U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Popular Analytic Philosophy?


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.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. As far as popular philosophy goes, Mortimer J. Adler was accusing the profession of irresponsibility in relation to communicating its findings to those outside the profession in the 1950s and early 1960s. His first, most prominent book in which he did so was *The Conditions of Philosophy* (NY: Atheneum, 1965). As for Adler himself and the work he did to correct the problem he identified, he explicitly never aspired to make his books of philosophy “literature.” But he highly valued readability, literature’s lesser cousin. Adler knew that people cared about The Big Questions—even those outside the Great Ideas he helped construct in the late 1940s. As for analytic philosophy and Adler, I think he would’ve argued that it is contrary to the nature of analytic philosophy, which places a high value on symbolic logic, to be inherently communicative to lay audiences. The field would need a charitable “translator” who, while caring for its work, would place less of an emphasis on carrying on any significant conversations with other analytic philosophers. Adler never made that effort in relation to post-1950s analytic philosophers. – TL

  2. This comment is in two parts, owing to its length.

    As Avrum Stroll reminds us in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy (2000), analysis as such goes back to ancient Greek philosophy, evidenced, for example, in Socrates’ dialectical examination of concepts like justice or the Stoic treatment of the emotions. Insofar as, historically, what has counted for “analytic philosophy” has been identified or associated with formal logic, or viewed as a handmaiden of science (i.e., used largely for conceptual underlaboring or analysis and clarification of the concepts of science and perhaps even the concepts of everyday language, especially as those might be seen as ‘proto-scientific’ or in conflict with science), or believed a philosophical account of thought must be dependently bound to a philosophical account of language, it has tended toward an insular if not inaccessible rhetoric that by design or default rules out, or is quite skeptical of, different approaches to and topics of philosophy. In effect, this has meant that “analytic philosophy” has often been linked to specific philosophical doctrines, ideologies, or schools, although this connection is a purely contingent and not necessary one. What has exacerbated the negative features of this connection is a rhetoric or rhetorical style cultivated within a specialized realm of the respective doctrines, ideologies or schools. Fortunately, collective self-examination and critiques from within philosophy, as well as laments and critiques from outside philosophy proper (say, from the humanities more generally), has meant that today it is possible, and often the case, that many of the real and putative virtues associated with an “analytical” approach have transcended specific philosophical commitments and doctrines, ideologies and schools. So, for example, we can no longer speak of a structural conflict of sorts between “analytic” and “continental” philosophy, and thus even those with phenomenological preferences or proclivities or sensibilities, like the late Richard Wollheim, or those associated with “naturalizing phenomenology,” can display all the characteristics one associates with an analytic approach to philosophical questions.

  3. Given the breadth and depth of specialization in contemporary philosophy, and for better and worse, it is not surprising that whatever may loosely fall within the rubric of analytic philosophy is going to read as if it was, as it often is, intended for one’s peers in a particular specialized field, including, the editors and referees of the relevant journals. Yet today there is a fairly large number of what we can justly term “analytic philosophers” who’ve demonstrated an ability to also write in a manner accessible to the rest of us (which itself remains a fairly small circle within the general public): Thomas Nagel, Amélie O. Rorty, the late Robert C. Solomon, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Hilary Putnam, Joel Kupperman, Martha C. Nussbaum, Annette C. Baier, Avrum Stroll, the late Peter Goldie, C.A.J. (Tony) Coady, Oliver Leaman, John Cottingham, John Haldane, Simon Blackburn, and Jonathan Lear (among not a few others: these came quickest to mind and it would be tedious to construct a long list). A handful of contemporary analytic philosophers, like Owen Flanagan and some of the “new atheists” of avowedly naturalist suasion and commitment have even attempted to address the “big questions,” those often classed within “the meaning of life.” Insofar as the general public still subscribes to religious or spiritual worldviews, this literature will probably fall on deaf ears, or at least not be at all persuasive.

    In short, an analytical approach to philosophical topics, problems, and puzzles need not be, even if it often is, couched in an inaccessible rhetoric, meaning one penned to meet the criteria and standards articulated of a specialized vocabulary intended solely for one’s professional peers. Only a serious and sensitive consideration of what we’ll term rhetorical issues, will find analytic approaches penned in a manner accessible to the rest of us. And only a profound reflection on the notion of philosophy as a “way of life,” or therapeutic philosophy, will result in a philosophical praxis that is capable of displaying not only analytic virtues, but the greater virtues of wisdom and compassion an educated public expects from its philosophers, an expectation that, in the West at least, goes back to ancient Greece and Rome.

  4. @ Patrick O’Donnell: Very valuable comments with which I largely agree (including your excellent post on therapeutic philosophy). I would only add two things: first, that my observations about mainstream Anglo-American philosophy were historical / sociological, rather than methodological / theoretical in nature. That is, I was observing that, as a matter of fact, unlike many other groups of philosophers in many other times and places, mainstream Anglo-American philosophers haven’t communicated with a broad, extra-philosophical community of readers in at least half a century. As you suggest, some of this has to do with the questions they ask…and with their use of language (though Holt is write that some of them do write well…and, as I note above, some philosophers who’ve had broader audiences don’t). But I did not mean to suggest that analytic philosophy, as a transhistorical approach to philosophizing, is necessarily of interest only to philosophers.

    Secondly, I also think some of what is going on is that mainstream Anglo-American philosophers have often not much cared to communicate beyond their own academic community in recent decades (which makes them very unlike folks like Dewey or Bertrand Russell). Of all the people you mention above, Nussbaum, Appiah, and (maybe) Flanagan (who has, as you suggest, lately gotten some attention from the broader “New Atheist” community…and from Buddhists with his latest book) have had the broader purchase beyond philosophy departments, I think. But I don’t think any of their work quite matches the non-philosophic readership that the work of, say, Richard Rorty or Alasdair MacIntyre has commanded.

  5. Ben,

    I understand and agree with the first point (and nor do I think analytic philosophy is necessarily of interest only to philosophers, although I do believe much of it is: again, there’s always exceptions, like Danto’s arguments in the philosophy of art, or when philosophers are intervening on topics intrinsic to other fields: linguistics or science, for example). And as for the second, I generally agree as well, although I think an explanation of this does have something to do with specialization in the discipline (which grew rapidly after Russell and Dewey were in their prime), it being much harder to communicate (or cultivate an interest in) the results of such specialized research. Philosophers like Rorty and MacIntrye, with an abiding interest in political matters, especially as these have direct bearing on a democratic polity (like both Dewey and Russell earlier) have ample motivation to reach outside the profession, and their treatment of many-things-political makes it easier to find a non-philosophic readership, becoming public intellectuals and not just academic philosophers (although in Rorty’s case, some would argue he eventually sacrificed the latter identity in favor of the former). To some extent, this happens in ethics and moral philosophy as well: think Peter Singer or Dale Jamieson or Onora O’Neill, nice examples of philosophers who’ve engaged non-philosophical publics.

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