Beyond Continental and Analytic: Prelude to (Yet) Another Philosophy of the Futureby Olof Leffler on Jan 10, 2012 • 16:41 3 Comments
Everyone who has more than a passing interest in philosophy has heard of, and probably taken sides in, the debate that the Nietzsche-inspired title to this text refers to. It is the kind of debate that requires taking a stand, given that it is so methodologically – and, perhaps, sociologically even more so – fundamental for one’s philosophical direction. Therefore, I aim to take such a stand here, but it is a stand which I hope can be synthesizing, or at least non-diminishing, rather than divisive. I shall do so rather briefly, however, and I want to emphasize that I am not writing a manifesto, but am merely throwing around a number of ideas, which I hope can generate thought, criticism and discussion. I do not want to claim that all ideas are original either, so I want to, preliminarily, give credit to the originators of the ideas I may be stealing without knowing wherefrom. But be that as it may: I shall now let the arguments speak. I hope they can do so for themselves.
Now, despite recurring worries about its truth-value, everyone knows the official story here: after Kant’s Copernican revolution, and in particular with Hegel, philosophy in continental Europe came to develop in many directions, but especially in an idealist one, often with an historicist bent. Systems were built, idealism was widely held to be true, and darkness conquered the world, for, in the guise of British idealists such as F.H. Bradley, the Germans invaded Britain. But in that German darkness, there resided a flicker of light: his name – for our flicker of light was, as is customary, a man – was Frege. In Britain, furthermore, there was another man; he was a man of noble birth, and his name was Bertrand Russell. With assistance from Frege’s extraordinary development of formal logic and insightful philosophy of language, and not least together with his second-in-command, a certain G.E. Moore, who, with a deed of splendid vigour, was able to prove the existence of the external world with his bare hands, our noble hero fought the evil idealist hordes until the Light of Reason once again shone upon the mind-independent world, so that universals and external relations once again could live happily and prosper.
Other brave German speakers left the darkness of continental Europe behind: inter alia, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Neurath, Popper, Reichenbach and Hempel aided their English-speaking brethren – American pragmatists, English ordinary language philosophers, etc – not least after many moved across the seas after tediously unphilosophical real world events, such as WWII. Analytic philosophy as we know it developed: (i) it Took Science Seriously, (ii) its Language, that is, its first philosophy, was as Clear and Distinct as Cartesian ideas, (iii) it trusted Common Sense, and (iv) it was Devoted to Logical Analysis of language (as it mirrored the world). Except when it didn’t, or when it wasn’t. Then came Quine, Kripke, Putnam, Rawls, Singer, Dummett, and about a million others, and here we are. On the other hand, on the continent, other movements emerged, often with less focus on science and clarity, and more on themes such as human experience, emancipation and Big Ideas: phenomenologists (following Husserl and Heidegger), existentialists (following Sartre), hermeneuticists, psychoanalysts, Marxists, and what-have-you, until the dreaded post-structuralists – Foucault and Derrida in particular – conquered the hegemonical throne that they officially claimed to despise with their emancipationist doctrines. And, again, here we are, at least roughly speaking.
Regardless of whether this story is (fully) historially accurate or not, a much more important question is: where do we go from here? To answer it, I want to argue that “analytic philosophy” as it is conceived of today really is best thought of as something else, namely, “Anglophone philosophy”, and that this – normatively, not merely descriptively – is a Good Thing, for I am also going to argue that all philosophy is worth taking seriously in so far as we are searching for truth, and that this view fits much better under the “Anglophone philosophy” umbrella than the “analytic philosophy” umbrella, as I take Anglophone philosophy to be much broader. Following this argument, I want to show how I believe that insights from continental philosophy can develop contemporary Anglophone philosophy, and by doing so display its relevance. Ultimately, I hope that pointless barriers can be transcended. It is in the search of truth and understanding, rather than in war and love, that all is fair.
First things first, then: what is this “Anglophone philosophy”? Briefly, I conceive of it as the inheritor of the analytic tradition. It is very much the case that science ought to be taken seriously, that we ought to express ourselves comprehensibly, and that common sense intuitions often have to be the starting point of our inquiries. I do not think that anyone, 2012, seriously can doubt the canon of scientific results, be they the theory of evolution, basic physics or even supply and demand analyses of market behaviour, with all the evidence that supports them, nor do I believe there is a point to it. Similarly, jargon has no intrinsic value, and it is very much the case that we often have to start with intuitions: most other arguments tend to fall back to them, even though they often can bootstrap their way to other places, e.g. to the view that induction usually provides good evidence, but not because we have this intuition, but by itself.
However, I do not for these reasons believe that there is a point to calling this kind of philosophy, which often very much also is philosophy as it is practiced today in countries in the English-speaking tradition, “analytic” philosophy, characterized as above. Why not? Well, first, conceptual analysis – be it of ordinary language, proper names, or scientific terminology – is not seriously practiced as the fundamental philosophical endeavour. So Russell, the logical positivists, etc, are not gods anymore; they are merely minor deities. And this is good, because language is far from as important to understand as things (in the broadest sense, as they say) – but things include “not only ‘cabbages and kings’, but numbers and duties, possibilities and finger snaps, aesthetic experience and death.“ Indeed, language is, in my view (although I will I will not defend it in any detail here), better seen as a thing among many than the necessary starting point of philosophical analysis. Secondly, contemporary Anglophone work very often has strong historical – e.g. ancient Greek, Thomist, British empiricist or Kantian – influences, which is quite different from what one would expect from a solely analytic philosophy which primarily aims to explicate concepts. Furthermore, even the metaphysical “excesses”, not to mention ideal moral theory, of the dark centuries past are back with a vengeance, but it has turned out that the darkness wasn’t so dark after all. Doing the “metaphysics of x”, or so I take it, has merely turned out be an attempt to describe, explain or explain away x, where x is any kind of phenomenon that is not obviously quantitatively describable or explainable. And what could possibly be wrong about that?
If this is right, analytic philosophy has evolved into something broader and wider than what it originally was. While (i) and (iii) still stand, the role of linguistic analysis in (ii) and (iv) have been downplayed: it is true, of course, that one ought to write clearly and to develop one’s concepts so as to be able to say something interesting, but that is secondary to getting an understanding of things as they are (in themselves!), and this understanding, moreover, surely gains from a historial awareness of previous thinking about various topics. In fact, even (iii) is somewhat downplayed here in so far as it both has and ought to be integrated with a more theoretically developed, scientific, interpretation of the world. And, again, this development is a Good Thing – surely, in fact, it is a sign of that ever-so-evasive notion: philosophical progress, since this development gets us closer to truth qua goal of inquiry, for we are concerned with the world rather than words. (Indeed, who cares about ordinary language?) But what, then, of continental philosophy? Well, first I want to soften up the – again, presumably Anglophone – reader by emphasizing that it is not really distinct from Anglophone thinking; there is very often more “philosophy” than “continental” to it.
First, as is increasingly being recognized, the origins of analytic philosophy in Britain are fuzzier than the official story tells, and in fact shares many basic questions with not least the phenomenological movement and the Brentano school out of which that movement developed. Moreover, on the same note, the analytic German speakers – not least Popper or the early Wittgenstein, with their Schopenhauerian influences – were hardly unaffected by their continental surroundings. And, running the argument the other way around, surely one cannot deny that e.g. the social constructivist themes in e.g. Kuhn are very different from what many continentals may want to say. So it is unclear just how relevant the distinction is when discussing the issues rather than the sociology. Second, there are important figures that overlap the traditions: e.g. Hegel and Nietzsche are increasingly becoming appreciated in Anglophone circles, and even a contemporary figure such as Habermas can usefully be said not to fully belong to either side, so it is unclear just how relevant even the sociology actually is. Third, the breadth of continental philosophy must also be emphasized. It is one thing to reject Derrida on deconstruction, and quite another to reject, say, Merleau-Ponty on perception. So it is unclear just how much one manages to do when denouncing hundreds of years of thinking by waving one’s hand. Fourth, yes, many continentals are poor writers, but if you can spend time translating Aristotle’s manuscripts, there is no pardoning your French. So it is unclear why it matters that many continental philosophers are hard to read.
Summing up the argument so far, we now have a conception of Anglophone philosophy, and I have – hopefully – managed to ease the reader of at least some of his or her doubts regarding continental philosophy, perceived as distinct from analytic philosophy. It is now time to say something more positive, and I shall do so by arguing for the relevance of continental themes to many Anglophone debates, and by doing so suggest that, so to speak, further reading is required. I shall focus on themes related to metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of action and metaethics to make my point. Of course, this does not mean that the suggested issues are exhaustive of the relevance of contentinal work, only that they are areas where I believe that I have noticed that there is such relevance.
To start, then, when it comes to philosophy of mind, I doubt that many could fail to notice the relevance of phenomenological work. Merleau-Ponty was mentioned as an important figure above, but, of course, Husserl, Heidegger, and others can hardly be ignored either, at least not a priori, if one is looking for a serious understanding of, say, perception. In fact, phenomenological work even lies at the core of analytic (or Anglophone) thinking about the mind, for what else could one call e.g. Thomas Nagel’s enormously influential 1974 article “What is it Like to be a Bat?”? And, if so, how could one take Nagel seriously and then in all honesty ignore the continental work? And who knows which gems forgotten phenomenologists may have hidden, considering what Nagel found? So here is one area where insights could be found – and, of course, with e.g. the development of the embodied mind approach to the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, the relevant kind of work is already being done here.
Other interesting work, which to some extent overlaps with the philosophy of mind, is related to metaphysics and the foundations of the social sciences. In particular, I am thinking of a largely, but, as it increasingly appears, unfairly forgotten Polish phenomenologist called Roman Ingarden, who was a student of Husserl’s. His complex metaphysics (or ontology, as he would like to call it) treats the possibility of the existence of several modes of being in a very sophisticated manner, and therefore has strong parallels to e.g. Jonathan Schaffer’s work on grounding and Parfit’s recent possibilism, which recognizes possibilia as existences with another mode of being than the actual world. And here I would – again: if I may, and I may – like to recommend a Gothenburg contribution, namely Susanna Salmijärvi’s forthcoming dissertation, which attempts to relate Ingarden’s work to issues in social ontology, and a fortiori to the foundations of social science.
Apart from Ingarden, there are obviously also other continental philosophers who are relevant when it comes to the perennial methodological debates that plague the philosophy of social science. For example, I suspect that Bergson and Deleuze have interesting things to say about multiplicities that can be related to the question of the ontology of social institutions and kinds, which is a theme I hope to be able to explore further in the future myself. I also strongly suspect, generalizing broadly now, that while analytic (or Anglophone) philosophers usually tend to focus on the “output side” of agents, which obviously is very relevant for coming to understand actions, continental thinkers such as Marx or Foucault have also focused to a higher extent on the “input side”, i.e. the social influences that shape agents’ preferences, and both are necessary to fully understand human agents. So, again, philosophically relevant insights can be found here, which can also be extended to other sub-disciplines: for an epistemic example, it ought to be fairly obvious that many often accept e.g. their moral opinions because they aim to preserve their social status and therefore power, perhaps in the form of economic resources or as the cultural status of membership in the bourgeois left, rather than because they are perfectly rational moral reasoners, and therefore lack serious justification for their views. And such stories ought to be taken very seriously: we are but limitedly rational creatures.
Now, the distance from issues in the foundations of the social sciences to meta-ethics and philosophy of action is not very great, and interesting and relevant continentally influenced work can be found here as well. Not least, I think Paul Katsafanas’ constitutivist Nietzsche is a much better philosopher than Nietzsche himself, and where there is Nietzsche, there is Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer, for whom I must also admit to having a soft spot, wrote extensively on philosophy of action as well as on more metaethical themes, not least as a critic of Kant, and I very much hope to delve deeper into his thinking myself – I have found no serious treatment of his value-theoretical views in the literature, but if Katsafanas’ Nietzsche can be not only insightful but defensible in his own right, there may well be a Schopenhauer who is too. Furthermore, we can also look to Merleau-Ponty here, whose views provide an embodied perspective to the philosophy of action, which is (sorely) lacking from the mainstream debate.
So, now we do not only have the extension of analytic philosophy into Anglophone philosophy, but I also hope to have shown that continental philosophy is far from useless. The basic rationale behind this move in defense of continental thought is the truism that (good) inquiry aims at improving our views. And, as I hope to have shown, the continentals may well do so. Of course, this does not imply that all continental philosophy is good and worth taking very seriously – in fact, much is horrible. But then again, not all analytics are better than all continentals, so that is hardly an argument for ignoring hundreds of years of research. And it is, furthermore, one thing to believe in philosophical progress, as I do, and quite another to believe that exploring continental themes cannot help developing current debates further, so one cannot argue that Anglophone philosophy has progressed enough already to ignore continental input.
Now, before I finish, I shall also provide two further suggestions for this Anglophone philosophy of the future, which extend the themes of the main arguments above.
(1) It is one thing to take into account continental Europeans, but the world hardly ends in the former East Germany. There are other philosophical traditions out there, and as the argument for the extension of Anglophone philosophy was based on the ability of continental thought to develop it, similar considerations apply, mutatis mutandis, to e.g. Asian philosophy. Can anything be found there and appropriated to modern debates? Again, who knows? More research is needed, as scientists like to say.
(2) Despite not being a native English speaker, I hope that English can be more than informally established as the lingua franca of philosophy. It is already the dominant language in the world, and also in philosophy, today, so partly for reasons of linguistic justice, but primarily for epistemic reasons in that it facilitates the spreading of information enormously, I would like to argue that serious academic philosophy in general ought to be written in English in the future – at least premised on the view that it is possible for people in general to learn English, which I realize may be somewhat unrealistic. While placing limits here on the possibility of informal dicussions also is too harsh, at the very least, published works written in other languages could, or should, also be translated into English when originally published. Now, of course, English is far from Leibniz’ dreams of an ideal language, but it seems to me to be the best we have to work with to play such a role. If so, Anglophone philosophy would not only be the name of contemporary philosophy, but of philosophy more generally. Perhaps, then, finally, we could actually see a philosophy aiming at truth, beyond continental and analytic.
 Or perhaps “war of attrition” is a better term.
 I assume that the reader comes from the analytic (or “Anglophone”, as I shall argue below) tradition. More could, and, probably, should, also be said from and to more continental perspectives as well, but I will not do so here.
 Needless to say, this view is also held by “materialists” such as Marx and Engels.
 Sellars (1963), “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”, in Science, Perception and Reality.
 Cf. in particular Schaffer (2010), ”The Internal Relatedness of All Things”, in Mind (Vol: 119, No: 474) here. This article has also (strongly) influenced the brief introductory history to this text.
 Cf. e.g. Smith (1993), Austrian Philosophy, here.
 Cf. e.g. the work of Robert Brandom for the Hegelianism, and Brian Leiter (again) or Paul Katsafanas for the Nietzschean influences.
 If I may – and I may, because I am writing on my own blog – I would like to recommend the work of Gothenburg philosopher Jan Almäng for precisely the kind of synthesizing thinking I am arguing for here. See e.g. his phenomenologically influenced (2007): Intentionality and Intersubjectivity.
 Johansson (2009), “Proof of the Existence of Universals – And Roman Ingarden’s Ontology”, in Metaphysica (Vol. 1, No. 10), provides a brief but good introduction.
 Schaffer (2009), “On What Grounds What”, in Manley; Chalmers & Wasserman (eds.), Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology.
 Parfit (2011), On What Matters.
 See especially Katsafanas (2011), “Deriving Ethics From Action: A Nietzschean Version of Constitutivism”, in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (Vol: 83, No: 3).
 Cf. Romdenh-Romluc (2011), ”Agency and Embodied Cognition”, in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Vol: 111, No: 1).