Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Teaching the History of Analytic Philosophy

Rather than worrying about the nature of analytic philosophy or taking a poll on who the most important philosophers are, I wanted to raise the issue of how we should structure an introductory course on the history of analytic philosophy. It seems to me that history of analytic has reached a kind of maturity that we associate with other areas of history like modern or Kant. With these topics, there are a few standard ways to organize an introductory course. There are also some companion introductory books that can be used to supplement readings of the classic primary texts.

But in the history of analytic philosophy, we don't really have either a standard syllabus or adequate companion books. Over the years several people have asked me how I teach my history of analytic classes. Unfortunately, I have tried out several different ways of organizing a Frege-Russell-Wittgenstein course and have always had trouble with the Russell part. My latest experience in Taiwan has convinced me that we should have a few basic goals when organizing such a course.

First, as with any history of philosophy course, the readings should be mostly drawn from the primary texts of the philosophers themselves. These readings should cover several different philosophers and span various areas of philosophy. It is not that useful, I would argue, to just focus on philosophy of language, for example, or just philosophy of mathematics. Picking just one area of philosophy would give a misleading impression of early analytic philosophy.

Second, there should be some attempt to relate the readings together into some kind of sustained narrative. One problem with some introductory books out there right now is that they cover just one philosopher. So, they miss the important interactions and disputes between philosophers that are crucial to the development of analytic philosophy. The narrative need not be some kind of continuous advancement of understanding, but could just as easily include several false starts or strange innovations on a given issue.

Third, students should learn not only the material covered, but also come to appreciate its remoteness from many of our contemporary ways of doing philosophy. As I put this point in my most recent course, early analytic philosophy was done in a different context, where a context includes a choice of problems, methods and standard positions. So, we should acquaint our students with this different context and help them to see how radical a transformation was effected by people like Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein.

On this last point, I can imagine the reply
Aren't we analytic philosophers, after all? If we are analytic philosophers, then surely we share more or less the same philosophical context of earlier analytic philosophers. So, the sorts of misunderstandings that result from variation in philosophical context simply cannot arise when we look back at these writings.
I want to suggest that this sort of response is misguided. What it ignores is that in its early stages analytic philosophy involved a radical change in the way philosophy was done. If this is right, then these early analytic philosophers were operating in a very different philosophical context from the one we enjoy now. This is for the simple reason that their philosophical contributions changed the philosophical context in many respects. These include all the features of a context: what problems are important, which methods are appropriate and which answers are viable. Many more traditional aspects of philosophy were thrown out and many new problems and techniques were imported into philosophy. The revolutionary character of early analytic philosophy, then, means that we must be careful in our approach to these writings, perhaps even more careful than when reading Aristotle or Aquinas where the difference in philosophical context is obvious and uncontested.

In future posts I hope to flesh out more how this sort of course would proceed, but for now I would be interested in hearing from teachers and students what their thoughts are on this sort of issue.


Greg Frost-Arnold said...

I'm wondering about these questions at the moment too, since I'm going to teach history of analytic for the first time in the fall. Just a couple of reactions:

1. My attempt at a unifying thread/issue/frame is: can philosophy be made scientific (or at least approach the the kind of knowledge science supposedly enjoys)? If so, how? And should it be?

So we will spend a few weeks reading most of Russell's "Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for SCIENTIFIC METHOD in philosophy". And Carnap et al wanted to make philosophy into one of the formal sciences (Wissenschaftslogik). And then Quine's break is understood at a bigger scale than just denying analytic truths: philosophy should be an empirical science, viz. psychology. (And thus I'm going to try to fit in a little bit of experimental philosophy at the end.)

2. I am very sympathetic to your stress on making clear the radical nature of the analytic philosophers (in your terms, how they changed their context). I completely buy this line in my research life. However, in a classroom, I wonder whether this is the best strategy. I chose Russell's OKEW in part because (some of) the questions there are recognizably philosophical questions, questions that get students to sign up as philosophy majors in the first place. My worry is that if I spend too much time talking about whether e.g. linguistic expressions really do have Fregean senses, then students are more likely to buy into the idea that 20th C philosophy is overly dry and abstract, and nothing more than boring linguistic analysis, instead of dealing with the timeless philosophical questions that interests students in the first place.

I'd love to hear any comments/ reactions you have, qua veteran teacher of history of analytic.

Chris Pincock said...

Sounds like a great course Greg. If you ever have a syllabus online, just let me know and I can post a link. It would be good, actually, to have links to many online syllabi, but I haven't tried to use the power of Google to find them all yet.

I like the topic for your course. Given that there is too much to discuss in the history of analytic in one course, we each need to have one or more themes that we use to structure a class. I will be interested to hear how students react to OKEW! (A small point -- Routledge reprinted the second edition, but there is no indication of this until you compare the texts. There are significant changes for physics in lecture 4 ... )

On the point about context, this is something I say in the first lecture, but in practice I agree you have to relate the readings back to things the students are familiar with. But as you say, these topics can be drawn from the history of philosophy, like Kant and Mill, as opposed to contemporary philosophy.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Thanks. One quick follow-up: do you have an opinion on which edition of OKEW do you think would be better for students? (The first is freely available online, so I was hoping to use that.)

Chris Pincock said...

I haven't really compared the different editions, but I would recommend the first as it is probably more coherent. But still there are many confusing aspects of OKEW, especially the crucial chapters 3 and 4.

Greg Frost-Arnold said...

Hi Chris --

At long last, I can now report back on how my students did with OKEW. The answer is not so well. I'm almost positive that I won't be using it again. (Though there were a few students who loved it.)

Your final remark about chapters 3 and 4 being confusing turned out to be quite an understatement for my students (and me too).