The Ambitions of Philosophy

What are the ends of philosophy? To what ought the practice of philosophy aspire to, hold itself accountable for, harness its energies toward?

For a certain type of analytic philosopher, philosophy is a distinctively transcendent form of problem-solving. This philosopher aspires to a conceptual conclusiveness achieved through the formulation of vacuumless definitions, epiphanic thought experiments, knock-down arguments that render the interlocutor mute, perhaps even comatose (‘‘Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies.’’—Robert Nozick).

Jeff McMahan gives vent to this account of philosophy with remarkable vigor:

I am highly optimistic about the prospects for progress in normative ethics.  It is evident to me that great progress has already been made since I entered the field in the early 1980s.  Unlike many other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, which in recent years were seduced by bad French philosophy into a lot of silly “post-modern” theorizing that has exposed them to derision and reduced them to irrelevance, analytic philosophy is flourishing.  Part of the reason why analytic philosophy generally is in such a healthy state is that, as Jerry Fodor observed in a recent book review, philosophers no longer tend to have philosophies.  We no longer devote our lives to developing comprehensive philosophical or ethical systems.  We are individually narrower and more specialized, which enables us to focus more carefully and minutely on the problems we study, and as a consequence to produce work that is more rigorous and detailed.  The result is that philosophy has become more of a collective endeavor than it was in the past, in the sense that different people are focusing selectively on problems that are elements or aspects of larger problems.  When the results of individual efforts are combined, we may achieve a collective product that exceeds in depth, intricacy, and sophistication what any individual could have produced by working on the larger problem in isolation.

On its face, this would strike readers as a fairly banal recitation of analytic philosophy’s catechism – its claim to progress a metonym for its fantasies of being a civilizational flame for Science and Enlightenment, Freedom of Speech and Truth. Never mind that its boast of relevance can only be sustained by refusing to read the rest of the humanities and social sciences. Never mind that its smug satisfaction at “flourishing” makes a hideous mockery of its teeming reserve army of adjunct labor.

The intensity of this philosophy’s ambition lies in its sublime disavowal of ambition. It wants no part in developing “a comprehensive philosophical or ethical system.” Rather, for it, the “humble spadework” of argumentation is all. And yet, curiously, its narrow focus is said to be part of a “collective endeavor,” each individual philosopher’s work presumably a piece in an “in depth, intricate, sophisticated” jigsaw puzzle.

But what justifies McMahan’s faith that each individual philosopher’s piece of the puzzle interlocks with others to add up to a collective product? At what point in history will that collective product come into panoramic view? From whose perspective will the jigsaw puzzle be declared complete? It could be that McMahan is taking it for granted that those future workers of normative analytic philosophy will look just as he does, think just as he does, desire just as he does. There is, to be sure, a certain sort of achievement – a cleverness, even – in fitting together an-all white jigsaw puzzle, rather like the genius of extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers in The Grand Academy of Lagado.