Friday, October 22, 2004

Family Resemblance Philosophers

Brian Leiter and Jerry Fodor had an email exchange in which they discussed the definition of analytic philosophy. I find it a bit odd that Fodor, of all people, wants to give something like a definition for this sort of concept, and I imagine anyone familiar with Fodor's work on concepts, and his belief that only a few primitive concepts have definitions will be as well. Is analytic philosophy a conceptual primitve? Anyway, I can't help but wonder how genuine Leiter's incredulity really is. I can't imagine someone as bright as he is doesn't understand that "analytic philosophy" isn't a category meant to capture some essential property, be it a doctrinal or methodological one, common to every instance it captures. One might be able to provide a strictly historical definition, placing philosophers in a tradition by their influences and their scope, but that project would probably fall apart pretty quicly, particularly at the beginning (with Frege, Russell, and the like) and the end (how much are Alva Noë and Hubert Dreyfus working within the tradition that began with Frege and moved through the logical positivists to Quine, Strawson, or Ryle, and on to Dennett, Chalmers, or... Fodor, vs. the tradition that runs from Brentano through Husserl to Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty?). Perhaps we're just going about this the wrong way, and my suspicion is that Leiter is well aware of this.

By the time I was in my second year of college, I think I had a pretty good idea about which philosophers were doing what people, be they students or professors, pretty regularly called "analytic philosophy" or "continental philosophy." To be sure, even then, if I had been asked to define either category, my answer would have been similar to Justice Potter Stewart's in reference to what "hard-core pornography was: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced [by the concept of "Analytic Philosophy"]... but I know it when I see it." And I do know it when I see it.

The whole discussion between Leiter and Fodor reminds me of the discussions I used to have, again with professors and other students, about what "postmodernism" was. The term seemed to make a lot of sense in art, because it was a strictly historical term there, but in philosophy, it seemed to be both a historical term (philosophy after modern philosophy; radiczlized modern philosophy) and a doctrinal one. Yet, then as now, I would have been hard pressed to pin down any doctrine that constituted a necessary and sufficient feature of "postmodern philosophy." The problem, with concepts like "postmodernism," "analytic philosophy," "continental philosophy," or even "modern philosophy" (to say nothing of "pornography!") is that these aren't concepts that are meant to have a clearly distinguished set of necessary and sufficient features. They are family resemblance categories, in which there is no single common attribute, but each member shares at least one attribute with the others, and members tend to share more attributes than non-members. In that way, they're like pretty much every other kind of category, particularly those that aren't "Natural Kinds."

What attributes are analytic philosophers likely to share? Well, there's the historical attribute, which I've already mentioned. There are doctrinal attributes that many share, such as the ones noted by Fodor, as well as scientism and a close connection to the sciences, a distrust of metaphysics, or at least non-realist metaphysics, a sort-of Kantian approach to language and perception, or at least, a linguistic approach to the problems raised by the First Critique, etc. - the sorts of things criticized by Fodor, as well as J. L. Austin and the non-Kripkenstein Wittgenstein. There are also methodological attributes that many share, including a focus on clarity and structure, logical argumentation, often with case-by-case analyses (including counterfactual cases), a focus on sub-areas and sub-problems, and the attention to detail and focus on certainty over generality that goes with that, and an overall desire to write and think like 20th century scientists1. Obviously, no analytic philosopher embodies each of these attributes, but analytic philosophers will tend to embody more of them than non-analytic philosophers2.

The of this whole exercise, and Leiter's likely feigned confusion, escapes me. I'm just blogging about it because, well, I have a blog, and I blog about whatever I want. I doubt many people are surprised when Jerry Fodor, Donald Davidson, or W. V. Quine are referred to as "analytic philosophers," any more than they are surprised when Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, or Jean-Francois Lyotard are referred to as "continental philosophers." The distinctions aren't meant to carry serious philosophical weight, and can't imagine that anyone thinks they are. Still, they make for practical rhetorical tools, and if anyone is really confused by the terminology, perhaps they might consider why they're not confused by the use of such labels, which don't admit simple definitions, in virtually every other intellectual field.

1 I still think the best description of an analytic philosopher ever came in a review of one of Dennett's works by Thomas Nagel, in which he called Dennett "Giblert Ryle crossed with Scientific American."

2 In one of his remarks to Fodor, Leiter wonders whether philosophers like Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, or Habermas could be considered analytic philosophers, primarily for doctrinal reasons. While I think Hegel is out automatically, because "analytic" and "continental" are at least partially historical (anyone before Frege is neither), Husserl was certainly more similar to Frege or Russell, in the early years, than he was to the later Heidegger, much less Sartre or Derrida. Still, the influence of Husserl has been more widely felt among the "continentals" than the "analytics," and that's probably why he's referred to as one of the former rather than the latter. As for Heidegger, while his view of language may be compatible with some (not many!) analytic conceptions of language, he doesn't really embody any of the other properties of analytic philosohpers, so he's probably not someone we should include. Habermas is actually a good choice for an analytic philosopher, though, and if he were read by more analytic philosophers, I think they would probably agree. Why he's considered a continental philosopher, I'm not quite sure. It probably has something to do with his use of terms like "crisis," which are ordinarly pretty vague. However, in his hands, they become quite specific, and powerful at that.


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Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

Though I have not waded much into Kripke or Davidson or other current analyticals, I have read a few essays of Quine as well as the Tractatus, some PI ( not to my taste) some Russell (On Denoting rules) and a bit of ordinary lang. ala Searle and Austin. It seems that Quine sort of wrapped it up--resolved most if not all of the language issues, except for empirical linguistics ala Labov or Bloomfield ( which seems to be akin to sociology). And though he is sometimes seen as denying empiricism, his updates to "Two Dogmas" seem to simply spread verification criteria to a much larger context of science and scholarship. He enjoyed toying with some platonic ideas, but seems to hold to pragmatic materialism.

I guess I am wondering what Quine did not wrap up. The Chomskyan progam? Cog. science? To be sure he did not address cog, science, and perhaps someone will show some computational relation beween logic and language and biochemistry that alters much of epistemology. His emphasis on reference instead of meaning at first seemed strange, but I think that is the proper course; and if it is, then much of semantics--such as Kripe's ideas about "designators"-- appears a bit useless. Indeed Russell's On Denoting seems quite relevant still with a few empirical modifications, and Quine himself noted its influence. Why is empirical semantics any different than programming issues anyways.

Posted by nemesis

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