Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Philosophy's Flights

Photo of A.J. Ayer
In “Philosophy’s Flights” in last Sunday’s Review (NY Times, 7/1/12), Jim Holt asks “Is Philosophy Literature?” He’s talking about analytic philosophers, philosophers of language like Bertrand Russell and later Thomas Nagel, Phlippa Foot (of trolley problem fame), Harvard’s Hilary Putnam, Kwame Apiah, and Colin McGinn who all ultimately came to the fore as a reaction against the unverifiable propositions of metaphysics. Of course today there are philosophers like Derek Parfit whose On What Matters attempts to bridge the gap between the limitations of the subjective (utilitarian) mind and broader ethical considerations. By the way, Holt’s piece is a selection from a longer series called The Stone, which can be found on the Times blog. Holt answers his own question with a resounding yes but not before he makes the following qualification (in the longer version) which is reminiscent of those commercials for new urine flow medications on CNN that offer a list of disclaimers. “Today analytic philosophy has a broader scope then it used’s less obsessed with dissecting languages; its more continuous with the sciences (this partly due to the American philosopher Willard Quine who argued that language really has no fixed system of meanings for philosophers to analyze). Yet whether they are concerned with the nature of consciousness, of space-time or of the good life, analytic philosophers continue to lay heavy stress on logical rigor in their writings. The result, according to Martha Nussbaum (herself a sometime member of the tribe), is a prevailing style that is ‘correct, scientific, abstract, hygienically pallid’—a style meant to serve as ‘a kind of all-purpose solvent.’” In this little passage Holt takes back what he giveth away and it’s funny that missing from his list is the ne plus ultra of all language philosophy A.J. Ayer’s wondrous Language, Truth and Logic which does for analytic philosophy what Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style did for grammar. Still there are two exhibits that Holt offers in defense of analytic philosophy as literature, Quine’s article “On What There Is” which Holt comments “can be read over and over again, like a poem” and Saul Kripke’s Naming and Necessity, a compendium of three Princeton lectures which don’t contain “a dogmatic or pompous word...and not a dull one either” that seem de rigueur for anyone interested in his initial query. And then there are the first and last lines of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus “The world is everything that is the case” and “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wasn’t Wittgenstein the master of philosophical haiku?

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