Don’t Let It End

Liam Bright recently stirred up a bit of controversy with a blog post suggesting that analytic philosophy has run its course, shambling on as a zombie program that no one believes in. Liam’s main contention is that analytic philosophy’s aim of constructing a broadly shared methodology and architectonic of elaborated concepts never materialized. I basically agree, so I want to use this post to sketch in a bit of sociological context to explain why I think this failure was somewhat inevitable. I grant that what follows is a simplification and bit of a caricature, but I exaggerate only to throw the discipline’s structural weaknesses into relief.

As a discipline, analytic philosophy subjects its topics of interest to a specific kind of analysis and critique. This method typically involves abstracting a concept, idea, theory, meaning or term from the interlocking systems in which it resides and stress testing it through an individualized form of dialogic argumentation. So we might take the posit that meaning is a purely psychological phenomenon and ask ourselves: is there some kind of example or situation we can imagine where it seems like meaning is external to the thoughts of the individual? If the objection strikes us as compelling, then we must grant that meaning “ain’t in the head.”

Now debate and disputation were nothing new to philosophy, but the increasingly central role it played in analytic philosophy may have created the conditions for analytic philosophy’s demise: the more successfully its practitioners realized its methodological ideals, the more the discipline undermined its own efforts at transmitting its core commitments to the next generation of philosophers.

Analytic philosophy naturally took root in a certain kind of intellectual soil. Discourses clustered around topics particularly amenable to elaborate chains of internal back-and-forth discussion with an imaginary interlocutor. These dialogic constructions often came crashing down with the questioning of a single foundational assumption, so the discipline selected for professors who more or less shared an ideological and socio-cultural context. Propelled by a clash of titans (e.g. “The Hart-Dworkin Debate”), the discipline lurched forward, fumbling in the dark for the one rational structure that might rule them all, but as Bright notes, that structure just never materialized.

The analytic style of reasoning also selected for a type of personality. Because of the centrality of hurling and deflecting objections, superstar professors tended to be strong personalities with a thick skin for criticism. Paper Q and A time became a battleground where professors would level increasingly aggressive criticisms at the author, who in turn would use expressions like “that’s orthogonal” and “begs the question” to turn the tables on the questioner. So what if things got cruel at times, and so what if self-conscious graduate students got humiliated in front of their future colleagues, philosophy was an adversarial battleground of reasons, and if you couldn’t handle the heat, perhaps you just didn’t belong.

One can already detect trouble on the horizon. Religions typically transmit their beliefs and ways of life through elaborate forms of ritual, instruction and formation. One could sensibly wonder how a religion would survive if its priests spent most of their time arguing with each other, denigrating their acolytes and humiliating them in front of their peers. Analytic philosophy’s best hope for cultural reproduction rested with its graduate students dreaming that one day they may finally be the ones to publicly cut down others with scathing objections and witty putdowns. Those dreams died with the academic job market.

Analytic philosophy was also not done any favors by its disciplinary isolation. Analytic philosophers typically accepted two modes of interaction with other fields of inquiry: either philosophers would work out some concept from the arm chair and ship it to other departments, or they would import whatever came from other disciplines (typically the natural sciences) uncritically. In either case, a strong separation between “doing philosophy” and “not doing philosophy” had to be maintained for the dialectical purity of the discipline.

And of course analytic philosophers succumbed to all the same myopic temptations faced by other academic departments. Professors negotiated for higher salaries, lighter teaching loads, bigger research budgets, more graduate assistants and more course releases, all the while pushing more and more teaching and departmental responsibilities on low-paid, low-status contingent faculty, who increasingly made up more and more of the discipline.

Eventually analytic philosophy worked itself pure: a cohort of charismatic but somewhat abrasive professors debated arcane topics with one another, isolated from most of the greater academic community, their leisure and keynote travel supported by an ever expanding cast of adjuncts, visiting professors and graduate assistants whose career prospects were vanishing before their eyes.

Obviously this equilibrium could not last, as internal and external pressures began to loosen the grip of the old gatekeepers who kept the party going.

Philosophy majors started to disappear and teaching loads became increasingly dominated by service courses. Suddenly, a lot of people “not doing philosophy” (applied ethics, race theory) were getting jobs while many people “doing philosophy” (language, metaphysics, epistemology) were not. As the old guard looked for any excuse to relinquish their service obligations, younger professors staffed hiring committees and sought out more diverse hires with more diverse research projects.

A non-analytic philosopher took over as executive director of philosophy’s professional organization (the APA) and promoted diversity initiatives that rubbed many in the old guard the wrong way. New journals introduced new editorial standards. Old journals passed to new editors who began accepting a broader range of papers. Dissertation directors now regularly co-author papers with their graduate students and many philosophers co-author papers in other disciplines.

And just like that the status-invincibility of the old guard crumbled. The editor of analytic philosophy’s graduate school ranking website handed off its editorship amid controversy. A number of giants in the field got taken down by accusations of sexual misconduct. Two of moral philosophy’s biggest names found the disciplinary and norm shifts in Anglo academies so troubling that they started a new journal called The Journal of Controversial Ideas just to publish analytic ethics takes that barely would have raised editors’ eyebrows twenty years ago.

So analytic philosophy now passes into the hands of a newer (much smaller) cohort of gatekeepers who seem normed into a much different code than the previous bunch, which I take to be the source of a lot of recent online conflict. I hope this means that analytic philosophy will change for the better, becoming friendlier, more collaborative and more open to inter-disciplinary inquiry, but I suspect any major changes coming will be those that help it adapt to increasing pressure from administrators bent on replacing it with critical thinking for soil science majors.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Let It End

  1. Pingback: Mini-Heap | Daily Nous

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