Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 55

Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 54
Is philosophy as an academic subject still relevant to life in the third decade of the 21st century?  This is a question which hangs in the air wherever the academic subject is being pursued today in colleges and universities. It appears that today a daunting level of intellectual confidence is a prerequisite for anyone embarking on a philosophy course. And it is fairly clear that this level of confidence has become scarcer than it used to be.  Research in epistemology —the heavyweight side of philosophy— has almost disappeared in universities. It seems to have come up against a granite wall. 

Those of us who acquired an interest in philosophy in the 20th century did so when figures like Bertrand Russell, Alfred Whitehead, Karl Popper, Freddy Ayer, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir… were household names.  Russell, in particular, was honoured with a Nobel Prize, and was treated as an intellectual superstar across the globe.  After WW2 Presidents in France were apt to consult the leading Gallic philosophers of their day, to ensure that they were in tune with the times.

This attention and this level of recognition, have clearly come to an end. Very few people nowadays seem to want to invest this kind of effort in the subject. Evidently they have lost faith In philosophy  —as any kind of road to coveted wisdom— not to mention enlightenment or mental balance.

So whatever happened to diminish the reputations of the stars of yesteryear like Wittgenstein, Popper,  Ryle and Derrida? 

What caused this sudden loss of faith?

Well the two “mainstreams” of philosophical inquiry after WW2 were Linguistic Analysis in Anglophone countries, and Existentialism in Continental Europe. The former had a great head of steam in 1945, but had lost it by the 1970s, because the contradictions of modernity were causing discomfort and distress, and the linguistic philosophers seemed to be only interested in splitting hairs. Instead of treating linguistic analysis as one tool of inquiry among others, they elevated it to be the main focus of their reflection and research: thus guaranteeing that there would be years of tedious busywork inquiring into the meaning of common words like ‘if’ and ‘but’. This led to stultifying, wordy “conclusions” which left many more confused at the end than they had been at the beginning. And hence to a modern version of scholasticism, which was worse than the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, and indeed the notorious sophistry of Classical Greece. It met its Waterloo in Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers.  This made the futility of overdoing linguistic deconstruction obvious to everyone.

Continental philosophy, on the other hand, tried to go straight to the heart of the anxious modern predicament, by theorising about deep emotive issues. But it lacked the disciplines needed to give it stability.  There was little sign of any kind of telling, sober logic. Derrida ended up claiming that ordinary language was incapable of delivering stable meanings —thus rubbishing at a stroke nearly a century of careful linguistic critique, as well as the insights of G.E. Moore, Wittgenstein and Austin. In France authoritarian formalistic mathematicians rallied round the Bourbaki, which imposed (quite unconnectedly) a kind of totalitarian set theory onto the Lycees. This bored the average pupil to bits and eventually provoked a bitter backlash against what the protestors called “modernism”.  So the existential mainstream undermined its own semantic basis, by rubbishing both traditional language and modernism. There were spin-offs like Structualism, which noticed that values and world-views were often carried forward by means of tiny verbal signalling.

The essence of the problem is really that this so-called ‘modernism’ was only a thinly disguised neo-platonism, and that so-called ‘traditional language’ was not primarily valued because it hoved from the past, but because it worked.  

A philosophy based on ordinary language is one based on the kind of thinking, feeling and reflecting about the things which are most familiar and most important to the average person. It is not sought after because it is linked to the past, but because it is linked to the heart of the human condition.

Today we need genuinely fresh thinking about the state of the world, the human condition, and the social structures which have not kept up with the speed of recent change and innovation.   

 Wittgenstein was the genius who pioneered the unfashionable cause of analysing ordinary language. This was an essential move as a result of the wayward emphasis of Russell onto a neo-Platonic version of set theory. (Russell failed to notice that most sets were not mathematical objects.) But the real $64 problems of philosophy are all about extraordinary language… which consists of religion, atomic/cosmologic science, and mathematics. Mathematics was the Achilles Heel of Wittgenstein’s position, because it obviously carried a lot of heavy meaning in spite of the fact that, according to its neo-Platonic high priests, it had no “uses” of any significance.

Fortunately the high priests have almost disappeared —as a result of their famous predecessors’ many jaw-dropping blunders (summarised in my late 2023 essay in the New English Review) .  Also the automation of mathematics has meant that Peirce’s insight that maths is <<the science of hypothesis>> has become obvious enough almost to count as commonsense.

The neglect of a sympathetic scrutiny of religion by modern analytic philosophers is an astonishing lapse.  The discovery of anti-mathematics meanwhile changes the landscape of ‘extraordinary language’ completely. It reveals why attempts to understand the crisis in set theory in 1901 were so feeble. It also reveals —even more plainly— why the huge field of incoherence about where maths-based science might be heading (the principal goal of epistemology) has been so hopelessly unsuccessful.