October 26, 2004

Too close for comfort

In the latest London Review of Books there's a piece by Jerry Fodor that caught my eye. Well, I say caught my eye, but given that I usually read it cover to cover, with the exception of poetry reviews and anything by Terry Castle, it didn't have to work too hard.

For all that, it kept me going in the Wenlock Arms before last night's chess game. It had a lot of justified fun at the expense of the self-satisfied wordplay that seems to pass for philosophy in the academies of the West. It's worth quoting at length - or at least, it's necessary to, in order to follow it. The subject matter is barely worth quoting at all.

A revisionist account of the philosophical enterprise came into fashion just after World War Two. Whereas it used to be said that philosophy is about, for example, Goodness or Existence or Reality or How the Mind Works, or whether there is a Cat on the Mat, it appears, in retrospect, that that was just a loose way of talking. Strictly speaking, philosophy consists (or consists largely, or ought to consist largely) of the analysis of our concepts and/or of the analysis of the 'ordinary language' locutions that we use to express them. It's not the Good, the True or the Beautiful that a philosopher tries to understand, it's the corresponding concepts of 'good' 'beautiful' and 'true'.

This way of seeing things has tactical advantages. Being good is hard; few achieve it. But practically everybody has some grasp of the concept 'good', so practically everybody knows as much as he needs to start on its analysis. Scientists, historians and the like need to muck around in libraries and laboratories to achieve their results, but concepts can be analysed in the armchair. Better still, the conceptual truths philosophy delivers are 'a priori' because grasp of a concept is all that's required for their recognition. Better still, whereas the findings of historians and scientists are always revisable in principle, it's plausible that the truths conceptual analysis reveals are necessary. If you want to know how long the reign of George V lasted, you will probably need to look it up, and you're always in jeopardy of your sources being unreliable. (I'm told he reigned from 1910-36, but I wouldn't bet the farm.) But the philosopher's proposition that a reign must last some amount of time or other would seem to be a conceptual truth; being extended in time belongs to the concept of a reign. Historians might conceivably find out that George V reigned from, say, 1910-37. That would no doubt surprise them, but evidence might turn up that can't be gainsaid. Philosophy, however, knows beyond the possibility of doubt - beyond, indeed, the possibility of coherent denial - that if George V reigned at all, then he reigned for a while.

"Philosophy, however, knows beyond the possibility of doubt - beyond, indeed, the possibility of coherent denial - that if George V reigned at all, then he reigned for a while." Thanks for that. Two and a half thousand years of rigorous intellectual analysis succeeds in proving the bleeding obvious. And not only succeeds, but makes proving the bleeding obvious its goal and its purpose.

But there's more.

Still, there was felt to be trouble pretty early on. For one thing, no concepts ever actually did get analysed, however hard philosophers tried. (Early in the century there was detectable optimism about the prospects for analysing 'the', but it faded). Worse, the arguments that analytic philosophers produced were often inadvertently hilarious. Examples are legion and some of them are legendary. Here are just two that will, I hope, suffice to give the feel of the thing. (Truly, I didn't make up either of them. The second comes from Hughes, and I've heard the first attributed to an otherwise perfectly respectable philosopher whose name charity forbids me to disclose.) First argument: the issue is whether there is survival after death, and the argument purports to show that there can't be. 'Suppose an airplane carrying ten passengers crashes and that seven of the ten die. Then what we would say is that three passengers survived, not that ten passengers survived. QED.' Second argument: the issue is whether people are identical with their bodies. 'Suppose you live with Bob . . . who went into a coma on Wednesday . . . Suppose that a friend calls on Thursday and says: "I need to talk to Bob: is he still in England?" You might naturally answer: "Yes, but he's in a coma." Now fill in the story as before, but suppose that Bob had died. When the friend says "I need to talk to Bob: is he still in England?" would you really answer, "Yes, but he's dead," even if you knew that Bob's (dead) body still exists and is still in England?' Presumably not, so QED once again. Now, I don't myself believe that there is survival after death; nor do I believe that persons are identical with their bodies. But, either way, these arguments strike me as risible; dialectics dissolves in giggles. If, as would appear, the view that philosophy is conceptual analysis sanctions this sort of carrying on, there must surely be something wrong with the view.
Indeed there must. One aspect of what's wrong with it was stated by Marx in the eleventh of his Theses On Feuerbach, but perhaps that does it more credit than the philosophers deserve. It might be more to the point instead to recall Dr Johnson's response to Bishop Berkeley's finessing of the reality of matter, and to suggest that if "this sort of carrying on" - or this sort of pissing about - is what they get up to all their lives, then the weight of the shoe might usefully be transferred to the backsides of the philosophers.

To be honest, though the actual passage that caught my eye was this one, at the start of the piece:
Sometimes I wonder why nobody reads philosophy. It requires, to be sure, a degree of hyperbole to wonder this. Academics like me, who eke out their sustenance by writing and teaching the stuff, still browse in the journals; it's mainly the laity that seems to have lost interest. And it's mostly Anglophone analytic philosophy that it has lost interest in. As far as I can tell, 'Continental' philosophers (Derrida, Foucault, Habermas, Heidegger, Husserl, Kierkegaard, Sartre and the rest) continue to hold their market. Even Hegel has a vogue from time to time, though he is famous for being impossible to read. All this strikes me anew whenever I visit a bookstore. The place on the shelf where my stuff would be if they had it (but they don't) is just to the left of Foucault, of which there is always yards and yards. I'm huffy about that; I wish I had his royalties.
Foucault, Fodor. And that woke me from the stupor to which a couple of decent pints and the obligation of trying to follow analytical "philosophy" had reduced me. Because I know how that goes. My surname is almost exactly the same as Nick Hornby's. For a dozen years or so his books have taken up large amount of shelf space just to the left of where mine would be, if they were there to take up any space. But they're not. And I do not have his royalties. And if there's any kicking of backsides to be done, perhaps it should be carried out on and by myself.