Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Fodor, Derrida, and Analytical Ennui

A few days ago, commenting on the comments on Derrida's death, I noted that one of the important differences between analytic and continental philosophy was that analytic philosophy is mostly foundational, like the sort of research you find in a very young science, while continental philosophy directly engages everyday life. It's not surprising, then, that continental philosophers like Derrida are widely read by non-philosophers, while analytic philosophers are, for the most part, only read by other analytic philosophers (non-philosophers might read Russell and Wittgenstein, or Daniel Dennett's books that are written for the same crowd that reads Richard Dawkins). How many non-philosophers do you know who've read P. F. Strawson or Donald Davidson? What about Kripke or David Lewis? The diffence in who reads the philosophers from the two different traditions can't be chalked up to differences in difficulty. As everyone has noted, be they pro or anti-Derrida (or somewhere in between), much of the continental philosophy today, particularly the work of Derrida, is very difficult to read. It may not be any more difficult than the logical formalism that you will find in a treatise on modal realism, but it's certainly no less so, and unlike much of analytic philosophy, contintinental philosophers tend to be virtually incomprehensible without some acquaintance with their intellectual anscestors.

In a recent book review, Jerry Fodor, one of those analytic philosophers1 (who, despite his assertions to the contrary, is probably read by more non-philosophers than most), laments the fact that analytic philosophy isn't widely read outside of philosophy circles, and claims that until recently, he couldn't figure out why this was the case. Then, he read the book he is reviewing, Kripke: Names, Necessity, and Identity by Christopher Hughes, and it all became clear to him. Here's his description of the epiphany:

And yet I can't shake off the sense that something has gone awfully wrong. Not so much with Hughes's book (though I'll presently have bones to pick with some of his main theses) as with the kind of philosophy that has recently taken shelter under Kripke's wing. There seems to be, to put it bluntly, a lot of earnest discussion of questions that strike my ear as frivolous. For example: 'I have never crossed the Himalayas, though I might have done. So there is a non-actual (or, if you prefer, a non-actualised) possible world (or possible state of the world) in which someone crosses some mountains. Is that person me, and are those mountains the Himalayas? Or are they (non-actual) individuals different from me and from the Himalayas?' Or: 'Water is the stuff that is in the Thames and comes out of the taps. The stuff that is in the Thames and comes out of the taps undeniably contains impurities (bits that are neither hydrogen nor oxygen nor constituents thereof). So how can water be H2O?' But how could it not? Is it that, chemistry having discovered the nature of water, philosophy proposes to undiscover it? In any case, could that really be the sort of thing that philosophy is about? Is that a way for grown-ups to spend their time?

That's a bit harsher than my much less interesting assessment of analytic philosophy, but it will do. I think it captures part of how I see much of analytic philosophy (the, "who cares?" part). Still, I think there are other reasons for analytic philosophy being less widely read, and perhaps less immediately important. One of these reasons is that, these days, so much of analytic philosophy is specialized. There are areas, sub-areas, and sub-areas within sub-areas of philosophy in the universe of "Anglophone analytic philosophy." Philosophy, perhaps to the delight of analytic philosophers, becomes a lot like science, in that there are areas of philosophy that have become so specialized that only the few philosophers who have spent years developing an expertise in those areas are familiar with the problems, or even that there are problems, with the object of study in that area. However, philosophy suffers from something that science is often able to avoid, simply by nature of the reasons that people (ultimately) do science: it's not always clear what the point of raising, much less addressing the problems of some sub-areas of sub-areas of areas of analytic philosophy is. Even if the philosophers who are experts in that sub-sub-area are passionate about the problems, and think the implications are infinitely important, it's unlikely that anyone who's not an expert, or not married to an expert (and therefore forced to listen to how important the problems are every night over dinner) has any clue why they're important. If you don't know why certain philosophical issues are important, you're probably not going to be motivated to read about them.

Fortunately for analytic philosophy, some philosophers have found ways around this affliction. They have, at least implicitly, adopted the (ultimate) goals of science (discovering the way things work so that we can work with them more efficiently), and therefore closely allied themselves with science and its problems. Thus, you get areas and sub-areas (and so on) of philosophy that work so closely with science that it's hard to tell where theoretical science ends and philosophy begins, if it's even reasonable to make such a distinction. This is particularly true in philosophy of mind, where many of the problems discovered by philosophers have advanced the science of cognition and consciousness. To be sure, this often occurs when philospohers reach a dead end (e.g., Nelson Goodman's discovery that, despite the fact that anyone can tell you how similar two chairs are, you can't really say how similar two chairs are; or the collective realization that the "hard problem" really is a hard problem), and scientists are inspired to move on anyway. At least in these cases, philosophy is getting someone somewhere. Still, it's mostly getting scientists somewhere, so non-scientists, or scientists who aren't interested in the objects of study that are approached by particular areas of science and philosophy, won't care, and therefore won't read about it.

So in the end, we're back to why analytic philosophy isn't read, and continental philosophy, however much analytic philosophers disdain it and its pretense to the label of "philosophy" that they feel they hold a monopoly on, is. We're also back to my original point, which is that analytic philosophy, important as it may be in the long run, is no more important, and certainly no more necessary than the sort of philosophy that those continentals do. Continental philosophers may not spend decades debating the logical properties of the Saussurian sign, and therefore whatever they have to say about Saussurian signs may be less formally certain than what the analytic philosophers are able to say about them after decades of wrangling. However, it's because they don't get so mired in the minutia that continental philosophers are able to tie in their insights about signs with other aspects of our experience, our culture, and our place in history, and therefore make their ideas immediately relevant to the way we go about doing things, be it more philosophy, politics, or simply writing a blog post. In the minds of many analytic philosohpers, this amounts to sloppy scholarship, but in my mind, it amounts to what philosophy is for in the first place.

One more note: I want to thank Chris (no relation) at Crooked Timber for the link to the Fodor article. Fodor is a blast to read, and he is one of those philosophers whose work, however silly it may be in the end (I mean come on, "conceptual atomism?"), has advanced the science of cognition, including my own work. I don't know how anyone could not like a writer whose thin(to the point of complete transparency)ly veiled insults look like this:

The treatment of the mind/body issues, though the dialectic is often intricate, is quite summary: neither philosophical claims for mind/body identity, nor the denials of such claims, are 'intelligible'. That's because 'the notion of identity has not been given any sense in this context' (sic). I'm not going to discuss this part of Putnam's book because, truly, I haven't a clue what it is to give a sense to a notion; the notion of giving a sense to a notion hasn't been given a sense, either in this context or, as far as I know, in any other. (I've been told that senses are sometimes given to concepts at Oxford after the gates close to visitors; but that may be a leg-pull.)

1 In comments to that post, Brian Leiter claims to be ignorant of what analytic philosophy is, and wonders if I know either. I must admit, this caused a little bit of self-doubt. Maybe I'm just out of the loop, and analytic philosophy is the wrong term for the tradition that begins with Frege, runs through logical positivism and its successors, and now dominates English-language philosophy? Fortunately, in his book review, Jerry Fodor refers to the tradition as analytic philosophy, and himself as an analytic philosopher, so if I'm out of the loop, I'm not alone. At least one person who knows much more about this stuff than I do is out of it too.


Anonymous said...

Where does philosophy of science, and particularly philosophy of biology belong? I have a feeling that philosophy of biology is the most vibrant area of philosophy at the moment and that it is sometimes difficult to discern where philo of biology ends and philo of mind begins, as well as where philo ends and biology begins. The rest of modern philosophy looks like crossword puzzles to me, but I am not an expert ;-) 

Posted by coturnix

Anonymous said...

That's a good question. I'm not sure where these divisions lie. Philosophy of biology seems to be primarily concerned with methods and structure in biological science and theories, but I could be wrong. Naturally, since mental phenomena are biological phenomena, the study of the mental will be closely related to the study of other biological processes in some ways.  

Posted by Chris

Anonymous said...

There is no thing, no body of concepts, and really no study that should be entitled philosophy. It is ridiculous that "philosophers" still think there is something to discuss, apart from say a few logical or semantic issues, but surely quantum physics and the Human Genome Project did not fail for lack of some semantic or logical clarity. I have read a bit of Kripke and more pointless quibbles: why months with Kripke or Putnam or Davidson when the world is falling apart. Economists ( it is so nice to find someone who reads say Keynes or Galbraith or even Marx's economics) are far more relevant, as are biologists and environmentalists, to any rational picture of the world--but those in philosophy feel like they have to keep the bitch running....and quite a bit worse than the analyticals are the latest group of parisian mindphuckers, Derrida INc.

Having done a few graduate philosophy courses, I think philosophy departments should be "divied up": the logicians and semanticists put into math departments (perhaps after a few months of differential equations); the philosophy of mind, linguists, and epistemologists into neurosciences (after lots of neurology and bio-chemistry); the ethicists and social philosophy type into poli. sci. or economics (though social sciences will I think eventually be put into some sort of bio-psychology); the continentalists and aesthetes, well, into La Rue....

Posted by nemesis

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Duly noted. Of course, linguists aren't philosohpers, though some occasionally like to play at it (sort of like some physicists), and many logicians are already in math departments. Philosophers of mind tend to work closely with neuroscientists and other cognitive scientists, and are often parts of larger cognitive science groups or departments. Putting epistemologists into neuroscience departments is a bad idea, though, especially if your account of the mind is right. Mixing epistemology and descriptive accounts of cognition has, historically, been the wrong way to go.

I'm not sure anyone really cares about Putnam, Kripke, Davidson when the world's falling apart, but they probably don't care about string theory or the relationship between the thalamocortical loop and consciousness, either. This is probably a bad measuring stick for the worth of an intellectual enterprise.

By the way, as such a staunch reductionist (or eliminativist), I wonder, have you ever read Hegel on phrenology

Posted by Chris

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