The Methods of Analytic Philosophy


People like me, who have been trying to do philosophy for more than forty years, do in due course learn, if they’re lucky, how to do what they’ve been trying to do: that is, they do learn how to do philosophy. But although I’ve learned how to do philosophy, nobody ever told me how do it, and, so far as I would guess, nobody will have told you how to do it, or is likely to tell you how to do it in the future.

That’s the opening of “How To Do Political Philosophy,” a set of remarks by G.A. Cohen published in On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy.  

It’s also the subject of a recent post by Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam) at Digressions & Impressions.

Why wasn’t Cohen ever told how to do philosophy? Schliesser considers a few possibilities:

(A) “analytic philosophy was free of methods”

(B) the methods were kept quiet, perhaps because (B*) people thought “the methods of philosophy cannot be explicitly taught/said, but have to be shown via example/exemplars.”

(C) “those of us who have learned how to do it struggled so hard to get where we now are that…we think you, too, should suffer,” perhaps because (C*) “we’re now selfishly reluctant to give you some of the fruit of our struggle for free”

(D) “the methods of (early to middle) analytical philosophy were not unified”

(E) “it is a form of boundary policing. Under such a regime, outsiders are permanently mystified about the rules of the game because they don’t know what move to make to acquire standing”

Schliesser thinks that A is the most charitable explanation, and E is the least. He adds:

Obviously, the least charitable explanation need not be true. But there are plenty of incentives that are compatible with the truth. If the least charitable explanation has some truth then it’s a good thing that philosophy is being methodized.

Of course, it need not follow that following philosophical method teaches you how to do philosophy.

The whole interesting post, including a discussion of the idea that “argument” is the method of analytic philosophy, is here.

Frank Gehry, “Dancing House / Fred and Ginger”

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