*  ESSAY *

What's Wrong with Contemporary Philosophy?

That is the title of an important paper by Kevin Mulligan, Peter Simons and Barry Smith

Abstract. Philosophy in the West divides into three parts: Analytic Philosophy (AP), Continental Philosophy (CP), and History of Philosophy (HP). But all three parts are in a bad way.

AP is sceptical about the claim that philosophy can be a science, and hence is uninterested in the real world. CP is never pursued in a properly theoretical way, and its practice is tailor-made for particular political and ethical conclusions. HP is mostly developed on a regionalist basis: what is studied is determined by the nation or culture to which a philosopher belongs, rather than by the objective value of that philosopher’s work. Progress in philosophy can only be attained by avoiding these pitfalls.

This repeats a number of the claims made by Bryan Magee regarding analytical philosophy and also Continental philosophy so it says little new for Critical Rationalists but it is good to see it coming from some people who are on the inside of the profession. Barry Smith is a very interesting writer, a prolific publisher across a wide range of topics including the philosophical basis of Austrian economics.

Some extracts from the paper.

Analytic Philosophy (AP), although it comes in many varieties, has four striking properties. First, it is cultivated with every appearance of theoretical rigour. Second, its practitioners do not, by and large, believe that philosophy is or can be a science, i.e., they do not believe that it can add to the stock of positive human knowledge. Third, the philosophers who until very recently were the most influential models in the pursuit of philosophy as a theoretical enterprise – Chisholm, Davidson, Armstrong, Putnam, Kripke, Searle… – have no obvious successors. Finally, AP has succeeded in the institutional task of turning out increasing numbers of highly trained, articulate and intelligent young philosophers.

Continental Philosophy (CP) comes in almost as many varieties as does AP but is always decidedly anti-theoretical. This is particularly true of those varieties which sport the name “Theory”, but it holds in general of all those CP philosophical traditions in which political goals are more or less preeminent. The heroes of CP – Heidegger, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida – also belong to the past and they, too, have no obvious successors.

Is that a bad thing? Where do you go from the works of those folk? What are the interesting questions, the growing points of knowledge that they have provided?

Their main complaint with the APs is their  horror of the outside world and their preoccupation with in-house puzzles.

Suppose we say that ontology is the study of what there might be and metaphysics of what there is. Then metaphysics is clearly inseparable from empirical science. But it is thereby also inseparable from an interest in the real world... But analytic metaphysics of the social world only  begins with the publication by John Searle in 1995 of The Construction of Social Reality and it has still gone little further than Searle.

Another example of the lack of interest in the real world in analytic ontology and metaphysics is provided by the sad story of current work in such fields as bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, and the so-called ‘Semantic Web’. Ontology and metaphysics ought surely  to be acknowledged as of great importance in fields such as these.  In fact, however, philosophical confusion is the order of the day, because AP-philosophers with some knowledge of ontology, manifesting their  horror mundi, have shown little interest in grappling with the problems thrown up by these fields, leaving it instead to philosophically naïve exponents of other disciplines to wreak ontological havoc.

Philosophers, for their part, occupy themselves with in-house puzzles, ignorant of the damage their neglect is wreaking in the wider world. This kind of philosophy encourages introspection  and relative isolation because philosophy is not seen as directly relevant to the scientific concerns which prevail in the wider world. As a result, once the main options have been explored, which takes between two and ten years, it becomes hard to base a new career on contributing to the debate, and so interest shifts elsewhere, on to the next trend. The result is a trail of unresolved problems.

The problems are not unsolvable, nor are they unimportant, but the attempts to solve them are insufficiently constrained by matters outside philosophy conceived in a narrow and incestuous way. They are insufficiently constrained, too, by any attempt to build a synoptic system through sustained, collaborative efforts, in which philosophical theses about substance, matter, qualities, science, meaning, value, etc. would hang together in a coherent way. In positive science results are expected. In analytic philosophy everyone waits for the next new puzzle. Like the braintwisters holidaymakers take onto the beach, philosophical puzzles  divert from life’s hardships. They doubtless have their place in a flourishing theoretical culture. But AP is at its core a culture driven by puzzles, rather than  by large-scale, systematic theoretical goals.

Continental Philosophy, for its part, is equally averse to theory (despite protestations to the contrary) and it is also distinguished by lazy scholarship.

CP’s lack of interest in philosophy as a theoretical enterprise emerges most clearly in its relations to the phenomenological movement. Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, … and many other prominent CP thinkers grew out of phenomenology. At the same time, CP rejects the vision of philosophy as a theoretical enterprise that was embraced by Husserl and the other great founders of phenomenology – yet without making any attempt to justify this rejection. Phenomenology has, in fact, served CP well as a hydra-headed pretext – Marxist phenomenology, feminist phenomenology, hermeneutics, Derrida’s foaming defilements of what he calls ‘phallologocentrism’ – but in all these cases the aspirations of  the founders of phenomenology to uncover truth have been made subservient  to a non-theoretical agenda, whether political or socio-cultural, and in Derrida’s case to an agenda that is shamelessly anti-theoretical.

Moreover, in spite of the dominance of phenomenology in CP philosophizing, CP’s own history of philosophy is strikingly ignorant of the history of phenomenology itself. The loving attention lavished on manuscripts by Heidegger or Fink coexists with complete ignorance of the writings of truly important phenomenologists such as Reinach, Ingarden or Scheler.
In Europe, CP has triumphed institutionally and culturally even though, and indeed in part because, it has never won any theoretical battles, flourishing best in the  feuilleton. In certain philosophy departments in North America, too, CP is slowly moving towards  hegemony, aping the successes of CP-related anti-theoretical movements in US departments of sociology, literature, cultural studies, geography, anthropology, archaeology, and so forth. In the leading philosophy departments in the Anglosaxon world however, AP still holds its place, though it has something of the flavour of a self-perpetuating academic business, frequently proud of  its lack of relevance to real-world concerns. HP on the other hand has  almost everywhere collapsed into nationalist or regionalist hagiography.

So what is to be done? It seems that little is gained by attempting to debate with strong advocates of the rival schools, unless someone has found a more effective way to engage with them than I have managed. So we  had better engage with substantive problems in our own areas of interest and hope to achieve two objectives. First to demonstrate the power of CR and cognate theories when applied to problems in other fields. Second to find new philosophical problems, assuming that many if not all the most interesting philosophical problems arise outside philosophy, as argued in this paper.

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