Reconciling Continental and Analytical Philosophy

4 07 2009

There are two types of people in this world: cat people and dog people; Beatles or Elvis; tissues or hankie. And there are analytic and continental philosophers.

Why is this? And why do continental and analytic philosophers have such foucault08difficulty understanding, let alone appreciating, each others’ work? And why the latent (and sometimes not so latent) animosity between adherents of both traditions?

I’d suggest it’s because the two approaches represent fundamentally opposite approaches to philosophy. However, when taken together, they actually turn out to be complementary, much like Niels Bohr’s motto: “Contraria non contradictoria sed complementa sunt,” (“opposites are not contradictory but complementary”).

See, the world of experience is a strange and chaotic one, and it’s the job of philosophy to make sense of it. The question is: how?

For the continental philosopher, the starting point is the world of experience itself. Continental philosophy takes as its task the mapping of the phenomenal world. It involves itself with perception, language, culture, emotion, history etc. It seeks to make sense of the phenomenal by determining its very contours.

Analytic philosophy, on the other hand, takes as its starting point the desire to describe the smallest number of moving parts – the very cogs that underlie the phenomenal world – that, when working together, produce the seemingly chaotic phenomena of every day life. The analytic philosopher is less interested in the dozens of ways a word might be used than in what all usages of the word have in common. They wish to abstract away the individual phenomena to get at the underlying eddies and currents that reinforce and annhiliate each other to produce the contours of experience.

DavidLewisYet the continental philosopher is wary of this approach, for it is suspicious of reductionism and the notion of objectivity, and is sceptical about our ability to know when we have actually discovered the underlying moving parts. The analytic philosopher, on the other hand, is irritated by the slippery nature of continental discourse; to them it’s like trying to herd cats.

One thing I’ve noticed is that most philosophers don’t strictly choose which side of the fence they’ll pitch their tent; the discover one day their tent already pitched and simply make home, realising later the fence some way distant.

Personally, I find myself firmly in the analytic camp. I’m interested in systems, although this not not so much from choice as a consequence of my psychology; I’m a high systemiser – to the point of being close to the ASD range. (In fact, I think a fascinating experiment would be to test a sample of analytic and continental philosophers to see where they fall on this scale – I predict they’ll all be higher than average on the systemising scale, but analytic philosophers will top out the systemising scale, while the continental philosophers will be higher on the empathising scale.)

The take home message from this whim and speculation? Continental and analytic philosophy are just two sides of the same coin. And the very fact that they diverged at all is perhaps a sign that both sides have taken their approach to extreme. Regular readers will remember that I’m critical of both sides. As philosophy has been shrunk and become overshadowed by its offspring, it has retreated to the extremes and become less relevant to the real world. As a matter of priority philosophy – of all persuasions – needs to make itself relevant again. And philosophers going head to head at cross purposes doesn’t do anybody any favours.

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3 responses

4 07 2009
Kate H

Nice. Pub inspiration hey?

6 07 2009
Ben Barnett

First, I must confess I haven’t studied philosophy formally beyond an introductory course.

The divide always appeared to present two ways to continue the discipline after Hume sideswiped induction and causality. To oversimplify, you can either a) ignore it, continuing on as best you can; or b) go back to the epistemological drawing board.

Both approaches have flaws. Avoiding epistemology as if it were no longer open to study avoids the one branch of philosophy that can speak to the everyday experience of being human. Elevating it above all else becomes a philosophical mysticism. Heidegger crossed that line, and since then, there has been little backpedaling and ever greater opacity.

Given evidence of a hardwired tendency towards inductive and causative thinking, the question is whether that nature should even be studied by philosophers, since it is vulnerable to more concrete analysis. The goals of philosophy and psychology seem to be merging altogether sometimes. The mission statement for philosophy you offer above could apply to either.

I too am a systemizer – Extreme Systemizing, according to the EQSQ website – but I find myself more sympathetic to the aims of Continental philosophy. That is probably because my own pet interest is the role of the experience of the sacred in creating meaning. I suspect that any purely secular ethical system will fail unless it creates this kind of “lived,” experiential meaning. I doubt that such a subject would be considered philosophical among analytics.

I wouldn’t know, though. I am well outside the academy.

16 07 2009
Sabio Lantz

The game of WeiQi (“Go”) makes Chess look easy. Good players must have skills in both the analytic realm (careful analysis) and the continental realm (whole picture). I would enjoy seeing these two set of philosophers taught the game and set to compete with each other.

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