In Defense of Analytic-Continental Crossovers

As the old saying goes, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe that there are only two kinds of people in the world, and those who know better.” Apart from any lessons this statement might have for the liar paradox, it bears considering when confronting the issue of the so-called “analytic-continental” divide in 20th- and 21st-century European and American philosophy. I won’t attempt to summarize that contested distinction here — there are discussions of it all over the place; Gary Gutting’s NYT op-ed is a good place to start — but I wanted to say a bit about why I’m personally interested in work in both areas, and how I conceive of the relation between analytic and continental philosophy in my own work.

analytic and continental philosophy

From Sticky Embraces, author of the very funny philosophy blog, Hugging the Horse:
Though it’s still obviously an oversimplification, we might start by dividing professional philosophers into four categories rather than the original two:

(1) those who work entirely (or almost entirely) in analytic philosophy
(2) those who work entirely (or almost entirely) in continental philosophy
(3) those who work almost entirely in neither (for instance, some of those in Asian philosophy), and
(4) those whose work spans the divide

The division is still insufficiently nuanced, of course. Some groups of professional philosophers that it arguably doesn’t capture very well include those working in “Philosophy of X” sub-disciplines (such as philosophers of science or philosophers of art) whose work is anchored in study and reflection upon X. Such philosophers may engage with both analytic and continental treatments of their main subject, without having to identify as an analytic or continental thinker themselves. The same is true of historians of philosophy.* Also, analytic and continental philosophy might be distinguished along several different lines, of which an initial tally might include the methodological, the thematic, and the ancestral (that is, in terms of the authors and authorities considered to be “canonical.” For instance: Frege for the analytics, Heidegger for the continentals).

*The historian of German philosophy Robert Pippin, for instance, discusses both Strawson and Heidegger as secondary source materials for making sense of Kant, in Kant’s Theory of Form: An Essay on the Critique of Pure Reason (Yale, 1982).

How do I conceptualize the relation between analytic and continental philosophy (including characteristic methodologies, themes, and ancestries of each) in my own work?

When I look over the history of philosophy from Plato to the present day, the philosophers whose methodologies I admire the most, and would like most to imitate, are those who effectively and instructively combine rigor of argumentation with breadth of vision. From this perspective, figures like Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, and Peirce are most impressive to me. Frege thought and argued very rigorously — as rigorously or more rigorously than Peirce — but his philosophical vision was much, much narrower. Dewey, on the other hand, was broader than Peirce, but hardly as rigorous. Russell was both rigorous and broad-minded, but he never (as far as I can see) managed to connect the rigorous treatments of logical and epistemological issues, with his broader interests in society, politics, and religion. (In this way, he resembled his great ancestor in British philosophy, John Locke.) Analyses of this sort could, of course, be continued. Let me clarify that I only mean for this “rigor + breadth” formula to describe my own ideal for a philosophical methodology. I don’t take it to describe the only valid kind of work in philosophy, nor do I take it to (by itself) give much guidance regarding what substantive philosophical positions should be adopted.

20th- and 21st-century analytic philosophy provides an extraordinary pool of resources for enhancing the rigor of a course of thinking and argumentation. It’s thus an excellent resource and sets an indispensable criterion for anyone seeking to follow a rigorous philosophical methodology. At the same time, the effort to achieve and defend an overall philosophical vision will inevitably be restricted if one refuses to engage with the accumulated intellectual experiments of 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century continental philosophy, including Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, and many others.

From this perspective, some familiar criticisms of continental and analytic philosophy take on a new appearance. Analytic philosophy is sometimes said to be narrow, provincial, and empty of experiential content or cultural implications. Continental philosophy is sometimes said to be insufficiently careful and articulate about the inference structure of its arguments. This perspective also allows us to see a possible philosophical advantage to engaging deeply with both analytic and continental traditions: an enhanced ability to practice philosophy rigorously, articulately, boldly, and imaginatively, all at the same time.

The Meaning of Metal

Like many Americans of my generation, I have a lot of experience with the genre of music called heavy metal — represented by bands like Black Sabbath, Slayer, Metallica, and Linkin Park. When I was in high school, I knew a lot of heavy metal fans and I attended a number of concerts. As I got older, however, my musical tastes moved away from metal. At the time, I thought it was because I had grown tired of what I perceived as limitations of the genre: its focus on the emotions of anger and fear, on the topics of death and destruction, and its seeming inability to express a wider range of emotions and thoughts than these.

Last week, however, as I was flipping through radio channels, I heard the opening chords of “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, and I decided to give this old metal classic a listen. For those who don’t know, “Enter Sandman” was the opening track of Metallica’s Black Album, an early 90s album that might be the most famous heavy metal album of all time.* “Enter Sandman” itself is an excellent and unusually accessible example of a song in the metal genre — hence its continued radio play even after the 15+ years that separate us from its original release date.

While listening to this song, I had a revelation that changed my perception of the metal genre entirely. What I realized is simply this: Heavy metal is valuable precisely because it puts emotions like anger and fear at the center of its emotional landscape. In this way, it is a counterweight to the false “positivity” and shallow sentimentality of so much other popular music. And, for all of these reasons, it has a strong affinity (or, at least, an analogy) to those modern intellectual traditions that have also emphasized the significance of such dark and difficult emotions, as well as diagnosed the reasons for the avoidance of these emotions by so many widely accepted interpretive frameworks. I am thinking in particular of Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and the existentialism of Camus and Sartre.

I encourage readers to take another listen to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” from this perspective. The song includes the voice of a young boy saying a conventional Christian prayer that includes the words, “If I die before I wake / I pray the Lord my soul to take.” The lead singer then sings “Hush little baby, don’t say a word / And never mind that noise you heard / It’s just the beast under your bed / in your closet, in your head.” Here the child is being told (truthfully) that there are beasts in the world: other people can be beastly, the ways of the world can be beastly, and we ourselves harbor beasts in the unexplored or unacknowledged parts of ourselves (what Freud calls the unconscious). The world is not (only) a playground of sun and light, it includes dark, difficult, cruel, destructive forces (what Freud calls the death drive). Near the end of this verse, the volume and intensity of the guitars rises until we reach the chorus, at which point the rhythms and harmonies suggest a shift from the verse’s vulnerability to a manifestation of some unexpected new power, even a kind of security maintained by the forcefulness and violence of the new deeper and darker position to which we’ve just arrived. And the listener hears (singing): “Exit light / Enter night / Take my hand / We’re off to never-never land.” In other words: I will lead you into the hell of the unconscious, where fear and anger are among the most powerful forces, so that you can master these and become a stronger person.

I still think of heavy metal as just one genre among others, with its own conventionally-based limitations. But I can better appreciate now the value of its message. It helps us to notice and to more creatively orient ourselves to the tragic, aggressive, and destructive undercurrents that are an unavoidable and important aspect of reality itself.

*It’s generally thought that the genre began with Black Sabbath in the 1970s — who were the first to take the longer-standing tradition of hard rock, inclusive of groups like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, in the “darker” and “heavier” direction that defines metal. Sabbath was followed by Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, and Metallica, among others, but Metallica seems to have been the band from this early era with the greatest productivity and staying power (as judged by popularity and name recognition) in the 1990s and 2000s.

Animals, Species Identity, and Personality

Captioned cat photos, stuffed animals, cartoons, and shamanism are just a few examples of the ways that human beings personify animals. They’ve been doing it for a long time — perhaps for as long as there have been human beings at all. And when we personify animals, we suppose that it is their species that gives them some, but not all, of their personalities. Our dog Donner is always hungry, always loyal — our cat Caitlyn is always aloof and sly. Yet Donner is unusually quiet for a dog, and Caitlyn is unusually playful with water for a cat.

Navajo Kachina Dancer Dolls - Bear - from

Navajo Kachina Dancer Dolls – Bear – from

In this way, we include the species identity of Donner and Caitlyn, within our conception of their personal identity. Now imagine the way that we humans would look to a dog or cat.* Wouldn’t they include our species identity within their conception of our (individual) personal identities? From this perspective, wouldn’t they sometimes laugh at how “typically human” certain human behaviors really are? Wouldn’t they recognize (for instance) a proud investment banker and a humble small-town farmer — whom we might think of as having very different personalities — as different, yes, but also both typically human in many ways? We might even imagine these animals laughing at the way that, even when human beings do something unusual for the human species as a whole (say, tightrope walking, scuba diving, or airplane flying), the humans involved use their human bodies to do it. From this perspective, the image of a human being scuba diving or airplane flying is actually a little ridiculous. Perhaps an ironic approach to our species-typical characteristics — the inevitably “human, all too human” remainder that accompanies all of our extraordinary conduct — is just what the doctor ordered, at the onset of what some have described as a “posthumanist” age.** Another conclusion one might draw from this thought experiment is that the notion of “human nature” may have an inning even after certain classical humanist, anthropocentric, and “essentializing” tendencies have been overcome. *This assumes that we can “look like” something to them — that is, that humans share some cognitive competence and phenomenological experience of the “looking like” sort with dogs and cats. I think the assumption is eminently reasonable, though it is of course controversial. Readers who object to the assumption can follow the argument by considering what human beings would look like to a non-human species to which things could “look like” something. **See, for instance, Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) and Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Polity Press, 2013).