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October 16, 2003

analytic versus continental philosophy

Ten to 15 years ago, when I first studied philosophy, the great divide was between the "analytic" and "continental" traditions. Some people wouldn't talk to colleagues in the opposite camp, and departments fell apart as a result. I think the conflict is dying down today, partly because of the waning significance of the French postmodern thinkers. They were the figures in the continental canon who provoked the deepest contempt from the analytic side. Many analytic philosophers can understand why one would study Hegel, Nietzsche, or Husserl, but not Derrida or Baudrillard.

The two groups are difficult to define. (One analytic colleague told me, in all seriousness, that "continental" means "unclear"an example of an unhelpful definition.) In my view, analytic philosophers are those who treat science as the paradigm of knowledge. Science is cumulative, so studying its past is not particularly important for progress. Everyone admits that scientists have cultural biases, but science aims to be universal and uses techniques to overcome bias. Not all analytic philosophers are pro-science; some are skeptics, relativists, or political critics of organized science. However, they all see science as the paradigm of thinking, even if they criticize it. And some actually see philosophy as a branch of science (consisting of the most abstract parts of physics, math, and neurobiology).

In contrast, continental philosophers think that philosophy is an expression of a culture. Thus there is Greek philosophy, German philosophy, and post-modern philosophy, but philosophy per se is only an abtraction. As Richard Rorty said, philosophy is a kind of writing, similar to other written cultural products such as novels and plays. This does not mean that continental philosophers must always be relativists. Some discern a pattern in cultural history: for example, a story of progress (as in Hegel and Marx) or decline (as in Heidegger). Or they may believe that it's possible to advance a rational critique of a culture from within. But they see philosophy as more similar to fiction and literary criticism than to science.

This explains the prevailing difference in methodology. Analytic philosophers try to solve problems. They do think about others' work, especially recent articles that embody the latest thinking. But a perfect analytic argument would require no footnotes or quotations; it would be self-contained and persuasive, without any recourse to authority. By contrast, the typical continental philosopher tries to show what Famous Dead Philosopher X thought about an issue of his day. For continental philosophers, the history of the discipline is not merely of "antiquarian" interest, as it would be for an analytic philosopher. Rather, the deepest philosophical truths (if there are any to be known) are patterns in the history of thought.

October 16, 2003 12:24 PM | category: philosophy | Comments


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