Kvetching about Holt in the Stone

Sun 01 Jul 2012 03:22 PM

Jim Holt, writing in the New York Times' philosophy blog The Stone, asks whether philosophy can be literature and answers yes. I do not have any issue with his verdict, but I resist two steps in his way of getting there.

First, Holt identifies his focus as 'analytic philosophy', by which he means "the kind that is practiced these days by the vast majority of professors in philosophy departments throughout the English-speaking world." He gives the usual hemming and hawing about Moore and Russell as the fathers of analytic philosophy, but there's an equivocation here. There is lots of philosophy today which is not engaged in linguistic or conceptual analysis, and so does not continue in the footsteps of Moore or Russell. As I have said before, I do not self-identify as an analytic philosopher. So analytic philosophy as a movement does not capture "the vast majority of professors in philosophy departments".

The alternative is a flaccid sense of "analytic philosophy" in which it just means the kind of work done by anglophone academic philosophers. Here the historical aside is a distraction. Moreover, it would be more direct and clear to just call this academic philosophy: work written by professional philosophers which is primarily intended for other philosophers, work which appears in journals that are mostly available only in university libraries or in books that are purchased mostly by university libraries. The interesting question that Holt poses is whether professors' inside baseball can rise to the level of literature.

Second, Holt offers Kripke as the star evidence for the defense:*

Take the case of Saul Kripke - widely (though not unanimously) considered the one true genius in the profession today. ... [Kripke's] "Naming and Necessity," is so lucidly, inventively and even playfully argued that even a newcomer to analytic philosophy will find it hard to put down.

I have heard this claim before. A former colleague of mine identified Naming and Necessity as the best-written bit of philosophy he had ever read, and he thought it was gripping. Encouraged by such raves, I have tried to read it several times. On each occasion, I have stalled out. Because. Tedious.

To be clear, Naming and Necessity is minimally readable. It is the sort of rambling hodge podge that I can trudge through as a matter of professional commitment. My research sometimes requires engaging Kripke, and so I can work through it. But I cannot sit down and read the book with even a pretense of enjoyment.

To review: If you mean "anglophone professional philosophy", just say so. If you think Saul Kripke is an enchanting prose stylist, you are wrong.

* My two complaints come apart, since Kripke is an analytic philosopher in both the strong sense and in the flaccid sense.