Analytic versus Existentialist: Kaufmann on Philosophy

So, a while back, I picked up “Critique of Religion and Philosophy” by Walter Kaufmann a while back, because Jerry Coyne was picking out pithy comments from it — particularly about religion — and raving about how good the book was. I decided to see for myself how it was, and got through the main philosophy portion, and I have to say that unfortunately it is pretty much precisely the sort of book that Coyne would seem to like: it has all of those pithy comments, but is lamentably short on actual evidence or justification for them. And what you need to do when you do philosophy is justify those sorts of statements, often preferably in lieu of making them.

One part of it seems, to me, to best exemplify this is his discussion of analytic versus existential philosophy. He argues — not unreasonably — that traditional philosophy was both too analytic — as the existentialists argue — and not analytic enough. So, he then says that we need a philosophy that brings the two together. Okay, not unreasonable, so what does he propose to do that? Well, nothing, really. And that makes his point incredibly trite, because it’s easy to say that if you have two views that have their own appeal to some people you should just bring them together and keep the benefits of both, settle the dispute and solve all the problems. The hard part is figuring out how to do that.

Let me outline why it’s a problem here. I’m going to try to be as general as I possibly can, and will certainly oversimplify it, but it should be good enough for my purposes. Analytic philosophy consists, essentially, of putting things — concepts, generally — into boxes, figuring that if you can put all the things into the right boxes you can then look at the boxes and get all the answers. Existentialist philosophy, on the other hand, is about taking things out of boxes as much as you can and figuring out that you’ll get new and wonderful insights that way. So, inherently, analytic philosophy wants to put things into boxes and existentialist philosophy wants to take things out of boxes. The advantage of analytic philosophy is that when you put things into boxes, you find all sorts of interesting connections, and can generalize from the boxes instead of having to look at each item individually. The advantage of existentialist philosophy is that you don’t lock yourself into thinking of things as their box, and the world itself doesn’t seem to fit nicely into boxes.

Now, both analytic and existentialist philosophy understand that this very simple model isn’t all there is. As just stated, the world doesn’t fit into boxes all that well, so analytic philosophy has had to find ways to deal with things that don’t fit neatly into boxes. Although I think the paradigmatic example of the analytic approach is fuzzy logic: analytic philosophy discovered that some things just couldn’t be classified as “true” or “false” … and so they came up with a rather detailed and complicated mathematical formula for deciding just how true or false the thing was. On the flip side, if you don’t have any boxes at all, all you have are disconnected things, and finding interesting connections is hard when you’re drowning in connections. So you do need to talk about some things as being in boxes, but you should minimize that. But at the end of the day, as I stated, analytic philosophers are happy when they put something into a box and existentialist philosophers are happy when they take something out of a box.

So, then, how do you reconcile these two approaches, keeping the benefits of both? It seems a monumental task, if not impossible. But Kaufmann simply asserts that both have valid criticisms of traditional philosophy and we should use some kind of hybrid of the two approaches. What we wanted was for him to say how to do that, not pithily comment that we should.

As I now move on to the religion part, I am very afraid that in his work I will find pithy comments but limited discussion of why the pithy comments are true. And if he doesn’t tell me why the pithy comments are true, then I can dismiss them … and point out how his book is not, in fact, a very good book at all.

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