Kvetching Retrospectively about Analytical Philosophy

by Tom on June 27, 2004

Following Chris’s post about topics in philosophy that provoke worries about angels and pinheads, I was going to pitch in with a comment setting out my own pet hates, but realised I was veering off-topic when I began to whine not about the problems themselves but about the values of the discipline itself.

Some declarations up front:

  1. I left academic philosophy in 1998 and, though I remain an interested amateur, there are of course several CT contributors, not to mention regular visitors to the comments section, who have more recent experience of the ethos of the profession;

  2. I left in some part because philosophy seemed to be, like mathematics, a subject in which there is pretty much no substitute for raw brainpower. Recognising that my own IQ doesn’t break the bank, I decided that regularly getting beaten up in seminars by smarter people was unlikely to prove a recipe for a fun career, and thought it best to cut my losses fairly early post-DPhil.
Ahem. With those in mind, here are a few randomly selected things I found deeply irritating as a graduate student in philosophy in the early to mid ‘nineties:
  1. Having to take eliminativism about the mental seriously as a candidate for truth. If Patricia Churchland had offered her position merely as a possible occupant of logical space, it might have been harmless fun to join in the game of figuring out where exactly the argument went off the rails (since it clearly had, right?). Instead, she seemed actually to believe it, and it was deemed poor form to point out that her position was just nuts and start from there.

    (The thing that seemed really unacceptable in this area was admitting to a liking for the views of Thomas Nagel or Colin McGinn. Eventually I got tired of holding up a placard inscribed with the slogan ‘You’ve left out subjectivity (again)’, so quit doing phil of mind and slouched off to join the moral/political kids behind the bikesheds).

  2. The endless hashing over of the whole Putnam-inspired thing of dismissing of scepticism by appealing to the theory of meaning, which struck me as being both incredibly clever and incredibly silly. A massive scholarly industry by now, but still as it seems to me, obviously cheating.

  3. Realising with a shock that David Gauthier’s ‘Morals By Agreement’ wasn’t intended as a reductio ad absurdum of his premisses, but spending weeks discussing the innards of that silly, brilliant book anyway.

Here’s the substance of my kvetch: I found philosophical problems puzzling and worrying and inescapable when I was a kid, and I still do, and that’s why I spent a good few years studying the subject. I hoped I’d find that some people smarter than I would have had some things to say that might begin to look like answers, and of course they had, and that’s why I don’t regret the investment of time that I made.

But what I also found, at graduate level anyway, were tremendous numbers of people, admittedly much cleverer than I, discussing what looked much more like shmanswers than answers, and being prepared to face down obvious objections by appealing to other shmanswers.

The book that made the most impression on me in my graduate education was Thomas Nagel’s ‘The View from Nowhere’, a key distinction of which was between sceptical, reductionist and heroic views:

Skeptical theories take the contents of our ordinary or scientific beliefs about the world to go beyond their grounds in ways that make them impossible to defend against doubt. There are ways we might be wrong that we can’t rule out. Once we notice this unclosable gap we cannot, except with conscious irrationality, maintain our confidence in those beliefs.

Reductive theories grow out of skeptical arguments. Assuming that we do know certain things, and acknowledging that we could not know them if the gap between content and grounds were as great as the skeptic thinks it is, the reductionist reinterprets the content of our beliefs about the world so that they claim less. He may interpret them as claims about possible experience or the possible ultimate convergence of experience among rational beings, or as efforts to reduce tension and surprise or to increase order in the system of mental states of the knower, or he may even take some of them, in a Kantian vein, to describe the limits of all possible experience: an inside view of the bars of our mental cage. In any case on a reductive view our beliefs are not about the world as it is in itself – if indeed that means anything. They are about the world as it appears to us…

Heroic theories acknowledge the great gap between the grounds of our beliefs about the world and the contents of those beliefs under a realist interpretation, and they try to leap across the gap without narrowing it. The chasm below is littered with epistemological corpses.

It should also be said that Nagel has a wonderful footnote:

A fourth reaction is to turn one’s back on the abyss and announce that one is now on the other side. This was done by G.E.Moore.

I found a lot of reductionism, in Nagel’s sense, about the place and I didn’t like it much. It felt as if those tempted by it didn’t really feel the force of the problems at all, and had stumbled upon philosophy as an alternative outlet for their cleverness to solving the Times Crossword over breakfast. Much worse, though, there seemed to be stacks of writing that seemed to be inspired by Moore’s attitude concerning the necessity of leaping.

In the terms of the Philosophical Lexicon, too much Outsmarting went on in the subject. It also seemed to me that it ought not to be regarded as a good dialectical move, in response to an objection to a theory, to reply ‘but what’s your alternative?’. Not having a position, because all the extant views really obviously won’t do, should be way more acceptable than it seemed to be back when I did this stuff.

Of course, a discipline can’t have too many supersmart people, and philosophy may well be just too damn hard for the likes of me. Still, I worried, and worry, that there are too many professional philosophers who appear to be more interested in showing how superlatively clever they are than in addressing the permanent problems of the subject.

Ring any bells for anyone?



Dan Shannon 06.27.04 at 10:12 pm

This is probably coming from a lack of education, but philosophy always struck me as silly. It could never be applied, and always got in the way of actual discussions.

For example, someone once engaged me in a debate about the necessity of being kind to other people. I argued, in various ways, that we had a responsibility to be altruistic. Eventually, he told me, “But why be good to people? You don’t even know whether they exist.” Probably not the best example of applied philosophy, but I like to argue from extremes.

A better example might be the political debates I have with people. Any system can be opposed by some philosophical theory—a philosophical theory that is completely untested, completely untestable, and likely without any bearing on reality. It becomes frustrating to argue philosophy in what should be a discussion about reality.

(I’ll brace myself for the incoming blows now. This still strikes me as an ignorant position to take.)


Matthew Yglesias 06.27.04 at 10:43 pm

Funny, that’s the exact opposite of what bugged me about philosophy. I felt like there were perfectly good reductionist answers out there to most of the major problems, and a ton of pain-in-the-ass mystifiers who didn’t really want the problems to be solved raising silly objections without putting forward theories of their own.


tom 06.27.04 at 10:50 pm

I guess differences of temperament come into play here, but I’ll sign up for the ‘pain-in-the-ass mystifier’ party right here and now.

Can I get a bumper-sticker?


McDuff 06.28.04 at 1:27 am

Still, I worried, and worry, that there are too many professional philosophers who appear to be more interested in showing how superlatively clever they are than in addressing the permanent problems of the subject.

I rather suspect that this is not an affliction restricted to academic philosophy, but something more endemic throughout the human race as a whole. I’m sure we’ve all had to sit through spiels by pontificating mushroomheads in a bar somewhere, who have used far too many words to put forward their point of view, which is on the surface about an idea but in reality is actually “look how clever I am!”

The worst offender is, of course, the “are we really real/brain in a jar” question; my usual response to which is to punch said pontificator in the arm really hard. I usually dislike using violence to make a point, but in many cases of philosophy I feel that the act can indeed make my response to the question (which is interesting in its own right, albeit one which it is completely useless to ask) far better and infinitely more succinctly than expounding upon it in a thousand words or more. It takes a very strong, perverse mind to maintain a conviction that I might not really be there talking to them when their arm really hurts.

I suspect, however, that this underlines the key difference between myself and a lot of people, be they professional philosophers or simply barflies pondering life through beer-goggles. While much space has been devoted to the “strokey beard” questions like “is there a God?” or “is there such a thing as ‘objective’ good and evil?” I honestly feel that these can be perfectly adequately answered in single sentences; “I don’t care” and “it doesn’t matter” respectively. Once the strokey beard pontifications on our own intellectual magnificence have been put to the ash-heap where they belong along with all the other unanswerable questions, we can devote our time to answering, well, answerable questions.

“Given that we can’t know for certain if there is a God or if we’re really real, but that it is the best approximation of real that we have available and, importantly, we have to act as if it’s real regardless of whether it is or not, what are we going to do tomorrow?” The trouble with this kind of question, of course, and the reason I suspect many people avoid them, is that its brutal harshness doesn’t allow them to sit and pontificate and stroke their magnificent beards and congratulate themselves on just how clever they are. Once you have an answer, and the thing about answerable questions is that answers normally arrive rather quickly, reality rears its ugly head and you actually have to act on the decision you’ve just arrived at. It’s very easy to see why people prefer the cotton-candy thinking of “important” issues to the nitty-gritty kinds of issues that actually affect where you’re going for lunch today.


McDuff 06.28.04 at 1:32 am

{note: most of the people who I talk too about these issues actually have less magnificent beards than myself. The beards referred to above are metaphorical beards. Beards of the Brain, so to speak. And I think I’ll stop there, before I do myself a mischief)


blockbuster video cashier 06.28.04 at 2:10 am

How do eliminativists like the Churchlands account for the existence of orgasms? I’ve wondered about this for a long time.

Coming out on Tuesday at Blockbuster: Cold Mountain, starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman!


blockbuster video cashier 06.28.04 at 2:11 am

How do eliminativists like the Churchlands account for the existence of orgasms? I’ve wondered about this for a long time.

Coming out on Tuesday at Blockbuster: Cold Mountain, starring Jude Law and Nicole Kidman!


asg 06.28.04 at 2:17 am

Why should orgasms pose any different sort of difficulty than any other mental state to the Churchland type? Honestly curious.


Lindsay Beyerstein 06.28.04 at 2:27 am

If anything, orgasm is a relatively easy case for the reductionist because the physiological basis of orgasm is so well-understood and its causal and functional roles are relatively clear cut.

It’s much harder to explain what physical property all kinds of pain have in common, given all the different qualitative types of pain (scalding, aching, stinging…), all the different causal and functional roles of pain, and so on.


blockbuster video cashier 06.28.04 at 2:34 am


I may be out of my depths here. I just feel that a description of an orgasm in neurological terms will always leave something important unexplained, no matter how definitive that description might be. lA sticky phenomenological residue.

Does this make me a “pain in the ass mystifier”?


blockbuster video cashier 06.28.04 at 2:39 am

Functional accounts leave me feeling unsatisfied, too. With them, I get some inputs and some…uh…outputs, as well as the representational content of the orgasm. Where’s the ecstasy at?


belle 06.28.04 at 3:00 am

A little Nietzschean lightfootedness over the abyss can come in handy if you incline to the heroic style, but it’s sadly out of fashion in analytic philosophy these days, and it’s very important not to look down at the shattered corpses or you may have a Wile E. Coyote experience. I turned my back on philosophy as an undergrad when I decided it was only mental masturbation (i.e., the questions I had thought, in my youthful enthusiasm, might be answered, were more what you might call hyper-technically reframed.) But then in grad school I remembered that masturbation is fun! John’s two winning advertisements for professional philosophy: “Philosophy: come for the answers; stay for the questions!” and “Philosophy: people helping people refute people.”


Sacha 06.28.04 at 3:10 am

First of all, for the sake of full disclosure, I’m not even yet a grad student, so it’s quite possible that what I’m about to say some “Beard stroker” might simply brush off, but a few points I should raise here.

First of all, as for the view that philosophy is a lot of fiddle-faddle, “Dan Shannon” should feel himself brave for asking the question.

The answer is, of course, for the most part, no. And while a history of philosophy wouldn’t help anyone here, I’ll just point out that philosophy, in fact, has had a major effect on the history. A fairly widely accepted notion of Utilitarianism, a (for the most part) functional view of truth as opposed to a fairly strange metaphysical one, many exceedingly important developements to early computer science… and the list goes on.

The biggest that, for many, philosophy seems so dubious is that it’s hard to see where it has had an effect. But it has, and an analysis of the history reveals it.

Secondly, as far as feeling uncomfortable at the idea of of all things being explained by brain states, many philosophers – as well, for that matter, neurologists, cognitive scientists, psychologists, and whoever else, feel the same way. There’s simply no consensus on what the mind might possibly be. There are many good ideas, and many silly ones, and progress is being made, but, in reply to a couple posters above…
yah, many agree.

Thirdly, however, there is something a bit suspect about the direction philosophy has taken since world war II (At least for we anglophones). Certainly, the Analytic movement isn’t entirely bankrupt, but I think, if I may be so bold to say, that many philosophers are starting to realize it’s not all it seemed cracked up to be. And that, since many good forms of philosophy, not to mention vaguely popular ones, have been left at the wayside, I do think that the movement is largely responsible for the idea of academic philosophy as a tenured circle jerk.

But I think it may be chagning. Anyone agree?


Lee 06.28.04 at 4:38 am

The only philospher of any interest in my experience is Daniel Dennett. And it is all about the questions. He has the courage to dismiss some questions as being meaningless or uninteresting.

One can argue about whether his answers are correct, but he’s asking the right questions …


Lee 06.28.04 at 4:39 am

The only philospher of any interest in my experience is Daniel Dennett. And it is all about the questions. He has the courage to dismiss some questions as being meaningless or uninteresting.

One can argue about whether his answers are correct, but he’s asking the right questions …


ogged 06.28.04 at 6:58 am

An amusing counterpoint to the supersmart business: I once heard someone relay a conversation with Habermas, in which they were discussing a particular student whom they both thought might be a genius. Habermas noted, “But, in philosophy, that is not always a good thing to be.”


Brian Weatherson 06.28.04 at 7:29 am

I think that Nagel is being unfair on Moore, and latter-day Mooreans here. The point isn’t necessarily to turn one’s back on the abyss. Rather, you start off making the rather mundane observation that we are in fact on the other side, so we must have got here somehow, and that tells you quite a bit about how the abyss can be crossed.

(Or, more precisely, how to end up on the other side. We could just have been born here. I’ve been reading Peacocke recently and sometimes his rationalism comes across as the view of someone born on epistemic third base who assumes they must have hit a triple.)

Anyway, noting that we have ended up across the abyss doesn’t prevent quite careful, and I think quite informative, investigation into what a crossing must look like. It does mean that epistemological questions become less pressing, and hence cease to be at the centre of philosophy, but I think that’s mostly a good thing. (And I say that as a sometime epistemologist.)

The point about eliminitavism, on the other hand, seems completely fair. I think the eliminativists have raised interesting questions about the scope of error theories, but for anyone with the faintest Moorean tendencies it is hard to take the view seriously.


Zizka 06.28.04 at 4:36 pm

Somewhere around 1967, as an undergraduate, I was told something like “I don’t know what it is that you’re doing, John, but it’s not philosophy”. So I continued doing the things I was doing, somewhere else.

Oddly, the people I ended up reading were people like Dewey and Nietzsche and Harteshorne/ Whitehead and Foucault and Michel Meyer and Stephen Toulmin (as well as more archaic figures and even Chinese writers) who thought of themselves as philosophers and who, in other times and places, were hired on as philosophers.

Rorty’s Mirror of Nature seemed to dispose of the stuff I didn’t like (i.e., the people who didn’t like **me**), but “Consequences of Pragmatism” took everything back and said that analytic philosophy is really OK.

I’ve continued doing the stuff I do, without ever imagining that any Anglo-American philosophy department would have any interest in it. But it still seems like philosophy to me.

Unless the stuff I’m reading really has been definitively discredited or refuted by the people who dominate philosophy, and I doubt that it has been, I can only think of analytic philosopher as cowbirds who have driven everyone else out of the nest by the skillful use of networking, bureaucratic infighting, methodological stipulations, paradigm enforcement, and the assertion and imposition of default positions which are felt not to require any justification.

As for the inhospitability of Anglo philosophy departments to the stuff I want to do, I’ve had it confirmed by a series of friends, some of whom feel the way I do and some of whom went analytic on me.


Zizka 06.28.04 at 4:42 pm

I think that orgasms are easy for eliminativists to deal with. As I understand, the orgasm center of the brain has been located and can be triggered by science.


Stentor 06.28.04 at 4:47 pm

He has the courage to dismiss some questions as being meaningless or uninteresting.

In my amateur reading of the literature, this seems to be the MO of most philosophers — take some question or concept and declare that the way it’s usually stated is meaningless.


Matt McGrattan 06.28.04 at 6:38 pm

Tom wrote, quoting Nagel that:

“Reductive theories grow out of skeptical arguments. Assuming that we do know certain things, and acknowledging that we could not know them if the gap between content and grounds were as great as the skeptic thinks it is, the reductionist reinterprets the content of our beliefs about the world so that they claim less. …”

Reductivism, characterised in this way, seems pretty heroic to me. It doesn’t seem trivial or uninteresting to say something like:

“Here’s some cherished set of beliefs, some set of intuitions that give me comfort and security in the face of doubt and uncertainty… and I will reject these beliefs and accept, in the name of intellectual rigour and honesty, some smaller, less comforting but more defensible set of claims.”

Perhaps it’s just a difference in character but, personally, it seems like there’s something admirable in that. There’s something of the spirit that you find in Sartre and other existentialists when they reject theism and embrace choice and the weight of the responsibility that comes with it.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t things wrong with analytic philosophy as currently practiced. If one wanted to get all quasi-Kuhnian one could point to the influence of paradigmatic papers like Gettier — short, apparently decisive pieces that invoke some sort of elegant thought experiment to refute or destroy some widely held view — and question whether this kind of paradigm has a pernicious effect.

And sometimes the proliferation of that kind of work — which at its worst degenerates into ‘chmess’ type game playing and cheap point scoring — might make it hard to do some kind of large-scale systematic work or to undertake a fundamental rethink of some area of study. But it doesn’t make it impossible and it seems to me that there’s lots of good work being done and lots of good work still to be done while still working within the domain of ‘analytic’ philosophy.


Matt Weiner 06.28.04 at 6:43 pm

I’d like to chime in with Brian in support of the Mooreans, although possibly in a different direction. Going back to Dan’s original example of a useless philosophy argument–“But why be good to people? You don’t even know whether they exist.”–that particular argument would get someone punched in the mouth in a philosophy seminar, every bit as much as in a bar. If you’re talking about ethics or political philosophy, it’s bad form to bring up radical epistemological skepticism unless it’s somehow relevant.
So, the way that I would characterize certain Moorean projects is–“Given we’re on, or once we’re on the other side of this chasm, what can we do?” There are a lot of interesting questions there, though you’d better make sure that your answer doesn’t show that you could never really get to the other side of this chasm. To be slightly more specific, I frequently work on the epistemology of things other people tell you, and I don’t feel at all obliged to prove that there are other people in the first place; but if I came up with a result that you could learn from other people’s testimony because testimony fulfilled criteria X, and someone pointed out that that your senses don’t fulfil criteria X, I would take that as a devastating objection. But if the question “How do you know there’s an external world at all?” isn’t specifically related to the epistemology of testimony, then I feel free to answer “We just must, somehow.”
This approach may be vulnerable to Russell’s remark that it has the advantages of theft over honest toil. To which I say–well, those are advantages.


Zizka 06.28.04 at 7:35 pm

If Rorty is right that philosophers are just technicians of argument, and that there are no foundations that must be built on (i.e. you do not ultimately have to justify your views according to materialism or Kantianism or Marxism or Hegelianism, etc.), then Mooreian common sense can easily be attained by stupulations within the question put up for argument. Stipulations could either assert an answer (“Granted that the physical world exists….”) or bracket it out (“Whether the physical world really exists or just is a perception in our minds…..”

This is a different thing than Moore’s claim to be able to answer questions that way. Just put them “out of question”.

This, BTW, is how Michel Meyer handles these things.

The early mathematical logician Hao Wang, who was closely associated with Goedel, proposes using the brute facts of reality as we know it as a starting point and working from there. It amounts to requiring bold new thinkers to actually justify their proposals, rather than allowing them to claim that counterintuitivity is a virtue.

The big revolutions of science were less counterintuitive than people think; the heliocentric view, for example, makes a lot of immediate sense when confronted with a lot of our immediate experiences. It’s really a reshuffling of common sense in an anti-dogmatic way, rather than a rejection of it.


Tom Runnacles 06.28.04 at 8:27 pm

Matt wrote:

“Here’s some cherished set of beliefs, some set of intuitions that give me comfort and security in the face of doubt and uncertainty… and I will reject these beliefs and accept, in the name of intellectual rigour and honesty, some smaller, less comforting but more defensible set of claims.”

Perhaps it’s just a difference in character but, personally, it seems like there’s something admirable in that.

Yeah, I think that temperamental differences account for a lot here. For me that kind of move just smacked of well, cheating – it didn’t leave the philosophical itch feeling properly scratched. Still, different folks etc…

Nonetheless, it does look to me as if the response you describe – may I gloss it as ‘Let’s believe a bit less so that we can be sure that what we believe is true’? – is much closer to scepticism than Nagel’s reductionism. On the latter view, all you could possibly have managed to mean in the first place (the actual content of your thought) was the reading given by the reductionist. This implies the common-sense view is actually in great shape. Consequently, philosophy left the world just as it found it, and there’s nothing to see here folks. (See endless readings of Hume as a reductionist, rather than a sceptic, about causes, for instance.)

If epistemological modesty is the name of the game, go on, join the sceptics’ team.


zizka 06.28.04 at 9:22 pm

I think that a lot of analytic philosophy stuff was much more interesting when there was less of it, and when it was an option rather than an obligation.


Javier 06.28.04 at 9:33 pm

I hear a lot of trash talking about analytical philosophy, but I’m wondering about what alternatives people have in mind. Analytical philosophy does sometimes degenerate into petty, overly technical exercises of cleverness, but it also sustains invaluable intellectual habits: clarity and rigor. At its best, analytical philosophy can do some incredible work in clarifying propositions and helping us live up to our intuitions. That’s no small deal, especially considering the state of philosophical argumentation in other humanities departments.

So I would take analytical philosophy any day over any alternative models that I can think of.


Zizka 06.28.04 at 10:59 pm


Check out Stephen Toulmin and Michel Meyer.


Matt McGrattan 06.29.04 at 12:03 am


Perhaps I gave the mistaken impression that I was advocating scepticism in my comments above. I can see how I might have given that impression.

Epistemological modesty does seem appropriate in some circumstances but in others something much more like what you described as ‘reductionism’ above seems the correct approach.

And of course, in others, the correct approach ought to be to vigorously combat the skeptic.

My point, really, was that one might accept a sceptical or revisionist account of some domain of putative facts (but not others) without being temperamentally inclined to view that acceptance as a failure in some sense.


Javier 06.29.04 at 12:30 am


I’m familiar with some of Stephen Toulmin’s work, though not Meyer’s. I still am not quite sure what philosophy would look like if we all went along with Toulmin’s pragmatism. Would it simply become applied ethics? In that case, count me out.

I think that analytical philosophy’s subfields such as metaphysics and philosophy of mind do attempt to answer interesting questions and we should refrain from giving that pursuit up. Of course we may never arrive at a undisputed answer to such questions, but that hardly constitutes a reason to stop trying. And if we are going to try, then we should do so as rigorously as possible, which is what analytical philosophy is all about.

So I need to disagree with the view that questions such as “Are values objective?” or “can we explain consciousness within a naturalistic framework? ” are uninteresting and unimportant. Perhaps they won’t put food on the table or fix my car, but who cares? They are intrinsically interesting and that’s enough for me.


Zizka 06.29.04 at 1:09 am

Meyer actually speaks analytic language, while subverting it. “Rhetoric, Language, and Reason” is the best summary, but from an analytic point of view there are more technical things.

Toulmin’s best book is Cosmopolis. Basically it’s a critique of much of positivistic social science and philosophy. The question “Where to go from here” is not answered IIRC, but analytical philosophers never feel required to answer that question when they critique something either.

Prove that the things you talk about are “intrinsically interesting. I say that they aren’t”. Especially not interesting enough to monopolize the field.

As I said, analytic philosophy was more tolerable when there was less of it. Anti-analytic people aren’t necessarily asking that all analytic philosophy be burned and replaced with something else (though frankly I come pretty close). Mostly a bit more pluralism is wanted. You don’t just have to prove that analytic philosophy is OK, but that it’s much better than anything else. (Which on its own terms, of course, it is, but that’s begging the question).


Curtiss Leung 06.29.04 at 2:56 am

Analytic philosophy is clear and rigorous? That’s a laugh. I’ve found some analytics who live up to their marketing claims, but if the philosophical positions themselves are intrinsically obscure, no folksy or slovenly presentation is going make up for it (I’m thinking specifically of Saul Kripke here)

If the sort of thing Zizka is writing about “isn’t philosophy,” then so much the worse for philosophy!


Javier 06.29.04 at 2:57 am


If tradiitonal philosophical questions are uninteresting, then I am unclear on why tens of thousands of philosophers and non-philosophers puzzle over them daily or why so many great minds throughout history have attempted to provide answers to them. I certainly do not accept the view that it is simply a misguided obsession that leads us to ask such questions. Rather, I think it is natural in an important sense. People desire to know about the nature of the world around them and the truth (or justifiability, if you like) of various beliefs that they hold. Analytical philosophy as it is now practiced is an attempt to provide answers to traditional philosophical questions in the most rigorous and clear manner as is possible (of course, there is room for improvement on both of these scores). This does sometimes collapse into petty intellectual masturbation, but I think its worth the price.

Once again, give me concrete examples of what the practice of philosophy would look like on alternative models. Perhaps you would like philosophy departments to take more “continential” philosophy into the fold? If you dislike the inaccessibility of current analytical philosophy, that would be a puzzling choice.


Javier 06.29.04 at 3:08 am

Curtiss Leung,

I would just have to say that although individual works of analytical philosophy can be obscure and unrigorous, I would fall far short of condemning the whole tradition for these crimes. I’m thinking of the contrast between the people like Gadamer and Davidson or the early Habermas and Rawls. Perhaps you would disagree, but I see a big difference in clarity and rigor in the works of these authors, and their respective traditions. That doesn’t mean Gadamer and philosophers such as Heidegger have nothing interesting to say, only that there is a clear difference in the presentation of their points.


Zizka 06.29.04 at 3:32 am

Javier: I’m talking about analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophers have jettisoned most philosophy before about 1950 or so (some say, 1980), so don’t talk about “across history”. Old philosophy is what I read.

Most people think about contemporary analytic philosophy because they’re paid to or hope to be. A few read analytic philosophy because it’s sort of fun and they had to major in something.


Javier 06.29.04 at 3:37 am

Perhaps we are talking past each other. I’m thinking of Brian Leiter’s characterization of analytical philosophy: not a substantive research program, but a style of doing philosophy.

“Analytic” philosophy today names a style of doing philosophy, not a philosophical program or a set of substantive views. Analytic philosophers, crudely speaking, aim for argumentative clarity and precision; draw freely on the tools of logic; and often identify, professionally and intellectually, more closely with the sciences and mathematics, than with the humanities.



Zizka 06.29.04 at 3:39 am

Javier, I already gave you two examples. But if you want more, take a look at Justus Buchler’s “Metaphysics of Natural Complexes”. Or Rom Harre’s “Personal Being”. Or Ilya Prigogine’s “Order out of Chaos”. Or Steven Jay Gould’s “Wonderful Life” and “Time’s Cycle, Time’s Arrow”.

Continental philosophy os the lotal opposition, sort of like the Washington Generals. I do like Foucault.


Javier 06.29.04 at 3:43 am

And one other note: I object to the characterization of analytical philosophy as having jettisoned the history of philosophy. Take a look at most flagship analytical philosophy departments and there are plenty of historians of philosophy who also contribute to current debates. For instance, people like Korsgaard and Rawls are very far away from having jettisoned the history of philosophy. But maybe you don’t consider these philosophers to be analytical philosophers…


Zizka 06.29.04 at 3:45 am

I object to the monopoly of that style, especially because they allow themselves to bracket out any questions they don’t feel like dealing with, and because whenever they deal with anything outside their tradition they do so on the basis of a paraphrase into analytic-philosophy language which really misses the point.

The rigor of analytic philosophy is bought at the cost of arbitrarily narrowing the question to begin with. It’s sort of like a Potemkin village, perfect on the visible side.


McDuff 06.29.04 at 3:45 am

Perhaps they won’t put food on the table or fix my car, but who cares?


Oh, you meant “who cares about fixing the car?” Lots of people, generally. People with broken cars, for example. I know a couple of those, perhaps I should introduce you.

As I read on another blog today (I have forgotten where, perhaps it was even this one, and I’m far too lazy to find it now) intellectual masturbation is, like all other forms of masturbation, a lot of fun. When I was eighteen and excited by my newly developed intellect I had a lot of fun asking imponderable questions. I still enjoy, sometimes, sitting with new people and seeing if I can make them say things by suggesting the right questions and leading them down the philosophical paths I want them to go down — it’s a game I play with myself, so intellectual masturbation in the truest sense!

In my day to day life, however, I’m not an academic philosopher, so I gain no benefit from proving to myself or others how frightfully clever I am. I find these days that the question I ask more frequently than any others is “So what?” To misquote William James, “what concrete difference will the answer to this question make to my life?” To you, the unanswerable questions are interesting, and I am sure that you and I could have a jolly afternoon or two hashing over them. However, the idea of devoting more than an afternoon’s worth of time to these questions, especially were I forced to do it without a beautiful barmaid serving me beer (or an ugly barman, for that matter), seems incredibly tedious to me. Masturbation is a leisure activity, and those who do it for a living generally create porn, rather than fundamentally life changing works on the nature of humanity.

As I said earlier but should perhaps reiterate, I don’t believe for a second that all academic philosophy is in the waffly grip of the strokey beards, nor that strokey beards are in any sense restricted to the philosophy departments of our universities. Politics is fraught with them, and economics suffers from, in my experience, an overabundance of that dangerous creature, a strokey beard who believes that he is genuinely addressing a real world problem, when in fact he is presenting an imaginary solution to a fictional problem based on a fantastic cotton candy world.

Even professions which should produce grounded individuals capable of understanding that, whether the hammer is real or not, it still hurts when you miss the nail and hit your thumb, have their fair share of the “thinking” chap on the site, working his way through the works of Sartre and generally endangering everyone around him. Generally, they go off to become novelists or serial killers or televangelists, leaving the simple, “unthinking” people to get on with the boring and tedious task of digging stuff out of the ground and turning it into aeroplanes and computers.

Which, when you think about it, is pretty amazing. Not to disparage the meaning of life or anything, but in my opinion when we work it out it’ll have to be something pretty spectactular to be more interesting than turning sand into pornography, intellectual or otherwise.


Javier 06.29.04 at 5:26 am

As I read on another blog today (I have forgotten where, perhaps it was even this one, and I’m far too lazy to find it now) intellectual masturbation is, like all other forms of masturbation, a lot of fun.

And then there are people who sincerely want to find out whether their beliefs are true or not. I don’t pretend every professional philosopher is one of those, but I do believe that many qualify.


Zizka 06.29.04 at 3:17 pm

In my contact with analytic philosophers, I have not found a concern for “finding whether their beliefs are true”.

What I HAVE found is a desire to be the one who gets credit for establishing some sub-truth, or sub-sub-truth, or sub-sub-sub-truth. So if you end up definitively refuting Smith’s conjecture about Jones’s solution to Clark’s natural-kinds dilemma, then you get points.

The underlying myth is that at some point the detail work will add up to something big and rigorous, but the direction of movement is toward ever-smaller rigor. Every once in a long while someone proposes something big (by analytic-philosopher standards) but as soon as that happens (rarely) the dissection begins.


Lindsay Beyerstein 06.29.04 at 3:20 pm

Anxiety over the answer:shmanswer ratio usually touches off ruminations about professional decay. I think we need a less puritanical attitude towards shmanswers. Ted was frustrated that so much of philosophical life is taken up in relatively frivolous battles of wits. That’s one way to look at it. But we can borrow another analogy for Dennett, that of flipping all the switches and pulling all the knobs. His advice to his grad students (the same seminar that became the guinea pigs for “The Higher Order Truths of Chmess”) was to play out thought experiments to the fullest. Endless Twin Earth spinoffs are an example of this systematic approach. If you want to know what to think about Twin Earth, play it out in every possible variation: moral Twin Earth, Twin-Swamp-Earth….

I think we should take a more tolerant and optimistic view of schmanswers. They’re what we toss back and forth, sharpening our skills and waiting for new inspiration to strike. They’re a combination of play and basic research. They keep us in the game.

(P.S. How does CT’s followup/trackback feature work? I tried pinging the URL of the followups page, but to no avail.)


Javier 06.29.04 at 4:40 pm


I’ve guess we’ve met very different analytical philosophers. And once again I disagree with your characterization–analytical philosophers do quabble over technical details, but at least a fair number are capable of grasping and articulating the bigger picture. In Tom’s original post, he critiques analytical philosophy but he praises Nagel. But Nagel is certainly an analytical philosopher and he seems to be one among several who can grasp the “bigger” picture and the intersection between subfields, along with Lewis, Davidson, Williams, Nozick and more that I can’t think of right now.


Zizka 06.29.04 at 7:17 pm

Nagel is sort of a fossil and IIRC has expressed some of his own doubts about analytic philosophy. My recent experience of the field has been limited to picking up half a dozen current journals in the library once or twice a year and glancing through them.

In debates of this type, after “Continental philosophy” is suggested as the alternative to analytic philosophy, it is usually argued that analytic philosophers DO TOO write about big questions. Probably they do, but my big beef is that they mostly ignore anyone who doesn’t speak their dialect, and when they do address the non-analytics, they usually do so via a quick and not very careful paraphrase-translation into analyticspeak. The various philosophical styles are not “incommensurable”, but you do have to put some effort in.


dan 06.29.04 at 7:38 pm

A few comments:

zizka wrote: “The various philosophical styles are not ‘incommensurable’, but you do have to put some effort in.”

This remark, of course, cuts both ways. As an individual studying “analytic philosophy,” all too often what I take to be an interesting and worthwhile academic pursuit is dismissed by “continental philosophy” sympathizers (if we stick with this dichotomy) as pure logic chopping, and that, as a consequence of adopting that particular approach to philosophical problems, my course of study has somehow lost its heart and soul.

It may be worthwhile for one who is used to not having to identify and support explicitly the premises, inferences, and conclusions of their argument to try it out once in a while, just as it may be worthwhile for those analytically trained to step back from the minutia of detailed technical problems and take stock of the broader picture.

As to fixing cars, I think that critique applies to most academic disciplines; it is not a critique unique to philosophy – analytic or continental. Also, most academics I know aren’t going hungry.

Finally, calling any academic discpline “mental masturbation” is not an argument. If this crude characterization is meant to summarize the critique that academics are simply self-fulfiling self-indulgent individuals who make no contribution to society, then my response is simply: if, as a professor, I can help a handful of students in every class to think more critically about their beliefs and the world around them, then I think I’ve made a tangible and positive contribution to society.


Nicole Wyatt 06.29.04 at 11:01 pm

Two comments:

First, the thing about academic disciplines is that it is notoriously difficult to identify ahead of time which esoteric problems will turn out to make a difference to peoples lives and which won’t. On the face of it, showing first order logic to be undecidable might well have looked like a pretty abstract problem that wouldn’t make a concrete difference in people’s lives — and yet here I am, using a network of these computer things. Frankly, I’m glad Turing didn’t worry too much about making a concrete difference.

Secondly, the best thing about modern civilization is that it creates free time to do possibly unimportant things. Frankly, the whole notion that everyone has an obligation to make a positive contribution to society strikes me as a left over religous impulse. Doing philosophy comes down to this for me: I enjoy it. I happen to be able to make a living doing it. Go me. Yeah, I know, I’m a social reprobate.


spacetoast 06.30.04 at 12:19 pm

Ok, two more cents. I had my bit with philosophy as an undergraduate, and how that went was that I came in for the masturbation, got seduced by the possibility of “answers,” and became gradually disenchanted for reasons more or less like what people have already said. Ultimately I felt like philosophers were often more interested in cultivating intricate technical structures and objectioning about their logical features than in trying to develop more fine-grained conceptions of the things they claimed to be talking about. In the broad sense, I feel Nagel’s pain, I guess, although in my estimate it crosscuts the issue of “reductionism” (in the narrower sense), and Nagel’s book more or less makes an excuse of it for advocating a pretty garden variety “dualism by any other name,” which I don’t find congenial or illuminating. I find philosophy most interesting and/or useful where it’s in relatively the same debate-space as some discipline with established strategies for testing ideas against things besides reason and “intuitions”–cognitive science, biology, whatever… but anyway I wasn’t either clever enough for or tempermentally suited to games of logic and definition-mongering for their own sake, particularly having gone past the masturbatorial interest. My fundamental instinct, I guess, is to try to understand a phenomenon by going groping after it, whereas the philosophical MO, from my point of view, is to set logical traps and hope it comes along. I am ultimately glad though to have spent the time studying philosophy I did. I definitely had particular professors I admired the hell out of and learned a lot from, and I generally have a great deal of respect for what philosophers do, when I do, and I’m sure I’ll continue to maintain an interest in what they have to say about various things.

By the same token, I’m pretty disheartened to see how some folks have responded to the allegation of masturbation here. “It’s fun” and “You never know what you’re going to get,” and other morals from boxes of chocolates, are just as good reasons for finger-painting and nose-picking, it seems to me. Pretty weak stuff, even for innernut fair, coming from actual philosophers.

Another thing. I don’t find eliminativism at all attractive, and various things, particularly considerations about reference raised in Deconstructing the Mind, and by Stich and other writers in subsequent things, encircle and deflate eliminativism more or less to my satisfaction, but I think there’s a real complacency in saying it’s “obviously wrong,” which really ought to be (at least) “bad form” in serious philosophical discussions.


Zizka 06.30.04 at 2:26 pm

Thread still alive!?!

As I said earlier, analytic philosophy was probably a better thing when there wasn’t quite so much of it, and especially when it didn’t have the monopoly it does. I was never protesting the very existence of analytic philosophy, but its suffocating dominance.

I REALLY do not think that, going into their third or fourth generation and master of all they survey, analytic philosophers can continue to make their pretenses of modesty, as if they were eccentric hobbyists under fierce attack from know-nothing populists.

This is outgrowing the blog-comment format, obviously, but as for the analytic method, there’s what I call an overwhelming analytic bias at the expense of any holism. (I actually do not count Nozick or Rawls as analytics, BTW, because they do NOT have this bias — Rorty said something like that about Rawls, BTW). The method is to apply the most rigorous analysis to every part of a large argument, critiquing it and testing for possible problems with the goal of perfection, and then going down the line to the parts of the parts, etc.

As a counterexample, in actual scientific theorizing (and analytic phil has a strong positivistic streak) the major argument is the important thing, and the imperfection of the parts is sometimes just tolerated. For two examples, calculus was used for something like two centuries while it still had a fatal flaw (the real infinitesimal, problem solved in the XIX c., as I understand, by Dedekind). The second is classical mechanics (astronomical physics), which really only ever worked well for two bodies (the Sun + the Earth, for example). Astronomers were unabashed and rolled right ahead, but then in ca. 1900 Poincare proved that the three-body problem was insoluble. All real calculations of planetary movement are (and always will be) done by kludgy, inelegant, but usable methods of approximation.

Now my point is not that people shouldn’t have been thinking about the real infinitesimal and three-body problems. My point is that the holistic theorists (people **using** calculus and describing astronomical motions) were quite right to go ahead working with these defective, imperfect, and “untrue” tools. And to me (with exceptions such as Nozick and Rawls) analytic philosophers almost exclusively work at the “real-infinitesimal” end of the scale, rather than at the “using calculus, albeit imperfect” end of the scale.

Incidentally, Meyers’ solution to the eliminativist dilemma would be to point out that ontology itself is the problem. It’s like the question of whether molecules are ontologically real, or are they just made up of atoms. The answer is that it depends on what you’re trying to say.


Javier 06.30.04 at 4:38 pm

Okay, one last post and then I’m out.

I call an overwhelming analytic bias at the expense of any holism. (I actually do not count Nozick or Rawls as analytics, BTW, because they do NOT have this bias — Rorty said something like that about Rawls, BTW)

So according to this, analytical philosophers are by definition focused only on narrow technical matters. And when an analytical philosopher takes a stab at “holism,” he or she ceases to be an analytical philosopher.

Kind of stacks the deck against analytical philosophy, don’t you think?

I think its far more plausible to say that Rawls, Nozick, Davidson and the like are analytical philosophers that attempt to articulate and examine the bigger picture.


Zizka 06.30.04 at 5:07 pm

Based on my reading of the journals I look at, they’re highly atypical.

In the case of Rawls, Rorty said as much(“would have been much the same as if analytic philosophy never had existed”, paraphrase) , and I don’t see why it wouldn’t apply to Nozick (who in any case I do not admire). I’m unfamiliar with Davidson’s work.


Javier 06.30.04 at 6:05 pm

This is irresistable, so I will allow myself one more comment:

First, I seriously disagree with Rorty. What doe he expect someone like Rawls to do? By all accounts, Rawls has had an enormous effect on analytical political philosophy. Most analytic political philosophers developed their views through a critical engagement with Rawls’ work. So analytical philosophy would definitely not have been the same if Rawls had never published anything.

Second, Davidson was a well-known analytical philosopher who developed a wide-ranging set of positions in the philosophy of language, mind, action theory, and so on. It is telling that you aren’t familiar with Davidson, especially given that Rorty has appropriated a great deal of Davidson’s work for his own purposes.

Flipping through a few journals won’t tell you much about the state of analytical philosophy. So I suggest you read up on the field before you attack it.


vivian 06.30.04 at 6:07 pm


It sounds like you’re opposed to analytic philosophers, not the philosophy. Your objection is to the narrow-minded individuals in groups who insult and stifle other forms of discourse and thought in journals and departments. It’s a criticism I share, many people share with you, and the world (and the ivory tower) would be a better place with more variety and more collegiality, and fewer petty bureaucrats concerned with status and gatekeeping than arguments and ideas.

There are the same sort of narrow minds in other forms of philosophy, however, and other fields altogether. Although they often have much less power to enforce their dominance on the field, they are just as disappointing.

I’d rather you judged the analytic style on its proudest achievements, not its most embarrassing gatekeeping, but hey, it’s your opinion, base it on what you like. But you have not yet convinced me that I should not try to write clearly on manageably-sized topics, aiming for incremental progress. As long as we defend our colleagues from other approaches, in faculty meetings and peer review.

You (you of all people?) would really enjoy some Donald Davidson, however. He wrote clearly, but not reductively, on some extremely complex problems of language and translatability. He was also rather unpopular, partly because he did other things well, not just philosophy – screenwriting, for instance. Read one of the obituaries – he only died in the last year or so. There was even a link on CT as I recall.


Zizka 06.30.04 at 7:04 pm

Javier, your air of victimization is annoying. I’m the one who’s excluded, not you. I’ve reiterated this point several times.

Rorty’s point (my cite was poor) was that Rawls’ own work was not done by analytic methods. He did give something for analytics to work on, and they did. If there were more Rawlses and even Nozicks, I might not be saying these things.

Flipping through some journals tells a lot in any field. For example, I just spent a couple days flipping through world history and Asian History journals and was highly impressed.

I also have a degree of contact with a local philosophy department, and with friends with various relationships to graduate schools, as I said, some of whom agree with me and some not.

As I said, analytic philosophers seem to reflexively make problems smaller in order to make them more managable and more rigorous. The outward movement, which I rarely see, is equally valuable but is really not encouraged at all. I compare indie drivers, whose cars only can only turn left. I’m not against turning left (the analytic movement), I’m against always turning left.

Werll, yeah, about the gatekeepers, but it’s not as if that’s a casual peripheral point, it’s my main point. Analytic philosophy is not good enough to have the dominance it does. And in my experience, analytic philosophers are unwilling and unable to consider ideas coming from elsewhere — many even are uninterested in and uninformed about their own intellectual ancestors before about 1950.


Javier 06.30.04 at 10:30 pm

Zizka, I apologize for my last post. It was condescending and snotty. Sorry, it just came off wrong. I think I won’t comment on your final post, as you already know what my position is and there is no point going on about it. But thanks for the interesting discussion, it at least helped me clarify my own position.


FaramirFan 07.01.04 at 12:46 am

I think that “German Charlie” expresses most closely my own sentiment in debates like this one: “The philosophers have only criticized the world. The point is to change it.” They are fun to read, though!


vonmises 07.01.04 at 9:12 pm

The point of analytic philosophy is to make compelling arguments, where ‘compellingness’ is measured in how much an argument attracts critics and reformulations by other (analytic) philosophers. That’s essentially the whole ballgame.

To be compelling, an argument’s conclusions don’t have to be (and largely aren’t — see David Lewis or Quine’s major theses) embraced by anyone. Compelling arguments are hit singles for philosophers.

Arguments for conclusions that change one’s view of the way the world is, in some sense, have largely in the 20th and 21st centuries, come from outside philosophy: physics, linguistics (Chomsky), psychology, religion (fundamentalisms of various sorts).

Who has had more of an impact on the way people experience the world, for better or worse: Rawls or Albert Wolhstetter, (on Wohlstetter, Rand theorist and mentor to Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, see http://www.rand.org/publications/classics/wohlstetter/index.html)

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