It’s no secret that the American education system is in need of a serious lesson—or even a radical upheaval. There’s never a shortage of discussion about the shortcomings of the teaching profession, and most of our so-called experts can’t even seem to agree on what subjects should be taught in our schools, let alone how.
Stanley Aronowitz takes all those gripes a step further and examines the conspicuous absence of philosophy classes from the curriculum of secondary schools. Aronowitz sees this as a “telltale sign that we don’t take critical thinking seriously as an educational goal” and argues that a philosophical foundation is an essential tool for discerning and skeptical students and citizens.
The average high school student would be much better off with one less year of math and one year of logic and philosophy.
First, don’t be so quick to dismiss Rorty, for he possibly provides the bridge between continental and analytic philosophy that you’re looking for. At the risk of oversimplification, Rorty’s thesis in his opus, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, is that “striving to get things right” is still a worthwhile pursuit, made all the more valuable when we admit that there is no “right.” Our commitments to values like liberalism, democracy, etc. are in fact made stronger when we choose them because we feel they’re the best way to conduct our affairs, as opposed to choose them because they’re analytically sensible. To be a little crass, people seldom put their lives on the line for a formula or equation (not to suggest that analytic philosophy is simply math with words, although some of it is), whereas countless men and women die every day for beliefs.
This brings me to my second point. You say the goal of philosophy is to help potential be realized. I doubt many would dispute this point, but what’s up for debate is how best to achieve this goal. What many, including Rorty, would suggest is that people are mobilized more by stories, myths, drama, etc. than by rational arguments. Personally, I think this becomes more evident with every passing day, but sadly, it is the so-called Right that has clued into this. It’s an increasingly common critique of the contemporary, visible and popular left that they’ve failed to win over the hearts and minds of the people because they’ve adhered to the notion, as Barthes put it, that the left does not need myth because it has truth on its side. Tell that to the people who believe, despite concrete evidence to the contrary, that Obama was born in Kenya… So, essentially, if you want to “realize potential,” you may need to accept that the continental approach to doing so is the better method (at least at this moment).
In closing, I’d be wary of setting up this binary between analytic and continental philosophy, that while useful for your purposes, may not stand to real scrutiny. For every analytic philosopher who transcends simply “spotting weakness” there is a continental philosopher possessed of strong, clear argumentation (Rorty being one of them). There should never be a “one best way” of doing philosophy, and in many ways, that is precisely what the continental tradition is reacting against. Nor should all philosophy necessarily need to be timeless and eternal. Far more generative is philosophy that is contextually appropriate to its era, and thus allows those living in that era to better understand their time.
tl;dr All hail nuance! Contest precisely those ideas that go uncontested! Or something like that…
I think you are quite right to point out the significance of feelings in doing philosophy. Our feelings and beliefs play a powerful role in forming what philosophers call ‘our pre-philosophical intuitions.’ Despite first appearances, the dominant trend in contemporary ethics is not Rawlsian thought-experiments or abstract utilitarian moral calculus, but a way of doing ethics that is based around our intuitions. It involves examining our thoughts and feelings about a moral issue carefully, then seeing which of our intuitions are well-grounded. If they are, then we can figure out which moral principles motivate (or ought to motivate) our intuitions so the principles can be applied to other relevant situations. A lot of very good analytic philosophy has been done that gives our feelings and intuitions the respect and careful thought they deserve.
As a realist, however, I feel obligated to dismiss Rorty’s idea that ‘there is no right.’ It’s difficult to understand Rorty’s denial of realism given that he was a pragmatist- after all, how can we do what works without an epistemically and ontologically objective world in which to work? As John Searle writes, it’s difficult to give an argument for the external world or a correspondence theory of truth, as these are often presupposed even by philosophers who attempt to deny them. Searle’s version of realism stresses that there can be multiple valid ways of interpreting the same world (a notion that I have no intention of denying), an idea he calls ‘conceptual relativity.’ But Searle also says it does not follow from the truth of this that realism is false, there is no such thing as truth, or that reality is merely a social construct, and contends that it is a category error to assume so, as I believe Rorty does.
Why Analytic Philosophy?
In the work that I’d like to do as an aspiring academic, there has always been a tension between content and the approach to it. The continental philosophers engage themselves very deeply with political questions that analytic philosophers ignore, oftentimes with very fruitful and interesting results. But their discussions of the implications of these ideas lack sensitivity and clarity. As I pointed out before, continental philosophers often many tacitly assumed positions that may buttress their political intuitions, but might undermine their arguments in other ways. Nancy Fraser’s description of Foucault’s work comes to mind: “empirical insights and normative confusions.” While the discussions of contemporary analytic philosophy may lack the political urgency of continental work, they are much more careful about trying to get things right. Given that much of the most politically engaged philosophy posits the necessity of radical changes to our society, I think striving to get things right is an important virtue of analytic philosophy, one that we as political radicals could do well to learn from.
Ian Bogost’s piece "We Think In Public" relies heavily on Richard Rorty to offer an attempt at a critique of analytic philosophy. Despite his objection that contemporary philosophers often lose bigger ideas in the process of analyzing the logical form of an argument, his objection does not amount to anything substantive. Relating the analytic philosopher to The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy may have rhetorical force, but it does not pick out a coherent problem with the methodological approach.
At the same time, I understand his frustration. The principal political philosopher that the analytic tradition offered us was John Rawls: a man who offered an elegant and very carefully reasoned defense of a more egalitarian social order, but who provided us with virtually no roadmap to get there. Analytic philosophy is precise and acute when talking about a great many things: language, the mind, metaphysics, and so on, but much (indeed, the great majority) of the time when philosophers considered political questions they lacked praxis. Too many thought experiments, not enough coherent alternatives. Ethicists largely shied away from systematic analysis of the injustices within capitalism even as they possessed an enormously rigorous framework for so doing.
Brian Leiter captures the intuition perfectly in his excellent essay about what analytic philosophy is:
"Indeed, it is fair to say that what gets called ‘analytic’ philosophy is the philosophical movement most continuous with the ‘grand’ tradition in philosophy, the tradition of Aristotle and Descartes and Hume and Kant. Only analytic philosophers aspire to the level of argumentative sophistication and philosophical depth that marks the great philosophers—even as analytic philosophers typically fail to achieve the grand visions, the ‘ways of seeing’ of the great historical figures."
Just because analytic philosophy doesn’t always live up to the ideals it sets up for itself doesn’t mean there’s anything essentially wrong with its approach. Bogost’s piece quotes Rorty on the practice of much contemporary philosophy: “…[for many] ‘doing philosophy’ is primarily a matter of spotting weaknesses in arguments, as opposed to hoping that the next book you read will contain an imaginative, illuminating, redescription of how things hang together.” The last book I read (John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality) was exactly that, and I think this business of ‘spotting weaknesses in arguments’ that Rorty too quickly dismisses is a necessary condition for doing truly grand and inventive philosophy.
Some analytic philosophers direct attacks at ‘social constructionism,’ some with more substance than others. And while it is very much in vogue in continental philosophy to talk about things being socially constructed, the most coherent accounts of how things are socially constructed come from analytic philosophy. Judith Butler and John Searle both rely heavily on the speech act in their explanations of social phenomena, an important innovation of 20th-century Anglo-American philosophy.
I always found it troubling that critical and radical social scientists automatically assumed they had to turn to continental philosophy when more conceptual or theoretical questions arose in their work. For example, when a critical theorist studying ideology wants a good account of how the mind works, they are much more likely to turn to the vague work of someone like Lacan than the much more well-developed literature on the philosophy of mind in the analytic tradition. It could be that most of that work bears little or no relevance on the kinds of social and political questions that critical theorists explore, but most of the time they do not consult the literature at all to begin with. This is a serious methodological misstep for anyone interested in doing good philosophy.
The criticisms of analytic philosophy that prevailed earlier in the 20th century- that it is ‘reductionist,’ ‘atomistic,’ ‘positivistic,’ are still assumed to be true today, even though the content of what analytic philosophers discuss is very different. Searle’s analysis of collective intentionality and social institutions gives us more than enough reason to leave behind the oft-criticized notions of methodological individualism that damaged earlier analytic approaches to social science. The dominant accounts in the philosophy of mind are no longer reductionist. As Leiter points out, analytic philosophy is much more a style of doing philosophy than a coherent block of positions- reductionism and positivism were debated heavily from their introduction and are far from essential to the practice of doing analytic philosophy.
Now that analytic philosophy it has the tools it needs to effectively discuss social phenomena (status functions, speech acts, institutional facts, etc.), using it as a starting point for radical social inquiry makes a lot of sense. Though analytical Marxism has largely died out as a project, Erik Olin Wright and others still continue on using innovations from contemporary philosophy that have developed since the project began in the 1980s. The criticism that analytic philosophy is ‘bourgeois’ no longer carries much force (if it ever did). Indeed, when comparing the language used by most analytic philosophers to that employed by those doing continental philosophy or postmodernism, the work of the analytic philosopher is much easier for the ordinary person to engage with the great majority of the time. As Alan Sokal said: “I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class.” Despite its reliance on formal logic some of the time, ‘ordinary language philosophy’ (as analytic philosophy has sometimes been called) still has the potential, even if it often falls short of it, to reach the people it purports to talk about. The task of critical philosophers and social scientists is, in my view, to ensure that this potential is realized.