analytic philosophy as a cautionary tool
March 19, 2017
After my twitter thread on Adichie took off last week, there were a few comments as it got retweeted that stuck out in my mind. Two key words come to mind: ‘humane’ and ‘clear’. More than a few people appreciated my perspective as a logician/philosopher, feeling that it brought a level of clarity to the ‘conversation’. One person, further, added that the thread was one of the most ‘humane’ they’d ever seen on twitter. Since then, that word especially has been bouncing around in my head.
To me, as what one might also call a ‘comparative philosopher’ since I studied a non-white philosophical tradition while I was in school (the Chinese tradition), such statements are alarming to me. The type of analysis I used in that thread isn’t very interesting or novel, at least not to me. Its pretty vanilla analytical philosophy.
For those who don’t know:
The school of analytic philosophy has dominated academic philosophy in various regions, most notably Great Britain and the United States, since the early twentieth century…Additionally, Russell believed that the grammar of natural language often is philosophically misleading, and that the way to dispel the illusion is to re-express propositions in the ideal formal language of symbolic logic, thereby revealing their true logical form. Because of this emphasis on language, analytic philosophy was widely, though perhaps mistakenly, taken to involve a turn toward language as the subject matter of philosophy, and it was taken to involve an accompanying methodological turn toward linguistic analysis. Thus, on the traditional view, analytic philosophy was born in this linguistic turn.1
Essentially, analytical philosophy rests heavily on formal logical and linguistic analysis, which is basically all I did in my twitter thread.
As I’m trained in philosophy, this is the methodology I’m most familiar and comfortable with. It comes easily to me. So the type of analysis that comes with teasing out the assumptions in other people’s arguments is what I do. Analyzing the language they use and drawing out the implications is what I do. Looking at their argument and figuring out the overall structure, the form, is what I do.
For some (like me) this is a handy tool.
It’s funny. When I was a wee baby undergrad and still an english major, I remember when the reqs changed for the degree and the option opened up to take logic and a friend told me that I wouldn’t like it. So I didn’t take it until I transferred to UBC and switched my major to Chinese. And then… it turned out that I loved it, lol. Not necessarily the math parts, which were fine, but I didn’t truly fall in love until my third logic class, non-classical logics, which was focused more on the philosophy side and I was gone…
Anyway. My little autistic brain absolutely latched onto the meta-level of analysis that philosophical logic demanded and I’ve been riding that wave ever since.
It’s not for everyone though. And its not the only kind of analysis that matters.
While the Adichie thing was happening, I certainly wasn’t even close to the most important voice. I follow many Black trans women who were tweeting great, insightful things. Many of which were emotional, intellectual, and just… awesome.
Which is why the particular word ‘humane’ really troubles me. Why was my thread the most humane, not only this topic, but on many other topics?
This methodology is one that was created by crusty dead white men. It, like all things, has a particular context, history, and so forth. It didn’t help that the person who made the comment appeared to be a white man. The Black trans women I saw who were expressing a full-spectrum of human emotion had every right to every single emotion, even the so-called ‘dark’ and ‘ugly’ ones.
These tweets where human. It troubles me that people being people isn’t somehow humane. Or rather, that the human response of the injured parties isn’t being seen in a humane way.
To some extent, I realise that part of the response to my thread is that a logician’s/philosopher’s perspective is somewhat novel, particularly in the corners of the internet I inhabit.
The corners of the internet I inhabit: most of the people I know are people of colour who are marginalized in other ways beyond race. Which means that few of them have spent any time studying philosophy because philosophy departments are some of the whitest and malest spaces on any given US/Canadian campus. Which also means that the extended social networks likewise have little likelihood of having any experience with the subject.
On the other hand, because philosophy is mostly comprised of white, male bros, they usually aren’t the kind of ppl who show up in the spaces I or anyone else I know occupies. They certainly never seem to come down from their ivory tower circle jerks to give a fuck about the rest of the world, so….
All of which is to say. Analytical philosophy is a tool. One forged by crusty dead white men and usually wielded by other white men. Be wary of treated is as something necessarily better than any other methodology available.
“Analytic Philosophy,” Aaron Preston. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, http://www.iep.utm.edu/. March 19, 2017. ↩