The Divide

In the last post I mentioned ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy. Philosophers out there will be familiar with those terms and what they mean, but since this conversation is supposed to be accessible to non-philosophers I thought I’d say a little bit about them.

There several philosophical traditions around the world. There are major philosophical traditions that arose in China, India, the Islamic world, and of course in the West (and there are still more in addition to those four). There are also many traditions of ‘wisdom’ literature (of which the Biblical book of Proverbs is a familiar example) that, depending on whom you ask, should be called philosophical traditions as well. In Western philosophy there are currently two major traditions, usually called ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy. The first thing I’ve got to say about all this is by way of apology, that for the foreseeable future everything I’ve got to say here on Explicit Content is going to concern Western philosophy, and almost exclusively analytic philosophy. That’s because my training has been in the analytic tradition, and that’s where my expertise is. It’s not because I have disdain for any other tradition of philosophy. In fact I’m quite curious about Chinese and Japanese philosophy, but if your day job is to read, write, eat, drink and breathe philosophy, more philosophy makes for a tedious hobby.

A lot of people with at least a little education will have heard of a lot of the famous philosophers of the 20th Century, but most of them are not in my tradition. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are considered continental philosophers, although they predate the divide. Husserl and Heidegger are continental philosophers. Sartre and Camus are continental philosophers. Derrida and Foucault are continental philosophers. All that literary theory stuff you learned in your English class in undergrad was continental philosophy. What gets frequently called post-modern philosophy is continental. Basically, all the 20th Century philosophy you’ve heard of is continental. Me, I do the other thing. Actually, we analytic philosophers get to claim a few famous names: Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, W.V.O. Quine, Peter Singer, John Rawls.

What’s the difference between the two traditions? That’s a matter of significant discussion and controversy. One difference that many seem to agree on (including Brian Leiter, William Blattner, and Gary Gutting, whose informal essays on the topic are widely read) is that analytic philosophers maintain a stylistic commitment to clarity in their writing. “Whatever can be said can be said clearly,” Wittgenstein said (Tractatus 4.116), but analytic philosophers do frequently fail to meet their own standards of clarity, and there seems to be little else of principle that distinguishes the traditions (but see Gutting and others for some tentative suggestions). Analytic philosophers sometimes joke, half serious, that continental philosophers have a methodological commitment to obfuscation but that’s not fair. More charitably, I think, we can say that oftentimes in continental philosophy other values come out ahead of clarity—conveying complexity, acknowledging historical connections, and fitting in with academic conventions about sounding smart. Anglophone philosophers do that last thing, too, by the way, they just have different conventions. They run to logic and science and set expressions in Latin (like inter alia and ceteris paribus) more often than complex grammar and literary allusion.

When I try to explain the divisions between the traditions—the “divide” as it’s often called—to friends, I often say that there are in effect two different academic disciplines that happen to share the same name “philosophy,” and share a department when they happen at the same school. It is sometimes quickly objected that that can’t be the right way to think about the divide, because both ‘disciplines’ share the same subject matter. That objection is too quick. What subject matter? If you can tell me what the distinctive subject matter of philosophy is I will give you two pounds sterling. Besides, neuroscience and cognitive science and artificial intelligence are all distinct enterprises, although they have very similar subject matter and sometimes share departments. There are two camps in anthropology—one related to evolutionary biology and one more closely related to continental philosophy, especially structuralism and its successors—and it’s easy to think of those traditions as different disciplines with similar subject matter and a common name. I don’t have any data on whether people cite each other across those divides more than across the analytic-continental divide, but I do know that generally speaking the analytic and continental traditions have a lot of antipathy toward each other. And there hangs a tale.

There is a story that I like to tell sometimes. Once upon a time there was a philosopher named Kant whose work was so far-ranging and fundamental that it became impossible to do philosophy in the Western tradition without knowing him and grappling with him. Many years later, however, there was a philosopher named Hegel, whose extension and criticism of Kant was so important that he could not be ignored, either. But Hegel’s writing was really unbelievably hideous and impenetrable. In the early 20th Century, a bunch of philosophers decided that a philosopher named Frege was the bomb, and that Hegel and the whole history of commentary on him was so impossible to stomach they were going to just start over again and ignore it. They also took a solemn vow to never write like he did. And that was the beginning of the divide. Analytic (or ‘analytical’ or ‘Anglophone’) philosophers put their fingers in their ears, pretended Hegel never happened, and tried to keep things clean. Continental philosophers continued the existing tradition, grappling with Hegel and hating on him in their own way.

The story is not really true, I’m afraid, but I like stories so I tell it anyway. I think it captures the spirit of something. The real history is much more complicated, and it’s more exciting—the research projects of Russell & Whitehead and the Berlin and Vienna Circles, mentally-disturbed murderers, flight from Nazi persecution… the origins of the analytic tradition are not boring. And on some ways of counting traditions, there was a third Western tradition in philosophy. An American tradition that, surprise, had its own way of rejecting Hegel, and whose best known practitioners were the American pragmatists. Some elements of the American tradition have been revived in contemporary neo-pragmatism (think especially here of Rorty and Brandom) and in Cornell realism. But that tradition was supplanted by the influence of analytic philosophers writing in English, and the immigration of analytic philosophers like Rudolf Carnap and Hans Reichenbach who fled the Nazis in Europe.

Blattner’s essay offers some more careful institutional history, if you’re into that. Some of his closing commentary is rather too strong, though. He claims, like many who contemn the divide, that “It is unreasonable to cleave to” the divide and ignore work on the other side. Well, I think that that’s true, and it’s not. Many decades (many decades in which a lot was written and published) have passed since the beginning of the divide, and it takes a significant investment of time and effort to learn how to understand what you read when you cross the divide. Especially if you are learning to read continental stuff, according to Gutting. On the other hand, it is always possible that you might find something really good, if you do learn to understand it. So I try not to cleave too tightly to the divide. In undergrad, I tried to learn enough basics (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lacan, Kristeva) that I could at least orient myself a bit and have conversations with any continental philosophers who would be patient enough to explain things to me.

And the good news is that, despite Eric Schwitzgebel’s alarming findings, there are topics where there is burgeoning and fruitful interaction between the traditions. Perhaps especially in feminist thought, which continentals had a corner on for a long time but which is finally a fast-growing specialization in analytic philosophy. Our feminist philosophers are not too snooty to take cues from their colleagues in the other philosophy. In philosophy of cognitive science, which is an analytic specialty, there are many writers who are deeply influenced by continental phenomenologists including Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. If only there were as much good news about interaction between Western and non-Western traditions in philosophy…

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Philosophy Isn’t All about Arguments

One of the most obvious questions one can ask about philosophical methodology is “Well, what is the method of philosophy?” If you’ve got an answer to that question in your pocket, it will help you to judge whether something is a bit of philosophy or not, and whether a bit of philosophy is a good one or a bad one. By comparison, one might suggest at a first pass that the method of science is essentially empirical: you have a question about what the world is like, and then you go check the world with a controlled experiment and find out. (That’s a potentially dangerous simplification, but it is a common thought and dealing with it is a topic for another day.) A similar caricature of the philosophical method is that a philosopher, ideally an old white dude with a long beard, sits in an overstuffed armchair stroking his facial hair. He takes his ‘intuitions’ about cases as data, and tries to make them systematic (perhaps through some kind of reflective equilibrium). That might describe the method certain patches of philosophy (except, not the part where the philosopher has to be white or male or bearded, or the part where it’s done alone). But intuitions (e.g. about what is just, or what is moral, or what counts as knowledge) don’t play the same role in all of philosophy, particularly not in philosophy of science. Consider a famous, big question in philosophy of science: realism vs. anti-realism about science. Roughly, that dispute is about whether we should believe that things like electrons and the strong force are real, or whether they’re just useful fictions that we use for predicting observations and building bridges. Arguments about scientific realism do not usually turn on accounting for our intuitions about what is real and making them systematic and discovering whether electrons belong inside or outside; they usually rely on claims about how evidence and explanation work, and how they apply to the interpretation of scientific theories and models.

So what can we say about the philosophical method? As in so many things, you can’t go too wrong starting with Plato. Plato has Socrates say somewhere that “Philosophy begins in wonder.” A lot of people seem to like that expression, and it might be true. But—my weird and enduring love for Plato notwithstanding—it doesn’t do much for me. A more articulate suggestion in Plato is that philosophy (sometimes ‘dialectic’) is the ‘examination’ part of the examined life. It is the investigation of your reasons for thinking what you think and for doing what you do, and the policy of offering those reasons up for criticism by others. I like this a little more, and it’s the kind of story I tend to take into the classroom when I teach. Generally speaking, I think Plato’s dialogues are full of great lessons about philosophical methodology. But this Platonic story is very personal. It’s about how philosophy fits into an individual life. If that were what philosophy as an academic discipline were about, it would mean that philosophers are ipso facto stupendously self-involved, or nosy, or both. Now, an enterprise whereby the participants investigate their reasons and those of their peers sounds like an interesting club, but it’s not a story about a respectable academic discipline. An academic discipline should do something for people other than those who participate in it.

A nearby suggestion, though, is that philosophy is about evaluating reasons as such. I once heard a story from Professor James Shaw that he sometimes tells his undergraduate classes. I like this story. Shaw says that the method of philosophy is described by something called the “science of argumentation,” which is presumably a generic variation on formal logic. (“Argument” here, as in most philosophical contexts, means a reasoned defense of a claim, not a verbal fight.) On Shaw’s suggestion as I understand it, philosophical training involves acquiring special knowledge of the forms of argumentation, with a focus on which ones are conducive to preserving truth, and expertise in clarifying and evaluating arguments as such. That’s the method. The content of philosophy is what he calls “leftovers.” On this view philosophy is about whatever is left unclaimed by the other disciplines (this can’t be all that philosophy is and Shaw knows that perfectly well, but it’s still a cute thought). “Leftovers” sound unsavory at first but they’re not, because there are a lot of interesting topics that can’t be adequately treated by the methods of other disciplines—Shaw’s examples were the mind-body problem, the problem of free will, the problem of personal identity, and whether death is harmful. The reason philosophy gets all the leftovers is that if you don’t have more specialized ways to discover knowledge on a topic, the science of argumentation is all you’ve got left!

I really like Shaw’s story, although I have two worries about it: philosophy isn’t just about leftovers, and its method isn’t just the science of argumentation. (But don’t tell my students I said that.) Philosophy can’t be leftovers because a lot of philosophy covers topics that are well covered by other disciplines: philosophers study language (especially semantics), but that’s now the turf of linguists as well. Philosophers butt heads with neuroscientists and social scientists about the will, responsibility, politics, epistemology, memory, concepts, and other topics. Philosophers get to keep the mind-body problem, probably, but frankly the computer scientists think that they do a better job and the philosophers have dropped the ball on that topic and let it languish since the 1970s. Moreover, there are the subdisciplines of philosophy called the philosophies of the sciences: subdisciplines like philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, philosophy of nanoscience and, of course, philosophy of cognitive science. In all of these subdisciplines, philosophy takes on subject matter that is precisely the subject matter of other disciplines.

Concerning the method of philosophy, I’m pretty sure that it’s something like the standard line in analytic philosophy (the tradition in which I’m trained) that the method consists in attention to argument. Speculation without argument shouldn’t be dignified with the name ‘philosophy.’ In contrast to the standard line, there seems to be a view among the layfolk that philosophy consists in unconstrained speculation about abstract questions. On this view, the general form of a philosophical discussion is something like this:

JONES: “Hey, dude, what about if X?”
SMITH: “Sure man. But wait, what about if Y though?”

The thought is that philosophy consists in producing random suggestions, and philosophical expertise involves knowing what all those suggestions have been. Maybe this is why, when you tell someone at a party or on an airplane that you study philosophy, you quickly get the question “Which philosopher do you follow?” When it comes to teaching, I try to make a little show of insisting on the standard line, and disabusing my students of this layfolk cartoon. I think that this policy pushes my undergrads the right way. But I also think that the standard line goes too far, and that there is something right about the cartoon picture.

Even in analytic philosophy, good work does a lot of things apart from describing argument. For example, good work sometimes describes the range of possible ways of thinking about a topic. As we sometimes say, it maps out the “logical space.” This involves making distinctions, which is a crucial piece of philosophical technology. The standard line would hold that making distinctions is useful only insofar as it cleans up your definitions, and thereby improves an argument that features those definitions. It is, after all, implausible that argumentation is all there is to philosophy; there are at least other things one must do in order to argue effectively. For example, understanding arguments in texts, defining one’s terms, and anticipating counterarguments. What the standard line holds is not that argumentation is all there is to philosophy, but that argumentation is fundamental. All other activities belong to philosophy insofar as they help with the activity of articulating good arguments. But I’ve often walked away from philosophical discussions or from reading a paper with a distinction that was more memorable than the argument. Now, distinctions are wonderful pieces of philosophical technology. After all, the ability to make the right distinctions is a conceptual skill that you can take into new puzzles and new situations. Distinctions and other tools for navigating “logical space” without getting lost or overwhelmed are often more widely applicable than a grasp of particular arguments and counterarguments. For example, one set of distinctions familiar to most who have taken introductory philosophy is the standard tree for categorizing views about free will (below). That tree gives you a way of beginning to carve up the space of views about free will, and allows you to distinguish between two very different kinds of view that allow for free will (libertarianism and compatibilism). I would guess that most students remember that tree better than they remember, say, the consequence argument.

standard views about free will

Another activity of philosophers, and one that is harnessed by the folk picture, is the articulation of possibilities that have not been thought of or put clearly before. In particular, I mean identifying unnoticed assumptions and discarding them. There are complications here… at some level of generality, there is probably nothing new under the sun anymore (sorry, undergrad essay writers, I just about promise you didn’t think of it first). And novelty is not interesting for its own sake, anyway. But I’ve heard a few people say that one of the most important activities of the humanities and social sciences in general is to “unmask ideologies,” which I think is a way of talking about identifying and often discarding tacit assumptions. According to Robert Brandom, this is more or less the basic shape of Hegel’s method and the form of most of John McDowell’s discussions. McDowell can probably be accommodated straightforwardly by the standard line, since his writing is structured around arguments, but the writing of Hegel and of many continental thinkers is a tougher case. If one insists that everything in philosophy must be in the service of an argument, then those writers will be considered egregiously inarticulate (that may be a just criticism of Hegel, but not of e.g. Nietzsche). And it’s petulant and problematic to simply insist that they are not true philosophers.

This exploratory side of philosophical activity is easy to miss in the analytic tradition because most papers are organized around arguments, even when they include other kinds of intellectual work. However, that’s not universally true even in the analytic tradition. For example, it is possible to find arguments in Wittgenstein, but it’s difficult in most of the Tractatus, and many of the most memorable parts of his later work are not well-described as arguments. Wittgenstein’s fans in philosophy often quote him like scripture: “The world is the totality of facts, not of things”; “Nothing is hidden”; “Light dawns gradually over the whole.” This tendency infuriates some of Wittgenstein’s critics, who see him as a crackpot guru and not a philosopher (“Where are the arguments?”). I would venture that a lot of the power of Wittgenstein’s work comes from his ability to get you to think about things a certain way. Perhaps the same can be said of many of the famous thinkers in the continental tradition. I might say that Plato has a similar effect, even though his dialogues are full of arguments (after all, many of them are unconvincing on their face). A lot of the most compelling bits in Plato are the myths and stories he tells—the cave in Republic, the chariot in Phaedrus, or Aristophanes’ myth of the origin of love in Symposium. But the truth is that even though Wittgenstein and Plato have plenty of fans in the analytic tradition, analytic philosophers often avoid admitting that they are compelled by anything but sound argumentation.

So what is the method of philosophy? My opinion is that the method of philosophy just is the method of inquiry, but explaining that claim and arguing for it would require more space than I want to take up today. I’ll stop for now with a negative conclusion: attention to argument is extremely important in philosophy, but I don’t think that argumentation is the foundational activity of philosophy.

What is this thing called ‘philosophy’?

Well, it finally happened. I’ve been toying for some time with the idea of starting a blog, and after a lot of procrastinating and a little encouragement from friends and colleagues… well, here goes.

So, I am a philosopher of cognitive science. When people ask me what that means and I’m feeling difficult, I say something mean like “I work on conceptual issues in cognitive science.” That’s true in an important way, but it’s super-opaque, even to philosophers. Here’s something a little better: philosophers of cognitive science sometimes do research in cognitive science just like their empirically-oriented colleagues, but maybe especially in issues that are very abstract or that involve tricky concepts like free will or consciousness. But that’s not what I do. Here’s a second something (and this is more like what I do): philosophers of cognitive science sometimes research what other cognitive scientists do when they do their research. We try to answer questions like, How do cognitive scientists construct models and theories? How do they settle disagreements? Why does it make sense for them to do it that way? Does it even make sense? The scientists study the cognition. I study the scientists and the science they make.

There are a few reasons to study the scientists. Of course, one reason is that science is hard (#itsaprocess), and philosophers want to help. We like to make science, too. But that’s not really why I study cognitive scientists. After all, they’re smart cats and kittens, and they’re trained to do their jobs, and it’s kind of arrogant to think that philosophers, who are not trained to do cognitive scientists’ jobs, will swoop in and set them straight because the philosophers know better. Sometimes our expertise is important, but that’s when the science gets into the territory we know better. This is why I study scientists: Scientists are trained in how to do the science. And scientists are supposed to be able to describe what their questions are and what their findings are. That’s all part of the practice of science. But it’s not a part of the practice of science to describe what the practice of science is; it’s only to participate in the practice of science. My job is to say clearly what cognitive scientists do. And I do that so that people who aren’t cognitive scientists can learn about it, and I do it so that we—cognitive scientists and philosophers together—can more clearly ask how the enterprise of cognitive science works, and how it fits into other sciences and other parts of human life.

The truth is that philosophers of cognitive science do a lot of other things, too. I’m sure I’ll say more about what philosophers of cognitive science do in later posts. In truth, I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to describe what we do. You’d think that as a philosopher, someone whose job is inter alia to say things clearly, I should be able to say clearly what philosophy is. But what applies to cognitive scientists also applies to us. Even though philosophers know how to do philosophy we have difficulty saying clearly what we do. And that makes it difficult for people who aren’t philosophers to understand what we do, and it makes it difficult to ask clearly how philosophy works and how it fits into other parts of human life.

Anyway, I started by mentioning that I’m a philosopher of cognitive science. My research is about science and minds and stuff like that. But as much fun as that is, I don’t really want to talk about that here on Explicit Content. If I wanted to talk about that here I probably would have called this blog I Hate Brains or something. What I want to think about here in this blogspace is the practice of philosophy, or philosophical methodology. I mean, I’ll think about other stuff, too—some about teaching, science and society, deranged music and the like—but the big idea here is to talk about what philosophy is and how to do it. And maybe thinking about that will help non-philosophers to understand what we do, and maybe I will help me be a better philosopher.

There are two complications. The first is that it can be hard to speak clearly about how philosophy works because just about everything in philosophy is controversial. (Sometimes it seems like the only thing that isn’t controversial in philosophy is disdain for views that used to be fashionable but aren’t anymore: Cartesian dualism, logical positivism, the deductive-nomological model of scientific explanation. And usually even those views will have their indignant defenders.) Folks who’ve taken an introductory philosophy course know some standard controversies, like “What is the relation between the mind and the body?” and “What is it to really know something?” But it goes a lot deeper than that. Philosophers also manage to disagree about how scientific explanation works, and what an action is, and whether contradictions are always bad. And philosophers disagree about what philosophy really is, or should be, and how it really works. So I can’t say anything on behalf of other philosophers. They’re smart hats and cats, too, and they will have their own opinions. The second complication is that epistemologists and metaphysicians (those are two kinds of philosophers) already talk a lot about what they do. But epistemologists and metaphysicians think and do a lot of strange things, and I suspect that the way they do philosophy is quite different from the way I and my colleagues—philosophers of science, philosophers of language, and others—do philosophy. So here I go, neither burdened nor buoyed by excessive attention to the literature.

I’ve got some thoughts and inklings in my mind somewhere. My goal here is to try to make them a little more explicit, so that I and my friends can take a look at them and make them better. Plato’s Socrates says that good friends tell each other when they’re wrong and, well, if that’s true then philosophers make great friends.