Jim Holt begins the latest post to the New York Times philosophy blog, The Stone, with the following questions: “Is philosophy literature? Do people read philosophy for pleasure?” His immediate answer is, I think, more or less correct, “Of course it is, and of course they do.” What makes Holt’s post (and the edited version of it that appeared in yesterday’s print edition of the Times) more controversial and potentially interesting is his second set of questions: “Does anybody read analytic philosophy for pleasure? Is this kind of philosophy literature?”
But the rest of Holt’s post confines itself to the second of these two questions, taking a definition from Evelyn Waugh of literature as “the right use of language irrespective of the subject or reason of utterance,” which Waugh further defined as involving “lucidity, elegance, and individuality.” Holt makes a perfectly fair case that at least some analytic philosophy is lucid, elegant, and individual, and thus (at least according to Waugh), literature. Fair enough.
But does anyone, other than analytic philosophers, in fact read analytic philosophy for pleasure? Holt’s utter silence on this question is telling.
A few months ago, I blogged about the myth of the accessibility of academic history. I don’t think most academic history commands — or need command — a sizable non-academic audience. To the extent that we expect or demand that it should, we do our field a disservice. Nevertheless, if the accessibility of academic history is a myth, it is a valuable one. As I wrote then, “the notion that one should write as if one were addressing a literate, general audience helps historians counteract the tendency of academic discourses to get ever more abstruse and hermetic.”
But if the popular market for academic history is frequently exaggerated, the popular market for analytic philosophy is entirely imaginary…which may account for the fact that Holt doesn’t even attempt to answer his question about its existence.
Indeed, the reach of analytic philosophy within the academic world beyond the philosophy department is slight. To take an example close to home: the failure of U.S. intellectual historians to grapple sufficiently with analytic philosophy, both as an object of historical study and as a potential font of theoretical insight, has been a fairly frequent topic of discussion at the U.S. Intellectual History Conference and on this blog.
It is telling that Holt follows his first set of questions (about philosophy in general) with a paragraph about actual, human behavior:
People savor the aphorisms of Nietzsche, the essays of Schopenhauer, the philosophical novels of Sartre. They read the dialogues of Plato (and they would doubtless read the dialogues of Aristotle too, had Western civilization not been so careless as to mislay them). Some even claim to enjoy the more daunting treatises in the philosophical canon. “When I have a leisure moment, you will generally find me curled up with Spinoza’s latest,” Bertie Wooster swankily announces in one of P.G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” novels.
But Holt gives analytic philosophy only a rather theoretical defense of its literary virtues. It’s hard not to see Jim Holt as simply changing the subject from the question of whether an audience exists for analytic philosophy to whether, at some abstract level, an audience ought to exist.
When it comes to literary qualities, Willard Quine is not Plato or Friedrich Nietzsche, but I don’t think Holt has to prove that he is. Those who’ve read, say, Word and Object, know that Quine could certainly turn a phrase and could write very clearly about complicated and potentially abstruse issues. I have no problem whatsoever seeing Word and Object as a literary work (in Waugh’s sense).
Yet, it is also true that very, very few people read Word and Object (which is one of the great classics of analytic epistemology, for what it’s worth) outside philosophy classes. And Quine is hardly even a household name.
Compare and contrast Quine to John Dewey. Nobody, I think, has ever tried to make a case for Dewey as a prose stylist. Indeed, his turgid writing famously prompted Oliver Wendell Holmes to declare that Dewey wrote “as God would have spoken had He been inarticulate but keenly desirous to tell you how it was.” And yet Dewey was a household name, with enormous intellectual purchase beyond philosophy and beyond the academy. Indeed, plenty of philosophers who’ve enjoyed enormous influence and popularity have been difficult or even poor writers. Hegel and Heidegger are two examples that spring to mind.
Yes, people savor the literary qualities of well-written philosophy. But people read philosophy because they think they are going to learn something about “big questions”: how the world is, how we understand the world, how to live a good life, how to identify (or bring about) a good society, and so forth. I think people beyond philosophy departments remain interested in these questions. But, for decades, they generally haven’t much been interested in the kind of answers that Anglo-American philosophy departments have given to them. Why they haven’t is an interesting question. But I suspect the problem has little to do with whether or not Saul Kripke, David Lewis, or John Searle are good prose stylists.