Analytic Philosophy and the Big Questions of Life


At the start of each term, Helena de Bres (Wellesley) holds “get to know you” office hours with her students. “So what made you sign up for a philosophy class?” she asks.

“We read Beyond Good and Evil in our AP English class,” Taylor replies.
“In my senior year I did an independent study on Albert Camus,” Jada announces.
“I discovered Kierkegaard when I was sixteen and it changed my life,” Ying explains.

“Wonderful!” I say. Then I wonder how long it will take this time to crush their hopes and dreams.

[edit of cover image of “Life is a Seventy-Five Cent Paperback” by Johnny Hart]

In the second installment of her series for The Point on academic philosophy and the meaning of life (the first is here), Professor de Bres questions whether the division of labor that characterizes contemporary analytic philosophy—the “normal science” of different philosophers each working on their narrow questions—can give anyone the wisdom philosophy is supposed to be the love of, particularly if, in addition to being focused on a particular specialization, analytic philosophers in their work are supposed to keep their own emotions, hopes, and fears “firmly out of view,” and avoid “features of language important to atmosphere, mood and enjoyment… for fear of muddying the message or conveying superficiality.” She writes:

As you practice the analytic method, with that attitude, and in that style, you become adept at distinguishing at a very fine grain between different possible theses, and noticing the various ways in which they might be arranged in relation to each other to form arguments for or against highly circumscribed and abstract positions. It’s an interesting thing to do with your mind, but what’s it for? What’s the big picture? How does it help us approach our limited and fraught time here on the planet? Bad questions! The proper response to “What’s your philosophy of life?” is to snort, raise your eyebrows at your colleagues and get back to responding to Reviewer 2.

By contrast, “the rest of humanity doesn’t feel fenced in by disciplinary restrictions when asking big human questions.”

Concerns like this are sometimes raised by people who think that the worst thing to have happened to philosophy is that it was institutionalized within universities. I don’t think this is the view of Professor de Bres (we will see where the series goes), but each system, we can acknowledge, may have its problems. Is it true that analytic philosophy, at least as it is professionally practiced, has trouble giving us “a complexly integrated picture of how the world is, how we should feel about it, and how we should move about in it as a result?” And if it is true, is it a problem? And if it is a problem, can we do anything to address it?

From where I’m sitting, it seems we are on the cusp of changes someone moved by Professor de Bres’ concerns might hope for. Analytic philosophy will continue to have its narrow specialists, and that’s good. But we are increasingly seeing more analytic philosophy explicitly on big questions about life by well-established figures in the discipline (e.g., Meaning in Life and Why it Matters by Susan Wolf, Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way by Kieran Setiya) and this will trickle down somewhat. We are seeing a greater acceptance of public philosophy, which, because of the kinds of expectations the public tends to have about philosophy, may make philosophy more accepting of work that is relevant to “real lives”. And we are seeing, in the younger generations of philosophers especially, some with surprising breadth that cuts across traditional subdisciplines, and a respect for those willing to bring philosophy to bear on their own personal lives. (For all of its downsides, social media has made at least some philosophers seem more human to each other, and I think that has eroded the force of some of the old-school circumscriptions of analytic philosophy.)

I think there is a historical story that makes sense of why it took a little while for analytic philosophy to get to this point. I can’t tell that story in detail now, but I do think it is just the latest development in the broadening of analytic philosophy, a kind of growth that has been with it from fairly early on, which accelerated in the 1970s, and which has really taken flight over the past two decades.

Your thoughts, as usual, are welcome.

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Travis
15 days ago

I’ve been thinking about the issue, or something like it, for a while.

At some point it became clear that it wasn’t sustainable, and ultimately unfair to my family, to keep doing adjunct work waiting until the day I might possibly land a full-time position. This led to the particular problem of “How do I get a decent job outside if academia?” and the more general problem of “How do I reorient myself to the world, if what I thought I’d be doing for a living — teaching, reading, and writing philosophy — won’t be that?” as well as the question “What is the value and importance of philosophy for the layperson who can’t realistically attend conferences or keep up with the latest journals?”

I’ve wondered about the extent to which these are properly philosophical questions at all! But if philosophy can’t speak to them I’m not sure what discipline would.

I haven’t made a whole lot of progress on this issue, but I think I’ve identified at least part of why this is a difficult topic. The problems of life are addressed through action (which can be moral or not, prudential or not), and there is a gap between belief and action. So, as much as one can, using good reasoning, come up with an answer to how to live or how to deal with one’s life situation, this answer by itself leaves those problems unsolved. And then, because you often act in a state of uncertainty, the details of the problem can be changed by your attempts to address it.Report

Robert M Wallace
Robert M Wallace
15 days ago

My wife said, Tell them (Daily Nous) to marry somebody who has curiosity, a sense of humor, and no background in philosophy. If they can communicate about what they care about with a spouse of that kind, there’ll be hope for them. I have the good fortune to have such a spouse. Our first hour together was composed of an intense conversation about Carl Gustav Jung (her contribution) and Plato (mine). I have a pretty good background in analytic philosophy, and I write about Plato, Hegel, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Iris Murdoch, and the like. I teach about Nietzsche, Hobbes, Thrasymachus, the great provocateurs of our tradition. I love poetry, non-dogmatic religion, and non-dogmatic psychology. If philosophy doesn’t address the big questions that all of these address, what’s it good for? When Wilfrid Sellars talks about “how things in the widest sense hang together in the widest sense,” I’m totally with him; I just wish he’d seen (or hope he did see) how the great poets and religious writers address that question. If we “philosophers” engage with the great voices and great issues of our tradition and of other traditions, our students will see that we’re doing that, and be swept up. If we don’t, they won’t.
Robert M Wallace, PhD (Philosophy) CornellReport

Paul Taborsky
14 days ago

As Chomsky wrote in Syntactic Structures (in an admittedly totally different context), meaning isn’t everything. 

A slightly different point: sometimes even the avoidance of ‘depth’ and of questions of spirituality or meaning can be positively revolutionary and deep (in a non-obvious way), in comparison to the muddled thinking that preceded it; depth itself can be shallow. The self-consciously ‘deep’ and perennial thinking of the ‘Eclectic Spiritualism’ of Victor Cousin (early 19th century) eventually gave way to the positivism of Comte, a revolutionary philosophy for its time, which inspired thinkers from Renouvier to Levy-Bruhl, and even begot a religious organization, which exists to this day (in Brazil).

To sum up: Perhaps meaning should be left to the ‘professionals’ (I’m thinking of the self-help gurus, who always have the answers) or to the 50-drachmae lectures (Prodicus). Otherwise, let the future sort out what is and is not meaningful or deep in philosophy. As history has shown, the answers can be unpredictable.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
14 days ago

I’m an analytic philosopher and I don’t recognize this characterization of analytic philosophy. I was never taught that “analytic philosophers in their work are supposed to keep their own emotions, hopes, and fears firmly out of view” if those emotions are somehow relevant to the philosophical argument. As for being taught to “avoid features of language important to atmosphere, mood and enjoyment… for fear of muddying the message or conveying superficiality” I was taught to write as clearly as possible. If there is something about enjoyment that needs to be said, then by all means, it should be said, and as clearly as possible. Professor de Bres claims that analytic philosophy fails to “help us approach our limited and fraught time here on the planet” but analytic philosophers write about value all the time.Report

Pranay
Pranay
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
14 days ago

Is this satire?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Pranay
14 days ago

Is that polite?Report

Pranay
Pranay
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
13 days ago

As I write this, we’ve each gotten 6 likes. Let the internet decide!Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Pranay
13 days ago

That a post on the internet gets likes is not evidence that it’s polite. Surely you don’t think otherwise.Report

Pranay
Pranay
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
12 days ago

At 22-14, I’m rather beginning to come round to your way of thinking.Report

Caio Cezar
14 days ago

I fail to see this difficulty on analytic philosophy. I think it needs to be remembered that Philosophy is a vast area of knowledge. In order to be able to say how people should live their lives you may need some background on Ethics, maybe anthropological philosophy and even moral psychology. And even if you choose to specialize on this subjects, you might decide to focus on an entire different problem! Hence, it’s not any philosopher that will be competent to answer this big question. Most of them will have their beliefs, but not so well developed, just as we have to other areas we do not specialize but have some knowledge.Report

Nicola DiSvevia
13 days ago

The deepest questions about life and reality are unavoidable since we are part of that very reality. But it typically takes a very long time to get sufficiently clear about any of these to be able to say anything about them that would satisfy the standards of argumentation demanded by analytic philosophy. And so (academic) philosophers busy themselves with tackling smaller problems, or problems at a more tractable level. Since it is the latter which tends to make for a successful career, this type then comes to dominate the philosophical scene.

I myself have found it liberating to be a ‘bad’ philosopher: to live my own questions in the hope for a clearer picture to emerge. Surely we need to work from both ends in this respect: the deepest questions need the sharpest thinking. And yes, the analytic style frequently has obscured what/why something really matters. But I don’t think that’s essential to it; it doesn’t have to be limited by its historical concerns.Report

aeg
aeg
13 days ago

It’s interesting that both on this blog and in everyday conversation, there often seems to come up a fear that analytic philosophy has become pointless and exhausted of any use to anyone who does not practice it (and perhaps even to those who do practice it). And when this topic comes up, inevitably those most devoted to analytic philosophy become defensive and assert that analytic philosophy has made extraordinary advances as a discipline by admitting and furthering specialized knowledges and that this is a cause for celebration, not dismay.

My point is: this conversation, whichever side you might be inclined to take in it, has grown profoundly sterile. It goes nowhere. It seems to me that what must be discussed, case by case, is what we mean by “specialized knowledges” in order to assess what sorts of value these so-called knowledges might have or lack. I have to confess that in many cases what has been described to me as a highly specialized field of philosophical research has proven upon closer inspection (by my own lights, of course) to be really just an incredibly insulated and idiosyncratic back-and-forth conversation-in-print among a coterie of colleagues who see each other at conferences and take each other’s latest pieces on knowledge, moral obligation, justice, etc. to be the ‘cutting edge’ on the topic for no other reason than that, together, they have formed an academic sub-community that is self-sustaining at this point. I cannot say this of ALL specialized analytic fields, both because I don’t know all of them and because I do know of specialized fields in which this is not the case. So maybe it is necessary to stop criticizing analytic philosophy as a whole and to start discussing specific areas. That would at least replace this sterile conversation with something potentially profitable. Or is specificity too much to ask of blog posts? I suspect the real problem is not specificity but politeness: to have a real conversation, pointless navel-gazing work would have to be called out.Report

Robert M Wallace
Robert M Wallace
Reply to  aeg
12 days ago

Sounds right. But presumably the test of whether a sub-specialty is “navel-gazing” or genuinely significant would be whether its participants themselves are able to articulate, and do articulate, the way in which their sub-specialty does or will make a significant difference in relation to the great questions of human life. Probably most participants in specialized discussions believe that these discussions do or will make such a difference. But if they (we) don’t articulate how this is the case, the world at large will have no idea. Philosophers like Hegel, Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Iris Murdoch, and Tom Nagel do articulate these things in their popular writings and lectures.Report

Grad Student
11 days ago

Personally I feel that careful thinking on philosophical questions gives you a kind of understanding and thought-training that then helps you get deep insights both on philosophical questions, big and small, and on questions in other disciplines. At the very least, it helps you to filter a lot of the rubbish you hear about some “big questions” in a way that leaves you with a much shorter list of plausible positions.

Also, I don’t understand this complaint about contemporary analytic philosophy not dealing with “the big questions”. Are the following questions big?

  1. Why time has a direction?
  2. What is the basic structure of physical reality?
  3. What legitimizes the state?
  4. Are moral claims objective?
  5. Are our mental states directly accessible to us?
  6. What is consciousness?

I tend to think these are paradigmatically “big” questions (and I can give some more), but I read throughout my studies (and sometimes met personally) contemporary philosophers who write exactly about these questions.Report