Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Analytic Philosophy, the “Big Questions,” and Rhetorical Sensitivity

At the U.S. Intellectual History blog, Ben Alpers has a nice discussion of the latest post on the New York Times philosophy blog, The Stone (hence this is a blog post on a blog post on a blog post). I’m not here interested so much in the specific questions that arise from Jim Holt’s piece in The Stone: “Is philosophy literature? Do people read philosophy for pleasure?” “Does anybody read analytic philosophy for pleasure? Is this kind of philosophy literature?” Rather, I’m more drawn to the questions raised at the end of Alpers’ reflections, as it broaches the subject matter of my last post on “therapeutic philosophy,” including Manyul Im’s perceptive comment on that post (at ReligiousLeftLaw):

[….] “When it comes to literary qualities, Willard Quine is not Plato or Friedrich Nietzsche, but I don’t think Holt has to prove that he is. Those who’ve read, say, Word and Object, know that Quine could certainly turn a phrase and could write very clearly about complicated and potentially abstruse issues. I have no problem whatsoever seeing Word and Object as a literary work (in Waugh’s sense).

Yet, it is also true that very, very few people read Word and Object (which is one of the great classics of analytic epistemology, for what it’s worth) outside philosophy classes. And Quine is hardly even a household name.

Compare and contrast Quine to John Dewey. Nobody, I think, has ever tried to make a case for Dewey as a prose stylist. Indeed, his turgid writing famously prompted Oliver Wendell Holmes to declare that Dewey wrote ‘as God would have spoken had He been inarticulate but keenly desirous to tell you how it was.’ And yet Dewey was a household name, with enormous intellectual purchase beyond philosophy and beyond the academy. Indeed, plenty of philosophers who've enjoyed enormous influence and popularity have been difficult or even poor writers. Hegel and Heidegger are two examples that spring to mind.

Yes, people savor the literary qualities of well-written philosophy. But people read philosophy because they think they are going to learn something about ‘big questions:’ how the world is, how we understand the world, how to live a good life, how to identify (or bring about) a good society, and so forth. I think people beyond philosophy departments remain interested in these questions. But, for decades, they generally haven’t much been interested in the kind of answers that Anglo-American philosophy departments have given to them. Why they haven’t is an interesting question. But I suspect the problem has little to do with whether or not Saul Kripke, David Lewis, or John Searle are good prose stylists.”

Herewith my comment to Alpers above:
As Avrum Stroll reminds us in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy (2000), analysis as such in the West goes back to ancient Greek philosophy, evidenced, for example, in Socrates’ dialectical examination of concepts like justice or the Stoic treatment of the emotions (for analytic philosophy in early modern India, see here). Insofar as, historically, what has counted for “analytic philosophy” has been identified or associated with formal logic, or viewed as a handmaiden of science (i.e., used largely for conceptual underlaboring or analysis and clarification of the concepts of science and perhaps even the concepts of everyday language, especially as those might be seen as ‘proto-scientific’ or in conflict with science), or believed a philosophical account of thought must be dependently bound to a philosophical account of language, it has tended toward an insular if not inaccessible rhetoric that by design or default rules out, or is quite skeptical of, different approaches to and topics of philosophy. In effect, this has meant that “analytic philosophy” has often been linked to specific philosophical doctrines, ideologies, or schools, although this connection is a purely contingent and not necessary one. What has exacerbated the negative features of this connection is a rhetoric or rhetorical style cultivated within a specialized realm of the respective doctrines, ideologies or schools. Fortunately, collective self-examination and critiques from within philosophy, as well as laments and critiques from outside philosophy proper (say, from the humanities more generally), has meant that today it is possible, and often the case, that many of the real and putative virtues associated with an “analytical” approach have transcended specific philosophical commitments and doctrines, ideologies and schools. So, for example, we can no longer speak of a structural conflict of sorts between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy, and thus even those with phenomenological preferences or proclivities or sensibilities, like the late Richard Wollheim, or those associated with “naturalizing phenomenology,” can display all the characteristics one associates with an analytic approach to philosophical questions.

Given the breadth and depth of specialization in contemporary philosophy, and for better and worse, it is not surprising that whatever may loosely fall within the rubric of analytic philosophy is going to read as if it was, as it often is, intended for one’s peers in a particular specialized field, including, the editors and referees of the relevant journals. Yet today there is a fairly large number of what we can justly term “analytic philosophers” who’ve demonstrated an ability to also write in a manner accessible to the rest of us (which itself remains a fairly small circle within the general public): Thomas Nagel, Amélie O. Rorty, the late Robert C. Solomon, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Hilary Putnam, Joel Kupperman, Martha C. Nussbaum, Annette C. Baier, Avrum Stroll, John Searle, the late Peter Goldie, C.A.J. (Tony) Coady, Oliver Leaman, John Cottingham, John Haldane, Herbert Fingarette, Simon Blackburn, and Jonathan Lear (among not a few others: these came quickest to mind and it would be tedious to construct a long list). A handful of contemporary analytic philosophers, like Owen Flanagan and some of the “new atheists” of avowedly naturalist suasion and commitment have even attempted to address the “big questions,” those often classed within “the meaning of life.” Insofar as the general public still subscribes to religious or spiritual worldviews, this literature will probably fall on deaf ears, or at least not be at all persuasive.

In short, an analytical approach to philosophical topics, problems, and puzzles need not be, even if it often is, couched in an inaccessible rhetoric, meaning one penned to meet the criteria and standards articulated in a specialized vocabulary intended solely for one’s professional peers. Only a serious and sensitive consideration of what we’ll term rhetorical issues, will find analytic approaches written in a manner accessible to the rest of us. And only a profound reflection on the notion of philosophy as a “way of life,” or therapeutic philosophy, will result in a philosophical praxis that is capable of displaying not only analytic virtues, but the greater virtues of wisdom and compassion an educated public expects from its philosophers, an expectation that, in the West at least, goes back to ancient Greece and Rome.

Addendum: In response to a comment by Michael Duff at ReligiousLeftLaw, I wrote, in part:

Ethics, or moral philosophy, often seems to be an exception to the shrinking orbits of philosophical discourse (and whatever one thinks of their specific views): Peter Singer, Dale Jamieson, and Onora O’Neill, for instance, have rendered complex ethical ideas into a form palatable for “practical  application.” One reason for this of course is that these philosophical analyses have relevance (intentionally or not) for wider circles: be it bioethics (or health ethics more broadly) or “animal ethics” or even just war ethics; of late, we find moral and political philosophers participating in discussions with international law and politics specialists about “targeted killings,” or discover works on “collective responsibility” with ethical and legal relevance to corporate conduct and the behavior of States. Unfortunately, the relevance, if any, of other areas of philosophical discourse to the existential concerns or trial and tribulations of the general public, is not made plain, as Ben Alpers notes, by Anglo-American philosophers, unable or unwilling to speak to a non-philosophical public: in other words, there are precious few philosophers who are on the order of a Bertrand Russell or John Dewey of yesteryear (perhaps that’s setting the bar a bit high and maybe I’m importing the French regard for intellectuals onto foreign soil), that is, who are at once academic philosophers and public intellectuals.

Yet as I say in the latest comment to Alpers’ post, I think specialization goes some distance in accounting for the core of the problem: it begins with one’s dissertation, which tends to set the trajectory and tone for later work. Rare are the philosophers with a taste and talent for looking at the “big picture,” or familiarizing or mastering the literature of several specialized domains. As John M. Cooper writes, “One can hold interesting and engaging views on the metaphysics of personal identity, or the metaphysical analysis of physical objects, or adopt a fallibilist epistemological analysis, and, again, a Humean theory of motivation, without seeing any necessary connections among any of these, or any significant  consequences for normative ethics.” This disciplinary division of cognitive labor goes hand-in-hand with the fact that “[m]ost philosophy today is truly an exclusively theoretical discourse, with no direct connection to the conduct of one’s life.” The early history of philosophy in the West involved a study of basic (or axiomatic) principles, theories, arguments, and analyses within the categories of ethics, (meta)physics, and dialectic (which included what today we classify under logic, philosophy of language, and epistemology), which together composed a more or less coherent philosophical worldview (be it Platonic, Aristotelian, Skeptical, Epicurean, Stoic, Neo-Platonic...) that was thought to provide the sort of knowledge and wisdom necessary to living the best sort of life, a philosophy sufficient for virtue and eudaimonia. Some of these issues are being discussed and to some extent addressed within the profession itself, as seen in the emergence of the Society for Applied Philosophy, “founded in 1982 with the aim of promoting philosophical study and research that has direct bearing on issues of practical concern,” or in Avner Cohen and Marcelo Dascal’s edited volume, The Institution of Philosophy: A Discipline in Crisis? (1989). Cohen himself has written important works for wider publics, especially his research on nuclear proliferation and in particular Israel as a nuclear-armed state and its “bargain” with the bomb.


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