Philosophical Tribalism (and Remorse)


I’ve been reading through some of the essays in Postanalytic and Metacontinental: Crossing the Divide this morning (NDPR review here).  While I’m hoping to say some more about those essays later on, (for one, there is a particularly excellent essay about transcendental reasoning) a remark early on in the introduction made me chuckle.  Discussing two approaches to the analytic-continental divide, a deflationary view (which calls into question the distinction altogether) and the more essentialist position (which insists on the two ‘houses’), the editors note:

However we characterize or dismiss the distinction in theory, in practice it has for many years been very much a feature of the day to day activities of contemporary philosophers.  Academic philosophers, journals, conferences, publication series and even entire publishing houses, all now often live entirely within on or the other tradition. in some cases, the result is that continental philosophers have effectively been consigned to other disciplines, like comparative literature. More usually, philosophers simply inhabit their own tradition without attending to the other–perhaps looking at or attending occasional papers from the other side out of collegial politeness or personal loyalty, and often regretting it when they do (3-4).

Just recently I attended a colleague’s lecture out of a misguided sense of loyalty (though I was merely being polite) and was filled with remorse after the first ten minutes.  Again, out of a misguided sense of politeness I even asked a ridiculous question to boot!  Anyway, I’ve tried to think through the ‘analytic-continental’ distinction as sociological, rather than philosophical, but I often hit a wall with Heidegger’s critique of logic in “What is Metaphysics.”  Mikhail’s stupid Downer Principle has prevented me from flatly claiming the distinction is merely sociological.  However, in the end of the day I think the divide cashes out in terms of, for the most part, precisely who we read and make reference to.  That same colleague and I were joking how we have completely different reading lists for an Aesthetics course, and are, for the most part ignorant about the content of each other’s lists. So, we have a list of authors one typically associates w/”Continental” philosophy (as well as “analytic0, but, these authors often have very little, if at all, in common, be it style, method or “doxa.” In turn, I’m wondering why we group them together at all.

5 thoughts on “Philosophical Tribalism (and Remorse)

  1. This book looks interesting and I’d very much look forward to hearing your thoughts on it, Shahar. — especially concerning the status of transcendental argumentation (that’s a particular interest of mine).

    For what it’s worth, I would probably agree with your claim that the ‘traditions’ roughly work themselves out in terms of who one reads (though this characterization itself betrays a ‘continental’ orientation). But I would stress a little more emphatically the idea that who one reads has a direct bearing on what problems one inherits and the techniques one knows how to use.

    Case in point would be the overbearing and preachy concern for politics in French continental philosophy, which has everything to do with Europe’s hangover from WWII and ’68. It’s hit the point of being bad conscience…. That seems to me to be the way to parse the sociological aspect to of your claim. But that’s a partial answer at best, since it doesn’t explain the incommensuribility of approaches that grows out of this sociological condition

    Analytic types tend to say things like, “we don’t do science with 19th C equipment, so why would we do philosophy with 19th C ideas” and then go on to claim that contemporary advances in logic, linguistics, and science have obviated many — though not all — of the traditional approaches to philosophical problems. The latter claim strikes me as unfounded (and depends upon treating philosophical problems as if they were puzzles that can be solved, or blank space on a map to be filled in with exploration — continental types tend to treat problems as mysteries rather than puzzles). Sartre’s ontology (in critique of dialectical reason), for instance, will not help us explain the deep relationship among dispositions, natural laws, and subjunctive conditionals. ‘The Other’ and ‘The Real’ do not help explain the context shifting effects we observe when it comes to knowledge attribution, etc. But these aren’t sociological features — they point to a radically different philosophical conception of what philosophy does, and how one inherits them.

    Anyway, don’t mean to prattle on; I just think this is a worthwhile topic….

  2. There’s many ways of understanding the difference. I sometimes think of it in terms of differing failure modes.

    Some examples, not exhaustive: analytic philosophy fails to an overly narrow deductivism and a zoological approach (in which the positional and argumentative possibilities are classified into -isms which are attacked with the usual off-the-shelf arguments). Continental philosophy fails to argument-by-invocation-of-namebrand-philosopher and mystical handwaving.

    I’m not grumping in a pox-on-both-houses way–just mentioning that when they go wrong, they go wrong in different and characteristic ways.

    • Good characterizations but why do you think these are “failure modes”?

      It appears to me as different information systems or ways to organize the library/memory and maybe one shouldn’t have much higher expectations for scholary work? Collecting and comparing, establishing context, sorting out what is redundant and what has been stated elsewhere, canonization for teaching purposes. It is mediocre and one might envision some Google service in 10 or 20 years which could find a counter argument to a proposition together with an author who stated it but that seems to be the positivism of the discipline. It is a lower level function and it is a relatively safe or risk-free thing to do and therefore it is used to avoid failure.

      The fool and the genius are full of failure and obscurity but in case of the genius the scholars ( some of them at least ) are forgiving, whereas they are merciless with the fool.

      • On zoology argument pattern, which you zeroed-in on, my problem with it probably more complicated (and perhaps neurotic) than I expressed. I was really thinking of the paradigm case of journal articles, not class lectures and suchlike.
        It is one thing to, say, canvass the common objections to x-ism and show that they miss the point and that x-ism is wrong in some other way (or that there is no common x-ism to which all those objections are a response). That’s an interesting thing, not at all like informing your usually somewhat expert audience about the water they’ve watched go under the bridge. But if your object is to push x-, y- and z-isms out of the way so you can introduce your argument for a-ism, then cut way back on dealing with them; to be radical, just cite the literature you take to refute the end-of-the alphabet -isms and then get on with it. Doing that is not sloppy scholarship, at least in my view, it is avoiding cashing in on an aura of fake completeness and comprehensiveness.
        Okay, maybe my identification of this as a failure mode is far too idiosyncratic to count and possibly wrong-headed; I’m willing to retract.

  3. Eric writes,

    if your object is to push x-, y- and z-isms out of the way so you can introduce your argument for a-ism, then cut way back on dealing with them; to be radical, just cite the literature you take to refute the end-of-the alphabet -isms and then get on with it.

    I think there are two distinct issues at stake here: one concerning how one motivates an research program, and one concerning how a given research program might go about invalidating competitors. The two aren’t the same.

    If research programs are something like Kuhnian paradigms, then most of the criticisms, flaws, and funny data can — with sufficient tinkering, be fitted into it. Under normal conditions, the major problem has to do with the conditions under which one program appears to be more attractive than another (take as an instance here debates concerning semantic minimalism and contextualism, since I have some knowledge of this area). The contextualist program, one might contend, expplains everything that the minimalist program does, plus it does so without having to revert to some of the ad hoc restrictions of minimalism. To motivate the program, you only need to cite the work showing that (1) minimalism involves some set of ad hoc restrictions, and (2) that the contextualist program has all the advantages of its competitor without the problems. That’ll motivate a research, program, but it will not delegitimate semantic minimalism. I think this correspondends to Eric’s ‘radical’ approach. No?

    But that in no way shows that minimalism is a dead-end. For that you need to show that no formulation of the competing program can deal with some weird feature. this is a strong kind of argument, and it requires you to run through — and exhaust — possible responses to the objection in order for it to be taken seriously.

    Where things get boring and awful, is where taxonomies of how a given theory would respond to some situation take over entirely, and no serious critical or productive work gets done.

    Continental philosophy, by contrast, really doesn’t (can’t?) do this, since I don’t think it has a conception of ‘philosophical problem’ that’s amenable to this kind of treatment. Philosophical responses are, in a sense, recuperated and transformed, rather than shown to be inapplicable — and this points to (I think) a fundamentally different way of proceeding within philosophy.

    Needless to say, I think the idea of success and failure conditions might be a very interesting way to spell out the precise, philosophical difference between analytic and continental philosophy. How could a Heideggerian analysis of everday practice (think Dreyfus-McDowell debate) fail?

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