The transmission of analytical philosophy

Bridget Riley, Untitled, 1968.


Considerations on the dispersion of philosophical discourse on both sides of the Atlantic, in Europe and the Americas

“I once said to Jean Nicod that people who study philosophy should try to understand the world, not just the systems of philosophers of the past, as happens in universities. “Yes,” he replied, “but systems are so much more interesting than the world!” (Bertrand Russell).

The word “continental philosophy” was created by English analytical philosophy to mean something different from what was called, in the past, European or Western philosophy. To examine the intermittent movements of transmission and retransmission of analytical philosophy around the world, to study different styles that collide and intersect, like waves on the surface of the “sea always renewed”, let us take, as a starting point, the phrase of a philosopher perfectly "continental".

“Philosophy” – wrote Gerard Lebrun – “has much more the nature of an archipelago than that of a continent”. Certainly he was not thinking of a kind of “geopolitics” of philosophy or its synchronic dispersion in different national cultures. He thought more of philosophical systems in their individuality, understood as windowless monads, irreducible to each other, like fortresses protected by the wall secreted by the “logical time” of their establishment. Or he was still thinking about the essential discontinuity that would mark the originality of the history of philosophy as a history of always radical cuts.

But this metaphor is susceptible of another application and can introduce us to the discussion of the subject I propose. What change would someone who surveyed the dispersion map of philosophical discourse on both sides of the Atlantic, in Europe and the Americas, discover?

But what changes are we talking about? I am thinking of the efforts to cross rival traditions, which almost always opposed each other in a very controversial way: on the one hand, the so-called analytical philosophy, on the other, the different lines of continental philosophy: phenomenology, dialectics, neocriticism. Witness to the former atmosphere of intransigence is an anecdote from Royaumont's meeting on analytic philosophy in the 1950s; on that occasion, G. Ryle, after having made a controversial and somewhat caricatured description of phenomenology, explained, with irony, the unfeasibility of arrogance or hybris phenomenology in Great Britain. In British universities, he explained, there is a common restaurant, which obliges philosophers to a continuous cohabitation with scientists, which puts an end to ambitions of absolute or transcendental foundation.

One can imagine that this did not fail to provoke the anger of some phenomenologists... But even in post-war France, somewhat closed to the irradiation of analytical philosophy, in the tradition of Cavaillès's "Theory of science" there was open a privileged reception space with works by Gilles-Gaston Granger and Jules Vuillemin. And even at the opposite extreme, that of phenomenology and hermeneutics, a Paul Ricoeur, already in the 1960s, increasingly appropriated the instruments and methods of analysis from the other tradition.

It would also be necessary to add that this “insular” philosophy freed itself from Hegelianism and the transcendental philosophy, which prevailed in the English university of the XNUMXth century, thanks to Lord Russell, with the help of the Italian Peano and the Frenchman Couturat, and with his encounter with the philosophy of Frege and Leibniz – meaning that this philosophy read first in German and Latin, Italian and French, in order to then create the “analytical philosophy of the English language”. The two rival philosophies would at least have a common origin, Frege having been the starting point for both Lord Russell and Edmund Husserl.[1]


Philosophy in the USA

But let's turn our eyes to the Americas. What was philosophy in America at mid-century? In the period between the two wars, American universities had seen a massive immigration of philosophers from central Europe, fleeing the rise of Nazism. It should also be said that the same process took place in Great Britain, as Perry Anderson noted when surveying the most influential schoolmasters of philosophy and the humanities: L. Wittgenstein (Austria), B. Malinowsky (Poland). K. Popper (Austria), Isaiah Berlin (Russia), E. Gombrich (Austria), HJ Eysenk (Austria).

Now, in the USA, it is precisely the style of logical empiricism that prevailed over the other tendencies, giving a new physiognomy to philosophical teaching, more severe, perhaps, than in its origin in Central Europe. Theodor Adorno and his Frankfurt colleagues, for example, or rather his works, never had posterity in philosophy departments and never left a mark on university philosophy in the US comparable to that of the neopositivists. The only “niche” left to them would be the departments of letters and human sciences. All this led to a new canon, a new pedagogy that limited philosophy to logic and epistemology, and that, disqualifying or banishing other styles of thought from the institution, imposed the ideal of a scientific philosophy, whose most severe expression is perhaps the work by Hans Reichenbach. Philosophy becomes a strictly technical and professional activity.

A first example of this atmosphere of purism, asepsis and puritanical exclusion: in one of her last books, Hannah Arendt (who can hardly refuse the title of philosopher) emphasizes that she never claimed the status of “professional philosopher”. It clearly distinguishes the idea of ​​“thought” from the idea of ​​“knowledge” or even a technical or professional activity. Unlike a philosophy centered on the axis of epistemology, she states that “the demand of reason is not inspired by the search for truth, but by the search for meaning. And truth and meaning are not one and the same thing.”. Evidently, it is Heidegger who is on the horizon of these propositions. But it could also (to distinguish thought and knowledge, meaning and truth, and to oppose philosophy and professional activity) refer to Wittgenstein.

A second example is given by Stanley Cavell, in his book This new America, still unapproachable, tracing his “learning years”, without hiding the concerns of his student experience. Like the case of a professor who told him that there were only “three ways to earn an honest living in philosophy: learning languages ​​and doing academic work; learn mathematics enough to work seriously on logic; or else do literary psychology”. Only the second way was truly “doing philosophy”.

The latter was the minor outing, so to speak, and not a very nice one, for a student who seemed more oriented towards literature than the austerity of the purely conceptual. It is curious to note that the arrogant professor perhaps did not know that, by using (albeit in a pejorative sense) the expression “literary psychology”, he was involuntarily pointing to the future and unexpected itinerary of his student. The expression itself, forged by Georges Santayana, and which was far from having a pejorative meaning, referred to the American philosophy of the turn of the XNUMXth century to the XNUMXth century – at the crossroads between pragmatism, transcendentalism or idealism –, which Cavell would later rediscover, pushing away He draws from positivism, but without moving away from Wittgenstein, that is, from the richest and highest moment of analytical philosophy. Other names could certainly be associated with this movement to expand the idea of ​​Reason in the USA, such as Sellars, Davidson and Putnan.

At the moment, let us point out that, if immediately after the war, everything seemed to be going very well for the hegemonic logical empiricism in the North American university, the dogmas on which it was based (categorical distinction between analytical and synthetic propositions, verification principle...) they were already in crisis; the new militant and conquering epistemology would meet defeat, through the work of its own soldiers. Quine, Sellars, Goodman: there are many “analytical” philosophers who will consecrate the death of the epistemological optimism of neo-positivism.


the european crisis

In fact, in America, this crisis is the repetition of another crisis that had already occurred in Europe, in the passage from the 1920s to the 1930s, and which did not leave intact the optimism of the foundationalist ideal of the different tendencies of phenomenology, neo-Kantianism and philosophy itself. analytic (at that time, it seems that the philosophers of the Vienna Circle did not understand, perhaps, all the consequences of the propositions that Wittgenstein presented to them). All traditions shared, in origin, the harshly “modernist” style, which recognized rationality only when it rests on a absolute foundation.

Russell, Husserl, the philosophers of the Marburg school, all, and each in their own way, turning to the tradition of rationalism (Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant), identify Reason with the Absolute, always projecting the domain of the empirical, of nature, psychology and history in the outer darkness of irrationality. And yet, it is this same philosophy that seems, by a strange inversion commanded by a kind of internal necessity, to move towards an openness and a certain “relativist” approach to the idea of ​​Reason, accompanied by a growing insistence on pre-existing forms. -epistemic aspects of consciousness and language, on the pre-logical or ante-predicative roots of knowledge.

It is the case of exploitation of Living environment by Husserl, and, above all, by Heidegger; the phenomenology of expression in Cassirer or, even, the idea of ​​a Logos practical implicit in the notions of Language game quality Life form of the second Wittgenstein. By the way, a similar change occurred between the two world wars with the downfall of logical atomism. Beautiful years, those 30s, when so many things changed, from Heidegger to Wittgenstein, where things crossed in the sky, with so much life and intensity, things that were not just planes from Legion Kondor, which were beginning to cast the shadow of Nazism over Spain and the rest of the world.


A new crossing of the Atlantic

Now, in the 1950s and 1960s, analytic philosophy in the US seems to benefit from a similar opening up of the idea of ​​symbolic form., which allows him to rediscover, in an unimaginable way from the perspective of logical empiricism, the traditions of continental philosophy. This can be seen, in particular, in the field of aesthetics, through the work of two philosophers who, by the way, never abandoned the idea of ​​language analysis as the only method of philosophy. I think of Arthur Danto and Nelson Goodman.

The first, without departing a single millimeter from the analytical tradition, meets the philosopher who, according to Reichenbach, was the very model of what philosophy should not be, the pet peeve par excellence of the analytical spirit: neither more nor less than Hegel. In the case of Nelson Goodman, it is not the Hegelian aesthetic that we find in the extensions of the philosophical analysis, but an aesthetic that strongly resembles that sketched by Cassirer in the volumes of his Philosophy of symbolic forms and which, incidentally, had already become incorporated into American philosophy in the writings of Susan K. Langer.

In your beautiful book Ways of world making, we see Nelson Goodman proposing, alongside the idea of ​​truth, the broader idea of correctness, which opens the space for an analysis of the styles of aesthetic structuring of experience – something, perhaps, like a new theory, far from any psychologism, of the transcendental imagination, which is constituted by the analysis of works of art in their most concrete singularity.

But it is not only from an aesthetic point of view that American analytical philosophy began a new crossing of the Atlantic and a reconciliation with the continental tradition. Even at its hardest core, that is, in the domain of epistemology, a parallel movement was taking shape. I think of NR Hanson's writings, the way in which he rebels against the hegemonic model in the theory of science, on three different levels: (a) his insistence on “theoretical impregnation” of observation statements; (b) from the perspective of discovery against the Hempelian model of scientific explanation;

(c) the importance of the history of science in the constitution of epistemology.

Even more interesting is the shift in thinking about language, which produced a change in style in philosophy of mind. This is the case of John Searle who, following the path opened by Austin, developed a theory of speech acts (“acts of speech”, according to the translation suggested by Paul Ricoeur), targeting, in language, its semantic and pragmatic dimension, which understands it as a form of action (or production of things), more than as a way of representing objects.

Here, again, it is the orthodox version of logical empiricism that is systematically demolished, giving way to a philosophy that can face the question of consciousness or selfhood, which had been archived as dead by the old model of analysis. And it is here, too, that analytic philosophy seems to resume contact with the European tradition, particularly with phenomenology.. With your definition of speech act, in fact, Searle recovers, for analytical philosophy, the idea of ​​intentionality of the life of consciousness.

Thus, a step was taken towards rediscovering the legitimacy of the first-person perspective. In a word: in this first-person ontology, the Berkeleyian principle – this is percipi – is valid, as well as the Sartrean definition of To be there as “being-for-itself”, without, therefore, being condemned to fall back into idealism. It is remarkable how this theme brings us closer to the French and existential version of phenomenology. Let us also note that Searle borrows from Israel Rosenfield the idea of ​​body image to base the intentionality of consciousness on a more primitive bodily intentionality. As Merleau-Ponty had already done with Lhermitte's book ("L'image de notre corps", New Revue Critique. 1939), to propose a similar reconstruction of the conceptual map of the relations between consciousness and the body and an expansion of the idea of ​​intentionality in its Phenomenology of perception.

However, the most curious thing is that, in each of these moments, in which North American philosophy remakes its ties with European philosophy, transgressing the old prohibitions of the program of logical empiricism, it does so by rediscovering the original spirit of North philosophy itself. -American, that is, reactivating, for example, the tradition, neglected or forgotten for a certain time, of pragmatism. Strange paradox: everything happens, in fact, as if the isolationism (so to speak) of North American philosophy were the work of European philosophers, as if the rediscovery of the European philosophical tradition were the effect of a return to the most authentic and autochthonous tradition of US philosophy.

With Stanley Cavell and Richard Roty it is the very essence of the analytic project that is invoked. In Rorty's case, it is anti-foundationalism – or the proposed rupture with the philosophical tradition according to the Platonic or Kantian model – that allows him to resume contact with Europe: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Habermas, Derrida. But if Rorty thus finds the good old pragmatism of Peirce, James and – above all – Dewey, Stanley Cavell finds or reinvents the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, without forgetting, following the same movement, to subvert the canonical or scholarly reading of Wittgenstein.


A complex dialectic

In fact, we are facing a complex dialectic between America and Europe. In fact, if with Emerson and Thoreau thought begins to work to rediscover America, in its physical and moral landscape, it does so with the help of German idealism and English romanticism (itself impregnated by German romanticism). It must be added: if we can say that North American pragmatism is entirely autochthonous, it cannot be forgotten that its inventors were particularly familiar with the entire history of philosophy: ancient, medieval and modern. This dialectic becomes more complex if we remember that Nietszche was a great reader of Emerson.

It is Austin's practice, but above all Wittgenstein's, that puts us back in the sphere of the “ordinary”, which would have allowed, among other things, “a very insightful analysis of American art and the tradition of thought opened by Emerson”. This split between logical analysis and phenomenology, to which we alluded, is at the heart of the book. Phenomenologies et langues formulaires by Claude Imbert.

But this crossing of the Atlantic is not carried out in a single direction in the 1970s. Europe rediscovered America. Among others, in 1973, Karl Apel, with The Transformation of Philosophy, tried to acclimatize the linguistic shift in Germany, crossing the field and the problems of phenomenology with the instruments of the new pragmatics, but, above all, with Peirce's semiotics.

Thus transplanted, pragmatism took on a transcendental tone, contrary to the naturalistic tone chosen by Rorty. And Habermas, via Apel, entered into a dialogue with American philosophy, especially with Rorty. It is, above all, the tension between Rorty's and Apel/Habermas' initiatives, which convergence cannot eliminate, that it would be necessary to reflect: that is, the tension that irremediably opposes explicitly assumed relativism and foundationalism that is reborn in a transcendental instance -communicative where classical reason finds lost peace.

And it is on this tension that I worked at a conference in Brazil, at an international meeting where Rorty was present. A tension in which I saw an aporia or a contradiction that could not be pacified and that could be expressed both in Pascal's language and in Adorno's. Whether the famous thought: "I have an inability to prove, invincible to all dogmatism, I have an idea of ​​truth, invincible to all Pyrrhonism", or the phrase of negative dialectic: “Dialectics opposes relativism as abruptly as it does absolutism: it is not seeking an intermediate position between the two, but, on the contrary, passing to extremes, that it seeks to show its non-truth”.


history of philosophy

In our comings and goings, it was absolutely not a question of proposing a kind of international pacification of philosophy, in a kind of paradise of eternal philosophy, this monotonous repetition of the Same. It is more a question of recognizing the essentially plural character of reason or even of accepting that philosophy must go through the comparative weighting of philosophical styles. A task that seems to converge with contemporary research on a possible stylistic of philosophical writing or discourse.

In fact, what we can reveal again in this philosophy (which we can now call, perhaps, “post-analytic philosophy”) is the immanence of the history of philosophy at the heart of philosophy itself (the revenge, so to speak, of Collingwood) . Without going to the extreme of saying, as Nicod seems to suggest, that the world is not very interesting... Everything happens as if today we were witnessing the demolition of another dogma of logical empiricism: the dogma that replaced the motto inscribed by Plato at the entrance to the Academy ( “He who does not know geometry will not enter here”) for the motto still inscribed at the entrance of some philosophy departments: “He who does the history of philosophy will not enter here”.

A task that becomes even more necessary when the increasingly voluminous wave of supposed cognitive sciences seems to do the philosophy of mind to revalue a naturalist objectivism that is not unlike that of the second half of the XNUMXth century, against which the founding fathers of XNUMXth century philosophy stood up: from neo-Kantianism to Bergson, passing through Frege, Edmund Husserl and Bertrand Russell. Would it therefore be necessary to start all over again? Would we have gained anything, in any case, by remembering this detour that seems to end in a circle? Doesn't our point of arrival seem to be the starting point of the described movement?

Thus, it is the relationship between philosophy and its history that seems to be at the center of the alternatives of contemporary reflection and the choices made (the different choices of the “politics” of philosophy) may determine our future. I would like it to be recognized that the past of philosophy is not behind us, but that it pervades us, that it is present in our most living actuality and, only the actualization or re-interiorization (Remembrance said Hegel) of this past could launch us into the future.

The synchronic and diachronic difference, history and “geography”, so to speak, of philosophy would be the very subject of philosophy (Die Sache der Philosophie, as the same Hegel used to say). Otherwise, in the age of globalization that we live in, we could be moving towards a simple “homogenization” of philosophy, which would be precisely the opposite of the “universalization” to which it has always aspired and which is inseparable from the life of polemics. As Heraclitus said: “What is contrary is useful and it is from struggle that the most beautiful harmony is born: everything is built by discord”.

To conclude: without a minimum of negativity, thought is pacified and extinguished, it cannot survive without polemics and, above all, without the necessary and endless “polemology”, which no longer aspires to any form of final pacification. Or, still, mixing the different languages ​​of Freud and Wittgenstein: finished analysis, endless analysis… As you can see, I don't know how to finish… Let's stop here, where, perhaps, we should start. After this extravagant and somewhat wild walk outside the walls of doctrines, let's delay taking a starting point that would be considered unshakable...

*Bento Prado Jr. (1937-2007) was professor of philosophy at the Federal University of São Carlos. Author, among other books, of some essays (Peace and Earth).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews, No. 7 in November 2009.



[1] What allowed Michel Foucault to state for us, at the University of São Paulo, in 1965, a year before the appearance of The words and things, in a provocative tone: “You have to be a blind fly not to see that Heidegger’s philosophy and Wittgenstein’s are one and the same philosophy”.


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