The Purpose of Analytic Philosophy

A logician’s wife tells him: “Run to the store and pick up a loaf of bread. If they have eggs, get a dozen.” The logician comes home with 12 loaves of bread.

The goal of analytic philosophy to analyze statements, and to use logic to make their meanings unambiguous and their consequences clear. So, what's not to like?

Continental philosophy, in contrast, is often written in dense prose that is extremely difficult to parse. For example, here is a quote from Jacques Derrida:

"A determination or an effect within a system which is no longer that of a presence but of a différance, a system that no longer tolerates the opposition of activity and passivity, nor that of cause and effect, or of indetermination and determination, etc., such that in designating consciousness as an effect or a determination, one continues - for strategic reasons that can be more or less lucidly deliberated and systematically calculated - to operate according to the lexicon of that which one is de-limiting."

Who can honestly say that they can clearly understand such sentences? And if this statement is meaningful, who would say that this is the best presentation of its claim?

Advocates of continental philosophy have generally responded to their critics by saying that the continental style expresses ideas that are beyond the realm of analysis, and that their textual criticism leads us to radically discount the value of any single way (e.g., the analytic approach) of looking at the world.  

At this meeting, I will argue that:

1) Logic and analysis clarifies meaning, and solves real problems. It serves as the philosophical analogue of scientific control. To claim that a treatise only has meaning when we don't treat it analytically is like saying that a corporation is only profitable when we don't check its bookkeeping, or that space aliens visit us only when the cameras stop rolling.

2) Logic is general and universal. If analytic epistemology is universal, then public claims about humanity become scientific matters, i.e., they become psychology, anthropology, etc. Concepts and language can be mapped, and cultural differences can be bridged and translated. Attempts to waffle one's way through human affairs (politics, history, feminism, human nature, etc.) with philosophy is just bad science.

I'll argue that philosophy is supposed to make sense, and we ought to have high standards of clarity and intelligibility. If we ignore analytic methods, we're bound to fall into a sort of anti-intellectual philosophical cargo cult that worships words at the expense of their meanings.

Suggested Readings:  

Rudolf Carnap's paper The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language hits the spot. 

Alternatively, Wikipedia has articles on analytic philosophy, continental philosophy, and Jacques Derrida.

*The image is from the Uncyclopedia article on Analytic Tradition

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  • Chad B.

    The "Introduction" of this book (through page 32) is probably the best I've read: http://books.google.com/books?id=V-TWAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

    1 · April 17

    • Chad B.

      We can make allowances for it being written in 1882.

      1 · April 17

    • Chad B.

      P.S. I think the proper analogy is not a Creationist "argument from ignorance" but a Humean "is-ought" problem.

      April 18

  • jerry

    Is analytic philosophy confined to the analysis of languages? If so, it appears to me that the entire discipline is burdened by a handicap. For instance:

    "I should like to lose the habit of conversation," he (Goethe) remarked in 1809, "and, like nature, express myself entirely in drawings"- a remarkable comment for a poet... "The symbolic," Goethe wrote in a maxim on art, "transforms the appearance into an idea, the idea into an image, and in such a way that the idea
    in the image remains always endlessly effective and unreachable, and even if expressed in every language, still remains inexpressible".

    -Steigerwald, Goethe's Morphology: Urphänomene and Aesthetic Appraisal

    2 · April 17

  • mariann

    Reading Carnap right now, and all I can think is "Oh yeah, Aristotle already covered that." Ironic, but I think this might be a serious allegation against Carnap who is basically taking up the questions (and coming up with the same preliminary conclusions as) one of the greatest of all metaphysicians ever, lol. Only Aristotle wasn't just interested in simplistic syllogisms based on a priori categories- but how the syntax of "elementary sentences" as Carnap calls them, are justified as well. You know, the "is" of those sentences. You know, "being as such."

    1 · April 16

    • Ivan

      Mariann & Dan, I think you have a peculiar definition of metaphysics. Logic and analysis applied to phenomena does not significantly involve metaphysics.

      April 17

    • mariann

      All I'm saying is this- it is very curious that Carnap is carrying on about the importance syllogisms and logic as a route to true knowledge, when that stuff was already covered by Aristotle- and he uses these elementary sentences to justify his metaphysical Categories. If Carnap is so interested in original meaning, maybe he should stop using the term "metaphysics."­

      April 17

  • Jack

    barren nonsense versus bad poetry

    like 'Cockneys versus Zombies'

    April 17

  • jerry

    Holy crap the list is long...

    Ivan, is this your doing??

    April 16

  • Monika K.

    Would be very interested in getting a chance to attend!

    1 · April 16

  • John H.

    I wanted to start from Ivan's idea of scientific control. This is also democratic control. When ideas are clearly expressed consequences of statements are clear and anyone is free to point out problems which are entailed. When a theory is obscure it is possible for its author to deny that a untoward consequence really follows (it's impossible to know what does follow from an obscure statement). In this way, can become a kind of cult leader, constantly reinterpreting his statements to suit the occasion. The French philosophical scene seems to me to be a real example of what can happen when there is not a culture of restraint by clarity and logic. I'm not trying to be dismissive but some of these philosophers got into writing pure nonsense on occasion.

    April 14

    • John H.

      I was not attacking French philosophy generally or even a particular philosopher. I was pointing out that some French philosophers did write particular stuff that is nonsense. To me there is something troubling about this.

      April 15

    • John H.

      There have been philosophers from various camps fighting against oppression. The Vienna Circle was not apolitical. Russell went to jail for his opposition to WWI. Sartre & DeBeauvoir were anti-fascists. For sheer moral courage I have to admire Sartre's & DeBeavoir's oppostion to the Algerian war. Philosophical belief like religious belief is does't exclude people from the struggle against oppression.

      April 15

  • justin s.

    Mariann,
    So far as difficult terminology goes, I think the French deconstructionists and post-modernists since Sartre have practiced that, perhaps partly to establish a kind of 'cult following.' Most of the politically active followers were in student groups, which is to say, intellectuals who didn't mind the lingo, and maybe felt 'cool' to be insiders who understood it. I believe students are typically liberal, and want to do what 'feels good,' more than think objectively. So they may have a natural dislike for the 'hard science' and 'objectivity' claims of analysts. As I've already expressed, I worry about the relativism of most modern thinking, which means that 'truth' is always tied to which side has the most power (whether it be tyranny of the few or tyranny of the many).
    .

    April 14

    • mariann

      Well, I'm not going to fault someone for wanting to be a celebrity philosopher, lol. But there might also be the possibility of a hyper-awareness of the creative and arbitrary nature of language. Again, I sympathize with the frustration of having to navigate it- but to make accusations that this isn't a proper way of doing theory, or that its not objective because its speaking a language all its own- or worse, it is impotent in democratic world-building, is an unfair assessment.

      2 · April 14

  • Lesley G.

    Hi, when can I find out if I'm off the waitlist? Thanks!

    April 14

    • Lesley G.

      or we can potentially break into two groups as an alternative?

      April 14

    • Thrashionalist

      I believe the site will notify you by email. Of course, the waitlist is currently so long that the chance of that happening is unfortunately low. We set RSVP limits according to what we think best suits our venues, and 20 is already pushing it for Filter. Given how much interest there is in this topic, it might make sense for us to post a followup meeting tackling the aftermath or overflow of the discussion.

      2 · April 14

  • John H.

    This is the second part of the post below:
    I'll give one example from Lacan:

    “human life could be defined as a calculus in which zero was irrational. This formula is just an image a mathematical metaphor. When I say “irrational” I'm referring not to some unfathomable emotional state but precisely to what is called an imaginary number...”

    The mathematics here is all wrong. It's nice that it's only a metaphor but what do you get when you compare something to nonsense?

    I believe that this kind of writing was widespread in France. There's a whole book of examples: A. Sokal & J. Bricmont Fashionable Nonesense. (Incidentally Derrida does not come under fire in this book) The point I'm trying to make is that lack of clarity and disdain of logic are real dangers to a rational culture.

    April 14

  • justin s.

    Hi, All,
    AT Penn State, long ago, I took a course in 'natural' or 'informal' (i.e. linguistic) logic by Henry W. Johnstone, Jr. He was a great and personable teacher, and used our class to develop a new text. He greatly influenced the course of the first half of my philosophical studies, in logic, science and epistemology.
    Googling his name, I found an article by Jean Goodman (Northwestern U.) summarizing his contributions. His main emphasis is on rhetoric, which is a (combative) process, and is not about fixed 'truth content' or how to state it unambiguously or 'meaningfully.' Check out this article, as well as Wikipedia on the "rhetorical wedge," which Johnstone proposed. It is so relevant to all our conversations here. [http://amr.uwindsor.ca/ojs/leddy/index.php/informal_logic/article/viewFile/2234/1678]

    1 · April 2

    • mariann

      Ivan and I just have interesting flareups every once in a while. It's all good!

      1 · April 4

    • Chad B.

      A meetup about Carnap's paper would probably invite less controversy than a meetup about what "I will argue."

      1 · April 4

    • Ivan

      I see no one has taken this bait. ;)

      1 · April 1

    • mariann

      Ha!

      April 4

  • mariann

    I can honestly say that I understand that passage. Derrida isn't as confusing to me because I'm familiar enough with the continental tradition, and the language it uses ("presence" referring to Being as it reveals itself in "signs" - written and spoken language) that I feel quite comfortable navigating its waters. But if the problem you have is that continental philosophy doesn't clarify meaning- then I can agree with you to some extent.

    March 27

    • Brian

      There's a reason we start at Plato before moving on to Hegel etc.

      April 1

    • mariann

      Ivan, I'm glad you said this. You can explain quantum physics to me in a simple way, but it's not going to make me a serious quantum physicist. I still wouldn't be able to use the language of mathematics. The same with philosophy- I can sit around and paraphrase Derrida to make the ideas more "graspable" but the level of complexity at which he's dealing with things like the signs of grammar (and it is really complicated) is going to be lost.

      2 · April 1

  • Chad B.

    I'm a believer in the (obvious) idea that not all languages are equivalent to all other languages. Some words cannot be unproblematically translated. And while it is true that "different" is not necessarily "good," I worry that restricting discourse to a particular grammar only serves to reinforce the conventions of that language (at the expense of thinking that is truly radical). Morpheus claimed (somewhat ridiculously, I admit, but it makes the point) that "no one can be told what the Matrix is."

    2 · March 28

    • Adam

      What? No they don't. Universities and fan clubs are full of astronomers who've maintained both wonder and rigor.

      April 1

    • mariann

      Wonder, mysticism- I tend to associate them with each other.

      April 1

  • justin s.

    Ivan, two comments on your intro: First, the story of the loaf of bread and the dozen eggs shows the problem with analysis. The man had no sense, and his wife would do well to beat the shit out of him. Second, in the quote from Derrida, what does "etc" mean? I hope to be there. Yours, Justin

    4 · March 27

    • Adam

      I can't insert hyperlinks on my phone, and I couldn't easily find anything on "is". But for a treatment of "many", google "how many maximizes in the Balkan sprachbund". It's written by a brilliant linguist who used to cheat at board games when we were growing up. This should give an idea of how empirical semantics can work. You'll need to use your imagination to fit it into a Bayesian framework, but it's possible to do if you were so inclined.

      1 · April 1

    • mariann

      Ivan, the former. But since you've agreed on that point, that meaning varies across cultures, languages, societies, scholarships, etc. then maybe you can give it a rest on continental language, which has its own tradition and manner of talking about truth. Now, if you want to accuse a very particular claim that a certain philosopher makes, that would be interesting. But as it stands, you didn't even know what Derrida was saying before you launched into an attack on continental philosophy as a whole.

      April 1

  • justin s.

    (1) I've been reading Carnap, and going back many years to my studies in analysis, the Vienna and Frankfurt circles (and English contributions) and philosophy of science and logic. These all are mainly efforts to find how to get knowledge - i.e. logical positivism of one sort or another. Ayer's paradoxical statement of the 'verifiability' principle is a good summary, and it was immediately blasted for being contradictory of its own claims - But I digress.

    March 29

    • Ivan

      And if they did claim P were true, wouldn't that be irrational? Wouldn't it be meaningless as a proposition in the sense that holding it to be true or false would always be irrational by their own definition?

      Also, is it possible for someone to be tricked by correct grammatical form into thinking a proposition is meaningful? This is the sort of error that the principle of verifiability is supposed to prevent. Of course, if we're all infallible...

      March 30

    • justin s.

      Half my post got lost. You might enjoy the enclosed chapter VI from F.H.Bradley's Essays on Truth and Reality (1914!) He critiques the 'correspondence theories' of the empiricist and offers 'coherence' instead. Compare this to Bayes' and Post-modern notions of how to determine 'truth.' The poor editing is my fault, because I couldn't copy directly from the e-book (500 pp), due to technical blocks so had to use a plain text version. http://www.scribd.com...­ Here's the whole book https://ia600406.us.ar...­

      March 30

  • mariann

    Given your disgust toward sophistry, rhetoric, and ideology in language- I imagine you, Derrida, the Marxists, and the feminists would get along just smashingly.

    1 · March 29

  • Adam

    Hey Ivan. As you know, I'm an unabashed fan of analytic philosophy. So I want to offer constructive criticism here so that we're in good shape to defend it in the meetup itself. First, you define a purpose for analytic phil, then you show how Cont. phil doesn't satisfy that. But that's not fair - of course cont doesn't satisfy analytic's purpose: it pursues its own purpose. We either need to show that cont phil doesn't meet it's own purpose (hard but possible), or that analytic phil's purpose is somehow loftier than Cont. (harder), or we just need to leave Derrida alone and limit the meetup to praising analytic phil (easy but less fun). Second, whilst defending analytic phil here we should probably be willing to let some points go through. E.g. Chad's point about the indetermenancy of translation is insightful, but not fatal. It makes analtyic's job difficult, but it says nothing about the importance of the work writ large. It's just something we have to manage.

    2 · March 29

    • mariann

      The "goal" of deconstruction is really, really tricky. First off, its not the same as continental philosophy- its considered a branch- although I do think that a lot of continentals use the methods of deconstruction. Secondly, continental philosophers have different purposes and goals, and there's plenty of infighting between the so-called camps. Existentialism's goals are individual choice, freedom and authenticity- while the goal of psychoanalysis is the alleviation of individual and social pathologies. Marxist critical theory has the obvious goal, that of class equality.

      March 29

    • mariann

      As for the goal of deconstructionism, I can only speculate. Derrida and Foucault were extremely engaged, politically, but weren't very explicit about it in their theories (in fact, Foucault was downright silent). I think if I had to define a goal, it would be that deconstructionism seeks to question the authority on all texts we take for granted, which makes it a very useful tool for almost everyone. Maybe its more of a tool for analysis instead of a concrete "camp."

      March 29

  • mariann

    Derrida wasn't interested in revealing how language can indicate any thing-in-itself- he was quite suspicious of that, because he felt it led to all sorts of overenthusiastic beliefs about what IS. But isn't that project itself a logical one? He was interested in structuralism and semiotics- the field of linguistics interested in representations and presentations, or... presence. This is not antithetical to "logical analysis." In fact, using logic he was able to further certain assumptions we make about the study of language, and what language can actually reveal to us.

    March 27

    • mariann

      Just because language doesn't refer to some concrete object in space/time doesn't mean that language is meaningless. You're jumping to that conclusion, that Derrida's claims render language impotent- he doesn't think this at all, he finds language to be a very powerful tool in shaping "reality" and that's why it is critical for us to deconstruct statements which go around parading as truth.

      March 29

    • mariann

      It's like what Edward Said said, a cultural critic/deconstructionist­ who was gravely concerned about the ideologies behind imperialism and colonization: just because language only references ideas/thoughts/other signs within the language matrix doesn't mean that it doesn't have serious implications for material reality. Wars are fought, bodies are destroyed, on the grounds of very flimsy truths. In fact, many of the continentals were reacting to WWII and the horror that arose because of ideology and manipulation of the masses through propaganda (Derrida, Marxist critics, the existentialists). That's something you can be sympathetic of- you're an atheist.

      March 29

  • Derwin

    for the record I just want to say I like both analytic and continental philosophy.

    1 · March 27

    • mariann

      Excuse me Eric?!!? MARYANN > GINGER, no contest!!!

      March 29

    • Rick O.

      How Continental of you to avoid the answer :)

      1 · March 29

  • Rick O.

    I'm not sure if difficulty should be viewed as a strike against something. Clarity is useful for simple things. Those that have problems with grocery lists or are worried about space aliens will probably find the Analytical approach quite comforting.

    (ps - great pictures!)

    2 · March 27

    • Rick O.

      There seems to be a tendency to use the term Philosophy when we are speaking of science. The two are qualitatively different. If we want to look at Philosophy scientifically that is fine - as long as we agree we are talking science, not Philosophy.

      Nowhere in my statement do I say Continental Philosophy is good at complicated things - the fact that I might have meant that doesn't matter - we would be asking about something that cannot be measured empirically (my intent), and therefore to the Analytic camp does not warrant discussion.

      (ps - it is good, though, at complicated things)

      March 27

    • mariann

      Rick, I agree with you. I'm worried about this identification of philosophy with science, and vice versa. Philosophy of science is its own thing- and, even going back to the talk about utility- scientific utility is only one type of utility as well...

      1 · March 27

  • mariann

    As for having certain standards of clarity and intelligibility, again- Derrida is a lot clearer to those who are drawn more toward the continental interests in philosophy and who are comfortable enough with the language it uses. But, more importantly, I think your statement touches upon a point that Derrida and others have directly addressed- what makes us so sure that clarity and intelligibility can be achieved when we rely on the structure of written and spoken language for our knowledge and our beliefs? Language is an all-too-human (and, actually, male) creation that IS politically and historically contingent, even when we don't think it is- and that's why feminism, critical theorists, and other, more peripheral voices have taken such an interest in continental philosophy. And, I'd argue, they have made great strides in revealing that even philosophy (as Nietzsche himself asserted) has its prejudices and its blind spots.

    March 27

    • Ivan

      To give you an example, there are framing biases. When people are asked how satisfied they are with their lives, and when last they had sex, they statistically give different answers depending on the order in which the questions are asked. This is a pretty simple experiment. If Derrida is correct about biases, he should be performing his task in a similarly analytic fashion. On the other hand, if he thinks there is a bias that is undetectable to careful logic and accounting, why should anybody care about this? They could never experience any effect of such a bias.

      March 27

    • mariann

      I think you should probably understand Derrida's project first, before you claim that his project is self-defeating.

      1 · March 27

  • mariann

    This is such an awkard way of writing long responses! Basically, my responses go from bottom to top, lol. Anyway, one last thing- I guess I fail to see how this lacks logic. To me, an overenthusiastic attempt to see language as presenting (not re-presenting, mind you) facts of reality is, ironically, willful ignorance of the fact of language as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon.

    March 27

  • Brian

    A good test of your theory might be analytical critique of e.g., Platos Cave. Would the best result be for the Plato lover to agree with your analysis and remain a Plato lover?

    March 27

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