April 21, 2008

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Philosophy is Analytic

It seems that Alexander Pruss (also of Prosblogion fame) has set off a bit of a firestorm (there is a list of links at Siris) on the subject of the history of philosophy and the analytic-Continental divide. He has been criticized for making statements about Continental philosophy and then admitting that he doesn't know much about it. I'm going to try to be careful here, because I'm certainly no expert on Continental philosophy myself, but I do want to enter into the fray with a few observations.

I've titled this post "Philosophy is Analytic." Let me begin by clarifying what I mean by that in a very general way, and then I will dig a little deeper and argue that my claim is actually true. In claiming that philosophy is analytic, I mean to make two claims: (1) As has been noted at Siris and The Chasm, the distinction between "analytic" and "Continental" philosophy is often unhelpful or even downright false. I would claim that the reason for this is that most of the characteristics analytic philosophy claims as its "distinctives" are characteristics of philosophy simpliciter. The flip side of this claim is that (2) certain characteristics which all analytic philosophy shares and some of what is called Continental "philosophy" lacks are characteristics of philosophy simpliciter, which is what leads analytic philosophers to make the claims criticized in (1).

Before I identify the characteristics I am talking about, let me say that, as some of the others who have entered into this conversation have already noted, there exist relatively uncontroversial descriptive usages of the terms "analytic" and "Continental" in the recent history of philosophy: specifically, analytic philosophy is a philosophical tradition conducted primarily in English and inheriting from the likes of Russell, Frege, and Moore. Continental philosophy is, similarly, a philosophical tradition conducted primarily in French and German which inherits from the likes of Nietzsche, Husserl, and Heidegger. Most self-identified analytic philosophers would probably also list Wittgenstein as a founding father, but it's my understanding that Wittgenstein is also widely read and respected in Continental circles. The further away from the founding fathers of each school we get, the more difficult it is to apply these terms as neutral and uncontroversial descriptions. This is true to such an extent that the author of the Chasm, who identifies himself as a "phenomenologist" and lists Husserl and Heidegger as major influences, says that the term "Continental" is a "pejorative." His complaint is that he isn't a French post-structuralist. It seems, according to him (and I'll take his word for it), that analytic philosophers are making the mistake Plato describes in The Statesman:

it's as if someone tried to divide the human race into two and made the cut in the way that most people here carve things up, taking the Greek race away as one, separate from all the rest, and to all the other races together, which are unlimited in number, which don't mix with one another, and don't share the same language - calling this collection by the single appellation 'barbarian' ... [I]f by some chance there is some other animal which is rational, as for example the crane seems to be, or some other such creature, and which perhaps distributes names on the same principles as you, it might oppose cranes as one class to all other living creatures and give itself airs, taking all the rest together with human beings and putting them into the same category, which it would call by no other name except - perhaps - 'animals'. So let's try to be very wary of everything of this sort. (262d, 263d)

Let's be very wary indeed.

Now, let me continue to identify the characteristics I am talking about. When I took intro to ancient philosophy with Charles Kahn in 2004, the first portion of the course was concerned with the distinction between philosophy properly so-called and wisdom literature, and what it was that changed at some point between Thales and Socrates such that philosophy arose as something distinct from wisdom literature. Plato and Hesiod are both trying to construct frameworks for considering the world we live in, but their enterprises differ in very important ways. My notes from that class (and I make no guarantees as to how closely my notes from Sophomore year resemble anything Prof. Kahn actually said) define philosophy as "an attempt at a certain kind of systematic knowledge attempting to answer certain fundamental questions by means of critical inquiry." The key terms are "systematic," "fundamental," and "critical inquiry."

A characteristic shared by early analytic philosophy (by which I mostly mean positivism) and Continental philosophy is a certain skepticism about this sort of enterprise. In the early 20th century, thinkers on both sides of the line expressed a degree of skepticism about our ability to use critical inquiry as a means of gaining systematic knowledge on fundamental matters. Strains of this continue to this very day. For instance, in his 1985 introduction to Leibniz's Theodicy Austin Farrer, contrasting 20th century philosophy with Leibniz, remarks that:

To many people now alive metaphysics means a body of wild and meaningless assertions resting on spurious argument. A professor of metaphysics may nowadays be held to deal handsomely with the duties of his chair if he is prepared to handle metaphysical statements at all, though it be only for the purpose of getting rid of them, by showing them up as confused forms of something else. A chair in metaphysical philosophy becomes analogous to a chair in tropical diseases: what is taught from it is not the propagation but the cure. (p. 7)

(The situation is even worse than this today - if you see a section labeled 'metaphysics' in a book store, it's usually about Wicca.)

This applies to analytic as well as Continental philosophy. Nevertheless, these characteristics of systematicity and critical inquiry - characteristics that distinguish Plato as an author of philosophy from Hesiod as an author of wisdom literature - are the characteristics that analytic philosophers have latched onto as their distinctives. This is, indeed, more or less what 'analytic' means. In this respect, the term 'analytic philosopher' can be compared to the term 'born-again Christian': strictly speaking, both are redundancies (when we understand the terms 'philosopher' and 'Christian' in historically well-motivated descriptive senses, and not in terms of everyone who self-identifies), but we nevertheless use the terms meaningfully - the former to mean the heirs of Russell, Frege, and Moore, and the latter to mean the heirs of Billy Graham, John Stott, and Bill Bright. There are philosophers who have every right to use the term 'analytic' who are not heirs of Russell, Frege, and Moore, and Christians who have every right to use the term 'born-again' who are not heirs of Billy Graham, John Stott, and Bill Bright, but they ordinarily won't use these terms because they lead to confusion.

Nevertheless, it is the case that even as they doubted the possibility of their enterprise, analytic philosophers have clung tightly to it. The postivists (to a certain degree following Kant) applied critical inquiry to the limits of human reason and language to come up with an account of where human knowledge could go and where it couldn't, thus shifting the meaning of "fundamental." Where critical inquiry couldn't go, they stopped. There are, however, some Continental "philosophers" who do not do this - I am thinking, for instance, of existentialism, postmodernism, relativism, and deconstructionism. Now, I said I was going to be careful about what I said in my ignorance, so let me note that I am personally familiar with Neitzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, some excerpts from Sartre, a smattering of semi-popular-level secondary literature, and the popular American forms of the views I've listed. Certainly none of these represent Continental philosophy at its best, and that is precisely my point. The views in question often despair of the ability of critical inquiry to answer fundamental questions and then keep talking about them anyway. In so doing, they cease to be philosophy and revert to wisdom literature. Wisdom literature is not without value (I happen to be a big fan of existentialist literature, film, and theater), but this sort of thing is like a reversion from chemistry to alchemy.

I should note briefly that most "ethno-philosophy" is also not properly philosophy but wisdom literature. Philosophy properly so-called is distinctively Greek in origin. That said, I understand that Indian philosophy and Taoism are possible exceptions, but I don't know enough about them to make a personal judgment.

As one final point, I will admit that while I think that philosophy is inherently "analytic," and that much of what is called "Continental philosophy" is not philosophy at all, some of my own views might be looked at as "Continental" in nature by some. Specifically, I'm an idealist, and I think that phenomenology - that is, the evidence provided by the nature of our subjective experience - is the place to start our philosophical inquiry. I don't know anything about Husserl at all, and I don't understand Hegel very well, so I wouldn't know if my usage of the word "phenomenology" is anything like theirs, but I thought that I should own up.

Feel free to use the comment area, or write your own blog post, to educate me about the better elements of "Continental philosophy" or to dispute my analysis, but please do so by means of a critical inquiry that aims at systematicity!

Posted by Kenny at April 21, 2008 5:49 PM
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"I am thinking, for instance, of existentialism, postmodernism, relativism, and deconstructionism."

Existentialism, check. Postmodernism, check. Relativism, check. Wait... what was that last one? To my knowledge, self-identified relativists in philosophy belong to two demographics: anglophone analytic philosophers (particularly when it comes to moral relativism) and (as Rorty noted) undergrads. Of course you could claim that many continental philosophers are relativists, but since they would by and large deny this charge, it would be a bit odd to consider "relativism" a continental movement.

But aside from this, I am trying to figure out your point, and as with Pruss's original post, I just cannot see it. You seem to be saying the following: All philosophy as such has certain features. These features may be described as analytic. Thus, all philosophy as such is analytic. This means that continental philosophy, when it does not share these features, is not philosophy.

So, then, you are saying that there is some writing, considered by some to be "continental philosophy", that is not really philosophy. Ok. But not much follows from this. So the question, again, is this: if you extend the predicate "analytic" beyond the tradition it normally delineates, and use it as encompassing philosophy simpliciter, saying "philosophy is analytic" is just saying "philosophy is philosophy." Why even bother arguing for that?

But you seem to be saying something more: that there are distinctive features of philosophy that make it analytic, that the members of the analytic tradition are more explicitly committed to these principles than members of the continental tradition, and that there are three such principles: (1) attempting to answer fundamental questions, (2) systematicity, (3) critical inquiry. First, I'd say that there is an important component missing: tradition. Critical inquiry cannot help understand or systematize anything without a background, i.e., something to understand and systematize; and this background is provided by a tradition, whether a philosophical one (the history of philosophy) or a pre-philosophical one (e.g., Hesiod). Continental philosophy is generally more explicit about the importance--and the inescapability--of tradition to the practice of doing philosophy. On to the other features:

Systematicity is a cornerstone of much of continental philosophy. Analytic philosophers are systematic in that they try to use defined terms consistently. Continental philosophers, on the other hand, are systematic in that they usually cover more ground, and do so consistently. The most systematic philosopher in history is almost certainly Hegel. The most systematic living philosopher is probably Habermas. Neither of these figures is normally taken as a paradigm of analytic philosophy.

As for "fundamental": first off, there are certainly philosophical questions that are not, at least traditionally, considered fundamental ones (e.g., what duties do we have to animals?) that are nevertheless fundamental questions. Second, there are certainly fundamental questions that continental philosophers address that analytic philosophers typically do not, or think the questions are simply based on confusion. In any case, most philosophers think the questions that interest them are fundamental ones, so attention to fundamental questions can't be a distinguishing mark of any brand of philosophy.

Finally, "critical." One way of stating the "critical" requirement is that philosophical problems be addressed rationally. But what this means, and what reason is, are also philosophical questions. Reason means massively different things for Hume and for Kant. There are, furthermore, at least prima facie legitimate questions about whether there is such a thing as "pure" rationality, or whether our "critical inquiry" is necessarily impure. One can, of course, define "critical" or "rational" as "formalizable using the tools of contemporary logic," but this will itself be a contentious definition. If some continental philosophers do not explicitly latch on to "critical" or "rational" as distinguishing modes of philosophy, then, this may indicate philosophical disagreement over the terms and their implications rather than an embrace of "uncritical" or "irrational" modes of inquiry.

Posted by: Roman Altshuler at April 22, 2008 4:38 PM

Roman - thanks for your comments. Based on what you are saying, I think you might agree with what I was trying to say. I'm sorry if I was unclear. Let me try again. This is what I was trying to say:

The characteristics which self-identified "analytic philosophers" today often claim are distinctives of analytic philosophy are in fact not the distinctive characteristics of one particular school of philosophy, but characteristics of philosophy as a whole. Some of what is commonly called "Continental philosophy" shares these features and as such is just as "analytic" as analytic philosophy (according to the definition of the term by self-identified analytic philosophers). On the other hand, some of what is commonly called "Continental philosophy" does NOT share these characteristics, and as such is not philosophy at all.

This is the basic idea I was trying to get at. The point is that I agree with others in the discussion that the terms are often misleading. Nevertheless, I continue to use the word "analytic philosophy" for "the philosophical tradition that currently predominates in the English-speaking world" and "Continental philosophy" for "the collection of philosophical traditions that currently predominate in continental Europe" because it is convenient and people know what I mean. The problem is that, as you have pointed out, under the definition given to the term "analytic philosophy" by many self-avowed practitioners, there are thinkers traditionally categorized as "Continental philosophers" who have just as much right to use the term as we do.

Finally, a couple of clarifications:
(1) I meant relativism about truth in general, not relativism about ethics. I know that relativism about ethics is common in analytic circles (I don't really do ethics anyway), but relativism about truth certainly is not. If it isn't common in philosophy departments on the European continent, it certainly is common in, for instance, the popular American version of post-modernism.

(2) I mentioned Hegel at the end of my post because I understand that 20th century phenomenlogists in Europe were heavily influenced by Hegel in their understanding of the meaning of the word "phenomenology." Nevertheless, I personally don't think that the divide (insofar as it ever existed at all) began that early. I would really like to study Hegel, and I really enjoy Schopenhauer. I don't think that someone trained in the "analytic" vein, especially someone who has done a lot of history, starts to feel really badly out of place until Nietzsche. We really have to say that Hegel especially pre-dates the divide, because of his influence on the British Idealists.

Posted by: Kenny at April 22, 2008 5:06 PM

Hegel is certainly a major influence on continental philosophy, but not because of his conception of phenomenology. While some people have made a case for a kinship between Hegel's and Husserl's notions of phenomenology, this is by no means uncontroversial and definitely not obvious. So I'm dubious about the idea that 20th century phenomenologists were influenced by Hegel's use of the term (Husserl was relatively unconcerned with Hegel; and Heidegger didn't talk about Hegel all that much--significantly less than he talked about Kant and the Greeks). Hegel plays a far greater role in Gadamer, as well as the various French movements (due to the influence of Kojeve and later Hyppolite), but more for his account of recognition, as well as his importance for Marxism, than for his understanding of phenomenology.

As to your main point, I have to confess that I am still not really following what it is. Or, maybe, I am not following why you are making it (what the point of the point is). It seems to me that one can take two different tracks:
(1) One can argue that there are features common to all philosophy as such, which differentiate it from other genres, like art criticism, or political science, or "wisdom literature." (Even such distinctions, I think, will largely have to either be overly exclusionary, or rely on family resemblances rather than essential features. And there will be odd cases--are Plato's dialogues, for example, best understood as philosophy, as proto-philosophy, as philosophy with non-philosophical myths interspersed?) And then one might say that these features, since they are common to all philosophy, will also be common to what is today called analytic as well as continental philosophy but not, say, to literary theory.
(2) One can argue that there are certain "analytic" features, and these features are common to all philosophy, so that all philosophy is, really, analytic (though not in the same sense in which the 20th century, largely Anglophone tradition is analytic).

I can understand why someone would attempt (1): though I am skeptical about the chances of coming up with any non-fuzzy, non-questionable, or even broadly acceptable definition of philosophy that distinguishes it from non-philosophy, I can at least see the value of being able to distinguish, however inadequately, one discipline from other related ones.

But what is the point of attempting (2)? That is, if one is just trying to find features common to all philosophy, and adding that "continental philosophy" that does not share these features is, in any case, not philosophy, what purpose is served by adding to "all philosophy has such and such features" an extra clause stating that "these features are analytic"? If "analytic" is taken not as referring to a particular tradition, but as a broad term that covers all philosophy, and if "analytic philosophy" in this sense is just coextensive with philosophy simpliciter, why bother taking that extra step and using the extra word "analytic" in such a context? What does it add?

You might say that it does add something: "analytic" in this broad sense means, as you say, that such philosophy deals with fundamental inquiry, and is critical and systematic. So now you've defined "analytic" in such a way that all features that belong to "analytic philosophy" are also features that belong to philosophy simpliciter. Why not just skip this step? Why not just say that these features simply belong to philosophy simpliciter? Why bother adding the extra word, "analytic," given that you now have to define the word anyway, and your definition of it is going to be identical with your definition of philosophy in the first place?

Posted by: Roman Altshuler at April 22, 2008 8:36 PM

On Hegel - thanks. I did not know that.

On "analytic" - my point is this: go ask an "analytic" philosopher what the modifier "analytic" means. If she gives a historical answer about schools of philosophy descending from such and such people, or a geographic/linguistic answer about philosophy done in the English speaking world, press her to tell you what is analytic about this philosophical tradition or philosophy done by these people in these places. You will likely get a description like the one I've given above. But the description I've given above is a description of philosophy simpliciter. So the modifier "analytic," when taken as a descriptive adjective rather than part of a complex proper noun, (a) is redundant and (b) still includes in its scope many of those who are conventionally called "Continental" philosophers. So my point is precisely that we should skip this step - our way of speaking would be more accurate if we simply dropped the word "analytic."

I then have to explain why I continue to use it in certain contexts, and the answer is basically that I use "analytic philosophy" as if it were a proper noun rather than a description, because people know what I am trying to pick out when I say it.

Posted by: Kenny at April 22, 2008 8:48 PM

I will take "analytic" here in the sociological sense (like "born again") as describing a certain large and diverse contemporary philosophical community.

The following theses seem true: (1) Just about every major philosophical question asked by a pre-19th century philosopher, and many of the minor ones as well, is a part of the work of at least one analytic philosopher. (2) Just about every major philosophical view staked out by a philosopher between the 4th century BC and 18th century AD, and many of the minor ones as well, is accepted by at least one analytic philosopher.

I say "just about every" but I have a hard time thinking of counterexamples. I don't think I've met anyone who believes in pre-established harmony, but I bet I know philosophers who would be willing to accept it if certain things didn't work out, and I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't some Calvinist who accepted it. On the question side I can't think of any counterexamples, though there may be some questions which were major but were mooted by the progress of science.

If this is right, then in some sense analytic philosophy is in two respects pretty much the same as the Western philosophical tradition up to the 19th century.

For all I know, (1) and (2) are also true with "continental" in place of "analytic".

I do agree, though, that systematicity is lacking in the work of a lot of analytic philosophers. But there are exceptions. Rescher is one such exception. Analytic Thomists are another exception (they inherit their systematicity from that of St. Thomas, but an inherited systematicity is still a systematicity).

I do have a question for Mr. Altshuler. Does "systematic" mean the same thing for continental and analytic philosophers? I would think of an analytic philosopher as systematic if she had an overarching view which provided answers (or gave reasons to reformulate the questions) to most questions like the following: Does God exist? What are minds, knowledge, moral obligation, causation, possibility, and freedom? Do we have freedom? What kinds of being or beings are there? How are minds and bodies related? What is virtue and how should we get it? What is the meaning of life? Etc.

Posted by: Alexander R Pruss at April 23, 2008 3:41 PM

Alex - thanks for stopping by! I think that what you say is true, but it should be noted that both of us (being, in the specified sense, analytic philosophers) are likely to have biased views about the modifier "major." I am almost certain that the same claims could be made about "Continental" philosophy, but I wonder if "Continental" philosophers might differ with us about which questions and views are "major."

Now, part of my point is that the term "Continental philosophy" as it is used today includes things that are not philosophy at all in any historically founded sense of the term, but it also includes some things that have all the characteristics that analytic philosophers like to claim for themselves in claiming to be heirs of the tradition. To continue the "born again" analogy, we could say that the term "Continental philosophy" is analogous to the term "Protestant Christianity." Today, "Protestant Christianity" is often used in such a way as to include things that are not, in any historically well-motivated sense of the word, forms of Christianity at all (e.g. the Unitarian-Universalist Church, or the elements of mainline denominations that look a lot like the Unitarian-Universalist Church). But "Protestant Christianity" is also inclusive of what I think are unarguably legitimate forms of Christianity, namely "Evangelical" Protestantism (e.g. Calvary Chapel) and "confessional" Protestantism (e.g. Presbyterian Church in America, Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod). (Some who call themselves Evangelicals have recently been moving away from historical orthodoxy in a variety of ways, and it is certainly the case that most Evangelicals don't understand historical orthodoxy very well, but this is not the place to delve into that issue.)

Finally, I think that analytic and "Continental" philosophers tend to be systematic in two different ways, both of which are attested in pre-19th century history: analytic philosophers tend to approach individual problems in highly systematic ways, but are rarely explicit about putting all of this together into one overarching system, although one hopes that most of them have enough internal consistency that future historians will be able to put their implicit systems together (compare Leibniz); "Continental" philosophers tend to develop big overarching systems for understanding everything (compare Kant). You might reasonably claim that the latter exhibits a higher degree of systematicity than the former (though of course this depends on how successful it is), but both approaches certainly aim at systematicity and at least sometimes acheive it. Of course, I don't think that all Continental philosophers are aiming at systematicity at all, because many of them think that it's impossible to acheive, but certainly some of them exhibit this kind of systematicity.

Posted by: Kenny at April 23, 2008 4:19 PM

I agree that there will be disagreement about what counts as "major". My own biased view on what counts as major starts with Kant's characterization (God, freedom and immortality), adds "being", and then looks at how other questions relate to these. The last part of this is where there will be a lot of disagreement. For instance, I doubt that many continental folks will agree that the nature of alethic modality is major, whereas to me it seems extremely closely connected to God, freedom and being. :-)

Posted by: Alexander R Pruss at April 24, 2008 10:21 AM

One might add that there are differences not just in which questions are taken to be "major", but also in which of those major questions are to be taken first in the order of approaching the others. For example, analytic philosophers tend to start with identity as a grounding concept. We can first establish what sorts of things exist, and what their properties are, and then we go on to compare how these existents differ from each other. This approach, of course, dovetails nicely with naturalism, particularly if nature is thought of as a static, mind-independent reality that we are striving to understand. Continentals, on the other hand, have generally been much more receptive to Kant, and so tend to reject the mind-dependent/mind-independent dichotomy: being as such depends on its disclosure. This will give a much more relational analysis of entities, which is one reason that in some continental circles (especially post 1968 French thought), difference became such a major concept.

On the issue of systematicity: Professor Pruss's description of it as involving "an overarching view which provided answers (or gave reasons to reformulate the questions) to most questions" seems to me to apply quite well to many continental philosophers. And if we distinguish systematicity in terms of an overarching view, from systematicity involving consistency in method, I think both will apply to many continental philosophers. In both senses, I think, Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, Derrida, and Habermas (to name a few) are as systematic as anyone in the analytic tradition. One standard difference, though, is that continental philosophers tend to incorporate the history of philosophy into their system. This, again, follows Kant's lead (he did, after all, conclude the first Critique with a "history of pure reason," and he systematized the history of moral philosophy in order to demonstrate the originality of his position). This is, of course, in line with the usual continental recognition of the historicity of philosophical concepts (stemming from Herder, Nietzsche, Hegel, etc). And so there is an important sense, I think, in which continental philosophers are more systematic than analytic philosophers, because the systematicity of their conceptual analysis is diachronic.

Posted by: Roman Altshuler at April 25, 2008 4:12 PM

This very interesting. If this is right, there may be a way in which contemporary analytic philosophy is substantively and methodologically closer to folks like Hume, Leibniz, Aquinas, al-Ghazali and Aristotle, because these thinkers (though Aquinas' concept of analogy and his philosophy of mind might force one to qualify this) did not see the history of philosophy as central to philosophy except as a source of ideas and arguments (in other words, the historical thinkers are not important qua historical, but qua thinkers, and their historicity is largely discounted), and rejected the kind of mind-dependence or essential disclosedness of being that you suggest is important in the continental tradition.

The historicity issue is an interesting one. I am not a historian myself. When I personally engage a historical figure, be it Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, Sextus, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes or Leibniz (to mention some figures I particularly care about), I care very little about how this figure has or has not influenced our thinking. I simply see this figure as a member of the philosophical community, just as much as any of the people now attending APA conferences are. I need to know the history prior to the figure to know what he is responding to and to understand his terminology, but I only need to worry about the history after the figure in order to beware of cases where the figure has been systematically misunderstood. But by and large, I simply want to engage the historical figure in the discussion, as just another participant, though one who has the disadvantage in the discussion of being dead but the advantage of being extremely smart, and in the case of some of the figures I mentioned, wise and insightful as well. When I engage with Socrates, I want to engage with him in the way that his contemporary interlocutors did.

In a way, I don't even care that much about getting right what the great thinkers said (except when I am actually teaching them), as long as I am getting good arguments and insights from the text. However, given how smart these great thinkers were, I have good reason to think that getting exegetically right what they said is more likely to produce philosophically good ideas than getting them wrong.

Not all analytic philosophers take this approach. Most of those who work seriously in the history of philosophy do not, or at least not exclusively, and I am grateful to them for not doing so.

Anyway, this suggests that there is a special way in which analytic philosophers like me can claim to be close to historical figures through a denial of the claim that the historical development between the figures and us matters. Of course the standard critique of that is that the historical development does matter, and that if we neglect it, we will misunderstand the figures.

Posted by: Alexander R Pruss at April 28, 2008 1:03 PM

On the matter of history, this seems to me to be largely a matter of analytic philosophers reading one way and continental philosophers reading, or at least being able to read, in another. Both Aristotle and Aquinas do, on occasion, give an important role to historical development (e.g., in their discussions of causes); and it's fairly standard among continental philosophers to read Hume as making extensive (even if not always systematic) use of historical considerations about philosophy; and this is a reading that can be given a considerable amount of support. And examples can be multiplied. The continental philosopher can find predecessors in the same way analytic philosophers do: by emphasizing the things in historical thinkers that are like less systematic versions, or like fragments, of what they do. There can be legitimate disagreements about (e.g.) how much Hume's diagnosis of the historical development of views on the relation between idea and impression plays a role in his theory of ideas, or how large a role his account of the recent history of the 'abstract theory of morals' plays in his understanding of the foundations of morality, or how important we should regard his account of British natural philosophy in the History of England; and how important historical development is to a thinker like Hume will depend on such judgments. So I don't see that there is any clear advantage here to analytic philosophers.

Of course, the real truth of the matter is that there is more to the history of philosophy than either analytic or continental philosophers are able to draw from it; both are just recent little sprays of water in the grand course of the river of philosophy through the ages....


Posted by: Brandon at April 30, 2008 12:20 AM

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