Analytic Philosophy’s “Triple Failure of Confidence”


“Analytic philosophy suffers from a triple failure of confidence, especially among younger philosophers.”

[Ernst Barlach, “Departure and Defense” from The Dead Day]

Those are the words of Liam Kofi Bright (LSE), in a recent post at his blog about how, despite the fact that “there is much that is of value in analytic philosophy both historically and in how it is practiced today,” nonetheless, “now is a time of woe for analytic philosophy.”

Here’s what he means by that “triple failure of confidence”:

People are not confident it can solve its own problems, not confident that it can be modified so as to do better on that first score, and not confident its problems are worth solving in the first place.

The first two problems are resultant from internal pressures, the latter a mix of internal and external. However, there is no successor paradigm in a position to really take advantage of this weakness, and so the field listlessly drifts on, anxious and insecure and filled with self-recriminations. 

The two internal factors are related to the fact that the architectonic programmes of latter 20th century analytic philosophy seem to have failed without any clear ideas for replacing them coming forward. If analytic philosophy was a grand march to Kripke then the problem is none of us are quite sure what to do now we’ve got here. If we’re trying to do our best on a Lewisian theoretical score sheet then it’s not actually clear that is worth doing. Plenty of (genuinely good) work is done by junior and senior scholars alike on modal (and increasingly now hyperintensional) metaphysics, theories of reference, probabilistic epistemology and semantics. It’s recognisably continuous with what went before and we still have things to learn here. Yet the game the original leading lights thought they were playing has long ago been ceded and no one dares think they are going to do better.

For what I think is gone, and is not coming back, is any hope that from all this will emerge a well-validated and rational-consensus-generating theory of grand topics of interest. We can, and we will, keep generating puzzles for any particular answer given, we will never persuade our colleagues who disagree, we will never finally settle what to say about the simple cases in order to be able to move on to the grand problems of philosophy. My anecdotal impression is that junior philosophers are hyper aware of these bleak prospects for anything like creation of a shared scientific paradigm. 

This sense of failure, combined with a craving “for even just a sense that one can do things that make a difference” and an “explanation for or justification of what we are doing” we can give to administrators, has led, he thinks, to the popularity among younger analytic philosophers to use philosophy to “attempt to change the world, rather than just understand it.”

My sense is that now what we see is a desperate scramble to show that the skills or tools we have might find some problem space wherein their, our, worth can be made manifest…. I do not think such a problem space has been forthcoming.

You can read the whole post here.

 

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grad student
grad student
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
25 days ago

I agree that we shouldn’t think of philosophy’s primary goal as solving its own problems. But I don’t think that undermines Bright’s criticism of analytic philosophy, understood as a particular set of texts, approaches, and institutions that is not exhaustive of philosophy as a whole. Historically, practitioners of analytic philosophy have been pretty dismissive of different approaches and schools of thought within philosophy (see the historical animosity to “continental philosophy,” the pervasive but not universal attitude that history of philosophy is unimportant for people interested in contemporary problems, etc.) This attitude would make sense if we adopted what you called the “solutionist mindset” and believed that analytic philosophy was better able to solve the problems of philosophy writ large than other approaches. But given that analytic philosophy has not produced consensus on solutions to problems, I don’t think there’s a good justification for the current state of anglophone philosophy — it seems that we should have much more diversity in approach than we do, both from a solutionist mindset (we haven’t hit on the correct approach for solving philosophical problems, so clearly we should be open to trying other things) and from a non-solutionist mindset (having more diversity in approaches would further the goals of identification and formulation of good questions, just because different approaches to philosophy often address different questions). One might even go further and criticize analytic philosophy from a non-solutionist perspective — we might think that it’s not as good at formulating and clarifying good questions as other approaches (I personally don’t hold this view, but I can see why someone might).Report

Sandro
Sandro
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
25 days ago

What do you consider to be the point of building maps if not to solve the problems of navigating territory? The space between problems and possible solutions is also territory.Report

Richard Y Chappell
25 days ago

I’m a bit puzzled that anyone would’ve expected consensus in the first place. As I wrote here:

Philosophical expertise seems compatible with being completely off the rails when it comes to the substantive content of one’s philosophical views. And this is to be expected once we appreciate that (i) there are many possible internally coherent worldviews, (ii) philosophical argumentation proceeds through a mixture of ironing out incoherence and making us aware of possibilities we had previously neglected, and so (iii) even the greatest expertise in these skills will only help you to reach the truth if you start off in roughly the right place.  Increasing the coherence of someone who is totally wrong (i.e. closer to one of the many internally coherent worldviews that is objectively incorrect) won’t necessarily bring them any closer to the truth.

Even so, I don’t see this as grounds for despair. We can all work to incrementally improve our various competing worldviews, and maybe some of us are even getting things (almost) right in doing so. That strikes me as a perfectly worthwhile endeavour, that one needn’t feel bad (or “bleak”) about pursuing.

I also think practical philosophy (like the rest of philosophy) is worth doing for its own sake, rather than to try to prove the worth of our analytical training or anything along those lines…Report

Animal Symbolicum
Reply to  Richard Y Chappell
25 days ago

It’s natural to expect consensus when you conceive of the targets of your philosophical theories as non-instituted, subjectivity-indifferent objects, properties, or patterns that any reasonable person would recognize if led to by the right argument — that is, as analogous to natural-scientific targets of inquiry. And you probably won’t expect it if you decline to conceive of your endeavor as science-like or your targets as amenable to science-like modes of inquiry. Given the science-worship and science-envy that runs through the history of analytic philosophy, I’m a bit puzzled that you’re a bit puzzled.Report

Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
25 days ago

I think Richard was not expecting consensus precisely because he and many others “decline to conceive of [their] endeavor as science-like”, and puzzled because he does not think that most analytic philosophers do so. You’re probably overestimating the proportion of analytic philosophers who conceive of their endeavors in those terms. In other words, it is indeed odd of philosophers to expect consensus, and the fraction of philosophers who do are not representative of analytic philosophy.Report

Vincent Blair
Reply to  Animal Symbolicum
25 days ago

I thought that Kuhn destroyed the myth that reasonable people don’t disagree in natural science.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Vincent Blair
24 days ago

Sure, but if you want to adopt a Kuhnian framework, you’d have to look for the philosophy equivalents of normal science, when the disagreements between reasonable people have more or less been settled. And (I take it) Kofi Bright is saying that we don’t find that kind of after-a-while consensus.Report

Vincent Blair
Reply to  David Wallace
24 days ago

I mostly agree, but I was making a specific dialectical point. I would also want to emphasise that if that is Kofi Bright’s claim, then he does nothing to support it in the blog post. In fact, I think that Kofi Bright has mistaken normal science for a degenerating research programme. His remark ‘[i]f analytic philosophy was a grand march to Kripke then the problem is none of us are quite sure what to do now we’ve got here’ seems to presuppose pretty widespread consensus in the form of Kripkean orthodoxy. (And even in normal science, you do get dissent from some reasonable – if marginal – figures.)Report

Last edited 24 days ago by Vincent Blair
Vincent Blair
25 days ago

As far as I can tell, the sole motivation for Bright’s key claim that Lewisian abductive philosophy is not worth doing is a link to a very controversial book by Edouard Machery, itself an exercise in broadly abductive philosophy.Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Vincent Blair
24 days ago

He links to three sources in that claim, I think: Machery’s book, but also books by Kitcher and by Ladyman and Ross. (The link to Kitcher hasn’t come through Justin’s excerption of the original article for some reason.)Report

Vincent Blair
Reply to  David Wallace
24 days ago

Thanks, I didn’t notice that it wasn’t just one hyperlink. I have only skimmed the Kitcher paper, though it seems rather programmatic (‘Much of what I have said is probably crude, simplistic, and wrong’). But I am tempted to think that the citation to Ladyman and Ross only reinforces my initial point.Report

Philip Bold
25 days ago

Worth noting that the third of this triple failure of confidence (which Justin states as, “Analytic philosophers are not confident its problems are worth solving in the first place”) is a major preoccupation of the later Wittgenstein. Though, maybe it’s better stated, in his case, as a concern about whether the traditional “problems” are really problems. But folks who think of the history of analytic philosophy as a royal road to Kripke tend to ignore this. In any case, W’s perspective seems like a potentially helpful one for those (like me) who are feeling this triple failure of confidence.Report

Duncan Richter
Duncan Richter
Reply to  Philip Bold
25 days ago

Not just the later Wittgenstein. The last sentence of the preface to the Tractatus says that the value of this work consists partly “in that it shows how little has been achieved by the solving of these problems.”Report

Paul Shaver
Paul Shaver
Reply to  Philip Bold
25 days ago

Kripke was the last Cartisian to even try.Report

Adam Groll
25 days ago

Analytic philosophy is the worst kind of philosophy, except for all the other kinds of philosophy.Report

Daniel Groll
Daniel Groll
Reply to  Adam Groll
25 days ago

Another Groll?! Doing philosophy?! Adam Groll! Drop me a line!Report

Preston Werner
Preston Werner
Reply to  Daniel Groll
24 days ago

Maybe the real analytic philosophy was the friends we made along the way.Report

Daniel Groll
Daniel Groll
Reply to  Preston Werner
24 days ago

Or even family?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
25 days ago

It’s good to see philosophers take seriously the fact that we don’t provide definitive answers in the way that the sciences do. Given that we don’t provide definitive answers, philosophers need to be asking ourselves what the public benefit of philosophical work is (if any!) and how we can best provide that benefit. Personally, I think that the primary benefit we provide is helping members of the public think through philosophical issues for themselves. Whether you agree with me about that or not, though, the question of what good we do and how we can best do it remains paramount.

It’s disheartening to see how many philosophers view their primary role as being advocates for views that they have decided are correct, and disheartening to see how many speak as if their philosophical studies have given them the authority to identify definitive answers to philosophical questions.Report

Walter Veit
25 days ago

“no successor paradigm”

Here an old proposal: move on to naturalist philosophy in the style of Dennett, Churchland, Sterelny, and co.Report

Christopher Britton
Christopher Britton
Reply to  Walter Veit
22 days ago

Was going to say something similar. I don’t see the same sort of malaise in naturalistic philosophy of mind that many others here seem to see in other parts of philosophy. Confidence in the ability of philosophers to solve problems is still alive and well among the philosophers I read every day. I think there’s also a case to be made there’s been legitimate progress made on many topics by naturalistic philosophers.Report

On the market
25 days ago

When the doube whammys of Trump and Brexit hit in 2016, many people felt the need to Do Something.

Nobody was quite spared from this, but Anglo philosophers apparently noticed in droves that their current research and honed theoretical frameworks did not put them in the position to Do Something. We are still in the scramble to Do Something that ensued; the “applied turn” as LIam calls it. Analytic department outside North America or the UK were apparently largely immune to this.

A particular kind theoretician, apparently including Liam, was particularly hard hit. But if one does probability calculus all day, one might miss that analytic philosophy has indeed produced tools that can be applied to “real problems”. Ameliorative analysis is a distinctively analytic procedure (I know this because my Continentally inclined friends continue to scoff at it) with real results.

Curiously, these same theoreticians used to take pride in the removedness of their work from worldly matters, much like pure mathematicians have been doing for ages. And there’s really no reason to feel shame about our theoretical achievements. Analytic philosophy seems to be “marching forward” as ever. If we are not anymore myopically looking at assertion, proposition and reference, this only means we are getting out of the baby shoes.

Perhaps the early “linguistic turn” overestimated how much mileage we were getting out of truth conditional semantics, but we did learn how important philosophy of language is. And we are not remotely done with language. The question we are deepening by looking at language are as relevant to us as they were to Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant and Frege. They won’t get rid of Trump, but I’d like to think we have loftier ambitions.Report

jonas
25 days ago

Bright’s blog post resonated with me. I’ve turned away from analytic philosophy after receiving my PhD for similar reasons – although I cannot deny the role of the job market in that decision. In addition to questions about the discipline, there are personal decisions to be made, decisions about how to spend our lives. Ironically, these decisions raise philosophical issues of their own.

Should we spend all those hours on making minor clarifications? Should we spend life in the hope of identifying better ways of treating philosophical question? Is that a life well lived? (Given my anti-realist tendencies in metaethics, I respond with a shrug and a story about myself.)

The one advise I would give is to look beyond the boundaries of the discipline and even beyond the boundaries of academia altogether. It will at least provide a better sense of what else we could be doing, as a discipline and individually.Report

John Collins
24 days ago

At least in my corner of analytical philosophy, I don’t see much sense of ennui; to the contrary, philosophy of language has never been in better shape. What is lost is the grand unifying ideas, integrating semantics, metaphysics, and epistemology, but they were mostly promissory notes at best, which never hindered progress on first-order issues. Analytical philosophy has been a tremendous success, genuinely contributing to many diverse areas of science. There is nothing to be despondent about, save perhaps for the aspiring philosopher who realises that he or she has a lot to learn from other sciences, and can’t make stuff up. If there is a turn to ‘engaged’ analytic philosophy, it is better explained by the demands of profile, funding bodies, and, in the UK, at any rate, the REF. There can be no complaint against changing the world, but the history of humanity suggests that philosophers qua philosophers are as well-positioned to do so positively as a cab driver. Still, it is possible to do more than one thing simultaneously without making a dog’s dinner.  Report

BLS Nelson
Reply to  John Collins
21 days ago

“What is lost is the grand unifying ideas, integrating semantics, metaphysics, and epistemology…”

But that’s what many of us would think of as the philosophy part of philosophy — the project of knowledge integration. We can grieve the loss of these overarching programs (and seek to develop new ones, and support those who have such ambitions), without abandoning naturalistic and interdisciplinary commitments. (If examples are needed, I’m reminded, e.g., of Elijah Millgram’s excellent book on the threat that hyperspecialization poses to modernist philosophy.)Report

John Collins
Reply to  BLS Nelson
17 days ago

Maybe. I certainly wouldn’t rule out a priori the possibility of some overarching story, but I see no reason for confidence. Developments in linguistics effectively show that many of the governing assumptions of 20th century philosophy that linked meaning, mind, and world are simply mistaken. Working through the wreckage is interesting and will take some time, but the goal of modernity remains much the same: to square the world as revealed by science with the world as we cognitively engage with. I’m not sure where we shall end up, but specialisation is essential, at least in the sense that a proper naturalism must be informed by science as opposed to being content with metaphysical construals of what counts as natural. Report

BLS Nelson
Reply to  John Collins
12 days ago

I am not confident, either — that’s what I meant by “grieve the loss”! Our disagreement seemingly comes down to the fact that I think the syncretizing function of philosophy is one of its legitimate aims, and hence, that it is one thing that is worth entertaining and pursuing.

In my view, it is especially important to respect the methodological principle that breadth and depth are complementary ideals worth honoring during the course of philosophical inquiry. That methodological principle is not antagonistic to specialization or a division of labor any more than it is hostile to a metaphysical principle like naturalism. Instead, the principle is antagonistic towards hyperspecialization, fragmentation, and the resulting Tower of Babel, and the threat of finding out that each language describes a different world. That is to say, it is a worry that is accentuated by naturalistic commitments, not motivated by some flavor of anti-naturalism.Report

John Collins
Reply to  BLS Nelson
10 days ago

I have no complaint against the aspiration, but, the more specialisation there is, the harder it is to have a big picture. This is not just with philosophy, but all areas, even maths. When big pictures are offered, they appear naive about detail. Kant could offer a big picture thanks to being in a position to know all the philosophy, maths, and physics relevant. Something like that is no longer possible. Still, I like big pictures, but I’ll leave it to others. I’ll have a look at the book you mentioned.Report

Dan Weiskopf
24 days ago

I agree with a lot of what Liam says, but it worries me far less.
 
Part of the issue has to do with setting the boundaries of analytic philosophy. Liam sometimes associates it with the humanities, at least in terms of its relative disciplinary woes. He also, though, says that its current bleak mood owes to the awareness that a “shared scientific paradigm” for the discipline is unlikely to emerge. Analytic philosophers, on my view, never considered themselves to be humanists or quasi-scientists. The project of analytic philosophy was as an attempt to find a place for philosophy that separates it from humanistic (particularly literary, historical, and critical) discourse on the one hand, and from the sciences on the other. Figures such as Lewis and Kripke certainly didn’t see themselves as doing some form of science. The movement towards recasting analytic metaphysics in scientific terms is fairly recent; see, e.g., L. A. Paul’s “Metaphysics as Modeling” (2012). The point was to have your truth-seeking and “rigor” without also having to muddy your hands with labwork.
 
For some biographical evidence on this, when I started graduate school at Brown in the late 1990s (!), I had to struggle continuously to get the sort of naturalistic, scientifically-informed work that I wanted to do recognized as a legitimate philosophical project all. My colleagues thought of themselves as analytic philosophers, while I never defined myself in those terms. Any accounting of the state of recent philosophy has to come to grips with the ways that naturalism in its many forms has been integrated with (or cast out of) the self-conception of the discipline.
 
None of this addresses the very real problems of where (if anywhere) philosophy should be situated within the larger culture. Nor does it help to placate the fervent demands, from progressives and conservatives alike, for its real-world applicability. But the future of philosophy — or even of philosophy as an academic discipline — doesn’t hang on what becomes of analytic philosophy. Personally and professionally I have little attachment to it, and whatever its virtues as a style of thought and writing, its ahistoricism and conservatism are better discarded. It was always only one such style among many, despite its recurrent attempts to position itself as a master template for reason and argumentation. Perhaps it’s more optimistic, then, to see this as a time of exploration, hybridization, and experimentation rather than one of decline. “Never before such an open sea,” and all that.Report

CDmund
23 days ago

Do we all have to take the applied turn? I’m not interested.Report

Darcy
23 days ago

It’s (sociologically) interesting that most of the commenters here have the first reaction of trying to explain away (as illegitimate, confused, pointless, etc.) dissatisfaction with the discipline, instead of raising for discussion what they think might be some legitimate sources of dissatisfaction. This is sociologically interesting since, as everyone will agree, no discipline is perfect or even nearly as good as it should be. And yet analytic philosophers tend towards being defensive of their field in spite of its many flaws, instead of being self-critical and open about its flaws. In many fields, it’s the practitioners themselves who make the most damming critiques (e.g. Talal Asad in anthropology).Report