Analytic and Continental Philosophy

“Analytic” and “Continental” Philosophy

“Analytic” philosophy today names a style of doing philosophy, not a philosophical program or a set of substantive views. Analytic philosophers, crudely speaking, aim for argumentative clarity and precision; draw freely on the tools of logic; and often identify, professionally and intellectually, more closely with the sciences and mathematics, than with the humanities. (It is fair to say that “clarity” is, regrettably, becoming less and less a distinguishing feature of “analytic” philosophy.) The foundational figures of this tradition are philosophers like Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, the young Ludwig Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore; other canonical figures include Carnap, Quine, Davidson, Kripke, Rawls, Dummett, and Strawson. (For the place of analytic philosophy within broader post-WWII intellectual currents, see the illuminating essay by Carl E. Schorske, “The New Rigorism in the Human Sciences, 1940-1960,” Daedelus 126 (Winter 1997): 289-310.)

“Continental” philosophy, by contrast, demarcates a group of (primarily) French and German philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries. The geographical label is misleading: Carnap, Frege, and Wittgenstein were all products of the European Continent, but are not “Continental” philosophers. The foundational figure of this tradition is usually thought to be Hegel; other canonical figures include the other post-Kantian German Idealists (e.g., Fichte, Schelling), Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Marx, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Gadamer, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, and Foucault. Continental philosophy is sometimes distinguished by its style (more literary, less analytical, less reliant on formal logic [though most so-called “analytic” philosophy makes no use of formal logic]), its concerns (more interested in actual political and cultural issues and, loosely speaking, the human situation and its “meaning”), and some of its substantive commitments (more self-conscious about the relation of philosophy to its historical situation). So-called “Continental philosophy” is not, however, a monolith; indeed, “analytic philosophy,” before its demise at the hands of Quine and Sellars, was a far more coherent philosophical movement than the two hundred years of philosophy on the European Continent since Hegel. “Continental philosophy” is more aptly characterized as a series of partly overlapping traditions in philosophy, some of whose figures have almost nothing in common with other. (See generally, the “Introduction” by Michael Rosen and myself in The Oxford Handbook of Continental Philosophy [2007].)

Although it appears to be a widespread view in the humanities that “analytic” philosophy is “dead” or “dying,” the professional situation of analytic philosophy simply does not bear this out. In the U.S., all the Ivy League universities, all the leading state research universities, all the University of California campuses, most of the top liberal arts colleges, most of the flagship campuses of the second-tier state research universities boast philosophy departments that overwhelmingly self-identify as “analytic”: it is hard to imagine a “movement” that is more academically and professionally entrenched than analytic philosophy.

There is, of course, an important sense in which “analytic” philosophy—as a substantive research program— is dead. The idea that intellectual labor is neatly divisible between philosophers and empirical scientists; that philosophers have a special method (“conceptual analysis”) with which to solve problems; that philosophical problems are essentially soluble a priori, from the armchair—all these substantive commitments have largely died thanks to Quine and others. “Analytic” philosophy, today, is the most richly interdisciplinary of all the humanities, engaging with psychology, linguistics, biology, physics, law, computer science, and economics in way that no other traditional ‘humanities’ field does. Indeed, what distinguishes analytic philosophy even more than “style” is its adoption of the research paradigm common in the natural sciences, a paradigm in which numerous individual researchers make small contributions to the solution of a set of generally recognized problems. This is true, interestingly, of even the best work by Anglophone philosophers about so-called “Continental” philosophy: researchers debate and work out the details of the readings of Hegel by Brandom, Forster, Pippin, and Wood, or the readings of Foucault by Dreyfus & Rabinow, Gutting, and Pile. Some of this is simply an artifact of the structure of post-graduate education in the Western world, where each new generation of doctoral students must find their niche and establish the significance of their research against the background of established scholarship.
Criticisms of “analytic” philosophy are familiar: arid, insular, boring, obsessed with logic-chopping, irrelevant. The criticisms are not without some truth. Clearly the “best” analytic philosophers do not resonate with the concerns of the broader culture in the way that figures like Nietzsche and Sartre do. Analytic philosophers do often miss the forest for the trees, and they often let dialectical ingenuity trump good sense (and sometimes science!) in terms of the views they will defend.

Typical of the doubts about analytic philosophy is the late William Barrett’s complaint that “an ‘analytic’ philosopher…earn[s] this title by grinding away at the consequences of this or that particular proposition as if filing a legal brief.…[B]ut [p]hilosophy is a way of seeing rather than the tedious business of a lawyer’s brief” (The Illusion of Technique [1978], p. 66). Notice that a representative spokesman for the analytic orthodoxy can essentially echo Barrett, though with a rather different valence: “Philosophy is not primarily a body of doctrine, a series of conclusions or systems or movements. Philosophy…lies in the detailed posing of questions, the clarification of meaning, the development and criticism of argument, the working out of ideas and points of view. It resides in the angles, nuances, styles, struggles, and revisions of individual authors” all of which constitutes “the grandeur, richness, and intellectual substance of our subject” (Tyler Burge, “Philosophy of Language and Mind: 1950-1990,” Philosophical Review 101 (1992), at p. 51). Neither extreme is very plausible: the lasting significance of, e.g., Plato, Kant, and Hegel among others surely has to do with their “way of seeing,” even though these thinkers are also distinguished by their attention to “the development and criticism of argument.” Nietzsche might well have been speaking of analytic philosophers when he wrote of his contemporaries in classical philology as follows:

Almost always the books of scholars are somehow oppressive, oppressed: the “specialist” emerges somewhere—his zeal, his seriousness, his fury, his overestimation of the nook in which he sits and spins, his hunched back; every specialist has his hunched back. Every scholarly book also mirrors a soul that has become crooked; every craft makes crooked.…Nothing can be done about that. Let nobody suppose that one could possibly avoid such crippling by some artifice of education. On this earth one pays dearly for every kind of mastery.…For having a specialty one pays by also being the victim of this specialty. But you would have it otherwise—cheaper and fairer and above all more comfortable—isn’t that right, my dear contemporaries. Well then, but in that case you also immediately get something else: instead of the craftsman and master, the “man of letters,” the dexterous, “polydexterous” man of letters who, to be sure, lacks the hunched back—not counting the posture he assumes before you, being the salesman of the spirit and the “carrier” of culture—the man of letters who really is nothing but “represents” almost everything, playing and “substituting” for the expert, and taking it upon himself in all modesty to get himself paid, honored, and celebrated in place of the expert.

No, my scholarly friends, I bless you even for your hunched back. And for despising, as I do, the “men of letters” and culture parasites. And for not knowing how to make a business of the spirit. And for having opinions that cannot be translated into financial values. And for not representing anything that you are not. And because your sole aim is to become masters of your craft, with reverence for every kind of mastery and competence, and with uncompromising opposition to everything that is semblance, half-genuine, dressed up, virtuosolike, demagogical, or histrionic in litteris et artibus—to everything that cannot prove to you its unconditional probity in discipline and prior training, [The Gay Science, sec. 366]

These remarks remain as apt today as they were more than a century ago. Whatever the limitations of “analytic” philosophy, it is clearly far preferable to what has befallen humanistic fields like English, which have largely collapsed as serious disciplines while becoming the repository for all the world’s bad philosophy, bad social science, and bad history. (Surely humanity “celebrities” like Stanley Fish and Judith Butler are fine contemporary examples of “the man of letters who really isnothing but ‘represents’ almost everything, playing and ‘substituting’ for the expert, and taking it upon himself in all modesty to get himself paid, honored, and celebrated.…”) When compared to the sophomoric nonsense that passes for “philosophizing” in the broader academic culture—often in fields like English, Law, Political Science, and sometimes History—one can only have the highest respect for the intellectual rigor and specialization of analytic philosophers. It is also because analytic philosophy remains very much a specialty that it is possible to rank departments: the standards of success and accomplishment are relatively clear, maintained as they are by a large, dedicated scholarly community.

Indeed, it is fair to say that what gets called “analytic” philosophy is the philosophical movement most continuous with the “grand” tradition in philosophy, the tradition of Aristotle and Descartes and Hume and Kant. Only analytic philosophers aspire to the level of argumentative sophistication and philosophical depth that marks the great philosophers—even as analytic philosophers typically fail to achieve the grand visions, the “ways of seeing” of the great historical figures.

At the same time, analytic philosophers generally become unbearably trite and superficial once they venture beyond the technical problems and methods to which their specialized training best suits them, and try to assume the mantle of “public intellectual” so often associated with figures on the Continent. The best analytic philosophers are usually very smart (clever, quick, analytically acute), but less often deep. A reflective, literate person will still find far more nourishment from the writings of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, than from the attempts of some “analytic” philosophers to become free-lance social critics or purveyors of existential wisdom. Yet as a discipline, in which students are recruited to do doctoral work, it is a bit silly to think that Philosophy Departments can train Nietzsches. Genius, one may hope, will find its way in the world without the benefit of rankings. But for those who want to pursue a scholarly career in philosophy, one can not do better than to pursue training in analytic philosophy—even if one plans to work, in the end, on Hegel or Marx or Nietzsche. As Julian Young remarks (Times Literary Supplement, July 10, 1998, p. 17):

The Continental tradition contains most of the great, truly synoptic, European thought of the past 200 years. That is why…whereas analytic philosophy has proved of little or no interest to the humanities other than itself, the impact of Continental philosophy has been enormous. But there is also a great deal of (mostly French) humbug in the Continental tradition. This is why there is a powerful need for philosophers equipped with analytic methodology to work within…the Continental tradition—to sort the gold from the humbug.