17 April 2008

We're All Analytical Philosophers Now

Here's a curious comment from Alex Pruss on his blog:

Occasionally, I find myself party to conversations about analytic and continental philosophy. It seems to me that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sextus, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, ibn-Rushd, al-Ghazali, Maimonedes, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant and Frege all practiced analytic philosophy for a significant part of their philosophical lives—some of these, indeed, for just about all of their philosophical lives. When I read these people, I find them kindred souls, clearly engaged in the same rational pursuits, using pretty much the same tools, as I am. To denigrate analytic philosophy would, thus, be to cut oneself off from much of our philosophical tradition, and to lack the tools of analytic philosophy is to severely limit one's ability to engage this tradition. Fortunately, I have found it rare these days for continental philosophers to denigrate analytic philosophy.
Hold on there! Can we define terms? What do you mean by 'analytical philosophy'?

Here's one definition, which uses a paradigm and counts something as more or less analytical depending upon its closeness to the paradigm. The paradigm is either: Frege's analysis of number in the Grundlagen, or Russell's analysis of definite descriptions in "On Denoting" (you pick). Both purport to use techniques of formal logic to solve long-standing philosophical puzzles.

'Analytical philosophy' so defined would be the project of aiming to solve long-standing philosophical puzzles through the application of techniques of formal logic. In that sense no one on that list except Frege is an 'analytical philosopher'.

If you say an 'analytical philosopher' is someone who cares about clarity and argument, then I'd say, why don't you simply drop the qualifier--and the substantive too-- since every thoughtful person cares about such things? Yet, if you were to say that an 'analytical philosopher' is someone who places himself under the constraint of not putting forward anything, or putting it forward 'as finished', unless it is clear and demonstrated (and why ever should one constrain oneself in that way?), then you eliminate nearly all of the figures on that list.

More troubling, perhaps, is why anyone would want in the first place to go through a list of significant philosophers and claim that they all "practiced analytic philosophy" -- not to mention that this assertion would have come as a complete surprise to those revolutionaries who initiated "analytical philosophy". (Aristotle and Hume "practicing" the same thing? Russell and Augustine? Ayer and Maimonides?)


Alexander R Pruss said...

If we take analytic philosophy as an attempt to solve philosophical puzzles through formal logic, then a lot of the metaphysics and ethics done by contemporary analytic philosophers doesn't count as analytic philosophy.

I don't have a definition of analytic philosophy. But there is a practice of philosophizing done by people who self-describe as analytic philosophers. It seems to me that the historical figures I mentioned count as having practiced analytic philosophy "for a significant part of their philosophical lives" in the following sense: many of the things they wrote, with minor stylistic adjustments, would not stand out methodologically or substantively were they found in a text by a doctrinally appropriate contemporary analytic philosopher.

The exact practice in question is probably impossible to nail down. But it does have some markers. (These markers are almost, but not entirely, useless, because (a) these are not all found in all of the figures I mentioned, or in all contemporary figures we might call "analytic philosophers", and (b) many or all of these can be present in a continental philosopher.)

For instance:

1. The giving of arguments that, while not necessarily formulated in a formal logic, carry a fair amount of their logical form on their sleeve, and a significant part of which can in principle be formalized.

2. The attempt to formulate necessary and sufficient conditions.

3. The use of the method of counterexample.

4. A sensitivity to modal distinctions, whether in informal language or formal modal logic.

5. An emphasis on an argumentative rather than sapiential mode of proceeding.

But, most of all, it's just a feeling of a kindred spirit... This is particularly true in the case of the scholastics. A continental colleague, in mild disparagement, once remarked that we analytic philosophers were just scholastics. I think he was right. :-)

Why is it worth giving the list? For one, because there is the idea (found both within and without analytic philosophy) that analytic philosophy is something new on the intellectual scene. But it seems to me that analytic philosophy is largely the continuation of "business as usual" in philosophy.

Alexander R Pruss said...

By the way, if I had to pick a paradigm it would be something more recent than Frege and Russell, like Kripke's Naming and Necessity or Rae's World without Design, or something older, like the Summa Contra Gentiles.

It may be that my remarks are more applicable to the current practice of analytic philosophy than to the practice of Frege and Russell. I think of myself as analytic philosopher, and yet I find figures like Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Sextus and Suarez to be closer to my philosophical methodology, and to that of a number of my fellows, than Frege, Russell and Carnap are.

Darius Jedburgh said...

If you say an 'analytical philosopher' is someone who cares about clarity and argument, then I'd say, why don't you simply drop the qualifier--and the substantive too-- since every thoughtful person cares about such things?

Yet a lot of what gets the institutional imprimatur as philosophy is written by people who don't care about these things. Have you checked out the 'continental' quota of reviews at NDPR lately? It's almost wall-to-wall self-indulgent cargo-cult gibberish. A lot of people who still talk about analytic philosophy want to distinguish it from that. I guess I'm agreeing that often 'analytic'/ 'continental' amounts to 'real'/ 'fake'; but it's usually more politic to talk about the contrast in the former terms.

Michael Pakaluk said...


Your definition is surely too broad.

As a matter simply of history it's strange to give a definition of 'analytical philosophy' which counts as 'analytical' even those philosophers (including McTaggart and Bradley, but by no means only these) which 'analytic philosophy' was bent on rejecting.

The use of argument, counterexample, definition-- since Plato and Aristotle's Organon, this has simply been what it is to be an educated person. No special name is useful for this.

But why might it be problematic to use this useless name? Because there was indeed a revolution in philosophy in the early 20th c., and to use the term 'analytical philosophy' so broadly is, I think, implicitly to give one's allegiance to that revolution and its effects.

Yet should we give that sort of allegiance? There are many things to be said here. For instance, one effect of the revolution has been a change in the sort of person who is a typical philosophy professor. When I go through the journals and read what was typical of philosophy in the early 20th c, before the revolution, it's not plain to me that the change has been a good one.

And there's the question too of what kind of character tends to be more interesting, and less harmful, when taken on widely by persons of moderate intelligence and talent. A thousand professors aiming to think and reason like William James or David Ross might be interesting, but a thousand Bertrand Russell wannabes is likely to be a human catastrophe.

But this is just one thing that could be said.

On the contrast with 'continental philosophy' -- if one granted (which I don't) that there was uniformity of 'practice' before (say) 1800, it would hardly be surprising, given what continental philosophy claims to be, if it ended up looking like something different. Why shouldn't one say that Descartes, Luther, and others uncovered something we call 'subjectivity', and that its investigation needs to take a different form from what's proved successful in investigating the natural world? That these 'continental' philosophers insist on taking a different approach might be seen, rather, as a sign that they are attempting to be faithful in their thinking to some other reality.


Perhaps 99% of 'analytical philosophy' (if that's not too ungenerous) is gibberish or, worse, dishonest, in the sense that it would represent as plain and straightforward what is really deep and mysterious.

On the other hand, if we judge continental philosophy on the basis of its best instances, I'm not sure it comes off so badly.


Darius Jedburgh said...

I agree with you about 'analytical philosophy', Michael, but there's still something comforting about the knowledge that an author wouldn't treat a demand for clarity and rigour as hopelessly phallogocentric, or a ruse for avoiding the Question of Being.

Anonymous said...

Off topic post --

A curious little article I found this morning. Thought I'd pass it along: What would Aristotle make of Facebook?



Alexander R Pruss said...


I use "analytic philosophy" to describe a certain recognizable living social practice, which includes paradigmatic cases of various living philosophers who self-designate themselves as "analytic philosophers" and probably others who do not. That the word "analytic" or "analytical" used to have a different sense--that it used to designate a school of philosophy that has perhaps now all but died out--is not relevant to my point.

I wasn't offering a definition: I was offering broad markers. Still, these markers are such that they are more visible in some than in others. For instance, (1), (2), (4) and (5) are much more prominent in Aquinas than in Kierkegaard, or among more recent writers, they are much more prominent in Vlastos than in Wittgenstein.

And while it is part of simply being an educated person to be able to engage in these methods of reasoning, and Kierkegaard like any educated person certainly was quite capable of doing so, there is a social practice which is characterized in part by a certain relentlessness in the practice of this method. Whether such relentlessness is an ideal that many should emulate is a good question--I suspect the answer is negative. But, nonetheless, this relentlessness also characterized the work of many great historical figures (think of Met. Z or the Contra Gentiles).

Anonymous said...

Look at these two philosophy pieces:

A Passage from Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

Robert Adams' analytic interpretation of Kierkegaard's passage:

Kierkegaard does offer philosophical argumentation, it's just that he is also a master writer and poet.

That's the difference; we can discuss the same things (Kierkegaard's philosophy in this example), the difference is whether one's a boring but somewhat clear writer, or a brilliant poet, but also deep and dense.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Kierkegaard is capable of composing really interesting arguments, and sometimes does so. I am not a Kierkegaard scholar myself.

At the time, I did find James Conant, who was my Kierkegaard teacher, convincing in the idea that there is a deep irony in the Postscript which is such that one cannot say that these arguments are ones that Kierkegaard endorses, but instead the Postscript as a whole exemplifies a form of the intellectual confusion that it attempts to innoculate the reader to, so that we must in the end read them along the lines that Wittgenstein recommends in the Tractatus: "My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)"

If this reading of the Postscript is correct, then Kierkegaard's use of argument here is very different from the use of argument by a typical analytic philosopher (Wittgenstein is not a typical analytic philosopher). Nonetheless, to do this right, he needs the argument-construction skills that the typical analytic philosopher has, and indeed he exhibits these skills.

I realize there are other, perhaps more popular, readings of the pseudonymity.