Monday, May 24, 2021


Liam Kofi Bright has a nice post, The End of Analytic Philosophy, laying out a rough argument that analytic philosophy is in a state of deterioration and attempting to diagnose it. I am not wholly convinced by parts of the diagnosis, although some of it I think is surely in the vicinity.

We have some rough notion from history of the kinds of things that indicate a philosophical approach or movement in decline. Analytic philosophy has shown for some time the signs that typically indicate a philosophical approach in a state of deterioration. Thirteen years ago (!) here on the blog I argued that this was the case, and Bright's argument gives me an opportunity to review the argument:

...people who self-identify as analytic philosophers have a very bad habit of flattering themselves in the mirror: they are clear, they are rational, they are substantive, etc., etc. It is not exclusive to them, of course; but it does tend to increase the exasperation of others. I am sympathetic to this; I get exasperated by it myself. I also am inclined to think that it is all a sign, one of many, that "analytic philosophy" as a philosophical tradition is in the process of dissolving. None of the former views of analysis that allowed some sort of agreement in philosophical approach have panned out; none of the compromises for weak alliances between such views that have been attempted have particularly satisfied anybody; nothing now unites 'analytic philosophers' in a philosophical 'project' except some commonalities in how they were educated and a slowly shifting collection of texts that act more-or-less as common sources of vocabulary and rhetorical formats.

It has always been an analytic conceit that good philosophy has always been analytic; but when, for instance, A. J. Ayer said it, he meant something that could be pinned down precisely, subjected to rigorous examination, and seriously evaluated. Now you find defenses of the idea becoming more and more amorphous and subjective in nature. Such syncretistic moves usually are suggestive either of pressures to form alliances and increase general appeal (a sign of increasing weakness and incohesion), or an increasing disinterest in the original core projects that ground the family resemblances of participants (people try to get more and more of their pet interests characterized as legitimate or 'philosophically interesting' or 'substantive' by loosening the requirements and extending terms until there ceases to be a real unity under the verbal one), or both. My own guess is the second of these. We have, in the past forty years, seen an immense expansion in the topics considered by people considering themselves analytic philosophers; throughout a great deal of this time there has been a great pressure on people trying to publish on more marginal topics or figures to argue that their subject of discussion is 'philosophically relevant' or has some special link to some hot topic of the day. When a fad becomes hot, everyone tries to cash in on the craze, whatever their favored topic or approach; it's a matter of academic survival. And thus we have concept inflation: the unifying key words (analysis, simplicity, clarity, etc.) have to expand to cover so many different things that they no longer have clear meaning. From here there are really only two likely paths: either the whole thing will simply collapse, everyone leaping from the sinking ship in disgust, or there will be a reformation, a new rallying, or a series of rallyings, under a banner or two or three....

Some of this holds up, although I think some of it could have been explained better. The self-flattery which I indicated was a sign of deterioration is a result of the increasing amorphousness that I mention in the second paragraph, a more fundamental sign of deterioration, and the latter has certainly grown, although I think Bright is right that the self-flattery has been flipping to self-recrimination, the manic flipping over into the depressive. I still think my post was right that, of the two usual causes of this kind of thing, the probable cause of this is increasing disinterest in the original core projects rather than a need to form alliances. Contemporary analytic philosophy as a whole is much more like Baroque scholasticism (interests expanding far beyond the capacity to keep handling them all in one approach) than like Indian philosophy in early Neo-Hinduism (weakness from divisions requiring forming alliances with other, sometimes very different, approaches); as Liam quite rightly notes, analytic philosophy is not in a position of weakness within its own domain, and this is if anything even more true now than it was then.

What I did not identify thirteen years ago*, but which is certainly operative and which Liam mentions as part of his discussion, is the infrastructural problem. Analytic philosophy's strength is becoming a weakness, like armor that is weighing down a drowning man. It is heavily tied to, and highly suitable for, academic life in universities. But that infrastructure is itself deteriorating, for a large number of reasons -- overextension, immoderation in graduate school admissions, adjunctification, administrator multiplication, consumerist mentality, alienation of local communities, practical stupidity of academics in chasing after fads, multiplication of useless requirements that interfere with what academia does best (exploring), external causes like economic crunches and pandemics -- there is undeniably enough blame to go around several times over. But regardless, as a causal matter, the deterioration of the general infrastructure of academic life has been accelerating, and I think this has accelerated problems that were already showing.

There is in fact not cause for total pessimism; even an approach in deterioration can produce good work -- sometimes (although usually not consistently) even better than some of the classical work of its heyday. I mentioned thirteen years ago that sometimes deteriorating approaches undergo reforms that revitalize them; this seems less likely for analytical philosophy today than it did then, although there was a period where modal logic and metaphysics looked like it might bring such reform, and for all anyone can say, it perhaps still could. Sometimes local or cultural pride in an approach holds it together externally despite its internal deteriorations, although it's difficult to imagine that there are all that many people who are proud of analytic philosophy as a component of their cultural or local atmosphere, and I agree with Liam that the 'applied turn' is not likely to do much in giving analytic philosophy that kind of space to recuperate. Academics are not the kind of people who can do an applied turn effectively, nor are they in a position to do it effectively as long as they are academics; it would be different if analytic philosophy had a significant non-academic following that could then have its time to shine, but you can't bootstrap one into existence.

Philosophy as such, of course, is not under any threat. It has survived infrastructural collapses far more catastrophic than what would likely kill analytic philosophy in particular; analytic philosophy's position has been in great measure because it has been heavily subsidized through the universities of some of the richest nations in the world, but there many philosophical approaches that have survived without much subsidy of that sort. But Bright is right that there is no obvious successor, if analytic philosophy dwindles out. Things could go anywhere.


* Actually, I discovered after publishing the above that while I did not identify it thirteen years ago, I mentioned it twelve years ago:

My own view, by the way, not that anyone really cares, is that analytic philosophy is not in a healthy state, but is slowly collapsing, mostly due to serious inadequacies in the academic infrastructure that carries it, but partly also due to the fact that people are not really engaging in a cooperative venture -- people cannibalize and build on each other's work, but they do it mostly from scratch, again and again. There is simply not enough unity to have a collective anything; we are entering an era of Ten Thousand schools. And because of that, no one is really tracing out the ramifications of the detail-work people do (which in fact is only at the very top levels "more rigorous and detailed" than what people have been doing for decades now). This is precisely what would be avoided if philosophers took the trouble to have philosophies, and worked with those who had similar philosophies, but still specialized in particular areas; this is the only way I can think of in which the result McMahan is hoping for has ever actually come about: specialization inevitably collapses unless people have sufficient unity of opinion with each other to allow specializations to fit together and cross-fertilize. Moreover, I think a telltale sign is that what goes by the name of analytic philosophy has been steadily becoming more amorphous for decades now, with older terms -- like 'analysis' and 'analytic' themselves, to such a degree that it's difficult to say what 'analytic philosophy' is supposed to be -- being stretched farther and farther in a sort of concept inflation. This, too, has often been a bad sign in history, because it eventually reaches a point where all the major similarities and agreements are purely verbal and begin to be recognized as such. Of course, this is also often the very sign that people take to show that analytic philosophy is flourishing, using different words from 'amorphous' and 'concept inflation'; time will tell, I suppose. But at present it seems to me that such claims as the above have little more substance than a self-satisfied pat on one's own back.