Bertrand Russell, Nobel laureate in Literature...

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Like most philosophers in the United States, I was trained in a department that had a majority of philosophers in the analytic, or Anglo-American, tradition. This tradition focuses on careful breaking down (analysis) of philosophical problems, and originally focused on problems stemming from language. Either it tried to clarify language in terms of some ideal language based on the language of symbolic logic (e.g., the early Bertrand Russell), or else it focused on the ways we use language in ordinary contexts (e.g., the later Ludwig Wittgenstein). But after World War II, the analytic tradition has returned to traditional problems in philosophy: the existence and nature of God, the nature of cause and effect, the ultimate structure of reality. But its approach is careful, often using the tools of symbolic logic as an aid in clarifying reasoning.

The chief strength of the analytic tradition is its emphasis on careful reasoning. This pushes out a great deal of b.s. and avoids the worst pitfalls of the Continental tradition. One big advantage is that most analytic philosophers avoid the moral and epistemological relativism of some Continental philosophers such as the postmodernists Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. While there are exceptions such as Richard Rorty, the fact that the name of an exception has to be mentioned shows how firmly the analytic tradition has opposed incoherence. The tradition has increased in philosophical breadth, especially since the 1970s, and is now dealing with the issues traditional philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas tackled.

The chief strength of the analytic tradition today is also its chief drawback–it tries too much to model its methodology on physical science, especially mathematical physics. Many articles by analytic philosophers make use of so much symbolic logic that they look more like mathematical treatises than philosophical articles. It is doubtful that such articles will have any lasting effect on philosophy in the future–they certainly have no impact on the general public. Mathematical logic has its uses, and some articles are helped insofar as the logic clarifies reasoning. But logic can also be used to obscure faulty premisses–a deductive argument can be valid but unsound due to unsound assumptions. Mathematical logic can also be used to show off. Some analytic philosophers do not respect any philosopher whose paper does not contain “alphabet soup.” Great philosophers such as William James are mocked for being sloppy by people whose intellect pales in comparison with James’. The analytic tradition has an arrogance about it that is disconcerting. But insofar as it protect philosophy from the poison of postmodern relativism that has infected the other humanities, I prefer it to remain the majority school of philosophy in the U.S., the U.K., and Scandinavia.

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