Analytic Philosophy and the Big Questions of Life

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At the start of each term, Helena de Bres (Wellesley) holds “get to know you” office hours with her students. “So what made you sign up for a philosophy class?” she asks.

“We read Beyond Good and Evil in our AP English class,” Taylor replies.
“In my senior year I did an independent study on Albert Camus,” Jada announces.
“I discovered Kierkegaard when I was sixteen and it changed my life,” Ying explains.

“Wonderful!” I say. Then I wonder how long it will take this time to crush their hopes and dreams.

[edit of cover image of “Life is a Seventy-Five Cent Paperback” by Johnny Hart]

In the second installment of her series for The Point on academic philosophy and the meaning of life (the first is here), Professor de Bres questions whether the division of labor that characterizes contemporary analytic philosophy—the “normal science” of different philosophers each working on their narrow questions—can give anyone the wisdom philosophy is supposed to be the love of, particularly if, in addition to being focused on a particular specialization, analytic philosophers in their work are supposed to keep their own emotions, hopes, and fears “firmly out of view,” and avoid “features of language important to atmosphere, mood and enjoyment… for fear of muddying the message or conveying superficiality.” She writes:

As you practice the analytic method, with that attitude, and in that style, you become adept at distinguishing at a very fine grain between different possible theses, and noticing the various ways in which they might be arranged in relation to each other to form arguments for or against highly circumscribed and abstract positions. It’s an interesting thing to do with your mind, but what’s it for? What’s the big picture? How does it help us approach our limited and fraught time here on the planet? Bad questions! The proper response to “What’s your philosophy of life?” is to snort, raise your eyebrows at your colleagues and get back to responding to Reviewer 2.

By contrast, “the rest of humanity doesn’t feel fenced in by disciplinary restrictions when asking big human questions.”

Concerns like this are sometimes raised by people who think that the worst thing to have happened to philosophy is that it was institutionalized within universities. I don’t think this is the view of Professor de Bres (we will see where the series goes), but each system, we can acknowledge, may have its problems. Is it true that analytic philosophy, at least as it is professionally practiced, has trouble giving us “a complexly integrated picture of how the world is, how we should feel about it, and how we should move about in it as a result?” And if it is true, is it a problem? And if it is a problem, can we do anything to address it?

From where I’m sitting, it seems we are on the cusp of changes someone moved by Professor de Bres’ concerns might hope for. Analytic philosophy will continue to have its narrow specialists, and that’s good. But we are increasingly seeing more analytic philosophy explicitly on big questions about life by well-established figures in the discipline (e.g., Meaning in Life and Why it Matters by Susan Wolf, Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way by Kieran Setiya) and this will trickle down somewhat. We are seeing a greater acceptance of public philosophy, which, because of the kinds of expectations the public tends to have about philosophy, may make philosophy more accepting of work that is relevant to “real lives”. And we are seeing, in the younger generations of philosophers especially, some with surprising breadth that cuts across traditional subdisciplines, and a respect for those willing to bring philosophy to bear on their own personal lives. (For all of its downsides, social media has made at least some philosophers seem more human to each other, and I think that has eroded the force of some of the old-school circumscriptions of analytic philosophy.)

I think there is a historical story that makes sense of why it took a little while for analytic philosophy to get to this point. I can’t tell that story in detail now, but I do think it is just the latest development in the broadening of analytic philosophy, a kind of growth that has been with it from fairly early on, which accelerated in the 1970s, and which has really taken flight over the past two decades.

Your thoughts, as usual, are welcome.

Originally appeared on Daily Nous Read More

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