Frustrations Continued: Analytic/Continental Divide

The internets are trying to kill me with frustration. I simply seek intellectual camaraderie and this is what I get on a LibraryThing thread concerning the Continental/Analytic divide in philosophy:

In my ever so humble opinion, so-called analytic philosophy is puerile trash. Real philosophy is in the work of the continental writers and thinkers – it confronts questions that affect us everyday, all the time, instead of burrowing into some self-aggrandizing, pseudo-scientific cocoon of trite figures and games and childish conclusions. It depresses me that all this trivia is called “philosophy” in the Anglo-American West, and that it’s used to bludgeon the unsuspecting masses with, when all that intellectual effort could be put to something useful.

Humble? My reply:

Wow. I guess I’ll rise to your flamebait. What has come out of the continental tradition that is of use, in your opinion? There are some that I can think of, but I can also name some useful things that have emerged from the “puerile trash” of analytic philosophy (most of computer science, causal inference methods, various logics, belief revision techniques for AI, etc.). Shall we compare notes?

A note of clarification: I take you to be referring to phenomenologists, existentialists, postmodernists and the like when using the word ‘continental’.*

*See what I did above– I used syntax differentiate the use/mention of the word ‘continental’– a useful distinction maintained by analytics ;).

I was trying to inject a little levity in my response, but it was quickly smothered by Existanai‘s lengthy response:

1) It’s not flamebait but a very firm opinion.

2) “Comparing notes” exemplifies what I mean by puerility.

3) Yes, Continental would refer to mostly 20th century streams of thought in Europe that have largely been ignored by Anglo-American ‘Philosophy’ departments, and the term Analytic, I assume, broadly covers what they focus on, to the exclusion of important contemporaries in Europe. The division is of course artificial, as is the debate, since one can easily find European philosophers who practice Analytic/etc. philosophy and shun others, just as one can find Americans who are turned off by their mainstream academia; not to mention that a) historically, much of Analytic philosophy, indeed most of Western philosophy in general, comes from the so-called ‘Continent’ (i.e. Europe or even Eurasia); and b) Analytic and Continental philosophy, even as defined above, encompass many conflicting and overlapping areas of thought. But of course, we understood each other more or less even without having to delve into such detail. Perhaps you see why I think giving a bombastic title to a superficial attempt at definition is again symptomatic of such ‘philosophy’. 🙂

I did not post to argue with anyone. I don’t expect to convince anybody, as it would require upturning a whole culture of thought, just as one has little hope for common ground when it comes to discussing, say, atheism with a fundamentalist Christian (not that I think you or analytic philosophers would descend to the stupidity of the latter; it’s just an example of communication across two worlds – not impossible, but rarely worthwhile.)

The fact remains that much of so-called Analytic philosophy consist of ‘scientism‘ – meaning that such academics consider themselves scientists-manque in some sense, trying to cover those areas where science has not yet or cannot put in a word, as if the task of philosophy is to be a kind of ornate plug until facts come along, or they imagine themselves to be, after a fashion, scientists themselves, probing logical/linguistic questions in a ham-handed fashion until they arrive at cute, but largely superfluous conclusions. In my opinion, that is merely an application of reasoning. A physicist or an engineer is applying such reasoning all the time, with the difference that they are not simply playing logic games, but have some concrete entities or data to apply them to, and they are constrained by the limits of their experiment or the nature of reality itself. One doesn’t call them ‘philosophers’, however. A neuroscientist who is interested in the functioning of the brain will attempt speculation on language in the same manner, with a limited set of data, and with intelligent guessing to fill in the rest, experimenting to test one hypothesis after another, but again, one doesn’t call him or her a philosopher.

Now it would be much too dangerous to say what philosophy IS, beyond doubt, or even what it is NOT, since such rigid systematisation is redundant and silly (I am providing some objections above, but they are not an attempt at systematising.) I’ll attempt a brief description, however, and this may well apply to non-Continental philosophers too – philosophy only comes into play when one is trying to re-order conventional thinking on a certain point where common knowledge is inadequate, where the sum of the facts do not actually add up to something concrete, or in other words, when one is thinking about thought and experience itself – what constitutes ‘logic’, what constitutes a commonplace idea, of history, of politics, etc. – and where such thinking is inseparably, indistinguishably tied up with our existence, our acts, with questions that have no tangible answers but which require investigation nevertheless (what are ethics?) It is not merely amateur sociology, psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, economics or pseudo-mathematics; neither is it a hodgepodge of these things. Any intelligent person is capable of researching and thinking about such fields and arriving at results or some kind of ‘knowledge’ at the end, given enough time – that does not constitute philosophy in itself, not matter how “philosophical” one is, or how relevant such studies are to philosophy, or how much they rely on philosophy. Philosophy occurs, rather, at or beyond the limits of the known (information, facts) or the knowable (elementary deductions, arguments) – or to borrow a little from Deleuze, it is not merely meditation, contemplation, argumentation, or advertising.

Again, I am not particularly interested in a debate. I am sure that the objections will be pertinent and interesting and worth consideration, but again, they are simply an attempt at bridging a communication divide and don’t lead to much. I am not going to stop or demonstrate against the many thousands of philosophy departments worldwide – let them continue whatever they are doing – but it is a continual source of irritation when these same self-important bodies take it on themselves to define what philosophy is and isn’t for others, can only muster embarrassing pronouncements on ideas they don’t understand, and sadly fail to see the irony therein.

Whatever happened to the principle of intellectual charity?

My reply:

This is pretty heated language for
not being flamebait.

“Comparing notes” is not puerility, but civility–it was meant to invite you to give your reasoning, rather than settling for bare assertions.

You didn’t post to debate, change anyone’s mind or bridge divides, so what did you post for? Just to cast dispersions without the possibility of rebuttal? If that is it, then I note your opinion, and await the perspectives of other interested parties.

Oy vey! But it did end on a conciliatory note:

It’s an issue that irks me from time to time, so the heated language should not be taken personally, and may I repeat that some of these divisions are artificial. After all, we have Wittgenstein and Popper in common, and I notice you are a fan of Borges the writer too (he was interesting as a philosopher as well, in my opinion.)

I also look forward to reading other messages.

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