Monday, August 28, 2006

Soames on Analytic Philosophy in America

Scott Soames has posted a piece on the history of analytic philosophy in the U.S. (here). There's been some discussion of it on the Leiter blog, as well.

At first I was going to write a critical post, but then I read some of the comments on the Leiter blog and decided not to play that game.

So here's one thing I like a lot about Soames' piece, and a couple of points where he gets things wrong.

First, I appreciate the space he devotes to pragmatism as laying the foundation for analytic philosophy in the U.S. The affinities between pragmatism and analytic philosophy all too often get short shrift.

But, second, my points of disagreement.

1) Soames says that "Peirce had little patience with...grand metaphysical systems." Well, not quite: Peirce wasn't above metaphysical system building of his own (his essay "Evolutionary Love", e.g., is an especially wacky example).

2) Soames passes over James' theory of truth way too fast. Soames leaves us with the impression that James believes that truth = what is beneficial to believe. But that's an over-simplification, as even James realized.

3) Soames also misrepresents Dewey's theory of truth, writing that for Dewey truth = warranted assertibility. There's a lot more to say on this point, but again this over-simplifies matters. Dewey claimed that warranted assertibility served the same function in inquiry that had, traditionally, been assigned to truth. He didn't equate the two.

4) Soames shies away from discussing the political pressures that led to analytic philosophy's dominance in the U.S. This has led to some sharp words on the Leiter blog - but it certainly deserves explanation how philosophy became depoliticized in the U.S.

5) Finally, it's worth emphasizing how pragmatism remains a resource for analytic philosophy. E.g. Quine, Putnam, and Rorty all identify themselves as pragmatists - and you'd have to place those three high on your list of influential American philosophers. Strangely, though, Rorty isn't even mentioned in Soames' piece.


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