This article was written on 04 Apr 2003, and is filed under Miscellania.

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Analytic Philosophy: Doctor Fact is Knocking at the Door!

Gary Sauer-Thompson delivers a missive on the evolution of analytic philosophy:

Many toiled in the analytic vineyard in the noonday sun to show that we were only looking at a picture not absolute truth. Dewey, Wittgenstein, Kuhn, Putnam, Charles Taylor come to mind. Their labors succeeded in breaking the stranglehold of a science-centered expert culture in the liberal university; a culture obsessed with its theory of everything written in a few equations, a hostility to the common life and a big contempt for a literary culture.

I don’t disagree with the sentiment, but analytic philosophy, and its particular pretenses and failings, deserves closer examination.

Analytic philosophy started off at the extreme. Proto-analytics like Frege and Russell lay the groundwork for a verificationist model of the world. The confusion that arose post-Wittgenstein came from the Viennese Circle’s appropriation of what they thought was a dismissal of metaphysical statements as nonsense in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. What the analytics broke early on was the hold of metaphysics. Carl Hempel’s early papers are dismissive of anything that can’t be assigned a definitive truth value. Rudolph Carnap, one of the most extreme of the logical positivists, shows a great esteem for science, but disapproves of the culture surrounding it; science is too metaphysical for him.

But over time, analytics made the move back towards some notion of metaphysics. They did so using the most mathematical and scientific language possible, leading into endless discussions of material constitution, possible worlds, and debates between essentialism and non-essentialism.

The more esoteric blends of analytic philosophy maintained pretenses of scientific rigor. Willard Quine and Wilfred Sellars approached metaphysics as Frege had approached math and dug themselves into logically consistent but terribly obscure holes. Quine refined and rewrote Wittgenstein’s logical atomism into a network of interdependent atoms, none independent, even while tearing down traditional concepts of metaphysics.

Yet it was the more constructivist approaches, like those that came from Kripke, that caught on. By positing essential “things” with essential and non-essential properties, entirely new problems could be generated that led to statements with definite truth values, statements claiming basic metaphysical principles. Consider normative ethics, with its calculi of moral standing and well-being. It is the study of the mathematical manipulation of what psychologists can’t quantify.

The irony here, I always thought, was that it was the reintroduction of debatable metaphysics that gave analytic philosophy its power. The early verificationist approaches hit a dead end so quickly that there was almost no place to go but to metaphysics, and to establish a set of dogma as a tradition to work within, rather than as assumptions to be questioned. The debate between nominalists (those believing in particulars) and realists (those believing in universals) would have been anathema to Carl Hempel and the positivists in the 30′s, but not to their scions (and even some of them themselves–I know Hempel mellowed considerably) thirty to forty years later. Bernard Williams and David Armstrong had at least as much influence as Quine, because their approaches were more conducive towards productive work, and the manufacturing of problems to be debated and solved. An outstanding thinker like Donald Davidson sometimes seems shackled by assumptions, like the bugbear of the mental/physical divide, that his papers have to work within.

But I’d argue that it’s these restrictions and these signposts that allowed When Rorty attempted, with only partial success, to tear the house down by bringing in relativism (cultural and otherwise) and pragmatism, the metaphysics held it up. The edifice was too strong and too full of shared assumptions to fall victim to an attack that went in the wrong direction, tearing down rather than building up.

(I’d also say that Rorty’s approach is not especially compatible with continental thinkers for the same reason: his version of pragmatism is too destructive towards cultural theory, and possibly even towards pure deconstruction. But that’s a different subject….)

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