Why does anyone diss analytic philosophy?

Or, rather, why do our fellow humanities profs fail to respect us any more?  Jason Stanley (Rutgers) attempts to answer this question in a way that shows what is and always has been great about philosophy as we (i.e., “analytic philosophers” broadly understood) do it.  First, a worry about the “we.”  I think a number of readers and participants in this blog are not particularly happy about being identified in that way.  Indeed, I probably fit the label and, for different reasons, I’m not happy about that.  But I’d like to write from the inside on this piece, rather than present philosophy in academia today as some distant problem.  Most of us, analytic or not, are quite affected by the conception of philosophy that does dominate in Anglo-American-Australasian universities today, so in a sense we all have a vested interest in these discussions as, in some way, insiders.

All the quotes below are from Stanley, except for  this one:

 Janet Maslin, the reviewer closes with this observation:

When Cass [an academic and central character] witnesses a PowerPoint presentation featuring “brain scans of sophomores, neuroimaged in the throes of moral deliberation over whether they should, in theory, toss a hapless fat man onto the tracks in order to use his bulk to save five other men from an oncoming trolley,” this book occupies its ideal vantage point: close to the absurdity of current academic thinking yet just far enough away to laugh.

A case can be made that some of the distrust of  philosophy today is that it is seen as having radically misunderstood what is important in human life and thought.  So one might at the end want to know if JS realizes that.

1.  First, the insults; here’s one of many:

In the recently announced results of the new American Council of Learned Societies “New Faculty Fellows” program, 53 recent Ph.D.s in the humanities were awarded post-doctoral fellowships. None of the initial list of winners held a Ph.D. in philosophy. This is only the most recent insult to the oldest of disciplines.

2.  What are the other, respectible humanities doing:

Humans organize themselves into societies, cultures, nations, religions, genders, and races, and employ art and literature to represent their character. According to one view, the humanities should explain the nature of these formations – how the cultural artifacts the groups produce represent their respective identities. … Confrontation with the other has become a necessity of modernity, and humanists have settled into playing a role as our arbiter with the unfamiliar.

Philosophy stands apart from this emerging consensus about the purpose of the humanities. Its questions – which concern the nature and scope of concepts like knowledge, representation, free will, rational agency, goodness, justice, laws, evidence and truth – seem antiquated and baroque. Its central debates seem disconnected from the issues of identity …  Whereas humanists have transformed into actors, using their teaching and research as political tools, philosophers have withdrawn ever more to positions as removed spectators, and not of life, but of some abstracted and disconnected realm of Grand Concepts.

3.  What’s wrong with the estrangement:

That philosophy has become estranged from the humanities is ironic. Philosophy has shaped the modernity in which its role has been supplanted by the anthropology of the other …   There is perhaps a place for the history of Philosophy – investigation into how abstract reflection on grand concepts led to the modern world – but no more use for the abstract theorizing of a Descartes, Kant, or Spinoza.

4.  And a positive characterization of philosophy:

Philosophical problems also have a childlike grandiosity. When a philosopher announces that she is working on the nature of truth, she sounds like a teenager discovering the world of ideas for the first time. The notion that someone could come up with a new way to show that (say) we know that we are not brains in vats must seem infantile, even more so when the methods seem so dry and dilettantish. As the philosopher David Hill has described the discipline, it is “the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers.”

The view that there is no proper place anymore in the academy for the theorizing of figures such as Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, and Kant is well-reflected in the relative success philosophers achieve in competition with fellow humanists for various fellowships. ..  Nevertheless, while contemporary philosophy shares positivist enlightenment values, the positivist anti-metaphysical program has fallen into disfavor. Many leading contemporary philosophers have achieved their status precisely because of defenses of metaphysical views. ….In short, philosophy has not changed. David Lewis writes very differently than Nietzsche. But the unusual figure was Nietzsche, and not Lewis. The great philosophical works have always been difficult technical tomes, pursuing arcane arguments in the service of grand metaphysical and epistemological conclusions. None are easy reading for laypersons, and few base their arguments on anthropology or sociology. The conclusions they draw, and the methods they employ, are the same that one finds in the work of philosophers today. There are many philosophers working today who embrace and argue for Hume’s skeptical conclusions, just as there are many philosophers today arguing for Descartes’ view about the relation between the body and the soul in the Meditations. …  But given the role that the Humanities have adopted in modern civilization, what role does philosophy have to play? … current philosophers … have returned to the traditional philosophical questions one finds in classical philosophy – the nature of persons and rational agency, the status of free will, the nature and reality of material objects. …

5.  The good that philosophy brings to educations:

Most humanists challenge preconceptions by confronting students with alternative cultural identities. The philosopher instead focuses on the beliefs that constitute a religious or cultural identity. … Instead of teaching the middle-class American person about the actual poverty and oppression in her society, the philosopher forces her to reflect on abstract problem cases in which that person’s intuitions lead her to condemn the behavior of someone who is in fact behaving in all relevant respects similar to her. These are different methods of confronting complacency, but they are no less effective …  if the purpose of the humanities is to challenge preconceptions and basic beliefs, in the service of forming a better and more tolerant citizen of a diverse and globalized world, the methods of the philosopher and the methods of the historian are equally necessary.

So philosophy is still engaged in abstract reflection on the grand concepts, just as it’s core always has been.  And that enables us to really help students by revealing to them their basic ideas in the service of making them more tolerant.

On to comments on JS above.  First things first:  can we put some infelicities aside?  For example, most Humean scholars in the Hume Society resist the idea that Hume reached sceptical conclusions; he was constructing a naturalistic conception of the human mind, and, I would add, its conclusions about the limitedness of human reason are abundantly supported by recent research.  But these are not sceptical conclusions; rather, we realize our knowledge is largely owing to instinct.  Somewhat simillarly, many philosophers  today may be dualists, but it’s surprising to be told they are Cartesian substance dualism.  I have no idea where these folk are, but there aren’t many in the forums I know about.

Secondly, many historians of philosophy get very nervous about the idea that there are these grand concepts that have been contemplated for millennia.  I mean, we might not be all that sensitive to different cultures but we really shouldn’t assume that all the philosophers that English speakers read shared our culture and concepts.

Thirdly, as someone who thinks that there  is something to be said for a conception of the mind’s relations to nature that we largely  lost with Fodor’s language of thought, and Chisholm’s misinterpretation of Brentano’s quasi-thomistic conception of intentionality, I can report that there’s a great hostility to important thought that prevailed for most of those millennia. 

But let me  leave it to you, dear readers, to advance pros and cons to this picture.  Do you think, for example, our contribution to education is well captured?

Let me also remind you of our tradition of respectful disagreement.  Furthermore, since Stanley’s was one of the few straight analytic sessions to move out of the Westin for the Pacific APA, let us note that in some ways he is on the side of the good (supposing, of course, there is one.  With sides.) 

(And thanks to Chris Green, York University, for the email about JS’s article.)

21 thoughts on “Why does anyone diss analytic philosophy?

  1. I’m skeptical, I suppose, of the idea that philosophy as we now know it has ever been a natural fit to the humanities. Academic philosophy of the sort with which are familiar (whether analytic or not) came out of a reaction against the development of psychology departments; the psychologists were the people who held that mind should be studied experimentally, and philosophy departments, as stand-alone departments, grew up in response in places where it was assumed that this was not a suitable way to study the human mind. (This in fact, is the explanation for an otherwise curious feature of most philosophy from the early twentieth century to the present, namely that so much of it concerns epistemology, language, and philosophy of mind. Through most of the nineteenth century it had seemed that moral philosophy was absolutely and unassailably the dominant philosophical interest; even the debates in philosophy of science between Mill and Whewell were minor side-disputes in a larger skirmish over utilitarianism.) And since colleges began developing stand-alone philosophy departments, philosophy has gone its own way, usually interacting more with mathematics and psychology than with other disciplines in the humanities; it seems to me that at least a plausible case can be made that if philosophy has become estranged from the humanities, it has estranged itself by paying relatively little attention to topics of importance in other humanities disciplines. (One can sort-of imagine an alternate-dimension academic philosophy that would fit into the humanities well — it would be an academic philosophy where aesthetics, philosophy of history, and political philosophy are clearly the primary philosophical interests in the field, where Collingwood is read more widely than Russell and early modern classes focus on theories of taste rather than disputes over dualism and on Hume’s essays rather than the Treatise or the ECHU. That would be a very different academia.)

  2. I’m an analytic philosopher–yeah team! And I’m sick of getting dissed for it.

    The problem is that philosophy departments have to sell themselves in an environment where programs that don’t, in any straightforward way, prepare students for employment are increasingly regarded as expensive, wasteful luxuries. And my concerns about the Statue and the Clay and the Ship of Theseus, mereology and modal logic, just don’t sell.

    So in the supposed interests of survival, we increasingly sell what the educated general public, and parents, think philosophy is and what they want it to do:

    (1) Ethics, social and political philosophy, etc. We are supposed to inculcate “values” into students so that they behave themselves, and to provide recipes for making the world a better place.

    (2) Continental philosophy. Students enjoy chewing the fat at dorm room bull sessions and, after graduation, will need to make intellectual chit-chat at cocktail parties. So we provide them with names to drop: Nietzsche, Camus, Derrida or whatever.

    I hates it big time and it makes me mad as hell.

  3. H.E. Baber: I have never seen Nietzsche treated as simply a “name to drop” – perhaps we have very different analytic environments, but I am certainly used to him being taken very seriously.

    What is analytic philosophy? I will have been studying philosophy for four years this summer, and assuming I secure funding I will start my PhD in September, and I still have no idea what “analytic” means in this context. I’ve asked my peers at KCL and none have been very clear about it.

    I’m baffled by this:

    Its questions – which concern the nature and scope of concepts like knowledge, representation, free will, rational agency, goodness, justice, laws, evidence and truth – seem antiquated and baroque

    The idea that “goodness” and “justice” might be tossed aside as bourgeois relics is utterly bizarre to me.

  4. I was surprised by the thought that analytic philosophers don’t think about issues of identity, oppression, etc as located in “real-world” contexts. There’s plenty of analytic feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, etc that do this sort of thing. I think one of the most exciting things about work in these areas is the way that it does connect up with the “real-world” and that these connections get explored.

  5. Jender: good point; I do think he’s working with a very restricted notion of philosophy, though it might be at least close to ‘the’ mainstream/malestream one.

    SeanH: I don’t like the wikipedia, but this isn’t a bad first attempt from them:

    The term analytic philosophy roughly designates a group of philosophical methods that stress detailed argumentation, attention to semantics, use of classical logic and non-classical logics and clarity of meaning above all other criteria.

    Of course, JS would agree it’s bizarre to think goodness is an antiquated notion; however, if you think that questions of ‘goodness’ becomes questions about chucking hapless fat men in front of trains, it seems less bizarre. I don’t mean to say that trolleys dominate the discussion, but they might form one paradigm. Michael Thompson was maintaining a recent book is entirely about the trolley car problem.

    HEB: Aren’t all the humanities equally useless on those counts?

  6. I objected to JS on the Leiter blog with the following:

    Jason Stanley, as I understood him, takes philosophy to be involved in abstract reflection on the great concepts. That doesn’t seem to me to fit those I know best of the philosophers he considers. Both Descartes and Hume were deeply concerned with constructing what they regarded as adequate conceptions of human perception and inquiry in the light of the leading scientific ideas of their time.

    It is similarly what I would take to be a central contribution philosophy has to make to present thought and to undergraduate education. We live in a time when, as before, radical reconceptions of human mental life are being constructed by the sciences. We can both get a solid place in this project, and help our students understand the radical undertaking of their time.

    In fact, the humanities in general are starting to respond to the need to reunderstand our academic enterprises in the light of the new sciences of the mind.

  7. Analytic Philosophy, as a sub-division of philosophy, has long become what was “philosophy” in many colleges. As such, it became rather off-putting for those students who come to the field with a “wonder” shaped by literature and the social sciences. Rigidity and the quest for the “right” argument as opposed to discourse created an elightest, alienating, disquieting — if not combative — tone in both the classroom and in reading. In graduate school we were all supposed to become analytic philosophers. I value the work, but it is not the way that I embrace the discipline as an instructor or scholar. That may be why I am a popular instructor, but not so much a “scholar”! :)

  8. Like Jender, I was bothered by Stanley’s suggestions that philosophers don’t pay attention to the real-world contexts of society. Those of us who *do* pay attention to social context (including “analytic” philosophers who work on issues of gender, race, oppression, and social injustice) often have our work dismissed as not “real” philosophy. I’m really sick of this kind of dismissal, and I read Stanley’s piece as a way of justifying philosophical inattention to actual real-life contexts. I’m actually very troubled by many aspects of this piece. As JJ notes in the comment above, his conception of philosophy seems very narrow. While this may in fact be the most prominent type of philosophy in mainstream analytic (and highly-ranked) departments, it’s not the kind of work that many feminists, ethical theorists, and political philosophers are doing. And I think that what we’re doing *is* philosophy and that it’s very relevant to issues and problems in the real world.

  9. Thanks very much for the comments. First, let me say something briefly about the constraints of the article. My original submission was 3000 words. However, I was forced to cut it in half due to space constraints. I think some of the issues some of you are rightfully complaining are due to misunderstandings that wouldn’t have occurred in the original longer version. In such a short piece, it is very hard to do anything other than make crude distinctions. I am grateful for the opportunity to de-reductivize myself here in response to these excellent criticisms.

    Here are some potential misunderstandings. The first part of the article was intended to be a caricature of philosophy – I was speaking in the voice of the literature professor (as it were) critical of philosophy. The paragraph JJ quotes about “philosophy standing apart from this emerging consensus” is a case in point. The material about removed spectators and Grand Concepts was an obvious reference to Hannah Arendt’s discussions about the life of the philosopher versus the life of action. I don’t believe in Arendt’s distinction, and my work in epistemology is heavily critical of attempts to distinguish between epistemic concepts and practical ones.

    In a longer version of this piece, I would have spent a great deal of time attacking this caricature. I would first emphasize that philosophers have a lot to say about the issues of identity discussed in the other humanities. I would draw attention to the work of figures like Haslanger, Langton, and my colleague Ishani Maitra. Secondly, I would point out (as I have on numerous occasions on blogs) about how rooted many philosophers are in the sciences (as JJ rightly emphasizes I should). The fact that I wasn’t able to make these points should not be taken as any evidence whatsoever that I don’t fully believe them (and I can draw your attention to numerous blog posts in which I do). But that would have been a different article.

    Given the space constraints, I chose to write a different article. The article I chose to write basically focused on the relation between philosophers in the broadly speaking “Theory” tradition (which traces its lineage to Nietzsche, and perhaps before to Herder), versus philosophers in the broadly speaking Aristotle-Descartes-Spinoza-Kant tradition (again, crude generalizations – but this is a 1500 word piece). Again and again I hear from my colleagues in the humanities that “real” philosophy is the former tradition, rather than the latter tradition. I wanted to make three points. First, I wanted to emphasize that it is philosophers in the Nietzsche tradition (figures Heidegger, and then later figures like Deleuze, Derrida, etc.) who are discontinuous with the traditional canon – and self-consciously so. Secondly, I wanted to argue that the pro-rationalist and pro-scientist traditional canon tradition (and here I am FULLY in agreement with the gist of JJ’s comments) have played political important roles (this is the material about Spinoza and the logical positivists). For what it’s worth, I count Haslanger and Langton as squarely in whatever tradition I’m in, not in the Nietzsche-Heidegger one. Thirdly, I wanted to try to explain why thinking through abstract puzzle cases can serve the same purposes as anthropology and sociology.

    Unfortunately, I gave the wrong impression that I accepted too much of the caricature of philosophy. I think if you see what I write about the logical positivists and their admiration for science you will see that I clearly do not think of philosophy as divorced from the deliverances of the sciences. My main struggle with this piece was making the three points I just mentioned in 1800 words. I don’t deny that I left a great deal of tremendous value unsaid.

  10. Thanks for stopping by, Jason, and for the clarifications. Maybe you could post the full article that you wanted to write on a blog somewhere?

  11. Jender,

    I think what I want to do is write a still longer piece, not for a blog, but for another outlet. In it, I would more firmly challenge the caricature of philosophy that we are presented with by some of our colleagues in the humanities. I would do so in several ways. First, as I have done in the IHE piece, I would emphasize the continuity of philosophy today with philosophy in the past. Secondly, I would emphasize the value of work that emerges from the pens of philosophers not immersed in Delueze and Guattari, for the very issues of identity that are discussed in much of the humanities today. Third, I would argue that even philosophy done in the manner of the caricature has valuable pedagogical impact.

    But first I want to finish my book on Knowing How….

  12. (And I would emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of the ‘traditional canon’ – in other words the points that Anne Jacobson rightly has been making – that the ‘traditional canon’ work has always been continuous with the sciences).

  13. Thanks, indeed, Jason for coming over. I’m certainly getting a fuller picture of your thought, and I hope you find a venue for your fuller paper. The issues are certainly worth discussing, and of course I already find myself wanting to query some of what you’ve said today.

    Also, if I were to bet on how to present the contributions of philosophy to “today’s university” (groan!), I’m not sure it would be a good idea to take an uncritical stance on our place in the tradition. There are obvious political gains from doing from self-criticism, since otherwise few people outside the field will listen, one suspects. But there may be very substantive questions to be raised about a gap between what we can be doing and what we are actually doing.

    This does make me think that there might be room for some sort of extended discussion here. Perhaps an APA mini-conference with a book at the end, or some such. I think that if something like that was to be done, it might be a good idea to think in terms of family resemblances instead of a shared essence we have to find and describe. A quite rich and useful picture of philosophy might emerge.

    It might also be that some problems should be addressed. I think there are factors which are favoring a highly derivative literature, which might be part of what’s feeding the complaints.

    BTW, I hope your session over at USF got a reasonable audience.

  14. Taking fully into account the fact that the scope of Professor Stanley’s piece was constrained by word count, I want to note, as I do in my post on The Philosophy Smoker, the ways in which I find his response to the perceived crisis in philosophy wanting.

    First, is that the history he gives seems a bit whiggish. I understand that in a short commentary he would be unable to note all the intricacies of the historical story, but the real history makes drawing clear lines Professor Stanley sees between different traditions difficult. So, for example, as Michael Friedman points out, both Carnap and Heidegger’s respective philosophies have their roots in competing interpretations offered by the different schools of neo-Kantianism. What this and other examples show is that in very important ways, those who get called philosophers these days and those who aren’t called philosophers may share the very same roots (or at least very similar ones), and the types of distinctions we take for granted these days within philosophy and between philosophy and other disciplines are often traceable back to very real philosophical disagreements.

    I know Stanley doesn’t make this claim, but a certain myth pervades philosophy, namely that it stopped with Kant and then only began again with Frege. It didn’t. And the details of the era in between are important to understanding why philosophy looks like it does now and, more importantly, why the academy looks like it does now. A good historical response to the crisis in philosophy recognizes this fact and should try to understand more clearly our own history, how it has shaped our discipline and others, and how we can communicate it to others while refraining from the temptation to shape that history to justify what we currently think of as proper philosophy.

    Second, the part of Stanley’s response that suggests the value of philosophy lies in its ability to teach how to think about abstract problems dodges the real gripe about philosophy; everyone in the humanities knows we think this about ourselves, but it doesn’t answer their concerns. What is at issue here is why we should, as philosophers, “reflect on abstract problem cases” and not apply our powers of critical thinking to real cases. Why trolley car problems and not “the actual poverty and oppression in society”?

    I don’t think taking these gripes seriously has to do with buying into the caricature of philosophy that may (or may not) pervade the humanities. It doesn’t require taking post-modern relativism seriously, or giving up on eternal truths. What it requires is real self-examination. We need to recognize our perception problem, if there is anything we can do about it, if there is something particularly odd about the identity politics that dominate our field, if we might widen the scope of philosophy to include more problems, if we are perceived oddly because of our aggressive behavior in talks outside the philosophical sphere, or if we have a problem with communicating the importance of our projects to grant/fellowship boards.

    This isn’t giving up the game, it’s being honest about the true scope of the crisis that faces our discipline.

  15. My major concern with this piece was that it failed to address the philosophers who *do* work on some of the important issues of identity that JS attributes to other humanities folks. JS does address this point in his comments here, and I’m glad to hear it. The response goes a long way toward answering those concerns.

    I think a related concern is that many philosophers not only engage with these issues (and JS rightly points to folks like Haslanger and Langton who do fantastic work on the issues), but many philosophers do so in a way that is continuous with the work done in the rest of the humanities. The turn toward practices, embodiment, and social/group identity is one that has been taken up by many contemporary philosophers. In particular, many of these issues are a staple in journals like Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, Hypatia, and so on. (I myself am at the early stages of a dissertation project that starts with more general reflection on the nature of social practices, and will hopefully move toward issues in group identity…using material from both the anglophone and continental traditions). I was worried that the piece excluded this sort of work.

  16. I would like to agree with Jaded Dissertator’s comment above. As an outsider with some knowledge of the field, I was struck by how un-self-critical Professor Stanley’s article was. I realize that he was allowed only a small space, but there seems to be a troubling presumption that someone is a philosopher only if they belong to the same tradition that Stanley names, without any discussion of why others (Nietzsche, Heidegger, and–as JD points out, 19th century philosophers like the German Idealists) are not a part of that tradition and why Professor Stanley doesn’t consider them philosphers proper. Are Hegel’s, Heidegger’s and Levinas’s works not technical and difficult works, even though they follow a tradition that goes back at least as far a Nietzsche? And what makes Plato a more “Analytic” philosopher than Nietzsche?
    In the end I am left wondering why philosophy isn’t a broad enough discipline to incorporate both Lewis and Derrida? Just by considering “theory” philosophy doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, it means that you take it seriously enough to prove it wrong. Isn’t that the point?

    Like I said, I’m something of an outsider to this discussion, but then again I thought I was the target audience.

    (I should also add that I do agree with much else of what Professor Stanley says, but like others I wish he would expand on his essay.)

  17. JS, thanks for your clarifications! I was about to say that your piece seemed to depend more on stereotypes of philosophers, humanists, and social scientists than anything else. It sounds like a bit of a shame they made you cut your piece down. Before you get around to writing the Full Version, have you considered posting the 3000-word version, say, on your personal webpage, and asking Inside Higher Ed to provide a link to that?

    I’d like to temporarily tease apart several different meta-philosophical questions:
    * What are the primary aims of philosophy? Or, what is philosophy trying to do?
    * How does philosophy relate to other academic disciplines? In the humanities, in the human sciences, in the nature sciences, in business and law and medical schools, and so on — this question can expand and contract dramatically.
    * How does philosophy relate to the institutions that support it with money and other resources? For example, university administrators and the NEH.
    * How does philosophy relate to other non-academic activities? Again, this can expand and contract dramatically, to include not just the most obvious (political and social justice movements) but perhaps also some of the least obvious (the industrial food system, sports, urban planning, construction).

    With these teased apart, I want to suggest that they are actually quite tangled together. In particular, the first question is audience-dependent — the kind of answer given will depend on whether it is given to fellow philosophers, other academics, administrators, non-academics (including students, as on the first day of Intro classes), and so on. If that’s right then the last three questions are primary, at least in the sense that we should think about them a bit first before trying to tackle the first one.

  18. The key to understanding the limits of analytic philosophy is the first half of the word: that is anal.

  19. In response to mike: Nietzsche is not considered to be as analytic as plato because he wrote primarily prose and rhetorical polemics. If you do some essential reading in the analytic tradition (descrates, hume, kant, russell, quine, carnap, sellars, etc.) and then go back and look over Genealogy of Morals or Twilight of the Idols, etc., the contrast of method and rigor should be QUITE obvious. The big difference is, analytic philosophers deal with specific conceptual problems via analytic arguments, while Nietzsche and other so called ‘theorists’ tend to provide something like history mashed up with psychology and sociology all in a hot toasty bun of novelistic prose and rhetoric.

  20. The humanities don’t like analytic philosophers because the humanities has become a political powerhouse and anything outside of it is just getting in the way of the brainwashing process. The modern humanities have done so much deconstructing of our culture that all they have left is to fiddle around with the broken pieces. The philosophers are still doing the work of the humanities and they dislike that. The humanities is, on the whole, extremely irrational, political and ego-centered. Being a humanities major, I was shocked at the polite environment of the modern sciences and even business by comparison. I disagree that it’s about “selling” at least economically. But everything has to have a stupid political purpose nowadays and you can’t just go on pondering and thinking without somebody wondering how you’re going to detract from their high and mighty political goal. Moreover, these people hate empirical evidence, and therefore more reason to hate the analytic philosophers.

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