Characterizing philosophy

I recently came across a passage that characterizes analytic philosophy in this way: “when it comes to constructing arguments, we beat words and ideas into submission.”1 I am ambivalent about identifying as an analytic philosopher, but I don’t really recognize myself in this at all.2

Philosophical prose is not written like poetry, but I’ve never felt it was like beating anything into submission. Reflecting on why that passage felt so wrong to me, I hit on a different analogy.

As a hobby, I play lots of boardgames— mostly face-to-face games, rather than on-line games or video games. Game night is a social activity, and it goes well only if everyone has fun. In the context of a game, I make moves to attain strategic advantage. I try to win. But I’d rather have an interesting, challenging game that I don’t win than a game where I win by effortlessly crushing everyone else.

Moreover, playing well in a game is not a matter of beating the rules of the game (or my opponents) into submission. Instead, it’s a matter of finding the subtle path through the choices of the game that accomplishes whatever the objectives in the game are— finding the elegant solution to a problem, rather than solving it by brute force.3

Constructing arguments is similar, except with words and ideas rather than game pieces and rules. Philosophical writing can look horribly ugly to those unfamiliar with it, but using subscripts or numbered propositions doesn’t mean putting words through a verbal torture chamber. A nice move in philosophy, like a nice move in a boardgame, is an elegant and beautiful thing.4

  1. This is from a talk by Ásta, reprinted in the Fall 2017 APA Feminism and Philosophy newsletter. It is titled “How to do metaphysics as a feminist”, but she says it could just as well have been titled “Confessions of an analytic philosopher”.
  2. I’ve blogged about my ambivalence here and there.
  3. The analogy with boardgames played on game night should not be mistaken for the analogy of philosophy as blood sport.
  4. Of course, lots of my writing doesn’t live up to that. That’s because I could do better.

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