Constructive and Destructive Philosophy: Russell’s conception of philosophy and the “analytic”/”synthetic” locution

Eric Schliesser (University of Amsterdam), in an interesting review of books by Dennett and Godfrey Smith, suggests a contrast between synthetic philosophy and analytic philosophy (pages 1-2):

By ‘synthetic philosophy’ I mean a style of philosophy that brings together insights, knowledge, and arguments from the special sciences with the aim to offer a coherent account of complex systems and connect these to a wider culture or other philosophical projects (or both). […] So, one useful way to conceive of synthetic philosophy is to discern in it the construction of a scientific image that may influence the development of the special sciences, philosophy, public policy, or the manifest image.

It is notoriously difficult to define analytic philosophy. But I intend here to evoke the contrast with the kind of decomposition favored by Russell and those influenced by him. […] The key move is to represent a topic in terms of an argument with plausible premises and an unpalatable conclusion, which, in turn, can be re-conceived as a (say) trilemma. The point of the enterprise—the condition of possibility of progress—then is to find ways to give up one of the plausible seeming premises or to find ways to make the conclusion seem less unpalatable.

I will not define Russell’s conception of philosophy here, as that would take too much time and it went through substantial changes over his 97 years of life. (His death-day is 2nd February, by the by.) The narrow point of this post is that Russell’s conception of philosophy is not “analytic” in this sense. The upshot is a suggestion of a different way of talking about two sorts of philosophical activity.

It is true that Russell jokingly suggests in The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, “…the point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as to not seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.” But Russell clearly makes space for the synthetic activity described above, and holds it out as a crucial part of philosophical activity. As Russell says in Problems (and elsewhere):

Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge. The knowledge it aims at is the kind of knowledge which gives unity and system to the body of the sciences, and the kind which results from a critical examination of the grounds of our convictions, prejudices, and beliefs.

This sounds a lot like synthetic philosophy as Schliesser characterizes it. So, Russell is not an analytic philosopher as Schliesser characterizes it.

Nonetheless, Russell is at times an unapologetic believer in abstract objects like universals. So, he is clearly not a naturalist philosopher in the modern ontological sense. But thus he is not a synthetic philosopher as Schliesser characterizes it. This is because, on Schliesser’s view, synthetic philosophy “shares kinship with what was once known as ‘natural philosophy’ or (later) ‘philosophy of nature'” (page 4).

But Russell was of course aggressive leery (rightly, I think) of “speculative”, “systematic”, and “natural” philosophical approaches in the spirit of Bergson (as Russell understood Bergson). This makes me reluctant to unduly wed synthetic philosophy in Schliesser’s sense to systematic or naturalistic approaches precisely because this way of conceptualizing philosophical methodologies (carving up the space) leaves folks like Russell in neither class of philosophers.

Characteristic of problematic philosophical activity, in Russell’s view, is the attempt to establish necessary metaphysical truths about the entire universe. Russell is deeply suspicious of any and all attempts to arrive at a priori justifiable metaphysical principles, arguing, “It would seem that knowledge concerning the universe as a whole is not to be obtained by metaphysics…” Russell concludes:

Thus we are left to the piecemeal investigation of the world, and are unable to know the characters of those parts of the universe that are remote from our experience. This result, disappointing as it is to those whose hopes have been raised by the systems of philosophers, is in harmony with the inductive and scientific temper of our age, and is borne out by the whole examination of human knowledge which has occupied our previous chapters.

The relation between philosophy of nature in this allegedly problematic sense and synthetic philosophy in Schliesser’s sense is an interesting question. But I would like to suggest that a more apt word choice than “analytic”/”synthetic” for describing the different kinds of activities Schliesser has in mind: on the one hand, we have destructive philosophy, which aims chiefly at refutation of some claim or claims; on the other we have constructive philosophy, which aims chiefly at, as Schliesser nicely puts it (page 4), “the generation (and stabilization) of the scientific image out of disparate, esoteric special sciences…being a vehicle for the dynamic interaction and co-evolution of the manifest and scientific images.”

There is room for both sorts of activity making useful contributions (this post is an example): they can be mutually supporting philosophical activities. So, this way of talking about these two sorts of activities (rather than about “analytic”/”synthetic” philosophical schools) allows more clearly for the manifest truth that philosophers often engage in both activities throughout their career—as Russell certainly did.

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