What’s not to like about analytic philosophy?

I’m detaching the author’s name from a piece that’s been around on email a bit. I think the view is worth discussing and I hope you do too.

Haslanger’s article mentions the view that there’s something very masculine about the abstract, formal nature of philosophy that a lot of women don’t like. I think this view may be being misdescribed; that is, when people say that’s something they don’t like about philosophy, I think it may actually be something related but different. Studies in other disciplines – such as the study of the poor lot of women in computer science at Carnegie Mellon (which was subsequently vastly improved) – suggest that a lot of women are not particularly interested in highly narrowly focused problems. In fact, a number of women, other work suggests, are strongly attracted to interdisciplinary work. Much of philosophy is large and grand, but journals and conferences in philosophy do contain a lot of work that is, e.g., F’s criticism of A’s rejection of B’s third formulation of the problem for C’s revision of the D’s attempted refutation of E’s theory.

Haslanger also notes that men in philosophy are very often poorly socialized … and that philosophy departments are socially very difficult. I expect everyone … is aware of hypothesized connections between being very narrowly focused, being socially pretty disconnected and being male (as Baron-Cohen has made much of). So it’s possible that this is more what is behind a supposed dislike of the abstract and formalized.

I don’t want to endorse Baron-Cohen’s work, which we’ve criticized here and elsewhere, but perhaps part of the idea above is that analytic philosophy can too often turn grand questions into trivial disputes.

On thinking about this, I’m wondering whether the following is relevant: a lot of philosophy of perception is concernedwith the truth-maker for “S sees that P.” More and more, cognitive computational neuroscience is looking at questions about vision such as: how does vision work to enable a creature to move successful through its environment? I’m not sure the first pursuit tells us that much about vision. It’s philosophy of perception, but it is really about something more like the logic of perceptual statements and the ontology of vision (e.g., physicalism, reductionism, etc). But the points are essentially general and scarcely at all about vision itself.

34 thoughts on “What’s not to like about analytic philosophy?

  1. I think the observation about narrow focus has some teeth to it.

    In Experience and Nature, Dewey mentions an observation about philosophy’s tendency to turn into a project of analyzing “puzzles rather than problems.” When I read this, I was reminded of much of the contemporary literature on personal identity: the focus on training our attention upon intuitive responses to thought experiments involving fusion, fission, teletransportation, etc. I have found so much of this literature (with exceptions: e.g., Carole Rovane’s work) profoundly alienating, but it had been difficult for me to sort out exactly why I had this response.

    Dewey’s comment really rang true to me here: such projects strike me as largely concerned with the puzzling aspects of personal identity (i.e., the teletransporter’s variation on the Ship of Theseus: how could person A at time t be the same as person B at time t’ if there exists some second person C at time t’ who is also causally connected in the right sort of way to A?) rather than what strike me as the interesting problems of the topic (for example: the relationship between my “essential” features [whatever these may be] and those “merely contingent” ones such as social position, bodily configuration, etc).

    At least for me, it’s the latter aspects of the topic that initially piqued my interest, not the former, and I’ve found it pretty discouraging to see so little of these features reflected in most of the literature on the topic (of course, there IS literature on this latter stuff out there, but it’s not at the center of the discourse, and there doesn’t appear to be much “uptake” of feminist criticism into the the mainstream literature).

    Anyway — just a reflection. My take on what count as puzzles versus problems may be idiosyncratic, but I thought it was worth mentioning in connection to this post.

  2. This reminds me of when I was in graduate school and constantly got the comment, “Why can’t women do analytic philosophy, why can they only do history of philosophy?” It took me ages to think of the response, “Why can’t men do history of philosophy?” Now, mind you, lots of men DO (of course) do history of philosophy and do it well, but why must it be a sign of intellectual weakness for women to be attracted to history of philosophy? Perhaps history of philosophy enables us to look at bigger pictures, to see things in a broader historical context, to examine strands of influence, to engaged in subtle and challenging textual interpretation, to grasp “significance” in larger ways.
    This also reminds me of one time ages ago–some 20 years–when i came into the lunch room and heard an apparently exciting, vigorous debate going on between two of my (male) colleagues. It was like a tennis match–back and forth, watch the ball–who will win? When they finally pasued for breath and acknowledged me, I quickly inserted my question, “So what’re you debating–what’s at stake here–get me up to speed” and they both looked at me in complete and utter blankness. This was a real “Come to Jesus” moment for me. I realized, it did not matter one whit to them what was at stake–they literally could not say–they only wanted to enjoy their debate. I, on the other hand, could not believe anyone would engage in such a pointless exercise without knowing why it mattered.
    Now I’m not saying “Oh all men in philosophy are like this” or “analytic philosophers are all like this”. To the contrary. I was privileged to have been taught by some brilliant, big-picture, consider-the-meaning analytic thinkers. But too often these kinds of debates go on and they really just do, quite understandably, appear purposeless and silly to some on the “outside.”

  3. I think the really abstract kind of philosophy is an example of Sartrean bad faith. … I remember once being at talk about social injustice and homelessness and this homeless guy actually stumbled in on the talk!! It was so ironic! and embarrassing because of course no one paid him any notice. He started talking loudly and incoherently at the speaker. … When I “failed” to find meaning or interesting the abstract kind of philosophizing I thought I was a poor thinker. I think people who do the hyper analytical philosophy are most often intellectual snobs who are emotionally very immature. I feel supremely relieved to be teaching critical thinking at a community college.

  4. Into the lions den, as they say, but I just can’t resist comment. Let me start by saying that yes I am one of those reviled white male analytic philosophy grad students. I think several different points have been made here, many of which I agree with. For example, my anecdotal experience with female colleagues has been that they are turned off my the ‘jousting’ which often seems to be an end in itself for some philosophers. Also, there is a real ongoing concern that, as Rachel says, there hasn’t been much “uptake” of feminist criticism into the the mainstream literature.

    That said, I am curious about the following claim: analytic philosophy can too often turn grand questions into trivial disputes. This is from the original post. I would also suggest that it is not a minority view, indeed perhaps is the most prevalent opinion about analytic philosophy outside of analytic philosophy. But is it true? I thought that Calypso offered some nice examples of the contrast between what she takes to be the ‘grand questions’ about personal identity and what are the more popular topics which constitute the ‘trivial disputes’ on personal identity. But to use this as a test case (nothing against Calypso, nor necessarily even to disagree with her) what makes the former topics grand and the latter trivial? I guess my question is: does it come down to intellectual taste? Is it just that the questions with which analytic philosophy tends to be occupied are found uninteresting by women? Any feedback is welcome.

  5. Calypso –

    Your anecdote really makes me think there’s a connection between this problem (much of mainstream philosophy is irrelevant, insignificant, or unimportant) and the culture of duelism or (and this is a great term, Colin) jousting. When the goal of the exchange is simply to accumulate points by finding ways of tearing down premisses, and the easiest way to do that is to go off on an esoteric logical tangent, esoteric logical tangents shouldn’t be a surprise.

    Colin –

    I hope you don’t actually feel reviled as a white male analytic philosopher. A lot of the regulars here are white analytic philosophers, and a few of us are men. Thinking there’s something deeply wrong with the culture and methods of the discipline isn’t the same thing as reviling or hating its practitioners!

    Okay, on to some substance: You suggest two standards for, let’s call it, significance: `intellectual taste’ and whether or not something is `uninteresting to women’. I could write a whole chapter trying to understanding what’s going on in the second option, so unless/until you clarify, I’m just going to consider it a particular kind of intellectual taste.

    I want to suggest another possibility, building on Rachel’s suggestion that looking to Dewey might be useful. In particular, I want to quote two claims Dewey makes in chapter 4 of Logic, the theory of inquiry: First, `Scientific subject-matter and procedures grow out of the direct problems and methods of … practical uses and enjoyments [what he calls `common sense’]’. Second, `The separation and opposition of scientific subject-matter to that of common sense … generates those controversial problems of epistemology and metaphysics that still dog the course of philosophy’.

    Dewey doesn’t think that all theoretical and abstract inquiry has to be directly tied to practical affairs. As I read him, he just thinks that the former is motivated by the latter — that theoretical work derives its significance from practical concerns — and that understanding this connection is important to understanding, for example, which problems are really significant and which problems are less significant esoterica.

    There’s a relativism here, but it’s at a cultural and technological level, not the individual level `intellectual taste’ seems to live at.

  6. An, I’d really like to distinguish between disliking abstract question and disliking trivilizations of what one sees as important abstract questions. Of course, plenty of people dislike abstract questions, but the passage quoted suggests that’s NOT necessarily what can create the impression that there’s something alien about philosophy for women.

    Colin Caret: Great question! Why not be interested in detail 7.d.iii under A great Question? It’s probably a mistake to try to characterize trivia formally, as the passage I quoted above seems to try to do. And in fact there seem to me that there may be profound questions about philosophical understanding that should be brought into any full answer to your question.

    Nonetheless, there do seem to me instances of the schema that are trivial because they’ve changed the topic from, e.g., “How does the mind work” to “The logical fallacies in Prof. X’s article on Prof. Y’s objections to Prof. Z’s misinterpretation of Kant’s…” It’s one thing to write about how the mind works and another to write about the logical problems Prof. X has. That seems a paradigm case about the difference between grand and small, trivial questions.

    It might also be that the cases in which the schema picks out genuine trivia are ones in which there’s been some mistake that has the whole enquiry distorted from the start. I’m inclined to think – as are a number of other people – that there are some very serious problems in analytic philosophy of mind that means it too often starts with a wrong-headed picture of the inquiry. We think,eg., we’re looking at how we understand other people, but in fact we’ve left out huge chunks of human experience. Or we think that we’re trying to understand perception but we end up arguing whether or not X is right that our experience can be distinguished from hallucinations because we’re actually focused on a quite different topic; namely, what are the truth-makers for “S sees that P.”

    I hope this makes sense.

  7. Rachel,

    I think that the embodied, enactive movement in philosophy of mind is actually leaving behind a lot of the focus on mere logical possibilities for understanding matters at least closer to what your talking about. In effect, the movement is interdisciplinary, since it insists on facts about the body, human life, etc., ar important.

    It is interesting that as theorists highlight the importance of society and emotion, VERY little is said about feminist philosphy, where these are now old themes.

  8. Oops! Sorry, Calypso.

    Noumena, thanks I guess the ‘reviled’ bit was unnecessarily hyperbolic :) Yeah I was trying to use ‘intellectual taste’ in a broad enough sense that it wouldn’t carry negative connotations. Call that culturally relative value if you want, I just wanted to see if we could clarify what is at stake with respect to the thesis that analytic philosophy ‘trivializes’ important issues.

    jj, I am not sure I have you right, but let me try this. You seem to suggest that directly tackling an issue like the nature of the mind is interesting, but responding to theorists about that topic is trivial? That doesn’t seem right to me. Your last comment, however, is deeply intriguing. I would like to hear more about how inquiry might get so distorted. I guess I am sort of a pluralist about these things. My temptation is to say: I understand the two types of inquiry you are pointing to, but why are they in conflict? Aren’t they just different inquries (i.e. one is asking questions about the experiences of persons, another is asking about the a priori content of “S sees that P”)

  9. So, just to begin with, my comment above was not meant as a dig at analytic philosophy qua analytic philosophy. I consider myself largely situated within the analytic tradition and am largely sympathetic to analytic methodologies.

    In any case, Colin, your point about “different inquiries” is well-taken and reasonable. However, I worry that when these different sets of questions are valued differently by the philosophical community (i.e., when discussions of the a priori content of “S sees that P” are taken as more rigorous than or as having priority over discussions of the experiences of persons), the move of designating them as ‘different inquiries’ operates in such a way that it marginalizes and further devalues the set of issues that is not most obviously under discussion. In my experience, this happens most often to the very sorts of questions that feminist philosophers are interested in. The move of suggesting that we’re talking about completely different issues is a way of suggesting that what *we’re* talking about isn’t relevant to the REAL topic of discussion.

    Anecdote:
    This past semester I was in a graduate seminar on (you guessed it) personal identity. At the beginning of the semester, we were surveying our intuitive responses to a common set of thought experiments from the literature. One of the other students voices some hesitation regarding our initial intuitions about a psychological criterion of personal identity: it doesn’t seem clear, she says, that prince/cobbler-style brain-switching cases will always be intelligible when the brains we switch belong to bodies with significant physical differences. I agreed with her, and said that there might be reasons to be suspicious of the initial interchangeability suggested by these thought experiments, particularly regarding things like sex, race, and disability, because a significant factor in how our dispositions and character traits are developed is the interpretation of the bodies we actually inhabit by our communities. Given a different body, these dispositions and character traits might change in salient respects.

    In response to this, one of the male grad students leans across the table, looks directly at me, and very snidely and aggressively responds, “No. What WE’RE talking about here is PERSONAL identity.”

    There were a few things implicit in this comment. One was that the very fact that I brought up this issue was evidence that I had misunderstood a common distinction between the philosophical notions of “metaphysical” identity (say, identity over time) and “social” identity (say, gender or racial identity). Another was that topics related to the latter were irrelevant in discussions of the former. But my favorite implicit accusation of the comment was that I wasn’t even competent enough to know the content of the course I was enrolled in. The experience “got” to me in a sufficiently robust sense that I didn’t bring up anything related to social identity for almost the rest of the semester (until the last week of class, after the student in question had dropped the course).

    In any case, my point is that I am wary of moves that function as a means of implicitly devaluing a particular set of questions. It’s very difficult to fully participate in philosophical conversations when the task in front of you is not only defending the reasonableness of your points but their relevancy as well. It seems that narrowly carving up inquiry may in some cases be a means of doing this.

  10. Rachel, I entirely agree with your worry. In fact I have recently been blogging about the related issue of trends which can marginalize anyone working outside the fold of the trendy. There is a real practical/merhodological problem here of how we ought to engage with people whose perspective on a topic is so narrow that they cannot appreciate the possibility that some of their assumptions might be mistaken.

  11. colin,

    Quickly, that’s just what I was trying to avoid saying. And perhaps failing. I’m trying to proceed without mentioning concrete examples or many of the large issues, which of course maybe shaping my response.

    So let me try an example that might be a bit neutral. You know the swampman case? It was raised as a counterexample to teleological accounts of representation. There are a number of alternative responses. It turns out that a way to make a subtantiial contribution is to make some objection within that literature. In fact almost no one is questioning the enterprise of supposing we have these internal vehicles of content. I’m pretty sure the view about mental reps has huge problems, not least of which is that philosophers are mistaken about its role in cognitive neuroscience.

    Conclusion: there’s a difference between a real problem and the literature surrounding it. When you are working at the 4th layer of commentary you may be missing most of the impotant questions, which have become hidden.

    I ended up with a detailed eg, I guess, but the point doesn’t depend on my being right about it. It just depends on the point that 4th levels have left the important question behind too often. I think this is happening all over and I’ve given another example before.

    Any errors here are the iPhone’s fault.

  12. Rachel, One thing that makes me sad about your experience with a course on personal identity is that the history of philosophy seems to have had more tolerance. At least when I did those courses, one of the things we started with was poor Locke’s non-starter memory account. About five years ago I bet myself that if I looked at the actual text, I’d see something quite different. To be honest, I’ve now forgotten exactly how his real account goes, but it is roughly this: Locke was interested really in cases of legal and moral responsibility and how we can hold people responsible for things in the past. So the memory criterion is not about how to capture the metaphysical self; it’s rather about a condition on how we end up counting someone now as the agent then.

    All this was just after the famous passages.

  13. Rachel, I thought I’d better look up the passage; I’m using an e-copy, but I think this is Book II, chaper XXVII, para 26. As far as I remember, 7 years ago this passage just didn’t have any effect on discussions. Rovane may have been an exception.

    “Person” a forensic term. Person, as I take it, is the name for this self. Wherever a man finds what he calls himself, there, I think, another may say is the same person. It is a forensic term, appropriating actions and their merit; and so belongs only to intelligent agents, capable of a law, and happiness, and misery. This personality extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness,- whereby it becomes concerned and accountable; owns and imputes to itself past actions, just upon the same ground and for the same reason as it does the present. All which is founded in a concern for happiness, the unavoidable concomitant of consciousness; that which is conscious of pleasure and pain, desiring that that self that is conscious should be happy.

  14. jj, I can buy that, but on the other hand, working out the details of a theory often requires getting really clear on less interesting question or phrasing a thesis with just the right nuance. This may leave behind some of the bigger, motivating questions, but it is ultimately work that needs to be done in the sake of developing mature theories, no?

  15. Colin C,
    I think here again the points may really be hard to capture so abstractly (i.e., without reference to specific instances) and I’m not sure what you are thinking about when you say the motivating questions are left behind.

    It strikes me that there are two other closely related discussions. One is whether there is a distinction between philosophical questions and literature questions. A second really is Kuhn’s point about working within a normal science. People working within a normal science don’t continuously interrogate the framework (or whatever Kuhn called it). But philosophy is supposed to continually interrogate the framework. Unfortunately, it often isn’t doingthat, and it may be as hard to do that in philosophy as in a normal science. In a way, Rachel’s example of her seminar is a case in point. It’s permissible to make fun of people who raise questions outside the framework, even though the historical philosophers who supposedly set the discourse weren’t as rigid.

    But, to bring this back to the current discussion, I’m really not interested in working on literature questions (is A’s argument against B’s critique of C’s rejection of D’s version of…. valid?) I love abstract questions, but not particularly questions about validity of colleagues arguments at the 4th level and beyond unless I’m feeling cranky. And that’s maybe closer to the point this all started with.

  16. Kuhn’s term was `paradigm’, but there are reasons for thinking `framework’ is an equally good term. (Briefly, Carnap was writing about frameworks around the same time, and decided to publish The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the logical empiricist Encyclopedia of Unified Science because Kuhn’s work was so similar to his own.)

    There’s something telling if we look into the reference to Kuhn a little more. Kuhnian paradigms, Carnapian frameworks, and Lakatosian research programmes are all defined, in part, by the need to make substantial assumptions in order to develop theory. Unless you assume that the basic picture painted by your theory is at least about right, you’ll spend too much time questioning it to make any progress sorting out the details. The substantial assumptions are needed for science to make any progress.

    If you accept this kind of account of theoretical inquiry (and I’d wager most philosophers of science today say something of this kind is on the track, though not the anti-realist and irrationalist conclusions often drawn out of Kuhn), then there’s an immediate tension within any discipline that thinks it’s supposed to be both (a) making progress developing mature theory and (b) constantly questioning any and all assumptions.

    Could part of the gap between mainstream and feminist analytic philosophy come from different emphases or different conceptions of what the purpose of philosophy is?

  17. Hmm…. sometimes it’s sounding a bit like the complaint against analytic philosophy is that there’s a tendency for lots of practitioners to get caught up in petty debates and lose sight of the big picture; or to chug along arguing with each other, not saying anything really exciting. But surely, in one form or another, this happens in every field. Doesn’t it?

  18. Thanks, Noumena. I was thinking, confusedly I now suspect, that Kuhn’s use of “paradigm” was either too broad (in its wider contruction) or too narrow to fit the scientific analogue of a philosophical theory. And that he had a term for the part that was appropriate.

    In any case, I don’t like the general analogy between the development of a scientific theory and that of a philosophical theory. It’s a really complicated question why, and one that would be fiendishly difficult to settle at this level of generality, and without prior agreement on what kinds of distinctions there are between the two general areas of inquiry.

    BUT it might be that that is all irrelevant, since the research on, e.g., computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon suggested that the women students there were not keen on very narrowly defined problems. So the problem doesn’t seem peculiar to philosophy (if it is a real problem). It would be interesting to see if women across the sciences are less keen on the little problems that come with working out a theory. There are suggestions in the literature that women are more interested in interdisciplinary research, but I don’t know of anything like a rigorous study.

    I tried in fact to add to the characterization quoted in the piece by saying that the narrow problems could be seen as trivial, in order to avoid saying it was a matter of guys liking narrow problems and women not and that that is a gendered different in thinking that may be biologically driven. Horrors! Not on a feminist blog! (Joke!)

    But maybe there’s this basic difference: on the whole guys are happier working on little problems than women are. At least in computer science and, as hypothesized above, perhaps philosophy.

    Another explanation might be suggested by Calypso’s quote above, though she give it: guys are much more combative and they like to fight over the details just because it’s a chance to fight. However, that’s not going to generalize since the atmosphere in some other fields is MUCH more cooperative and constructive.

    You’re suggesting something else entirely, it seems. That we have different senses of the purpose of philosophy. That’s really interesting. If we are talking about a general difference that can hold across fields, then we’re quite possibly talking about a different in the purpose of inquiry.

    Of course, it’s worth realizing that this whole discussion is very hypothetical. We’re talking about interpretations of a possible reason why some women say they aren’t keen on mainstream analytic philosophy in order to account for their low numbers in philosophy. There are still plenty of other factors that might account for that, including the hostility we can encounter.

    Anyway, Noumena, I don’t mean to lecture you. I’m just trying to draw things together. I really appreciate your always thoughtful and helpful responses here.

  19. Hi Jender, glad you’re in the discussion. You’ll see I struggled through to the same conclusion. But I now am thinking that it might have been a mistake to try to explain the dissatisfaction of women (documented in computer science and possible in philosophy) in terms of ‘trivial.’ The difference may be what I think the Carnegie Mellon study suggested; namely, narrow.

  20. By the way, having created a confusion at the beginning and having managed to get out of it to some extent, I’m going to leave this discussion to others for a bit. Please let us know what you think! I’ll get back later, unless I get very cranky earlier.

  21. Let me throw one more data point in before I go spend this beautiful Saturday afternoon studying in a dark coffee shop (sigh!)

    There was a study in Spain a couple years ago that produced some interesting data on vocational goals, gender, undergraduate major, and sexist attitudes. They asked students to rank eight different vocational goals on a 1-5 scale, and calculated mean and standard deviations by gender and by area of major (`Experimental and health sciences’, `Social and legal sciences and humanities’, and `Technical’).

    One of their primary results was that women considered helping others to be more important in a job than men did — out of the eight different vocational goals the researchers asked participants to rank, women’s mean ranking for helping others was always either #1 or #2, and this mean was always higher than the corresponding men’s mean, though they were often quite close. Men’s mean ranking for helping others was never better than #4 (it was #6 in two out of the three categories of majors), and was always ranked below flexibility, family time, and leisure time (it was also beat out by high pay in two of the three categories). The authors take these and some of their other results to support hypotheses that men are more motivated by `extrinsic motivators’ and women are more motivated by `interpersonal goals’, and that extrinsic motivators are connected with choosing a scientific or technical career while interpersonal goals are connected with choosing a career in the humanities or medicine.

    They’re nice and responsible and don’t make a huge biological (or cultural, for that matter) speculation based on this data. :-)

    The paper is Fernández et al., `Sexism, vocational goals, and motivation as predictors of men’s and women’s career choice’. Sex roles (2006) 55:267-72. DOI 10.1007/s11199-006-9079-y

  22. For a contrasting view, see Timothy Williamson’s defence of pedantry in his article ‘Must Do Better’ (pp.14-5) —

    Much even of analytic philosophy moves too fast in its haste to reach the sexy bits. Details are not given the care they deserve: crucial claims are vaguely stated, significantly different formulations are treated as though they were equivalent, examples are under-described, arguments are gestured at rather than properly made, their form is left unexplained, and so on. A few resultant errors easily multiply to send inquiry in completely the wrong direction. Shoddy work is sometimes masked by pretentiousness, allusiveness, gnomic concision or winning informality. But often there is no special disguise: producers and consumers have simply not taken enough trouble to check the details. We need the unglamorous virtue of patience to read and write philosophy that is as perspicuously structured as the difficulty of the subject requires, and the austerity to be dissatisfied with appealing prose that does not meet those standards. The fear of boring oneself or one’s readers is a great enemy of truth. Pedantry is a fault on the right side.

    Also, I’m puzzled by JJ’s attempt to separate off “literature questions” from real questions. Isn’t the reason we care about exploring the counter-counter-counter-arguments for P precisely that these details speak to the question whether P is true?

  23. Richard, significance is not the same as imprecision. (Neither, for that matter, is it the same as precision; cf the primary achievement of pretty much anyone you might consider important in the history of human thought except possibly maybe Bertrand Russell.)

    And at the counter^3-argument level of detail, how is settling the dispute one way or the other going to settle the question of whether P is true? The exhaustive investigation that determines that the fifteenth digit of Planck’s constant is 4 isn’t going to be the one that confirms quantum electrodynamics, and neither is it going to be that one that figures out how to use quantum electrodynamics to build transistors.

  24. Hi, I just think it’s time for a woman to stick up for pedantry. (Maybe I will change my name to ‘Pedantic Woman’.) I LOVE precision. I like arguments and counter-arguments because they help me get there. Pedantry does too. And counterexamples! It’s hard for me to overstate how much I love a good counterexample (heck, I even enjoy quite a lot of the bad ones). In fact, one sad result (it seems to me) of the difficulty of publishing feminist analytic philosophy is that it’s so hard to do the arguments and counter-arguments work in this field: it doesn’t often fit with edited volumes, and journals don’t want it. But it would be GOOD for the field if there were more of it– done the right way. That is, not to rip views apart in order to show off. Rather, to find problems with current formulations, and demonstrate those problems clearly and precisely enough that better formulations can be arrived at. This is important work that advances a field. (I’m not really convinced that JJ et al would disagree with this, but somehow the focus of the discussion led to it being left out, and I thought it needed to get in.)

  25. Noumena, what are the chances that thousands of philosophers are all going to do work of groundbreaking “significance”? We can’t all be Kant. So it seems the option for most is between attempting (and failing) to do extraordinary work, or taking care to make a true contribution to the field, however modest.

    I recall once reading a quote to the effect that a field becomes an academic discipline when even ordinary practitioners can offer incremental contributions of some (however modest) worth.

  26. Richard,

    Sorry to break in here, but it doesn’t seem to me that there’s any problem with ordinary researchers doing significant work in the sense that Noumena seems to mean: i.e., not in the sense of being an extraordinary contribution to the field as a whole, but in the sense of not being trivialized with the nitipickiness of the thing discussed. The work involved in devoting massive amounts of one’s career to questions like ” the fifteenth digit of Planck’s constant” is trivialized by the insignificance of the object, unless that object can be identified as a direct influence on some matter of much greater moment. What one wants is not for ordinary researchers to be sidetracked into discussing trivial matters, but for them to have the room to make even small improvements to our understanding of great matters.

    Of course, it’s different to the extent that one is interested in it; but in that case, it’s like doing philosophical research into the metaphysics of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: nothing wrong with it whatsoever, and you might turn up something interesting in the process, but it would hardly be reasonable to regard it as a highly respectable part of the field in general, or expect it to be respected as such, rather than simply respected as a quirk of personal interest. And it is not so clear that, to use Rachel’s example of personal identity, endless discussion of fusion, fission, consciousness transfers, brain-switching, and the like is so very different. Of course, a great deal of serious philosophical work in practice lies in moving from quirky personal interest to matters of general moment and back again; and there is nothing to prevent someone working in the quirkiest of philosophical fields from finding something of general value and worth. But as the arguments become bogged down in the minutiae of particular arguments and interpretations, it becomes less and less likely that there will be found any such thing, and more and more need to justify any expectation that anyone else pay much attention to it.

  27. What one wants is not for ordinary researchers to be sidetracked into discussing trivial matters, but for them to have the room to make even small improvements to our understanding of great matters.

    Yes, I absolutely agree. But if the question whether P is of great importance, then this can vindicate research into counter^3-arguments against P, since these speak — however modestly — to the important question of P’s truth.

  28. Let me just remark briefly that there’s a conflation, unfortunately introduced by me, which I tried to combat and which seems to remain. The conflation is between the narrow (which the quoted bit is about) and the trivial, which I used in a remark.

    They are, of course, different. I think a lot of comments are defending the narrow, which is fine, but it’s been conceded that there was a confusion here.

    I doubt many people can survive a PhD in analytic philosophy, still less a career, without some appreciation of the narrow.

    And I’d like to claim that I can be really pedantic. I’ve published a whole article about whether one sentences in a historical text is subjunction or past perfect.

    Unfortunately, how we take this back to the original question is something I can’t address right now. But let me remark on two things:
    a. Calypso’s comment raises a possibility that might be general: there may be more love of narrow argumentation than love of real philosophy questions in a number of occasions.
    b. One might think of, e.g., the Gettier literature as based on a false assumption about necessary and sufficient conditions which at the same time misses out all the substantive questions, many of which it begs. There is NO good theory of concepts that underwrites the necessary and sufficient conditions analysis requires. At least as far as I know. If you think that way, the stuff may be VERY boring and beside the point.

    And there was something more, but I have to run!

  29. Thanks, jj. I think I’ve been looking at most of the conversation through the lens of significance rather than narrowness. Hopefully that will clear up some of my comments :-)

  30. You are right, Noumena. Perhaps Richard was the only person really keen on defending the narrow.

  31. well, im new in this thread, but i doubt it that women basically prefer some outlooks than men. that is the trouble with division of disciplines into gender (female literature, philosophy, etc.). anybody agree?

  32. ophelia, I think the discussion might be a bit different from what it seemed. The project was discussing whether women who say philosophy is too abstract and formal (and so ‘male’ ) might actually be thinking just that it’s too narrow.

    So their problem may be more about the treatment of the subject matter, and not quite the content that makes it philosophy and not literature.

    There’s another difference that I didn’t have time to mention before. There’s a distinction in types of thinking that’s gotten various articulations; I honestly don’t know whether it has general validity, but lots of people think it does. In the Myers-Briggs set up, it’s the difference between Judging andPerceiving. Judgers like to take one problem at a time and take it to its conclusion. Fill in the details and bring it to a halt.
    (I hope I’m getting them right.) Judgers are convergent thinkers; Perceivers are divergent thinkers. They are much more interested in the similarities among problems than in finishing any one of them.

    IF there is something really validating this distinction and IF women as a group have fewer narrow-problem-lovers, then that might be operating.

    One problem is that, I suspect, the two types dislike each other’s style. Williamson’s quote above seems to suggest he thinks it’s very bad not to fill in the details. A lot of divergent thinkers have some contempt for the people who do just that. So if one group gets to set the standards, the other group may not be very happy.

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