What’s wrong with contemporary philosophy?

That is the title of a paper by Kevin Mulligan, Peter Simons and Barry Smith.

Abstract. Philosophy in the West divides into three parts: Analytic Philosophy (AP), Continental Philosophy (CP), and History of Philosophy (HP). But all three parts are in a bad way.

“AP is sceptical about the claim that philosophy can be a science, and hence is uninterested in the real world. CP is never pursued in a properly theoretical way, and its practice is tailor-made for particular political and ethical conclusions. HP is mostly developed on a regionalist basis: what is studied is determined by the nation or culture to which a philosopher belongs, rather than by the objective value of that philosopher’s work. Progress in philosophy can only be attained by avoiding these pitfalls”.This repeats a number of the claims made by Bryan Magee regarding analytical philosophy and also Continental philosophy so it says little new for Critical Rationalists but it is good to see it coming from some people who are on the inside of the profession. Smith is a very interesting writer, a prolific publisher across a wide range of topics including the philosophical basis of Austrian economics (which is where I found him).

It is not a long paper and you should read the whole thing. Here is it is again!

But I can’t resists the temptation to post some chunks of it.

Analytic Philosophy (AP), although it comes in many varieties, has four striking properties. First, it is cultivated with every appearance of theoretical rigour. Second, its practitioners do not, by and large, believe that philosophy is or can be a science, i.e., they do not believe that it can add to the stock of positive human knowledge. Third, the philosophers who until very recently were the most influential models in the pursuit of philosophy as a theoretical enterprise – Chisholm, Davidson, Armstrong, Putnam, Kripke, Searle… – have no obvious successors. Finally, AP has succeeded in the institutional task of turning out increasing numbers of highly trained, articulate and intelligent young philosophers. 

Continental Philosophy (CP) comes in almost as many varieties as does AP but is always decidedly anti-theoretical. This is particularly true of those varieties which sport the name “Theory”, but it holds in general of all those CP philosophical traditions in which political goals are more or less preeminent. The heroes of CP – Heidegger, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida – also belong to the past and they, too, have no obvious successors.

Is that a bad thing? Where do you go from the works of those folk? What are the interesting questions, the growing points of knowledge that they have provided?

His main complaint with the APs is their  horror of the outside world and their preoccupation with in-house puzzles.

Suppose we say that ontology is the study of what there might be and metaphysics of what there is. Then metaphysics is clearly inseparable from empirical science. But it is thereby also inseparable from an interest in the real world… But analytic metaphysics of the social world only  begins with the publication by John Searle in 1995 of The Construction of Social Reality and it has still gone little further than Searle.

Another example of the lack of interest in the real world in analytic ontology and metaphysics is provided by the sad story of current work in such fields as bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, and the so-called ‘Semantic Web’. Ontology and metaphysics ought surely  to be acknowledged as of great importance in fields such as these.  In fact, however, philosophical confusion is the order of the day, because AP-philosophers with some knowledge of ontology, manifesting their  horror mundi, have shown little interest in grappling with the problems thrown up by these fields, leaving it instead to philosophically naïve exponents of other disciplines to wreak ontological havoc.

Philosophers, for their part, occupy themselves with in-house puzzles, ignorant of the damage their neglect is wreaking in the wider world. This kind of philosophy encourages introspection  and relative isolation because philosophy is not seen as directly relevant to the scientific concerns which prevail in the wider world. As a result, once the main options have been explored, which takes between two and ten years, it becomes hard to base a new career on contributing to the debate, and so interest shifts elsewhere, on to the next trend. The result is a trail of unresolved problems. The problems are not unsolvable, nor are they unimportant, but the attempts to solve them are insufficiently constrained by matters outside philosophy conceived in a narrow and incestuous way. They are insufficiently constrained, too, by any attempt to build a synoptic system through sustained, collaborative efforts, in
which philosophical theses about substance, matter, qualities, science, meaning, value, etc. would hang together in a coherent way. In positive science results are expected. In analytic philosophy everyone waits for the next new puzzle. Like the braintwisters holidaymakers take onto the beach, philosophical puzzles  divert from life’s hardships. They doubtless have their place in a flourishing theoretical culture. But AP is at its core a culture driven by puzzles, rather than  by large-scale, systematic theoretical goals.
Continental Philosophy, for its part, is equally averse to theory (despite protestations to the contrary) and it is also distinguished by lazy scholarship.

CP’s lack of interest in philosophy as a theoretical enterprise emerges most clearly in its relations to the phenomenological movement. Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, … and many other prominent CP thinkers grew out of phenomenology. At the same time, CP rejects the vision of philosophy as a theoretical enterprise that was embraced by Husserl and the other great founders of phenomenology – yet without making any attempt to justify this rejection. Phenomenology has, in fact, served CP well as a hydra-headed pretext – Marxist phenomenology, feminist phenomenology, hermeneutics, Derrida’s foaming defilements of what he calls ‘phallologocentrism’ – but in all these cases the aspirations of  the founders of phenomenology to uncover truth have been made subservient  to a non-theoretical agenda, whether political or socio-cultural, and in Derrida’s case to an agenda that is shamelessly anti-theoretical. 

Moreover, in spite of the dominance of phenomenology in CP philosophizing, CP’s own history of philosophy is strikingly ignorant of the history of phenomenology itself. The loving attention lavished on manuscripts by Heidegger or Fink coexists with complete ignorance of the writings of truly important phenomenologists such as Reinach, Ingarden or Scheler. 

In Europe, CP has triumphed institutionally and culturally even though, and indeed in part because, it has never won any theoretical battles, flourishing best in the  feuilleton. In certain philosophy departments in North America, too, CP is slowly moving towards  hegemony, aping the successes of CP-related anti-theoretical movements in US departments of sociology, literature, cultural studies, geography, anthropology, archaeology, and so forth. In the leading philosophy departments in the Anglosaxon world however, AP still holds its place, though it has something of the flavour of a self-perpetuating academic business, frequently proud of  its lack of relevance to real-world concerns. HP on the other hand has  almost everywhere collapsed into nationalist or regionalist hagiography. 

So what is to be done? It seems that little is gained by attempting to debate with strong advocates of the rival schools, unless someone has found a more effective way to engage with them than I have managed. So we  had better engage with substantive problems in our own areas of interest and hope to achieve two objectives. First to demonstrate the power of CR and cognate theories when applied to problems in other fields. Second to find new philosophical problems, assuming that many if not all the most interesting philosophical problems arise outside philosphy, as argued in this paper.
As an afterthought to that, here is my suggestion for introducing students to philosophy as a study of various forms of criticism, applied to problems of their own (not personal problems) so they are actually interested.
APPENDIX: AN INTRODUCTION TO PHILOSOPHY

Philosophy could be introduced as a study of critical thinking and Bartley has proposed four types of criticism or tests that may be applied to arguments. These are the test of experience; the test of comparison with other theories; the check on the problem; and the test of logical consistency. None of these tests or checks are unproblematical and Bartley refers to them as ‘non-justificationist criticism’.

The study of critical thinking that is proposed here could be taught at school, it could be used for an introduction to university courses in philosophy, it could be a core subject for all tertiary students. Its content could be adjusted for the interests and capacities of the class and it offers an alternative to the debacle of general studies where students of marketing and organic chemistry have to shuffle and fidget for a certain number of hours in lectures on Introductory Psychology or Medieval Drama. The course would consist of exploration and applications of the four methods of criticism to any theories or beliefs which interest the class.
The test of evidence and experience could lead to the philosophy of science, to a study of rules of evidence in law, to the use of diagnostic tests by doctors, motor mechanics or plumbers, and to the use of clues by detectives and archeologists.

The test of comparison with other theories would raise questions about the weight and authority to be assigned to assumptions imported into arguments, more or less uncritically, from other domains. For example the psychological theories assumed by literary critics, the physical theories assumed by geologists, the sociological theories assumed by engineers, the economic theories assumed by politicians. This part of the course should open student’s eyes to the inter-dependence of the so-called disciplines and with any luck the artificial nature of boundaries between subjects would become apparent. At the same time students may learn how to use readily available resources, including other students and staff, to pursue problems from one discipline to another (for example by walking from the Philosophy Department to Physics or Life Sciences).

The check on the problem is in some ways the most fundamental criticism of all. This part of the course would indicate how a revised formulation of a problem may be decisive, how background theories can unconsciously direct how problems are identified and formulated, how fashions and fads (and funding) can dictate the directions of intellectual effort. It would lead to a study of the history of ideas, showing that problems have histories, that philosophical problems usually have their roots elsewhere, in science, or religion or in social and moral dilemmas, that powerful themes can leak from one discipline to another and preoccupations often run in parallel in more than one field.
The section on logic would call for study of both the formal and informal methods of argument. Formal logic concerns rules of inference and the way that logical steps can be used to draw out the consequences of an argument or of a scientific theory, perhaps for testing or for technological application. Informal logic encompasses the tricks of debate that may be used to cover up logical and factual defects in a position. Discourse by politicians, theologians, creation scientists and advertisers would furnish material for critical study.

All of this could lead to exploratory reading of the Great Philosophers, though preferably not until the students have a firm sense of their own interests and problems. In this mood they might be less deferential to the greats, more critical and at the same time more willing to learn. This would contrast with the traditional situation where the young student is confronted with soaring abstractions and profound arguments utterly unconnected with the historical background or the problem situations which agitated the titans of the past. The novice is completely overwhelmed (who am I to criticise the great?) or else clings to a critique provided by the teacher. The usual result is either a student who is indoctrinated into a system of thought, or else a person who is skilled in certain methods and techniques without any sense of purpose or perspective. No course can be rendered failsafe against authoritarian teachers, or against complete lack of interest on the part of students but the approach sketched above would provide interested people with a chance to avoid the more obvious dead ends of contemporary philosophy, and to apply imaginative criticism to their own professional and personal concerns.
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5 Responses to What’s wrong with contemporary philosophy?

  1. Elliot says:

    > So what is to be done? It seems that little is gained by attempting to debate with strong advocates of the rival schools, unless someone has found a more effective way to engage with them than I have managed.

    Rival schools aren’t a problem directly, no matter how bad they are. People very different from us can learn, if they are curious and interested, and make a sustained effort. Most Popperians didn’t start out Popperians.

    The people who are worthless to debate with are the ones who aren’t intellectual serious.

    However, not being intellectually serious causes bad schools of philosophy to be appealing. So there is a connection.

  2. This paper takes a CR approach to constructing ontologies for creating “Interoperability” in the field of exchanging humanlt usable digital content across a global economy:

    http://www.kmci.org/media/Interoperability%20PDF%20Vines%20-%20Firestone.pdf.

  3. Torro says:

    The diagnosis is of course written from within the AP perspective. Such concepts as ‘progress’, ‘theory’, and ‘philosophy’ itself are taken for granted, as if there is no unclarity let alone controversy about them. For all this talk of progress AP as presented here has not moved beyond early 20th century positivism, despite the devastating critiques of it that the 20th century has provided.

    I would also like to point out that AP proves its decadence by how promiscuously it throws around the word ‘philosopher’, as if every prattling PhD is a compeer of Socrates. But indeed they are consistent here, because for the AP positivist anyone who has taken a science class is wiser than Socrates.

  4. Peter Jones says:

    What a load of Tosh. AP has very firmly moved on from LP, for one thing.
    AP lacks practical application because it is P –philosophy, not because it is A.
    etc etc.

  5. Rafe says:

    I am not sure how far Analytical Philosophy has moved on, certainly Barry Smith has moved on (while still staying touch) but he is quite exceptional in his range of interests and his output.

    I am not impressed with A C Grayling, as noted before.

    http://www.criticalrationalism.net/2010/09/02/rigor-and-care-in-analytical-philosophy/

    Trying to work out what current stars such as Kitcher and Laudan have added to CR and conjectural knowledge.

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