Divided in Metaphilosophy: Some Thoughts Concerning Analytic and Continental Philosophy

The alleged Continental and Analytic divide is vanishing, or at least, I believe it is from my anecdotal experience. Younger philosophers entering the profession are at a loss as to why their mentors are so entrenched in this divided thinking. Moreover, the Divide is sometimes pointless. If I am researching anxiety, I might read William James, Martin Heidegger, and Martha Nussbaum on emotion. I might reject Heidegger’s notion of Befindlichkeit and fundamental moods and “side” with Nussbaum’s Neostoic account of emotion, but that does not mean that neither Heidegger nor James should not be read. Each philosopher should be viewed as valuable in their own right.

Still, many things have to be true in order for the Divide to vanish, and I cannot prescribe one way over others to make this Divide vanish. The typical answer so far is to explain Continental philosophy as a different style than Analytic philosophy–often with Wittgenstein’s family resemblance in tow. There’s nothing really essential to Continental philosophy other than it being a label of sociology internal to the community of philosophers as well as Analytic philosophy is a term used by a community of philosophers. Typically, the term picks out someone concerned with a set of German and French thinkers starting with Husserl and continuing onward into the present day with thinkers like Badiou, Deleuze, and Foucault. However, the term does not pick out internally consistent content like the term Thomism does. There are of course different forms of Thomism, but there is a core set of assumptions as to why someone is a Thomist. There’s a lot of variety in Continental philosopy as a stylistic umbrella term. In truth, a dedicated Husserlian will never adopt poststructuralism, just as much as the poststructuralist will never agree to the assumptions of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology. There’s a lot of variety in Analytic philosophy. A. J. Ayer would never square with Christine Korsgaard or Bernard Williams.

The stylistic and family resemblance thesis is dangerous though I do not think I have an answer to fully dispose of this line of thinking either. The danger of the Divide persisting is that these styles can persist on, each moving in their own direction without ever wanting to cross the other. Like a separated married couple painting a line in the apartment and never crossing the other, they can carry on. People can remain ignorant of the other side since they are not interested in the other. If the analytic invention of Continental philosophy was a way to organize what one did not want to think about, it only succeeded in pushing Continental philosophy into forming its own places of influence, power, and intellectual labor. Various graduate schools, institutions, and scholarly associations have formed along these lines.

Moreover, the Divide will never completely vanish, so vanishing is a matter of degree. I believe it will take some time, and some literary patience on the part of those that find Continental philosophy valuable. This literary patience is one thing. Yet, thinking about both camps brings to mind that the Divide is a matter of metaphilosophical commitments about what both Continentalists and Analysts think philosophy is good for. The debate about the Divide will become, if it hasn’t already, a matter for metaphilosophy. Ultimately, this is the thesis I am advancing here, but my efforts should be understood as more exploratory than definitive.

From the side of the analysts, The Divide persists in those that A) do not want to take the time to adopt the metaphilosophical assumptions of hermeneutics, and B) the embrace of Heidegger’s criticism of the strangely dubbed metaphysics of presence, which I would argue is the same impatience towards rationalism you find in James or Dewey–even Nietzsche calls for an end to Western metaphysics. Its an impatience towards the absolutizing nature of Enlightenment tendencies that undergird philosophizing itself, the robust way in which some philosophers claim there exists a universal, impartial, or objective standpoint of all reality in epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics. However, this gesture has far-reaching consequences to long to mention here.

Of those Continentals who harshly reject everything analytic, the Divide will persist in them insofar as they A) do not want to take the time to adopt the metaphilosophical assumptions of logocentric argumentation, nor B) do continentalists want to conceptualize a philosophical issue apart from its history (Personally, I confess that I teach ethics about philosophical content divorced from history, but teach Introduction to Philosophy as a history of ideas in various primary texts).* As such, good philosophizing wanting to overcome the Divide will require four characteristics. These characteristics are not necessarily contradictory, but certainly there are conceptual tensions to be worked out. I do not see this list as final or exhaustive. Your commentary and discussion are welcome here.

Differences in Metaphilosophy

1. Hermeneutic Metaphilosophy: Philosophy should restrict itself to the historical constitution of phenomena, and understand how philosophical problems play out within the history of thought. Philosophers are made more modest when we pay attention to how ideas are communicated in language, historical context, and the present needs of us as philosophers should be brought out into the open in relation to both historical context and language. Such modesty pays attention to the interpretation of philosophical ideas and not necessarily reaching a final truth about a problem.

2. Logocentric Metaphilosophy: Philosophy should restrict itself to carefully articulated and argued pieces of reasoning about problems and phenomena. The history of philosophy is simply an expression of various argumentative points of view vying for accuracy about core problems.

Metaphilosophy Corollaries

3. Hermeneutic Corollary: Philosophy can never know the whole of reality, but only interpret parts in relation to the whole.

4. Logocentric Corollary: Philosophy can know and establish accurate conceptual taxonomy of the possible philosophical arguments to any philosophical problem, and (maybe) exhaust the possible answers for all of reality.

What do you think?

*These two metaphilosophies obviously imply different pedagogical methods as well.


One Reply to “Divided in Metaphilosophy: Some Thoughts Concerning Analytic and Continental Philosophy”

  1. Your identification of major points of each side, particularly in the last two paragraphs, is insightful and accurate. Both of us had had notable training in both traditions, and in my case, Asian as well. There’s soooo much more to “the Divide” than “style,” and whenever I hear someone name that is the defining characteristic of the divide, then I presume that the person’s knowledge is not accurate since that view is pervasive and false. On my own blog, I have a lot of posts explaining what in fact the “divide” is. It’s fairly obvious for one with the knowledge and mental flexibility to see. But then, intellectual circles have tended to circle the wagons just as US political camps have. Although, in the case of academic philosophy, much of that might have to do with the fact that careers are on the line. That’s at least understandable.

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