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  • Quantifier vs. Poetry:Stylistic Impoverishment and Socio-Cultural Estrangement of Anglo-American Philosophy in the Last Hundred Years
  • István Aranyosi

The main title of this paper is an allusion to Jeremy Bentham's famous one-page piece "Push-Pin versus Poetry," where the father of utilitarianism argued that there is no reason to think that the very straightforward game of push-pin, popular in England and Scotland in the nineteenth century, has less value than a fancy activity like poetry reading. In a reversal of the terms of the analogy, my point will be that there was a time, not so long ago, when professional philosophers did have equal consideration for both logic and poetry, by which I mean for both good arguments and elegant prose.

In the not very numerous magazine articles, editorials, and opinion pieces in the popular press where current mainstream, one might say "analytic," Anglo-American philosophy is ever mentioned and discussed, there is a frequent complaint that this discipline has estranged itself from either the other humanities, or social sciences, or hard sciences, and that, as a result, the image of philosophy in the contemporary world is one of a discipline that is disconnected from reality, a veritable inbreeding academic cottage industry of empty scholasticism. In a recent opinion piece written for Inside Higher Ed, a popular online platform dedicated to academic affairs, Rutgers philosopher Jason Stanley complained that

[m]ost American humanists are unclear about how the debates of philosophers are supposed to fit into the overall project of the humanities. We are ignored at dinner parties, and considered arrogant and perhaps uncouth. To add insult to injury, the name of our profession is liberally bestowed on those teaching in completely different departments.

(Stanley)

To be clear, Stanley's general complaint in his piece is not the same as the one I have mentioned above, but a second-order complaint: the complaint [End Page 94] against the outsiders' complaint that philosophy has isolated itself from both the public and the other humanities, and the ensuing alleged behavior on their part. However, here and there, he seems to agree that philosophy's estrangement is a fact. He says: "That philosophy has become estranged from the humanities is ironic. Philosophy has shaped the modernity in which its role has been supplanted by the anthropology of the other" (Stanley).

Is there some way of getting closer to a more informed way of assessing this type of complaint? Those of us involved in current research in mainstream philosophy have, of course, a large stock of personal experience that serves as a basis of judgment regarding these issues; we normally read a lot, referee papers for professional journals and books for academic publishers, attend conferences and workshops, and write and sometimes publish as well. It is clear that each of us has a hunch about the issue, but is there some way to judge the matter that is less personal and whose basis is more accessible to the public?

I would like to present a few simple statistical data that I have collected, that might be an indication that philosophy, as reflected in papers published in the most distinguished philosophy journals, has indeed evolved toward the model that people usually outside philosophy complain about. My main idea in collecting these data was that we could gain some knowledge in an efficient and quantitatively tractable way about contemporary philosophy if we focus on how it is done rather than on what it consists of in terms of topics, theories, ideas, etc. For this reason, I collected several arrays of data on certain word frequencies, most of which arrays indicate the writing style in mainstream philosophy, and one of which indicates, to some extent, communication with some social sciences.

Let me introduce at this point several disclaimers in order to avoid potential misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what exactly my collected data show and what they fail to show, or are not intended to show. First, as it will be apparent, my data are limited to a small group of so-called "elite" philosophy journals. This means that I do not intend to extrapolate these data, and whatever they show, to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6489
Print ISSN
1930-7365
Pages
pp. 94-103
Launched on MUSE
2012-03-02
Open Access
No
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