Monday, December 26, 2011

Mailbag Monday: Analytic and Continental Philosophy

I get lots of questions about analytic and Continental philosophy. I think the following is the best jumping off point for the discussion.

Rocket writes,

Hey bro,
Why are analytical and continental philosophers always at loggerheads with each other? To me, they're talking about the same thing, just in different languages.

So, if you've been in a philosophy department long enough, you've no doubt heard the labels "analytic philosophy" and "Continental philosophy" thrown around, and if your department leans heavily one way or the other, you've possibly heard sweeping dismissals of the other school.

Now, 'analytic' and 'Continental' aren't neat, tidy labels into which we can force all philosophy - you've got tons of Eastern traditions that these don't cover, for example. Also, it's not like we have neat lists of attributes, and everything that does fit under one of those labels has all and only the attributes on one list or the other. But it turns out, we've got these two general schools of thought about philosophy, and sometimes, they're critical of the other. It happens.

I guess it's not as hostile as it used to be, but to hear some analytic philosophers tell it, Continental philosophers are just a bunch of bros competing to see who can say the most meaningless thing, as if Continental philosophy began as a complicated prank on academia that took on a life of its own; the initial perpetrators just lost control. And if some Continental philosophers are to be believed, analytic philosophers are just a bunch of nerds retreating to the safety of familiar letters and complicated formulas who like to argue over dumb technicalities because God forbid anyone have a daring new idea that isn't just a rearrangement of the same old shit. I once saw a talk where one Continental professor discussed the Problem of Evil in the Kantian terms of the thing-in-itself, and said something like "we can't directly access what is good or evil in the world", and then a grad student with an analytic bent stood up in the Q&A and was like, "Yeah, uh, I have seven objections..." and they proceeded to accuse each other of meaningless hand-waving and empty chess maneuvering for the next twenty minutes. Shit was intense, yo. (Do people still say 'yo'? I'm bringing it back... yo.)