As a thorough amateur whose first intellectual love was, and whose current work is in, science, but whose real marriage remains to philosophy, this anus took it upon itself to read again some analytic philosophy after discovering James and Dewey late in life.  Anal-lysis, it found, was now rife with pragmatism; it is still by far the dominant form of philosophy in departments across the country (the anus’ alma matter was thankfully not so); so it stood to reason that this form of life, as Wittgenstein might call it, was the true inheritor of what might be, among the humanities, Americas most important contribution to Western letters.  The torch of pragmatism, it assumed, had been carried on by anal-lysis.  What else, it thought, could this generation of would-be pragmatists be doing otherwise?

The anus was sadly mistaken.  Previous experience should have warned it ahead of time (is it really possible that grown men are persuaded by and devote their careers to the epistemology of Gettier problems?), but being a good empiricist the anus set those conceptions aside and tried anal-lysis again, hoping to find in the dominant tradition of his countrymen inspiration at least and tools at best to help answer some long standing questions about, as Sellars once said, “how things hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term,” with “no intellectual holds barred.”  Instead it found Rorty, Searle, Sellars and Quine, luminaries and stars one and all, and not even members of the legions of middling players who contribute the bulk of the normal literature.  But oh my god…what is there to say that hasn’t already been said?  Well, from reading and writing about them over the past several months, the anus has learned to think better for itself, and from that effort it has learned two enduring lessons.

First, the anus notes is how unbelievably vapid some of the most important work in anal-lysis really is.  As just one, though perhaps the worst, instance[1]: as late as 1996, well into the scientific development of language acquisition and the now contemporary studies of language and cultural cognition (the anus once worked in an infant perception lab), Quine revisited the “Gavagai” problem without realizing, after 35 years of reflection, how the problem remains unsolvable in the terms in which he posed it, and apparently equally unaware that any attempt to solve it in those terms would only presuppose exactly what it seeks to explain—and therefore explain nothing.  For in “Progress on Two Fronts” Quine said “let me pinpoint the problem.” He then purports to show that common meaning, reference and therefore translation is possible after all, chiefly because of “a pre-established harmony of standards of perceptual similarity, independent of intersubjective likeness of receptors or sensations.”  And as if that wasn’t bad enough, this pre-established harmony is itself “explained by yet a deeper but more faltering pre-established harmony between perceptual similarity and the environment,” one established by natural selection (emphasis added).  So in other words, words refer to objects because they are pre-ordained to do so, and they are pre-ordained to do so because the sensory apparatus permitting access to the things we name, despite being different across perceivers, are pre-ordained (most of the time) to detect in the object  the same thing at the same time in the same wayOh yeah, and natural selection makes this so.  Scientifically and philosophically speaking, it’s utterly idiotic, and that it took a lifetime of effort to say—an effort that spawned an entire cottage industry of “naturalized epistemology”—is, to put it simply, an intellectual disgrace.  This disgrace comes, as it were, from “one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century.”[2]  The assessment just defies belief.

The second thing the anus notes is how much an anal-lytic both loves and hates but nonetheless thrives on a trivial false dichotomy, one extracted from an everyday intuition or derived from prior philosophy, one that then gets distorted into a polar opposition between mutually exclusive options, such that it becomes a pointless, philosophical puzzle.  Just to name a few: the coherence versus the correspondence theories of truth, the relativity of paradigms versus objective knowledge, conceptual scheme versus bare content, the space of reasons versus the space of causes, epistemology versus hermeneutics, norm versus content, use versus meaning, (or the anus’ favorite)– psychological nominalism versus awareness like a thermostat.  Careers have evidently been made exploiting the conceptual implications of these trivial dichotomies, implications that stem en masse from a common ‘fallacy,’ one observed by Dewey nearly a century ago: that of turning a functional, logical distinction into options with an antecedent existence—in other words, that of turning a functional, logical distinction into an ontological one, one that poses as alternatives two mutually exclusive options that somehow need to be reconciles (what Dewey called, so long ago, the philosophic fallacy).

For instance—just to sketch the so-called ‘problems’ in the barest form—functionally, ideas and facts do indeed correspond, but they do so with an eventual solution like a key corresponds to and opens a lock, not as a replica existing in the mind corresponds to a template or an original existing in the world against which belief must be assessed.  And on the flip side, ideas developed amongst themselves do cohere with one another—that’s the whole point of systematically developing their implications—even as this conceptual coherence helps reveal new existential material (read “facts”) for resolving theoretical problems into a unified explanation.  Or again, functionally speaking, ‘conceptual schemes’ organize ‘content’ into actually and potentially productive avenues of search, even as ‘content’ gives ‘conceptual schemes’ something to organize and direct.  Both work in conjunction to formulate the terms of a problem, and to indicate possible means of solution.  Or yet again, in functional terms, “paradigms” do determine modes of scientific conceptualization and the agendas of scientific research, even as new objective knowledge forces a re-evaluation of these prior, only partially incommensurate paradigms[3]… and so on and so on, right up to perhaps the biggest bugaboo of all, psychological nominalism, where functionally understood the awareness that comes with using linguistic symbols transforms the awareness of prior significance relations into new dimensions of discernment and manipulation, even as these prior significance relations remain, at least in part, that which this new awareness is about.[4] The commitment and the resulting obfuscation of “the philosophic fallacy” can be seen over and over again in the false dichotomies that plague (and nourish!) anal-lysis.  Nevertheless, in the final analysis, they all turn a functional correspondence in eventual use into mutually exclusive and antecedently existing options, thus transforming their collaborative use into an irresolvable paradox that in practice never arises.

Like with fleshing out the pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo and methodological question begging this is Quine’s “naturalized epistemology,” it would be a rather straightforward matter to show that for a true pragmatist—one inspired by James and persuaded by Pierce and Dewey—none of these dichotomies emerge as “problems”.  Rather, they emerge as functional distinctions working in cooperation in the process of deliberate inquiry; that they have both their proper place and their “resolution” there.  That this was postulated and partially developed nearly a century ago, decades prior to the rise of anal-lytic philosophy, is perhaps less an intellectual disgrace as is the case with Quine than a case of curious neglect: pragmatism was already far better developed than the directions taken in anal-lytic philosophy decades before that professionalized genre even got itself off the ground.  Or so at least the anus maintains.  While its sampling thus far is probably too small and not necessarily representative enough to say for sure, the anus suspects there is no worthwhile intuition in anal-lytic pragmatism that wasn’t pre-empted and better developed by the traditional pragmatists, just without all the rigmarole that comes with squeezing out the hidden implications of the conceptual fog that is committing “the philosophic fallacy”.  Not only do the problems dissolve from the logical and functional point of view suggested by James and developed by Dewey; the decent intuitions that sometimes get caught up in anal-lysis—and there have to be some, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense even to its practitioners—find their real home there.  That that home was built long before the current tenants squatted is almost impossible to believe, but it is nevertheless quite evident from this anus’ visit.  So far it has found nothing worthwhile in anal-lysis that wasn’t already articulated in traditional pragmatism.[5]

The anus could go on, but it has had enough.  It has had its hopes dashed (or its expectations fulfilled, however one wants to look at it) often enough to just leave anal-lysis be.  Life, it thinks, is far too short to spend it wasting time expositing a conceptual fog that no one but professionals in the field even cares about, even if it’s only to expose that exposition for what it is.  So much exciting work is being done in the study of language and cultural cognition; in the biological basis of cultural evolution, and that evolution separately; in norm and institutional analysis in economics; in the foundations of probability in statistics; in the neuroscience of mind/body, perception and consciousness; in philosophical scholarship generally—in virtually any field where practitioners are trying to obtain reliable knowledge of some respective domain of experience, be that lived or read; fields in which anal-lytic philosophers have presumed to judge or meddle.  Dewey once hoped for philosophy that it would become “a critical organ,” in effect “a messenger, a liaison officer, making reciprocally intelligible voices speaking provincial tongues, and thereby enlarging as well as rectifying the meanings with which they are charged.”  In anal-lysis, philosophy becomes (to put it crudely, and what anus can help but be crude?) a collective circle jerk from very clever men over silly puzzles of presumed self-importance—or as Aristophanes said, so much “hairsplitting twaddle.” No one else really cares, nor should they.  Having exposed some aspects of doing the later (it hopes!), the anus is going to focus on trying to be more like the former.   As examples it looks to works that might actually influence scientific practitioners, or other interested readers—several have come into its possession.[6] Perhaps, it hopes, even to write something like them on some topic one day.  But either way, the only thing for an anus to do after having done its business with anal-lysis is to wipe itself, and having written this blog over the past few months, this one considers itself clean, hands washed and all.  Now it’s time to get back to the real work that comes from the heart and mind, not the anus and whatever…


[1] The anus calls this the worst, but a closely competing second could be Warrant and Proper Function, the companion volume to the book summarizing warrant, the current debate (in a book by that name).  Apparently Gettier is still making waves.  As the author’s contribution to how we come to know, the entire book is devoted to the position that judgements can’t be reliable unless the means of judging itself is functioning properly.  Seriously, a whole book.  The anus can’t decide what’s worse: that the author thought of that and wrote a whole book on it, or that he could because apparently no one had thought of that before.

[2] It would be wearisome and trivial in the extreme to show how at every conceptual joint Quine’s “naturalized epistemology” presupposes exactly what it seeks to explain; that at every joint the passage from “stimulus to science” he purports to develop imports either common sense through the back door, along with a bunch of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo; that this clandestine conceptual smuggling is all that gives his account its [sic] explanatory force.  The Roots of Reference and Word and Object are just the tip of the iceberg—or perhaps a better metaphor, the roots of the whole rotted-out tree.  But the anus leaves that task to some would-be professional anal-lytic looking to grind out a career-making Ph.D.  It could easily be done, and one wouldn’t have to presuppose the validity of the best current—or for that matter any current—theories of language use and language acquisition to do it.  The thing would practically write itself from within Quine’s own terms, relying on only a cursory knowledge of behaviorism and neurophysiology, something one might get in their second year of undergraduate work (when the anus in fact got its own).

[3] Since this one is likely to give many a reader pause (it seems so unlikely that something so obvious could be overlooked by so many), the anus refers the doubtful to just one of the many popular college physics texts (like his own, Halliday, Resnick and Walker, Fundamentals of Physics) for accounts of how, for instance, the quantum theory of wave motion, or the relativistic theory of time dilation, are commensurate with traditional mechanics when certain conditions (all of which are objectively determinable) obtain.  This is done both mathematically and conceptually for these and other examples of so-called “incommensurate paradigms.”  It’s really quite eye opening if one comes to the book saturated with paradigm talk, but it’s something that physicists quite rightly take for granted.  For more advanced versions, the reader is invited to consult Wheeler, Misner and Thorne in Gravitation, where commensurability between classical and relativistic ‘paradigms’ are usually left to the student as exercises for demonstrating that he or she understands both.

[4] Dewey was not unaware that “prior” raises the question of priority, as in: which comes first, significance relations that get denoted or the meaning relations that do the denoting—a language/reality chicken or egg problem.  His discussion and conclusion—that pragmatically the question is “rhetorical”—can be found in Chapter 3 of Logic: The Theory in Inquiry, p. 61.

[5] For the ‘sources’ and ‘spirit’ of these functional distinctions, as well as some early explanations, readers can simply consult William James’s Pragmatism, The Meaning of Truth, and any number of his longer essays on epistemological and metaphysical issues.  For specific details on how most (if not all) of the mutually exclusive antecedent dichotomies plaguing most (if not all) of pre-pragmatic philosophy actually play cooperative, functional roles in inquiry or experience, readers can examine Dewey’s Experience and Nature, The Quest for Certainty, and Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, not to mention any number of his shorter papers on specific topics.  It really is eye-opening to see the functional distinctions presupposed in the puerile wrangling of anal-lysis preemptively worked out when Sellars, Quine, and Gettier were probably still in grade school.

[6] To name just three: David Buller, Adapting Minds, Philip Kitcher Vaulting Ambition, and Samir Osaka Evolution and the Levels of Selection.

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