I believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums. Until not very long ago, there were powerful creative impulses moving energetically through the field. There was the work in England of G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell and of Gilbert Ryle, Paul Grice, and Herbert Hart, as well as the work of various logicial positivsts. In the United States, even after interest in William James and John Dewey had receded, there was lively attention to contributions by Willard Quine and Donald Davidson, John Rawls and Saul Kripke. In addition, some philosophers were powerfully moved by the gigantic speculative edifice of Whitehead. Heidegger was having a massive impact on European philosophy, as well as on other disciplines — and not only in Europe, but here as well. And, of course, there was everywhere a vigorously appreciative and productive response to the work of Wittgenstein.
As a follow-up to this blog’s earlier posts critiquing the lack of methodological self-awareness in mainstream academic philosophy (that is, analytic philosophy and its descendants), I wanted to quote another skeptical remark from Marcus Arvan at The Philosophers’ Cocoon. The remark appears in Arvan’s post on The Sociology of Philosophy:
Marcus Arvan at The Philosophers’ Coccoon provides another encouraging example of an academic philosopher criticizing problem-solving methods that continue to be pervasively, uncritically used within the profession today:
I read a really interesting paper today by Abraham Graber entitled, “Creating Truths By Winning Arguments: The Problem of Methodological Artifacts in Philosophy” (forthcoming in Synthese). The paper sort of [crystallizes] a worry that I’ve had about philosophical practice dating back at least to graduate school, and which I explored previously here and here: namely, that a whole lot of philosophy–just about anything having to do with conceptual analysis (including analytic metaphysics and meta-ethics)–is little more than philosophers (1) taking themselves to [be] discovering objective philosophical facts (i.e. what material objects are, what morality is, etc.), where what they’re really doing is (2) making more-or-less arbitrary semantic decisions to settle the semantics of fundamentally vague concepts that (3) objectively have no determinate satisfaction-conditions before those arbitrary semantic decisions are made.
One of the remarkable features of Wittgenstein’s thought is its startling lack of concern for or interest in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein apparently stated with pride that he had never read a word of Aristotle, and his occasional references to Heidegger and Kierkegaard suggest that he read them more as sources of poetic insight into the human condition than as sources of contestable philosophical theses.
When Wittgenstein writes critically of “philosophy” in his later writings—that is, when he is not using the term “philosophy” to refer to his own preferred mode of therapeutic problem-relief—he almost always seems to have in mind the kind of analytic-style philosophical problem-solving practiced by Cambridge philosophers such as Russell and Moore. It is unclear how he would criticize, or indeed if he would criticize, the sort of philosophical writing produced by other philosophical traditions, whether ancient or modern—or for that matter, non-Western or Western.
So, following up on previous posts on this topic (“Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?“), one way forward from the later Wittgenstein might simply be to ask: what would it be like to read other philosophical traditions through the lens of Wittgenstein’s later works? What would an encounter look like between Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods and the dialogues of Plato, or the science of logic of Hegel? What might a therapeutic Wittgensteinian think about Heidegger’s ontological claims, or Derrida’s playfully evasive transcendentalist moves? What might Wittgenstein have to say about various figures in, say, Chinese or Indian philosophy?
For those who find Wittgenstein’s critique of contemporary philosophical problem-solving compelling, but who resist the idea that philosophy should be nothing more than Wittgensteinian therapy, where can philosophy go?
Continuing from where an earlier post left off, one answer would be to agree with Gilles Deleuze that philosophy should be engaged in “the production of concepts.” This is very different from the puzzle-solving philosophy that Wittgenstein critiques. Whether this puzzle-solving is labeled by its practitioners as a form of analytic philosophy or an alternative to it, it is motivated by the attempt to discover the answers to philosophical problems. It assumes, against Wittgenstein, that there are correct answers to these problems, and that these answers can be determined by logical inference from the linguistic materials at hand, whether these materials come from intuition, natural science, or psychological experiment.
A philosophy based on the production of concepts, by contrast, would seek to create rather than discover, to make rather than find. It could be seen as dedicated to the creation of new “vocabularies,” in Richard Rorty’s use of the term. These new vocabularies might serve some of our ends better than the vocabularies we already use.
What kinds of vocabularies does Deleuze himself create?
I’ve mentioned before my view that the later Wittgenstein, nearly three quarters of a century ago, persuasively showed the hopelessness of most of the linguistic puzzle-solving that dominates academic philosophy today. Wittgenstein’s later work shows why the puzzles cannot be solved, why there is no need to solve them, and why attempts to solve the puzzles will only lead to interminable philosophical disputes.
Of course, many professional philosophers seem unaware of Wittgenstein’s critique of what they do, or perhaps unable to understand the critique due to methodological blinders unwittingly slipped on during their training. At the very least, many professional philosophers seem unwilling to accept the implications of Wittgenstein’s critique for their own work. At this point, I doubt there’s much that anyone can say that will succeed in changing the minds of those philosophers who have already committed themselves to a life of the mind hopeless puzzle-solving.
My question here, and hopefully in a few subsequent posts, will be different. Leaving puzzle-solving philosophy to itself, I want to ask: for those who understand and accept Wittgenstein’s critique, what is philosophy supposed to do? Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?
In an earlier post criticizing the decadent state of academic philosophy today, and in particular the kind of mindless linguistic puzzle-playing that is celebrated each year in The Philosopher’s Annual, I mentioned that there are a few lonely voices within the academic philosophy community who have recently spoken out against the forms of intellectual blindness that I described. As two examples, I mentioned Peter Unger and Raymond Geuss. More on their recent books below.
But first, I should also note that there are several professional philosophers who have, over the years, published exegeses of the later Wittgenstein that could and should have been understood as devastating critiques of the way most academic philosophy is done today. Robert Fogelin and the great G.P. Baker (in his later writings) are two names that come to mind. There have also been a number of professional philosophers who offered deeply critical views of various aspects of academic philosophy — without attacking contemporary problem-solving methodologies as globally and resolutely as a “therapeutic” Wittgensteinian might do. Richard Rorty, for example, began his career as a mildly optimistic observer of “the linguistic turn” in philosophy, became disillusioned with more or less the entire project of modern epistemology in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, and eventually criticized the truth-discovering pretensions of most philosophy since Plato by emphasizing the relativity of all philosophical problems to the contingent vocabularies in which the problems are stated. Appropriately, Rorty ended his career in a comparative literature department, leaving the puzzle-playing philosophers to themselves.
For the most part, however, I suspect that young people today who are interested in philosophy, skeptical, and might become internal critics of misguided philosophical methods are dissuaded from becoming philosophy professors in the first place. A friend who was considering applying to graduate school in philosophy once told me that a professor described what the graduate programs are looking for as follows: they want someone who will be able to “push the ball forward.” The professors want to know that their graduate students will engage with the professors’ problems in a productive way, participating in the same problem-solving methods that the professors use — for example, clarifying puzzles by drawing creative new distinctions involving obscure and highly technical philosophical concepts.
The title of this post is actually sort of a joke, because it is so obvious what is wrong with academic philosophy today — and indeed what has been wrong for the last several decades — obvious to everyone but some academic philosophers. Unfortunately, those academic philosophers are largely the ones in charge.
When I say “academic philosophy,” I have in mind the sort of mindless linguistic puzzle-playing celebrated each year in the Philosopher’s Annual. The most acclaimed and ostensibly serious work being undertaken by professional philosophers in most English-speaking philosophy departments today.
Of course, there is a great deal of very important and valuable work being done by relatively professionally marginal figures who happen to remain employed by departments of philosophy, and by philosophers who work in professionally second-class fields such as the history of philosophy and political philosophy. Countless academics working on philosophy outside of philosophy departments continue to do real intellectual work. And who knows, maybe the latest generation of young philosophers is already rejecting the kind of virtuosic non-thinking on display in the Philosopher’s Annual. Maybe they’ll remake the face of professional philosophy — if any of them succeed in getting jobs.
Then, one day, we may refer to “the Philosopher’s Annual style of philosophy” in the same way that we now refer to “the fireside poets” — the once-dominant, now unread tradition of late-19th century genteel poetry that preceded and was overthrown by American modernism.
But for the time being, the professional core of academic philosophy remains, as it has been for my entire lifetime, occupied by work that is characterized by a very unphilosophical lack of questioning toward its own pervasive methodological weaknesses. Nearly every non-historical paper collected in each year’s Philosopher’s Annual, for example, whatever its subject area or narrowly defined school of thought, consists of attempts to solve linguistic puzzles that are designed so as to be unsolvable. The ways in which these problems are unsolvable are clear and have been clear for nearly a century. Even before so-called “analytic” philosophy came to dominate Anglophone philosophy departments, Ludwig Wittgenstein described in simple, uncontroversial terms how philosophical problems of the kind addressed in the Philosopher’s Annual arise, why so many philosophers feel compelled to solve them, and why such solutions do not exist. Nearly before the philosophical puzzle-solving conversation began, the later Wittgenstein had definitively ended it.
Yet the philosophers at the center of the profession apparently remain oblivious to this fact. The general idea seems to be that Wittgenstein’s critique of their methods can’t be correct — because then they would all be wasting their time — and that can’t possibly the case… By showing that the kind of philosophical problem-solving that fills the top academic journals is a hopeless endeavor, Wittgenstein “proves too much,” therefore must be wrong, and can be safely ignored.
“You helped me discover my ability to want.” — Samantha, the operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her
As I understand it, research into computers and thinking has basically proceeded along two tracks. In the spirit of a thought experiment, I’d like to suggest a third track — the creation of what I’ll call a “needing machine.”
But first, let me sketch the two main tracks. My sketch is based largely on a narrative offered by Edward Feigenbaum in a recent interview. The first main track of research into computers and thinking belongs to the field of cognitive science, which is closely aligned with psychology. Cognitive science focuses on the attempt to formalize the ways that human beings think. The idea is that once human thought has been formalized, it could conceivably be programmed into a computer that would then be able to mimic human thought. The dream would be the creation of an artificial brain embodied in a computer, capable of understanding in ways that are similar to the ways a human being understands.
The second main track of research is what gets called “artificial intelligence.” Unlike cognitive science, artificial intelligence is less concerned with how humans think, and more concerned with using computers to accomplish particular, concrete tasks. It’s more aligned with computer science than with psychology. Initially, some computer scientists assumed that the path toward useful computer cognition would rely on insights into human cognition. But this isn’t how things turned out. The achievements of artificial intelligence have not resulted from building computers that think like human beings any more than the achievements of mechanized flight have resulted from building airplanes whose wings flap like the wings of birds. Deep Blue didn’t think like a human chess player, and Google’s search engine doesn’t think like a human librarian. Both were designed by human beings to solve very particular problems using methods suited to computers with little or no concern for whether those methods resembled the methods used by human beings to solve similar problems. The fact that a computer was able to outperform an exceptionally qualified human being in chess says more about the limits of chess as a test of cognition than it does about computers’ thinking abilities.