Thursday, April 12, 2007

What's Wrong with Contemporary Philosophy?

[cross-listed at SUPHI]

Here's an interesting article that attempts a diagnosis of contemporary philosophy and why it seems not to progress or hold much external sway.

http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/articles/What'sWrong.pdf (Hat tip Stephen Hicks)

I am sympathetic to the points made in the article, in particular regarding analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy has, in its current academic form, largely become irrelevant, esoteric, and insular. What used to be -- and still is billed as such -- the quest for asking and answering "The Big Questions" has become overly concerned with technical terminology and peculiar puzzles.

Can you really imagine Aristotle at the Lyceum worrying about whether it is a logical possibility for a cat to give birth to an elephant? I recall several times thinking in a seminar: "if we resolved this _fill in the blank_ puzzle, definitely and once for all, what difference does it make?"

4 comments:

The Yangist said...

I dig Contemporary Analytic Philosophy, but I've always

turned to pre-Han Chinese thought to answer most of the

bigger questions. But what's funny is that some of the

puzzles about which Analytic Philosophers sometimes obsess

prove valuable to Eastern goals.

A favored example to present to Westerners (because it

requires the least background into Chinese history)

illustrates this point comes from Rujia (Confucianism).

People generally think of Kongzi (Confucius) as an ethicist

and political philosopher, which he clearly was. However,

his methods of ethics and approaches to political affairs

are largely built on a framework of idealized methods of

felicitous communication. I use felicitous because

he is using it in exactly the Austinian sense. Like

Austin, Grice, Searle, et. al., Kongzi is very concerned

with speech acts, and in addition, the "rectification of

names" (zhengming, 正名). He believed that people,

because they have fumbled their language so much that they

distort their claims about reality, have forced their own

and others' right understanding of the world awry. For

that reason, he sought to develop a system that returned to

the "purity" of the previous Zhou Dynasty, a Dynasty that

he argued kept, but then lost, that rectification, thereby

causing the turmoils that (after Kongzi's death) boiled

over into the Warring States Period.

But while Ordinary Language Philosophers deal largely in

the epistemic clarifications of performative utterance,

Kongzi appears to have presumed them, and then worked

straight into the normative end of Ordinary Language study.

Hence Kongzi's Five Relations and Four Virtues. They are

really all of the guidelines one would need in order to

have an efficient system whereby felicitous speech acts

were the norm rather than (according to Kongzi's

accusations) the rarity.

Kongzi's instruction, like those of other schools, served

as training for political instruction. Think of it like

political advisement schools, except the politicians with

whom they dealt were absolute and often ruthless. Happy

speech acts were of the utmost importance to Kongzi and his

students, since they didn't want to get themselves (or

their whole clan) killed or degraded for giving wrong,

specious, or condescending advice to a higher authority.

Now, perhaps our present-day, everyday speech acts do not

entail life-or-death consequences, but there are other

consequences that we consider when performing our own

speech. I don't think it would be too far of a leap, then,

to show that many of the puzzles of reference or of

terminological distinguishments can be valuable to the end

of accurately expressing our thoughts, thinking of our

expressions as a performance, that is.

Now, I agree that a lot of problems that Analytic

Philosophy presents are insular and worthless. Who the

hell knows how to quantify deviations in possible worlds,

or how to determine how human-like a self-aware robot would

be? What criteria or judgment on such matters could even

stand for more than ten seconds without some wacky

counterexample getting in the way? That doesn't matter to

me so much, but some of the other sorts of puzzles that

Mulligans, Simons, and Smith mention do really seem to

concern themselves with the real world, at least with

respect to accurate performance.

Would all of this seem like a worthwhile end to keep in

sight while working on the puzzles in Analytic Philosophy?

Sorry to keep intruding on your blog. You're the only

interesting read I've found on this whole site thus far.

Shawn said...

Thanks for your comments. Interesting stuff, though I know next to nothing of Chinese or more broadly eastern philosophy. At some point in one of my future lives, I'd like to take a look at some Confucian thought.

YseUp said...

I think there needs to be much more cross disciplanary communication.

All the time I hear economists try to predict the future of the economy, psychologists labelling someone abnormal, politicians declaring someone evil and their actions just, activists failing at putting a coherent message together about the environmental impact of humans.

If they took the trouble to wander over to the Philosophy department they could do themselves a great favour.

But it's up to the Philosophers to take the initiative and show the world how philosophy can help.

Shawn said...

Very true. Of course, philosophers need to look to these other fields as well. I've showed philosophy articles to some of my physicists friends who laugh out loud at how badly the philosophers bungle quantum theory. Philosophers (myself included) are often woefully ignorant of other fields.