Theory is dead, and long live theory


Was theory a gigantic hoax? On the contrary. It was the only salvation, for a twenty year period, from two colossal abdications by American thinkers and writers. From about 1975 to 1995, through a historical accident, a lot of American thinking and mental living got done by people who were French, and by young Americans who followed the French. The two grand abdications: one occurred in academic philosophy departments, the other in American fiction. In philosophy, from the 1930s on, a revolutionary group had been fighting inside universities to overcome the “tradition.” This insurgency, at first called “logical positivism” or “logical empiricism,” then simply “analytic philosophy,” was the best thing going. The original idea was that logical analysis of language would show which philosophical problems might be solved, and which eradicated because they were not phraseable in clear, logical language. That meant wiping out most of what Hegel had left us, and Europe still understood, as philosophy—including history, being, death, recognition, love. Still brand new in the 1930s (Carnap, Russell, Ayer) when trying to develop its ideal logical language, it had only just become institutional in the analytic pragmatism of the 1950s and 1960s (Quine), in time to be cranked up again in the 1970 (Kripke), saved from termination by the reintroduction of naive assumptions rejected at the start.

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