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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Analytic/Continental Distinction

Jason Stanley has an interesting post about the Analytic/Continental Distinction over at the Leiter Reports. According to Jason, though it is difficult to say who is analytic and who is not (he certainly wouldn't classify Shoemaker as analytic and Husserl as continental), he thinks that there is a distinction to be drawn between the two. As far as Jason is concerned, the main difference between analytic and continental philosophy is that continental philosophy, unlike analytic philosophy, is interested in giving historical and cultural explanations of the phenomena in question. For example, where an analytic philosopher might seek to identify the semantic contribution an expression makes to the semantic content of sentences in which it occurs, a continental philosopher might prefer to identify the historical and cultural reasons for its use.

I think there is much to be said for this way of looking at the distinction. In particular I do not think it is the subject matter in question that distinguishes analytic philosophy from continental (assuming that a distinction can be drawn). If anything it is the method used. Analytic philosophers like to look at the details, give "localized" arguments, and solve paradoxes. Continental philosophers like to look at the big picture, give global explanations, and identify paradoxes and tensions. But, to be honest, the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy never made any sense to me. What about drawing a new distinction between influential/non-influential articles/books or convincing/non-convincing articles/books. Any of those distinctions would clearly cut across any potential distinction between analytic and continental philosophy.


CK said...

I think that distinction makes a lot of sense. I haven't read much continental (or analytic, actually, since I'm just starting out), but over the summer I read CG Prado's Searle and Foucault on Truth. He was arguing that their goals overlapped more than might be thought, and that their approaches, looked at comparatively, can shed light on questions about truth.

Interestingly, Searle's account of the Background seemed to correlate with Foucault's historical and cultural analysis of truth/power structures (under Prado's description at least--I've only read a bit of F.) Foucault was much more interested in specific historical accounts, though, whereas Searle didn't seem to consider whether the Background could change for different time periods, and what impact that would have on his framework.

Anyway, I would really like to see more books like that. It helped clarify quite a few of my own questions.

Brit Brogaard said...

Yes, I would like to read that book. Another excellent example of a figure who manages to combine the two approaches is Robert Kraut from Ohio State. He is a Quinean but his approach is what I would characterize as continental.

CK said...

I've put up some very basic summary of the book on my blog. It's a pretty quick read.

I'll have to look up Robert Kraut, thanks for the tip.

Aidan said...

I've a much longer post on this elsewhere, but I feel the urge to say a little in defense of the distinction here too. Here's an analogy which might help bring out the kind of attitude I think I want to suggest we adopt (though of course, the analogy's bound to be imperfect in various ways).

Surely any influential or concinving/non-influential or non-convincing classification would cut across many (hopefully all!) of the sub-genres within philosophy. And we would have much the same problems trying to come up with some way of clearly and once and for all pigeonholing pieces of work into these categories; is there some distinctive topic, or methodology, or conception of the goal of philosophy, or writing style, etc., that marks, say, an epistemology paper from a paper in philosophy of mind or science or language? Would recent work on epistemological contextualism fit into epistemology or language? Is work on the placement problem philosophy of mind or metaphysics? To borrow some imagery from Sainsbury, classificatiing philosophical works with these labels looks less like a matter of pigeonholing, and more like clustering to a lesser or greater extent around paradigm cases.

I don't see that any of this suggests we would be better off eliminating these lables; we do get by very successfully with these classifications. We know which sections of the OUP catalogue to read, we use these terms informatively to let other people know roughly our interests, etc etc. But it seems to me a mistake to think that this success is explained because these labels pick out some sharply-bounded set of issues, or a unified tradition, or a particular methodology. They do not.

I don't yet see why a similar attitude can't be taken towards the analytic/contintental divide. If I go to someone's webpage, and it says that part of their AOS is continental, that conveys some useful information to me, and I bet it does to most other philosophers too. It's too vague and not fine-grained enough to give me a proper sense of their particular approach to philosophy, the issues and traditions they find important, or their methodology, but the same is true when someone says they do metaphysics.

Now, as I tried to say in my post, to recognise a workable, useful (albeit imperfect) distinction between analytic and continental should not be seen as remotely justifying the attitude that we can afford to ignore good quality philosophy being produced in one tradition rather than another. But I don't see how that attitude is forced upon us just by recognition of the distinction, anymore than I debar myself from dipping into and learning from recent work in metaphysics just because I don't label myself a metaphysician.

Brit said...

I think you're right, and I like what you said over at your blog!

One reason I don't like the "continental"/"analytic" labels is that, unlike the "language"/"metaphysics" labels, they seem to make people angry, split up departments, etc. Often they are used for political purposes. But if they are not used in this way, then I don't have anything against them.

Aidan said...

Oh, absolutely. That's why I'm so keen to say we should lose the attitude that's tended to go along with using these labels (an attitude I've probably been as guilty as anyone of holding at some point).

But I think the labels can be divorced from these bad connotations. For example, 'metaphysics' became a very dirty word in the UK when Carnap's influence there was at its peak. Anyone who's been to the philosophy building in St Andrews will know that there's one door with a plaque labelled department of moral philosophy, and one labelled logic and metaphysics. I'm told that in the '70s there was a department meeting to discuss changing the second plaque to just read 'department of logic'. Fortunately that didn't happen, and nowadays analytic metaphysics in the UK (and in St Andrews!) is as actively pursued as it is anywhere else. So these labels have, in at least one time and place, been almost as loaded as the "analytic"-"continental" labels, but we've risen above that. I don't see why open-minded philosophers can't do the same here again.

That said, I'm still not going to read any more bloody Heidegger....... :)