In Defense of Philosophy: Analytic, Pragmatist, and Transcendental

by Preston Stovall

____

[1] In a recent essay that got some attention in online circles in philosophy, Liam Kofi Bright foretold the end of analytic philosophy – characterizing it as a degenerating research program – and the exhaustion of a Kripkean understanding of what analytic philosophy has been up to. While reading Liam’s essay, I was reminded of the Sellars-inflected pluralist metaphysics Dan Kaufman has developed over a series of essays here at The Electric Agora. I won’t take up Kaufman’s proposal directly in what follows, but I think what I say here in response to Bright can be understood as one way of encouraging the sort of pluralism that Kaufman calls for.

I found myself nodding along, at one step removed from some of what Bright says. For instance, though Bright describes a “pervasive pessimistic skepticism” among young analytic philosophers that is no doubt pervasive in some areas, pessimistic skepticism has not been my impression of the state of things in the circles I move. And while the “grand march to Kripke” narrative has a sound sociological basis in the development of 20th century philosophical logic, I find it rather unconvincing as a claim about the formal foundations for much of the work we do. (I realize Bright’s not endorsing that narrative himself, and I appreciate his call to engage more with historians of philosophy.)

In fact, I think there’d be much less pessimistic skepticism about the future of analytic philosophy if people were more familiar with some of the reasons to reject (or at least substantially qualify) that narrative. In response to Bright’s essay, then, I’ll lay out a case for optimism about the state of analytic philosophy today (or about the state of a descendant of what used to be called “analytic philosophy”). In part 2, I’ll begin by sketching a critique of the “march to Kripke” narrative, before using that critique to highlight some of the work that gives us reason for optimism (or so I claim). In part 3, I’ll broaden the lens and consider the question of whether anything unifies the study of philosophy. In the end, I want to suggest that our reasons for optimism about contemporary analytically influenced philosophy are also reasons to think we are taking part in a shared activity that has been ongoing since almost the first use of the term “philosophy.”

[2] It’s true that, sociologically, the discipline glommed on to possible-worlds semantics and representational theories of meaning in the second half of the 20th century. Given the development of philosophical logic in the first half of that century, there were sound reasons for doing so. The work of people like Ruth Barcan Marcus, Saul Kripke, and Georg Henrik von Wright showed that the alethic (and other) modalities could be tolerably modelled in terms of possible worlds, by showing that the same kinds of recursive semantic evaluations as had already been given for predicate logic and the Boolean operators could be given for sentences falling under these modalities. What’s more, the axiom systems botanized by C.I. Lewis at the beginning of the 20th century could be accounted for in terms of mathematical properties of the accessibility relations between worlds, offering (what appear to be) substantive answers to questions about whether, e.g., something could be necessary without being necessarily necessary.

Equipped with this extension of the old logic to models including possible worlds, and as W.V.O. Quine’s animus against modal logic receded into the background of philosophical consciousness, philosophers began to put these models to use in their work. But as Adam Tamas Tuboly argues in working through the literature of that period, Quine’s concerns weren’t so much addressed as ignored (Robert Brandom has made this point in a couple of places as well). There’s good research being done by people like Greg Frost-Arnold (who makes a showing in the comments in Bright’s post), Kevin J. Harrelson, Joel Katzav, and Adam Tuboly in questioning conventional narratives about the development of analytic philosophy (and Katzav’s work, along with Krist Vaesen, on the apparent journal-capture by analytic philosophers taking place during the interwar through post-WWII periods, is pretty eye-opening).

The development of model-theoretic possible-worlds semantics has done much to shape areas like epistemology, metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and the philosophy of perception over the last few decades, to say nothing of the influence it’s had in linguistics and computer programming. But there are a number of undercurrents to the development of philosophical logic since the pioneering work of Gottlob Frege and C.S. Peirce on extensional first-order languages, and many of these currents flow through channels that do not lead to Kripke’s work. The existence of a century’s worth of vibrant research programs in proof-theoretic semantics, for instance, shows that the recent dominance of model-theoretic representationalism is a historical contingency. And if more philosophers were familiar with the proof-theoretic foundations of contemporary logic and linguistics, it would be clear that there are at least two directions that philosophy has been “marching” since the middle of the last century.

Familiarity with the proof-theoretic strand in the history of analytic philosophy also helps clear up some of the conceptual oddities that lie at the base of much of the work that has been done in metaphysics since the development of possible-worlds semantics. The interest in so-called “hyperintensional” semantics, and the much-lauded “hyperintensional revolution”, for instance, are artifacts of Rudolf Carnap’s decision to replace Fregean senses with intensions as functions from state descriptions to extensions in Meaning and Necessity. The fact that “intensional semantics” is now, in many idiolects, coextensional with “possible-worlds semantics” is evidence enough that the very need for a hyperintensional revolution has been self-imposed as a byproduct of an impoverished notion of meaning.

Carnap was clear that his notion of intension wasn’t meant to do the work that older notions of intension (sense, comprehension, connotation, content, etc.) were able to do, however, and his purposes were served by interpreting intensions in this way. But important developments in 20th century philosophy take on a new significance once this historical picture is brought into view. Kit Fine’s work on essences in the 1990s and early 2000s, for instance, is predicated on the observation that possible worlds cannot by themselves distinguish the asymmetric ontological dependence (so the thought runs) of the singleton set {Socrates} on the human being Socrates. Each exist at exactly the same worlds, and so the ontological dependence of a set on its members cannot be modelled in those terms.  Consequently, models restricted to possible worlds cannot explain the different truth-conditional meanings of “Socrates is essential to {Socrates}” and “{Socrates} is essential to Socrates”.

In response, Fine developed a model-theoretic representational metalanguage that uses talk of essence to interpret object-language talk of essence. What this establishes is not that there’s a realm of metaphysical essence that the philosophical logician can divine the logical contours of, but rather that the notion of intension at work on possible-worlds semantics is inadequate as a complement to extensional notions of meaning (as Carnap himself knew).

Today, model-theoretic and realist representationalism about metaphysics (employing metalanguages of possible worlds, essences, etc.) is widespread, and the field of inquiry into essences has been substantially shaped by Fine’s work. But if we go proof-theoretic, we can interpret object-language talk of essence in terms of a metalanguage of explanatory inferences, where metaphysical language is mentioned in a metalanguage that appeals to features of the proof system. It is then possible to use ordinary reflection on our pre-existing habits of explanation, adverting to material facts about the domains in question, to settle on object-language interpretations for essentialist talk. In this regard, and to adopt a Kantian turn of phrase, the study of metaphysics becomes a kind of reflection on the conditions under which it is possible to so much as think, understand, or make judgments about things like human beings and sets.

The supposed asymmetric ontological dependence of {Socrates} on Socrates, for instance, can be explained by recourse to the prosaic way we identify and individuate sets and human beings. For we show that two sets are identical by showing that they include exactly the same members (in the formal mode: we write up two lists and verify that exactly the same names occur on each list), but we do not show that two human beings are identical by comparing the sets containing them. Instead, we trace the lives of human beings. Object-language talk of essence goes over into a metalanguage of explanation, where the latter is read off of existing material commitments about the things we’re talking about. To the extent that there’s a metaphysical project here, it’s one that proceeds by reflection on the way we habitually reason about things like organisms and mathematical objects.

Rather than try to build a notion of intension inside model theory, then, it seems more promising to treat model theory and proof theory as two formalisms for reconstructing the old extension/intension distinction concerning complementary notions of meaning – one ontological, and concerned with word-world (and, as I’ll note in a moment, world-word) relations, and the other deontic, concerned with word-word relations. And there are interesting philosophical discoveries to be made when we do so.

Although mainstream work in analytic philosophy tends to be informed almost entirely by the model-theoretic realist and representational picture of meaning exemplified in possible-worlds semantics, proof theory has remained a viable research program in philosophical logic and linguistics since the work of Gerhard Gentzen in the 1930s (there’s a story to be told here about the considerations that led Tarski and Gödel to convince Carnap in the 1930s to adopt a metalanguage of truth, and of the subsequent shift from Carnap’s so-called “syntactic” to his “semantic” period – or better, from his implicitly proof-theoretic semantic period to his explicitly model-theoretic semantic period). More analytic philosophers are coming around to proof-theoretic notions of meaning today, and I suspect that proof-theoretic methods for recording the structure of derivations will prove useful in modelling modal content in AI systems meant to represent complex domains like human agency, weather patterns, and contamination propagation (this is a conjecture on my part).

Nevertheless, scientifically informed model theory may still do productive work in philosophy and, perhaps, metaphysics. On that front, analytic philosophers working in cognition seem to be another counterpoint to the pervasive pessimistic skepticism Bright talks about. There’s productive and scientifically informed philosophy being done on dialectical processes of reasoning (e.g. with the work of Catarina Dutilh Novaes and Ladislav Koreň), on perception and knowledge (Bence Nanay and Tyler Burge), on epistemology (Hilary Kornblith and Josef Perner), on broadly inferential (and Sellarsian) theories of meaning (Cathy Legg, Jaroslav Peregrin, Glenda Satne, and Michael Tomasello), and on the logic and phenomenology of shared intentionality and deontic cognition (Margaret Gilbert, Elisabeth Pacherie, Raimo Tuomela, and Dan Zahavi come to mind). I don’t mean these to be exhaustive or representative lists (this is a blog post, after all). But even a passing familiarity with this work establishes that scientists and philosophers are productively interacting with one another in these fields, many of them employing more-or-less overtly model-theoretic representational semantic paradigms, and none of them look anything like a degenerating research program.

[3] Regarding the idea that there’s no unifying research project animating our work today, I’ve always found this suggestion puzzling. The discipline we call “philosophy” traces its roots to a tradition that grew out of interest in (among other things) beauty, truth, and goodness. While not a definition of philosophy, and though the people working in analytic philosophy today may not give much thought to these transcendental ideas together, they remain the focus of much of what we do. Furthermore, this has taken place within an intellectual lineage – beginning with direct tutelage in the relations between Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – that successive generations have participated in since roughly the coining of the term “philosophy”.

That’s nearly two and half thousand years of more-or-less continuous effort on the part of a historical tradition of people who called their study “philosophy”, and who generally engage with the work of earlier and contemporary figures in this tradition. I don’t see what more we need as a unification than the fact that we trace our work to, and continue to engage with, a millennia-spanning tradition – using the very term “philosophy” – that addresses foundational questions of, inter alia, beauty, truth, and goodness. And notice that both the thematic and the historical characterization permit expanding the canon of philosophy so as to include work that developed outside this historical network (my thanks to Kevin Harrelson and Bharath Vallabha for conversation over this issue).

This reading has the virtue of making sense of the pursuit of philosophy as the study of what Peirce called the “normative sciences” of aesthetics, logic, and ethics. And just as the normative sciences map onto these transcendental ideas, so do they map onto the moments of the reflex arc. This opens up into a view on which one task for philosophy today is to help construct a set of categories through which to understand the natural evolution of more complex sensory, central, and motor neural structures as a process that is continuous with the socio-historical development of the ideas of beauty, truth, and goodness; and where the study of philosophy is the self-conscious motor for the socio-historical side of that natural-cum-spiritual process. In this regard, the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece is a birth into self-consciousness of who we are as rational animals.

We don’t have those categories, but it seems clear that we’ve been implicitly constructing them at least since Kant thought to wonder what we may hope, what we can know, and what we ought do (which, as Kant notes in his logic, raises a fourth question: what is a person?). Again, though I move in different circles from Bright, my sense is that many analytically trained philosophers working today understand themselves to be taking part in this project, or something close enough to it to warrant the comparison. And it is perhaps noteworthy that a model theory using possible worlds for interpreting descriptive sentences having a word-world intentionality, and plans of action for interpreting intentional and prescriptive sentences having a world-word intentionality, offers the means of interpreting dimensions of meaning that correspond to the sensory and the motor moments of the reflex arc. With a proof theory using rules of inference as a basis for interpreting word-word relations as constituting the correlate contents of acts of central neural processing, this reinforces the impression that model theory and proof theory need to be understood as two complementary notions of meaning.

At any rate, the claim that “the game the original leading lights thought they were playing has long ago been ceded and no one dares think they are going to do better” doesn’t track the line of intellectual development that runs through the analytic philosophers I’m most familiar with. Perhaps the lesson is that conventional notions about who is (or should be) a “leading light” need to be revaluated.

None of this is to take away from the fact that Bright has no doubt articulated a view that many share in analytic philosophy today. Nor is it to minimize his remarks about the sociological problems the discipline faces in terms of recruitment, job security, job openings, or about the increasing turn to try to make analytic philosophy relevant in some applied capacity. And this remark from Dave Atenasio’s response to Bright’s essay cuts close to the bone:

Eventually analytic philosophy worked itself pure: a cohort of charismatic but somewhat abrasive professors debated arcane topics with one another, isolated from most of the greater academic community, their leisure and keynote travel supported by an ever-expanding cast of adjuncts, visiting professors and graduate assistants whose career prospects were vanishing before their eyes.

But my sense is that the job market problems aren’t so much a fault of analytic philosophy as part of a crisis in the humanities and a general shakeup in higher education in the developed world, while the shift to more public-facing and interdisciplinary work is in many ways a good thing for the profession. In terms of the influence that American philosophy has historically had on American culture, for instance, it’s a shame (at least in the American context) that there’s really nothing like a “John Dewey track” through the discipline today. Given Katzav and Vaesen’s research into the journal capture by analytic philosophers that took place in the middle of the 20th century, this state of affairs is perhaps unsurprising. It is nevertheless a loss for the Republic, I think.

I’ll close by bringing this back around to Quine’s animus against modal logic. If Katzav and Vaesen are correct about the displacement of classically pragmatist inflected American philosophy (among others) at venues like The Journal of Philosophy, Mind, and The Philosophical Review in the middle of the 20th century, in favor of the ascendant analytical school of philosophy, then it is perhaps an irony of our situation that Quine’s reception on this front would take the shape that it did. For that reception brings to mind John Dewey’s assessment of intellectual progress at the end of “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy”, first published in Popular Science Monthly in 1909:

Old ideas give way slowly; for they are more than abstract logical forms and categories. They are habits, predispositions, deeply engrained attitudes of aversion and preference. Moreover, the conviction persists – though history shows it to be a hallucination – that all the questions that the human mind has asked are questions that can be answered in terms of the alternatives that the questions themselves present. But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume, an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them.

A version of this essay first appeared at The Sooty Empiric.

Preston Stovall is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences at the University of Hradec Králové. He received his B.A. from Montana State University, his M.A. from Texas A&M University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. He works in the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, and metaphysics, informed by a reading of the German idealists and the American pragmatists. His book, The Single-Minded Animal: Shared Intentionality, Normativity, and the Foundations of Discursive Cognition, will appear shortly in Routledge’s Studies in Contemporary Philosophy series.

75 comments

  1. whatever the theory, one can’t ignore the current mess and the global imbalance, while thinking new is needed, one only has to visit, the words of the old prophets, they say in words, what we experience now, it’s time to revisit the meaning of those old words, amen, at least the prophets were inspired by God Most High and not any current day expert, amen

  2. My apologies. I feel really bad about that. I should never have been unkind.

  3. The discipline we call “philosophy” traces its roots to a tradition that grew out of interest in (among other things) beauty, truth, and goodness. While not a definition of philosophy, and though the people working in analytic philosophy today may not give much thought to these transcendental ideas together, they remain the focus of much of what we do.

    This is so true. Beauty, truth and goodness animate our lives. There are none who are not deeply touched, in one way or another by these transcendentals. It is through the prism of these transcendentals that we experience love. We love beauty, we love truth and we love goodness. But we do more than love them. They ignite in us the desire for excellence and in turn we love excellence. This is the mystery of being human, which is why we call them transcendentals.

  4. Gentlemen, thank you for starting my Sunday out with a good laugh. Everyone’s initial reply was perfectly predictably aligned with what I would have expected from each. Priceless.

    1. Sorry for the link. It wasn’t the one intended and I can’t delete it.

    2. Hi Azin,

      thank you for starting my Sunday out with a good laugh

      I enjoyed your comment exactly because you saw the humour in the situation. But you failed to see the humorous intent in my comment “wise words” which was a teasing reference to the stuffy reactions of the prior comments. And the reaction was priceless, causing me to chuckle. But I immediately regretted the pain I caused to the originator.

      Humour is a marvellous thing, bringing joy to cognition. The problem though, is that philosophy really does not know how to deal with the subject. We see this in the extraordinarily dour, humourless writings of the commentariat. This long, and closely argued essay also never once mentions the subject. And yet humour is undeniably a vital part of our experience. I also struggle to find a place for humour in the overarching theme of truth, goodness and beauty.

      Why does philosophy, for the most part, fail to engage with humour? Is it the dour, humourless nature of philosophers? For me, at least, humour is the poetry of the emotions, while poetry is the song of the soul. Perhaps it is the inability of philosophy to engage with emotions and intuitions that explains its aversion to humour.

      Humour is an essential part of us.
      Job 8:21 He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.
      Ecclesiastes 3:4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,

      I tried to “like” your comment, however, as you reported, “likes” are often transient, disappearing later. This mystifies me, because occasionally they do stick. I sometimes think that WordPress also has a soul and censors things it does not “like“. Perhaps WordPress has the last laugh 🙂

    3. To continue my thoughts about the dour, humourless mood of philosophy. The author said this

      the end of analytic philosophy – characterizing it as a degenerating research program
      Bright describes a “pervasive pessimistic skepticism” among young analytic philosophers
      Bright also said
      So why do I none the less think that now is a time of woe for analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy suffers from a triple failure of confidence, especially among younger philosophers.“.

      As it happens, I have more contacts among physicists than philosophers. And their outlook could not be more different. Their thinking is open ended, tinged with a feeling of boundless possibility. One physicist repeatedly assured me that the motto of his lab was “physics is fun”. And it showed in their playfulness, their pranks and sense of humour. In fact it turns out that a playful “what if” spirit is essential to their work. Playfulness liberated their creative, problem solving potential.

      And then I think of my experiences in these pages where I wait with trepidation for someone to pounce on me with all the destructive derision they can muster. Or the haughty, dismissive scorn and disdain that I might get from another quarter. All of this for espousing a point of view considered heretical by the insiders. This could not be further from the playful, “what if” spirit of open ended possibilities that animates the physics world. Add to my own experiences the reports of people like Bright and one must wonder if there is not something systemically wrong in the field. Increasingly it seems to me that “critical thinking” has become the Parkinson’s Palsy of philosophy. This leaves no space for humour.

      Now, I am an outsider, or an unPhilosopher, as I like to call myself. So I am vulnerable to the criticisms of being uninformed and out of touch. Which is almost certainly true. And yet, my outsider status does give me an interesting perspective, that perhaps should not be dismissed out of hand.

      1. Peter,

        “Physics is fun”.

        I didn’t understand the essay above, but from several dialogues between Dan and Massimo I’ve learned that many
        physicists consider that philosophy is passé, out of date.

        I’m not involved in academia, but I can see that many universities are cutting jobs in philosophy departments and that there are many philosophy graduates who cannot find work in that area.

        On the other hand, I’m fairly sure that the money is rolling into physics and that physicists find it comparatively easy to find jobs and to get research grants.

        It’s fun to be a winner and not much fun to be a loser. And please don’t tell me that winning and losing in conventional terms don’t count for the sage, because in the real world they count for everyone.

        1. Hi SW,
          many physicists consider that philosophy is passé, out of date.

          Yes, that is true, but is it fair? Physics has been astonishingly successful so they are definitely doing something right. Can the same thing be said of philosophy?

          The answer, I think, is that one needs to measure success in physics and philosophy in different ways, because these are different domains. Given that, how should we measure success in philosophy? This depends on our expectations of philosophy.

          But whose expectations? The expectations of the public at large? Or the expectations of a narrow academic coterie?

          Now, as it turns out, physics has been judged by the public at large to be highly successful. Can the same thing be said of philosophy? The answer to that can only be a resounding NO. And this is the dilemma of philosophy. It has completely lost touch with the public it ostensibly serves. Granted, there are a few public intellectuals but academic philosophers tend to scoff at them. I think of Peter Singer in this regard.

          In the original Agora philosophers spoke to the public in the language they understood about subjects of vital interest to the public. They were visibly relevant to the concerns of the public.

          Philosophy needs to return to its foundations in the Agora.

          1. This is where I should pay tribute to Dan, because he is attempting to realise the function of the public philosopher in the Agora.

  5. “That’s nearly two and half thousand years of more-or-less continuous effort on the part of a historical tradition of people who called their study “philosophy”, and who generally engage with the work of earlier and contemporary figures in this tradition. I don’t see what more we need as a unification than the fact that we trace our work to, and continue to engage with, a millennia-spanning tradition – using the very term “philosophy” – that addresses foundational questions of, inter alia, beauty, truth, and goodness.”

    Much of the essay is closely argued, including the sections on the 20th century. But these vague remarks about a “more-or-less continuous effort” on the part of ancient, medieval and modern thinkers (“who called their study “philosophy””) is tendentious and misleading, in my opinion. You ignore the fact that, since the scientific revolution, natural philosophy (or science) has been seen to be quite distinct from mythical and religious modes of thought.

    Not only that, you seek to further expand your very loosely stated “thematic and … historical characterization” even further “so as to include work that developed outside this historical network.”

    And you still don’t see a problem in relation to unity and coherence?

    “Regarding the idea that there’s no unifying research project animating our work today, I’ve always found this suggestion puzzling.”

    I find your puzzlement on this matter utterly puzzling.

    1. Why does there need to be unity and coherence for philosophy to be a discernible genre of writing? Surely the term only admits of a semantics of family-resemblance and lacks any sort of necessary/sufficient conditions.

      1. Dan,
        Why does there need to be unity and coherence for philosophy to be a discernible genre of writing?

        Indeed why?

        The answer is found here
        Surely the term only admits of a semantics of family-resemblance

        But how do you define the family-resemblance? You have to otherwise you are talking about undifferentiated literature. So you start to tighten up the definition, excluding auto-biographies, science fiction, cowboy novels, etc, etc.

        But guess what? In tightening up the definition of what constitutes the required family-resemblance you end up by creating the very “sort of necessary/sufficient conditions” that you decry. How else do you tighten up the family-resemblance to exclude the bulk of undifferentiated literature?

        1. And having sufficiently tightened up the definition of the family-resemblance we begin to discern a unity and coherence. And here is the thing, discerning that unity and coherence gives us the confidence that we have achieved a useful definition of family-resemblance.

          1. Nope. No “tightening up.”

            We need an argument from you, not a denial.

        2. And so, I agree with Mark when he says
          And you still don’t see a problem in relation to unity and coherence?

          1. I look forward to reading Mark’s reply. We are in different time zones so that will take a while. But I strongly suspect that he will agree with my point of view.

        3. No such tightening is required. That was the whole point of Wittgenstein introducing the concept of family resemblances in the first place.

          1. No such tightening is required.
            In that case you might as well accept that all literature is philosophy, since all literature shares a basic family-resemblance.

            But of course all literature is not philosophy. That is just plain, trivial common sense. So we must tighten up the definition of the family resemblance until we arrive at what is recognisably philosophy. That is also obvious common sense that simply cannot be denied. So I am afraid that your simple denial does not work.

          2. In that case please enlighten me. I would love to see you make a real, persuasive argument that does not depend on the haughty assertion “I don’t think you understand

          3. Eyeroll
            Dan, I really do have so much respect for you that it even survives this kind of reply.

      2. Dan asked:

        “Why does there need to be unity and coherence for philosophy to be a discernible genre of writing?”

        A family resemblance approach may work for philosophy envisaged as “a genre of writing.” But, as I see it, an *academic discipline* (almost by definition) requires a degree of unity or coherence (i.e. “thinking” and not just “looking”).

        Preston Stovall at least implicitly acknowledges this. He also implicitly acknowledges widespread concerns that academic philosophy as it currently manifests itself does not exhibit sufficient unity and coherence. He was trying to allay these concerns by arguing that the discipline actually has coherence etc.. and I was responding to (part of) that argument.

        1. I thought your first comment raised some interesting concerns; but you may be carrying it too far. If I understand you correctly, I’m not sure any academic discipline has the kind of unity you demand anymore – not even in the STEM fields.

          My primary study was “English” – couldn’t be more chaotic even in the best of times, certainly utterly diversified beyond recognition now. But there must be a middle ground, a balance, somewhere, just to hold departments together. I actually think the move toward eclecticism in some college philosophy departments has been healthy, renewing a sense of inquiry that was petering out during what Stovall calls the “degeneracy” of the Analytic project.

          Certainly, the effort by the Analytics to effect disciplinary unity in the prime of their dominance tended to stifle some innovations and unnecessarily closed off what could have been interesting conversations. On the other hand, it may simply be that certain lines of intellectual study may be experiencing a temporary exhaustion.

          1. I doubt that too many of the subjects in the university fall under names that admit of precise definition or necessary and sufficient conditions. ‘Science’ certainly doesn’t. Perhaps ‘chemistry’ does. But regardless, this sort of thing *can’t* be what determines whether a subject or discipline belongs in the academy.

        2. I suspect a good 30-40% of the disciplines in the University would not admit of more than a family resemblance account. Of course, it is open to you to suggest that none of them should be university subjects, but on that we would obviously disagree.

          And I would still be left wanting a reason. “Art” is at best a family resemblance concept (and I’ve argued it’s even less than that), and yet we have an entire system of art-involved institutions — galleries; museums; curators; critics; historians — many of which overlap and are intertwined with the university. Hell, even “science” is a family resemblance concept (at best).

          Nothing follows from this about the suitability of a subject or discipline for the university. I have written at some length and in some depth about the wisdom of disciplinizing philosophy, but if there is something questionable in that wisdom, it isn’t because the word the word ‘philosophy’ does not admit of strict definition or of necessary and sufficient conditions.

          https://philosophynow.org/issues/130/The_Decline_and_Rebirth_of_Philosophy

  6. “ Don’t say: “They must have something in common, or they would not be called ‘games’” but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them, you won’t see something that is common to all, but similarities, affinities, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!”

    Philosophical Investigations, § 66

  7. The essay is about analytic philosophy and the “Kripkean turn” that has defined it for the last 45 years or so, in which metaphysics received a new lease on life via modal logic.

    It is not about philosophy’s accessibility or public philosophy, or any other such topic. Hopefully we can get to discussing the actual topic at some point.

  8. Thanks for taking the time to post this. I have always regarded analytic philosophy as the attempt to move away from the grand systems of people like Hegel and Spinoza, and for philosophy to tackle its problems in a more piecemeal manner (often using the tools of modern logic). So, people like Kit Fine, for example, would clearly land in the analytic camp, although there may be aspects of Kripke’s views that he rejects.

    No doubt, Kripke’s has had a tremendous influence. Once it became clear that he viewed modality in terms of possible worlds, it was not long before philosophers tried to give an account of the metaphysics of modality and possible worlds. This lead to everything from the modal realism of David Lewis to the views that a possible world is a maximally consistent set of abstract objects – propositions, states of affairs, etc. An incredible number of articles in the 70s and 80s argued for or against these positions. His views on semantics and modality (as laid out in Naming and Necessity) also had a tremendous influence on the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, etc.

    The profession may be moving away from these debates, but what goes on up the street at the University of Washington, is still clearly analytic philosophy – detailed analysis of the nature of justification, theory change in science, the nature of propositions, etc. Like science, philosophy now has to tackle its problems in the piecemeal manner that people like Moore and Russell envisioned

    Concerning modality, the philosopher Gideon Rosen provides a nice over view of possible worlds and modal realism in the following interview. It also contains an interesting discussion of moral realism, arguments for the existence of god, etc.
    https://nortonsafe.search.ask.com/videos?q=gideon%20rosen&ctype=videos&doi=2019-10-05&cmpgn=sep19&o=APN12178&p2=%5EEQ%5Esep19%5E&qo=navTop&campaignId=cmpgn-sep19&pageToken=CAoQAA&page=2

  9. The essay is about analytic philosophy and the “Kripkean turn” that has defined it for the last 45 years or so, in which metaphysics received a new lease on life via modal logic

    Ah, yes. But what is it’s relevance? Surely that question matters? Or are we happy to be ensconced in recursive ivory towers?

    1. I don’t get the question. Are you suggesting there should be no technical, formal subjects in the academy? Analytic philosophy has been of great significance in the last century, with regard to everything from computer science to linguistics and cognitive science.

      Not everything has to be of interest or “relevance” to everyone in order for it to be valuable.

      1. Are you suggesting there should be no technical, formal subjects in the academy?

        No, that is reasoning by extremes. False use of reductio ad absurdum.

        Analytic philosophy has been of great significance in the last century, with regard to everything from computer science

        I have worked for a long time in computer science and I completely and utterly fail to see where it has touched my work in any kind of practical, relevant sense. You might as well have not existed.

        1. Lol. You really are unbelievable. Dropping out of conversation …. again.

          p.s. It *might* occur to you that the fact that *you* are not familiar with something means just about less than nothing. [Other than that there’s something you don’t know about.]

          1. Lol. You really are unbelievable.
            Dan, I am intimately familiar with computer science. It has been my career for a long time. And it has been a successful career. Those are the plain facts of the matter.

            Today I spend my time happily doing advanced programming of electronics devices. You would be amazed by how much computer science has invaded the world of electronics.

        2. I have worked for a long time in computer science and I completely and utterly fail to see where it has touched my work in any kind of practical, relevant sense.

          Quite a few people working in AI (artificial intelligence) have a background in analytic philosophy.

      2. Dan,
        Analytic philosophy has been of great significance in the last century, with regard to everything from computer science

        It is quite natural for each person to interpret the world from an egocentric point of view. As a foundry metallurgist I thought the world centred on foundries. As an automotive engineer I thought the world was an automotive plant. As an IT person I thought the world was made of computers. As an electronics enthusiast I thought the world was made of electronics.

        The beginnings of wisdom is to understand the small part each of us play in a much larger whole. Of course it is an important psychological need to believe in our own enhanced significance so quite understandably you believe “Analytic philosophy has been of great significance “. And I understand your strong need to defend this point of view.

        But we should not conflate ‘need‘ with ‘significance‘.

        That said, it is quite undeniable that the world is made of electronics 🙂 🙂 🙂

        1. I really am tired of these conversations. If you are neither interested in, nor know anything about analytic philosophy, why comment more on an article about it than everyone else combined?

          Jeez. Every discussion thread seems to be going this way lately. I may very well eliminate comments from the site entirely if this continues. 99.99% of readers do not participate in the comments.

          1. Rather than eliminate the comments thread, why don’t you just limit all of us to 2 or 3 daily comments,?

          2. You say that most readers don’t comment, but maybe (my guess) most readers enjoy reading the comments section.
            I do when I don’t comment. Part of the attraction of any blog for me is watching a good argument, whether I participate in it or not. It’s my favorite spectator sport.

          3. I was waiting for the shoe to drop on the Dan & Peter show. Quite frankly, my mailbox couldn’t keep up with it and I would just delete everything.

          4. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the readers were intimidated by Preston’s article, as it is technical. The exert I quoted seemed to pack way too much info in the space of about two sentences.

          5. It would be a shame if you did eliminate comments. It seems to me that the quality and the variety of comments depend a lot on which particular article you are posting.

  10. Sorry – the link to the Rosen interview is entitled –

    “Global Skeptics” Podcast Episode #23 – With Gideon Rosen

  11. Here is an essay defending the usefulness and productivity of analytic philosophy: “… a model theory using possible worlds for interpreting descriptive sentences having a word-world intentionality, and plans of action for interpreting intentional and prescriptive sentences having a world-word intentionality, offers the means of interpreting dimensions of meaning that correspond to the sensory and the motor moments of the reflex arc. With a proof theory using rules of inference as a basis for interpreting word-word relations as constituting the correlate contents of acts of central neural processing, this reinforces the impression that model theory and proof theory need to be understood as two complementary notions of meaning.”
    Analytic philosophy, a degenerating research program – but what a glorious pluralist degeneration – let a hundred mushrooms grow! It all comes out of the mistaken attempt to derive a “science of meaning” from the sow’s ears of mathematical formalism. “Possible worlds” an attempt to bypass the imagination by reifying set theory.
    not unlike the way Plato’s forms use the imagination to deny the imagination. Sets and possible worlds are simply collections of imagined objects, but a world is never a collection, it is a coherent whole, an interacting system where everything is connected to everything else by physical forces. “Possible Worlds” is pure imaginary bullshit, a lazy way of summarizing imaginative possibilities without doing any of the work to understand how a world actually works. The idea that you can understand meaning from iterations of set theory is the prime example of the vacuousness of analytic philosophy. The best explanation of meaning is Michael Polanyi’s work “Personal Knowledge” and “Meaning” where he shows how meaning is a consciousness of coherence that comes from the movement of our focal awareness from particulars to a coherent whole. It can’t be analyzed scientifically because the movement of consciousness from particulars to a coherent whole breaks down as soon as you re-focus on the constituent parts. Meaning is fundamentally experiential, it’s a movement of conscious focus, not a collection of referents or representations. Philosophy, from Socrates onward, is really the project of understanding what it means to be human. Science, originally “natural philosophy” is the study of objective reality, independent of humans. Analytic philosophy is a PHD mill that has diverted philosophy’s true calling down the rabbit-hole of mathematics, linguistics, and psycho-neurology. Modern Philosophy ought to be a Philosophical Anthropology, an approach that avoids ignorant and baseless speculation while at the same time accepting the impossibility of understanding humanity objectively.

    1. Charles:
      I thought it was a spoof. If so then deictic. If not then subject to the law of nearsense in all possible worlds but the one in which its issuer resides.

      1. Can you rephrase this, or explain what you mean in more detail?

    2. ‘“Possible Worlds” is pure imaginary bullshit, a lazy way of summarizing imaginative possibilities without doing any of the work to understand how a world actually works.’

      I can’t see how one can make sense of objective probabilities and of statistical reasoning without something like it. (I should say the only Bayesianism I indulge in is empirical Bayes).

      I am partial to the idea that one “objective” measure of progress of philosophical research programs is in the number of practical offshoots – like nonstandard logics and IT, de Finetti etc (though he was a mathematician) and Bayesian statistics, ontology and librarianship, or modern utilitarianism and animal welfare. A “hundred mushrooms” is paradoxical proof of nondegeneracy…

      “John Dewey track” – I will sidetrack 😉 AIUI, Misak has tried to argue that the analytics actually are the direct ancestors of pragmatism (with W at both ends of “Cambridge Pragmatism”), though Matthews study of C. West Churchman (2007) seems to suggest some turned into Operations Research/Systems Theory people (your pragmatic dollar at work).

      1. Probability is not the same thing as possibility. Possibilities are nothing but ideas, ideas of what we imagine could happen. Probabilities are bets or estimates between alternative outcomes based on frequencies of past occurrences. Philosophy could do a lot better than the twentieth and first half of this century. It has in the past.

  12. Preston: Thank you for this essay, which summarises a lot of work quite succinctly. Much of it is hard to follow — the work, not your summary — even for a fellow philosopher. However, my interest comes to life in section [3]. You say:

    “This reading has the virtue of making sense of the pursuit of philosophy as the study of what Peirce called the “normative sciences” of aesthetics, logic, and ethics. And just as the normative sciences map onto these transcendental ideas, so do they map onto the moments of the reflex arc. This opens up into a view on which one task for philosophy today is to help construct a set of categories through which to understand the natural evolution of more complex sensory, central, and motor neural structures as a process that is continuous with the socio-historical development of the ideas of beauty, truth, and goodness; and where the study of philosophy is the self-conscious motor for the socio-historical side of that natural-cum-spiritual process. In this regard, the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece is a birth into self-consciousness of who we are as rational animals.”

    Very well said. My preferred “definition” of philosophy is “the critical study of rational normativity”. I get that idea from Robert Brandom (rightly or wrongly). I take normative matters to include epistemology and ethics and other things too, but crucially it must include these two.

    I take the mainstream view to be that there can be rational normativity in both domains. But within philosophy there are internal critics who deny the possibility of rational normativity in the ethical field and possibly in epistemology as well; for them the natural and the normative are unrelated. This means that one part of philosophy is an internal debate between these critics and those who defend the mainstream idea of philosophy, which goes back to Socrates. The critics trace their heritage back to Hume, or possibly to the ancient Skeptics.

    I don’t see philosophy as likely to go out of fashion. In fact I think we are seeing public philosophy thriving like never before, with an international audience never previously possible. I think young philosophers should be optimistic, even if it is difficult to make a career in the field.

    Alan

    1. Thanks Alan; I think we’re in agreement about the optimism young philosophers should have today, as well as the broadly non-Humean side of the debate we stand on. That’s no doubt in part an influence of Brandom, whether he’d like it or not!

  13. Mark English writes

    Much of the essay is closely argued, including the sections on the 20th century. But these vague remarks about a “more-or-less continuous effort” on the part of ancient, medieval and modern thinkers (“who called their study “philosophy””) is tendentious and misleading, in my opinion. You ignore the fact that, since the scientific revolution, natural philosophy (or science) has been seen to be quite distinct from mythical and religious modes of thought.

    Hi Mark. Bracketing the role of myth-making and religious modes of thought in the work of figures like Newton, Leibniz, Peirce, and Sellars, in the account I am advancing the presence of these modes of thought in the work of some philosophers is not determinative of what (if anything) binds our work together. So I’m setting them aside for the same reason that I set aside, e.g., study of natural taxonomies in philosophical work from Aristotle to Kant. This account of philosophy as the study of what Peirce called “the normative sciences” doesn’t purport to capture everything that’s ever been done under the banner “philosophy”. But it does purport to capture something like a guiding thread that knits the tradition together across two and a half thousand years. Here’s what I wrote:

    The discipline we call “philosophy” traces its roots to a tradition that grew out of interest in (among other things) beauty, truth, and goodness. While not a definition of philosophy, and though the people working in analytic philosophy today may not give much thought to these transcendental ideas together, they remain the focus of much of what we do. Furthermore, this has taken place within an intellectual lineage – beginning with direct tutelage in the relations between Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – that successive generations have participated in since roughly the coining of the term “philosophy”.

    That’s nearly two and half thousand years of more-or-less continuous effort on the part of a historical tradition of people who called their study “philosophy”, and who generally engage with the work of earlier and contemporary figures in this tradition. I don’t see what more we need as a unification than the fact that we trace our work to, and continue to engage with, a millennia-spanning tradition – using the very term “philosophy” – that addresses foundational questions of, inter alia, beauty, truth, and goodness.

    As I said, this has the advantage of seeing the historical tradition of philosophical interest in beauty, truth, and goodness as the birth into self-conscious reflection of our evolved and natural capacities for sensory, central, and motor neural activity. It also suggests that the study of philosophy — as the study of the normative sciences of aesthetics, logic, and ethics — is the motor for the socio-historical side of this natural-cum-spiritual development.

    Finally, if you’re interested in a more focused (less “vague”) defense of this conception of philosophy (this was a blog post, after all), I can recommend a couple of essays available at my website: “Nature, Purpose, and Norm: A Program in American Philosophy” and “The Lamp of Reason and the Mirror of Nature”. I’d be happy to talk about them in more detail; feel free to send me an email.

  14. I am not familiar with the ins and outs of the various theories discussed in this essay. I always understood analytic philosophy in a much broader sense. I understood at as thinking through the implications of philosophical positions. Where as existentialism is more along the lines of assertions that may in fact be true. But it is often unclear what we are supposed to take from the possibility.

    Liam Kophi Bright said this:

    “Many of the projects that seem most exciting to junior philosophers concern injustice, oppression, propaganda, ideology — all things about which it is felt that philosophical analysis might be able to have a real world impact. And in so far as there is popular methodological innovation at the moment it concerns conceptual engineering, explication, or ameliorative analyses — all interventionist and revisionist approaches to concepts. Some attempt to change the world, rather than just understand it, is very much a popular project among younger analytic philosophers.”

    I think part of the problem is that many people seem uninterested in understanding the world at all. Rather they just want to change it. This is a problem of people and our culture. They do not want the understanding philosophy offers. They want to waive their hand at those deep discussions and get to laws pushing their views on others. It is ignorance and arrogance creating that abomination of a combination.

    I think philosophers used to help connect the dots. They used to help students understand how their philosophical views might impact other practical aspects of their life. Now I am not sure philosophers can connect what they believe with how they live. And if they do students find it unconvincing or at least not compelling.

    “When we tell someone that they ought to X, in the moral sense of ‘ought’, what we are essentially saying is “Self regulate with regard to X, or we will do it for you.”

    These sorts of imperatives only have force, then, when the person uttering them either (a) enjoys significant consensus as to the significance of X or (b) when the person uttering them enjoys sufficient standing or power on his or her own. Lacking either (a) or (b) means the imperative, as directed towards others, is a bluff and consequently, empty. Or at best, the expression of a wish.”

    https://theelectricagora.com/2021/07/16/being-moral/

    It is all just a power game of enforcing your will on others. I am not saying teachers should be trying to convince people of things that they believe are false. But I think there is quite a bit to argue over here. And if you do actually come to believe this you will find that your views are in fact very disconnected with our real world institutions and traditional ways of thinking about how we should live.
    It becomes hard to explain how understanding such views are important when the view is basically nothing is important except fulfilling your own wants. But that does explain why people might be unconcerned with understanding this philosophical view and more interested in making the changes to the world that they want.

  15. Joe, you’re right about: “I think there is quite a bit to argue over here.” Exactly, and unfortunately discussion on that blog: “being moral” were cut off prematurely, in my opinion. And Dan’s position: “… what we are essentially saying is “Self regulate with regard to X or we will do it for you.” is a kind of Post-Modernism, i.e. your quote: “It’s all just a power game of enforcing your will on others.” And, if that’s true than philosophy is nothing more than a justification for the status quo. Hence the desire to change the world, because the people in academia who claim to understand it are going around in circles rather than discovering anything new.

      1. You need to care about other people.

        If you don’t care about other people or if you care more about your moral certainties than you do about others, moral certainties easily turn you into a Robespierre, a Lenin, an Osama Bin Ladin, a George W. Bush, the Salem witch trial judges, or less lethally, a woke twitter mob or on the other side, a pro-Trump mob.

        On the other hand, if you care about other people, let your caring guide you (maybe that’s a moral principle) in general, but since you can’t save the world or humanity, relax a little or even more than a little.

        If that’s post modern, then I’m post modern. Better post modern than a self-righteous moral fanatic.

  16. Joe, Charles Justice,
    “When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.” – Hegel, Philosophy of Right.

    It is the task of politics to change the world, it is the task of philosophy to understand it. You’re confusing political commitments and philosophical commitments. The rejection of moral realism is an abduction within moral philosophy, not a project for anything. And the rejection of moral realism does not. even suggest that moral philosophy itself needs to grind to a halt; it won’t anyway, but in any event, the study of ethics in philosophy is a useful propaedeutic to ethical considerations in a number of fields besides philosophy, which is why it gets discussed at all.

    At any rate, you don’t know what my political commitments are, unless I tell you; and while I am strongly committed to them, I don’t feel any necessity to ground them in a moral reality; others do – good for them. If allies I welcome them, whatever their faith; if opponents I care little for their faith one way or another.

    You might respond, ‘but we haven’t been discussing politics.’ But in a world where ethics are realized socially through communal approval or opprobrium, only law can initiate the institutional agencies of enforcement. That law can be decided a number of ways – through authoritarian fiat or through democratic mobilization, for instance. But ultimately practical ethics is a matter of social behavior, whatever language we use for these, and practical politics, whatever rhetoric is deployed to accomplish these. Philosophy of ethics is about understanding the motivational origins or these and the results of such behaviors and politics, but cannot be determinate of them, because philosophy shapes our social; and individual interests only tangentially, and frequently at considerable cost. One of the most dangerous legacies of the philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries has been the confusion of moral philosophy and political philosophy with moral injunctions and political agendas. The confusions were understandable, given that Christianity was ceasing to be a block ideology bordering on the totalitarian, and the ‘institutions of the Ancien Regime’ were collapsing due to economic and social pressures hitherto unknown. But confusions they were and they have left as legacy all manner of failed (and often bloody) experiments, not denying that some of those experiments have moved us in directions providing greater opportunities for greater numbers of people, at least in the West. I think that a good thing, but others I’m sure would disagree – some because it violates their moral principles, but others simply because it may offend what they see as their own interests. Because that is in the nature of politics.

    Confusion of morals and politics produces utopian visions – some beautiful but unattainable, others attainable with disastrous results.

    After writing Moby Dick, Melville wrote to Hawthorne “I have written a wicked book, and I feel spotless as a lamb.” That’s pretty much how I feel about my ethical philosophy, because my political commitments are firm. What I want from philosophy, and what I think is its only sustainable offering, is some form of understanding. If there are students looking for “Some attempt to change the world, rather than just understand it,” then the first lesson they should learn about the world is the First Noble Truth – Life is disappointment,

    At anyrate this discussion is only tangential to the current issue regarding Stovall’s essay. Personally, a Pragmatist witha background in Phenomenology, I’ve never been a fan of the core Analytic tradition. But as Dan has pointed out, it had a major impact in studies outside of philosophy; and within philosophy it left a legacy of precision of thought that certainly demands respect.

Comments are closed.