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.


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