Recent Analytic Philosophy I

In the previous post I suggested that in academic philosophy there is double-talk regarding friendship. Just as in America talk of democracy can be used to re-enforce hierarchical structures, so too in an institutional structure like academic philosophy talk of friendship can be used to re-enforce hierarchical structures.

Some clarifications. First, I am not saying there aren’t normal friendships in academic philosophy; of course, there are. Just as there can be, and is, some genuine discourse for democracy in America. The issue is that just as in America the language of democracy can be used to undermine democracy, so too the language of friendship can be used to undermine greater equality in institutional structures.

Second, I am not saying this use of friendship talk is intentional. That makes it seem as if people “in power” are purposefully using the rhetoric of friendship to cover over institutional hierarchies. And that in turn makes it seem as if we already know in principle how people should interact to foster real equality, but that we are failing to live up to that. But I don’t think we know what it would be for people to really engage as equals, since we don’t yet know how to structure our society to enable that. Of what “true equality” could even mean. Lacking such knowledge, but also not being to confront the essentially hierarchical structures of our society, can lead to a general discourse of “we are all friends” which is mainly a form of wish fulfillment. As Stanley suggests in his book, this is perfectly compatible with people having good intentions. But as long as we don’t become aware of it as wish fulfillment, we assume that the ideal is already close to hand, and in that way re-enforce the existing structures.

My sense is that academic philosophy fifty years ago didn’t have this sense of wish fulfillment. In 1965 it was obviously mainly white men who were in positions of power: Quine, Strawson, Carnap, Ryle and so on. Of course, there were also some women such as Anscombe, Ruth Barcan Marcus, and others. And to highlight that the people in power were mainly white men isn’t to demean their philosophical achievements. I am sufficiently Nietzschean to think power and excellence are not easily separated, and to that extent, inequality and excellence often go hand in hand. Nietzsche is surely right that it is a kind of sophomoric squeamishness to shy away from this fact. But it doesn’t imply, as Nietzsche presumed, that this is the inevitable state of affairs. Only that if some dent (even a little dent) is to be made concerning inequality, this fact has to be fully faced up to.

I have often wondered whether the contemporary generation of philosophers are as good as those of Quine’s generation and before. This is not a pot shot at anyone, nor a question of intrinsic ability. It is a question of the relation between privilege and excellence. Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Sartre, Quine: they, and many others, had a kind a privilege which even the most well off academic philosopher nowadays cannot hope for. Those philosophers lived at a time when it was still possible to think, because of how the structures were set up, that they could speak for the human condition, and for their society.

It is not a mystery why a Russell or a Wittgenstein has a grip on the collective philosophical imagination in a way that even a Strawson or a Nozick doesn’t have. It is because Russell and Wittgenstein were able to occupy roles at a time when their positions were seen to speak for the people in society. When one thinks of their writing, whether one agrees or not, there is a sense that they are giving voices to parts of my own mind. There is a similar feeling with Strawon or Nozick, but not as much.

It is the same reason why there is a kind of halo around Marilyn Monroe or Marlon Brando which seems to outshine that of an Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. It is not that Brando is intrinsically better looking than Brad Pitt. It is because the traditional movie industry, the academy awards and so on played a larger role back then in people’s sense of themselves. Brando the method actor, the anti-establishment figure is also the last of the traditional movie actors who were groomed by the studio executives for a public who still trusted that excellence meant not just inequality, but an ideal they were willing to look up to. Same with the Beatles. Same with Wittgenstein.


In analytic academic philosophy this started to break sometime in the 70s and 80s. There started to be a suspicion that the kind of pedestal Wittgenstein was put on was obscene in its naked affirmation of inequality. This seemed uncouth in a time after colonialism, the civil-rights movement, the rise of feminism, and so on. So in the 80s the model of a philosopher was someone who was more humble, less comfortable with the kind of privilege that Wittgenstein, Austin and even Dewey had. The name of the game now was being one among a group: a democratic community of philosophical laborers.

The main figures of this trend were thinkers like Rawls and Lewis. Part of their appeal was that on the one hand they were undeniably excellent at philosophy, and yet on the other hand, unremittingly humble, with a philosophical personality that almost bordered on boring (though Lewis as an author has a spark and is lively, it is not the excitement of a political or cultural renegade). With them the Nietzschean link between excellence and inequality appears to be broken: they are the anti-Wittgenstein or the anti-Heidegger in this regard. Or even, in comparison to their contemporaries, the anti-Derrida or anti-Foucault. When I think of analytic philosophy in the 70s and 80s, I think of a parade of such excellent and humble, and kind of boring authors: Shoemaker, Block, Kim, and so on. Even the philosophers of that time with flair (say, Fodor or Kaplan) were philosophers whose flair was entirely tied up with their personality as something unique about them and without communal or deeper implications.

This humility of the 70s and 80s was obviously, consciously or unconsciously, a response to the broader cultural changes in society. At a time when society was reeling from deep issues of race, gender and many other things, someone writing about whether the inverted spectrum is fatal to functionalism can’t take on the tone of a prophet. Many academic philosophers took on a subdued, we are just intellectual laborers, attitude. Call this the 80s status quo.

This attitude was questioned from three sides within analytic philosophy. First, by people who were pursuing topics at the periphery of mainstream analytic philosophy; topics such as feminism, critical race theory, comparative philosophy, and so on. Thinkers like Elizabeth Anderson, Charles Mills, Bimal Matilal, Ifeanyi Menkiti and others. Some of these thinkers are well known, others less so. One thing they have in common though is that without giving up on the methods and self-narrative of analytic philosophy, they tried to expand the conception of a philosopher beyond the more limited and prevalent 80s conception of a meta-scientific under-laborer. Call this group the internal radicalssince they worked from within analytic philosophy to make it more engaged with pressing social issues.

Second, thinkers like Rorty and MacIntyre argued that the 70s and 80s conception of analytic philosophy had lost touch with the grander, institutional gad-fly aims of philosophy, and that in this way it was enabling, rather then resisting, the unjust structures in society. This was Rorty’s break from mainstream analytic philosophy, which was seen as intrinsically alienated from contributing to a socially engaged philosophy. It was assumed that the core concepts and methods of analytic epistemology, philosophy of mind, moral philosophy and political philosophy formed the conceptual essence of contemporary social structures, and that if philosophy is to be critical of those structures, it had to give up those core concepts and methods. Call this group the external radicals, since they argued that one had to give up analytic philosophy to be more engaged with pressing social issues.

The internal and the external radicals had this in common: they sought to change the debates and the central texts of mainstream analytic philosophy of the 80s. A third group tried to change analytic philosophy even while continuing those same debates and texts. Call this group the cultural radicals. The internal and external radicals assumed that changing the debates and texts of academic philosophy was the way to change the culture of academic philosophy: once the content of philosophy was changed, philosophers would then be more open to diversity and plurality within analytic philosophy itself. The cultural radicals pursued the reverse order: they sought to change the culture without giving up on the texts and debates of the 80s.

The cultural radicals included thinkers such as Gareth Evans and George Boolos. Though their expertise was technical analytic philosophy, they were different from the more staid-seeming 80s analytic philosopher in that they had a kind of moral energy about them – a sense that beyond the content of the philosophy itself, the social norms of academic philosophy had to change. They became for many analytic philosophers paragons of what it was to be a modern, hip, thoughtful and committed academic philosopher. They were brilliant thinkers, but they had something more: a kind of earnest passion for change which suggested that they belonged to a new generation full of the promise and potential of change.

This generational change is captured well in this exchange between Strawson and Evans in the early 70s. Strawson is the Oxford don and Evans is his protege. Strawson looks comfortable in his office, at ease, seemingly unperturbed by his privilege (I am speaking not of how Strawson was in his life but merely how he comes across in the video.) In contrast, Evans seems a bundle of energy, eager to push past the old, not as comfortable with accepting being an Oxford don, seemingly searching for a mode of being a philosopher that he can call his own rather than something passed on to him by Strawson.

Though Strawson is defending a kind of ordinary language philosophy perspective against Evan’s more scientistic seeming defense of bringing to bear the tools of linguistics, it is Strawson who seems much more conservative and Evans who seems like he can’t wait to throw Oxford philosophy upside down. Though the topic of the discussion is linguistic theory, the energy of the conversation seems rife with something more, something bigger: about the very mode of being of an academic philosopher, and what it means for one generation to supplant another. Even the body language of the two is strikingly different. Strawson: sitting straight, smiling, being a tolerant and even indulgent teacher proud of his exceptional student. Evans: slouching, wincing, looking up into the air, clutching his forehead, with an air of reverence for his teacher, but also ready to topple the old and usher in the new.

In this exchange Evans is a great example of what I mean by a cultural radical: he is not eschewing the debates or the texts that he learnt from Strawson (and Dummett, etc.), but he is seeking to continue those debates within a different framework. And not just the different framework of linguistics, but more relevant to the present point, a different inter-personal, collegial framework which changes the background habits of how one moves within the hierarchies and norms of academic philosophy.

Obviously, Evans is able to do this because by excelling in the debates he was educated in, he gained some institutional power, and in the video he looks like someone who is mainly ambivalent about how to use that power. Should he use it to be an academic like Strawson, or should he use it to be different in a way that is more pertinent to his generation? If the latter, what does that look like? This much seems clear in the video: he chose to use that power not simply to disagree with Strawson in a theoretical way, but to feel free to let himself exhibit in his behavior that he belongs to a different generation from Strawson. There thus arises the feeling that even as the texts are the same between Strawson and Evans, some big change is afoot.

So by the late 80s there were at least four groups in analytic philosophy: the 80s status quo, the internal radicals, the external radicals and the cultural radicals. In the next post I will think through what happened with these groups in the last 25 years.

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