Monday, 20 September 2010

Analytic Vs. Continental Philosophy

Analytic philosophy is rationalistic: rigorous, systematic, literal-minded, formal (logical), dry, and detached. It is modelled on physics and maths and is particularly popular in the Anglo-Saxon world. Continental philosophy is humanistic: reflexive, literary, essayistic, charismatic. It is modelled on literature and art and is particularly popular in France, Germany, and Latin America. These two traditions dominate contemporary philosophy, and they are largely mutually incomprehensible. This is unfortunate since their strengths and weaknesses are somewhat complementary.

The strengths of analytic philosophy are its universal scope, clarity and public accountability. It is concerned with universal principles and their interactions and implications. It tries to explain as much as possible with as little as possible in the way of assumptions. This is basically the scientific model, and incidentally also explains why analytic philosophy has much in common with neoclassical economics in its formal modelling approach - both are modelled on physics. It tries to systematise knowledge: setting each contribution within a framework that acts as scaffolding and allows others to easily comprehend it and build on it (or identify the design flaws and tear it down). It aspires to a model of public reasoning (as I do in this blog) in making clear claims of universal validity based on an explicit and systematic rational justification that are in principle comprehensible and acceptable to all, and to which anyone may raise an objection in the same way and be assured a fair hearing.

But its weaknesses are in its lack of self-reflection. There is an assumption of progress and of an efficient 'market for ideas' (the current conversation incorporates everything of any importance, so why bother reading anything from more than 5 years ago). There is an assumption that philosophical analysis consists only in the efficient transmission of arguments, in language that should be as transparent as a 'window pane' (as Orwell put it). There is an assumption that ideas can be analysed independently of their context, of who made them and what they intended - the impulse to abstract, which can easily become an impulse to superficiality. There is an assumption that logical validity is sufficient for actual significance, that producing yet another finely turned distinction is a real contribution to human knowledge.

The strengths of continental philosophy are its direct concern with the human condition, its ambition, its reflexivity, its concern with the media as well as the message. Unlike analytical philosophy it does not assume that people are rational and then move on from there. It directs itself inward, to trying to understand how people work and why, and it does so with reference to traditions in the social sciences (particularly sociology, and anthropology) and the humanities (psychoanalysis, literature, art). It asks big and impossible but thrilling questions, like why is there something rather than nothing (hence its alternative name 'metaphysical philosophy'), but the answers usually relate insightfully to us, not physics. It is alert to the place of the author and her interests in the questions she asks and the way she answers. The text is never detached from the author as a contribution to knowledge in the abstract. It pays attention to the construction of the texts themselves, to how rhetorical elements are employed in the business of persuading particular people rather than providing neutral arguments that anyone, even Martians, would see the same way.

Its weaknesses are its insularity, arrogance, and lack of perspective. Because it lacks a common framework continental philosophy is fragmented between different traditions requiring long apprenticeships to master (similarly to the social sciences and humanities). Texts in continental philosophy have the same problem as in the disciplines they model themselves on: by deliberately incorporating the difficulties of their subject into the manner of their presentation they require particular effort from the reader to understand. They can be dazzling tours de force in which every element seamlessly links with every other and the whole conveys multiple levels of meaning. Or, much more frequently, every sentence is a turgid jargon filled ordeal written at German length and apparently in German grammar, that seems to deliberately insult the reader with its elaborate opacity that one always suspects may be hiding nothing but bullshit.

There is a prima donnaish quality to many continental philosophers (in contrast to the pettifogging bureaucrat tendency of the analytic), as if they understand themselves as 'artists' who should behave, as the Romantics taught us by example, as natural geniuses unconstrained by normal conventions of etiquette and morality. At all costs one must avoid the 'iron cage of rationality'. Despite claiming that interpretation is everything, continental philosophers are notoriously bad at appreciating criticism - at submitting to interpretation by others - because they see the exercise of power everywhere. They are often overcommitted to the truth of their own approach and exhibit impatience with other perspectives and traditions and decline to take them seriously. They often seem to talk past each other, and not merely the analytic philosopher.

The focus on the particular comes at the expense of the universal, but this also leads to a lack of perspective: they can miss the forest for the trees. They can overattend to the construction of a text for example, and miss the argument (Why does the author say 'man' and not 'person'?). Insight is not a substitute for balanced argument, but this is often forgotten when for example education is considered only through the lens of power (conclusion: education is oppressive).The microscope of interpretation can reveal much detail but seems arbitrarily employed and no-one seems interested in putting the resulting jigsaw together.

Philosophy needs insight as well as clear argument, the universal as well as the particular. No-one should wish for philosophy to be 'healed' into one unified approach, but we would certainly benefit from trying a bit harder to understand each other, at least sometimes.

Update: Check out the excellent discussion of the analytical-continental split on BBC radio's In Our Time.