Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Boiled Potatoes and the Analytic Method, part 4

I found myself in need of counselling last year. The counselling I received was extremely helpful, but it's only as, in the intervening time, I've started to study critical perspectives from gender and race discourse in depth that I've been able to understand the wider context of my difficulties. These approaches emphasise connectedness; the marketing of children's toys, for example, contributes to a domestication of women that in turn commodifies their sexuality and devalues their consent, leading to rape culture.

By contrast, the idiom of 'analytic philosophy', the tallest and remotest of the academic ivory towers, to which I've given a decade of my life and all my adulthood, puts detachment and abstraction foremost. It was detachment and abstraction - an overdose of both - that led me to counselling. What follows is a reflection on that journey.

In part 1, I discussed the specific experience that led me to seek counselling.

In part 2, I talked about a lack of emotional sensation that I discovered during my counselling sessions.

In part 3, I blamed everything on boiled potatoes (and allowing my everyday life to become too bland).

Part 4: A History of Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy

Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy is a landmark text. Russell's position as its author - author of one of the most influential histories of philosophy - is a testament to his stature and import in the first half of the twentieth century. If anyone is the father of 'analytic' philosophy, it is Russell; at very least, he was the first patriarch of its fractious family.

History is written by the victors.

Russell's career was built, founded, on the strength (or at least the success) of his attacks on the philosophies that preceded him; the British idealism of his teachers, and the late phenomenology of Brentano and Meinong that paralleled it. By the end of the 1920s, analytic philosophy was well-established, with Russell at its head.

His opponents were not just defeated, they were dead; Meinong died in 1920, at 67. Bradley, greatest of the British idealists, hung on until 1924. Analytic philosophy delivered triumph after triumph in logic and language, most notably in modernising formal systems for logic which had languished in an Aristotelian mode long into the Enlightenment. Since those formal systems underpin the computation sustaining this blog post, we can hardly reject the analytic approach outright.

But it bears asking what was lost to its triumph. Analytic philosophy is a cold, clinical thing, characterised by abstraction, a devotion to clarity pursued by stripping an object of any context that might introduce ambiguity. This is the mindset that numbed my body to serve my mind. This is the approach that relegates emotion to a backwater, nothing more than a hazard to reason.

The archetypal rationalists of the early modern period - Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz - would have had no truck with this division. For them, there was no great conflict between mind and spirit (mind and body might be a different matter, but body-as-pertaining-to-felt-emotion would have been spiritual to them, not 'merely animal' if there was such a thing). Their tradition, and the work of those who inherited it, from Kant all the way down to Bradley and Meinong, is one of unified, harmonious worlds in which things can only be understood as they are in relation to one another.

It is very hard, when tackling the metaphysics of the post-Leibnizians, not to chuckle, not to view their spirituality as naive, archaic, a product of a 'less enlightened era' in which people still believed in wooly notions and lacked clarity of thought. It is easy to see these men as clinging to religion in the face of marching progress. To do so is, at the very least, to overlook how many of them flirted with outright heresy in challenging the established religions of their times; Spinoza was outright excluded from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, and their sanction against him stands to this day.

While it would be presumptuous of me to present this as an account of the origins of modern critical thought, there are definite links; Marx and Freud, for example, both draw on ideas from Hegel which are fundamentally legacies of Leibniz - ideas that are political, economic and psychological cognates of the metaphysics of Bradley and Meinong. Marx in particular went on to influence a broad range of modern critiques not just in matters of economic class but also the discourse around race, gender, sexuality and disability.

Even the fact that, in anglocentric culture, we view 'philosophy' as something esoteric and removed from daily life can be attributed to analytic philosophy, a product of a simplistic and privileging attitude to the academy and 'academics'. What I hope I have shown, or at least plausibly suggested, is that philosophy is lived, is at the foundation of how we live, is stitched through life and culture in a way that is shaped by but also helps shape everyone who participates in it. The shape it has fitted me into has not been kind, and I am in so many ways one of the fortunate ones.

(part 5)

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