The Flaws In Analytic And Continental Philosophy
Question: lots of people think that continental and analytic philosophy are in opposition to each other, but you seem to reject that view. What does each school get wrong, you think?
First, let me say that I think philosophy is philosophy and that the divide between analytic and continental philosophy is artificial. As long as the work is operating in service of answering philosophical questions, it is philosophy. I think both traditions are doing that and both are useful. I have always thought this, but my views on this topic were reinforced while doing graduate work at the University of Memphis. Memphis is decidedly and self-consciously “pluralistic,” which just means they see the value of both approaches. They also see the approaches as linked through the history of philosophy, and try to use history as a common language to solve philosophical problems by putting the two traditions in dialogue.
That said, if I had to identify the flaws in each “tradition,” I would say something like this: Analytic philosophy gets wrong that philosophical questions can be answered by cutting up the world (or ideas) into pieces, and examining each piece in a vacuum. Continental philosophy gets wrong that all you need is metaphor to describe and understand the world. For me, to “understand” anything, it is necessary to critically examine the context in which the phenomenon is being examined (I am a hermeneuticist and this is a foundational concept in hermeneutics). At the same time, while metaphor is helpful in understanding profound human dilemmas (just as literature and poetry are helpful for same), metaphor without analysis is intellectually unsatisfying.
That answer is from Tina Fernandes Botts (CSU Fresno), in response to Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) in the latest interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? It’s one of several interesting exchanges in the interview.
Hmm. Except analytic philosophy doesn’t examine pieces in a vacuum. Or at least, we don’t *only* do that. It’s often useful to know how something behaves in a vacuum when one is trying to figure out what’s going on in a more complex system of which it is a part. But there’s lots of work arguing that metaphysical thesis X bears on epistemic thesis Y, or that epistemic thesis Z bears on ethical theory A, or that ethical theory B bears on political theory T, and whatnot.Report
As an aside and superficial point, one of the flaws of analytic writing is unnecessary use of variables, or in general stylizing common language to look like formal mathematics. A clear enough way was to write:”… metaphysical theses bear on epistemic theses…” etc.Report
LAUGHING OUT LOUD at this reply.
Am I doing this right?Report
It’s always good to laugh. Yes, I bet a comment C made by ‘a’ where ‘a’ = me would have at least one writing flaw F, but I do hope ‘a’ is excused for every F iff F is made in a language L such that L is not ‘a”s native language.Report
You wouldn’t do Quine corners that way. It’d be ‘…made by a, where the name ‘a’ designates some object that is identical to me…’. See, the thing is, when you’ve got sophisticated tools, don’t blame the crappy carpenter for the shoddy product. Poking fun at bad analytic philosophers isn’t an indictment of analytic philosophy. If that’s the game, analytics could go on for days. Just look at Discourse on the Otter…Report
I agree, yet the thing is that too many analytic philosophers use this style unnecessarily. Among them are a lot of well-respected also good philosophers, who just write badly, or – what’s a lot worse- who flat out confuse this style of saying things with revealing a deep and authoritative truth about the topic or the way it is usually thought of. Sometimes logical analysis reveals *some* truth, that is, some perspicuous way to understand things. Most of the times, if this analysis is even helpful, it is just *a* way to understand things (and please don’t confuse my point with any relativism or pluralism about truth).Report
It seems to me that the vast majority of answers to the question of the weaknesses of the two traditions (and I think this is one of the better ones) end up criticising some of the worst examples of each. The best examples of each tradition are capable of doing us proud as philosophers.Report
It is not sufficient for me that both traditions are working on philosophical questions. I’d say that analytic philosophy and continental philosophy have become two different intellectual endeavors which are incommensurable. What Kripke and Derrida have been doing can only be thought of as belonging to one discipline for reasons of organizational structure of universities.Report
“What Kripke and Derrida have been doing can only be thought of as belonging to one discipline for reasons of organizational structure of universities.”
I’m not sure if what you have in mind is that Kripke and Derrida’s methodologies are too different or that the philosophical questions that they work on are too different, but If you have any interest in work that explicitly connects Derrida’s work to issues in mainstream analytic philosophy (albeit not Kripke in particular, but surely Kripke isn’t the extent of what counts as analytic philosophy) and puts serious pressure on this claim, there are at least three recent books that do exactly this: A.W. Moore’s “The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics,” Lee Braver’s “A Thing of This World” and Samuel Wheeler’s “Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy.”Report
Right, but you could also find plenty of writing directly connecting the work of people like Albert Einstein, Angelika Kratzer, Sigmund Freud, Judith Butler, Jane Jacobs, and Friedrich Hayek to philosophy. While it’s possible that one or two of these people might legitimately be classified as working in “philosophy”, they certainly aren’t *all* working in the same academic discipline. It’s not clear that the connection between what people around Derrida have done, and what people around Kripke have done, is close enough to really make sense to put them in the same discipline, even though there are some connections, just like with any of these people. But for historical reasons they have been so classified, while these others haven’t.Report
“It’s not clear that the connection between what people around Derrida have done, and what people around Kripke have done, is close enough to really make sense to put them in the same discipline,”
I think it is clear. That’s why I recommended the sources which convinced me that it is clear that these folks are all working in the same discipline. All you’re doing is reasserting what I’ve indicated might be evidence (assuming one read’s the books) to deny.
“Right, but you could also find plenty of writing directly connecting the work of people like Albert Einstein, Angelika Kratzer, Sigmund Freud, Judith Butler, Jane Jacobs, and Friedrich Hayek to philosophy. While it’s possible that one or two of these people might legitimately be classified as working in “philosophy”, they certainly aren’t *all* working in the same academic discipline.”
Where did I anywhere give you reason to think that I was claiming that the existence of some book directly connecting two figures is sufficient to establish that they are in the same discipline? Of course that’s an absurd claim, as you aptly illustrate.
I was giving a rough description of what the books do (connecting the two), but the point was not that just by doing this, do they show that the two are in the same discipline. The proof is in the pudding (hence “and puts serious pressure…” was added as a separate clause that that I did not indicates was supposed to merely follow from the fact that the books connect the two).
If you don’t have the time or interest to look into the books, fine, but I wasn’t expecting anyone to be convinced by the mere fact that I described some books as connecting Derrida to analytic philosophy. I’m hoping that if they are interested in considering arguments to the contrary and if they read the books, they will be convinced as I was that there are connections of the right sort to establish that they are both operating in the same discipline.Report
You are right. So Kripke isn’t philosophy is what i gather from thisReport
I’m glad you mentioned Moore’s book. It’s really groundbreaking in this regard. Michael Friedman’s “A Parting of Ways” is also quite good and deserves mention here. He shows in painstaking detail that Heidegger and Carnap and the other logical positivists were addressing the same problems left over from the neo-Kantian tradition though they took radically different routes to try to solve those problems.Report
“Analytic philosophy gets wrong that philosophical questions can be answered by cutting up the world (or ideas) into pieces, and examining each piece in a vacuum. Continental philosophy gets wrong that all you need is metaphor to describe and understand the world.”
Compare the two criticisms. The first is one which calls for more contextualism (which is totally plausible to do in analytic philosophy). The second points out the sheer lack of intellectual rigor and explanatory power in continental philosophy. This answer seems to demonstrate itself that continental philosophy, as a paradigm, is often a joke, and that analytic philosophy in some deployments could be a little more contextual.
The flaw with continental philosophy is that it doesn’t say anything meaningful.Report
Well if you don’t think there is any intellectual rigor or explanatory power in continental philosophy, then you might want to engage more deeply with its traditions. I recommend reading works by Heidegger or Gadamer. They should give your rather impoverished analytic perspective some much needed contextualism.Report
Metaphors aren’t meaningful?
Is this what you imagine to be rigorous thinking?Report
Of course they’re not. Continental “arguments” buckle under the weight of serious philosophical scrutiny without a foundation in the bedrock of logic and numbered premises. The whole history of continental thought, with its nebulous, un-graspable aphorisms, floats free of any rigorous interpretive framework. Metaphors offer no window into the nature of reality – they can only serve as a blank screen onto which we project our own preconceptions; a mirror for French philosophers to admire their own fashionable political posturing. We analytics prefer to use words that truly describe nature as it is, meaningful words, with meanings that everyone definitely agrees on – words like “Physicalism”, “Realism”, and “Epiphenomenal”. If you can’t handle that much explanatory power, that’s on you.Report
Oh yes, nothing’s more unequivocal than “physicalism” and “realism”…Report
I can’t decide whether I think this comment is intentionally satirical or not.Report
“Floats free,” “windows,” and “mirrors…” I see what he did there.Report
Serious philosophical scrutiny would understand that can be different foundations for thought than Aristotelian logic and/or numbered premises. Dialectics for instance would be a good alternative, especially as it can provide for a fuzzy frame where several supposedly parallel and/conflicting ideas can coexist which seems to me to be more in tune with complexity of our societies, our psyche, our natural world and anything I didn’t list.
Raise your game, so you can grasp them – by building your interpretive framework. Wait, are you expecting other people to this job for you and prechew food then stuff it down your throat? Oh noes, my potatoes need peeling and cooking before I can eat them. Yup, that’s how cooking works.
As opposed to collective preconceptions of analytical frame which are forced upon every initiate? As Gadamer said, we cannot avoid dealing with preconceptions – like preconceptions that continental thought has nebulous, un-graspable aphorisms. However, if we are to understand anything, we need to face our preconceptions and figure out, if they make sense or not, because understanding is a) work, and b) includes self-understanding where we need to filter out stuff we gathered through education, cultural frame and so on.
Nature as it is is wordless. Here’s your problem. Can’t understand stuff without understanding – how understanding works, how ideas/concepts work, how words work.
So, your ceiling of knowledge is the lowest common denominator of collective hive mind? Gee, I wonder how come only trivial “results” are produced.Report
Metaphor is a path beyond the static connection between the signifier and the signified, i.e. if you want to expand the language to beyond reproducing the already known, it’s quite a good tool. It’s “downside” is that it requires people with decent interpretation skills so they can connect what they read or listen with their overall experience and knowledge. Unfortunately analytic “philosophy” tries to carpetbomb these from existence. The English/Anglophone essay which teaches that writing has to be understood by everyone, demands by this dictate that the effort of understanding must be minimalised which means everything is reduced to already known with some 3-5% of “newness” sprinkled on top, resulting in lowest common denominator patterns repeating themselves ad infinitum. The opposite would be understanding that understanding itself is work and that each reader/listener needs to put in effort. Metaphor gives such people enough space so they can both figure out what was meant and come to their own conclusions, which kinda supports the democratic idea of a critical in-di-vi-du-al.
So, actually, I would agree that metaphor is not enough, it must be coupled with effort and courage for individual thinking to get decent results.
Part of intellectual rigour falls on the shoulders of readers. Same for “explanatory power” – i.e. applying the principles to experiences and other knowledge reader has.
As opposed to just assuming that the “knowledge” produced is fast food to be automatically consumed.
This is the job of a reader. The sender produces a potential for meaning, the receiver has to construct the meaning – not “reconstruct”, but construct anew in a productive way. Lego bricks are not guilty that one isn’t able to build a toy house out of them.Report
“Analytic philosophy gets wrong that philosophical questions can be answered by cutting up the world (or ideas) into pieces, and examining each piece in a vacuum. Continental philosophy gets wrong that all you need is metaphor to describe and understand the world.”
I find it intriguing (weird? ironic? notable?) that Botts uses a metaphor (or, if you like, picture-thinking) to describe the flaw in analytic philosophy, and in stark contrast attributes a thesis to continental philosophers. I agree that the thesis is indeed false — metaphor is not all one needs to describe and understand the world — it is perhaps for this reason that I find the criticism of analytic philosophy hard to interpret or evaluate. I wonder: what does the picture of ‘cutting the world into pieces’ come to, exactly?Report
I cannot presume to speak for Botts, but on my reading of her, “cutting the world into pieces” refers to the attempt to force all aspects of discussion into the types of pieces that fit logical thought/logic’s models for thought, i.e., subjects vs. predicates, premises vs. conclusions, arguments vs. “extra” information, ideas that are consistent vs. inconsistent, etc. If something is expressed that does not constitute one of the types of pieces (classes of expressions) used in analytic philosophy it simply cannot be expressed. For instance, when a phenomenologist of pregnancy states “I am both one and the other; and I am neither one nor the other,” (paraphrasing Imogen Tyler about her pregnant state) this is comprehensible to us, yet impossible to represent without violating logical laws, and thus, roughly speaking, impossible to discuss/argue about using strictly analytic methodology.
(That’s not to say I somehow privilege continental philosophy; I don’t.)Report
2 brief notes: (1) I’m not quite sure that we really can “comprehend” that statement. If we can, it seems plausible that it is due in part to translation into clearer statements (internally, or whatever).
(2) As you seem to suggest, non-classical logics allow for both the gaps and gluts of that statement, so I’m not sure how logic is the limiting factor here.Report
I’m not well versed in non-classical logics, but the “gaps and gluts” are not captured by, for instance, the tetralemma. If there are other non-classical formulations that might capture them, I’d love to be informed of them.Report
Is the tetralemma you refer to the one familiar from Indian logic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetralemma ?
If so, then what about it isn’t captured by a 4-valued, non-classical “gaps and gluts” logic? It has true, false, both, and neither. That seems adequate to capture your pregnancy example and the classical tetralemma, no? If not, I’m not quite seeing why.Report
Don’t you think having this conversation in America runs the risk of creating an echo chamber?Report
Why do you think this conversation is only being had in America? Do you think only Americans have access to the internet?Report
I was not being accurate by saying only “Americans”; I meant an English language post best corresponds to the Anglophone world; most followers of the Continental Philosophy, surprise surprise, are in continental Europe.Report
The major flaw with analytic philosophy is that it’s not rigorous enough, despite it’s self-perception as incredibly rigorous. What percentage of papers in analytic philosophy set out their arguments in a clear logical structure with very clearly stated premises, conclusions, and the logical inferences made? We teach undergrads how to do this but then never are so explicit in our own articles even though such explicitness would bring great clarity. It’s not clear to me why it’s not the norm but I have some suspicions: it makes arguments easier to critique, it makes one actually make concrete arguments (which is hard), and lots of papers are not fully fledged arguments but more exploratory in nature (not necessarily a bad thing, but should be made explicit).Report
I’ve never been under the impression that the reason to teach undergrads to write every argument in explicit premise conclusion form is because that is the absolute best way to present an argument. I’ve always thought it was just so they could practice focusing their arguments into a clear, simplified structure. Once arguments get more complex, that simplified form becomes impractical IMHO. If you look at most proofs in math articles, for instances, they’re given as proof sketches in paragraph form. This is because a proof sketch that might take a paragraph to state can be easily understood by the author’s peers (the people with the relevant expertise) and they can see that it works and fill in the gaps fairly easily. They don’t typically write proofs as a rigid formal deduction, since a paragraph-long sketch might take 100+ lines to make fully explicit, and the length make it cumbersome to write, read, and (plausibly) harder to grasp quickly.
Isn’t the same true for many philosophical arguments? I might be blind to the problem you see since I don’t recognize it as an issue in my own areas (admittedly some of the more technical areas), which might not overlap with yours. Sometimes bad writing makes the argument hard to follow, but I’ve never thought the solution to that was “put it in premise-conclusion form”, but to get better at structuring a paper and signaling the more important turns and inferences made.Report
Could you please make the argument in your post with clearly stated premises and explicit logical inferences?Report
Too much work for just a forum post.Report
I claim, rather, that if you tried you’d see that it was a less clear way of expressing your argument than simply typing them out in prose. Perhaps the same is true of many of the arguments in journal articles…Report
I did note that some articles are more exploratory than argumentative, but many (I would think) articles in philosophy are trying to make an explicit argument.Report
There’s always all this debate between the two traditions of doing philosophy.
I don’t understand this obsession with tradition to be honest. I suppose it’s nice to feel comforted because you can talk in a similar language to other people, and be able to come from some kind of established framework of doing philosophy.
But from my point of view, there are questions that I find interesting and fascinating. I do my best to find people who write on those topics I find interesting, in a way that I find interesting. And then I write something that I think others would find interesting based upon what I read. Perhaps I use some metaphors. Perhaps I use the language of analytic philosophy. Whatever way I think would communicate my ideas effectively to the audience I have in mind is good enough to me.
All this meta-philosophical discussion about best practices as a philosopher sort of makes me sick. If you think it’s hard to come up with consensus about philosophical discussions, what makes you think that meta-philosophical discussions are any better? Especially when meta-philosophical discussions seem to be more a practice of strawmanning than serious discussion?Report
If we’re going down this path, I’m surprised no one’s mentioned the assumptions involved in AP’s focus on language and definitions as a means of getting at the nature of things. The idea that there is always a nature of X, which we can comprehend so long as we can come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for the way we use the word ‘X’ — this is what is most puzzling about analytic philosophy to me. Why should our use of a word have such a privileged place?
And it provides a reason for the use of metaphor in the continentalist’s case, that is, because continental philosophers don’t regard language as capable of the kind of precision that analytic philosophy presupposes.Report
That hasn’t been viewed as standard practice since at least Two Dogmas, if not earlier. The whole debate about the nature of conceptual analysis is about just how much that method can get us. Full-throated defenses of conceptual analysis as the core and sole method of philosophy are rare.Report
Maybe including “and it gets at the nature of things” goes too far. Nevertheless, the analyzability/precisification of language and the usefulness of that endeavor seem to be distinctive doctrines of analytic philosophy.
It’s bizarre to me that you say this hasn’t been standard practice since Quine, since the heyday of this practice was in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, maybe 90s — the Gettier problem, analyses of modality in metaphysics, etc. Maybe you mean it hasn’t been discussed explicitly since that time. Which is consistent with what I am saying, although I doubt it’s true.Report
I’ll qualify my statement: it hasn’t been uncontroversially the standard practice since Two Dogmas, although plenty of people of philosophers have used conceptual analysis as their primary, if not sole, method. Now more than ever analytic philosophers seem to view conceptual analysis as complementary rather than comprehensive, which seems to me to be the reasonable position.Report
You are mistaken. Analytic philosophy does not suppose that for every X, there is a nature of X which we can comprehend so long as we come up with necessary and sufficient conditions for the way we use the word X.Report
Sure. Let me be more precise — for many key concepts, analytic philosophers seem to presuppose that giving necessary and sufficient conditions for how we use the concept in everyday language will greatly further our understanding of that concept.Report
Too much faith in the unambiguous articulability of points of view is analytic philosophy’s flaw; too little faith in it is continental philosophy’s.Report
One problem with this discussion, and many others like it, is that while analytical philosophy exists, continental does not. What is called “continental” philosophy is really two radically different traditions, one of which (from the 19th century) deals with our appropriation of the past (Hegel, Nietzsche), while the other (20th century) deals with our appropriation of the future (Heidegger, Derrida)—given (crudely put) that neither past nor future can be known the way we know the present.
Analytical philosophy, like most philosophy from Parmenides on, deals with the present—i.e, it approaches issues armed with the “laws” of logic, which are what they are independently of their position in temporal orders.
It would be quite possible, then, for all three approaches to work together. The continentals would deal with the past and the future of philosophical issues (including issues of “is this problem worth solving?”). The analyticals dealt with issues in their present state.Report
If the laws of logic are what they are independently of their position in the temporal order, why doesn’t a philosophy that uses them deal with all of the past, present, and future? Why think it’s concerned only with the present?Report
It’s complicated, which is why continental philosophy is so difficult. But in fact past and future cannot be fully dealt with by saying true thing about them, so other kinds method are required.Report
But the present *can* be fully dealt with by saying true things about it? Why the difference? Does anyone understand any of this?Report
As I said, it’s complex. For fuller explanations see my Reshaping Reason (2005) and Time and Philosophy (2011). For some suggestions as to why it sounds so strange to you, see my Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the McCarthy Era (2001). And for confirmation of those suggestions, see my The Philosophy Scare: The Politics of Reason in the Early Cold War (2016).Report
I did my graduate work in an analytic department and my own approach is probably best described as analytic. But I’ve taught continental figures like Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger and even published a bit on Hegel so I think this is interesting. I’d be the last to deny that some continental figures such as Zizek and Lacan are complete charlatans and don’t deserve serious attention from anyone. But there are likely more than a few analytic figures one could say the same of, though probably for different reasons.
On the other hand, I can think of no reason besides simple intellectual prejudice for ignoring other continental figures like Hegel, Husserl, or Heidegger (or at least the early Heidegger. I have to admit I suspect the later stuff is getting into Zizek territory). Take the case of Hegel. When analytic philosophy simply rejected the possibility of speculative metaphysics as a legitimate enterprise then of course it was entirely consistent to hold that Hegel had little or nothing to offer, though mind you if one’s consistent there then Leibniz and Plato are definitely out as well. But if we admit that what say David Lewis was doing is a legitimate enterprise then I see no principled reason to say that what Hegel was doing isn’t. And I do think he has things to offer us. For instance, his criticisms of the use of intuitions in philosophy and his claims that epistemological and metaphysical theories always make some sort of tacit assumptions about the nature of the subject and agency before they even get off the ground are still on the cutting edge of philosophy today. And as ultimately bizarre as his logic is it’s among other things an attempt to meet a pressing challenge– explaining how metaphysics is even possible in light of the challenges Kant’s work poses– that most analytic metaphysicians simply ignore as far as I can tell.
Or consider Heidegger. His argument that theoretical engagement with the world is parasitic on a deeper practical engagement is an insight that analytic work is only now coming to appreciate or develop in any interesting way. Also, there’s the inconvenient fact that Gilbert Ryle, who’s the very model of the hard boiled analytic philosopher, almost certainly lifted most of the better arguments in “The Concept of Mind” from Heidegger.
One final point I’d make is that the whole continental grouping is often arbitrary. It’s really hard for me to see what say Husserl and Hegel have in common with Nietzsche besides not being taken seriously by many analytic philosophers.Report
What famous analytic philosophers are charlatans?Report
What analytic philosophers are famous?Report
Is this meant to be funny? Let’s see John Searle won the National Humanities Medal awarded at the White House, Peter Singer started the Animal Rights movement, Daniel Dennett is a NYT best selling “four horseman”, Martha Nussbaum is huge, Noam Chomsky is widely known (if he counts in this setting), etc.Report
Saying that people like Hegel and Heidegger don’t do legitimate philosophy is too far. The problem is that the work isn’t worth the gold, so to speak. So what if Ryle lifted arguments from Heidegger (he certainly didn’t)? I can read Ryle and get the point pretty quickly. It takes days or weeks just to get through a few pages of Heidegger. I’m not going to spend 5-10 years of my life getting into somebody’s head just to get THE VERY SAME INSIGHTS I could get by reading someone else once or twice. All this BS about ‘oh, well, this analytic person says this thing, but some continental person said that, too’ is a red herring. Analytic philosophy, to the extent that there is any core methodology (spoiler: there really isn’t) at least prides itself on technical, clear expression. So if AP and CP both say X, chances are that I’ll come to learn X more quickly by reading AP than CP. It doesn’t always work out that way (see: Tyler Burge, Charles Travis, John McDowell, Robert Brandom, Michael Thompson, etc.), but that’s the ideal.Report
You talk a lot about how clear analytic philosophy is, but offer absolutely no proof. I know it’s a supposed ideal of analytic philosophy, but I see hardly any evidence that most contemporary analytic philosophers live up to it or honestly even make much of an effort to do so. I notice you name a lot of analytic philosophers who aren’t clear but offer no positive examples of those who are though I guess you suggest Ryle as an example. How many analytic philosophers have you read recently who in any way live up to that ideal of clarity or even make any serious effort to do so? How many are there really since about 1960? I can think of a few people like Nagel, Waldron, and Searle, and there are a lot of lesser known philosophers in this camp too, but they are definitely the exception to the norm, and those exceptions seem to get rarer every year. For my own part, I had an easier time making it through Heidegger’s “Being and Time” than I did Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” and I’d add I got more out of it as well. I doubt I’m that much of an outlier here.Report
Your mention of Searle reminded me of what I take to be a paradigmatic case of the clarity divide between analytic and continental philosophy – Derrida’s “Limited Inc”. The book is an essay by Derrida, a synopsis of a reply by Searle, and a reply to that by Derrida. It’s mostly known as a successful and humorous take-down of Searle’s critique (it is both).
What is frustrating is the difference between Derrida’s two entries. The first, written in “continental” speak, is indecipherable in spots. The reply on the other hand is completely clear. It’s also three times as long, and it becomes obvious to the reader where Derrida’s own mistakes are – mistakes that might well remain hidden to some readers due to the opaqueness of the original piece.
I’m suspicious that much contemporary “continental” philosophy is like this, which is not to say that no analytic philosophy is.Report
I have a bit of experience in these kind of exchanges, by being a grad student in a completely analytic department even though my undegrad education has been mostly (but not completely) “continental” and my outlook on philosophy as a whole has much more in common with the latter than with the former. Nobody would expect a philosopher to have a full grasp of contemporary debates in analytic metaphysics without having a reasonably good understanding of at least some of the major figures that created the framework in which these debates, papers and arguments are carried out, say Lewis and Kripke. Many analytic philosophers however, are completely blind to their own formation and education and take it as a given that anybody could and should understand with ease the main positions, argument and rebuttals in their fields – probably because of the never quelled desire of treating philosophy as a set of isolated questions and problems, as it happens in most natural sciences. Even though this latter assumption is not trivial at all, this does not stop many analytic philosophers from viewing all of philosophy in this way, probably because they believe that this is the only philosophy “worthy” of being pursued. Therefore when and if they approach “continental philosophy” they refuse to have even a superficial knowledge or acquaintance of the issues philosophers such as Hegel or Heidegger were engaging with, thinking they should be grasped within their own analytic frame of debate (which should sound odd from the outset, even only for historical reasons) or completely on their own. But this is problematic, and does not hold to scrutiny even when applied to analytic philosophy itself. Someone who has never approached the most problematic insights of Kantian philosophy (therefore, not the Strawsonian reading, which leaves the most important, and controversial, elements of Kant out of the picture – and is still the most widely assumed reading of Kant in analytic philosophy) is not going to understand most of what Hegel is talking about in either the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Science of Logic. Same thing with Being and Time. Heidegger takes up questions and issues stemming directly form Husserl’s Transcendental Phenomenology (usually Analytic philosophers only venture as far to read the Logical Investigations, which weren’t at all at the center of the debate in the 20s in Germany as the school they inspired, with philosophers such as Adolf Reinach, had died out by 1918), and to any philosophers who have spent just a bit of time on such issues and positions, Heidegger’s text is not an impenetrable text at all (its only fundamental problem is, usually, the mainstream and decidedly subpar translation, which tried to imitate Heidegger’s German in English, something that should not be done at all). I think for example of Peter van Inwagen, whose criticism of Heidegger is usually “I don’t care if I don’t get his thought right, I am 100% he’s wrong and I’ll show you why” (something he says in a footnote in his contribution to “Metametaphysics”, page 475, note 4), or Searle in his debate with Dreyfus, in which his knowledge of intentionality within phenomenology was abysmal at best. The first four chapters of Sartre Being and Nothingness are full of impenetrable jargon if someone has never spent a single day approaching Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit or Husserl, or even better, Kojeve’s reading of Hegel, without which, post-war French philosophy cannot be meaningfullyunderstood. This is because in the philosophical debate of the first half of the 20th century in Europe, those readings were required in order to approach philosophy, in the same way as contemporary debates in analytic philosophy are required knowledge if one wants to contribute to them from the graduate level onwards.In Analytic philosophy as well, nobody should expect someone to understand the arguments in the recent collection “Seeming and Justification” without having at least read Jim Pryor’s papers on dogmatism, or something about the conservatives vs. liberals debate (a continental philosopher not versed in mainstream epistemology would at most think that these positions are a bit naive or replaying older debates in newer jargon). I therefore always found and find still to this day troubling when someone criticizes the fact that one has to spend days unpacking Being and Time, without being willing to obtain an even initial knowledge of phenomenology and the issues Heidegger was adressing. This shows that the analytic/continental divide is fundamentally sociological, it is related to what we choose to read in our career and which positions we deem as preposterous and aim to demolish, but this has had huge repercussions of philosophy itself, bringing entire canons of research which are nominally on the same subject without whatsoever common ground for debate (metaphysics is the key example here. Even though there are towering works such as A. W. Moore “Making sense of things”, Lewisian metaphysics and, for example, Deleuzian metaphysics are currently worlds apart. In philosophy of mind we witness an inverse trend however). To analytic philosophers I only have this suggestion: do you want to understand with ease what Heidegger is saying? Do your homework and read Kant, Hegel and Husserl. You don’t want to do that? perfectly fine, nobody is asking you for your opinion on continental philosophy, and be aware that if you keep portraying continental philosophy as utterly impenetrable on such nonexistent grounds, you are simply playing your part in a sociological power struggle within academia (that has already been won by analytic philosophy, so why bother?)Report
Just a small point. Even if you do read Husserl, Hegel, and Kant — all of whom I have read, two of whom I have taught graduate seminars on and written papers about — you will not be able to read Heidegger “with ease”. That understates the difficulty of the text; that said, Being and Time is easier to get than parts of the Critique of Pure Reason, and way easier than large parts of Hegel,Report
Of course, what I meant by saying “with ease” was in reference to which kind of questions and problems Heidegger was aiming at, not that his own position can be immediately and directly grasped just through knowledge of those who came before him. But the field of inquiry in Being and Time itself is the first big hurdle to those who are not familiar with the “continental” canon, as the way it is developed appears (and I stress here “appears”) to be starkly removed from the way questions in ontology and metaphysics are investigated nowadays. I also agree that, after having understood some of the basic features of Heidegger’s (early) philosophy, Being and Time is easier to get than a lot of German Idealism (especially Kant)Report
I guess the other thing I would add is it is not clear to me how important Hegel actually is to Being and TIme era Heidegger. Reading Kierkegaard strikes me as mattering a lot more, for example.
Perhaps one measure of clarity is relative ease of discerning what relative background material one needs to be familiar with to understand the text in question?Report
This is indeed interesting. In the country where I carried out my undergrad education (I would really like not to give more information about it) the influence of Hegel on Heidegger even in its early period has always been taken into account when approaching the set of questions that we find in Being and Time (but to some extent even in the Kantbook, as a number of arguments there go in the same direction as Hegel’s critique of Kant in Faith and Knowledge) and in understanding Heidegger’s thought in general (something not unlike what Gadamer would have proposed after Truth and Method). This is undoubtedly a trace of my own formation and tells also about the possibility of approaching the text from different angolations (mine is one that would not have been shared by Heidegger himself, given his animosity towards Hegelian rationalism, often seen – mistakenly – as a fundamental continuation of Cartesian or Enlightenment’s rationality), as I never had anything more than a superficial knowledge of Kierkegaard, but I never had trouble reading or recognizing the Kierkegaardian themes in B&T, especially in Divison II. The point in my original post however had not the aim of focusing on Being and Time. It had a more broad scope, namely, that in order to approach classical texts of “continental” philosophy, a good knowledge and command of the basic insights of German Idealism and phenomenology is in fact required due to the way “continental” philosophy evolved, and this is also valid for French philosophy up to at least Derrida (Deleuze and Lacan have a different background to their thought. Spinozism for the former and Psychoanalysis for the latter). Of course this is even more nuanced for individual cases; for example, I usually recommend to analytics that want to approach Heidegger but have trouble doing so to read Gadamer’s Truth and Method first, as the second and third sections investigate a lot of ground Heidegger first brought up in Being and Time, with a distinctively clearer and more relatable language (and a way better english translation). Or that if they want to understand better Hegel’s phenomenology they should read the Skeptizismusaufsatz as it has all of the epistemological questions that pave the way of the Phenomenology. and this goes on for each various current of thinking in “continental” philosophy, but I think it works the same in analytic philosophy, or, at least, in the areas of analytic philosophy I’m doing my reasearch on it sure seems to me to be as such.Report
I studied philosophy at university almost exclusively in the analytic tradition (I also read some Habermas), and was inclined to think that continental philosophy was nonsense – not because the faculty told me this but because I just generally absorbed this idea, plus reading deliberately chosen excerpts of the very worst continental philosophy via Sokal’s book.
But since leaving university much of the philosophy I have read has been Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, none of whom I was exposed to while doing my degree. These days I do read some contemporary analytic philosophy, for example Chalmers’s stuff on consciousness, and I read books in the analytic tradition about historical philosophers (I’m currently reading Hannah Ginsborg’s book about the Critique of Judgement) but a lot of contemporary analytic philosophy leaves me a bit cold.
My views on this (which are in no sense a set of scholarly claims that I can defend rigorously!) would be:
a) some analytic philosophy is focused on what seem to me to be non-problems (e.g. I struggle to see how the literature on the so-called ‘Gettier problem’ is anything other than a pedantic debate about the arbitrary definition of the English word ‘knowledge’), or extremely obscure and boring. I exclude technical work in, e.g., the philosophy of mathematics, which is fine but hard to regard as part of a broad synoptic discipline of philosophy
b) continental philosophy written by Germans is not in any sense nonsense but should be engaged with by everyone interested in philosophy
c) I am far less convinced about continental philosophy written by the French! There does seem to be a certainly tendency here towards charlatanism (e.g. Lacan) or just saying the same thing as Germans but in an imprecise and dumbed down fashion (e.g. Sartre)
d) in addition to figures like Heidegger, who actually makes claims that are very interesting from an analytic perspective once you learn his jargon (which is hardly more obscure than much analytic philosophy) there are plenty of interesting people who don’t really fit in either tradition (e.g. Cassirer, Whitehead) and who should be studied more than they are.Report
This article is interesting and, I think, relevant to the current debate:
If I understand correctly, which I may not have, some comments seem to put forth the following equivalence claim about analytic and continental work: of course you cannot just pick up Heidegger (or whoever) and just understand it, but this is because you need conceptual orientation; the same is true of analytic figures, it is just not noticed by the analytics themselves because they already have the relevant background–they are, In familiar ways, treating having that background as an unmarked category.
This claim strikes me as false. At least I would claim that there is no parity. I recall my undergrad experience, in which I took my history requirements last. And as it turned out I didn’t need to read Locke first to get the idea of sensations as independent of their objects, and there was absolutely no need for me to read the Meditations before reading Barry Stroud on dream skepticism. This is not to say that my grasp was deep because I was some kind of wonder kid. I wasn’t, and there were definitely times when I just didn’t get it. But even as a fairly blank slate of an undergraduate I was able to understand and enagage with substantial parts of what I was reading. I would contrast this with e.g. the reading I was once assigned out of Being and Time, which I did not understand even to the minimal degree of being able to describe an argument from it, or even what a key assertion was or what it would mean for it to be correct. That was nothing at all like the spread of papers I was getting in my other classes, and not because I was already a master of that other stuff.Report
Very Interesting as the examples you put forth are actually a confirmation of what I was saying instead of refuting it. You focus on Locke’s epistemology and dream skepticism, which are the two ways, empiricist and rationalist, upon which modern philosophy established itself in the 17th century. These argument and texts aimed at making a clear break from the reigning debates that preceeded them in philosophical discourse, Scholasticism and Renaissance philosophy. It is no wonder that one does not need to read much for getting the gist of their argument. It is an essential component of both Locke’s and Cartesian philosophy to break the chains that were tying philosophy to theological discourse in those times. Even Stroud’s book, a book I have read a thousand times given that my research IS on skepticism, had the goal of re-establishing and re-assessing the relevance of skeptical arguments in contemporary philosophy, as up until the 70s, skepticism was not at the center of the debate. And I’m not sure of how much did you get from the other sections of Stroud’s book if you did not have any acquaintance with the Moorean answer to skepticism and Wittgenstein’s response to that, or to the transcendental question regarding skepticism that Stroud investigates through Kant, or the relevance of Quinean Naturalism for epistemology, or even with Cavell’s book The Claim of Reason (a very un-analytic oeuvre), all themes that are touched upon Stroud’s book. Stroud’s presentation of dream skepticism in the first chapter of the book works as a recap, but even in this particular book, it is dubious that one could get all of his insights without any knowledge of which kind of arguments and goals he was handling, at least if your aim was a critical engagement with The Significance of Scepticism. Cartesian and Lockean epistemology forms in fact the backbone of analytic epistemology. In my formation, my first undergrad course was instead on Kant’s Critique, and I too was able to engage with the arguments contained in there, and I was helped by a bit of beforehand knowledge in the philosophers that preceeded the Critique of Pure Reason and a careful reading of the text itself. If you think that the only difference is that the books you were assigned to read at the beginning of your formation are easier than advanced texts that were outside the main canon you were dealing with, it is essentially a confirmation of the fact that we all are blind to our own philosophical education, and perceive everything outside of it as foreign and not understandable. “Continental” philosophy is self-consciously engaged in a very long, continuous discussion with the philosophical history and canon that preceeded each text (Husserl tried to do something different, and realized the inescapability of dealing with Descartes, Hume, Kant, Fichte for his project), Analytic philosophy rests on this myth that one needs no acquaintance with any complex or well-developed position before grasping the arguments mad within itself. But this is only just that: a myth.Report
This all seems to me to be bunch of nonsense. There is no “continental” philosophy in the sense in which either the original interview or many of the comments (positive or negative) talk about. It’s a largely British/American label for philosophy done outside of elite universities in the UK and later US. That philosophy has, of course, itself strong “continental” roots (in Austrian and German philosophers/scientists). Those roots too are a little “vague” insofar as many neo-Kantians, Husserl, Cassirrer and others were not yet (in fact, not by far) very different from Frege, Wittgenstein, and many of the Vienna Circle et alia. It is a matter of considerable debate who is “clearer” – certainly I found many neo-Kantains much clearer than, say, Wittgenstein. In any case, the elitist judgment of “continental” took root, completely different things got subsumed in it – from neoThomists, through pragmatists, German Idealists, Marxists, to phenomenologists, neo-Kantians, postmodern philosophers, cultural critics, and so on and so on. There is almost nothing many of these figures have in common – neither style, nor themes, nor methods, nor anything. It is simply dumb to keep compating analytic vs continental philosophy. Picking on a minority of French thinkers (postmodern types) and equating them with continental philosophy or even adding “German” philosophers to them (which ones?) is just being selective so as to make a point. Insofar as analytic philosophy is concerned, it is a much more unified territory, although that too by now has more to do with the way elite institutions projected a certain model onto the rest rather than with methodology (if there is any) or type of questions. In some of its incarnations it suffers from the boys-playing-with-trains are geniuses syndrome and that’s what’s gets it bad name. But much of the best of it, has little to do with such caricatures – Wiggins, Williams, Frankfurt, Foot, Anscombe, or Korsgaard are worthwhile no matter which style you prefer.Report
Is there such a thing as “analytic philosophy” in this sense? I can’t think of anything that all analytic philosophy has in common. Rather, it seems to be a family relation.Report
It has a common history, starting with Frege, Russell, logical positivists, and so on. Unlike Continental philosophy which groups “movements” with separate histories, as it were.Report
Analytic philosophers are regrettably inclined to the narcissism of petty differences, whereas the Continentalist all-too-frequently falls victim to der Narzissismus der kleinen Differenzen.Report
Despite the indignity of replying to one’s own comment, it bears mentioning that the concept that facilitated this joke was formulated by one Continentalist (Freud) after studying an Anglo (Crawley). Perhaps we should all just read each other’s work and philosophize accordingly.Report