I would like to know from someone who has closely followed contemporary analytic philosophy if this idea has any currency. So by "is it thought" I mean is it a general trend or mood. The reason for asking is that I read this essay by PMS Hacker, which seems to hold that analytic philosophy "ended" with a purely negative, ordinary language analysis, and that current trends in analytic philosophy are extravagant or pernicious theories caused by philosophers running out of things to talk about (he calls these philosophers topic-starved).

I also saw a book by Peter Unger that seems to make a similar argument, the blurb states "Peter Unger maintains that mainstream philosophy still offers hardly anything beyond concretely empty ideas", and it is similarly disparaging to post 1960s analytic philosophy.

So what I would like to know is if these two criticisms, that point to a decline in philosophy, are symptomatic of a wider trend or simply coincidental?

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    Have you read the interview at Three Quarks Daily? 3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/06/…. He comes off sounding very arrogant. But if anyone should understand the short commings of contemporary (analytic) philosophy, it ought to be one of it's practitioners. Commented Feb 3, 2016 at 23:06
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    @user259242 Take these grandiose pronouncements with a grain of salt :) In a similar vein Sokal and Brichmont accuse Deleuze of filling his works with sciency sounding nonsense to impress clueless intellectuals.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 1:02
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    @Conifold The difference being: Sokal was a physicist (actually not known for any scientific work, but for his eponymous 'hoax') who, judging from his writing, understood very little philosophy. Deleuze was a professor of philosophy, had written many books of philosophy, and was respected as a scholar and researcher of philosophy. So, their respective opinions of philosophy are not necessarily equal. Of course, I agree that all thoughts should be taken 'with a grain of salt'.
    – M. le Fou
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 2:41
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    @Conifold and to my mind does not constitute a serious philosophical criticism. Deleuze seemed to pay close attention to many fields of contemporary science during his life and this can be seen from the frequency with which such topcis appear in his work. The charge of being deliberately obscurantist in order to fool 'clueless intellectuals' could equally well be made of absolutely anybody. Why, I could say this of Sokal. What it doesn't do, is engage with the work it is criticising (an important part of any serious scholarship) in any meaningful way.
    – M. le Fou
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 2:59
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    @user259242 Sokal was not claiming to be a philosopher. He was arguing that some philosophers appear to misuse and misrepresent scientific concepts and terminology in an apparent effort to bamboozle the reader into thinking they are saying something profound. At my undergraduate level I am not familiar with Deleuze's work, but I am puzzled as to why anyone would continue to discredit logical positivism when it has been roundly dismissed by Godel and Russell almost a century ago. However, it's a valid question that you ask.
    – nwr
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 3:15

6 Answers 6


Good overviews of the more recent history of analytic philosophy are Burge's Philosophy of Language and Mind: 1950-1990 and Philosophy of Mind: 1950-2000 (ch.20), the philosophy of science side in a very lively and polemical form is described in Zammito's Nice Derangement of Epistemes, "the best history of post-positivist philosophy and sociology of science we are likely ever to get", according to Giere's review.

That the linguistic turn has exhausted itself is generally shared. Burge writes:

"The philosophy of language became a vibrant, semi-autonomous discipline in the 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, it was considered by many to be the new "first philosophy... But by the late 1970s or early 1980s philosophy of language no longer seemed the obvious propaedeutic for dealing with central philosophical problems. As I have intimated, one ground for this shift was that many philosophers felt that philosophy of language had done its job that the natural development of philosophical reasoning led into the philosophy of mind, or other adjacent areas".

Zammito is even more critical of the impact of the linguistic turn on the philosophy of science, but he considers Quine's naturalized epistemology, cleared from his residual physicalism and behaviorism, a major positive advance.

"The story begins with the crisis of logical positivism/empiricism in the 1950s sparked by Quine's rebellion. The linguistic turn prompted two further impulses: the "historicization of reason" and the "social construction of knowledge... The "marriage" of the history and the philosophy of science has been rocky, and some would say it has ended in divorce... The displacement of philosophy of science into philosophy of language (in which Quine and Kuhn both represent major stages) proves, upon a consideration of this narrative, to have been less than illuminating for science, suggesting that the linguistic turn here has quickly run into a dead end".

Philosophies of mind and science remain vibrant. Sure, we do not live in the time of Kant and Hegel, but Unger's charge of "emptiness" targets Lewis, Putnam and Kripke. What about late Wittgenstein, Quine, Kuhn, Davidson, Dummett and Brandom, what about the Stanford Disunity Mafia (Nancy Cartwright, Hacking, Dupre, Suppes), the structuralist school in philosophy of science (Sellars, Sneed), or free will libertarians like Kane. In the wake of the linguistic turn there even emerged a new movement of duly humbled logical neo-neo-positivists, see their manifesto volume Logic, Epistemology, and the Unity of Science.

Quine's indeterminacy of translation fed into Kuhn's incommensurability of paradigms, that introduced history and social context into philosophy of science; Davidson gave one of the most penetrating analyses of mental vs. physical in recent times; Brandom launched an ambitious project of detailed grounding of semantics in communal practices. Dummett calls his project in Logical Basis of Metaphysics (1991) "anti-Wittgensteinian", and outlines the contours of post-linguistic analytic philosophy that directly addresses Unger's concerns:

"The layman or non-professional expects philosophers to answer deep questions of great import for an understanding of the world... if philosophy does not aim at answering such questions, it is worth nothing. Yet he finds most writing by philosophers of the analytical school disconcertingly remote from these concerns.

...analytical philosophy passed, comparatively recently, through a destructive phase; a few, indeed, have not yet emerged from it. During that phase, it appeared as though demolition was the principal legitimate task of philosophy. Now most of us believe once more that philosophy has a constructive task... In recent years, a number of analytical philosophers, prominent among them the late Gareth Evans, have rejected the assumption of the priority of language over thought and have attempted to explain thought independently of its expression and then to found an account of language upon such a prior philosophical theory of thought".

  • I haven't read Kuhn, Davidson, or Dummett, so I don't know if any of Unger's criticisms apply to them. From what I know of Quine it seems like he recognized the "emptiness" of linguistic analysis but thought the solution was to merge philosophy with science, for example the idea of naturalized epistemology, which critics then claimed was just psychology, so really would not be much different from an anti-philosophical position.
    – user20502
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 2:50
  • @user20502 I added some on KDD. There is more to Quine than naturalized epistemology, and naturalized epistemology itself is a direct continuation of British empiricism (Locke, Berkeley, Mill, especially Hume), not to mention Kant and neo-Kantian influences. We'd have to dismiss half of modern Western tradition as empty. It is also a double edged sword, while removing the pretense that philosophy stands a priori in judgement of sciences, it also takes away the pretense that current science owns the once and future method of discovering the truth.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 1:35
  • This is a good answer. I would add that there's a broad and a narrow understanding of "analytic." Frege, Russell, Kripke et al define a narrow interpretation. Much of the rest of what you mention defines a broad interpretation under which it just means that philosophy concerns itself with carefully analyzing things in a way that's engaged with sciences, math and other areas of learning. Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 22:43
  • The question asks whether the criticisms of Unger and Hacker that modern Philosophical theories are extravagant, pernicious or concretely empty. Despite the flag-waving patriotism for philosophy which is evidently popular, you haven't actually answered the question. What is is about Quine that allows his work to be defined as a "major advance"? What about Davidson's analysis is "penetrating"? What about Brandom's project is "ambitious"? You haven't advanced any evidence to prove these points, only that other philosophers "reckon" they are, yet this is the very problem; no concrete substance.
    – user22791
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 7:16

Judged solely by the standard of impact outside the academies, the last triumph of analytic philosophy was the elevation of formal logic to a legitimate science. On the other hand, the last continental philosophy to have real mainstream influence was French Existentialism, so if anything is in decline, it's philosophy as a whole.

With all that said, a fallow period of a hundred years or so is hardly unique in the history of philosophy. It takes at least that long for the last great conceptual leap to be fully digested.

  • Great answer. There have always been 'dark ages', or 'desert periods'. Even from the beginning with the ancient Greeks, philosophy had rivals. I especially like the last remark. The philosopher is never heard during his time - he is as Nietzsche used to say, untimely, always untimely
    – M. le Fou
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 0:50
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    Hmmm. What about Popper's falsificationism (English 1961) or Kuhn's paradigms, or Austin's How to do things with words, or Rawls's Theory of Justice, or Singer's drowning child argument. There's a lot that's had a big impact outside philosophy. Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 22:41
  • @ChristopherE Your comment seems worth expanding into its own answer. Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 13:25

Most contemporary philosophers of mind, if not all, are part of the analytic school: Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers, John Searle, Jerry Fodor, David Rosenthal, etc...None of these guys could be considered irrelevant by any measure.

In fact most critics of philosophy - of the general "philosophy is now useless" trend - like Lawrence Krauss, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, etc.. tend to single out questions of consciousness and the mind-body problem as the only remaining bastion of relevance in an otherwise obsolete field of inquiry.

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    The 'TV scientists' that you mention are charlatans and philistines, appearing on televised debates and talk shows to dazzle their mostly uneducated audience with jargon-laden proselytizing
    – M. le Fou
    Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 0:45
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    @M.leFou TV Scientist might apply to Dennett or Chalmers, but I doubt that Fodor or Rosenthal have any media presence to speak of. Dazzling the uneducated audience seems more of a continental thing anyway. Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 4:32
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    I'm assuming you're referring to continental Europe. In which case, your statement is a non-sequitur. I almost don't want to ask you exactly what you think being from a particular country or part of the world has to with this.
    – M. le Fou
    Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 5:32
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    @M.leFou I was referring to the Continental style of doing philosophy as opposed to Analytic style of philosophy, both of which are European in origin. Commented Feb 7, 2016 at 18:19
  • I think this rather supports the argument of Unger particularly, rather than undermines it. The significance of the philosophers you mention is that they are either experts themselves, or well-versed in, the actual science of cognition (whether that be human cognitive sciences or AI). To my mind this shows the decline of philosophy after the linguistic turn perfectly. Only by comprehensive reference to empirical fields are philosophers able to say anything of concrete substance. I think the linguistic turn can take some responsibility for that.
    – user22791
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 7:23

I think the reason why this debate remains unsolved (and will be impossible to solve) is in the essay itself mentioned in the question. Hacker writes "...what counts as achievement in philosophy is itself a moot philosophical issue of no small moment".

The answers above all point to the fact that people have been doing lots of philosophy since the linguistic turn, but that's not really Hacker's point and certainly not Unger's, it's that the philosophy that's been done is uninteresting and of no consequence as it either trivial or impossible to realistically make progress with. He has made a fairly reasonable (though not definitive) definition of what "achievement in philosophy" should constitute and then made an argument from there that late analytic philosophy has failed in this task. By this argument, the mere fact of philosopher's doing philosophy is not a counter-argument. A successful counter-argument would consist either of a logical rejection of Unger's definition of achievement, or evidence of some concretely relevant thing that has been achieved, neither of which has been forwarded.

If we define the goal of a football game to score points and the team playing for the last decade has failed to score any points, the fact that they are still playing does not counter the argument that they have achieved nothing.

Conifold's answer I think, with no disrespect intended, highlights exactly what Unger is talking about. It is only able to counter the argument with statements by other philosophers regarding what they think (either of Unger or Wittgenstein, whom he follows), but Unger is not saying that no argument could be constructed against his, he's saying the exact opposite, that an argument could easily be constructed against his, more importantly that any argument could easily be constructed against any other. This, he argues, is what makes this kind of philosophy empty.

In order to progress, philosophy has to first decide what its measurable goals are, otherwise it cannot decide if it has been successful, it must then ruthlessly sieve out any notions which can be resolved, or even progressed, by proper controlled scientific experiment, and avoid questions which show not hope of ever progressing to an experimentally verifiable conclusion. What remains has a right to be labelled a rational academic pursuit, the remainder, whilst tremendous fun, must, I think, be relegated to something more like a sport.

  • I'd strongly agree about goals. Other than paying the mortgage it's not clear to me that many pro philosophers have one. I feel that in order to progress it would only be necessary to abandon the philosophy that Unger finds so hopeless. The goal of philosophy, or the first necessary task, is surely to solve and understand metaphysics and to answer its questions rather than make excuses and hide behind sophistry. This would answer Unger's criticisms adequately. But the profession seems to have given up and settled for endless, well, like Unger I have to call it waffle. .
    – user20253
    Commented Aug 14, 2017 at 14:28

You question conflates all of philosophy under one heading. I'd agree with Unger as to the usefulness of contemporary university philosophy, footnotes to Plato and all that, but philosophy is alive and well elsewhere.

If you look around you'll see that 'philosophobia' is in the rise, championed by the likes of Tyson and Dawkins. So yes, there is a growing recognition that university philosophy is hopeless. But this is a local problem and not a new one, a problem for the professors trapped in the Academy and not a problem for philosophy as a discipline. Hopefully it may lead to change and progress. It's about time.


Is it thought that analytic philosophy is in decline after the linguistic turn?

In short, it'll depend on who you ask, but no.

Reading Hacker's article feels not unlike listening to Patrick Bateman describe the greatest hits of the eighties - as if Russell were Phil Collins, Wittgenstein Huey Lewis and the Vienna Circle "...the News".

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If you haven't listened to it already, you might like this audio recording of the APA 'authors and critics' session from December 2006 between Peter Hacker, Max Bennet, Dan Dennett & John Searle.

Also, I think Searle speaks directly to your concerns with this article:


Particularly in his conclusion, I think he makes a very salient point to the contrary:

"The history of philosophy, as it is described in the standard textbooks, is largely a history of the works of a number of towering geniuses. From Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, to Wittgenstein and Russell, the chief results of philosophy are in the works of its great figures. In that sense there simply are no towering geniuses alive today. This I believe, is not because we have less talent than our predecessors. On the contrary, I believe that, paradoxically, the reason why there are no recognized geniuses today is simply that there are more good philosophers alive now than there were in the past."

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