Analytic Philosophy and the Sciences.

December 20, 2016/February 6, 2017

What started as a discussion about the (doomed?) state of continental philosophy turned last week to the reasons that analytic philosophers claimed the ‘continental flag’ for themselves. Now, the discussion concludes by moving into the relationship between analytic philosophy and the sciences, and what this means for everyone.

New York Night

Babette Babich: Analytic philosophy is a disaster when it comes to theology [as discussed last week] but it is also a disaster when it comes to natural science, thinking about it, engaging it, and these days it is the scientists who are saying such things about analytic philosophy, to which, and rather predictably, analytic philosophy responds with utterly naïve circularity by urging scientists to take courses in analytic philosophy.

Chris Bateman: There are problems on both sides, here. Some scientists raise complaints about philosophy not understanding their field, and thus writing nonsense. This for me is an odd complaint because there is just as much nonsense written within each scientific field by the scientists themselves, and complaining about the ‘outsiders’ seems to be very odd focus. Writing The Mythology of Evolution was a fascinating exercise for me because it’s the most sustained discussion I’ve had with people in a field I myself had never studied. They were extremely open to my questions, and it made me think that claims of failed discourse between science and philosophy were a question of a lack of will, and not anything fundamental; but poor communication caused by a deficit of will is perhaps the hardest breakdown in discourse to fix.

BB: Indeed. But evolution is one of the most complicated questions going.  As someone who started her career in the sciences, specifically one of the sciences that claims to theorize evolution, namely biology, what is troublesome is still a matter of history and context, so the analytic-continental debate could be restaged just at this level as well.  But that is another question – and you have a book on it! More generally, it is worth noting that analytic philosophers do not, towards the end of the remedy to this communication problem with science, take courses in physics, or better yet, in physical chemistry, just to name a course that separates the science-minded from the non-scientifically minded just at the undergraduate level.

CB: Some philosophers are well versed in certain sciences in my experience – I’m a particular admirer of Isabelle Stengers, who was a chemist before she practiced philosophy, and whose work has massively informed my own. But there is certainly not any general awareness of a need for interdisciplinary work – which is a great shame, as almost nothing interesting happens without spanning disciplines, and philosophy is a wonderful nexus between other forms of thought.

BB: Absolutely true! But philosophy of science will take, at least in my experience, anyone trained in the sciences who wants to write philosophy, without requiring a comparable ‘training’ in the history and texts of philosophy.  Thus Bob Cohen, for a long time the head of Boston University’s Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, had a degree in physics and this is common. Peter Galison has a PhD in physics and history of science, in good Conant fashion (Conant senior, let me be clear, as it was his stipulations that made Kuhn Kuhnian). The point is the explication of science to scientists which some philosophers of mind sometimes undertake to do, consider the Churchlands, Pat and Paul and so on. Thus Steven Hawking declared, some years ago attracting media attention — and never bothering to retract the claim — “Philosophy is dead.”

CB: Indeed, and so unwisely, too. The press is as much to blame as anyone here, for thinking that a physicist has ultimate authority on anything but physics which (and I speak as an ex-astrophysicist myself) is the narrowest and least generally applicable of all the contemporary sciences.

BB: Just to be clear in this regard, Hawking’s comments were contra philosophy but not contra continental philosophy — analytic and continental are not distinctions Stephen Hawking makes and he is pointing to the great majority of philosophers to begin with rather than the straggling few individuals of the continental kind, statistically not worth worrying about, being few in number and too long in the tooth to boot, just remember Thomas Kuhn’s analysis of the prime mechanism of scientific change…

CB: I find, as Foucault also makes clear, this barrier to change applies to all disciplines, personally. But I fear we have travelled far from the question we were working on!

BB: So returning to our earlier discussion, and now I can hear the full power that drives your already very forceful point; why, given all that can be said about the dominance of the analytic approach in philosophy, the persistent push to be continental, even if only to appropriate the name? Well, apart from just taking all the jobs and titles and posts, which is the biggest part of it, there is also an utter innocence: a kind of conceptual blindness on the part of analytic philosophy to the continental tradition. This amounts to what is in effect, a constitutional inability to see the point of any of the things noted before [e.g. in part 2] as significant in any way.

CB: Which is also the general problem some scientists have had with philosophy of any flavour, I rather suspect.

BB: To be sure. But think of the moment in a colloquium, provided it ever happens, which in fact it does not tend to, where, having invited a continental philosopher (as opposed to a continentally-flavoured analytic philosopher) to give a talk where someone in the audience asks the speaker to say just what it is the speaker is saying, a question is usually posed (there is more rhetorical spin than logic here) as the third or fourth question after the lecture. This can be a quite friendly question, posed in all innocence, just as one can explain something in class and a student can raise their hand and ask one to say it all again, once more, with pith, for the exam.

CB: The expectation that there must be a simpler way of putting a point, which is tied up in the naïve risks entailed in taking something complex and then making it too easily understandable, and thus misunderstandable – the ‘selfish’ gene being the paradigm example par excellence.

BB: That is a great example! In this context, if I could seem to be suggesting that continental philosophy just is what Heidegger does in Being and Time along with what Nietzsche does in all of his philosophy, including Zarathustra (Heidegger reminds us to ask who was Nietzsche’s Zarathustra?), also including the very unpublished bits many of us are delighted to have scholarly permission to ignore, and not less all the pre-Socratic thinkers as well as a Plato read rather differently than an Oxbridge don would read him and an Aristotle read differently than a current Stanford professor of theology would read him, today’s continental claimants are often more at home in comparative literature or other departments where the talk is talk of “theory’ which last I have nothing against but which is not, because it does not have to be, philosophy.

CB: This is critical theory you’re referring to here? I always find it odd, to be honest (although I enjoy reading a lot of it) that anyone would call ‘theory’ something that involves neither theorising nor application of theory. I rather suspect the choice of ‘theory’ is a rhetorical move to add credence to a particular kind of hermeneutic activity, because ‘theory’ is a word clad in the shiny armature of the sciences.


BB: No, or not quite, or at least not as I understand critical theory.  For me, critical theory is Horkheimer and Adorno  – and then some. But today’s Frankfurt School hasn’t been about Adorno for years. Thus if I have reservations about philosophy overall, your point about ‘theory.’ only gets more complicated inasmuch as there is no move to ‘annex’ Comparative Literature or what other disciplines like Political Science or Sociology or even Media Studies or Communications can call ‘theory.’ Thus it matters as Reiner Schürmann long ago observed (to quote him once again as a witness to the era) that when the American analytic philosopher, Richard Rorty wrote The Mirror of Nature to look at certain conundrums interior to the philosophical project of raw feels and C-fibres that were then all the rage, and proceeded to decamp from the Princeton Philosophy Department he did not join ranks with the so-called pragmatist pluralistic movement, let alone the ‘continentals’ who read his book with enthusiasm, but, ganz im Gegenteil, or “far from it” as Schürmann would say, switched instead to those very departments of Comparative Literature that had long welcomed Derrida, jumping disciplines as he jumped ship.

CB: Sometimes, any safe harbour, no matter how far flung, is better than going down with the ship…

BB: Certainly! But I am not persuaded that Rorty needed safe harbour.  A Princeton Professor is not typically a persecuted personage. Surely Rorty wanted more than analytic philosophy.  But he remained enough of an analytic philosopher that he would not put in with other voices, the pluralist voices, let alone the continental voices. Rorty, I would say, wanted to become Rorty rather than to help bring other voices into the profession. But there is something more: and currently among analytic philosophers there is, it seems to me, a sense of incipient boredom.  I find a presentiment of this in, of all people, Mary Midgley who wrote a blurb on your book The Mythology of Evolution to inspire blurb-envy in anyone, especially me (I have adored Midgley’s work for years, and it takes nothing away from this admiration to note that she too, of course, enjoys an analytic formation and great sympathy for the same tradition).

CB: I ought to say that as an outsider, I felt enormous pressure to earn endorsements for my philosophy books lest I have no credibility at all. Not to mention, lacking any training in philosophy, I felt I needed to engineer something akin to an apprenticeship by building upon the work of others, to which I was obligated to a certain intense (and solitary) study. Thus Imaginary Games is clearly a tribute to analytic aesthetician Kendall Walton, who very gladly endorsed it, and The Mythology of Evolution answers Midgley’s call to clear up the contemporary confusion about motives, and again, she endorsed it. I consider these endorsements as enormous blessings, of course, but it ought to be recognised that I sought them out from direst personal need… But I digress: you were talking about analytic boredom?

BB: My point here, in addition to connecting with your own book, is that Midgley herself points to the devolution of analytic philosophy, left to its own devices – and it insists on being left to its own devices whereby and on its own terms, it winds up, as I am fond of quoting A. Z. Bar-On, as having “less and less of what to analyze.”

This is Midgley’s point, as she wrote in a lovely letter, snippets of which have (owing to the occasional interest regarding the absence of women in academic philosophy, especially at the highest levels) been getting a certain amount of attention on the internet. To finish this very long answer to your very engaging first question, I’d like to quote her at more length than she is usually quoted, not that she is long, she is very concise, inasmuch as what Mary Midgely does assesses analytic philosophy’s ‘normal’ in the sense of Kuhn’s normal science, as a culture which endures until revolution anticlimactically comes through folk’s dying off or until some other way emerges that manages to change the topic. As she writes in a letter to The Guardian (Thursday 28th November 2013):

What is wrong is a particular style of philosophising that results from encouraging a lot of clever young men to compete in winning arguments. These people then quickly build up a set of games out of simple oppositions and elaborate them until, in the end, nobody else can see what they are talking about. All this can go on until somebody from outside the circle finally explodes it by moving the conversation onto a quite different topic, after which the games are forgotten.