Dispute With Analytic Philosophers

by L. James Hammond
© L. James Hammond 2017
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In September, 1994, I began using the Internet. I joined a group called PHILOSOP, which described itself as a “Philosophy Discussion Forum”. Most of the members of the group were philosophy professors.

After I had been in PHILOSOP a few days, I posted the following message:

On December 29, 1987, there was an article on the front page of the New York Times called “Philosophical Rift: A Tale of Two Approaches”. The article said that American philosophers were divided into two schools, the analytical school and the pluralist school. It said that the analytical school argued that the great philosophers of the past, beginning with Plato, were analytical. On the other hand, the pluralist school argued that “philosophy, bogged down in a stress on logic, language, and empirical data, has lost its vocation of addressing the big questions asked by perplexed mankind”. The article said that the two schools were struggling for control of the American Philosophical Association.

This article raises several questions:

--Are American philosophers still divided into these two schools?
--Do any articles written after 1987 discuss the dispute between these two schools?
--Would any member of the PHILOSOP list like to express his view of what philosophy is?

There were several responses to this message. A few days later I posted the following message:
Steven Bayne, responding to my message about two approaches to philosophy, argued that “the current social climate does not conduce to individual contemplation”, and that therefore “philosophies such as existentialism...must await a change in societal emphasis”. Mr. Bayne concluded that, at the present time, “analytic philosophy [is] to be preferred”.

I think everyone would agree with the view that “the current social climate does not conduce to individual contemplation”. (I would go further and argue that the current social climate curtails creativity in many fields, including literature, art, music, etc.) But surely the current social climate doesn’t prevent us from studying non-analytic philosophy. This sort of study is an antidote to the current social climate.

I think it’s possible not only to study, but also to create non-analytic philosophy at the present time. Eric Hoffer, who died about 1980, was an American philosopher who wrote in a non-analytic way. Hoffer’s books were once widely read, and are still in many libraries. Hoffer admired the French philosopher Montaigne. Hoffer wrote in an aphoristic style, similar to the style of Pascal, Nietzsche, etc. The tradition of non-analytic philosophy runs from ancient times through philosophers like Montaigne, Pascal, Emerson, Thoreau, Nietzsche and Hoffer.

Analytic philosophy fits the classroom environment, but is ignored outside academia.

Now the discussion became lively and heated. Some people supported me, others opposed me. There had been about two or three messages per day on PHILOSOP before I posted my first message; now there were about ten or fifteen per day. My next message ran as follows:
On 9/29, I wrote a message to the PHILOSOP list that.... concluded with the question, “Would any member of the PHILOSOP list like to express his view of what philosophy is?” In other words, I posed the question, “what is philosophy?”, a question that has been discussed by many philosophers.

There were several responses to my message, but very few of them addressed the question, “what is philosophy?” Several people said that there was no rift among American philosophers. If, however, one goes back to that Times article, one will come away with the impression that there certainly was a rift in 1987. And it’s unlikely that that rift has disappeared during the last seven years. In fact, Yale’s philosophy department was recently so bitterly divided (between analytic and non-analytic philosophers) that Yale’s president had to take over management of the department.

But rift or no rift, the question remains, what is philosophy? One person, Harriet Baber, attempted to answer this question. Harriet began by describing herself as “a committed and unabashed analytic philosopher”. She said that analytic philosophers were “concerned with...getting things right and keeping them clean”, while non-analytic philosophers were “snobbish literatti concerned with matters of style and being ‘intellectuals’.” I myself am a “committed and unabashed” non-analytic philosopher. This is probably clear to anyone who read my message of 9/30, in which I said, “Analytic philosophy fits the classroom environment, but is ignored outside academia.”

Ms. Baber spoke of non-analytic philosophers as “phenomenologico-hegelian-existential types”. But it would be a mistake to equate non-analytic philosophy with metaphysics, and with philosophers like Hegel and Heidegger. There are many non-analytic philosophers who have no use for metaphysics. As I said in my message of 9/30, “the tradition of non-analytic philosophy runs from ancient times through philosophers like Montaigne, Pascal, Emerson, Thoreau, Nietzsche and Hoffer”. Many of these philosophers are known for being superb stylists; as Ms. Baber rightly pointed out, non-analytic philosophers are “concerned with matters of style”.

Non-analytic philosophers tend to regard analytic philosophy as an empty mind game, as hair-splitting, logic chopping, quibbling. Montaigne spoke for many non analytic philosophers when he said, “It is a great pity...that philosophy is now...a vain and chimerical name, a thing of no use or value....The cause, I think, lies in these quibblings which have blocked the approach to it.” The rift in philosophy isn’t an invention of the NY Times; the rift in philosophy goes all the way back to Montaigne--indeed, all the way back to ancient times.

The non-analytic philosophers whom I mentioned above used plain language to address profound questions. Analytic philosophers, on the other hand, are concerned with the process of thinking, the process of reasoning. Analytic philosophers are concerned with questions like “what is a definition?”, while non-analytic philosophers are concerned with questions like “does God exist?” Analytic philosophers dance around the great questions, but don’t answer them.

Now there were about twenty-five messages per day on PHILOSOP. Several people, finding themselves flooded with PHILOSOP messages, withdrew from the group. Others complained that the discussion had become “non-academic” and “non-professional”. They said that PHILOSOP wasn’t meant for discussions, but rather for posting information about conferences, job openings, etc. But many people were interested in the discussion. My next message ran thus:
I concluded my message of 10/1 as follows: “Analytic philosophers are concerned with questions like ‘what is a definition?’, while non-analytic philosophers are concerned with questions like ‘does God exist?’ Analytic philosophers dance around the great questions, but don’t answer them.”

These remarks were greeted with a chorus of criticism. Chase Wrenn said that my remarks were “patently false”, and that analytic philosophers do indeed deal with the question ‘does God exist?’. David Garza said, “Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the existence of God has seen responses from analytic philosophers”.

Granted that analytic philosophers deal with the question ‘does God exist?’, in what manner do they deal with it? Do they just dance around it? They respond to Anselm’s ontological argument, says David Garza. That’s exactly what I call ‘dancing around a great question’. Analytic philosophers don’t urgently seek an answer to this question; rather, they’re interested in Anselm’s argument, in the process by which Anselm reaches his conclusion. Montaigne spoke for many non-analytic philosophers when he said, during a discussion of Cicero’s works, “these logical and Aristotelean orderings of the material are of no use; I should like him to begin with his conclusion”. Analytic philosophers, on the other hand, aren’t interested in the conclusion, they aren’t interested in knowing (for example) whether God really exists, they’re interested in clever arguments and subtle definitions.

How do non-analytic philosophers deal with the question ‘does God exist?’ How does Nietzsche, for example, deal with this question? Nietzsche doesn’t dance around this question, he doesn’t get bogged down in definitions and linguistic analysis. Nietzsche answers this question in three words, three simple words, three monosyllabic words, three words that are part of the vocabulary of most five-year-olds. I refer to the three most famous words in Nietzsche’s corpus: “God is dead”.

Non-analytic philosophers have a burning desire to know whether God exists. Some seem ready to commit suicide if God doesn’t exist. Others seem ready to devote every moment of their lives to pleasing God if God does exist. Non-analytic philosophers are concerned with the practical consequences of the question, ‘does God exist?’ For them, this question isn’t just an intellectual exercise.

Nietzsche pointed out that, if God is dead, morality has no foundation, and human life no longer has infinite value. Dostoyevsky, working independently of Nietzsche, reached the same conclusions as Nietzsche, and even used some of the same phrases as Nietzsche. Dostoyevsky’s atheists talk constantly of suicide and genocide. “There will be an upheaval!”, Dostoyevsky wrote; “there’s going to be such an upset as the world has never seen before....The earth will weep for its old gods.” Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky knew that the death of God had momentous practical consequences, and they foresaw the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin.

Non-analytic philosophy is relevant to the life of the individual, and to history. Non-analytic philosophy foresaw much of 20th-century history, and enables us to better understand that history. On the other hand, analytic philosophy has no relevance to the life of the individual, or to history. Analytic philosophers have promised us a philosophy of thought as soon as they complete their philosophy of language. But they’ve been working on their philosophy of language for a century, and time is marching on. We can’t put life on hold while we wait for the analytics to complete their work.

Analytic philosophers, for how many centuries must we wait? Is the end in sight?

Several people had argued that the only alternative to analytic philosophy was metaphysics. I thought there were other alternatives. I wrote thus:
I propose that we divide philosophy into three kinds: Analytical Philosophy, Metaphysical Philosophy, and Street Philosophy.

Analytical Philosophy is concerned with the process of thinking, the process of reasoning, the process of ascertaining truth. Indeed, it’s so concerned with process that one might call it “Process Philosophy”. This concern with process shows itself in a concern with logic, and the analysis of language. Many analytical philosophers would agree with Wittgenstein that, “The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language”. Analytical Philosophy has a proclivity for definitions. Modern representatives of analytical philosophy include Wittgenstein, Russell and Quine. One can trace analytical philosophy back to Aristotle’s Logic, and even back to Socrates and Plato, both of whom had a keen interest in definitions.

Metaphysical Philosophy began with Parmenides and Plato, and continued through Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Most metaphysical philosophers are chiefly concerned with exploring the nature of God. Most metaphysical philosophers distinguish between the world of true being, which they usually identify with God, and the world of phenomena, which they usually call illusory. Modern representatives of Metaphysical Philosophy include Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and Sartre.

Street Philosophy speaks the language of the man on the street. Insofar as Socrates dealt with practical, ethical issues, Socrates can be considered a street philosopher. It was said that Socrates called philosophy down from the stars and placed it in the streets. One of the most important street philosophers was Nietzsche, who said that “all great questions are in the street”.

Insofar as Plato and Aristotle dealt with ethics and politics, they too can be considered street philosophers. The Stoics and Epicureans can also be considered street philosophers, since they were preoccupied with practical, ethical issues. The major Chinese philosophers--Confucius and Mencius, for example--can be considered street philosophers since they dealt with ethics and politics, not logic and metaphysics. Other representatives of street philosophy are Montaigne, Pascal, Emerson, Thoreau and Hoffer.

Street Philosophy has an aversion for definitions; there are no definitions in Thoreau’s Walden or Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Street philosophers are concerned with ideas and beliefs, not proofs and definitions. Street philosophers are concerned with life itself, and believe that people live by ideas and beliefs, not proofs and definitions. Street philosophers often write from their own experience; two of the best works of street philosophy are Kierkegaard’s Selected Journals and Emerson’s Selected Journals. Hoffer’s Before the Sabbath is a contemporary example of street philosophy in journal form.

These three kinds of philosophy sometimes overlap, and some philosophers belong in more than one group; I’ve put Plato and Aristotle into all three groups. But though it’s easy to find flaws in this three-fold division, I think we must identify different kinds of philosophy in order to answer the question, “what is philosophy?”

Some people had continued to argue that this wasn’t the proper forum for a philosophical discussion. They urged the list manager to intervene, and to make sure that no one continued the discussion. The list manager changed the description of PHILOSOP from “Philosophy Discussion Forum” to “Philosophy Information Exchange”.

The discussion was beginning to die down. I posted one final message:

Steven Bayne, in his message of 10/1, said, “in the West philosophy has been ‘analytic’ since Plato, at least. The ‘dialectic’ was a search for definitions. What could be more ‘analytical’ than Plato’s procedure in the Sophist and the Theaetetus?” Joseph Ransdell, in his message of 10/9, said, “I have never encountered anyone with any substantial acquaintance with the Western philosophical tradition...who denies that philosophy involves analytical activity.” I have argued that an analytical approach is superfluous--a distraction from real philosophy. Is my argument inconsistent with the Western philosophical tradition?

I maintain that today’s analytical philosophers confuse means and ends. Socrates, Plato and others treated the analytical approach as a means by which to address the big questions, questions such as, what is the good life? what is the ideal form of government?, etc. But today’s analytical philosophers treat the analytical approach as an end in itself. They’re like students in a writing class who become so involved with their computers that they begin to treat their computers as ends in themselves instead of as a means of writing. Confusing means and ends is not unusual; people routinely treat “making a living” as the end of life, though it’s obvious that “making a living” is only a means of living.

Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”; Socrates was preoccupied with practical, ethical questions. Plato said, “the greatest and fairest sort of wisdom by far is that which is concerned with the ordering of states and families”. Plato often dealt with practical questions; he even traveled to Sicily in an attempt to realize his plan for an ideal state. Socrates and Plato would never have argued, as today’s analytical philosophers do, that we can’t even begin a “philosophy of thought” until we’ve completed a “philosophy of language”. Socrates and Plato would never overlook, as today’s analytical philosophers do, philosophers like Thoreau, who deal with practical, down-to-earth issues.

Today’s analytical philosophers have confused means and ends; they’ve forgotten the true end of philosophy. “Philosophy” means love of wisdom, and wisdom is an understanding of life and the world, not just an understanding of logic and language.