Thoughts About the Analytic/Continental Distinction


The so-called Continental-analytic division within philosophy is not a philosophical distinction; it’s a sociological one. It is the product of historical accident. It is unreasonable to cleave to it, and the insistence on remaining closed to work that is either presumptively “analytic” or presumptively “Continental” is irrational and unphilosophical. Further, rejecting or refusing to consider positions one has not studied and consequently does not understand is not a philosophical stance. It is, if anything, the very antithesis of the philosophical attitude. In light of this conclusion, I prefer to the extent possible not to use the terms “Continental philosophy” and “analytic philosophy.” They perpetuate the divisions of the past, divisions that it behooves us to overcome.

The above is from a short essay by Bill Blattner (Georgetown), “Some Thoughts About ‘Continental’ and ‘Analytic’ Philosophy,” which I thought would be of interest to readers in light of the recent discussion here.

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Christine Payne
Christine Payne
7 years ago
terenceblake
7 years ago

I am very sympathetic to Blattner’s stated position (the sociological thesis) as personally I was first trained as an analytic philosopher, but by following through on my theme of ontological and epistemological pluralism as exemplified in the work of Paul Feyerabend I discovered very interesting developments being carried out by French thinkers (Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, Serres, Derrida). I taught myself French to read them, as there were few translations available then (in the late 1970s). I then moved from Sydney to Paris, without feeling that I was changing anything very much philosophically except moving from an environment hostile to pluralism (on both the analytic side dominated by British empiricism, Popperians, and Kripkean realists, and the Continental side dominated by Althusserians and Lacanians) to one favorable to pluralism. So I can say that there is an experiential level where I did not even notice the so-called Continental/Analytic Divide. Lyotard, who i interviewed, read my work on Feyerabend and the philosophy of science and was very favorable, and declared his enthusiasm. Michel Serres, who I also interviewed, affirmed the convergence between his work and Feyerabend’s. Foucault at the Collège de France alluded to Feyerabend’s work in order to distinguish his approach from Feyerabend’s, comparing his archeology to a possible “anarcheology” (1980). Deleuze was in his post-Thousand-Plateaus phase, talking about multiplicities and pluralism and minority struggles. The sociology was different, but the themes were the same in many respects. So I can empirically confirm Blattner’s idea.

However, I find that this approach misses something, and is too “rational” in a sort of analytic way. The style of these thinkers discourse, both oral and written, was very different from all that I was used to (the stylistic or imagistic thesis). It was during these first seven years in Paris that I made many of the observations that I later condensed in my attempted defence of Zizek from Chomsky’s critique with my list of 20 traits of Continental philosophy: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2014/09/04/16-traits-of-continental-philosophy/. This is where I came to understand the central importance of image for Continental philosophers, as not just serving to convey an independent content more intuitively, but as being an integral part of the content. Factually the Divide may be only sociological, but imagistically it exists and is important. We are in a totally different noetic ecology in Continental philosophy, and it is useful to have several rules of thumb to guide us, hence my list.Report

anon
anon
7 years ago

I agree with Blattner that it is not fundamentally a philosophical distinction (where it is, it is philosophical differences among specific thinkers, not between two broad philosophical categories).

However, I’m not sure that usage of the terms perpetuates the distinction, since one of the ways of showing that it’s a distinction without a difference is start compare philosophy usually categorized one way or the other and show their common virtues (and common vices). I worry that those who are above the purely strategic discussion of the terms (as a way of talking about the divide while not buying into it), are really just pretending that the problem doesn’t exist and will go away if we ignore it. In short, how do I prove to someone who thinks continental philosophy is generally bad that it is not, unless I *provisionally* accept his categories to show them they’re not reliable?

I haven’t read the Babich piece, but I notice that the abstract suggests that philosophy is continental primarily because it is “dialogical or hermeneutical.” This is another case where I worry that some continentalists, despite their professed commitment to alterity, are too quick to reduce differences to the same. I don’t think it’s obvious that so-called continental philosophers share philosophically significant methodological commitments, and even where they do, it’s not obvious to me that they can be categorized as dialogical or hermeneutical. Why not allow them to be their own thing? Why force Nietzsche to have something in common with, say, Husserl, or Hegel with Derrida? Why not let them differ to the point of deep opposition, even?Report

Phenomenology Guy
Phenomenology Guy
7 years ago

I find a lot of the generalizations analytic philosophers make about continental philosophy refer to “po mo” stuff, not the phenomenology of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. Important thinkers such as Scheler and Levinas are also not taken to be paradigms. It might be said “But these are not contemporary thinkers.” But they are important thinkers, thinkers we can learn from, and its a pity that so much (not all) analytic philosophy (even philosophy of mind!) ignores them.Report

Carl B. Sachs
7 years ago

I heartily agree with Blattner’s diagnosis as to why the distinction between “Continental philosophy” and “analytic philosophy” cuts at neither substantive nor methodological distinctions. I’d be delighted to stop using it altogether, except that everyone else continues to use it.

However, it is also the case that the ideology of “Continental philosophy” and “analytic philosophy” continues more or less unabated, despite criticisms of this distinction by Blattner and many others (e.g. Richard Rorty, Joe Rouse, Todd May). It is, I think, an underlying emotional or affective investment in the respective styles of philosophizing that in turn generates different attitudes as to who is worth reading or at least worth taking seriously as “one of us” (part of one’s discursive community). This is why the distinction continues to affect pedagogy, mentoring, hiring, tenure, and promotion. We will not have overcome the distinction as long as the words “analytic” and “Continental” are used in job ads. (I’ve been perceived as both “too analytic” for Continental departments and as “too Continental” for analytic departments.)

Unfortunately, since philosophers are both rather clever and have an implicit bias in favor of our own putative ‘rationality,’ we tend to be extremely good at inventing ad hoc rationalizations for our affective investments and attitudes. I would at least prefer if we were to say, in a spirit of intellectual honesty, “I’m not trained in that style of philosophy and becoming trained wouldn’t help me in working on the problems I’m interested in, but that’s a mere prejudice” rather than supposing that one or the other is deficient in some intellectual virtue.Report

Another phenomenology guy
Another phenomenology guy
7 years ago

The fact that obscurity and lack of logical rigor have come to be considered hallmarks of continental philosophy isn’t exclusively due to the generalizations of those outside the continental tradition. Blattner rightly identifies Drummond and Carr as two examples of contemporary phenomenologists who write clearly and offer rigorous, careful arguments for their conclusions. However, I’ve heard many in the SPEP crowd dismiss them (and Blattner, too) for just this reason as not ‘really’ doing continental philosophy.

In other words, there are a number of people within the continental tradition (perhaps a majority currently?) who seem to have actively embraced the stereotypical characterization of continental philosophy as suspicious of, or even hostile toward, clarity and argument. And so long as that’s the case, I doubt that Blattner’s (welcome) call to quit using the ‘continental’/ ‘analytic’ categories is likely to be heeded.Report

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

Carl, I sometimes get the impression that the refusal to use these terms is itself part of a process of distinguishing “who is worth reading or at least worth taking seriously as “one of us” (part of one’s discursive community).” As if to say: “Oh, you’re one of *those* continentals, the ones who think there’s such a thing.”

I don’t mean to suggest that you’re using it that way here, but I do find that sometimes those who say to stop using the terms do so in conversation-stopping ways that seem to indicate that those who are genuinely curious about the differences and their importance (or non-importance) are wasting their time. But as I’ve said before, the only way to convince an “anti-continental” that their generalizations are mistaken is by granting the distinction long enough to show them the differences are inconsistent and trivial, not by refusing to talk about it.

Moreover, to take Blattner’s own strategy: I think it’s a properly philosophical attitude to allow for the possibility of strong, reasonable arguments for a philosophical distinction between continental and analytic philosophy, even though I don’t myself believe there is one. Why should I exclude from possibility from the start of the conversation views like the linked one by Babich, rather than philosophically debate it? So, one reason to use the terms is in acknowledgement that there is still a philosophical debate about the terms.

In my own view, not using them won’t magically make them go away. The only thing that will make them go away is taking every opportunity, when either side claims they are relevant, of engaging them and making the case that the differences are inconsistent or trivial. That, and hopefully, one day, most of us overcoming the stylistic divide that creates the illusion of a deeper difference. (Incidentally, I think this requires effort on all sides. The analytically trained often mistakenly see their “style” as neutral, failing to note stylistic conventions that are every bit as unnecessary and unhelpful as the more obvious excesses of continental philosophy.)Report

first phenomenology guy
first phenomenology guy
7 years ago

it is really sad. We have a Continental European Tradition dating back to Kant that is often dismissed (not Kant himself typically, though in mid 1900s it may have been different) I love this stuff, but I understand why people with different philosophical presuppositions would not be so interested or impressed. But its one thing not to be interested, another to assume the main figures of this uninteresting sort of philosophy are charlatans. I recall reading that it was A.J Ayer who encouraged Findlay to work on Hegel, and we have examples of people. If an avowed logical positivist can do it… And, yes, I think some Modern “Continentals” both actual ones and those that attach themselves to that category in the States have not helped .Report

Noelle McAfee
7 years ago

Sociologically, I suppose, I am very much a continental philosopher. But when I teach, research, and write on my main areas of democratic theory and feminist political theory, I draw widely across the traditions. You can’t seriously do work in 20th century political philosophy that cares about the public without drawing on Dewey, Arendt, Rawls, Habermas, Derrida, and Young (to name a few). And work in feminist political philosophy has to include (okay, I”m being dogmatic so just ignore that) Okin, Young, Fraser, Honig, Benhabib, Jaggar, Alcoff, and Butler. There are different flavors of philosophy, which I think the analytic / continental division tracks well. But when it comes to the work itself we need to think about who is doing research that can help us address the philosophical problems that we are trying to address.Report

Scu
Scu
7 years ago

Following up on what Noelle said:

Sociologically I am a continental philosopher. But the continental/analytic split is not that big of a deal to me. Except for the fact that there are less jobs for me to apply to, and that occasionally people are jerks on the internet, it doesn’t usually matter to me. I work in animal and environmental ethics primarily, and I’ve never had trouble talking to ethicists who are trained in Anglo-American departments. Indeed, some of the people who have promoted my work the most are people who are clearly bemused by how seriously I take, say, Judith Butler. I am not saying there are not tensions, just look at The Death of the Animal (written/edited by Paola Cavalieri) and Gary Steiner’s Animals and the Limits of Postmodernism. What I am saying is we read each other. Or at least read each other enough to occasionally dismiss each other. And there are plenty of us who are mutual admirers of each others works, regardless of how we are trained, and who we footnote. But this isn’t surprising. As the people who wrote the xcphilosophy manifesto put it: “We worry about the ways current discussions of the “overcoming” of analytic/continental divides actually continues to privilege certain kinds of already-privileged work (and thus certain kinds of already-privileged people). It’s pretty clear that philosophers of gender, race, and sexuality have LONG been crossing, straddling, transcending, and rejecting the traditional analytic/continental rifts–just read the Hypatia archives.” http://xcphilosophy.org/2012/10/07/manifesto/
The whole manifesto is great, and I suggest you all go read it if you haven’t. But, when we are talking about the continental and analytic divide, we don’t principally mean that, because that divide is porous, and has been for awhile. What we mean is the divide between people working in core analytic areas, and often only certain continental thinkers (a lot of germans are seen as legit, including some of the phenomenologists as pointed out above. Sometimes even Foucault is seen as legit. Usually we mean Derrida, Butler, and mostly deconstructionists broadly understood). Now, there is this weird thing where we can talk about continental feminists and analytic feminists, or the same thing in American philosophy or environmental philosophy. So, the sociological divide is a reality. But that reality is not the same for all fields in philosophy. And for some of us, the divide between decolonial philosophy, non-western philosophy, and continental is a lot more interesting.

Now, other random things on ‘the’ divide.

(1) Claims that Derrida is either a fraud or just spouting incoherent things is equivalent to climate deniers assuming climate scientists are all making it up. I’ve read a lot of Derrida and Butler, and not a single part of my liking them has ever come from, “Wow, I can’t understand this, therefore it is profound.” What do you think we do at our conferences if you think that is what is going on?

(2) There is a lot of bad writing that has occurred in continental philosophy, and I think many people are a little embarrassed by the excesses of the 90s (you can tell this, because basically no one writes like that any more, even Butler). But after years of hearing these sorts of charges, and being reassured about the crystal clear writing of analytic philosophers, I was a little confused when I went to read some Quine for the first time last year. I have, I should add, literally zero background in core analytic philosophy. And lo and behold, his writing is filled with jargon and technical terms, and required difficulty and work to understand. I am, I might add, not insulting Quine and am fine with that. But I think many of attacks on continental style come from people who seem to be unable to recognize the way their own tradition is also filled with technical and specialized writing. This is not say I will defend everyone’s writing in the continental tradition (I just rejected a paper for being borderline incomprehensible), and I have no opinion on which side is ‘worse.’

(3) I do believe a lot of this is generational. I’m 32, and most of the philosophers I meet around my age are just not emotionally invested in this. I’m not saying we are all reading each other (though, a lot of that does happen), I am saying that we no longer seem to feel that other people are just not doing philosophy.Report

Brian
Brian
7 years ago

I largely agree with Blattner’s diagnosis. But I do have to say that this comment by SCU,

“Claims that Derrida is either a fraud or just spouting incoherent things is equivalent to climate deniers assuming climate scientists are all making it up”

is a classic!Report

William Blattner (@prof_blattner)
7 years ago

Thanks for the thoughtful commentary on my screed. The worry that my call to stop using the terms “Continental” and “analytic” might inadvertently reinforce the very distinction I’d like to overcome has given me pause, and I might revise the essay in its light. I’ll have to think it over.Report

Anon
Anon
7 years ago

Reading this discussion has made me reconsider my earlier post on how to get beyond the division. While I still don’t think avoiding the terms will help, maybe it doesn’t hurt. I have to admit that in practice, these discussions don’t seem to help much. In practice, it seems that partisans of each of the key views (1. no important difference, 2. analytic superiority, or 3. continental superiority) tend to only address each other, so no real debate among the views occurs.

So, what will help get beyond the divide? Scu’s point about generational differences suggests that part of it is ensuring that philosophers encounter important works on either side, in a variety of periods and styles, early in their education, before they’ve developed a fixed, narrow stereotype that prevents them from engaging anything that defies the stereotype.

So, I think undergraduate education is key. We need to create programs, courses, and syllabi that do not group and isolate students in ways that create these self-perpetuating stereotypes, that do not limit students’ exposure to works easily categorized as either analytic or continental, either early continental or post-structuralist, etc.

One difficulty in doing this is that a substantial chunk of important continental philosophy is history of philosophy. It is often difficult to integrate analytic and more recent philosophy of either kind into such courses, because the need for plenty of historical information and context and the difficulty of some of the historical texts leaves little time or space for adding contemporary readings or issues.

Likewise, a non-historical problems course is often much easier to teach with contemporary articles, which favors analytic philosophy, rather than the weighty and dense texts so often found in continental philosophy. How does one add a dash of say, Kant or Nietzsche in a contemporary ethics course and still do justice to the complexities of their thought? Maybe it can be done, but not easily.Report