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Analytic Philosophy

David Cowles

Nov 16, 2023

“…Analysis was a breakthrough: it put the bloated language of German Idealism on a starvation diet…but does that mean we can’t enjoy the occasional pepperoni pizza with extra cheese?”

Like fish, philosophers tend to travel in schools. Good thing, I suppose. There’s safety in numbers, especially now that academic freedom has been effectively suspended. Today, the Truth Value of a proposition is not only measured by, but is constituted by, its proximity to a mean. This is the Copenhagen Interpretation of Everyday Life.

The measurement of an Event is, in fact, the Event itself. As in a modern video game, the map is the territory. Discovering is averaging! One might imagine an alternative Aesthetics (Beauty is the substructure of Truth – Keats, Whitehead, et al.) in which the Truth of a proposition is measured and/or enhanced by its deviation from the mean (deviation = information). But that was yesterday. We’re old now – too old for Santa Claus, too old for objective reality.  

Accordingly, ambitious academics in all departments keep a very close eye on the medians in their fields, as reported daily in the Financial Times. This is harder to manage than you might think. You see academic opinion moving away from your ‘sincerely held’ beliefs. Hard cheese!  But is it better to stand your ground or cut bait? All of which makes for agonizing evenings in front of the fireplace, slipper-shod, sipping sherry. 

But I digress. In the 20th Century, the various schools lost their ability to even speak with one another.

They no longer shared a common store of concepts or common methods of inquiry. They no longer asked the same questions, and they no longer had a common language in which to answer them! We are truly living in the shadow of the Tower of Babel. 

One school followed a path well-worn by Kant, Hegel and the British Empiricists. They continued the tradition of building vast, all-encompassing philosophical systems a la Plato and Aristotle, hence the term, Systematic Philosophy

Another school, following Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, was laser-focused on the subjective phenomenon of existence itself; hence, Existentialism. Three other schools, no doubt stimulated in part by Marx and Engels, focused on the more practical elements of philosophical inquiry. Their visions of Utopia are strictly terrestrial and are known variously as Materialism, Pragmatism, and Positivism.

Finally, yet another group of early 20th-century philosophers turned their attention away from traditional philosophical concerns like ontology, cosmology, and ethics, and focused instead on the process of philosophizing itself. In this way, they took philosophy down a road previously traversed only by art, music, and literature. Hence, Analytic Philosophy

Analysis, at least ab initio, attempted to apply standards of meaning and truth, borrowed from the so-called ‘hard sciences’, to philosophy. It was an effort doomed to fail from the get-go. Science is only Science when and to the extent that the events it studies are repeatable. 

Repeatability is the often-unstated assumption underlying all Science. Predictability rests on repeatability. But this itself is problematic. To the extent that an Event is predictable, it must be repeatable. Cool beans! Except in that case, every reiteration of an Event (i.e., each experiment) conveys no new information. It may reinforce a ‘subjective form’ of certainty, but that’s all. In fact, new information is generated only if the experiment fails! Remember, the purpose of experimentation is falsification, not verification.

Doomed or not, every practicing philosopher today owes a debt of gratitude to Analysis. Methodologically, Analysis was a breakthrough; it put the bloated language of German Idealism on a starvation diet. We should all be conscious of what we eat, and we should all endeavor to eat healthily, but does that mean we can’t enjoy the occasional pepperoni pizza with extra cheese?

Ludwig Wittgenstein was undoubtedly, if reluctantly, the most important member of this school; however, he realized early on that Analysis could never fully meet our need for gnosis. In fact, all the major concerns of ‘being human’ lie outside Science’s universe of discourse. 

According to Analysis, propositions are meaningful if and only if they are subject to falsification via the scientific method. Finally, we have a philosophy that purports to provide us with the ultimate Truth Test, 100% accuracy guaranteed or double your money back! But it’s a worthless guarantee. The only propositions we can test are propositions that restate what we already know and that we, as philosophers, don’t care about.

Further, the set of all falsifiable but unfalsified propositions represents a tiny subset of the set of all the propositions I must entertain to function in my Actual World. In fact, these considerations lead me to propose a new pair of Heisenberg Uncertainty Relations:

“The more I’m sure that P is true, the less I care.”

“The more important P is to me, the less sure I can be that it is true.”

There’s nothing new here! In Carroll’s Lookingglass World, the always alert Alice discovers that when she walks toward a destination, she ends up farther away from it: “…the nearer your destination, the more it’s sliding away. (Paul Simon)” Using her legendary Alice Acumen, supplemented by a bit of Euclid, she concludes, correctly as it turns out, that the only way to get to a destination…is to walk away from it.

Analysis purports to divide propositions into two classes: (1) meaningful, and (2) meaningless. We don’t disagree. Consistent with that view, we expected to find that only falsifiable propositions (hypotheses) are meaningful, but we proved the exact opposite. To the extent that any proposition can be falsified experimentally, that proposition is meaningless. It conveys no new information. 

So Analysis? Thanks, but no, thanks!

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