Philosophy vs. Analytic Philosophy

Many scientists and science-minded people today seem to believe that philosophy is useless, and they are right: for what they are doing, you do not need philosophy. As long as you are doing “normal science” (in the Kuhnian sense), you just apply a method or set of methods. You do not have to refelct on your method and you don’t have to enter a meta-level and look critically at what you are doing. In times of scientific crisis, scientist will turn philosophers (think of the people who started quantum mechanics as an example). But most scientists will move through their professional lives without any need for philosophy.

In those fields however whose topic is the human mind and its products in the widest sense, like societies and cultures, languages and art, history and politics and so on, you need the philosophical mode of thinking all of the time. Philosophy comes in when formal theories and formal methods fail and collapse. In the humanities and historical fields where a philosophical, reflexive and critical mode of thinking, of looking at what you are doing from a meta-level, is required all of the time, analytic philosophy has nothing to offer. In these fields formal methods and formal theories are almost useless because human creativity breaks the borders of any formal description of cognition, society or culture all of the time.

Analytical philosophers, by trying to turn philosophy into a science and into an ancilliary science of the sciences, make philosophy irrelevant because scientists don’t need it most of the time. Scholars, on the other hand, have no use for it.

Moreover, for real life application, for business or just for mastering your everyday life, the formalisms of analytic philosophy are useless as well.

So analytic philosophy, useless for life, useless for the sciences, and useless for the humanities as well, turns into a case of pathological science that only keeps itself alife by mechanisms of power.

Instead of trying to get into the academic system of analytic philosophy, philosophers interested in doing actual philosophy should look for a job (any job – perhaps part time) and do their philosophy in private (or in public, outside the academic world) or look for niches inside the academic world that are not under the domination of the analytics.


6 thoughts on “Philosophy vs. Analytic Philosophy

  1. Here a really have to disagree.
    “But most scientists will move through their professional lives without any need for philosophy.”

    Just because they never do, does not mean they never should. A lot of scientists work together with philosophers and they appreciate it. Only because some scientists who are catching the attention of the media more than other tell us that philosophy is useless for science does not mean that this is true. Especially if they then put forward philosophical thesis like Hawkins. And even the thesis that scientists don’t need philosophy is a philosophical thesis.

    “Analytical philosophers, by trying to turn philosophy into a science and into an ancilliary science of the sciences, make philosophy irrelevant because scientists don’t need it most of the time. Scholars, on the other hand, have no use for it.”

    First of all you presuppose a clear cut between ordinary life, science and philosophy. I would argue there is none. There are not many “analytic philosophers” (whatever that means) who want to turn Philosophy in a science. Philosophers of Mind know that they are doing different things as cognitive science. Only some are talking about giving up Philosophy of Mind and then therefore doing CogSci. But here as well, there is no clear border betweend CogSci and Philosophy and Philosophers who argue that point are still putting forward philosophical theories, even if they don’realize it. (Think, for example, of the Churchlands)

    “Moreover, for real life application, for business or just for mastering your everyday life, the formalisms of analytic philosophy are useless as well.”

    Is Philosophy of Mathematics important for my everyday life? Maybe not. But it is for the everyday life of the mathematics. Or is Philosophy of Science important for my everday life? Maybe not. But it is for the scientist. Here again you presuppose a clear cut border where there is none. Also there are analytic philosphers who said and say a lot of insightfull things even for everybodys everday life. I think for example about the late Putnam.

    Where somebody does his philosophy is not important. But Universities have there purpose, and that is doing research in fields that are interested for someone. Even though they might not be interesting for you, they are for someone else. And who is to judge what is interesting and what not? (I for example, find the most, so called, continental tradition uninteresting and uninformative, or I find ancient philosophy not exciting enought to spend more time on it, but I say not that universities should not teach such things.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for responding. This piece was meant to be a little bit provocative, especially in its title. It looks like you are not among the people I meant here. I actually agree with most of what you are saying. One could argue that some of the stuff I am doing myself comes out of the analytic tradition, in a way. I am certainly not coming out of the “continental” direction, my background is in computer science and linguistics. I don’t really buy into the view that there is such a thing as an “analytic” and a “continental” tradition, but if we construct a tradition here and say that the work of people like Gödel and Post, from which I am starting, belongs here, then I am in that tradition myself. As I said, I don’t really buy into that distinction. There is a lot more to non-analytic philosophy than the stuff that is nowadays lumped together under the heading of “continental philosophy”. Reality is more complex, and more interesting.
      On this blog, I am normally not considering my readers too much (see the about page) so I put thoughts here sometimes out of context. So let me provide the context of what I mean here.

      I have written something there about power. I am outside the US and outside its academic system. From here, it looks to me like people inside that system are not completely free to write and say what they want. One direction of philosophy has become dominant, dominant not only in the sense that there is more of this kind than of others but dominant in the sense of actual power structures. I might be wrong, but that is the impression I am getting. I have seen examples of this in the field of AI here in Germany (and as a result, I did not try to go into an academic direction and became a programmer instead – the disadvantage is that I don’t have much time, but the advantage is that I can think and write whatever I want). I don’t know if the real situation in US philosophy departments is actually like what the people blogging on describe, but the mere existence of that blog is interesting. However that might be, I find a lot of the thinking that comes out of analytic philosophy somehow sterile.

      The essence of philosophy, in my view, is reflexivity (or meta-level thinking), i.e .stepping out of systems of thought and action and looking at those systems critically from the outside (and doing this recursively). The systems in question might be from any domain of our existence, from science, politics, scholarship, everyday life, technology, philosophy itself, whatever. I am thinking of them as analytical spaces ( There are concepts and methods one can apply here and we should try to be thinking, talking and writing as clearly as possible. However, there is no general method for this reflection. It cannot be formalized completely in any single formal theory. In this respect, philosophy is fundamentally different from science. Scientists operate within certain (perhaps very large) analytical spaces and can do so for a long time without much reflection (if that results in good science is another question). In other areas of Wissenschaft (let me use that German term because it has a much wider scope than the English term “science” and I am missing a corresponding term in English), e.g. those areas concerned with the study of human thought and culture, this reflexive, philosophical mode of thinking must always be present and I think it is the criterion that distinguishes work that is “wissenschaftlich” (to use the adjective derived from “Wissenschaft”) from work that is not.

      There are some strands of analytic philosophy (and theories of cognition based on them or connected to them) where people seem to be trying to formalize human cognition. Traditional AI, for example, is the attempt to describe cognition by means of an algorithm, i.e. to develop a complete formal theory of thought. This does not work. Human thought is creative in the sense the word is used by mathematicians like Post: creativity is understood as the ability to step out of the scope of any formal description of cognition. If cognition is creative in this sense, formal models of cognition are always incomplete. They do not capture the essence of cognition and are, as a result, relatively unimportant.

      The type of analytic philosophy I find problematic is characterized by the attempt to create a formal theory of everything. I think this is impossible in principle. The adherents of scientism (you mention Hawking) belong into this camp. The resulting “philosophy” becomes part of science. As philosophy, it dies. Hawking, whatever his merits, is an example of a philosopher (if you want to view him as one) whose brand of analytic philosophy is reducing itself to absurdity.

      As I said, I am not buying into the analytic/continental distinction. It is a historical construction that might have arisen artificially as a result of the mentioned power structures (around 1980, I guess – before that time it looks like the opposite of “continental philosophy” was not “analytic philosophy” but “british philosophy)). It should be given up and personally, I don’t care about it. Philosophy is the art of navigating in the non-formal space at the edges and between analytic spaces (while the sciences basically operate within certain analytical spaces). We should strive for clarity as much as we can (something often missing from the writings of some people outside the “analytic tradition”). We should recognize that a complete formalization is impossible, that each formal theory or algorithm systematically has blind spots and that, as a result, formal methods can only provide partial description (which can be extended, but never completed), and that the processes leading to new formalism cannot be formalized completely beforehand.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Sorry it took me so long to answer. I left my computer’s cable behind on a visit to Hamburg and as a result I was practically offline for a couple of days.


  2. I am an analyst by profession these days. Previously I led many lean (continuous improvement) efforts which involved a system of principles and rules which I worked as a philosophy against which I evaluated the merits of this or that change. I find today that as an analyst I am better than most in my ability to examine data in a qualitative manner better than most because I respect the “gen” . . .the actualities and never rely on numbers alone.

    Liked by 1 person

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