In September, 1994, I began using the Internet. I joined a group called
PHILOSOP, which described itself as a "Philosophy Discussion Forum". Most
of the members of the group were philosophy professors.
After I had been in PHILOSOP a few days, I posted the following message:
On December 29, 1987, there was an article on the front page
of the New York Times called "Philosophical Rift: A Tale of Two
Approaches". The article said that American philosophers were divided into
two schools, the analytical school and the pluralist school. It said that
the analytical school argued that the great philosophers of the past, beginning
with Plato, were analytical. On the other hand, the pluralist school argued
that "philosophy, bogged down in a stress on logic, language, and empirical
data, has lost its vocation of addressing the big questions asked by perplexed
mankind". The article said that the two schools were struggling for control
of the American Philosophical Association.
There were several responses to this message. A few days later I posted
the following message:
This article raises several questions:
--Are American philosophers still divided into these two schools?
--Do any articles written after 1987 discuss the dispute between these
--Would any member of the PHILOSOP list like to express his view of
what philosophy is?
Steven Bayne, responding to my message about two approaches
to philosophy, argued that "the current social climate does not conduce
to individual contemplation", and that therefore "philosophies such as
existentialism...must await a change in societal emphasis". Mr. Bayne concluded
that, at the present time, "analytic philosophy [is] to be preferred".
Now the discussion became lively and heated. Some people supported me,
others opposed me. There had been about two or three messages per day on
PHILOSOP before I posted my first message; now there were about ten or
fifteen per day. My next message ran as follows:
I think everyone would agree with the view that "the current social
climate does not conduce to individual contemplation". (I would go further
and argue that the current social climate curtails creativity in many fields,
including literature, art, music, etc.) But surely the current social climate
doesn't prevent us from studying non-analytic philosophy. This sort
of study is an antidote to the current social climate.
I think it's possible not only to study, but also to create non-analytic
philosophy at the present time. Eric Hoffer, who died about 1980, was an
American philosopher who wrote in a non-analytic way. Hoffer's books were
once widely read, and are still in many libraries. Hoffer admired the French
philosopher Montaigne. Hoffer wrote in an aphoristic style, similar to
the style of Pascal, Nietzsche, etc. The tradition of non-analytic philosophy
runs from ancient times through philosophers like Montaigne, Pascal, Emerson,
Thoreau, Nietzsche and Hoffer.
Analytic philosophy fits the classroom environment, but is ignored outside
On 9/29, I wrote a message to the PHILOSOP list that.... concluded
with the question, "Would any member of the PHILOSOP list like to express
his view of what philosophy is?" In other words, I posed the question,
"what is philosophy?", a question that has been discussed by many philosophers.
Now there were about twenty-five messages per day on PHILOSOP. Several
people, finding themselves flooded with PHILOSOP messages, withdrew from
the group. Others complained that the discussion had become "non-academic"
and "non-professional". They said that PHILOSOP wasn't meant for discussions,
but rather for posting information about conferences, job openings, etc.
But many people were interested in the discussion. My next message ran
There were several responses to my message, but very few of them addressed
the question, "what is philosophy?" Several people said that there was
no rift among American philosophers. If, however, one goes back to that
Times article, one will come away with the impression that there
certainly was a rift in 1987. And it's unlikely that that rift has disappeared
during the last seven years. In fact, Yale's philosophy department was
recently so bitterly divided (between analytical philosophers and non-analytical
philosophers) that Yale's president had to take over management of the
But rift or no rift, the question remains, what is philosophy? One person,
Harriet Baber, attempted to answer this question. Harriet began by describing
herself as "a committed and unabashed analytic philosopher". She said that
analytic philosophers were "concerned with...getting things right and keeping
them clean", while non-analytic philosophers were "snobbish literatti concerned
with matters of style and being 'intellectuals'." I myself am a "committed
and unabashed" non-analytic philosopher. This is probably clear to anyone
who read my message of 9/30, in which I said that, "Analytic philosophy
fits the classroom environment, but is ignored outside academia."
Ms. Baber spoke of non-analytic philosophers as "phenomenologico-hegelian-existential
types". But it would be a mistake to equate non-analytic philosophy with
metaphysics, and with philosophers like Hegel and Heidegger. There are
many non-analytic philosophers who have no use for metaphysics. As I said
in my message of 9/30, "the tradition of non-analytic philosophy runs from
ancient times through philosophers like Montaigne, Pascal, Emerson, Thoreau,
Nietzsche and Hoffer". Many of these philosophers are known for being superb
stylists; as Ms. Baber rightly pointed out, non-analytic philosophers are
"concerned with matters of style".
Non-analytic philosophers tend to regard analytic philosophy as an empty
mind game, as hair-splitting, logic chopping, quibbling. Montaigne spoke
for many non analytic philosophers when he said, "It is a great pity...that
philosophy is now...a vain and chimerical name, a thing of no use or value....The
cause, I think, lies in these quibblings which have blocked the approach
to it." The rift in philosophy isn't an invention of the NY Times;
the rift in philosophy goes all the way back to Montaigne--indeed, all
the way back to ancient times.
The non-analytic philosophers whom I mentioned above used plain language
to address profound questions. Analytic philosophers, on the other hand,
are concerned with the process of thinking, the process of reasoning. Analytic
philosophers are concerned with questions like "what is a definition?",
while non-analytic philosophers are concerned with questions like "does
God exist?" Analytic philosophers dance around the great questions, but
don't answer them.
I concluded my message of 10/1 as follows: "Analytic philosophers
are concerned with questions like 'what is a definition?', while non-analytic
philosophers are concerned with questions like 'does God exist?' Analytic
philosophers dance around the great questions, but don't answer them."
Several people had argued that the only alternative to analytic philosophy
was metaphysics. I thought there were other alternatives. I wrote thus:
These remarks were greeted with a chorus of criticism. Chase Wrenn said
that my remarks were "patently false", and that analytic philosophers do
indeed deal with the question 'does God exist?'. David Garza said, "Anselm's
Ontological Argument for the existence of God has seen responses from analytic
Granted that analytic philosophers deal with the question 'does God
exist?', in what manner do they deal with it? Do they just dance around
it? They respond to Anselm's ontological argument, says David Garza. That's
exactly what I call 'dancing around a great question'. Analytic philosophers
don't urgently seek an answer to this question; rather, they're interested
in Anselm's argument, in the process by which Anselm reaches his conclusion.
Montaigne spoke for many non-analytic philosophers when he said, during
a discussion of Cicero's works, "these logical and Aristotelean orderings
of the material are of no use; I should like him to begin with his conclusion".
Analytic philosophers, on the other hand, aren't interested in the conclusion,
they aren't interested in knowing (for example) whether God really exists,
they're interested in clever arguments and subtle definitions.
How do non-analytic philosophers deal with the question 'does God exist?'
How does Nietzsche, for example, deal with this question? Nietzsche doesn't
dance around this question, he doesn't get bogged down in definitions and
linguistic analysis. Nietzsche answers this question in three words, three
simple words, three monosyllabic words, three words that are part of the
vocabulary of most five-year-olds. I refer to the three most famous words
in Nietzsche's corpus: "God is dead".
Non-analytic philosophers have a burning desire to know whether God
exists. Some seem ready to commit suicide if God doesn't exist. Others
seem ready to devote every moment of their lives to pleasing God if God
does exist. Non-analytic philosophers are concerned with the practical
consequences of the question, 'does God exist?' For them, this question
isn't just a logical exercise. Nietzsche pointed out that, if God is dead,
morality has no foundation, and human life no longer has infinite value.
Dostoyevsky, working independently of Nietzsche, reached the same conclusions
as Nietzsche, and even used some of the same phrases as Nietzsche. Dostoyevsky's
atheists talk constantly of suicide and genocide. "There will be an upheaval!",
Dostoyevsky wrote; "there's going to be such an upset as the world has
never seen before....The earth will weep for its old gods." Nietzsche and
Dostoyevsky knew that the death of God had momentous practical consequences,
and they foresaw the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin.
Non-analytic philosophy is relevant to the life of the individual, and
to history. Non-analytic philosophy foresaw much of 20th-century history,
and enables us to better understand that history. On the other hand, analytic
philosophy has no relevance to the life of the individual, or to history.
Analytic philosophers have promised us a philosophy of thought as soon
as they complete their philosophy of language. But they've been working
on their philosophy of language for a century, and time is marching on.
We can't put life on hold while we wait for the analytics to complete their
Analytic philosophers, for how many centuries must we wait? Is the end
I propose that we divide philosophy into three kinds: Analytical
Philosophy, Metaphysical Philosophy, and Street Philosophy.
Some people had continued to argue that this wasn't the proper forum for
a philosophical discussion. They urged the list manager to intervene, and
to make sure that no one continued the discussion. The list manager changed
the description of PHILOSOP from "Philosophy Discussion Forum" to "Philosophy
Analytical Philosophy is concerned with the process of thinking, the
process of reasoning, the process of ascertaining truth. Indeed, it's so
concerned with process that one might call it "Process Philosophy". This
concern with process shows itself in a concern with logic, and the analysis
of language. Many analytical philosophers would agree with Wittgenstein
that, "The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language".
Analytical Philosophy has a proclivity for definitions. Modern representatives
of analytical philosophy include Wittgenstein, Russell and Quine. One can
trace analytical philosophy back to Aristotle's Logic, and even
back to Socrates and Plato, both of whom had a keen interest in definitions.
Metaphysical Philosophy began with Parmenides and Plato, and continued
through Aristotle's Metaphysics. Most metaphysical philosophers
are chiefly concerned with exploring the nature of God. Most metaphysical
philosophers distinguish between the world of true being, which they usually
identify with God, and the world of phenomena, which they usually call
illusory. Modern representatives of Metaphysical Philosophy include Kant,
Hegel, Heidegger and Sartre.
Street Philosophy speaks the language of the man on the street. Insofar
as Socrates dealt with practical, ethical issues, Socrates can be considered
a street philosopher. It was said that Socrates called philosophy down
from the stars and placed it in the streets. One of the most important
street philosophers was Nietzsche, who said that "all great questions are
in the street".
Insofar as Plato and Aristotle dealt with ethics and politics, they
too can be considered street philosophers. The Stoics and Epicureans can
also be considered street philosophers, since they were preoccupied with
practical, ethical issues. The major Chinese philosophers--Confucius and
Mencius, for example--can be considered street philosophers since they
dealt with ethics and politics, not logic and metaphysics. Other representatives
of street philosophy are Montaigne, Pascal, Emerson, Thoreau and Hoffer.
Street Philosophy has an aversion for definitions; there are no definitions
in Thoreau's Walden or Nietzsche's Zarathustra. Street philosophers
are concerned with ideas and beliefs, not proofs and definitions. Street
philosophers are concerned with life itself, and believe that people live
by ideas and beliefs, not proofs and definitions. Street philosophers often
write from their own experience; two of the best works of street philosophy
are Kierkegaard's Selected Journals and Emerson's Selected Journals.
Hoffer's Before the Sabbath is a contemporary example of street
philosophy in journal form.
These three kinds of philosophy sometimes overlap, and some philosophers
belong in more than one group; I've put Plato and Aristotle into all three
groups. But though it's easy to find flaws in this three-fold division,
I think we must identify different kinds of philosophy in order to answer
the question, "what is philosophy?"
The discussion was beginning to die down. I posted one final message:
Steven Bayne, in his message of 10/1, said, "in the West philosophy
has been 'analytic' since Plato, at least. The 'dialectic' was a search
for definitions. What could be more 'analytical' than Plato's procedure
in the Sophist and the Theaetetus?" Joseph Ransdell, in his
message of 10/9, said, "I have never encountered anyone with any substantial
acquaintance with the Western philosophical tradition...who denies that
philosophy involves analytical activity." I have argued that an analytical
approach is superfluous--a distraction from real philosophy. Is my argument
inconsistent with the Western philosophical tradition?
I maintain that today's analytical philosophers confuse means and ends.
Socrates, Plato and others treated the analytical approach as a means by
which to address the big questions, questions such as, what is the good
life? what is the ideal form of government?, etc. But today's analytical
philosophers treat the analytical approach as an end in itself. They're
like students in a writing class who become so involved with their computers
that they begin to treat their computers as ends in themselves instead
of as a means of writing. Confusing means and ends is not unusual; people
routinely treat "making a living" as the end of life, though it's obvious
that "making a living" is only a means of living.
Socrates said, "the unexamined life is not worth living"; Socrates was
preoccupied with practical, ethical questions. Plato said, "the greatest
and fairest sort of wisdom by far is that which is concerned with the ordering
of states and families". Plato often dealt with practical questions; he
even traveled to Sicily in an attempt to realize his plan for an ideal
state. Socrates and Plato would never have argued, as today's analytical
philosophers do, that we can't even begin a "philosophy of thought" until
we've completed a "philosophy of language". Socrates and Plato would never
overlook, as today's analytical philosophers do, philosophers like Thoreau,
who deal with practical, down-to-earth issues.
Today's analytical philosophers have confused means and ends; they've
forgotten the true end of philosophy. "Philosophy" means love of wisdom,
and wisdom is an understanding of life and the world, not just an understanding
of logic and language.