Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Analytic and Continental Philosophy

I spent part of yesterday listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time that was devoted to discussing the relationship between "continental" and analytical philosophy and thought it was worth offering some comments on it. The show, chaired as always by Lord Melvyn Bragg, has a number of problems generally since it forces into 45 minutes discussions that are hardly fitted to such a compressed format.  On the panel were Stephen Mulhall (best known for his work on Wittgenstein), Hans Glock (who has worked on the nature of analytic philosophy) and Beatrice Han-Pile (best known for her work on Foucault). 

The basic problem at the heart of the show concerned the inability of the guests to really deal with "Continental philosophy", perhaps because, as was indicated more than once, it is less a philosophical category than a get-out clause that has been used often by Anglo-American thinkers to describe whatever it is that they don't do themselves. However, somewhat parallel to this, and less investigated than it should have been, is the demise of traditional "analytic" philosophy. Mulhall, who had the opening shot on the show, described the arrival of "analytic" philosophy at the beginning of the twentieth century, through the work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein (though he oddly neglected to refer to G.E. Moore). Subsequently, and perhaps because it has been popularly heard of, came the "logical positivists" after which it became somewhat unclear how the "analytic" tradition developed or what it is now. Glock did indicate at one point the view that the distinctive character of "analytic philosophy" was being increasingly lost though he didn't say either why this was so or what it meant for it to be the case. 

The general point that the demise of the early twentieth century belief that philosophy had a sound logical method that could sweep all before it (oddly later revived in terms of a turn to language in ordinary language philosophy) meant that Anglo-American philosophers essentially had to return to the grand themes of philosophy (as noted in the general revival now of "metaphysics") went missing. However, without some understanding of the way in which the early mission of analytic philosophy was dissipated it becomes hard to understand either how it got cut off from "Continental philosophy" or the ways in which it is now re-engaging with the latter. The conventional argument that the analytic tradition began in revolt against idealism tells us little about how it is that idealism can now be found throughout Anglo-American philosophy all over again (and not just because of the influence of the Pittsburg school). 

Similarly, the "Continental" tradition was presented by Han-Pile in terms of a concern with existential questions and a concentration on hermeneutic approaches. This emphasis naturally leaves aside the origins of phenomenology or the emphasis on rigid mathematical thought in the contemporary work of Badiou. In presenting "Continental" thought through the prism of existential questions something is caught about the use of literary methods but this again is something also important for such an evident Anglo-American thinker as Martha Nussbaum. 

The generic reflections attempted focused on the way in which the Idealist response to Kant marked a rupture of sorts that was not followed in Anglo-American thinking but runs into the inconvenient fact of the British Idealist school which precisely was concerned with a relation to the classic Idealists. What comes out of thinking through these questions is the immense difficulty of finding anything obvious to say about a division which clearly does matter institutionally and yet is very difficult to capture either historically or conceptually.

A different story I would tell would concern the way in which the formation of contemporary institutions arises from late nineteenth century developments. It was in the 1870s that we saw the arrival of philosophy journals and around this time we also have the Neo-Kantian school in Germany. The latter school devised many of the divisions in philosophy that became determinative for it in universities. Curricula that moved away from concentration on Greek philosophy and looked instead to modern philosophy finding its founding in the work of Descartes is a product of historical and conceptual work during the 19th century and with it arrived the distinctions between logic, epistemology, ethics and the "lesser disciplines" that became central to the manner in which analytic philosophy was institutionally disseminated. The questions of pedagogy that both played into this and also gave it a particular impetus have rarely been studied.

By contrast, French and German universities underwent different processes of formation, processes that themselves would require study. However what remained important here was a constant historical reference in philosophy that prevented the response to philosophy as merely a set of "problems". America, by contrast to both the UK and to the French and German situations, took longer to arrive at a determinate sense of philosophy and when it did it owed a lot to the efforts of Wilfrid Sellars. Sellars, himself, unlike many British examples, looked always back to historical examples and the arrival of new forms of idealism in American philosophy refer back to his influence.

By contrast to these reflections, the general emphasis of the guests on In Our Time focused only on the "great" thinkers and on reactions to them. I think, however, the institutional ways in which thinkers become canonised and the selection of questions from them requires understanding by means of how divisions in a subject become seminal. This requires a different type of approach to the conventional but don't expect to see it soon!

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