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December 12, 2003



If you want evidence that Heidegger is poetic there's the fact that he wrote poems, he wrote about the importance of poetry, and he wrote stuff like this in his philosophical work:

"The sky is the vaulting path of the sun, the course of the changing moon, the wandering glitter of the stars, the year's seasons and their changes, the light and dusk of day, the gloom and glow of night, the clemency and inclemency of the weather, the drifting clouds and blue depth of the ether. When we say sky, we are already thinking of the other three [i.e. earth, divinities, and mortals] along with it, but we give no thought to the simple oneness of the four."

As to why he's not studied more I think it's partly prejudice against Continental philosophy generally, partly because he's so hard to understand (while there are other interesting things to work on that don't require the same initial effort for possibly little-to-no gain), and partly because so many of those who do know his work say that it's basically the same as Nietzsche, or Wittgenstein, or whoever. It's nicer to read Stephen Mulhall and much nicer to read Julian Young. And if you read them it's tempting to think that Heidegger himself is not worth struggling too much with (either because you now know what he says or because you've decided that he's wrong or banal). But of course someone who hadn't done the hard work on the man himself would not teach his work to graduate students. And the likes of Mulhall and Young are themselves too close to those Continentals for many philosophers' tastes. I think Wittgenstein's hardness counts against him too. There's a suspicion of the obscure, and why read Ludwig when Kripke is so much easier? It's a shame, but you can't really blame people for exploring relatively obvious problems rather than going down what at least looks to many people like a blind alley.


Thanks, John. Insofar as it would make sense now for you and me (and any other hearty soul) to read some Heidegger together, I'd have to call this exchange a smashing success. So I'll just make a few brief points.

On what McCumber means by logical positivism, and in what sense he thinks it still has currency, I would commend people to his book on the topic (ignore the reader reviews).

Personally, I intended the title of the post in a (mostly)-jokey way; serious only insofar as your apparent disdain for "difficult" writing reminded me of Carnap (yes, it was Carnap). Where we have a substantive disagreement, and the reason it would be great fun to read something together, is where you ask,

...when we turn to Nietzsche - or Plato - and ask: is all this irony, indirection, poetry, stagy presentation, vatic brevity, so forth, possibly up to and including self-contradiction, quite in order?

This is the kind of question that makes me wonder what you think the texts are up to. I'll caricature what I presume to be extreme versions of our respective views. You: saying true things. Me: Engaging the reader in such a way as to make him engage the issues being discussed. I don't even know what one would have if the dramatic form of the dialogues were stripped away. It wouldn't be Plato, and it wouldn't be very interesting philosophically. This--"what is the text doing?"--seems to me the essential difference between you and me and analytic and continental reading more broadly, so I'd love to hear what people have to say about it.

Adam Kotsko

I think that part of this discussion centers on what the goal of philosophy should be. If the primary benefit of philosophy is to produce persuasive answers, then I think there's really no excuse for unclarity. If, however, the point of philosophy is to pose interesting questions -- questions worth grappling with even if the person who poses them does not provide very convincing answers -- then I think that a "poetic" method of strategic unclarity is the way to go.

I think that there is a case to be made for poeticism that still ends up with Heidegger sucking, simply because he's not very good at the poetic things. I personally think that the questions he raises about the history of philosophy and what we might have lost since the pre-Socratics are interesting questions, and I find that his exposition of Greek thought in general has a lot of bearing on theology (my personal field), since early Christianity developed in dialog with Greek thought.

There's also a case to be made that his questions are ultimately so big as to be unanswerable and thus uninteresting and that his successors, such as Levinas, Derrida, and Marion, all help to bring phenomenology back to a more manageable level -- still raising big questions, but not formally empty questions such as the "question of Being."


"Can a case be made out for the goodness of necessarily 'difficult' or 'unclear' writing?"

Maimonides makes one in his "Guide for the Perplexed." He plants contradictions in his text, and states five reasons why he may contradict himself. The Perplexed were to study the text and excavate these contradictions, clarifying the writing. This establishes the basis for an argument that certain texts contain esoteric and exoteric meanings or messages.

Is this so different from encryption? Encoding a message so that it is only decipherable by certain people, or even, no people?

The Oracle is also well known for its equivocity, and many philosphers trade in riddles.


Ogged, you'll just have to take my word for it. When I mused about 'stripping the poetry away', I wasn't daydreaming about trying to translate Thus Spake Zarathustra into Carnapian Protokolsätze, to see what it REALLY comes to. Nope. Nothing of the sort. It was just a vivid way of asking: what do I think is the point of writing 'poetic' philosophy? I think you are worried some positivist is going to storm in: no point! Ha-HA! Let's talk about TRUTH! But I am more worried about flabby answers from the other side, frankly. It's easy to praise the marvellous, edifying, primordial metaphysicalosity of poetry without really knowing what the hell you are talking about. (I don't mean you, personally. I mean everyone who thinks this stuff is wonderful.) I think the only way to make sure one is not gassing vaguely about something one just happens to like is to keep a skeptical eyebrow cocked. Really. Why should poetry make things deeper, as opposed to merely more pleasant to read? I'm really not sure. I've always thought Herr Heidegger was a bit fast and loose on this one.

As to the McCumber stuff: our library doesn't have his book. (It has others by the man, but not this one.) I read the few pages that Amazon has got and - well, I won't say my worst fears were confirmed, because I haven't read the book, have I? But he's gone and said the very thing I feared he would. He even uses the very verb I feared: 'beguile'. (They always use that verb. What is it with that verb? It's like some people are totally beguiled by ... aw, hell with it.)

"The main claim of the positivists, of which we will hear more, was that if a statement could not be verified, it had no meaning. Though most philosophers would now disagree with this, it remains beguiling in its simplicity and self-assurance, so influential that much subsequent American philosophy since has been informally characterized as suffering from postpositivist depression."

I am sorely tempted to use the words 'simplicity' and 'self-assurance' in describing McCumber's point of view. But seriously. I haven't read the book, but on the basis of just a few pages, I'm willing to wager heavy money: this is just a dreadfully, dreadfully wrong way to think about it. Really. Please do not regard all this as some defensive reflex. The problem is that McCumber misreads contemporary American philosophy so wildly - and so confidently - that I don't see how he is going to recover and make himself useful.

He seems to be pushing the line that American philosophy has been avoiding the big questions. He actually says that American philosophy becomes by and large 'unreflective'. (What the hell is that supposed to mean?) He gives some examples of allegedly reflective addresses to the APA. Then (later) unreflective ones. And what seems to damn the latter in his eyes is that the authors had the shallow temerity to talk about 'truth and objectivity' for an hour. "But none of them even broached the relation of objectivity and truth, if any, to philosophy itself." Is he serious? Anyone who talks about the nature of objectivity and truth for an hour and then forgets to add before the question period: 'pretty clearly, this relates to questions about the nature of philosophy'. Oh come, sir: surely we can take a thing like this for granted. Is McCumber going to defend the view that truth and objectivity have nothing whatsoever to do with the nature of philosophy?

So we've got these philosophers who dip their toes in the shallows of truth and objectivity, mere babes beside the likes of Hegel and Heidegger. And it just so happens that one of those thus slighted is Robert Nozick. A man who has written an astounding, surely inadvisable brick of a book, "Philosophical Explanations", which centers on such questions as 'why is there something, rather than nothing?'

(Let me just explain that point: maybe Nozick's book is not as good as Heidegger's, but it isn't because Nozick is afraid of the big questions that sort of interest Heidegger.)

McCumber is a Hegel/Heidegger partisan who is upset that Hegel and Heidegger are not studied as much as he thinks they should be. I sympathize, in an abstract sort of way. But he is really not getting it if he thinks the problem is that American philosophers are just unreflective. They are adherents to a very different philosophical point of view. I'm sure that's very annoying, because it's hard to budge people when you get to disputes that run this deep. But we all know that it's a tad risky to brand those who think differently than you do as deluded. McCumber actually compares American philosophy to a family in which everyone knows about the incest and/or alcoholism but refuses to acknowledge it. I really think that's over the line. It's making yourself dumb by way of pretending the other guy is dumb and evil. It's unbelievable. What's the point of that? (Not that I haven't been there myself. But that was a blog post, man. Well, actually four or five of them, if I recall. Bit embarrassing, now that I think back. OK.)

I'm sorry, but think about how much it annoys you when someone says - and actually believes - 'Oh, Hegel, he just gave the world's longest invalid proof for the ethical supremacy of Prussian bureaucracy. That's all he ever did.' McCumber is getting all set to tee-off against American philosophy at about that level of sophistication and charity, it seems to me. I really don't see the point - I mean, unless you are just playing it for laughs. I always see the point of that. But that doesn't seem to be it here.

Ogged, you are cyber-salt of the earth, man. And may I say: your posts this last week or so have been great. But, after five pages, I am really not with you on this one.

I'm willing to read Heidegger, if everyone assures me I must for my health; and I quite enjoy reading Hegel - what a joker he was! Trying to make us take this stuff seriously. But McCumber is really rubbing me the wrong way.


Thank you for the kind words, John. It's flattering to think that parallels might be made between your work and my amateurism. Luckily for both our sets of readers, parallelism doesn't reduce to equivalence -- which, as you indicate, is one way philosophical surveys become entangled with questions of poetics. (Or, maybe better, aesthetics. Heidegger's sky is "poetic", all right, but it's boiled stuffed owl. Kant's fumbling is better art, being funnier.)

It hardly matters, but my caricature of "logical positivism" comes from (light) experience with the thing itself in a few 1970s philosophy departments where it held sway. At that time and in those backwaters, it was still a real temptation to be consciously turned away from -- one of the only temptations I ever managed that with, and so I tend to overstate its importance.

To return to your starting point, the problem with most of the stuff that gets called "bad writing" isn't its difficulty, necessary or not, but its dullness, careerism, parochialism, and insipidity. Since the attackers of "bad writing" typically share those traits, I'm not inclined to cheer them on.

Good difficult writing provides as much pleasure as good simple writing or good incoherent writing. Most commonly, I think, we get all three at once.


"He actually says that American philosophy becomes by and large 'unreflective'. (What the hell is that supposed to mean?)

Since I have the book, and you don't, I'll help you out with that. Here are a few paragraphs from the book (pg. 9-10). Even these will be merely inflammatory without the arguments and evidence presented in the book, but I hope they're better than nothing. (Errors in the text are my typing mistakes. Footnotes omitted.)

In 1964, for example, the leading American philosopher of his generation, W.V.O. Quite, responded as follows to questions put to him about philosophy by Robert Ostermann, the editor of the National Observer: "'[P]hilosophy' is one of a number of blanket terms used by deans and librarians in their necessary task of grouping the myriad topics and problems of science and scholarship under a manageable number of headings.... I am not alluding to the fragmentation of specialties; I speak of the insignificance of a certain verbal grouping"
Contemporary postmodern proponents of the death of philosophy are thus too late; for America's most prominent philosopher had denied philosophy's existence, as anything other than a flatus vocis, thirty-five years ago.
Quine's refusal to reflect on philosophy has since been upheld by his colleagues. One ransacks the pages of the Journal of Philosophy, Philosophical Review, and the Review of Metaphysics looking for articles that reflect intelligently on philosophy in America, it's problems, and its prospects. Largely, though not wholly, in vain.
Absences are of course difficult to demonstrate, but the change in format for APA presidential addresses is telling in itself. Presidential addresses to the APA are not, to be sure, the only places where the need for reflection might be addressed; but if any prominent analytical philosopher has addressed it elsewhere in the last twenty years, I have not found where. As Richard Rorty has written, "Analytic philosophers are not much interested in either defining or defending the presuppositions of their work. Indeed, the gap between 'analytic' and 'non-analytic' philosophers nowadays coincides pretty closely with the division between philosophers who are not interested in historico-metaphysical reflections on their own activity and philosophers who are."
Such absence of critical reflection, we have seen, was not always the rule for American philosophers, at least not for those elected to the presidencies of the APA. And it is certainly not the rule for philosophy in general. Indeed, critical reflection on itself is traditionally one of philosophy's most central and distinctive parts--for philosophers since Plato's Republic have been charged with establishing not only the starting points of other disciplines but also of their own (Republic 7:533c).
Gottshalk alludes to this at the conclusion of his presidential address to the Western Division:
"The truth is, whether we like it or not, philosophers today have a tremendous work on their hands. This work is nothing more, yet nothing less, than revealing our civilization in its true light, of depicting its elemental actualities, and its inherent and imperative possibilities. It is the task of critical, reflective self-understanding. This task is what the great philosophers have always faced and tried to perform in their own times, in light of the evident features of their existence. It is, as I see it, the obligation and the opportunity that we have in our day, to gain the greatness that philosophy at its best has always had." (APA 24:30; emphasis added)
The recent silence of philosophers concerning philosophy itself thus amounts to the professional abandonment of what for over two millennia, from Plato to Gottshalk, was central to them: that of seeking critical, reflective self-understanding. That the philosophical profession in America has so largely, and quietly, abandoned this task is certainly odd enough to call for an explanation.

That’s just “for the record,” so to speak. We’ve gotten away from the more interesting discussions of bad/difficult writing, and the question of what we think texts are (or should be) doing. If you want to come back to McCumber's book after you've, well, read it, I'd be happy to. What I'd most like to discuss, if you're up for it, is his paper in the March Continental Philosophy Review on the philosophical basis of the analytic/continental divide.

You know, maybe what the world needs is a joint or group blog dedicated to bridging that divide.


A little OT, but John, I think you're a little too kind to current analytical philosophy. It is extremely specialized and technical, and it does place such a premium on these qualities that it shies away from the big questions. Of course it's not all like this, and counter-examples can be cited, but I think it's more than fair as a general characterization.

I've taught introductory philosophy classes, and the overwhelming reaction of questing young minds in search of big ideas to current analytical philosophy is bemusement. Where, they wonder, is the vital, visceral curiosity about life? Where is "philosophy" in this?

Anyway, I'm usually a staunch defender of analytic philosophy, but it seems to me that you're a little too hasty to dismiss the real criticism. Yes, "positivist" is often used as shorthand for "Spock-like," but in that sense, it's a pretty accurate accusation.


Let me second Realish's depiction of analytic philsophy. And by way of valdating via biography (argument ad Kerriam?), I am a product of analytic undergrad and graudate departments, and I am a defender. But it's quite common practice to throw kids into "on denoting" without any real background on why you might ever care. Sure, intelligent, thoughtful analytic scholarship of Hegel, Husserl, et. al., exists. But the spirit of "The Refutation of Idealism" (namely philistine incomprehension) hovers over Anglo-American philosophy to this day.

Also, John, your description of logical positivism as a "target-rich environment": zing!

John McCumber

My argument is that American philosophy is strangely unreflective, both in comparison with other academic fields and in comparison to what philosophy has traditionally been. I see nothing posted here that impeaches that.

The next question is--why?

Of course, in asking that I rub myself the wrong way too. It hurts. But at least I only do it after I have read what I wrote.


I am enough of a logical positivist to admit that John McCumber has me dead to rights, requesting that I actually read his book before trashing it. That is a fair application of some or other quite sane version of a very modest verification principle. (Verify that what you say is true, before telling google. Something like that.)

I can only say in my defense that I have asked the library to order the text in question. And I did try to be forthcoming about the slender, purely Amazonian evidential basis for my comments.

I'm jetlagged, so I'll try to make my expression of genuine bafflement clear. What is the evidence supposed to be that contemporary American philosophers are unusually 'unreflective'? The answer cannot be that they do not ask questions about the nature of philosophy itself, and give answers. Because obviously they do. It is plausibly the case that most American philosophers have a more - shall we say? - deflated conception of the nature of philosophical inquiry than McCumber has. By way of illustration, let me focus on the non-contemporary case of logical positivism (may it RIP.) The logical positivists cannot plausibly be accused of having failed to ask all the big questions. They can be accused of having said all the big questions are all nonsense and should not be asked. Which is, as their critics have rightly pointed out, a sort of self-refutation. And even if one wants to let that point slide, the positivists might be faulted for insufficient tolerance to certain avenues of approach. But that would be to say they are wrong, not that they are unreflective. (There is a venerable heritage in the West of doubting that philosophical questions are fully meaningful and useful to ask. The positivists are among the latest deflationists in this noble line.)

To repeat (since I'm too wuzzy to do anything else): why call philosophers 'unreflective' merely because they have a deflationary attitude towards, or take a piecemeal approach towards, philosophical problems - or, as the case may be, because you think they are terribly wrong-headed about nearly everything? Why should this be evidence of unreflectiveness? Stepping back some centuries: is Hume 'unreflective'? He certainly thought most metaphysical speculations were unfruitful nonsense. Were the ancient skeptics 'unreflective' when they argued that there could always be arguments on both sides, so perhaps it isn't worth the bother? I would not use 'unreflective' in these connections. Another example: I think Hegel is mistaken about almost everything. I would not accuse the man of being unreflective. That's not the right word for what I think is going wrong here. Likewise,I fail to see how 'unreflective' could be the right word for the failings of American philosophy. There is just too much strenuous mental energy going into the whole endeavor. Of course, American philosophers tend to assume that Heidegger is less worthy of study than Quine. But Heideggerians tend to assume that Quine is less worthy of study than Heidegger. I don't say that Heideggerianism is inherently 'unreflective', due to it's tendency to breezily pass over serious consideration of Quineanism. Why then accuse students of Quine of being 'unreflective' due to their lack of Heideggerianism?

I am suspicious that when McCumber uses 'unreflective', he is groping for something sufficiently caustic to express his profound conviction to the general effect: 'wrong, yet infuriatingly dominant'. I think he should just say that he thinks American philosophy is barking up the wrong tree. We should all read more Heidegger because Heidegger is a great philosopher. I don't agree, but I'm at least willing to hear about it.

Like I said, I'll read the book. And, like I said: McCumber is well within his rights to complain about me spouting off without having done my homework. Still: what I have just written stands on its own as a request for clarification as to what the hell the word 'unreflective' is doing, popping up in these discussions where - it seems to me - it has no very central place. Everybody on all sides is, we trust, thinking as hard as they can. Why assume otherwise?

Timothy Burke

I guess I'm wondering the same. As a flatly made comparative statement, it doesn't make much sense to me. What are the benchmark "other fields" that McCumber deems adequately reflective in comparison to American philosophy? Does he mean other disciplines? Other nationally-constituted bodies of philosophy? Other fields of philosophy? The statement as such doesn't mean anything to me, save as a somewhat shopworn opening rhetorical gambit. For example, it's become something of a convention in papers by grad students in anthropology to declare that they are pursuing a reflexive understanding of their discipline in contrast to some past anthropology--a gesture which makes no sense at all, really, given that anthropology has a long history of obsessive self-reflection.

John McCumber

You want specifics about "other fields?" I am a member of the MLA and the APSA. Both groups publish annual volumes dedicated to questions about where the discipline has gotten to, where it should go, etc. Both goups regularly and prominently schedule sessions at their conferences that deal with these matters. When did you see the like in philsophy? Not since the days of the positivists.
Look in the decennial indices for the Journal of Philosophy, Phil Review, American Journal of Philosophy, etc. See if they even have a notice for "philosophy." Compare, as I do in my book, the Presidential addresses from the 40's with what they are like since the 60's. In the old days they were places to reflect (that word again!) on the discipline. Now they are places to "do philosophy."

For crissake, I don't just think American philosophers shold read Heidegger because he is a "great philosopher." Read my article in Continental Philosophy Review:" I argue that it's because they will do their work better if they know a bit more about him. This is about arguments, not feelings.


I have to say I think Mr. McCumber[1] has a point. What's the difference between a member of the Vienna Circle or David Hume abandoning metaphysics, and a newly-minted analytical philosophy PhD doing the same? Well, in one case they gave it a huge degree of thought, and in the other case they did so in order to fit in with the crowd and get tenure. And I think that the word "unreflective" captures that distinction rather well.


I gotta say I'm dumbfounded by this debate. I got my Ph.D. at Michigan (a mainstream analytic department) in 2000 and work primarily at the intersection of moral psychology and epistemology. My principal mentors at Michigan were Steve Darwall and David Velleman. The main influences on my work (besides Darwall and Velleman) are Harry Frankfurt, Michael Bratman, Christine Korsgaard, Richard Moran, and (most recently) Gary Watson, David Owens, Candace Volger, and Michael Thompson. This is mainstream analytic philosophy nowadays.

Unreflective? Frankfurt? Korsgaard? McCumber is at UCLA -- does he think Tyler Burge, for example, is unreflective or metaphilosophically naive? This makes no sense to me at all.

I'm sorry, I haven't read McCumber's book or article. (Does he discuss, e.g., Burge?) I gotta say, thought, that reflection -- including, crucially, self-reflection -- is the whole reason I got into this racket. Nor do I find an absence of reflection on the predicament of the philosopher in pursuing such reflection.

P.S. I know this is not yet an argument against McCumber -- since, again, I haven't read him. It's merely a testimonial from someone in the trenches who was analytically trained and is trying to get tenure in an analytic department. Maybe my reflections on self-trust, advice, testimony, regret, evil, and other 'hot topics' within current analytic philosophy don't count as 'reflective' in McCumber's sense.


'Unreflective' in this context means unconcerned with the question, 'What is philosophy?' I think it's fair to say that current analytic philosophy is mostly unreflective in this sense.

I did hear Michael Dickson recently give a good talk recently on the question of what metaphysics is, which probably counts as reflective by McCumber's lights.

Early Modern History of Philosophy tends to be a bit more reflective in this sense. Introductions often talk about what philosophy is, what the history of philosophy is, and why history of philosophy is worth doing. These introductions usually aren't very good, and the value of history of philosophy is really something that ought to be shown and not said. When historiography of philosophy degenerates into the question of whether Jonathan Bennett's work is any good, it can get a little poisonous.

Meta-philosophy is another branch of philosophy and it can be done well or badly. It's possible that an excellent paper on the question of what philosophy is would be useful to all philosophers, but it's possible that it wouldn't.


If 'unreflective' means uninterested in pursuing questions about the nature of philosophy directly, then I concede that current analytic philosophy is unreflective. But I insist that most of the philosophers I mentioned, among many others, are pursuing the question indirectly. A lot of current work in ethics and epistemology starts from worries about naive (and historically influential) assumptions about the form that a philosophical theory of agency should take. You don't have to be asking 'So what is philosophy?' to be reflecting on the nature of philosophy.


A quick response to dsquared: the problem with making American philosophers 'unreflective' due to their membership in a somewhat hidebound academic culture - i.e. they are raised to think and question and proceed in certain ways, not others, and most don't do a lot to break out of these ruts - is that it is then trivially true that all academic fields are unreflective. (For example, how do Heideggerian philosophers end up Heideggerian? Mostly because some other Heideggerian gets 'em when they're still young, I expect.) Which drains the question of its interest, or at least of its relevance to the question of whether American philosophy has some special problem.

Now back to McCumber. My original imprudent commentary on the basis of all I could read on Amazon was inspired by the fact that McCumber seems to citing, as evidence his thesis is correct, things that seem to me like fairly strong counter-examples to his thesis. Let me just return to the specific example I cite: someone talking about truth and objectivity for an hour, without adding 'and this sheds light on the very nature of philosophy' is presumptively 'unreflective'. I just don't see why this is a correct presumption.

I do admit that it is a good thing to have some something like what the MLA produces, i.e. overviews of where the discipline is perceived to be, and be heading. I happen to have read quite a few of these over the last few years, in the course of my literary critism and theory investigations. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with the genre, but there is nothing especially deep or impressive about it either. Asking 'so, what did we all do this year?' is not obviously a more profound question than 'what is the nature of truth and objectivity?' Also, it does not seem to me that the MLA's offerings, in this regard, do very much to spur even the sorts of modest self-critical reflections one would hope for. These publications are often occasions for reinforcement of dubious received notions. I suppose this brings me back to dsquared's point. It is predictable that this would be the case, because most academics get locked into rather narrow ways of thinking. As a species, we just aren't smart or strong enough not to get stuck in ruts. I don't see that American philosophy is any more infirm in this regard than any other discipline.

I guess my specific question for McCumber is: why should I take hour-long talks about truth and objectivity as evidence of the speaker's unreflectiveness? Again: I do appreciate that I am supposed to read the book. But when I find I am having such profound difficulties agreeing with the first few pages, I don't have much confidence that reading the rest will give me more than a whole catalogue of specific points to be baffled by. I didn't mean to imply, in my previous comment, that McCumber is just ranting - expressing his feelings, not making arguments. I do think that 'unreflective' is not getting us very far. I think it is not putting our finger on whatever the genuine point of dispute is.

I do think there are legitimate disputes between very different philosophical traditions and perspectives. These deserve to be aired, not swept under carpets. I don't think that being 'unreflective' - in anything like the ordinary sense of the term - is plausibly what separates Anglo-American philosophy from continental philosophy (yes, these are vague designations, we all know.) The term is being used polemically, not diagnostically. (And far be it from me to forbid polemic. It would be most hypocritical. But polemic has its limitations, and it seems to me 'unreflective' is running us smack against them.)


I just gave McCumber's paper a quick on-screen read (all I have time for today), and I must say that if by 'analytic philosophy' he means analytic philosophy prior to 1980 (McCumber mentions no work more recent than Davidson and 1970s Kripke (no mention of Kripkenstein, even)), then I agree with his thesis that analytic philosophy does not even try to come to terms with time. That is, it did not. But this ignores lots of work post 1980: Bratman vs. Davidson on agency, reams upon reams of work on rule-following, Korsgaard and Velleman on the diachronic dimension of the categorical imperative, Wollheim and Lear on the role of a life in our practical thinking, Brandom on deontic score-keeping, and lots and lots of other work by analytic philosophers that tries very hard to come to terms with time. Maybe this stuff doesn't approach time in the right way. But that's not the claim McCumber is arguing for.

In sum, McCumber's claim that "Analytical philosophy... has not abandoned the view that philosophy studies things as if they were independent of time" is straighforwardly false -- unless of course you assume a specific conception of what it is to study things in time. True, recent analytic philosophy does not approach the temporality of agency or concept-possession in the way of those influenced by Heidegger or Derrida. In particular, an appreciation of temporality does not directly inform their style of writing or their conception of philosophical argument. There are surely some interesting possible points of engagement here. But it would take a different paper, indeed a different sort of paper, to get at them.

(Apologies if I read too quickly and missed something relevant to what I've just said. I simply didn't want my other two comments to stand without at least making a pass at the paper today.

By the way, citing Davidson and McDowell as representative "conceptual virtuosos" -- as if they were paradigmatic analytic philosophers or did conceptual analysis -- is quite odd, given the current state of their reputations.)

Matthew Yglesias

It seems to me that the lack of MLA-style "wither philosophy?" discussions might be taken as a sign of the relative health of the discipline compared to the other humanities. There's something a bit neurotic about an excessive of introspection and navel-gazing.

Timothy Burke

I'm inclined to agree somewhat with Matthew in this respect. If the MLA is regarded as a properly reflective body, then I don't think being reflective is an entirely healthy thing to seek after. It's all well and good to wish that the question, "What is philosophy?" be a part of the agenda of American analytic philosophy--and I don't know that I'm convinced that it is not--but to emulate the MLA would be in some sense to make that the only question with which philosophy could be concerned, with its own self-constitution and conditions of possibility, and never with actually doing the work of philosophy beyond that.

Chun the Unavoidable

As a follow-up on another point I made on a different one of these new-fangled electronic message boards, it amuses and saddens me that because people can read genre fiction and pass multiple choice tests on Shakespeare (I know that Professors Holbo and Burke have much more knowledgeable and nuanced positions) that they feel comfortable in passing judgement on the professional discourse of literary scholars. Witness this Yglesias's comment above: on what grounds does he, besides meretricious Chronicle and NY Times Magazine accounts, suppose that the MLA is a neurotically self-reflexive organization? My guess is that the MLA is just used as a metonymy for anything one wishes to condemn in academia.

I'm not one of these people who goes around bemoaning the lack of "continental" philosophy in American universities because I don't know enough about the subject to make such evaluative comments. Why does this rarely stop journalists, philosophers, and assorted hangers-on from doing the same w/r/t literary studies?


I think a distinction might help keep us from getting sidetracked on the MLA. There's the sort of "wither X" handwringing that has to do with the state of a discipline in terms of its place and status in the academy, and then there's the reflection on the terms and goals of a discipline that make it what it is. Handwringing shades easily into navel-gazing, but the latter sort of reflection is (not exclusively, of course) "the work of philosophy."


Sorry, this is probably the wrong place to put these musings, but I have one more thought on McCumber's paper. It elaborates Mike's final remark about the value of metaphilosophical reflection.

The thing that I find most frustrating about McCumber's paper is its presumption to step back and comment on the essential properties (he does use the word 'essential') of the two styles of philosophy. One retort would note that this act itself seems to presuppose the very 'reductionism to invariant structures' that's supposed to be essential to the analytic tradition. Another would note that the analytic side's suspicion of (or boredom with) explicit metaphilosophy registers a rejection of precisely that reductionism.

Most analytic philosophers would argue metaphilosophically as follows. A philosophical tradition is something in which, qua philosopher, you can only participate. Sure, historians of philosophy can step back and pose the sorts of questions that McCumber poses, and that's a valuable enterprise. But it manifests a species of philosophical bad faith to argue for a contribution to philosophy itself from such metaphilosophical premises. It's a way of refusing to acknowledge your own deliberative-argumentative freedom.

They have no problem with the following sort of argument: "Hey Austinians, Derrida's critique of your guy contains more than meets your eye!" "Hey Levinasians, some analytic neo-Kantians have lately developed some arguments that pose an interesting challenge to your guy!"

If I like Austin a lot, I ought to read Derrida. If I like Levinas a lot, I ought to read the current analytic neo-Kantians. I mean, it's all philosophy.

But that's now the mainstream analytic metaphilosophy: Philosophy is something you have to do. And philosophy is not something that you can do well by stepping back and posing explicitly metaphilosophical questions.

If those who identify with the continental tradition insist on pursuing such questions, we'll get the following stalemate: Continentals will strike the analytics as doing straightforwardly bad work. And analytics will strike the continentals as hopelessly naive.

But that's a prediction about the actions of individual human beings, not a claim about the essential properties of these traditions. It follows from my analytic metaphilosophy that drawing a conclusion from either side about the essential properties of the other would amount to an outrageously unphilosophical dismissiveness.



What you are calling "metaphilosophy" has traditionally been called "philosophy." The addition of "meta-" to the word is something of an academic conceit meant to insulate a certain type of discussion from intrusive questions. You are absolutely correct about the activity which we call philosophy but it seems very difficult to claim that we can simply begin to think and ignore historical precedent. If we are "doing" philosophy we are necessarily interacting with our intellectual ancestors through the very way we are framing and answering questions we pose. I don't see how we can fence a certain area off and say that it is philosophy but the discussion of philosophical problems and their historical solutions is "metaphilosophy." It seems like a professional convenience rather than a substantive distinction.

John McCumber

Note to ESH: a "quick on-screen read" doesn't do it, especially for a text which has been rewritten 7-10 times, as all of my publications are (that still doesn't save me from typos, though!). What I said, in context, was not that contemporary analytical philosophy is atemporal (in the way I don't like--see below), but that analytical philosophers are often trying to do by instinct what they would be able to do in a more knowledgeable and successful way had they been trained in the sophisticated techniques of Hegel and Heidegger.

(I am glad you captured the irony in my use of the term "essence." It is explained in my essay "Essence and Subversion.")

Second note to ESH: I do have a specific view of what it would be for philosophy to study things as if they were in time--it is not to argue for the truth of sentences about those things, or even for the truth of sentences about processes involving those things. It is to see sentences themselves as processes or events, and to make use of non-argumentative, specifically Hegelian techniques of dialectical reconstruction and of smilarly non-argumentative Heideggeran procedures for opening futures. Some of the people you cite as counter examples to me are doing that; my argument is that they would do it more easily,if not better, if they worked more through Hegel and Heidegger (as Brandom, to name one, does).

Third note to ESH: I agree with David about the distinction betwen metaphilosophy and philosophy. The idea that anyone should just relax and "participate" in a tradition has problems so great I can't even name them. Slavery was a tradition in the South; should Southerners simply have "participated" in it? (Should they have left critical reflection on that tradition over to "meta-Southerners?") This is even less accceptable for philosophy, which since Socrates has been associated with self-knowledge, and so was always "metaphilosophy."

Note to several: The MLA may be neurotic, but at least they are trying to understand where they are and how they got there. Moreover, they do not just write about themselves (philosophers are much more self-referential--not because they only write about themselves, but because they only write about each other). And how come no one even mentions the other group I cited--the APSA?


Prof. McCumber,

I did read the paper more carefully before writing the previous comment yesterday; I gave it a quick read the day before because I wanted to post some thoughts on this thread but (unlike other posters) I didn't want to let them stand without at least looking at the paper.

I suspect that you're being ironic in congratulating me for noting the irony in your use of 'essential.' I figured that you must have some thoughts elsewhere about the oddness of the term in that context.

I won't touch the analogy with slavery, which is not in itself a tradition of thought.

I think everything between us rests on your second note. I'd have had a completely different reaction to the paper had it contained an account of how people like Brandom or McDowell (or Burge?) could do better what they're already doing if they worked more self-consciously "though" Hegel and Heidegger. I'm all ears on that question.

But that would have to involve engagement with those philosophers, not (primarily) commentary on traditions. Brandom and McDowell already in fact think of themselves as doing what you advise, but it seems clear that you don't think they're doing it in quite the right way. It would be an instance of precisely what I'm calling participation to try to show them how to do it better. That was really was my only point.

(By the way, I'm not a fan of the term 'metaphilosophy' either. My question is entirely how -- not whether -- to reflect on philosophy. I'm giving an interpretation of analytic impatience with such reflection when it is too explicit and too generalized, since I share that impatience. But I'm also claiming that it's important to pursue this self-reflection in other forms.)



I can't speak for JMc but the example which comes to mind for me is the difference between the opening of the Tractatus and Heidegger's "The Essence of Truth." The Tractatus's first statements are rather dogmatic and remind me of the opening of Book 2 of Aristotle's Physics. In Aristotle's case, however, we have the Metaphysics as a help in our attempt to understand "ton onton". We get no such thing in Wittgenstein. Therefore--ignoring the obvious quirks of his personality and the temporal gap between the two works--if Wittgenstein was able to engage with the substance of Heidegger's essay, he would have come away with, perhaps, a deeper understanding of how problematic his first assertions were. This is all speculation of course thought I can't help but wonder if a serious engagement with someone like Heidegger (or Hegel) would have given Wittgenstein's (or Quine's, Dummett's, etc) a depth which they presently lack...in my inferior opinion, anyway.


Actually, for what it's worth I agree with McCumber's conclusion in the paper and therefore with your point, David. That is, I agree with the claim that people who work in each tradition (with their distinct institutional loyalties, styles of writing, etc.) have some important things to learn from people who work in the other tradition -- and indeed more or less the things that McCumber has in mind. My quarrel is only with his argument for this conclusion (which in philosophy of course means I'm quarreling with everything of interest in the paper).

What got me interested in this thread, once I saw what was at stake (after my first comment above, which isn't really to the point), was my hunch that much analytic philosophy nowadays manfests what amounts to a rather subtle and compelling species of metaphilosophical self-reflection, and that this reflection is overlooked sytematically in McCumber's paper, since (a) he discusses only pre-1980 analytic philosophy, (b) he poses the issue as if it turns on one's theory of truth (which seems, by his own lights, to cram his issue into the very analytic straightjacket that he's trying to get us to remove), and (c) he works (however 'subversively') with a conception of intellectual tradition (or argumentative practice) that prevents the full force of this analytic self-reflection from being felt.

This last problem emerges clearly in his gloss of my recommendation as "relax and participate." On the contrary, on my (I think mainstream analytic) view you can't participate in an intellectual tradition by 'relaxing' but only by seeking out the smartest critical interlocutors that you can find -- even when, especially when, they were trained in other intellectual traditions. McCumber seems to think I've got Kuhnian 'normal' science in mind, but in fact I think philosophy is always (well, cautiously) revolutionary.

(Apologies to Holbo for having hijacked his comments board!)


No apologies necessary, ESH. I have been spectating with much interest. (I am glad my generally rather, er, energetic postings have been the occasion for temperate dialogue. Doesn't always work that way.) Let me add for the record that I finally got around to giving McCumber's paper a read and a half. I doubt he is exactly waiting on my benediction, but it made a better impression on me than his paper in the Culler volume and those few Amazonian pages of his book.

I have about 20 nits to pick with it, which I will not pick just right now. I don't really agree with the conclusion(s), but my disagreements are not of the sort that make my fingers itch to cast more stones. They might be lessened by further discussion, which is always what one hopes for. To be just a bit more specific: I don't really buy the 'it all comes down to different attitudes towards time' line, but I do think it is very important to start with Hegel. In a sense this is just obvious, but I think there are ways of starting from here that might induce each side to acknowledge that the other side has more 'strategic depth', as it were. It is easy for 'analytic' philosophers to write off a lot of 20th century 'continental' philosophy as pseudo-intellectual flim-flammery, which (of course) much of it is. (Just as a lot of analytic philosophy is trivial noodling with pseudo-problems that have been invested with a pleasing formality.) Likewise, I think it is too easy for sympathizers with continental philosophy to regard analytic philosophers as a bunch of shallow-rooted, post-positivist weeds. I think one advantage of going back to Hegel is that you can better articulate ways in which analytic hostility to Hegelian and post-Hegelian thinkers is very deep-rooted indeed.

I realize what I just said is not an explanation or answer or anything. And it's not as thought this is exactly what McCumber himself is saying. But it strikes me that what I just said is consistent with what McCumber says in this paper, and more or less in the same region of logical space. Whereas it seems to me that in the other stuff I have read McCumber takes the 'analytic philosophy is a shallow-rooted post-positivist weed' line. (I'm not going to go round again trying to attribute this line to that other stuff. I'll just say I'm glad he isn't taking this line in this new paper, because it isn't the right line to take.)


Tom Rockmore recently published an article on the reappropriation of Hegel by certain analytic thinkers e.g. McDowell & Sellars. The only difficulty I can see with this is the nagging thought that I'm better off reading Hegel than Prof. X's hegelian excursions. This is not meant to be snide but we all agree that our time is limited and our reading lists are huge so, to pick up ESH's thread, why not engage with the most compelling philosophers in the tradition rather than with the guy who is popular at the moment? Obviously, we are trying to work our way towards that position with our present discussion--and we are only disputing about who is worth the time and effort--but we seem to be involved in a bit of presentism by trying to dragoon the current crop of writers into the "venerable list of philosophical greats." I have to confess that this statement isn't terribly helpful viz. the defense or the prosecution of analytic philosophy and, thus, may sound a false note in the discussion. Let me put this in a much cruder fashion: why should I study Sellars or Putnam, rather than Hegel or Heidegger? What insights do the former duo provide which the latter two lack?


Well, Sellers has interesting things to say about transitivity and the qualitative comparisons of sense data, and Putnam helped prove that Hilbert's 10th problem is insoluble. I don't think either of those things are in Hegel or Heidegger.

Seriously, David, read what you like. If you don't have professional obligations (orals to pass, a survey course to teach, a bibliography to fill out), there's no reason not to be the captain of your own reading list.

If you don't enjoy reading Putnam and Sellers, then don't do it. But don't imagine that every argument they offer is a popularization of something in Heidegger or Hegel. If you just open up one of their articles at random, you'll almost certainly find something with no counterpart in Hegel or Heidegger. Whether it's an insight or not is a further question, the answer to which depends on the page.


I suppose I might be taken more seriously if I spelled Sellars's name right.



It is certainly is true that we make some decisions on the basis of aesthetics eg. should I force myself to read George Eliot's corpus or attempt to gain a serious understanding of serialism? To my mind, the question here is not of that genre. Ultimately, if philosophy is an attempt to know, to gain some measure of wisdom, then it cannot be a matter of indifference to us whether we read Vico or Sellars. In the end we are forced to ask whether or not the philosophers we read are truly worth the time it takes to read them (my concession to the original topic of this blog entry: bad writing). We can get at that question by asking which philosophers appear too have a profound understanding of human life and which don't seem to plumb the depths with any regularity. I take part of your point to heart insofar as some of what is being written is really just academics talking to one another. That's fine and it's a necessary endeavor for members of that guild. I don't begrudge the task because its a different variation on what I do in my job. Beyond this, however, is where the problems lie.

I've recently read Sellar's "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man" and I have to confess that--it appeared to me--much of what he's saying had already been said in a similar fashion by Hegel. Furthermore, with Hegel it was accompanied by a deeper penetration of the phenomenon in question and a far more profound explication of the consequences of the matter. So I have to wonder about the necessity of reading Sellars if key parts of his philosophy are based upon a type of quasi-hegelianism. I use Sellars as my stalking horse but I would like to offer it up as my larger impression of significant swaths of the analytic tradition. Not wanting to fall into the trap of assuming that all of the tradition is mistaken, I pose the question " where do the 'analytics' probe deeper into the philosophical firmament?" Do Quine, Goodman, Dummett, Sellars, Wittgenstein, Putnam, and Russell accurately represent the mainstream of analytic philosophy? Do theories of truth ultimately prove their own truth? Ooops...I slipped that one in... ;-)


In the end we are forced to ask whether or not the philosophers we read are truly worth the time it takes to read them (my concession to the original topic of this blog entry: bad writing).

Sure, but this isn't really the sort of thing that you can trust strangers about. Either you have to poke around for yourself, or find a philosopher that you respect and admire and find out who he or she likes to read. I think various professionals are coming up with lists of their favorite books of the last 20 years over at Leiter's blog. Still, ultimately, you need to form your own judgment about it.

I take part of your point to heart insofar as some of what is being written is really just academics talking to one another.

That wasn't actually any part of my point. I was just thinking that Putnam's and Sellars's work is radically different than Hegel's and Heidegger's. If you think that Sellars is just a watered down version of Hegel, well, good, and so much the worse for Sellars. Trust your own eyes before you trust mine.

Not wanting to fall into the trap of assuming that all of the tradition is mistaken, I pose the question " where do the 'analytics' probe deeper into the philosophical firmament?"

Do you mean deeper than Sellars? or Hegel? or Heidegger? Anyway, I don't know. It depends what you're interested in. If you want a recommendation about a specific topic, there's a chance that I (or somebody else reading this thread) can help you. A nice collection of analytic essays on various deep topics is Nagel's Mortal Questions.

Do Quine, Goodman, Dummett, Sellars, Wittgenstein, Putnam, and Russell accurately represent the mainstream of analytic philosophy?

Well, they certainly are canonical figures. They're mostly dead (collectively mostly dead, not severally) and none of them are especially active. If you want a survey of the mainstream of analytic philosophy now, you might try getting an issue of the Philosopher's Annual

Do theories of truth ultimately prove their own truth?


John McCumber

I was away over holidays but would like to thank everybody for this exchange. I learned a lot.

I also think it ends very well: whether Quine, Goodman Sellars etc. represent the maoinstream of analytical philosophy is exactly the kind of question analysts should be asking. If the enduring contributions are not distinguished from the momentary fads, all will be lost in the night of history. Is that how you want to be treated?

I stoutly maintain that analytical philosophers will need Hegel and Heidegger to ask that question right, though!


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