In the old days, American philosophy subsisted on European imports -- first Locke's New Way of Ideas, then Kantian rationalism, then Absolute Idealism, then Logical Positivism, then Analytic Philosophy, then Ordinary Language Philosophy, then Existentialism, then Phenomenology. The only native American philosophical school was Pragmatism. Because of the structure and timing of tenure, American Philosophy Departments resembled the alluvial deposits of river beds. Young men [it was almost always men] would take up the latest European import, and just about when they got tenure and were sedimented for life, a new wave of Philosophy would wash up and a new batch of junior men would get tenure doing it. If you cut a trough through a Philosophy Department, you could read off the successive European imports like a paleontologist.
Back when I was a lad, some Oxford philosophers with too much time on their hands spent a good deal of energy drawing subtle distinctions among a variety of English words that, to a casual observer, might seem to mean more or less the same thing. This so-called "Ordinary Language Philosophy" was all the rage on the East Coast for a brief time. J. L. Austin, among others, made much of the fact, for example, that there was a subtle difference of meaning between calling something an "accident" and calling it a "mistake."
Josh Marshall runs a blog called Talking Points Memo that I click on several times each day. This morning, after I put the sheets in the washing machine as part of the wrap-up before departing for Europe, I checked TPM.com and came across the following story:
"A San Tan Valley, Ariz. woman, Melisah Havens, on Friday accidentally shot her husband outside their residence because she thought he was an intruder trying to burglarize her vehicle, police told KTVK Phoenix."
I should explain that Marshall, in the fine old tradition immortalized by Lincoln Stephens in his Autobiography, has taken to listing every police report of gun lovers shooting themselves, each other, or their children because they have not learned the first thing about gun safety [in this respect following the lesson of their spiritual leader, former Vice President Dick Cheney.]
Look at that story again. As soon as I read it, I heard the plumy voice of an Oxford Don saying, ever so superciliously, "My dear fellow. You don't mean that she shot her husband accidentally. Nor do you mean that she shot him unintentionally. You mean that she shot him by mistake."
I guess Oxford Ordinary Language Philosophy was good for something after all.