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…