“Mere philosophical claptrap”

by pieterseuren

Two blogs ago I used the expression “mere philosophical claptrap”. I feel I owe it to my philosophical friends to make clear what I meant by this expression. Claptrap is found all over academe, in all subjects, but in some more than in others. It is like a kind of intoxicating weed that should be cleared away, as much as possible, though with great care and caution. Weeding out academic claptrap can be a drawn out process requiring a maturation of minds and a gradual sharpening of insight shared by the relevant community. Academic communities, especially in the humanities, are often temporarily drugged by trendy claptrap that has no intellectual substance but is thought to be of great importance, until someone wakes up and shows that it’s all an illusion.

Philosophy has proved a fertile soil, over the past century, for claptrap. So let me focus on philosophy for a moment. The problem with philosophy, now more than in the old days, is that it forms a motley collection: the concept ‘philosophy’ is ill-defined, even in an academic context. Outside academe, one occasionally comes across individuals, usually male and somewhat eccentric, and often with a bad breath, who call themselves philosophers and will bore you, preferably at the most inopportune moments, with lengthy tales about their views on anything under, behind and above the sun. Let’s leave these out of account and think only of salary-drawing, professional philosophers. These still make for a wild kaleidoscope of heterogeneous occupations. One can be a philosopher of just about anything. Besides being a ‘general’ philosopher, one can be a philosopher of art, climate, communication, education, government, history, labour relations, landscape, language, law, leisure, life, logic, music, nature, nutrition, politics, psychology, psychotherapy, religion, sexual relations, social work, sport, traffic, water management, xenophobia, yodelling, zoo-keeping, you name it. The only exception seems to be philosophy itself: I have never so far encountered a philosopher of philosophy. Yet it would probably be legitimate to say that that is what I am trying to be now.

What justifies the predicate ‘philosophy’ for this apparently disparate gamut of activities? The best I can come up with is that they derive from a common desire to rise above the nitty-gritty of the daily grind and ask questions of a more general, overarching nature—no doubt a most useful and laudable enterprise. The problem is, however, that there seems to be no common, well-considered method followed in providing answers to these questions. The criteria applied vary wildly, ranging from mathematical precision to vague appeals to real or imaginary feelings, impressions or experiences, according to whether one is a philosopher of X, Y or Z. This is no doubt what has given philosophy a bad name among intellectuals and in the world at large.

I strive to be a serious intellectual. This means that when I deal with philosophy I have to separate serious from not so serious philosophy. It is not easy to specify exactly what ‘seriousness’, whether in philosophy or in academic work in general, implies, but I’ll give it a try. Seriousness in matters intellectual means, for me at any rate, that I try to construct rational analyses and arguments in order to find an answer to relevant questions, mostly of an empirical or causal but occasionally also of a conceptual nature. The more general these questions, the more they approach the orbit of (serious) philosophy. A rational empirical analysis or argument is, for me, one that tries to reduce individual hic-et-nunc token occurrences to general, preferably causal, laws and principles. A rational conceptual analysis I consider to be one that provides clear criteria for a concept, consistent with my conceptual world as a whole. In setting up my analyses or arguments I submit to certain disciplinary principles that make me take all relevant objectively observable facts into account and rely only on sound, faultless reasoning, whether of a deductive or an inductive nature. More easily said than done, of course. In fact, a life’s programme. Inevitably, when I see these principles systematically flouted, as in most of postwar German and French philosophy but also sometimes in Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy, I cannot take that work seriously. In those cases I feel free to speak of “mere claptrap”.

Though this intellectual discipline came to me naturally when I was young, I had to make myself conscious of it, which involved learning, training and maturation. As a young man, in 1970, I was visiting Sydney University for three months to start off the teaching of theoretical linguistics in that university, as a temporary member of the philosophy department, at the invitation of professor David Armstrong. It was there and then that I began studying the phenomenon of presupposition in language, prompted by the Sydney philosophers. Having done that for a few weeks, I was asked to give a seminar to the department on that topic. I accepted with pleasure and held forth for, I think, an hour and a half, saying all sorts of no doubt beautiful and wise things about presupposition in language. But among the audience was a tall, young philosopher by the name of Keith Campbell (he later succeeded David Armstrong as the Challis professor of philosophy). Leaning backward in his chair and folding his hands behind his head, he said, in melodious Australian English: “That’s all very well, Payter, but what’s yer aergument?” I was dumbstruck. Of course he was right: I had not presented a proper analysis or argument. From then on, I have always kept that question in mind when presenting my thoughts on whatever topic (only to find out over the years that, at least in the areas I move around in, arguments count less than funds, status and power).

This shows, among other things, that there are serious philosophers around, enough anyway to teach me a lesson. But there is also a whole lot of claptrap sold as serious philosophy but in reality just navel gazing. And it is found not only in the free-ranging philosophies of fancy areas, but also in those branches where one pretends to do philosophy in a serious way. In the following two blogs I will discuss two outstanding examples which have thrown up a whole lot of unncecessary dust in the American philosophical world and to some extent still do.