Response to Jack Shawhan on my critique of Analytic Philosophy

When you say I’m eschewing all analytical philosophy over the sake of criticism of one school and proposing the truth has at last been found, it almost sounds like you’re constructing a metanarrative of which you might be oversimplifying my critique. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist). If nothing else, I would like to dispel some misconceptions in your reply.

I don’t base my critique of analytical philosophy on one school, and certainly not just on Wittgenstein. Heidegger and Nietzsche are much greater influences on me than Wittgenstein, but the flea in the jar metaphor was too perfect for this particular situation. I should also point out that my undergraduate and graduate studies were in a staunchly analytic department built by Carnap at the University of Chicago, so I come to this with more than a little familiarity with the subject.

I have no answer to your question of why you ought not continue with analytic philosophy, which is a question only you could answer. And in fact, I’d be very interested to hear why you think you should. I can answer why I don’t and why I think it is of no value.

From the time of Pythagoras and Thales, philosophy has been primarily focused on the nature of existence and man’s place within it. I think Heidegger, Nietzsche, and others have it exactly right when they trace the fatal error of Western philosophy to Socrates, who set us off on a metaphysical quest that obliterated Being itself. It was the rational reduction of A is A to A=A that was this first disastrous misstep. Before Socrates, the “is” was far more than a mere copula, but rather the most active of all verbs. It intimated its all-encompassing mode of being as we experience it in this physical world. A=A obliterated the singular being of A, making it a rational concept identical to all other A’s, and in doing so wrenched our thinking from the physical at hand to metaphysical reductions leading to mere metaphysical constructions. In short, it wrenched Being from the world and displaced it into a purely imaginary metaphysical realm. Another way to put it, which is more directly relevant here, is that it reduced Logos to logic. And it is this logic that led us to a two millennia history of error.

There are two major trends in thought over the past 250 years or so that bring us to where we are now:

1. The reduction of metaphysics through expansion of science.

2. Beginning with Romanticism, the overturning of the privileged position of the rational mode of knowledge to the esthetic mode.

Nietzsche describes our current situation in Section 125 of The Gay Science when the madman announces the death of god and expresses the terror that brings upon us. We are left in a vertigo and unsure how to regain our equilibrium. It was Enlightenment Reason as the culmination of the scientific age that killed god, but it was reason that also blew us off course and leaves us stranded and unable to navigate further.

And in the next few decades this was made palpable through the discoveries of physics. Einstein showed that space and time were not the stable platform we had assumed, but weird, counterintuitive and relative to frame of reference – the first step toward a world not describable through a unitary rational explanation. Quantum Mechanics was the next step, too radical for even Einstein to accept, which revealed that fundamental reality defies deterministic causation, space, time, and the identity principle. In other words, we can predict probabilities of quantum events through Schrödinger’s equation, but it implies an irrational and  incomprehesnible universe. Despite Einstein’s protests, John Bell proved conclusively in the 1960’s that quantum mechanics was true and the world really does defy rational description. This discovery was paralleled in the works of the mathematical physicists Poincare and Wigner, who each showed that any rational systematic explanation of the universe was at best approximate, provisional, and tightly bounded by limited space, time, and chosen events. (Should anyone be interested, I have written fairly extensively on this topic, some of which is available at http://www.toolateforthegods.com )

This all was another aspect of Nietzsche’s vertigo. It was apparent that reason did not describe the universe as it is, but only gave the appearance of order at the cost of radical reduction of the underlying manifold reality, and necessarily led to error through the irreality of rational concepts and propositions.

The 20th century revealed two contradictory approaches to this overwhelming vertigo, each represented by the two great thinkers of that century. Wittgenstein  accepted the “mystical” nature of fundamental reality and concluded that we must be silent before it because it is beyond the reach of language. The only thing we can do is end philosophy, return language to its proper playground, and pretty much let the world take care of itself. And to help it along, let’s do our part in regaining equilibrium by dissolving all the artificial problems and controversies caused by the long linguistic error of philosophy by helping the flies out of the bottles.

Heidegger took the opposite approach. By turning to the esthetic mode of knowledge inherent in poetic language, he overcame metaphysics by turning our inquiry solely on the physical world and our place in it through its esthetic knowledge. In a sense, a return to Heraclitus, Thales, and Pythagoras. Philosophy was over, and our only way out of the vertigo is to poetically inquire into what is authentic in Being itself and let that form the ground of our thinking.

It is important to note that neither approach claimed to have solved the problems. Wittgenstein saw the problem of philosophy as unsolvable, and Heidegger saw us at such a primitive stage that we hadn’t yet even discovered the right questions. Similar to yesterday’s example of the debate over the definition of atheism concealing the more appropriate first step of thinking the nature of the holy itself.

Let’s return to the proper focus of philosophy: the nature of the universe and man’s place in it. The reason philosophy draws to this is the very same reason the best physicists do also: that is where the mystery is. Mystery is primarily an esthetic response, which through embarrassment, science has often attempted to sublimate through mathematical expression. But it is the mystery that draws us. Wittgenstein said to remain silent before it because we could never say anything sensible or true about it. Scientists tried and failed to reduce it the quantifications of A=A, which floundered with the failure of logical positivism and the indeterminacy of the world. Heidegger embraced the mystery and sought it through poetry, much as Nietzsche did through music.

At this point, the universe has revealed itself as elemental quantum fields, at core: resonance. Everything we encounter, including ourselves, are part of this incomprehensibly complex symphony of elemental waves, not reduceable to computation or propositional logic. And it is at this limit of our ability to grasp reality that the important thinking takes place today. Physicists and philosophers blend into one grasping, awe-struck experience and inquiry.

Accordingly, I ignore analytic philosophy because, at best it is a harmless parlor game no more meaningful than a crossword puzzle, and at worst it conceals the path to truth through the error of imposing propositional logic and its attendant reductions on a world that defies it at every turn, and overburdening those kindly souls helping the flies escape.

Instead, I go where the music and fun takes place: at the edge of the mystery. Incorporating Nietzsche’s joyful light dance with Heidegger’s search for the holy.

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