The History of the Past 40 Years of Analytic Philosophy

The History of the Past 40 Years of Analytic Philosophy


A new call for papers has been circulating, soliciting work on the history of “Late Analytic Philosophy.” From the CFP:

In the last 25 to 30 years historical attention has been directed toward analytic philosophy: some analytic philosophers have begun reflecting on the philosophical tradition they belong to, while many other scholars have been working on what is by now become a well-established discipline known as “history of analytic philosophy”. Yet this historiographical perspective mainly focuses on early analytic philosophy (Frege, Russell, Moore, the early Wittgenstein…), or on middle analytic philosophy (Carnap, Ryle, the later Wittgenstein, Quine…), whereas – by contrast – proper historical investigations of late analytic philosophy are still greatly needed. By “late” we mean analytic philosophy approximately in the last 40 years, which is a long enough period to deserve a separate investigation. Furthermore, we surmise that the development of this philosophical tradition in such a time span has some distinctive features, which could be profitably studied from different perspectives: philosophical, metaphilosophical, historical, sociological… In fact, such a multifaceted approach is in a sense required by the huge and increasing volume of philosophical production (due to processes of professionalization and specialization), which can hardly be dealt with satisfactorily if one takes the narrow point of view of a single discipline.

The CFP was brought to my attention by Eric Schliesser’s commentary on it at his Digressions & Impressions.

We might ask how we’re supposed to know that we’re in analytic philosophy’s “late” period. I would like to think, rather, that analytic philosophy is just now undergoing a kind of enlightenment phase—an emergence from its self-imposed immaturity, to borrow from Kant—and so is rather closer to its beginning than its end, but of course it is too early to tell. Analytic philosophy could get hit by a bus today, in which case the past forty years would indeed be its late period. You never know. I suppose analytic philosophy should live each day as if it were its last.

Whether we’re at the beginning or the end (and the CFP quotes Williamson’s channeling of Churchill on that point), the CFP contains a number of great questions, and there’s no reason we can’t take some of them up here. We can start with a few related ones, and perhaps we’ll take up others in subsequent posts. For now, how about these:

  1. What are the main metaphilosophical and methodological features of late analytic philosophy?
  2. What are the main philosophical and metaphilosophical similarities and differences between early and middle analytic philosophy on the one hand and late analytic philosophy on the other?
  3. Who are the main figures of late analytic philosophy?
  4. What is the geography of late analytic philosophy?

Discussion welcome.

Bridget Riley, "Aurum" (1976)

Bridget Riley, “Aurum” (1976)

 

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Matt Pagan
Matt Pagan
5 years ago

Does Badiou’s use of Group Theory or Chomsky’s early linguistic analyses count as late analytical philosophy?Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

1. a) Analytic philosophy (with a focus on meta-science and reflective equilibrium) is the heir to early modern philosophy, b) is a universal way of doing philosophy which results in positive knowledge, and so, c) there is no need to engage with traditions from parts of the world, which are seen to be basically parochial because they are pre-analytic.

2. Middle analytic philosophers worried more about whether (a) and (b) are compatible. Late analytic philosophers took this for granted. The causes were, broadly, (i) the emergence of the cognitive sciences, (ii) the need for ethics and political phil spurred by the events of the 60s, and (iii) the professionalization of philosophy, which made it impossible to say things like “philosophy is a confusion”.

3. Late analytic thinkers who exemplify the optimism of philosophy of the period: Lewis, Kripke, Rawls, etc. Late analytic thinkers more critical of such optimism, and harked back to the middle period: Rorty, Cavell, Taylor, etc. Late analytic thinkers who sought to keep (a) and (b) but gave up (c): Appiah, Matilal, Haslanger, etc.

4. Geography is global. Which raises in a pressing way the question whether much of late analytic philosophy can be kept while giving up (c), or if a more radical criticism of analytic philosophy, and of (a) and (b), might be required for philosophy to be truly global.Report

Bharath Vallabha
Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Given that the topic on this thread is so rich and interesting, it is surprising it has not generated any discussion. Maybe the topic isn’t that interesting after all. Or people are busy with other things. Or: perhaps the very idea of “late” analytic philosophy feels ridiculous – or traumatic – to many people.

Another possible reason, which is telling of the sociology of late analytic philosophy: To talk about late analytic philosophy is to inevitably talk about one’s contemporaries, often one’s teachers, students and colleagues. In early, and especially in middle, analytic philosophy it was much more common for colleagues to disagree publically and in print with each other about the merits or coherence of their frameworks and research projects: Austin and Ayer, Carnap and, well, any traditional metaphysician in his department, etc. Though these deep disagreements could be acrimonious, they were also “gentlemenly” in a way, and were enormously philosophically productive. Sociologically, this combination of calling each other confused while also being civil to each other was made possible by the general background they had in common: they were all white males who shared a sense of a common European culture and tradition.

With higher education becoming open to women and other minorities in the 60s, this was no longer true in late analytic philosophy. Now any claim of “X philosophy is confused” seemed like a political affront, or means of subordination, or dominance. The rhetoric became: “let a thousand flowers bloom”, while it was ignored that the general structures for letting that happen didn’t yet exist. It ended up basically, under the rubric of total openness, reenforcing european philosophy in analytic philosophy. The irony is that some of the most trenchant criticism of european philosophy was already being hashed out internally by white males in the middle period: Wittgenstein, Carnap, Austin, etc. This got covered over in the late period under the idea that Wittgenstein and Austin were horrible colleagues, and that the heroes should instead be nice people like Lewis and Rawls. But when one sets aside personalities, and looks to the content of the philosophy, it is a vastly open question whether Wittgenstein or Lewis is more conducive to letting a thousand flowers bloom; or at least if they are conducive in different ways. Hopefully future philosophy, whether it is called “analytic” or not, will tackle this issue.Report

JPL
JPL
Reply to  Bharath Vallabha
5 years ago

Bharath Vallabha, May 20, 2016, 9:05 AM:

I made my comment of 21 May (above/below?) without reading the previous comments, so I did not notice your interesting contribution. As an outsider who knows nothing about the personalities or the acrimony, but only interacts with the ideas, I find the field of philosophy immensely valuable, just the way it has been and is, and I’m always puzzled by the disciplinary self- doubt (a feature which seems to be shared by other social science fields, such as anthropology, psychology, political science). But on the other hand, as a linguist who is aware of the conceptual structures of non-European linguistic systems, I do notice that the field of analytic philosophy in some cases seems restricted by the interpretive framework of European linguistic and cultural systems, whose determining influence is not noticed, but accepted without conscious reflection, and this extends even to basic philosophical concepts such as ‘existence’, ‘truth’, ‘(logical) identity’ and others. As a linguistic semanticist I’m used to dealing with situations where we are presented with a single phenomenon in reality that is truthfully describable by sentences from different languages that have different meanings and conceptualisations, not fully commensurable, but where equivalences can be found. I don’t want to complain about the field of analytic philosophy; I just thought that perhaps it was up to me to make a contribution to these kinds of questions. We are all searching for universal truths, but perhaps we won’t find them effectively until we have contributions from several different cultural viewpoints.Report

Andrew
Andrew
5 years ago

Admittedly, this doesn’t much get to the interesting, substantive questions of the post, but I’m not sure why there’s all the fussing about the use of the term ‘late’. I took the CFP to be identifying a period in the development of analytic philosophy in relation to the present. As they point out, ‘late’, as they are using it, just means within the last forty years. I don’t think they mean to suggest that analytic philosophy is on its way out. So, I’m not sure why it should be traumatic, or why there should be any need to wonder whether we’re in the late period of analytic philosophy, in their sense.Report

JPL
JPL
5 years ago

Immediately prior to this very moment, as I decided, in a moment of distraction, to check out what is happening over at Daily Nous, as I do most Fridays, I was reading Hilary Putnam’s 1997 essay “A half century of philosophy, viewed from within”, which gives an account of the development of a field “dominated by a single kind of philosophy, namely, ‘analytic philosophy'”, from the perspective of his personal experience. I’ve been trying to get a sense of where Putnam had arrived with regard to his understanding of the phenomenon of language, particularly with respect to the notions of reference and the critique of knowledge claims, and the differences between meaning in formal language mode vs. natural language mode. (I wanted to take on his unsolved problems and carry on with them. I take his question “How does language hook onto the world?” as centrally important.) My field is linguistics, and I’m interested in the relation between the understanding of linguistic meaning by philosophers and its role in the way they approach the critique of scientific knowledge. I’ve also recently become aware of the importance of the understanding of language in discovering universals in ethical principles, particularly through the critique of ethical judgments. (My particular field is comparative descriptive semantics.)

I have a lot of questions for philosophers, since I am puzzled by much of what they do and believe. For example (and this is not even a basic question, but someone mentioned the question of who are the influential philosophers), why did analytic philosophy take as basic Tarski’s “semantic” conception of truth and the views of people like Davidson for an approach to understanding linguistic meaning, and leave aside (relatively) people like Cassirer, Strawson, Dummett and Putnam, who I have found much more helpful? (Putnam, however, shares some ideas from the analytic tradition that I think are not on the right track, and prevented him from answering some of his questions.)Report

Robert W Tucker
Robert W Tucker
5 years ago

When thinking about progress in analytic philosophy, I find the distinctions, early, middle, and late less useful to understanding progress than considering the extent to which the work focused on advancing prior work or accommodating the academic and sociopolitical milieu of the time.Report