Monday, April 21, 2008

Analytic, Continental, and the History of Philosophy

Alexander Pruss stirred up quite a bit of discussion recently in a post in which he suggested the following:

Occasionally, I find myself party to conversations about analytic and continental philosophy. It seems to me that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sextus, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, ibn-Rushd, al-Ghazali, Maimonedes, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant and Frege all practiced analytic philosophy for a significant part of their philosophical lives—some of these, indeed, for just about all of their philosophical lives.

Here's the discussion; there are interesting things in some of the comments.

1. History of philosophy at "Alexander Pruss's Blog" (the originating post)

2. We're All Analytic Philosophers Now at "Dissoi Blogoi"

3. Aristotle and Spinoza Were Primarily Analytic Philosophers, Haven't You Heard at "The Ends of Thought"

4. Continental Ignorance at "The Chasm"


5. Philosophy Is Analytic at ""]

I think part of the problem is that the opposition between 'analytic philosophy' and 'continental philosophy' is an ill-formed one. It really should be split into two oppositions, the regional (Anglo-American vs. Continental) and the methodological (linguistic analysis vs. phenomenology, or linguistic analysis vs. deconstruction, or logical analysis vs. hermeneutics, or whatever is in view at the moment), without any pretence that they are the same opposition, or that the former is at all a clear one.

One of the reasons this sort of thing tends to touch a nerve, I would imagine, is that people who self-identify as analytic philosophers have a very bad habit of flattering themselves in the mirror: they are clear, they are rational, they are substantive, etc., etc. It is not exclusive to them, of course; but it does tend to increase the exasperation of others. I am sympathetic to this; I get exasperated by it myself. I also am inclined to think that it is all a sign, one of many, that "analytic philosophy" as a philosophical tradition is in the process of dissolving. None of the former views of analysis that allowed some sort of agreement in philosophical approach have panned out; none of the compromises for weak alliances between such views that have been attempted have particularly satisfied anybody; nothing now unites 'analytic philosophers' in a philosophical 'project' except some commonalities in how they were educated and a slowly shifting collection of texts that act more-or-less as common sources of vocabulary and rhetorical formats.

It has always been an analytic conceit that good philosophy has always been analytic; but when, for instance, A. J. Ayer said it, he meant something that could be pinned down precisely, subjected to rigorous examination, and seriously evaluated. Now you find defenses of the idea becoming more and more amorphous and subjective in nature. Such syncretistic moves usually are suggestive either of pressures to form alliances and increase general appeal (a sign of increasing weakness and incohesion), or an increasing disinterest in the original core projects that ground the family resemblances of participants (people try to get more and more of their pet interests characterized as legitimate or 'philosophically interesting' or 'substantive' by loosening the requirements and extending terms until there ceases to be a real unity under the verbal one), or both. My own guess is the second of these. We have, in the past forty years, seen an immense expansion in the topics considered by people considering themselves analytic philosophers; throughout a great deal of this time there has been a great pressure on people trying to publish on more marginal topics or figures to argue that their subject of discussion is 'philosophically relevant' or has some special link to some hot topic of the day. When a fad becomes hot, everyone tries to cash in on the craze, whatever their favored topic or approach; it's a matter of academic survival. And thus we have concept inflation: the unifying key words (analysis, simplicity, clarity, etc.) have to expand to cover so many different things that they no longer have clear meaning. From here there are really only two likely paths: either the whole thing will simply collapse, everyone leaping from the sinking ship in disgust, or there will be a reformation, a new rallying, or a series of rallyings, under a banner or two or three. It's possible that some thriving segment of the 'analytic' world today is already the beginnings of the formation of such a rallying point. There are other possibilities, of course.

I think, incidentally, that much the same thing is happening to 'continental philosophy'; but I lack sufficient acquaintance to determine whether it is more or less advanced in its decay than 'analytic philosophy'. And, of course, it's possible that my acquaintance is misleading in either case. But I don't think so.

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