Anyone who has either met me or read this blog has probably figured out by now that I am both a political radical (an anarcho-communist to be precise) and an Analytic Philosopher (broadly aligned with some mix of neo-positivism and the Canberra Plan).
This is a rare combination, sad to say. Mind you, the situation is nowhere near as bad as is often made out, if you were to talk to a continental philosopher, or one of their many fans in the English, Cultural Studies, Geography, History, Anthropology and Sociology departments you would probably form the view that we all vote for the Liberal party (for international readers, this our equivalent of your right-wing party). This just is not true, with a handful of exceptions we’re all at least centre “left”.
Why Analytic Philosophy tends not to be radical
So why isn’t Analytic Philosophy generating much politically radical work? Roughly speaking, theories about this question fall into two camps, contigentism and necessitarianism. The first camp argues that some accident of fate accounts for the situation, the second argue that by its essence, Analytic Philosophy tends not to be radical. Surprise, surprise, I’m a contingentist.
I think that Analytic Philosophy is, on average, better philosophy than Continental Philosophy, in that it tends to be both more illuminating, and more rationally rigorous. Further I think this is quite obvious. Now the reader will probably say that this is the height of chauvinism on my part. But sometimes chauvinism is true. Further, I think that Analytic Philosophy is not accidentally better than Continental Philosophy, but better because the gestalt of its methods, attitudes and favoured skills is more suited to uncovering the way things are.
Now if you accept this, the dialectic between Continental Philosophy and Analytic Philosophy becomes much easier to understand. The analytic philosopher points to their elegant demonstrations and careful reasoning. The continental philosopher therefore turns to one of their favoured tools, debunking, and says something along the lines of: ah yes but you would say that given you’re on the side of The Ruling Class/ The hegemonic order of Western Thought/ Orientalism/ whatever else.
There’s a further question of why it should be that these debunking arguments should focus on an alleged lack of Left Wing credentials. Why did Continental Philosophy not go the path of debunking us by, say, accusing us of having a herd morality, or an especially vicious oedipal complex instead? I do not have the answer, but I suspect it is largely for reasons of contingent historical association. Marx is the originator of the contemporary left, especially in academia. While Marx’s work can be translated into a language acceptable to analytic philosophers, as a matter of fact he wrote in the tradition that would later become modern continental philosophy (don’t worry though, he’s one of the good ones).
Certainly it is not because Continental Philosophy is inherently left. Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger want a word with you if you think so.
The next step is that philosophy as a whole internalises the claims of continental philosophers to be radical in two ways. At an individual level, philosophers just begin to believe it. If a group of philosophers spend years jumping up and down, claiming to be the real radicals in philosophy, eventually everyone will begin to take their word for it. At an institutional level, those philosophy students with an interest in radical politics are attracted to the continental subjects, and eventually the continental supervisors and the continental topics.
A plea for more radical Analytic Philosophy.
But it does not have to be this way! There are two strains in radical politics, one of which views reason and progress as intertwined, and one of which views reason as a construct of the oppressors. Among philosophers interested in radical politics, the second view is typically ascendant.
This view though just seems absurd. I remember one particular frustrating argument with a geographer who claimed that the holocaust was in some sense the apotheosis of enlightenment reason. Now I’m wary of dismissing in one paragraph a view that is widely considered correct by some Very Serious Thinkers (VSTs), but I’m going to do it anyway. If one wanted to find a political theory more perfectly aligned against modernity, more fully connected to a pre-enlightenment view of the world than fascism, one would have to go very far indeed.
So how did we get to this point? Marx adored the enlightenment; his main concern was that it did not go far enough. Within my own tradition, anarchism, the key figures such as Kropotkin, Bakunin, Goldman, Parsons, and Malatesta loved reason, and contrasted it with the tyrant’s trap of religion.
The answer, I think, is the historic defeat of the left. After the Soviet Union fell to state capitalism, after Marxism became stale dogma, after Keynesian and then the now thoroughly discredited Neo-Classical economics gained hegemony in academic economics, and economics seemed to gain hegemony over society, it seemed like we had lost all the arguments. To deny reason then was simply to churlishly stick one’s fingers in one’s ears and say “lalalalala”. It was an especially tempting approach, since the ascendant anti-leftism, particularly in economics, claimed reason as its comrade.
In reality, reason has served the left’s needs pretty well, and it’s probably telling that actual radical left wing activists, as opposed to those who have academic positions and write papers for other academic radicals, tend not to be shy about its use. Until the Frankfurt school it was pretty widely agreed that the first and best weapon for those who wish to abolish the present state of things is reason.
It’s probably not a coincidence that it was about the same time as the Frankfurt school that radical left activists stopped listening to their self appointed intellectuals. That portion of radical left activists that still does listen to what academic leftists say are few and far between and are usually at least tangentially connected academia themselves. Go to a local IWW meeting, trot public lecture or anarchist social space if you don’t believe me. No one at all will like Derrida, the same with Deleuze and maybe a quarter will think Foccault is tolerable in his better moments.
If the left desperately needs philosophy enlivened by rationality and clear argument then just as much Analytic Philosophy desperately needs radical social critique. It’s not our role as analytic philosophers to rehash dogmas fed to us by the media and their politician clients about the way the world must be. It’s our role to examine the truths of things, and not merely try to weave the rhetoric of the powerful into self contained and self justifying systems.