The Analytic/Continental Split

by Daniel A. Kaufman

My discussion with Crispin Sartwell on the Analytic/Continental divide.  Originally aired on the Sophia program, MeaningofLife.TV., April 10, 2019.


13 responses to “The Analytic/Continental Split”

  1. Animal Symbolicum

    To the list of analytic philosophers whose prose is beautiful, I would add Ryle. He grappled with some of the deepest, most difficult philosophical and metaphilosophical questions, and yet his prose appeared effortless in its vibrancy, fluidity, and translucence. (An instructive contrast case would be Quine, whose prose, while certainly a thing to behold and to savor, rarely failed to broadcast its artfulness, to the point where you get the sense sometimes that he embarked upon entire articles just to lead you to a bon mot.) A man of the world, Ryle fashioned his sentences using a magnificent array of verbs and nouns almost unmatched in their precision, specificity, and vividness. This allowed him to give his readers a feel for topics you might think impossible for topics of such abstraction. For philosophers especially, Ryle’s prose style is undoubtedly worthy of admiration and emulation.

  2. I agree. I absolutely love Ryle.

  3. s. wallerstein

    Very interesting. Thank you. Sorry about your father.

    As someone who has read philosophy outside of a university setting, I find analytic philosophy to be hopelessly academic.

    Continental philosophy is much less academic and seemingly more diverse. What does Schopenhauer have in common with Marx or either with Heidegger? The continental philosophers whom I read were not academics or dropped out of academia: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, the Frankfurt School, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir.
    There are continental philosophers whom I find impossible to read a page of, for example, Derrida or whom I find to be bullshitting, for example, Deleuze. I can’t imagine anyone who finds all of continental philosophy to be worthwhile, since there is so much diversity and if you like Schopenhauer, it’s improbable that you’ll like Hegel too.

    What I find very interesting is the study of continental philosophers by those trained in the analytical tradition, for example, Brian Leiter on Nietzsche or on Marx. If you read a continental philosopher on Nietzsche, say, Heidegger or Deleuze, they don’t talk about Nietzsche but about themselves. There is a discipline to analytical philosophy that
    keeps it from certain excesses of bullshit. Not that I’m saying that all continental philosophy is bullshit, just that some is and the field itself does not seem to put limits to it.

  4. I particularly like Dan’s point about humility about what we can know (52 minutes in).

  5. What sort of truth might not be available to the Analytic tradition?
    In January 2008 (so the story goes), the body of a female human, having (reportedly) lived on this planet for 81 years, released its last breath. At that moment several logical references came to an end:
    1. The body could no longer be referred to as living.
    2. The body could no longer be referred to with any gender or sexual classification.
    3. The body could no longer be referred to as human.
    4. The personality that had been said to inhabit that body could no longer be said to do so and could no longer be referred to by a proper name.
    5. The proper name “Emma Connelly” ceased to refer to any existent entity.
    6. The concept “John Winner’s mother” ceased to have any empirical reference.
    7.” The inhabitant of room X of nursing room Y” could no longer refer to the person that had this body as its locus prior to its living coming to an end.
    And so on.

    What was left behind in the wake of this event were merely traces: photographs; pieces of paper with words about some “Emma Connelly,” perhaps even signatures of the name; a legal estate which the state soon liquidated, the legal entity “Emma Connelly” no longer exiting on its tax-rolls except as a token labelled “deceased.”

    In strict logical terms, the sentence “Emma Connelly has grey hair” has the same referentiality and truth value as “The present King of France is bald.” – none.

    But “Emma Connelly had grey hair,” surely that has a reference? But it has no entirely trustworthy means of verification. There may not be any photograph of her (I don’t have any); or it may be photoshopped. There’s my memory, and the memories of a handful of others. But memories, as testimony, are secondary justifications. They need elaboration on a narrative. Their trustworthiness depends on documents from the past, themselves only referring to references that once were and are no longer. “John Winner’s mother” is now a trope for the probability that I was born. (I am a fact that can be referred to directly; but my any research into my origin also depends on documents of an event that only exists in the narrative of my life.)

    The signification of the sign “Emma Connelly” has slipped through the empirically shared that could be talked about, into the realm of testimony that only be shared through written documents.

    “The outside, “spatial” and “objective” exteriority which we believe we know as the most familiar thing in the world, as familiarity itself, would not appear without the grammé, without difference as temporalisation, without the nonpresense of the other inscribed within the sense of the present, without the relationship with death as the concrete structure of the living present. Metaphor would be forbidden. The presence-absence of the trace, which one should not even call its ambiguity but rather its play (for the word “ambiguity” requires the logic of presence, even when it begins to disobey that logic), carries in itself the problems of the letter and the spirit, of body and soul, and of all the problems whose primary affinity I have recalled.” – Derrida, Of Grammatology.

    There were a half dozen ways modern philosophy could have achieved clarity; paying more attention to Schopenhauer might have helped. Paying attention to Gottlob Frege didn’t.

    At any rate, the quote from Derrida, however abstruse, clearly addresses issues my story raises, that Frege essentially denies, and that the Analytic tradition has enormous problems with, noticeable, as a Deconstructionist would say, by their absence. There is a reason why some of the better philosophers of the Continental tradition (Lyotard, Agamben, Sloterdijk) have wrestled with the philosophical problems that arise with the Holocaust, about which one finds little discussion in the Analytic tradition. Crispin Sartwell remarks it very early on, and I wish it could be discussed more: Essentially, as it developed momentum, Logical Positivism simply lost interest in history, except as it could be used (as Russell does) as promotional explanation of ‘how-we-got-to-logical-positivism.’ But, as I think Marcus Garvey once said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” The problem with Continental philosophy is that it is all too rooted – Hegel still matters, as do Marx and Nietzsche (and Plato and Aristotle), in ways not even Kant does (or will be admitted to) in the Analytic tradition. The Analytic suffers from what might be called an anemic philosophical culture. It doesn’t have to; but so far, few in the Analytic tradition (certainly not any Logical Positivists) have developed a language that can discuss why my mother still matters to me – or even how to frame that as a question.

  6. One more thing about Derrida – for there is always excess, the plenitude of saying what hasn’t been said, but can be written – Derrida realized early that Husserl’s theory of language (which Heidegger depends on, in his early lectures on Kant, which, BTW are very clear and yet directly lead into Being and Time) assumed the primacy of spoken language, yet depends on a primacy of the written text. This double articulation, which is appositional without recognized limitation, dissolves at the margins as indecisive aporia – an undecided difference between intent and meaning, production and reception.

    The ‘margins?’ Although he doesn’t make much of it, several explicators of Derrida have pointed out that his model is probably the Talmud. (Right wingers have always accused Derrida of introducing ‘Jewish’ elements into Western philosophy.) The pages of the Talmud are exemplars of multi-vocal textuality – a practice resurrected in the sentential commentary of the middle ages, and recurrent now in the many essays that erupt once a philosophical position is noted. As Bakhtin noted, there is no statement that doesn;t – necessarily and inevitably – call forth a counter-statement. For Derrida, this is embedded in the text itself – every statement implies a counter-statement. Every argument contains within it its own counter-argument. If we’re discussing major philosophic texts (Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel), the stakes are very high.

    I’m not defending Derrida – his decision to multiply technical terms on a whim is exasperating, I grant that. However, the argument that his language cannot be learned is simply absurd. I learned ity. It takes patience and effort but it can be learned. And it can change the way one looks at the world.

    This was Rorty’s main insight. We don’t read philosophy to discover any truth – what a waste of time! Truth is the bill I have to pay tomorrow. We read philosophy to learn a language that makes paying bills somehow more meaningful.

    Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, may all be garbage (actually Introduction to Metaphysics, despite its politics, happens to be the best and clearest introduction to metaphysics one can recommend); but they can help to readjust our thinking, our insight into the world. In The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger raises the uncomfortable question, whether technology is our tool, or whether it’s demands of attention have made us its tools.

    I don’t think we have an answer to that question. In any event, I’m certainly glad the question has been raised.

  7. I don’t mean to belittle the scope of your loss, for which I extend my condolences, but I think it is not quite right to identify analytic philosophy with logical positivism. There was a great 20th Century debate concerning reference to the non-existent, still ongoing, with many analytic philosophers – such as Grunbaum, Smart, Williams, Quine, Putnam, Horwich, Mellor, Lewis, Sider, and others – defending a view (now often called the ‘B-Theory’) of time that would allow past and future individuals to serve as the referents of names and singular terms. All of those philosophers, and more, would reject 5, 6, 7, and the second part of 4. Most would probably reject 3 as well, but agree with 1. I have no idea what they would say about 2. Analytic metaphysics, philosophy of science, language, and mind have moved in a variety of directions of the past century, many of them quite far from verificationism, though of course the view retains capable defenders in the tradition. Overall, analytic philosophy is a flourishing and diverse area of research, though one that is certainly suffering from diminishing resources and reduced institutional support.

  8. This was a really interesting discussion. I really enjoyed the way Rorty’s reasons for sympathy with the Continental tradition were laid out, as well as the take on how attitudes toward science played a key role in the split between it and the analytic approach – seemed spot on to me.

    Other excellent writers in the analytic school would, in my opinion, include Dennett, Hacking, and Fodor.

  9. Animal Symbolicum

    I think the terms ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ have outlasted their usefulness in capturing relevant divides in post-Kantian philosophy. There are divides, they are several, and they are different from one another, even though they might criss-cross and be related in interesting ways.

    Following are a handful of distinctions I think might indicate real divisions, even if I don’t think any of the distinctions is mutually exclusive or jointly exhaustive: one and the same philosopher might at different times or in different ways belong to both or to neither.

    (1) Between (A) philosophers who think philosophy asks the same kind of questions as the natural sciences but about a different subject matter (abstracta, or metaphysical items and relations, or . . .) and (B) those who don’t.

    (2) Between (A) philosophers who think there’s a crucial difference between how language functions when we speak and write philosophy and how it functions elsewhere and (B) those who don’t.

    (3) Between (A) philosophers who think understanding the genealogy of philosophical concepts, vocabulary, and questions is important and (B) those who don’t.

    (4) Between (A) philosophers who think using language to draw one into a philosophical point of view — to achieve the sharing of a perception or conception, to bring one to see what you see and to see it with you — counts among paradigms of philosophical achievement and (B) those who think that the only truly philosophical achievement is to use language to formulate a philosophical claim and to defend its truth. (I think this is something like the distinction Professor Sartwell was on to around the 45-minute mark.)

    (5) Between (A) philosophers who think the achievement described in 4A can be counted as having been reasonably achieved and (B) those who don’t.

    (6) Between (A) philosophers who think truth is the reigning norm of assessment for a view and (B) those who think interestingness or significance (to name but two) might sometimes be more relevant norms of assessment. (And maybe there is a further distinction between those who don’t see a huge difference between the latter norms and the former norm and those who do see a huge difference.)

    (7) Between (A) philosophers who think philosophically accounting for, accommodating, or beginning from the first-person-singular and -plural human perspective is important and (B) those who don’t.

    There are probably several more I’ve overlooked or forgotten, but I see these as some of the more obvious ones.

  10. This is an interesting list. Looking at it, I think that philosophers who accept 1A, 2A, 3B, 4B, 6A and 7B from a relatively stable cluster-property-kind of intellectual inquiry (I would include 5A if it referred to 4B instead of 4A, which may be what you meant). In other words, the view of philosophy as largely scientific, formal, alethic, general/universal, etc. seems to place people like Frege, Russell, Carnap, Quine, Reichenbach, Smart, Armstrong, Putnam, Chomsky, Kripke, Lewis, Fodor, Dennett, Albert, Price, Mellor, etc. into a fairly stable group, even if they differ on many particular views, e.g. physicalism or laws of nature. There may be enough coherence here to reasonably think one has identified a tradition (name it “analytic”, or whatever one prefers) and to distinguish it from others. There will be those who are hard to place because they accept some but not all of these – Davidson, McDowell, Brandon, and Williams perhaps – but that doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a distinct tradition here. Not sure, but it seems plausible to me.

  11. Chris Stephens

    Interesting discussion.

    For those interested in more about the history of the Carnap-Heidegger debate, I’d recommend Friedman’s book, A Parting of the Ways (it’s also about Cassirer).

    Incidentally, I know this was kind of an aside, but at 47 min Dan, you say that “where something comes from is not a reason for thinking its true” – in discussing “genealogical” approaches. You might be surprised to discover that many analytical philosophers disagree. There is now a large literature on “debunking arguments” – see e.g., Mason’s Philosophy Compass article “Debunking Arguments and the Genealogy of Religion and Morality”.

    The basic idea is simple: sometimes knowing something about the origin of a belief (its genealogy) can be reason to think it is probably false (or true). Example: if I provide evidence that the reason people believe the particular religion they do and that reason is independent of what makes that claim true, then I can conclude the belief is probably false. Consider the fact that many people have the religious (political etc.) beliefs they do because of a kind of historical, contingent accident. If I’d been raised by different parents or in a different culture I might easily have had different religious and political beliefs. Suppose this is true. This suggests that what makes me have my religious/political beliefs is probably independent of what makes them true, and so my beliefs are probably false. They’ve been “debunked”. Arguably, this is the kind of thing that Nietzsche, Freud (think “future of an illusion”) and others are doing. And it can be given a perfectly logical argumentative reconstruction, even if (as some would argue) the premises aren’t always true (e.g., someone who wants to argue that I have the moral or religious beliefs I do because they’re connected to the truth/evidence).

    And of course, if you know a belief “comes from” something that is connected to a reliable process or to the truth, then knowing about the origins of that belief can be a reason to think the belief is true.

    So “genealogical arguments” a la Nietzsche, can provide reasons in the traditional sense. Of course, there’s a big debate about how to interpret Nietzsche – you mention BL and you should have Brian Leiter on again to talk about “naturalist” readings of Nietzsche, where he is definitely (at least sometimes) involved in making arguments. Even when he’s doing a genealogy.

    (Incidentally, the phrase “hermeneutics of suspicion” is Ricoeur’s, I think.)

  12. Animal Symbolicum

    Thank you for your comment, Josh.

    For the record, 5A is meant to refer to 4A. I see a large swath of the so-called analytic tradition — Wittgenstein and his great readers (Cavell, e.g.) — as committed to and as explicitly trying to get us to acknowledge 5A (and thus 4A). I also see a large swath of the so-called continental tradition — much phenomenology — as committed to 5A (and thus 4A) as well. Wittgenstein, phenomenologists, and even some hermeneuticists seem committed to the idea that argument is not the only means for rationally restoring intersubjective coordination.

    And as evidenced by their myriad sub-industries, many latter-day “analytic” metaphysicians — unlike many of the traditional “analytic” philosophers — quite obviously do not believe 2A. Commitment to the existence of objects called possible worlds is one glaring symptom of not believing 2A.

    But, yes, those philosophers you mentioned might form one relatively stable cluster. (I’d hesitate to put Carnap, Price, and Putnam in with those who are committed to 1A, but that’s for another conversation.)

  13. Josh Mozersky

    Yes, my list may have been put together a bit hastily but I see that you get where I was going (I meant early Putnam). Some “Continentals” might be “analytic” on this account, but it does strike me as a relatively well defined tradition.