What Philosophers Really Know

Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos
Bertrand Russell, 1962

Academic philosophy often draws ire. The complaints are twofold and not altogether consistent with each other.

The first is that philosophers can’t seem to agree on anything, with dissension descending to such basic questions as the nature of the field itself, both its subject matter and its methodology. The lack of unanimity implies a lack of objectivity and suggests that any hope for progress is futile. This complaint often comes from scientists and culminates in the charge that there is no such thing as philosophical expertise. Who then are these people employed in philosophy departments, and what entitles them to express subjective viewpoints with the pretensions of impersonal knowledge?

The second complaint is that academic philosophy has become inaccessible. For more than a century now, the kind of philosophy practiced in most philosophy departments, at least in the English-speaking world, is analytic philosophy, and analytic philosophy, or so goes the lament, is too technical, generating vocabularies and theories aimed at questions remote from problems that outsiders consider philosophical. Here the complaint is that there are philosophical experts and that, in carrying the field forward, they have excluded the nonprofessional. The suppressed premise is that philosophical questions are of concern to all of humanity and therefore ought to remain within reach of all of humanity.

Analytic philosophy originated with philosophers who also did seminal work in mathematical logic, most notably Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, and the alliances with both formal logic and science are among its defining features. As such, analytic philosophy values conceptual clarity and argumentative precision, its techniques are developed in their service, and it condemns the turgid language (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the indifference or hostility to science) characteristic of what many people think of as philosophy. Hegelian idealism was the prototype of what early analytic philosophers thought philosophy should not be, and today such thinkers as Martin Heidegger and Slavoj Žižek have stepped into that role.

Philosophy of language has been, from the beginning, close to the center of analytic philosophy, and Colin McGinn’s Philosophy of Language: The Classics Explained plunges one into philosophy as it is actually practiced by a majority of Anglo-American philosophers. Anyone who is put off by philosophy’s technical turn might be ill-disposed toward McGinn’s book. But I hope this pellucid exposition of some of analytic philosophy’s most technical achievements will persuade the persuadable that philosophers really have something to be expert about and that, with an able guide and a bit of intellectual effort, thoughtful people can profit from their work.

McGinn himself makes humbler claims for his book,
the fruit of thirty-eight years of teaching philosophy of language. He writes that students tend to have enormous difficulty understanding its foundational texts. He will therefore explain these texts, assuming no previous familiarity. He hopes his efforts will be useful not just to students but to…

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