A blog about belief

Analytic, continental

In Philosophy on June 18, 2011 at 2:53 pm

There’s been another round of posts on the philosophy blogs about the schism between analytic and continental philosophers.  If the schism is a bad thing, as everyone seems to agree it is, it doesn’t help matters to make “these people are like this, those people are like that” claims, but I do think there’s something to be learned by investigating why it is that philosophers tend to get so het up about this divide.  I’m going to stereotype the two schools to an extent, but it is with the goal of understanding why each is viewed negatively by those allied with the other side.

Jeff Bell at New APPS argues that the most important difference is that

for most analytic philosophers doing justice to novelty is not a problem (or at least not a significant problem) whereas giving an adequate account of the way things are is a problem. I do not believe doing justice to novelty or justifying the way things are (or common sense) are mutually exclusive goals—William James certainly didn’t think so—but it is important to realize that these are different problems that lead to the creation and use of different concepts.

This difference in goals explains much of the difference in method between analytic and continental philosophy.  The problem of accounting for novelty would seem to suggest a historicist or dialectical approach, while the questions analytic philosophers ask demand answers in the form of unchanging truths.  But there’s still the question of why the two schools of philosophy pose different types of questions when working in areas that both cover well, like ethics.  The fundamental difference, I think, is that analytic philosophers aim to work from a neutral, impersonal point of view in which only the validity of inference matters, while continental philosophers try to take into account their place, as academics, in the structure of the society in which they live.  While many analytics view continental philosophy as obfuscating, the analytic project of clarification looks to continentals like an exertion of power.

The continental approach as I have (very simplistically) defined it has the advantage in dealing with issues like race where, if only for instrumental reasons, it’s important to pay attention to the identity of those putting forth arguments.  A white male philosopher can easily do more harm than good in addressing issues of privilege, because many people in oppressed groups feel the need to reject what those in power say regardless of its truth or validity in the name of independence.  This is one of the major reasons why Literature departments in the U.S. have (I would say to their detriment) tended to ignore Quine and Lewis in favor of Derrida.  The issue of privilege is hard to avoid in literature, and the analytic approach seems, to someone steeped in it, more a part of the problem than anything.

Where continental philosophers begin to look absurd is when they seem to take up such a strongly anti-authoritarian stance as to reject the power that they have as academics to make positive statements.  Whether or not this is really a fair judgment, it does appear that many of the authors associated with continental philosophy have focused more on revealing hidden complexities than on stating their own positions clearly, and this has been to the detriment of their credibility.  This problem is is basically the converse of the objection to analytic philosophy as an exercise of privilege.  The relativism that critics of continentals decry comes not so much from the particular ideas involved – Nick at Yeah, OK, But Still points out that, despite the difference in method, the ideas discussed in analytic and continental philosophy are often quite similar – but from a discomfort with the use of power that was originally motivated by strong-enough ethical reasons (the fallout of colonialism and the Holocaust) but that has done little in the United States but erode the academy’s authority in the eyes of the general population.

Those ethical concerns do not, in themselves, require us to go so far.  Even if we accept that our own philosophical system irreducibly represents one particular way of looking at things among many, it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t still strongly believe in it, or even that we shouldn’t teach it and thereby exercise our power to impose it on others.  The alienation that characterized late Twentieth-century life for a lot of the people who think about such things as Zeitgeists is a fear of fully inhabiting the particular situation in which one is.  That fear is motivated by valid ethical concerns, but a better response than relativism would be to start holding the beliefs by which we act to a higher standard.  We can’t do that if we attempt to leave them, in late-Heideggerian fashion, “open to difference.”  Instead we should state our beliefs strongly, with the knowledge that they are just that, beliefs.


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