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Seth Kurtenbach, here. Over at LessWrong, there is a discussion concerning the merits, or lackthereof, of analytic philosophy. The discussion is linked here. The original poster, named Potato, makes many claims to the effect that the community of LessWrong’ers is better at addressing philosophical issues than is the average analytic philosopher. I am quite unfamiliar with LessWrong, but having perused through the responses to Potato, I am pretty impressed with the skepticism and hesitation to join in on the intellectual masturbation party. Other LWers point out several flaws in Potato’s reasoning. I will also say that, as an analytic philosopher, I am committed to the idea that almost all analytic philosophers are wrong and stupid. So I don’t disagree entirely with bold Potato. I will briefly address a few of his claims that have not yet been tackled in the comment section.
Potato’s initial claim:
By and large, I would bet money that the devoted, experienced, and properly sequenced LWer, is a better philosopher than the average current philosophy majors concentrating in the analytic tradition. I say this because I have regular philosophical conversations with both populations, and notice many philosophical desiderata lacking in my conversations with my class mates, from my school and others, that I find abundantly on this website.
Analytic philosophy trains one to reason carefully, make fine distinctions, ask unobvious questions, and search for counterexamples to any assertion. We hold in high regard clarity of argument. Thus, the discipline’s philosophical desiderata include (but are not limited to) careful, precise, thorough, critical reasoning that is presented clearly. If an analytic philosopher lacks these desiderata in conversation, it is not because analytic philosophy eschews them or discourages them. However, Potato is not clear about what the desiderata are, in his mind. It may be that the analytic philosophers with whom he converses exhibit these properties, but that he does not consider them to be philosophical desiderata. In that case, it may be that the philosophical desiderata held in high regard by the LessWrong community are not the same as the philosophical desiderata held in high regard by the analytic philosophy community. Without knowing the philosophical desiderata of the LessWrong community, I cannot say how the sets of desiderata add up. One might wonder why the philosophical desiderata of an Internet community would be superior to those of an academic discipline with dedicated professionals…
If they really honed their skills in crushing their opponents arguments, and could transmit this skill to other successfully, then we wouldn’t have so many open questions in philosophy, and we would notice the sort of exponential growth of the power of our methods, like we see in molecular bio.
Now, I’ve been doing analytic philosophy for seven years. Through all of these years of practice, I’ve noticed my process of reading has changed. Rather than merely reading for understanding, I also constantly search for counterexamples and objections to every claim I read. It has made me a slow reader, because the additional computation takes time. This sentence took me a while to read. As I read a claim, my brain alerts me to objections and counterexamples with something like red flags and alarms. Imagine the sentence to be a neighborhood street, lined with mailboxes. As I read the sentence, it is like walking down the mailbox-lined street, and each time I encounter a weak claim, susceptible to an objection or counterexample, a flag goes up. I stop and make a note of each flag along the way. The above claim has the general form of a conditional, if-then. Conditionals are false when the antecedent, the ‘if’ claim, is true, and the consequent, the ‘then’ claim, is false. In my earlier days of philosophical training, I would have generated a counterexample to this claim, if this be possible, and gone out drinking. Now, though, I simply make note of this possibility, and search for other potential weaknesses and more charitable interpretations of his claim. Rather than reading it as a conditional of some sort, we can interpret it as a hypothesis and its prediction.
The hypothesis is: Analytic philosophers hone their skills in crushing their opponents’ arguments, and can transmit this skill to others successfully.
The prediction generated by this hypothesis is: There are not so many open questions in philosophy, and the power of the analytic method grows exponentially, like in molecular biology.
Thus construed, his claim amounts to a falsified hypothesis, because he alleges that the prediction is false.
But why think that the hypothesis really generates that prediction? Recall that the methods of analytic philosophy encourage thorough, precise criticism. This means that there is a focus on finding flaws in existing claims, and on finding new logically possible claims with flaws of their own. This process results in an expanding of our conceptual landscape, which results in more questions. So, I don’t think that the hypothesis actually generates a prediction that there be relatively few open questions in analytic philosophy. Quite the opposite, I would expect the number of open questions to increase. Analytic philosophy concerns itself with examining questions, criticizing responses to those questions, identifying new questions, and identifying new ways of understanding questions. This process need not culminate in an answer to questions. Sometimes, analytic philosophy advances by giving us a better understanding of a question, or by asking a question in such a way that it can be investigated empirically. Then, a new science is born, and questions can be answered empirically (with no credit given to philosophy!)
So, if this reading captures the essentials of Potato’s claim, then I think his claim misses its mark. We should not expect relatively few open questions. But what about the other aspect of the prediction, concerning the exponential growth of the analytic method? Well, given what I’ve said about the broad and thorough criticism and the conceptual expansion, it seems like we should expect a growth, perhaps not exponential, of the analytic method. The analytic method, roughly construed, is the analysis of concepts and arguments with the use of formal logic. Consider this in terms analogous to the scientific method: the systematic observation of nature with the use of experiments (likewise roughly construed). In what sense is there growth? For science, the body of facts grows, and our understanding of nature both broadens and deepens. Our ability to manipulate nature increases as a result. Analytic philosophy does not aim at amassing empirical facts, so its failure to exponentially grow in this regard is not a mark against it. As far as understanding goes, analytic philosophy does contribute to an overall increase, by examining questions that are left unexamined, or unexaminable, by science. But I think the best defense of analytic philosophy’s methodological growth comes from the aggressive surge of development in logic that the 20th and early 21st centuries have seen. Our ability to analyze arguments, and reasoning in general, has increased at a rate close to exponential. The field of modal logic is only one small fragment of philosophical logic, and it is already vast beyond all measure. I intend to spend the rest of my life studying modal logic, and I will never catch up with all the advances made in the 20th century, let alone all those piling on top in the 21st century. Look at this. And this. Simply put, our analytic methods have been expanding. Fucking rapidly.
But we can also interpret his claim as a deductively valid argument.
1. If analytic philosophers hone their skills and can transmit these skills to others, then there are relatively few open questions in philosophy and an exponential growth of the power of the analytic method.
2. There are not relatively few open questions in philosophy.
3. There is not an exponential growth of the power of the analytic method.
4. Therefore, analytic philosophers don’t hone their skills, or cannot transmit these skills to others.
My above discussion should show that premise (3) is false, and that premise (1) is doubtful. So, the most charitable interpretations of his claim fail under scrutiny. I invite the reader to leave comments with other interpretations that might be more charitable.
Finally, Potato compares analytic philosophy to self-help books:
But let us not forget, that comparing molecular biology and philosophy, is like comparing self-help and physics. We should not be as surprised if a bunch of clever enthusiasts make better self-help than professionals, as if a bunch of clever enthusiasts made better physics than physicists. This is because physicists are better at physics than self-help writers are at self-help, the same is true of biologists and philosophers respectively.
I leave this one to the reader.
Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy PhD student at the University of Missouri. His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality. He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers. Feel free to contact Seth at SJK7v7@mail.missouri.edu with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!