be referendums, that should remedy the situation. Of course referendums have sometimes proved a flawed way of making these decisions, but representative democracy’s record is in this particualr regard tragically clearly worse.

In Sweden and Britain, the pro-integration parties have no interest in discussing these matters. The anti-integration parties meanwhile (Tories in the UK, the semi-commies and greens in Sweden) have repeated the same tired rant and silly hyperbole over any EU matter for fifteen years, they are the boy who cried wolf, and not interested in constructive criticism anyway. The commentariat seems strangely uninterested, along with everyone else. Bizarrely, despite having the most eurosceptic electorates, our governments have negotiated largely free from public pressure. (As opposed to interest group pressure.)

They are (again) changing our entire political systemsbehind people’s backs, aided by media indifference and voter apathy. It’s a scandal.

Now, as to the merits of the Convention’s proposals; I’m largely negative. I’m not anti-integration in the long term, but I believe we need deal with the democratic deficit before we go about transferring any more authority to Brussels.

The Charter includes various ludicrous things as rights and will invite lots of jusdicial activism, which is no good at all.

Having a president of the council with poorly defined will only create overlapping authorities, institutional warfare, make the decision process more cumbersome and even harder for the avarage citizen to understand.

It’s not all bad. I like that the Parliament gets more power. I like how it was done, the Convention. I like various other serious but minor stuff. And it’s not nearly as bad (or as radical) as the europhobes say. But I think the non-debate of the constitution itself demonstrates how dysfunctinal democracy is on the EU level, and therefore why this isn’t the time for closer union.