Friday, July 9, 2010

The Powers (Alleged?) of Analysis

I have been asking myself lately what exactly is it that I do. First, I have had sustained conversations over the last year of my Ph.D. with several distinguished scholars in the field, and I feel there is no clear-cut way to do philosophy. In fact, doing philosophy feels more eclectic everyday as I navigate the space of historical scholarship and problem-solving. Never the twixt shall meet, it seems. Yet, I want them to meet, I want them to have a sustained conversation with each other since I feel that is the only way this dreaded "Divide" between Analytic and Continental camps can ever be achieved. However, to do so, requires a constant philosophical reflection on method. My adopted strategy is to study Husserl, the most penetrating "Continental" figure ever since he talks about concrete lived experience. That's what is attractive about him. He gives a conceptual architecture to talk about the concrete structures of our lived-experience. A recent reading of a colleagues paper had this to say coming from outside the tension between Analytic/Continental divide. He writes,
...they are analytic philosophers, trained to believe that it is perfectly alright for a philosopher to lift whatever he or she likes and happens to agree with from any historical context, and use it for whatever purposes strike their present fancies, or more fairly, whatever seems most relevant to the problems with which they are occupied, however narrow those problems may be.
I do not know if this is fair or not. Part of me thinks that if past philosophers are in any sense like me, then some degree of "lifting" out of the text is philosophically responsible. This is because if past philosophers internalize the same activity, that is, they try to make timeless arguments to solve problems that face them presently, then we can also appropriate their insights insofar as we are trying to identify the best aspects of past philosophers to solve our current problems. However, this can be done too quickly and may lend itself to bad scholarship. Yet, I do not think every insistence of doing the above amounts to bad philosophy since it is what we might call analysis.

It is conceptual analysis, and it is the tool of the early 20th century ordinary language philosophers. I love Moore and Ross in this regard because they analyzed concepts of the good and right. Sometimes, I feel, articulating the phenomenological richness of these words; they certainly had at the very least "phenomenological tendencies." Alas, however, it is historically erroneous to identify conceptual analysis with phenomenological describing. I am digressing. To do conceptual analysis is to analyze the ordinary meanings of our concepts as they are confused in our language and to give some reflective attention to their clarification. This allows us to see more richely what exactly is the problem and if so, we may have to provide a solution to a problem. I will not count how many solutions suffice for philosophical problems (even counting that it might be the dissolution of the problem that ought to be an answer-- a favorite Derridian strategy). In the end, to do analysis involves several assumptions:
1. The confusion in our language reflects the conceptual confusion we face presently.
2. Philosophical reflection can clarify the extent to which this is a problem and then theorize solutions of all types of this problem.
3. In order for 1 and 2 to be true, it also must be true that the confusion we presently face can be picked out by analyzing the concepts we use and that these concepts are fixed in their meaning since we continually encounter confusion over their meaning and usage.

So, what is the real question with analysis as it is with all philosophy? We must become reflective of those moments in philosophy where we, philosophers, become mindful about the limits of philosophizing. At this moment, I am pressed to ask why can't we do philosophy within the immanence of our own lives? If I am faced with a philosophical quandary and I approach something as a problem, I am not being historically irresponsible by seeing that others have faced the same dilemma as me. Instead, I reflect and think about it for a long while in relation to my own experience and life. I know that others have thought about, for instance, "what exactly are values?" Moreover, if there are values, what does the ontology of the world look like? I know that neither common-sense, faith or science can take the reins solely on this question. I often think about this question and consider it a reflective moment in my life to arrive at an answer that best fits the evidence and self-reflection I bring to bear exactly on this problem presently before me. In so doing, I think this question cannot be satisfactorily answered from all options I have heard from ethical naturalists like Gilbert Harman or David Copp. I adopt some strand of moral realism, and this has followed from the strategy that assumed implicitly in 1, 2 and 3 above.

Now, if we think all of philosophy is a problem presently before me, then there is the danger of excess. We will convince ourselves that we can lift anything out of a philosophical text regardless of historical context. That I am sure is right about the quoted passage above. However, it is another thing to say completely that an entire group of people will do so without being historically responsible. Being a philosopher is also to live out one's life and experience the world philosophically. Our experience is richly historical, but does unfold presently. This is part of the problem really. We cannot reinvent the wheel with every problem, but there may be permutations of a philosophical problem that come to a special light in our day. It shoudld be right that we can then use analysis to find out the limits of our problems, and we need to do this in order to honor the previous historical contexts that allow us to have philosophical conversations. Futhermore, some conversations are richly historical while others are more to our moment. I cannot be sure which moment passes before me when I philosophize, but I think it is suitable to both be mindful of the problems and how history has shaped our ability to face the problem before us. Perhaps, again, this is why there is a division between problem-solving qua Analytics and historical-textual analysis qua Continentals. It would seem the most sensible that a synthesis of these two tendencies to be a more sensible option in philosophy than the exclusion of one over the other.

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