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.