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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Grad Student4
Grad Student4
3 years ago

Can anyone recommend a good how-to book? I’ve been learning exclusively from examples/exemplars, but would appreciate a reading that broaches the topic directly of doing analytic philosophy.Report

Dr K
Dr K
Reply to  Grad Student4
3 years ago

Philosophical Analysis: An Introduction to Its Languages and Techniques by Samuel Gorovitz and Ron G. Williams in collaboration with Donald Provence and Merrill Provence, Random House, 1965. It’s a start.Report

Kirk Adler Malone
Kirk Adler Malone
3 years ago

Call me Feyerabend (Against Method). There is no universal method in philosophy. Negative metainduction suffices: Every proposed method fails. This is no bad thing. Philosophy needs no method, and any current hankering after method reveals only a deep insecurity. Of course, for a given project, a method might be pursued, for a given purpose, but that doesn’t mean that it is a method we should all follow. A more mature and less insecure philosophical practice would dispense with any such ambition for universal method.Report

Adrian Blau
3 years ago

Hi Grad Student 4, I just edited the first “how-to” book on analytical political theory, published by Cambridge University Press. Every chapter has advice, in bold type, showing how to use each method (e.g. reflective equilibrium, thought experiments, conceptual analysis), along with examples of good and bad practice. You can buy a copy here: https://www.amazon.com/Methods-Analytical-Political-Theory-Adrian/dp/1107491703/. Let me know if it’s useful and if you have ideas for improvements.Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
3 years ago

Analytic philosophy seems a lot like so-called “critical thinking”; there are a few basic heuristics and things to avoid, but it’s mostly about knowledge and practice, practice, practice. Write, critique, revise, share ad infinitum. Report

Julia
Julia
3 years ago

Read Alan Hájek’s papers on philosophical creativity. They’re fantastic.Report

Masked Philosopher
Masked Philosopher
3 years ago

I don’t think one answer is right, and I certainly don’t have an argument for any. But here’s my story: I started in continental (‘mainline’, as someone calls it) but struggled with those people because they were too frivolous. So I apprenticed as a contextualist historian and did well enough at that, until I became attracted to analytic philosophy. All this while, even during the somewhat reluctant attraction, E seemed to me to be the obvious truth. Eventually I got good enough at analytic philosophy to, I like to think, publish good papers in it without anyone knowing better. Suddenly E seems patently false. Where there’s a method it seems easy to impart to others. So, what to make of my earlier belief in E? Was it just the frustration of a confused mind? Or is it true, only that I don’t see it anymore? Or something else?Report

Justin
Justin
Reply to  Masked Philosopher
3 years ago

Do you have any recommendations for how someone with an undergraduate background in continental can transition smoothly into analytic philosophy? How did you do it? I am finishing up my fourth year at a hyper-continental program, but I want to pursue analytic topics in graduate school. I ultimately want to break from continental, but I feel stuck since I am many steps behind my peers who have analytic backgrounds. Thanks.Report

Masked Philosopher
Masked Philosopher
Reply to  Justin
3 years ago

Justin, to have really good advice I would need to tell you how to learn a certain method of philosophy. And I already admitted to not having that. But I think having a mixed background is a virtue in the long run. You can publish more quickly if you just learn one style or sub-specialty, but you’ll do better work if you were able to root through different traditions and styles. More immediate advice: seek out analytic philosophers who have been influenced by a variety of sources. They’re a minority, but they do exist. Read them and they will make more sense to you than the more narrow problem solvers do. I’m thinking of Richard Moran (he puts Sartre in analytic context), David Velleman (he once gave a savage takedown of Frankfurt by reading Freud against him!), Graham Priest (has read everything bearing on his topics, including non-European philosophy), Robert Brandom (combines Hegel against Frege). There are many others, such that I feel bad about having singled out only these. My point is, find people who will be in conversation with you rather than mimicking the style of people who went to different schools you did.

So much of philosophical style/method depends on where you went to school, and yet few of us had any idea about all this when we picked our undergraduate program.Report

Justin
Justin
Reply to  Masked Philosopher
3 years ago

Thank you for the advice, it helps. And I agree that if I had known about the different philosophical styles and methods, I would have went to a different undergraduate program. Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
3 years ago

I don’t get why A is more charitable than B or D.

Re B: There does seem to be an awful lot of know how to be learnt.

Also, D seems very plausible. What methods do Moore circa 1904 and Ryle circa 1949 have in common? Or Goedel and later Wittgenstein? Report

Alan White
Alan White
3 years ago

To echo a bit of Kris’ post and expand on it a bit (but of course not to speak for him), I’m not convinced at all that that analytic philosophy is properly characterized by talk about methods. Analytic philosophy clearly rose along with the development of Fregean/Russell-Whitehead/Godelian/Kripkean formal logic, which is its constant informant throughout. This parallelism no doubt contributed and still contributes to emphasizing the role of argument, as parsed out by formal methods, as the backbone of analytic philosophy however fleshed out otherwise. To the extent that reasoning is thus formally analyzable, it makes some sense to join the tradition to formal logical methods. (And of course the rise of formal stats, most prominently imported into analytic discourse by X-PHI, is another big feature of contemporary analytic “methods”.)
But I think emphasis on these logical guides as somehow *constitutive* of the methods of analytic philosophy misses one big feature of its most prominent practitioners–comprehensive expertise in either a focused area of philosophy or a more expansive grasp of many areas. (One gets to be known either way, but let’s face it, the big figures are more diverse in their interests.)
How does one obtain an analytic form of expertise? First and foremost, by knowing and not neglecting the norms of logical discourse. Transgress those, and you’ll get called out. But that alone is not sufficient for how one accumulates knowledge to be recognized as an expert–there is a reason Kris mentions Wittgenstein. He more than perhaps any other philosopher is acknowledged as a kind of caterpillar-to-butterfly (or maybe perversely the reverse) kind of dual-expert: first a kind of logical nerd in the Tractatus that Moore declares “genius”, and then the semantic magician of The Blue and Brown Books that, while not exactly violating his earlier nerd formalism, eclipsed them with expansive views on semantics flying off into the Investigations. Not many I’d think would say that Wittgenstein ceased being an analytic philosopher in his metamorphosis from the early-to-later Ludwig–he just changed what kind of expert he presented himself to be.
As I told my 101 students today–my last ones before I retire after almost 40 years–becoming a philosopher (and I meant what I am, an analytical) is to become a kind of conceptual expert. It is constrained by attention to forms of reasoning both deductive and inductive–sure–but it is more characterized as gaining a form of expertise and insight though critical patience by grasping relationships between things. You have to know details–that’s what usually people expect in expertise–but you also have to know how those relate to the bigger pictures of life that those details fit into. (The old saw about the forest and the trees–you need to see both or you miss something.)
One more way to make my point: if logical methods constitute the essentials of analytical philosophy–instead of just a big constraint on what it is–then accomplished computer programmers should be called “analytic philosophers”. They too are experts mainly attentive to logic–but they do not assemble concepts in ways that achieve the kinds of expertise philosophers may. As I suggested above, even if logic and stats are the backbone of analytic philosophy, it’s more like vertebrae in the biological world–fleshed out otherwise in all sorts of ways.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
3 years ago

I think Urstoff is basically right and I want to expand on that point. Isn’t there a more charitable explanation F. “We can tell you the methods of analytic philosophy in outline, but that’s pretty much useless or even meaningless without a lot of actual practice” for what Cohen says? I was recently trying to explain to my wife how to drive a stick shift and it occurred to me that everything I said was perfectly true and but also completely useless unless one was actually sitting in a car with one’s feet on the clutch and gas pedals. It seems to me that that’s pretty much the rule in most things. You can tell people how to do it well, but that telling isn’t much use in and of itself. I bet that we could probably agree on some broad methods of philosophy, but just how useful do you think it would be for students in an Intro class to go through those methods before one started in reading and arguing about actual philosophy? Would the students even understand what you’re talking about if you did that? Would it be a good use of class time? I do a fairly short unit on basic argument in all of my intro classes and I thought about lengthening it but decided not to on the grounds that a lot of the stuff I said about arguments wasn’t going to really make sense to the students until we actually dove in and started formulating and taking apart actual arguments. It seems to me that we don’t tell people how to do philosophy because it wouldn’t be useful. By the point students would understand any set of “How to do philosophy” rules we might give them, they don’t need the rules any more.Report

lrickard
lrickard
3 years ago

There do seem to be books out there on the methods of analytic philosophy, most recently Gary Gutting’s What Philosophy Can Do (http://www.worldcat.org/title/what-philosophy-can-do/oclc/937452616&referer=brief_results)

What philosophy can do (Book, 2016) [WorldCat.org] http://www.worldcat.org Get this from a library! What philosophy can do. [Gary Gutting]Report

arnold
arnold
3 years ago

The Zen of “The Methods of Analytic Philosophy”… remembering the toddler in you, sensing, feeling, knowing what is your own… Report

Patrick Lin
3 years ago

Wikihow has an (unintentionally?) hilarious series of articles on how to philosophize, step by step and with pretty pictures, e.g.:

http://www.wikihow.com/Become-a-Philosopher
http://www.wikihow.com/Form-a-Philosophy

More here: http://www.wikihow.com/Category:PhilosophyReport