Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Mailbag: The Anti-Analytic Reader

I just received a very odd email with the subject heading "Regarding your website (and your education)":
It seems to me that you haven't read any Nietzsche. You should. You'd start to realize how ridiculous your methods of argumentation really are. There is no such thing as a logical proof of any philosophical idea, so why do you continue to argue in a manner like that? There are only perspectives that can be argued for and your method of argumentation is about as cold, dreary, and unpersuasive as I've ever seen. Hey, let's go form new terms and then produce some verbal wank with them. Yay! Here, I'll call this well-being and this happiness and this pleasure and blah, blah, blah blah blah.... And then worse, your type feel like you're doing something important!

Expand your mind beyond the old philosophy. Check out some continental.

Sorry about the polemical tone. I just read several of your posts and they are truly ridiculous. Have you not heard? Language was not given by God; it has no set meaning; it started as warning signals between monkeys about different types of predators that were in the area. All it can do is signal to phenomenon in the world. And when you debate like you and your friends do then you're just mixing around different definitions and playing games with language. You're not actually accomplishing anything but mental and verbal masturbation!

Hence the 20th century rise of phenomenology (and please don't even try to say that Kant was performing phenomenology) - the attempt to actually explain what's going on in the world, not just the mixing and matching of words and concepts with no real connection to the world. There is such fucking thing as a util!

The tradition had a crisis. Some people have dealt with it and learned from it and continued to push philosophy forward. And some people have just stopped dead in the water - not even realizing the utter absurdity they call "philosophical inquiry."

Once again, sorry for the polemic - but learn from it...
[name redacted]

p.s. I wrote the above under the assumption that you were a grad student, but if this is incorrect then it explains everything. And in the latter case, please, before you graduate, expand your thought process beyond Kant and Mill - their days of credibility are long past.

What tripe - last I checked, analytic philosophy was flourishing in the English-speaking world (and even making some inroads into France, I believe). And was he trying to prove to me that there is "no such thing as a logical proof of any philosophical idea"? And if not, if it's just his "perspective", then why on earth should I listen to that? (Here we see that analytic philosophy is one of those invincible ideas I was talking about last month.)

And yes, I'm just an undergraduate, though I'm not sure how that "explains" my choice of discipline. The implication seems to be that anyone more familiar with the discipline would soon abandon it in favour of studying woolly-headed continental types. Though if my correspondent here is a representative product of this alternative "education", I'm sure you'll understand if I'm less than tempted to follow in his footsteps.


  1. Haha like a theoretical follower of Nietzsche he is unable to tell you his idea without making you want to oppose it. Thus one has to wonder why he even bothered.

    He has a few points in there that I might agree with - but its obscured by his "verbal wanking".

  2. Don't make the mistake of automatically dismissing ideas that you disagree with, even if they are not well formulated or presented.

    I find this philosophical arrogance repugnant from both sides, even those arguing for more open mindedness.

  3. I think the person errs in thinking logic has little to do with continental philosophy as well. While there clearly is a big difference between logical analysis and phenomenology, the differences aren't as big as what some suggest. Indeed they are often so similar that people can confuse the two. (The famous ongoing debate between John Searle and Herbert Dreyfus is a great example of that)

    Further, as Ian says, many of the positions considered characteristic of Continental philosophy (especially various kinds of holism) can be found in figures like Quine or Davidson. Likewise "paradigms" are erroneously tied to postmodernism. Yet Kuhn himself was a neo-Kantian and not a postmodernist. Likewise Carnap's frameworks are very similar in many ways. (Unfortunately I'm not as versed on Carnap as I ought be - although friends keep bringing him up and I find his comments often intriguing)

  4. That's good to know. (I'd actually be vaguely interested to learn more about continental philosophy at some point. Though of course receiving obnoxious emails like the one above does little to entice me. If my [admittedly ignorant] blanket dismissal of "woolly-headed types" does not really reflect much continental philosophy, then consider the insult to be more tightly directed at the likes of the emailer.)

  5. Generally people who write obnoxious notes like this have either (a) been exposed to only a bit of Continental philosophy and simply are doing the "my team is best" thing or (b) are from some English or Lit department rather than a formal philosophy department.

    I've found that a lot of people at Berkeley fall into the "my team is best" sort of shallow thinking. (Even if they have been exposed to more diverse thought than I let on) It's a common feature of people I've met from Berkeley. I don't mean to knock Berkeley. I came pretty close to going there for grad school and think a lot of it as a school. But there definitely are some annoying features of things over there.

    I should also add that analytic philosophers outdo the worst of continental thinkers in this "my team is best" idiotic comments. I can think of one major blog praising the death of Ricoeur because he happens to be associated by some with postmodernism. (Even though he differed with Derrida and Heidegger on some of the issues that people find distasteful about postmodernism)

  6. I don't think it's just the "divide" (a concept I dislike since it obscures the diversity on both sides as well as the similarities of various positions such as holism, contextualism, etc.) I think positions like to disparage other positions. Thus almost everyone disparages the positivists. (I frequently think they deserve it, but friends have pointed out that Carnap is rather misunderstood and neglected) Lots of people tend to disparage Russell. I think that at times even in narrow topics with the structure of the discourse set up things can get heated. Whether it is internalism vs. externalism of meaning or justification or whatever.

    Despite liking to portray themselves as rational well reasoning people, the mere fact that that our decisions of what position to take often entail subjective aesthetic decisions tends to mean that when logic fails heat enters in. We all recall the discussion of philosophy as a bloodsport from last year. I think there is a lot of truth to it. That gap beyond what we can prove is where the nastiness enters in. It's even worse when the "other" is relatively little understood by us.

  7. This is not uncommon. The incredible hostility that analytic philosophy recieves among students these days is deeply, deeply disappointing. The contemptible confidence with which these anti-analytic types, and many 'intellectuals', deride it, shows just how badly they misunderstand philosophy. They treat it like a branch of literature, and love to quote phrases, rather than aguments.

    I think part of the problem is that very few people outside the philosophic community understand why, and in what way, philosophy is useful. They tend to read it very literally (and literary-ly), looking for final answers and rousing declarations, rather than clarity or analysis. Or they think philosophy is trying to compete with science, politics, psychology or the arts, and leap at what they think are incredible claims for a person with no laboratory, to make. The easy appeal of idealism and phenomenology is possibly a consequence of a most pernicious intellectual trap: that if an argument's form is valid, it's conclusion is true, and that premises are true if they can be thought.

    I admittedly speak boldly in saying this, but I think the history of ideas (and the failures and successes of various ones) justifies the biases and methods of analytic philosophy very convincingly. Analytic philosophy did have its crisis, but I think the tradition has survived it chastened (though I do think there tends to be triviality in some of what's published). It's revealing about the lack of understanding of the types who make comments like this, that they often think anal. phil. is about semantics. I don't think any analytic philosopher today still treats language the way a geologist treats a rock. And even in the heyday of language-focus, it wasn't mere semantics.

    Continental philosophy (specifically idealism and phenomenology) surely suffers more accutely from the faults it finds in Anglo-Saxon phil. I haven't studied a lot of Continental works in detail, but it all seems like a bunch of self-refential metaphors, to me. Useful ones, perhaps (well in the same way that a mnemonic is useful), but epistemically hollow and, metaphysically, much too extravagant. Yet some works are treated like scientific models by their more fervent adherents.

    I've always viewed philosophy's role as being to clarify concepts, analyse beliefs, and address epistemic and exisential problems. I wonder if it can really do anything else, considering that other disciplines do the stuff that philosophers used to do, far better. But that in itself is a massive ambit, because it informs belief, possibly action, and critiques our epistemic certainties. The beauty of anal. phil's approach to this endeavour is that it consciously considers what we can take for granted as 'certain enough' before proceding to make claims.


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