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)
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)
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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