Thursday, April 17, 2008

Aristotle and Spinoza Were Primarily Analytic Philosophers. Haven't You Heard?

Alexander Pruss presents a fairly silly line of thought on his blog, in which he attempts to assimilate much of the history of philosophy under the analytic wing. To be fair, his goal is not to denigrate continental philosophy, and he does admit complete ignorance of it. Yet this does not prevent him from thinking that continental philosophers might also be able to trace themselves a philosophical history—he just thinks that history would be a bit different. But a bit of analytic re-colonization of history is clearly behind his thoughts, particularly when he says without basis that, “By and large, continental philosophy strikes me as a more recent development.” Oddly enough, continental philosophy also strikes me as a recent development. But then again, it is exactly as recent as analytic philosophy. An excellent response to Pruss is offered by Michael Pakaluk at Dissoi Blogoi. Readers of this blog, on the other hand, may be familiar with my response to such exercises in selective historical forgetting.

Pruss writes:

It seems to me that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sextus, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, ibn-Rushd, al-Ghazali, Maimonedes, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant and Frege all practiced analytic philosophy for a significant part of their philosophical lives—some of these, indeed, for just about all of their philosophical lives. When I read these people, I find them kindred souls, clearly engaged in the same rational pursuits, using pretty much the same tools, as I am.
There is a sense in which I always smirk when analytic philosophers claim to see Plato and Socrates as “kindred souls.” This isn’t because I think they are closer to continental philosophy, but because seeing Socrates and Plato as analytic philosophers involves overlooking much of what motivated those thinkers, and the way in which they understood philosophy. Wisdom is not exactly the concern of most philosophers today, and the ancient invocation of self-knowledge hardly involves a directive to study the first-personal mode of access to certain kinds of propositional knowledge. Plato’s use of myth, too, is hardly akin to the contemporary myths about zombies and fission. I am reminded of a former student of mine, who wrote that he enjoyed reading the Phaedo because “it was pretty damn easy.”

Nor does the claim that continental philosophers are likely to have a different history all that cogent: Scotus, Descartes, and above all Aristotle, via both Hegel and Heidegger, are indispensable. And given the much more prominent role accorded to the pre-Socratics in the continental tradition, the idea that continental philosophy has a later history goes down the drain. There are perhaps some pre-20th century philosophers who play a greater role in the analytic than the continental canon, but such impressions often turn out to be illusory. Heidegger had nothing but contempt for the empiricists, but certainly both Husserl and Deleuze were lapping it up. Mill is a far more important figure for the analytics than the continentals, largely because utilitarianism never caught on across the pond (with good reason, I tend to think), and yet Mills influence surfaces in the social science interests of Dilthey, Gadamer, and Habermas.

What really bugs me, though, is the attitude we find in Pruss’s comment that,

most of the great medieval figures (especially Aquinas, Scotus and Ockham) are clearly primarily analytic philosophers and analytic theologians. Likewise Sextus and Spinoza. Since obviously continentals consider these figures as part of their history, it follows that a part of the history of philosophy for continentals does include some very analytic thinkers.
It is almost as if the Fregean legacy traveled back in time to claim large swathes of the history of philosophy, so that continental thinkers who took up these figures were secretly drawing upon an Anglophone heritage. The problem with this sort of thinking should be clear: Pruss treats “analytic” as describing not a 20th century approach to philosophy, but as a methodology, which he unsurprisingly finds (given that he has a broad enough conception of it) throughout the history of philosophy. But since he does not know the continental side of things, it turns out that there are no distinctive continental methods that those past thinkers might also have been drawing on. Historical figures are “clearly primarily analytic philosophers” in much the same way that the Earth is clearly flat.

By the way, I've made this point before, but it bears repeating: if you've been trained in a particular way of doing philosophy, and have studied historical figures as the precursors to this way of doing philosophy, of course you are likely to find them engaged in an enterprise similar to your own! And if certain figures have been left outas Hegel is often left out of analytic versions of historyit is no wonder that one will see them as belonging to a very different mode of doing philosophy. One value of the continental obsession with difference, as I see it, is precisely this: if you pay attention to the sorts of things in historical figures that you've been trained to pay attention to and recognize as continuous with your projects, your reading will be infected by confirmation bias. The more you focus on the surprising aspects of historical textsthose points where the thinkers say something you really have trouble wrapping your brain aroundthe more you are likely to learn something from them that you didn't already know. (Yeah, I happen to think that everyone, regardless of philosophical orientation, has a great deal to learn from Gadamer, if not with regard to concrete problems, at least with regard to how one can understand a philosophical text without turning it into a mere projection of one's own prejudices. Chunks of Truth and Method really should be standard reading in any graduate philosophy program.)

Lastly, these attempts at historical colonization always remind me of a passage from Walter Kaufmann, with which I leave you:

Existentialism without Nietzsche would be almost like Thomism without Aristotle; but to call Nietzsche an existentialist is a little like calling Aristotle a Thomist.


  1. Fair enough: I withdraw the claim that the great medieval figures were clearly primarily analytic philosophers. I had no epistemic right to such a judgment, since, as you rightly point out, for all I know, I am missing many features of their work that are not primarily analytic.

    I still suspect I am right that scholastic philosophy is not significantly different in methodology from analytic philosophy (with the exception that for many analytic philosophers theological considerations play a lamentably minimal or non-existent role), but I cannot claim to know I am right. :-)

  2. I am sympathetic to the more conciliatory approach you take here, and in the later comments over at your original post. Absolutely, there is continuity between much of the history of philosophy and much of analytic philosophy. And there is also continuity between the history and the continental tradition. But then why insist that any figure in the tradition, from long before Frege, was an analytic philosopher?

    That is, one can grant the claim, and then go back in history and insist that many of the figures were continental philosophers, and so (to paraphrase) "it follows that a part of the history of philosophy for analytics does include some very continental thinkers." But saying this would be silly and pointless, at least in part because reading the analytic/continental divide into the history of philosophy is a bit like reading the catholic/protestant divide into the Old Testament. It may well be minimally right, if that means that both sides find support in the history, but it serves no value other than to further divisions and antagonisms.

    And there are certainly thinkers all throughout who one would be hard pressed to read as "analytic" (Jonathan Barnes work on the pre-socratics, for example, is a beautiful example of just how much violence an analytic reading will do to Heracleitus and Parmenides; does it then follow that we should read Heracleitus as a continental philosopher?).

    The scholastics, admittedly, are the period I am weakest on. Let me ask, though, whether the theological considerations might be something more than a minor difference between them and contemporary analytics. For example, theological considerations are precisely the sort of thing that drove the scholastics into taking up the Greek struggles with being. (Heidegger wrote his dissertation on Scotus; Deleuze insisted that Scotus wrote the greatest work on ontology in the history of philosophy.) These interests are not incidental to the scholastics. Nor, I think, are they so clearly distinguishable from the methods.

    I sometimes wonder whether the idea that we can separate method from substance in philosophy (like separating--contra Aristotle--matter and form) is not itself an analytic view that, turned back onto the history of philosophy, distorts the goals and preoccupations of its key figures.

  3. These are all good questions--I don't have answers.

    I do want to distinguish genealogy and continuity from sameness of project. Thus, it is quite possible to have a philosopher who explicitly rejects all of the Western philosophical tradition, who is even completely ignorant of that tradition (obviously, it would be silly to reject it while being ignorant of it, but certainly people can do silly things), but who nonetheless engages in exactly the same project that the Western philosophical tradition did. Indeed, such a person might end up methodologically and substantively a Spinozist or an Aristotelian, without any influence from Spinoza or Aristotle. (How likely this would be would a good question.)

    Likewise, it is possible to be in historical continuity with the Western philosophical tradition, but nonetheless to end up engaging in a project completely different from that of the bulk of that tradition. After all, modern psychology is in historical continuity with the Western philosophical tradition, but is arguably not a branch of philosophy.

    Try this on for size: Think of a certain relentlessness in giving one in-principle formalizable argument after another as a vague sort of measure of analyticity. Then, for instance, Kierkegaard is less analytic than Anselm. People like Ockham, Aquinas and van Inwagen are then hyper-analytic.

    While this isn't a definition, it's not a bad measure. One way to see this is that we can easily see how one reasonabl eperson might think that being hyper-analytic is a good thing while another might think it's a bad thing.

    As for the religious question and the scholastics, well we do have contemporary analytic philosophers for whose philosophical practice theological authority counts just as much as it did for the medievals (I'm one of these). They are a minority group, but they do exist. The connection between religiousness and the problem of being is a very interesting suggestion. (And questions of being are somewhat neglected by analytic philosophers, or at least ones not of a Thomistic inclination.)

    There is even a path from religiousness to the relentlessness in argument that I've offered as a rough and ready characterization of how analytic a work is--the path is given by an interest in apologetics.

  4. I take it that you are suggesting that one can be an Aristotelian or a Spinozist while having no knowledge of Aristotle or Spinoza, simply by adopting the same project. Is your suggestion, then, that in this very broad sense one might similarly be a Kripkean or a van Inwagenean, if one is engaged in a similar project a thousand years before either of these figures were born? In other words, that we can say some figures from the tradition were analytic philosophers, long before the dawn of analytic philosophy so called, because they might have been engaged in a similar project?

    I have no particular problem with the possibility you suggest (I'm not sure it's that different from the possibility that after millions of years, a monkey might write Hamlet). But I also don't think this is what is normally meant by "Spinozist" or "Aristotelian." Certainly some continuity is implied in the way the words are normally used. This is not to say that one can expand the way these words are used, but again: to what purpose? Unless one is specifically trying to reclaim the history of philosophy for the analytic side, there doesn't seem to be much of a point in doing this. And if one were trying to so reclaim history, then the continental side could do the same, and there would be a long drawn out argument about nothing, one in which both sides were right about anything of substance, and wrong only in insisting on a disagreement.

    I wonder, too, about the notion that analyticity involves using formalizable arguments. For one thing, if one really wants to formalize something that cannot currently be formalized, one can invent a new logic (a temporal logic, say, or a deontic one). And were one so inclined, I'm betting with a certain amount of ingenuity one could develop an aporetic either/or logic to formalize Kierkegaard, whose arguments are, after all, relentlessly dialectical in structure (would Kierkegaard then, suddenly, become just as analytic as Anselm?). I doubt, really, that there have been all that many great philosophers whose main arguments could not be formalized with some ingenious logic or other (not, perhaps, without some loss of content; but loss of content is often the main concern of formalization-opponents in any case, who argue that philosophers who formalized their own arguments end up missing content).

    So we then have three kinds of philosophical writing:
    (1) Formalized argument.
    (2) Formalizable argument, written in such a way as to allow for formalization given formal methods existing at the time of writing.
    (3) Formalizable argument, written in such a way that it could potentially be formalized were someone to develop methods for formalizing it.

    Most philosophers whose writing falls under (1) are indeed analytic philosophers. But if we look at the history, we need to broaden our notion of "formalization", because while Hobbes and Spinoza (for example) were certainly concerned with following a formal method, it was not (at least not obviously) a method similar to what counts as formalization for, say, van Inwagen or von Wright. And if we do expand the notion of formalization in this way, the most analytic philosopher in the history may well turn out to be the man who actually began his magnum opus by working out a complete logic, i.e., Hegel, and I suspect this conclusion is not one most people making the analytic argument would want to reach. (And if formalization just means something like having a specific method that one relentlessly applies to every problem, then Derrida is a very formal philosopher, an analytic one; a point, incidentally, that has had its own defenders.)

    As for (2), I don't think too many of the great thinkers were willing to constrain themselves by existing methods; those specifically trying to be formal ended up, really, developing new ways of formalizing their arguments. And so we come back to (1). As for (3), it seems to me broad enough to allow virtually anyone to be an analytic philosopher, as I've already mentioned.

    I wonder, too, about your use of notions like "methodological," "substantive," or "project." One can certainly isolate a rigorous style of argumentation used in apologetics and use it in arguments for, say, metaphysical naturalism, atheism, etc. If so, I would be hard pressed to say that the latter, despite using a similar method, is still engaged in a similar substantive enterprise, or anything like "exactly the same project."

    My point, really, is just that deploying such complex machinery in order to argue that many historical figures were analytic philosophers seems like, well, a massive amount of work, involving constant ad hoc terminological modifications, for no clear purpose.