On the Value of Analytic Philosophy

Two years have now passed since I abandoned the study of analytic philosophy and turned to history, a discipline with fundamentally different aims and methods, even when, as in my case, the historical subject matter is philosophy itself. This change of focus has given me the opportunity to reflect with hindsight on the academic and intellectual value of analytic philosophy as a subject, and the value of the skills acquired therefrom when applied in other domains of enquiry.

John R. Milton, who taught me history of science at King's College, London, once remarked that analytic philosophy has some striking similarities to medieval scholasticism, both good and bad. On the whole, I think there is much truth in this. Like medieval scholasticism, analytic philosophy demands from its practitioners a high degree of intellectual rigor and clarity. Commendably, the scholastics spent a great deal of time attacking their own positions in order to improve and solidify them, and this practice also characterises the best of analytic philosophy, which examines itself and its methods to a degree that is rare in other fields.

Like the philosophy of medieval schoolmen such as Ockham and Scotus, analytic philosophy, as it is taught, is exclusively textual. The object of study is always one or more texts containing philosophical arguments where the tools of logic are used to tackle the often difficult and invariably abstract problems therein. Typical undergraduate training in philosophy involves three or more years closely analysing dense, complicated works of philosophy containing arguments often formulated with sophisticated but implicit premises and inferences. The student learns how to analyse the coherence of these arguments by questioning their premises and searching for flaws in the logical superstructure derived from them. Properly taught and pursued, the study of analytic philosophy should result in a high degree of critical and argumentative skill reflected in increased skepticism, suspicion of demagogic arguments, resistance to inferential fallacies, clear and succinct powers of expression and an ability to get directly to the heart of any given problem. These are all highly valuable skills, applicable in most occupations. In fact, the general problem-solving abilities produced by philosophical training are in my view highly undervalued by employers, who often suffer from the widespread misconception that philosophy is a “fuzzy” subject and that philosophers are somehow preoccupied with vague and unanswerable questions about “the Meaning of Life.” When I attend family reunions and tell people I study philosophy, I invariably get a quizzical look followed by the question “What do you do with that?” I usually reply that I think deep thoughts about the nature of unemployment.

“We're all scholars of the humanities,” a friend of mine remarked recently, but the kinship between the analytic philosopher and the literary analyst is a tenuous one. In truth, analytic philosophy co-exists uneasily alongside the other humanities. This is something that its practitioners are generally aware of, although there is of course a widespread realisation that in some sense, like history or literary studies, the subject matter of philosophy is and should be man himself. At the same time, however, many analytic philosophers believe themselves to be addressing problems of a fundamentally universal nature. This Platonic strain – the belief that some/many/most philosophical problems exist in vacuo as an intrinsic byproduct of the nature of reality, only incidentally dependent on the nature of man – is an aspect of analytic philosophy that distances it from other humanities. Most historians, for example, recognise that their subject matter is arbitrary and depends on very human factors: every object in the world, every particle of matter, has a history, but historians choose to study only the activities of human beings, and even then confine themselves to certain limited categories of activities deemed pertinent. The analytic philosopher, on the other hand, will typically believe that he is tackling perennial problems that exist independently of the social and cultural context in which they were raised.

Now, I do not wish to defend the theory that all philosophical problems are merely byproducts of contingent cultural and linguistic circumstances. This is, however, true of many of them, especially in the more “human” branches of philosophy – ethics and political philosophy. It is the very failure to realise this – i.e. the “unembedded” nature of the modern analytic philosophical enterprise -- that renders philosophy so alien and irrelevant to real human concerns. Perusing an academic journal of modern Anglophone political philosophy, one finds article upon article implicitly or explicitly justifying and demonstrating the overall excellence of the liberal democratic order enjoyed in Western – and especially Anglophone -- society, while containing not a single argument that is remotely convincing to anyone who is not already firmly dedicated to the underlying principles that make up the very essence of this order. The whole enterprise is strictly a priori and circular in its reasoning. It is, in fact, a form of intellectual masturbation achieved by complex and impressive mental acrobatics. While arguments abound, there is no possible evidence that would persuade adherents of rival political philosophical positions to abandon them. This typically extends just as much to other branches of philosophy: Indeed, the problems of modern analytic philosophy are deemed philosophical precisely because no such evidence is available. Given the right premises, the highly intelligent people who go on to academic careers in philosophy could reach any conclusion they wished: However, the set of acceptable premises on which to build is strictly delimited by an academic orthodoxy that is ignored only at one's peril. As a result, making original contributions to major philosophical debates requires an unusually high degree of intelligence and an inordinate amount of dry and uncreative, but unforgivingly rigorous thinking: it is, after all, difficult to squeeze water from a stone. The parallels with late scholastic philosophy are obvious.

It is perhaps because of this desiccated academic consensus that philosophy has, as John Gray puts it, become a “culturally marginal activity” (Gray 1995). Few contemporary philosophers engage with problems that are pertinent or interesting to the thoughtful and curious non-philosopher, much less ordinary people, choosing instead to play a never-ending game of justificatory sophistry. Consequently, the edifice of modern analytic philosophy consists of enormous, logically impeccable and intellectually impressive castles built on foundations that are either taken for granted or explicitly accepted as foundational. Nowhere, I repeat, is this more evident than in ethics and political philosophy, where most philosophers do little to inform the very real and highly important public debates on moral issues, and when they do, they do so largely in a non-philosophical capacity. It is scarcely surprising that when most people search for justice, meaning and intellectual guidance in life, it is not to academic philosophers they turn but to demagogues, charlatans or the mass-produced self-help books that litter the stands of modern bookstores. Modern analytic philosophy is a culturally bankrupt discipline, rendered incestuous and irrelevant by the ivory tower in which it dwells.

For all its merits, it is due to the factors outlined above that I no longer study philosophy as such – that is to say, my academic work is no longer concerned with finding true possible answers to philosophical questions (or pointing out the faults in other philosophers' attempts to do so). Rather, I study the historical development of the practice of philosophy, and the context in which philosophy is produced. This requires a completely different methodological approach to philosophical texts than that which I was taught in my years as a student of philosophy. When I now read a philosophical text, I no longer ask myself whether its contents are true. Rather, I am concerned with understanding why the author should choose to accept the principles and make use of the arguments he does, looking for evidence of the influence of previous thinkers and social circumstances -- a form of understanding that is alien to the analytic philosopher, who as a rule is concerned only with what makes arguments correct and acceptable as such. This is not, however, to say that the historical approach to philosophy is without its faults. Indeed, a great deal of otherwise valuable historical work is produced with a dazzling philosophical naiveté with respect to the nature of the historical enterprise and the underlying methodological problems facing historical enquiry. Thankfully, my training in analytic philosophy has rendered me more sensitive to these issues than I might otherwise have been. In the end, however, the self-consciously relative nature of modern historical enquiry produces an understanding of philosophy that is somehow more human and more gratifying than that of the analytic tradition.

March 25th 2009