I got some quite interesting feedback to my post about Colin McGinn’s resignation the other day, and thought that it would be worth at least a partial response. It would also allow me a first, tentative crack at one of the more controversial sets of ideas I have about the state of contemporary philosophy: my stance on the conflicts of analytic and continental philosophy.
This is an enormous and complex mess of concepts, influence, publications, and politics of academic, social, and sometimes even military stripes. So I can’t exactly lay out all my thoughts on the matter in one post (or one journal article, or even one whole book). Every blog post is just a glimpse into my thoughts, my research, and creative processes.
But I made one comment that my friend D took issue with, an ambiguity on how I referred to the techniques of analytic philosophy. Argument and critique in analytic philosophy is usually a matter of precise definitions of technical terms, sometimes to the point of pedantic madness. This technique is easy to make fun of. I can draw a hilarious picture (at least, hilarious to philosophers) of two nitpicking old souls getting into a ludicrously heated argument trying to distinguish the precise meaning of ‘physical’ and ‘material,’ or ‘insight’ and ‘intuition.’
Even though I don’t identify as an analytic philosopher (and I don’t identify as a continental philosopher either), I actually use this technique of precise technical definition in my own doctoral dissertation. For example, there I very carefully distinguish ‘constitute’ from ‘compose.’ The latter is the assembly of a complex body by an external intentional agent, while the former is the assembly of a complex body through more autonomic or mechanical activities. These definitions and their contrast from each other are very important for my ontological thinking in my dissertation and my ecophilosophy project. Like a good analytic philosopher, I used precise definitions of my technical terms to accomplish a lot of productive conceptual work.
However, not all analytic philosophy is good, and sometimes these techniques of precise definition can be used badly or used for nefarious purposes. Here’s my take on this distinction. Good analytic philosophy uses precise technical definitions of terms as the groundwork for arguments and investigations that achieve productive and interesting conceptual work. A good analytic philosopher (or any kind of philosopher, no matter your self-identification) understands technical definitions as conceptual tools for projects with a larger scope than composing those definitions alone.
You can guess, given that definition, what bad analytic philosophy does about technical definitions. Bad analytic philosophy takes the composition of precise definition of technical terms as all the work that needs to be done for an inquiry to be productive. A good metaphor to understand how silly I think such an approach to philosophy is: imagine a tradesperson who shows up on a worksite and spends the day admiring and reflecting on what good tools he’s brought with him, but never actually does any work on the project. And at the end of the day, he still expects the same wages as the people who built the house.