It may surprise you to know that modern philosophy is rather sharply divided into two vigorously competing traditions. I am not referring to the divide between modern, secular, rational philosophy and the ancient religious-based pseudo-philosophical traditions – those traditions are no longer taken seriously, and only studied for historical interest. I am referring to the divide between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy.
What is analytic philosophy?
If you hang around P&R, you’ve seen analytical philosophy. Most, if not all, of the philosophers here lean strongly toward analytic philosophy. (Myself included, though not as much as many other posters, and not nearly as much as most people think.)
The basic idea that inspires analytic philosophers is that idea that philosophical “problems” are illusions created by vagueness and miscommunication. If we could only eliminate vague or misleading terms and language, and express things clearly, unambiguously, and precisely, the answers will “appear” automatically (even if the “answer” is that there is no answer, because the question made no sense to begin with). At the extreme end, the dream was once to create a mathematically-based “philosophical language” that could be used to express philosophical arguments in a perfectly clear way – just like mathematical arguments. (Gödel’s incompleteness theorem ended that dream.)
When an analytic philosopher is making an argument, their presentation often looks a lot like a detective or scientist at work. They meticulously lay out the premises – often point-by-point – then apply logical operations to them much like mathematical operations (since X and Y therefore Z). Some people have compared the way analytic philosophers work to “puzzle-solving”. You can also easily spot an analytic philosopher critiquing an argument by the way they focus on looking for logical fallacies within the argument itself.
Some influential analytic philosophers are Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hilary Putnam, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, and Daniel Dennett.
What is continental philosophy?
Continental philosophy is the more traditional form of philosophy, ignoring the religiously inspired pseudo-philosophy – in fact, modern philosophy began as continental-style philosophy, and analytic philosophy was only developed a hundred years or so later. Unfortunately, you won’t see much of it around P&R, but if you hang around the freethinking blogosphere (ie, the blogs and forums that focus on skepticism, rationalism, humanism, atheism, and so on), it’s quite popular especially among people who focus on issues of social justice (such as feminism, combating societal discrimination based on race, class, belief, fighting poverty, and so on).
The basic idea that inspires continental philosophers is that everything we experience as humans is being experienced by us... as humans. That may sound trite, but it is a very deep idea that points out that all of our knowledge, perception, and even understanding is fundamentally tied to what we are – which is humans, with limited biological capabilities, limited perception, and minds shaped by biological effects and social pressures (nature and nurture). Our situation, which includes the nature of our biology, as well as our social upbringing and the things we learn along the way, creates our reality. At the extreme end, that is taken quite literally, as in nothing at all is real – everything is relative to our perceptions, experiences, and beliefs. (This is post-structuralism, and it was famously humiliated by physicist Alan Sokal.)
When a continental philosopher is making an argument, their presentation often looks a lot like a cultural critique, or a critique of society. They focus less on nuts and bolts and more on the larger picture that surrounds a key issue, looking into things like why social and cultural pressures or influences might have caused something to be believed. Some people have compared the way continental philosophers work to “literary criticism” (where the work being discussed is not a novel, but rather the real world). You can easily spot a continental philosopher critiquing something by their focus on the context, rather than the content.
Some influential continental philosophers are Immanuel Kant, Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault.
What happens when each tradition is working well?
An oft-heard criticism of philosophy made by people who know little about it is that it never makes any progress. That’s obviously false in general, but analytic philosophy in particular prides itself on making clear, observable, and measurable progress. Every time an analytic philosopher makes a successful argument, or manages to solve an old problem, that progress cannot be “undone” (unless it was mistaken, which does happen, occasionally). So once an analytic philosopher has figured something out, it’s added to the encyclopedia of human knowledge, just like mathematical and scientific facts. And analytic philosophy is actually the parent of several branches of science and mathematics, such as symbolic logic and linguistics. Hell, science itself has been understood in an entirely new way since Thomas Kuhn’s introduction of the idea of paradigm shifts.
Continental philosophy makes progress, too, but it in an entirely different way that is much harder to see, and almost impossible to measure. However, the reality is that all of modern civilization exists as it does pretty much because of the work of continental philosophy. For example, in the bad old days, empires used to swagger around the world imposing their culture on anyone considered more “savage” than them. Barring a few exceptions, that really doesn’t happen any more, and our modern world allows for multiple cultures to coexist peacefully while embracing the differences between them. Continental philosophy is also responsible for the end of slavery, and for the coming end of racism, sexism, and so on, because it shines a bright light on the existence of such prejudices, and forces us to either accept them (which most people realize is bad) or fight them. (It’s currently fashionable to downplay the contributions of continental philosophy, so I’m going to lay it out clearly: anyone who says continental philosophy has done nothing for us is an idiot. The reality is that it has done far, far, far more than analytic philosophy (in fact, analytic philosophy itself only exists because continental-style philosophy paved the way for it). Part of the reason for that, arguably, is simply because it has been around longer. But even aside from that, most of the things we take for granted today, such as freedom of expression to being able to live in a society where we are recognized as persons and treated equally (and if that isn’t literally true yet, it’s a lot closer to true now than it was in the past) are due to continental-style philosophy.)
Analytic philosophy, when it’s working well, tends to really help lay down strong foundations to help us understand hard problems. Continental philosophy, when it’s working well, tends to work on much grander scales, driving innovation and progress in society and culture.
What happens when each tradition goes off the rails?
The grievous sin associated with analytic philosophy going too far is scientism: the belief that everything reduces to scientific problems, or that the scientific method (or very similar methods) can solve ever problem – or at least every problem that matters. This is happening right now. I predict that in fifty or so years, when future philosophers look back on this period, they will sigh and shake their heads at how far into wacky land we went with scientism. There are people right now positing such things like that morality is a scientific problem (Sam Harris), or that we’re all just equations or other mathematical entities (Max Tegmark), and these aren’t fringe wackos – these are widely-read people. Notably, they are scientists (Harris is a neuroscientist, Tegmark is a cosmologist), and there are many other scientists who are jumping on the bandwagon of trashing philosophy as a waste of time and saying that science has replaced it (such as Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking).
You won’t have to wait fifty years to see what happens when continental philosophy goes off the rails, because the current boom of extremism in analytic philosophy is actually a response to a previous boom of extremism in continental philosophy. The grievous sin associated with continental philosophy going too far is postmodernism: the belief that nothing is universal, objective, or real, and that attempting to build a bigger body of knowledge and understanding that can be shared and used by all is a farce. In practice, postmodernists shrugged off any idea of making progress in knowledge, and dismissing even completely reasonable and objective conclusions, like “e=mc²” as “social constructs”. (Literally. Luce Irigaray famously called it a “sexed equation”, and said “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us”. Yeah, really. Not only that, she claimed that the reason we haven’t solved the Navier-Stokes existence and smoothness problems is because – and I swear I’m not making this up – they deal with “feminine” fluids, and not “masculine” rigid bodies, and physics has a masculine bias.) Continental philosophy also has a spotty history of being swept up in trends, and losing a grip on reason and reality to the point that even the good parts of it – the recognition of the existence and power of social constructs and the injustices they can cause – get forgotten. For example, both Heidegger and Sartre were vocal supporters of the Nazis, whereas analytic philosophers, even though they’re supposed to be clueless or uncaring when it comes to social justice issues, have an excellent track record of human rights support (in fact, there is even a myth that Ludwig Wittgenstein met Hitler as kids, and partially inspired Hitler’s antisemitism by being so much smarter and generally cooler than him – Wittgenstein spent WW2 working in a hospital, hiding the fact that he was one of the world’s most preeminent philosophers).
In fact, the battle between continental philosophy and analytic philosophy was called the “science wars”, because scientists were fed up at having their work “deconstructed” in ridiculous and nonsensical ways by postmodernist continental philosophers who did not really understand them. They were also concerned about the very dangerous influence the postmodernists were having on relativism – while scientists were desperately trying to warn the world of real dangers like climate change, the postmodernists were sitting on the sidelines saying that nothing the scientists said mattered, because it was all just based on subjective social constructs. You can imagine how the scientists felt about that.
There is no doubt that analytic philosophy came out the winner in the science wars, with continental philosophy licking its wounds and grudgingly admitting its own excesses. Unfortunately, the war didn’t end with mutually beneficial understanding, but rather with the other side so emboldened by its victory that now it is going off the deep end. The pendulum has swung the other way, and now it is the analytic camp that is out of control.
What this thread is about
First, let me recap the differences between the two traditions in modern philosophy.
Some philosophers believe that there is a middle way, and that at some point the two traditions will have to come together in some way. Others say that analytic and continental philosophy are irreconcilable, and even advocate breaking philosophy into two new fields – one for analytic philosophy and one for continental (it’s been done before, when natural and non-natural philosophy split, and the former became science).
So where are you on the spectrum? Do you consider yourself more sympathetic to the analytical or continental traditions? Do you think it is possible to reconcile the two?
And, of course, feel free to ask questions about the two traditions, or speculate on the differences or anything else about them. This thread does not have a single specific question – the topic is just the two traditions and the tension between them, so anything relevant to that goes.