This post started off as a comment on Brian Lieter’s Blog which I’ve linked with this blog through an RSS feed, it is one of the best places to follow debates in the philosophical community. The comment became rather long and off topic so I’ve upgraded. The post I was reacting to was something quoting Jeff Macmahan (Rutgers) on the superiority of Analytic meta-ethics, to anything inspired by French philosophy. For those unfamiliar with metaethics, it refers to foundational issues in ethics (what the basic concepts are, their meaning, their validity, connections between them and so on).
Which French philosophy is opposed to the standards of Analytic Philosophy. The Phenomenology of Sartre and Merleau-Ponty have been taken up in relation to cognitive science, they are being taken seriously in Analytic Philosophy (overlooking the complication that some define Cognitive Science based philosophy as outside Analytic Philosophy because it does not put the analysis of concepts at the centre). Sartre and Merleau-Ponty did not think philosophy of consciousness should be based on breaking down a state of consciousness into separate parts; and they did not think contents of consciousness should be regarded as representations of ideas somewhere in the mind or of things in the external world. This puts into contact with at least two aspects of cognitive science: work on perceptual illusions which result from the context of a shape, colour patch or line in consciousness, the way we see one part of the visual field is determined by what we see in the rest of the field; work on anti-representationalism which concentrates on consciousness as embodied as a result of neural networks (changing networks of neurons in the brain which evolve according to feedback) in the brain.
Foucault has been discussed sympathetically by Charles Taylor and Ian Hacking, amongst others. Foucault seems to provoke the response either that he is a French charlatan or that he is an exception to French charlatanism because his work is very historical/social scientific in orientation. For Hacking, Foucault provides a model for discussing social reality and the structures of knowledge. Foucault’s work includes themes of how knowledge is institutionalised and how those institutions function; the ways in which truths exist in pragmatic contexts; the ways in which knowledge is structured and builds on basic concepts. These can be, and have been, taken up by Analytic Philosophers working on social epistemology, social ontology and history of science.
What about Lévinas, who does not do history or social science of any kind, and who writes in a rather particular and difficult style? He looks like someone outside the scope of Analytic Philosophy, or is he? Hilary Putnam clearly does not think so, the title itself of his book Ethics without Ontology is a tribute to Lévinas. Lévinas favours a first philosophy of ethics, of the supremacy of the other, over a first philosophy of ontology (being). Putnam has something similar to argue, though in more pragmatic terms, in which ethics arises in the externality of language and knowledge to the ego. We do not have an absolute internal grasp of objects, so our perspective is limited and externally caused. Has Putnam degenerated philosophically since he started writing about Lévinas? That is not a widely held opinion.
Maybe Derrida is the antithesis of philosophical good sense. Tom Baldwin, now editor of *Mind* clearly thinks Derrida is worth taking seriously and has found it worth writing, if not very much, on Derrida as have Graham Priest and A.A. Moore. The themes that come up in comparisons of Analytic Philosophy include: impossibility of private language, contextuality and indeterminacy of meaning, the paradoxes of trying to state what absolute infinity is. Derrrida’s philosophy is style dominated and this did sometimes become to much of an end in itself as time went on, but he started of with quite substantive discussions of Phenomenology, Structuralism, and post-Symbolist poetics. Despite Derrida’s reputation for being all style, he had quite substantive things to say about ethics, law and politics in his later work. His best work maybe includes a meta-narrative of the impossibility of a complete philosophical language, because every such language must include abstractions which can never be complete, which always become contradictory. Abstractions always contain the possibility of becoming contradictory because of the contextuality of language,i and that refers to the impossibility of an infinitely applicable concept, that is any universal concept. This is in line with the paradoxes of trying to asset a complete infinity which always encounters the problem that there could always be an infinity we can construct which is larger than any infinity we have constructed so far. It should also be noted that despite the widespread beleif that Derrida’s views on language are a development ıof those of Ferdinand de Saussure, he explicitly referred to Charles Peirce (founder of American Pragmatism) as the greater authority.
It would be difficult to write a truly comprehensive history of recent Analytic philosophy without mentioning some of the above examples. Not everything in French philosophy is equally great. A lot of commentators fail to take a critical distance from French philosophy, or their favourite part of şit, and treat explication of texts as a substitute for arguments. It is still a major area of philosophy. In the unification of French Philosophy from Sartre (or even Bergson) to Derrida with Analytic Philosophy, there is much that has already been gained and much more to come.