Aaron Preston: Analytic Philosophy: The History of an Illusion.
Analytic Philosophy: The History of an Illusion.
New York: Continuum 2007.
US$110.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-8264-9003-2).
The last two decades have seen the publication of many new books about analytic philosophy--not just about its treatment of particular topics, but about the analytic movement as a whole. Some of these books are histories: Scott Soames' magisterial Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century is probably the best-known example. Others, such as Bruce Wilshire's Fashionable Nihilism, are critiques. They claim that analytic philosophy is fundamentally misguided in some way, and that we would do well to transform it or move beyond it. Preston's book is both a history and a critique. It argues that contemporary analytic philosophy is in crisis, and it sheds light on this crisis by tracing the movement's history. The details of Preston's story will not convince everyone. But the general picture he offers makes an important contribution to our understanding of the movement.
Preston starts by suggesting that analytic philosophy today is experiencing an identity crisis. It dominates the English-speaking world, and it claims to provide standards for determining what counts as good philosophy. But there is a growing dissatisfaction with it. Some critics worry about an 'existential gap' (25) between the narrowly technical work done by many analytic philosophers and the larger concerns of ordinary human life. Another and perhaps more pressing concern is that the nature of analytic philosophy is not understood, not even by its practitioners. Most of us think we know what analytic philosophy is. It began, or so the story goes, in the early twentieth century with Russell and Moore. Influenced by Frege, these figures broke with the idealism then dominant in British universities, and devised a new type of philosophy based on a 'linguistic turn'--an insistence that 'philosophy is largely or wholly a matter of linguistic analysis' (31). They suggested that many traditional philosophical problems are pseudo-problems arising from the careless use of language, and they preferred narrowly focused work to the construction of comprehensive philosophical systems. But according to Preston, this 'traditional conception' (31) is wrong. It is not just that the methods favored by Russell and Moore are no longer used by the analytic philosophers of today. Even in the movement's earliest stages, there was never a consensus that philosophy is 'largely or wholly a matter of linguistic analysis' (31). So what was analytic philosophy, and what is it? We lack answers to these questions. Analytic philosophy 'dominates the profession, but no one can say what it is. It has conferred its own standards upon the philosophical profession, but no one can say just what those standards are' (26). How could the school have become dominant despite failing to understand itself?
Preston's answer is that, from the beginning, analytic philosophy has been based on an illusion. Analysis is not and never has been a single method. The philosophers we think of as practicing this method have never been unified enough to deserve the name of a school. They came to be seen as one because of choices made by a handful of influential philosophers in early twentieth century Britain. These philosophers chose to treat a diverse body of work as more unified than it really was. They also chose to depict this work as more plausible than it really was, and to ignore certain obvious difficulties that it raised. Preston calls the first decision the 'illusion of unity' (82). By the 1930s, the myth had spread that Russell, Wittgenstein, Strawson, and others were engaged in a common practice: analysis. In fact, these figures disagreed radically about what analysis is and what it produces. Preston refers to the second decision as the 'illusion of promise' (82). It finds expression in the willingness of these philosophers to embrace certain metaphilosophical principles--such as the verification principle of meaning--even while recognizing that these principles are self-defeating. But why did analytic philosophy come to be seen as more unified and more promising than it actually was? Preston argues that these illusions caught on because of an unquestioned assumption at work in British philosophy of the early twentieth century. This assumption is 'scientism', or 'the view that knowledge can be obtained best or only via the methods of modern science' (124). Scientism is not a theory. It is an unconscious resolve to 'model philosophy after science' (133), and to take scientific thinking as a paradigm for how philosophy ought to proceed. It is the belief that only disciplines with empirical objects and methods deserve to be taken seriously. This belief is the source of the illusion of unity. Analytic philosophy came to be seen as a single movement because those who studied it paid attention only to its empirical character. To put it crudely, all analyses looked the same, and for the scientistic mindset, this is all that matters. Analysis came to be seen as a single method because of a habit of 'focusing on the empirical features of the practice rather than the ideas that informed it' (121).
Scientism is also responsible for the illusion of promise. In early twentieth century Britain, it was common to assume that any legitimate academic discipline must resemble empirical science. By this standard, British philosophy prior to Russell and Moore fared badly. The absolute idealism then in vogue looked decidedly unscientific, while the introspective study of the mind invented by Locke was challenged by 'the rise of psychology as a separate science' (151). To appear respectable, philosophy had to find a new subject matter--one that would be 'unique among the sciences' (148). It found this subject matter in language. Language is empirically observable, and the analytical techniques employed by Russell and Moore seem to allow 'symbols to be manipulated with the mechanistic precision of a mathematical calculus' (151). It is no surprise that a pseudo-school supposedly defined by linguistic analysis looked appealing in early twentieth century Britain. To this scientistic culture, 'anything approximating the Newtonian paradigm in any field would have seemed promising' (151). Preston's point is that the rise of analytic philosophy was not a philosophically informed development, but the result of an unarticulated bias. Furthermore, this bias is objectionable. The rise of the new philosophy is bound up with an unreflective embrace of science and an unquestioned belief that it serves as a model for all types of thinking. To the extent that there is such a thing as analytic philosophy, it is rooted in 'a dogmatic posture that is out of step with traditional philosophical ideals and aspirations' (129).
There is much to admire in this book. It is beautifully written, and it draws on discoveries from an impressive range of fields. Preston finds instruction in metaphilosophy and the sociology of philosophy as well as in the latest scholarship on the history of early analytic thought. He makes an important contribution simply by bringing work from these disparate fields together. The book's vocabulary is not always as precise as Preston wants it to be. For example, he insists that we must sharply distinguish philosophical schools from philosophical movements and traditions (60). But he gives only a vague characterization of what distinguishes them, and later goes on to speak of the 'analytic tradition' (124) despite his earlier insistence that analytic philosophy is really a school. That said, Preston makes a compelling case that analytic philosophy has never been as unified as we usually assume. He also argues convincingly that our failure to see this results from biases that are largely unphilosophical. What remains unclear is whether the problems he documents are unique to analytic philosophy. It seems likely that the illusions of unity and promise surface in other philosophical schools as well -perhaps all philosophical schools. Consider the movement known as existentialism. We use this label to refer to a well-known group of thinkers, even though there is no one doctrine they all share. In doing so, we are choosing to emphasize certain aspects of their work and not others, probably as a result of unconscious bias. This is not surprising. It is just the price we pay for speaking of schools, movements, or traditions in the first place. As soon as we refer to several different philosophers as a school, we are accepting an illusion, and to that extent, we are ensuring that the school will one day be in crisis. This is not to deny that analytic philosophy (whatever it is) faces real problems. But we may need to think harder about which of these problems are unique to it, and which accrue to schools, movements, and traditions as such.
Preston has not said the last word about the history and the problems of analytic philosophy. But he has made important discoveries about it, some of which are genuinely troubling. Future histories will have to take his discoveries seriously.
Campion College, University of Regina