Analytic Philosophy: An Informal Defense (and a Modest Criticism)

This is a post dealing with a few basic issues in contemporary philosophy, issues easily lost sight of even by some trained professionals depending on their inclination.

History discloses four major traditions, or more precisely, methods, of doing philosophy. There is systematic or speculative philosophy — the tradition represented by major pivotal figures such as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and the Whitehead of Process and Reality. It tries to provide an account of reality and everything in it, including where we fit in, what is of value in human life, and the moral rules or principles by which we should guide our conduct, among other things integrated into a single consistent system. Then there is analytic philosophy, which developed very slowly out of a sense long predating, e.g., Frege, that there was need for logical clarification of the questions philosophers ask and the language used to answer them. You can find plenty of hints of such in Leibniz and Wolff on the Continent, predating Kant, and you’ll find similar moments in Locke and Hume in the English-speaking world. There are figures such as the early Wittgenstein who cross-pollinate the two traditions in specific ways in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus which is systematic but tries to draw limits to thought by exhibiting the limits of the logic of our language.

(The other two schools are, of course, the existentialist-phenomenological tradition: philosophy should describe the human condition, which may mean writing novels as Sartre and Camus did or mean producing detailed analyses of lived experience as phenomenologists beginning with Husserl did; and Marxism / Frankfurt School thought: philosophers have tried to describe the world; the point is to change it.)

My topic here is analytic philosophy. Some say most of it is trivial, or at least inconsequential. While some analysts assuredly go overboard with the logic-chopping, if one considers this method’s potential to make a difference in our understanding of language, I beg to differ. If we give analytic philosophy a chance, we find that its approach to philosophical method is of the first importance.

What’s important about analytic philosophy is that sense, which one does not have to be a trained philosopher to appreciate, that it is frequently important to clarify what a question is asking, or a conclusion really asserting, as a condition for knowing if one has gotten anywhere with an inquiry. This is surely true enough in the traditional problems of philosophy. The difference of methods is the difference between an assertion that God exists, perhaps backed up with a standard argument, versus asking, What does the term ‘God’ mean? Does it mean the same thing to everyone? Or between being asked “Are you free?” and realizing the need for clarity: “What sense of ‘free’ are you talking about?” Even asking the far more specific, “Is your will free?” gets into trouble, absent a clear sense of what the question is asking and what a good answer to it looks like.

So analytic philosophers have seen their job as stepping back from the Big Questions and asking what they mean, through close attention paid to the language one uses to ask them, and to defend specific answers to them. If we cannot get clear what it is we are talking about, in these cases or many others, then we can hardly expect to achieve results that anyone will agree on or are useful. If there is insufficient attention paid to language, then interlocutors who disagree will continue to talk right past one another … which, of course, they might do anyway, but for other and less savory reasons than mere linguistic or intellectual confusion.

So with God most of us mean the God of Christianity, or of the Bible, a Unique Being, uncreated, existing outside of space and time as we experience and understand them (which may be Western constructs in any event), all-powerful and able to suspend causality to perform miracles, all-knowing, His nature manifesting both perfect logicality and perfect moral goodness, and perhaps more. All these concepts may (do) stand in need of further analysis, but with this sense of what we are talking about, we have material to work with (which may, of course, be old hat … or not). For there is also, some will note at once, the Creator invoked by deists, who doesn’t necessarily have all the above characteristics as he doesn’t intervene supernaturally in the world. Analytic philosophy of religion can clarify such differences and perhaps contribute to the discussion of why they might matter for such policies as the separation between church and state.

With freedom of the will, we find ourselves exploring such issues dating back at least to Hume’s and Kant’s time, such as whether it means action taken outside the causal structure of the universe: free actions being the set of actions for which what I want to do is the sole determinant. This, of course, raises a number of questions, such as: if what I want to do is determined by nothing outside of itself, then how does it avoid being completely arbitrary? One answer is that there are influences but not determinants on what I want to do which can only be identified in the case of specific, concrete actions. Influences, unlike determinants, can conflict with one another … as one knows if one has had a decision to make and been caught between conflicting impulses. There are many other answers as well; although it’s a separate discussion because there are many senses of free, I would argue that it is confusing and misleading to bifurcate freedom of the will and influences (even determinants) on our actions as if the difference was absolute.

Analytic philosophy did more than explore conundrums like these, of course. While there continued to be healthy explorations of the traditional questions of philosophy and an insistence that they be given answers that made logical sense (and, for positivist and logical empiricist sub-schools of analytic philosophy, that they be fully consistent with the pronouncements of the specialized sciences), there were also explorations of philosophical method itself … including whether philosophy could have a method of its own, resolving special logical-mathematical-set-theoretical conundrums such as the Liar’s Paradox (“I am at this moment lying to you; do you believe me or not?”) and the paradoxes of set theory with which Russell wrestled. Soon we saw close analyses of the language and justification of the findings of physical science (the origin of modern philosophy of science) which were deemed important as physics had just seen the most significant revolution since the scientific revolution itself with the fall of the Newtonian edifice.

A division appeared among analysts, however, over whether they should approach their subject matter from the standpoint of an ideal language, the preferred ideal language being the formal logic developed during the 1800s and refined by Russell, Whitehead, and the early Wittgenstein, or whether analysts should pay more attention to language in its “ordinary,” unrefined and unreconstructed usages. The later Wittgenstein, and Strawson, became the first proponents of the latter, and the term ordinary language philosophy was coined as more and more British philosophers came on board, much to the chagrin of ideal language philosophers such as Russell. Ordinary language philosophy seemed to have as its advantage that it could take account of the many uses to which language was put, uses not captured by truth-functional accounts. We use language not merely to assert true statements about things but to request information (ask questions), provide instructions, give orders, express emotions, tell stories, tell jokes … and there are other uses we’ll encounter presently.

There can be no single “ordinary” language, of course; there are many “ordinary” languages. Every natural spoken language, in its raw, unanalyzed form used by a community of native speakers, could be viewed as an “ordinary” language; and natural languages, responding not to the severe requirements of an abstract formal logic but to a multitude of practical, workaday demands placed on them by users, grade into the more formal languages as they became specialized in various endeavors, be they scientific, technological, commercial, entertainment-focused, or some combination of these. The difference between a formal language and a natural one is, therefore, a continuum and not a dichotomy. (Regrettably, Western philosophy is full of untenable dichotomies, but that, too, is a post for another day.) Thus the term I prefer over ordinary language philosophy is natural language philosophy. It is more versatile, able to cover more territory in the human world. Charles Morris, who sought to integrate the insights of both pragmatism and behavioral psychology into analytic philosophy (and who was instrumental in enabling many logical positivists to emigrate to the U.S.) distinguished three areas of inquiry: syntax (or syntactics): purely formal relations between signs; semantics, or relations between signs and objects or categories of objects; and pragmatics, relations between signs and sign-users. This trichotomous study has sometimes been called semiotics, the study of signs.

The third of these, pragmatics, is by far the most important. If we wish analytic philosophy to be relevant to the world outside of academic cubicles and seminar rooms, it is where we should end up. The later Wittgenstein and his philosophical progenitors enlightened us about the many uses to which language can be put, depending on what a speaker wants to accomplish. Examination of the many motives human beings bring to language use can enhance any such account.

Propaganda is, of course, one such use — the one I personally find to be both the most interesting and the most useful to analyze. Language can be used to utter true statements, or statements that are true to the best of the speaker’s knowledge which is invariably somewhat fallible. It can have other innocuous uses such as those listed above. Or it can be used to utter statements the speaker knows to be false, or is unsure of but seeks to conceal his (her) uncertainty. It may be fair to call many such statements lies. Or, of course, language can be used in assertions the truth value of which the speaker does not care about one way or the other, in which case the term bullshit has almost become part of the standard lexicon following Harry Frankfurt’s ingenious short analysis of it (On Bullshit, 2005; cf. also his On Truth, 2006). There are philosophers paying attention to such issues (e.g., Jason Stanley; cf. his How Propaganda Works, 2015, which I hope to discuss in a future post at some point). The fact that I can virtually count them on my fingers is part of today’s problem.

Language is used propagandistically when it is used to mislead, so that its intended audience goes away believing something to be true that is really false, or at least insufficiently supported by publicly-available evidence. We can all think of examples. Most of us have probably fallen into the trap of contributing a few of our own. An example Stanley conceded he hadn’t thought of (because his slant is, on the whole, typically academically left of center), is homophobia. It is an example I have mentioned before, as just one of a family of such examples all characterized by the use of the suffix phobia against critics of a belief or lifestyle or some combination thereof: Islamophobia, transphobia, and so on. A phobia is, of course, a recognized mental illness. Examples of real phobias include claustrophobia and agoraphobia. One does not respond to arguments made by suffers of a phobia, e.g., that one really is in danger of suffocating because the place is enclosed. One never assumes their view of a situation is veridical. One therefore tries to cure them with therapy. Apply this to our examples above. What it means is that those accused of homophobia, Islamophobia, and now transphobia, etc., are falsely if indirectly accused of suffering from mental illness because they criticized specific assertions, activities, and policy decisions, and whose conclusions are therefore not seen as worth arguing against. Maybe they can be “cured” with the “therapy” of “sensitivity training.” (It is very interesting that although the word Christophobia has been used in a similar context by Christians, this word has never caught on and remains generally unknown.)

This is how propaganda actually works both inside and outside academia, and analytic philosophers (especially those with the protection of tenure) can be criticized for their unwillingness to go anywhere near such examples. This is the “modest” criticism of my title. I keep it modest because the majority of professional philosophers are introverts. Even if not, few have any taste for the rough and tumble world of political discussion, where it is easy to conclude that arguments and evidence aren’t what matter. (Most who do are contributing the wrong things! Or so I would argue.)

Distinguishing between the use of a word or phrase and a mention of it is also useful in analytic philosophy; consciousness of such could prevent many mishaps, including some that have sabotaged careers. A formal account will be helpful. To use a word in a sentence is, again, to say something about the word’s referent or reference class in the natural language where it is most at home. If I assert, “The cat is on the mat,” I am obviously saying something about a particular cat (“The cat …”), a nonlinguistic entity in the world. Or with the entire reference class: “Cats tend to be nocturnal animals.” If I assert, on the other hand, “’Cat’ is an English word with three letters,” or perhaps, “‘Cat’ is an easy word for children to learn with an appropriate picture,” I am not using the word to refer. I am mentioning it, to say something about a linguistic entity. The bulk of our discourse about language(s) consists, obviously, of mentions and not uses.

If this distinction can be made clear and public, mentions of words or phrases such as illegal immigrant, or of other words or phrases deemed derogatory of politically protected groups (or of consisting of hate speech, again imputing a mental condition to the user or mentioner absent any evidence of such) and therefore verboten, and of creating a hostile work or academic environment given today’s prevailing hypersensitivities, should be seen as a legitimate part of intellectual inquiry, even by those who reject using them. Mentioning is already done by the groups themselves on occasion. If asked, some would be able to recount how they reclaimed a word or phrase so that their uses of it are no longer negative or hateful, under the condition that the use is limited to their speakers, as when blacks use the word nigger among themselves to refer to one of their own, or when homosexuals use the word queer for themselves, or as part of phrases such as queer theory that are now part of their academic lexicon. I trust it is clear that all of these are mentions and not uses (mentions of mentions, if you will). A use is always for something nonlinguistic. A mention is always of something linguistic.

In sum, analytic philosophy serves important purposes within philosophy, and if one knows where to look, it can serve important purposes in analyzing the natural language in which trends and tendencies that affect the “public mind” are expressed. That includes “hot button” issues that, sadly, fill the public discourse with more heat than light. Be this as it may, one should be able to see from this short discussion that analytic philosophy is potentially far from trivial, and many of its most powerful techniques are sadly underutilized. Analyzing the language of op-eds, policy statements, political speeches, and related pronouncements of all kinds, is part of a broader service analytically-trained philosophers are capable of performing if only more would rise to the occasion, and if they could further train themselves to reflect on their own ideological biases where these exist, seeing them for what they are, and not avoid analyses of words or phrases favorable to an ideology they prefer.


Author’s Note: if you believe this article and others like it were worth your time, please consider making a $5/mo. pledge on my Patreon site. If the first 100 people who read this all donate, my goal of just $500/mo. would be reached in no time! And if we’re honest about it, we all waste that much money each day.  

Telling the truth can have negative consequences. Around this time last year my computer was hacked — it wasn’t the Russians, either! Repeated attempted repairs of the OS failed, and the device gradually became unusable — a reason I haven’t been around much lately — and I’ve had to replace it off-budget.

This is also an attempt to raise money to publish and promote a novel, Reality 101 (a globalist speaks in a voice filled with irony and dripping with cynicism). Promoting a book means, in my case, the necessity of international travel which is not cheap.

I do not write for an audience of one. I write for you, readers of this site. If you believe this work makes a worthwhile contribution, please consider supporting it financially. I am not a wealthy person, and unlike the leftist groups I criticize, I do not have a George Soros funneling a bottomless well of cash my way.

If I reach the above goal of $500/mo., I may be able to speak at an event in your area (contact info below). On the other hand, if this effort fails, I am considering taking an indefinite “leave of absence” beginning later this year to pursue other goals. To sum up, these are your articles (and books). I don’t write to please myself. No one is forcing me to do it, as sometimes it brings me grief instead of satisfaction. So if others do not value the results enough to support them, I might as well go into retirement while I am still able to enjoy it.


About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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