The End of Analytic Philosophy

One of the nice things about having a blog and job security is that I can just make things up. So here's my sense of the recent historical trajectory of what can broadly be called analytic philosophy, and what I think that says about the current moment.

Analytic philosophy is a degenerating research programme. It's been quite a long time since there was anything like a shared project of analysing key concepts or a mutual commitment to the linguistic turn. But the lack of such shared projects in themselves didn't really cause a problem for the field -- here's a discussion of Rorty cheerfully noting, in 1982, that analytic philosophy is held together mainly by a certain kind of style and sociological bonds among its practitioners. He didn't think it was a problem, and this more detailed but equally sympathetic metaphilosophical analysis comes to a broadly similar conclusion. It also doesn't strike me that there is any particular institutional crisis for analytic philosophy beyond the general woes of the humanities right now -- and even here we may be doing relatively well. 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. People are not confident it can solve its own problems, not confident that it can be modified so as to do better on that first score, and not confident its problems are worth solving in the first place. The first two problems are resultant from internal pressures, the latter a mix of internal and external. However, there is no successor paradigm in a position to really take advantage of this weakness, and so the field listlessly drifts on, anxious and insecure and filled with self-recriminations. 

The two internal factors are related to the fact that the architectonic programmes of latter 20th century analytic philosophy seem to have failed without any clear ideas for replacing them coming forward. If analytic philosophy was a grand march to Kripke then the problem is none of us are quite sure what to do now we've got here. If we're trying to do our best on a Lewisian theoretical score sheet then it's not actually clear that is worth doing. Plenty of (genuinely good) work is done by junior and senior scholars alike on modal (and increasingly now hyperintensional) metaphysics, theories of reference, probabilistic epistemology and semantics. It's recognisably continuous with what went before and we still have things to learn here. Yet 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.

For what I think is gone, and is not coming back, is any hope that from all this will emerge a well-validated and rational-consensus-generating theory of grand topics of interest. We can, and we will, keep generating puzzles for any particular answer given, we will never persuade our colleagues who disagree, we will never finally settle what to say about the simple cases in order to be able to move on to the grand problems of philosophy. My anecdotal impression is that junior philosophers are hyper aware of these bleak prospects for anything like creation of a shared scientific paradigm. 

This hyperawareness has generated a pervasive pessimistic scepticism about the field's prospects, something like our own local postmodern condition. (In fact I'd even wager that the change in material condition underlying this shift is something like that which Lyotard supposed -- technological changes making it easy to quickly see and hear from all the various ways one might reasonably dissent from one's favoured theories.) Analytic philosophy has long had ambitions to something like scientific status -- often expressed in works of naturalistic metaphilosophy, and at times to the point of cringingly insecure self parody. Many philosophers strike mes like Polish apparatchiks in 1983 -- they turn up to work and do what they did yesterday just because they don't know what else to do, not because they seriously believe in the system they are maintaining. I think it's not been fully appreciated how much of a blow it is to the confidence of the field's youth that these ambitions are increasingly abandoned as untenable.

The more mixed-internal-external factor concerns the loss of faith in the worth of the field's projects. The humanities have been having recruitment worries ever since the '08 crash. As mentioned above philosophy is perhaps not doing so bad relative to the others, but none the less as colleges close down and deans tighten budgets we have felt the squeeze just like everyone else. And since then the more or less continuous series of political crises that have rocked the self-confidence of the liberal bourgeois who dominate analytic philosophy have themselves been felt within the discipline. There is a widespread craving for even just a sense that one can do things that make a difference, that one's world isn't spiralling out of control. These two facts, combined with the ostentatious failure of our internal research projects mentioned above, have led to a craving for some explanation for or justification of what we are doing that makes us seem relevant to our era. When our administrative superiors come to ask us why we need another line, when students ask us why they should major in something as apparently fanciful as philosophy while the world burns, we want to have something to say besides "stick with us, we're pretty sure that any day now we will have a viable theory of reference magnetism".

This has led to what Brandon Warmke has called the "applied turn". What jobs there are are much more often going to ethics or socio-political candidates. 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. 

(As an aside, in a brief essay I just put on my website, which I will be updating and mainly wrote as an exercise in trying to conform to a style guide, I cast some doubt on our prospects for being of much use. My own work has largely been in this pragmatic vein, and I think openness to this kind of work is having the pleasant effect of helping to erode the absurd and pernicious gatekeeping that once characterised a self-confident analytic philosophy. But, alas, I remain pessimistic our efforts will amount to much.)

Now it's not new to analytic philosophy that people have socio-political ambitions for their work. And there is of course a thriving tradition of analytic political philosophy in the wake of Rawls' work (though there too debate evinces internal pressure). But none the less I think this recent applied turn is different -- my sense is what is happening here is that rather than there being a widespread belief that there is a natural and desirable political upshot to the sort of work one might do in analytic philosophy, instead there is a belief that only by making such links to applied issues can analytic philosophy justify itself. Where once people in the field thought that their political views were naturally expressed in its idiom, or that its mode of reasoning was best suited to addressing the concerns they had, I do not think the present mood is so optimistic.  My sense is that now what we see is a desperate scramble to show that the skills or tools we have might find some problem space wherein their, our, worth can be made manifest. As mentioned above, even though this has been where I have done my own work (and maybe all this is just me projecting my insecurities outwards!), I do not think such a problem space has been forthcoming.

But for all that, analytic philosophy has been so institutionally successful, insular, and jealous of its resources, that we do not have clear competitor paradigms that are institutionally powerful and in regular enough contact with practitioners to invigorate us right now. Maybe some new stars are just over the horizon who shall inspire people with a new set of projects -- that is not my preferred mode of working things out as a community, but it has how analytic philosophy thus far organised itself and renewal through some such figure(s) may happen again. There is much that is of value in analytic philosophy both historically and in how it is practiced today -- see here, for instance, for some of my own words of praise -- that I hope that whatever happens we do not lose its virtues. For whatever its worth, my guess would be our best for internal change comes through interacting with historians of philosophy. They have kept an institutional foothold and so are in regular friendly contact with analytic philosophers, and have deep knowledge of quite different ways of approaching philosophy which might yet lead us to rebirth. 

But to be honest I doubt it. I think philosophy in my lifetime will just barely shamble on, unable to free itself, anchored to a worldview it can no longer believe in.

Comments

  1. I agree with your sentiments, especially the disillusionment not only with the problem solving capacity of analytic philosophy but primarily its problem generating capacity. Are these really these sorts of problems we ought to be dedicating our lives? My only hope is for philosophy of science, which managed both to pick up a respect for history (and a desire to do it ourselves) and enough engagement with scientists that we have had real impacts.

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  2. I am definitely sympathetic to most of this; thank you for articulating nicely some fuzzy and inchoate suspicions I felt. The one bit that I am not sure about (and it may just be that I'm misunderstanding what you mean by "the game" played by analytic philosophers of decades gone by): I'm not sure we should think of analytic philosophy as characterized by "architectonic programmes", or "a grand march to Kripke" (or to anyone else), or serious hope for "a well-validated and rational-consensus-generating theory of grand topics of interest".

    I think that one of the things that characterizes analytic philosophy from its inception, and which annoys undergraduate students who take a philosophy class because they want to think Deep Thoughts, is the fact that analytic philosophy embraces (or at least tolerates/ publishes) piecewise and limited-scope work, instead of plumbing the depths of Being and The Good.

    I thought in particular of Bertrand Russell (one of the founders of analytic philosophy, if anyone is) in "On Scientific Method in Philosophy". He writes: "it becomes possible at last for philosophy to deal with its problems piecemeal, and to obtain, as the sciences do, such partial and probably not wholly correct results as subsequent investigation can utilise // even while it supplements and improves them. Most philosophies hitherto have been constructed all in one block, in such a way that, if they were not wholly correct, they were wholly incorrect, and could not be used as a basis for further investigations. It is chiefly owing to this fact that philosophy, unlike science, has hitherto been unprogressive, because each original philosopher has had to begin the work again from the beginning, without being able to accept anything definite from the work of his predecessors. A scientific philosophy such as I wish to recommend will be piecemeal and tentative like other sciences" (p.112-113 in _Mysticism and Logic_).

    So using Russell's language to think about your post, I think that one of the things that is distinctive of analytic philosophy (though of course there are always exceptions!) is that many of its valorized practitioners are NOT trying to 'construct' their theories 'all in one block' -- and Russell's 'one block' sounded a bit to me like your 'architectonic' and/or "grand march" and/or "well-validated theory of grand topics of interest".

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  3. Great post! Like Greg Frost-Arnold, I had been inchoately sensing these threats.

    I’d like to suggest an application where something like analytic philosophy might be able to contribute something of value. That is, I don’t see this as one of those attempts, which you rightly critique, to justify the methods or style of analytic philosophy by seeking out an interesting application. (And I’ve been thinking that a Carnapian blog might, for multiple reasons, be a decent place to bring up this application.)

    Much of the reception of Stanley’s *How Fascism Works* is, in my view, deeply philosophically confused. I have in mind most of the criticisms of his theory in this otherwise excellent podcast:

    https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/know-your-enemy-did-it-happen-here-fascism-debate-trump

    Participants in this debate are saying things like, “Stanley’s theory is wrong because p” without any thought to how p bears on a theory of fascism. I think two philosophical points could potentially clear up a lot of confusion: (a) ‘fascism’ belongs to ordinary English; in so far as we want to use it to better understand our social world, we will likely want to rely on an explicated version of it. There may be multiple explicata that would each serve different theoretical purposes. This might make it pointless to argue about what fascism “really” is. (b) The theoretical purposes of the term could be laid out more clearly, maybe as a first step towards empirical operationalization. Stanley says some things in this vein in his book. For example, as I understand him, he thinks of degree of fascism as predictive of severity of ethnic violence and repression. My sense is there’s room for more clarity about fascism’s causal role. (I would work on these topics myself but teaching + parenting + other projects doesn’t leave me with the time.)

    On a separate note, we analytic philosophers who want to make a difference might also consider studying what we can accomplish with our teaching. We’re starting to learn more about how philosophy courses can improve critical thinking skills. I think this is a reason to take seriously the possibility that we could, for example, make our students less susceptible to extremist propaganda and better able to assess news sources. It would be interesting to devise and test some teaching interventions that combine best practices with respect to each of these skills.

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  4. I'm no analytic philosopher, which is perhaps why I'm led to ask: If the approach models itself on natural science, which has its pure and applied sides, how, given that pure analytic philosophy is in such a mess, can you even contemplate its application?

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  5. "bleak prospects for anything like creation of a shared scientific paradigm" -- speaking as a philosophy grad school dropout, I never understood the desire to have such a paradigm in philosophy. In fact it seems incompatible with philosophy as I understand it: the paradigm would amount to shared methodological presuppositions and agreements about what problems count as significant, whereas (for me) none of that should be outside the scope of what is to be questioned and not taken for granted. In other words philosophy, to be philosophy, essentially has to examine its own nature, methods, and assumptions. Maybe that's one reason why I had to quit.

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  6. Great reflection. I was reading some critical theory in the Frankfurt school tradition this week, and I was struck by how many writings of its members are attempts to assess the current state of their discipline (what it has looked like in past decades, what it currently lacks, what needs to be done and why, etc.). To me, your post is in this spirit and I think we need more of this.

    Also, I consider myself to be a practitioner of applied philosophy as you describe it, but I'm not convinced that all applied philosophy needs to be practically useful in order for it to be valuable. It can sometimes be theoretically useful even if it is applied. Usually, when I write about things like fake news, misinformation and propaganda, I'm not trying to "solve the problem" posed by such things. I'm rather trying to understand the reasons we have to implement certain measures that relate to them (or, alternatively, refrain from doing so). I get pretty close to public policy, but I still see this as a primarily theoretical project, sometimes even as an attempt to help us reconcile ourselves with reality in a Hegelian fashion. Something like: "Should we do this? No, but for other reasons that those you have in mind." There is something "petit bourgeois" about this that honestly often annoys me, but I console myself by trying to be practically useful in the classroom and good to my students. Mostly, I am painfully aware of my lack of influence as a public scholar. I'd be curious to know what relationship with their work other applied philosophers have.

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  7. Against Kripke:
    https://www.amazon.co.uk/Reference-Identity-Jewish-Christian-Scriptures/dp/1498587410

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  8. It's passe in phil o' sci now, but maybe it is time we bring back "Scientific Revolutions". I like Harry Johnson's analysis:

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/1816968

    A scientific revolution is a genre of academic writing which validates grad students and not their professors. I can use the Keynesian Revolution and Logical Positivism as successful examples. A successful revolution has five parts:

    1. Orthodoxy removal: there has to be a clear problem with the orthodoxy (i.e. classical theories of unemployment, metaphysics in classical speculative philosophy)
    2. Orthodoxy replacement: what was positively done by the previous orthodoxy has to be captured in the new system (i.e. full employment assumption, "a priori")
    3. Moderate complexity: the system has to be complicated enough that it isn't worth the professors time to learn it (i.e. multiplier dynamics, first order logic)
    (these protect the young from invasion by the entrenched old)
    4. Methodological novelty: it has to give the young something clear to do (i.e. measure multipliers, find out how simple words can be modeled in first order logic)
    5. Dialectical simplicity: there has to be one big clear thing that has been done (i.e. found a consumption function, figured out how "the" works)

    Assuming that old philosophy professors will never do apply, I still worry that applied philosophy fails to do 4 & 5, which mean that it doesn't have access to the kind of virtuous growth cycles of having young people constantly engaging it until it finally swells up into a new orthodoxy.

    There's also a much more obvious economic analysis of the problem but you know that

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  9. Additional to the great post and comments, may I know about this work of art? The moon's hanging there, calmly as it always looks like, no fear of shining warmly at those gone off. Also perfectly resonates with the moonlight tonight.

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    1. Hi everyone! I am sorry to say that the response to this post has been a bit overwhelming so it is probably going to be hard for me to reply to comments (it's marking season!) -- but this one I can do. The picture is the final painting in the Course of Empire series by Cole Thomas. It's called Desolation, and for various reasons felt thematically appropriate for this post. I really like the whole set, check it out! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Course_of_Empire_(paintings)

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  10. Hey Liam,

    I enjoyed the post. I think you’ve identified a real feeling of metaphilosophical despair here, but I have several questions about the diagnosis (leave aside the treatment).

    First, what’s really changed since the “postanalytic” moment following Rorty’s critique?

    We’ve lost confidence, and you mention three factors at play, two of which are internal. But, what, exactly, are these two factors?

    Is one the loss of a contemporary visionary? A modern-day Kripke to guide us out of the postmodern morass? And is the other factor the realization that the game is up? That what metaphysicians or semanticists are really doing, the nitty gritty work of analyzing indexicals and counterfactuals, can’t collectively add up to the dream of a final Theory of Meaning or a unified Metaphysics?

    Whatever the factors, these points lead me to ask the following:

    Is there any reason to think we should have this by now? Has anyone ever really thought they would actually be able to convince all opponents and defuse all puzzles? Even if philosophy is modelled as a science, isn’t it reasonable to except recalcitrant problems and other theoretical roadblocks?

    I suppose I ask this because, although I do identify with your “anecdotal” and impressionistic remarks about a lack of confidence and general metaphilosophical disorientation, it’s not obvious to me that my confusion isn’t just personal, rather than an accurate perception of the inability of, say, the referentialist paradigm in semantics to make progress and reply effectively to the use-theorist, the internalist, and others.

    Obviously, I know nothing about semantics, so I have very good reason to think my feeling is just due to inexperience with the field. Perhaps it would become clear to me that the project is bankrupt were I halfway through a PhD with Jeff King, Paul Pietroski, or some other leading semanticist…

    Yet, as an outsider, I can’t help but see the relative consensus in the referentialist paradigm (whatever that is) and the critiques of outsiders (e.g., Chomsky, Pietroski, Brandom, and all the rest) as a relatively healthy thing. It certainly makes it seem vibrant, if not exciting (how exciting can philosophy of language really be lol?).

    (Shame we never got around to talking about this, but I was too psychologically ensnared in the trap of metametaphysics at the time to discuss much else.)

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