Philosophy Bro explains complex ideas of philosophy in easy to understand language, created by Tommy Maranges, the author of Descartes' Meditations, Bro.

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 theProblem 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.)

So, let’s say some bros of mine and I have some hand-signals for, you know, bro stuff. And one of the signals means, “Oh, shit. Here comes that girl! You know. That girl. She’s coming.” That signal has a particular context. Eventually, one of my bros gets tired of sloppy use of the signal, and sets about laying out specifically what situations make a girl that girl. If I used the signal in a close-but-not-quite context, he’d handle it and then pull me aside and say, “I know she and I had that thing that one time, but we never… well, it wasn’t quite THAT. You know? So that signal, it freaked me out, because I thought it had to be someone else. Make sure you’re using it properly, okay?” And I’d be like, “Bro. Got it." 

Another friend of mine, he recognizes the sorts of situations we use the signal in have a common thread, so he begins using the hand signal for other situations, any situation that has the potential for both danger and excitement. So if someone invites us to this real sketchy bar, he’ll give me the signal - "This could be bad. But what if it’s not?” And I’d respond, “I see what you did there.”

Maybe you see where this is going. We’re hanging out one day, and some guy suggests we crash some party. Bro #2 signals, and bro #1 freaks out, looking around. And then he’s like, “OH FUCK I HAVE TO CALL HER.” And #2 says, “No, dude, there’s no one coming. I just meant, this is like one of those situations, you know?” And they’re pissed at each other because they’re using the same signal to mean different things.I’m not mad, because I generally know what they each mean, but I have more context than they do.

The same thing probably happens with analytics and Continentals. When Sartre talks about how persons have a fundamentally different sort of being than inanimate objects, Quine is like, “What the fuck? No they don’t. EVERYTHING JUST IS.” Someone who gets Sartre might say, “C'mon, Willy, he’s just saying that people have different essential properties than inanimate objects.” Analytics might say that if that’s what he means, that’s what he should fucking say. Continentals might say that Quine is splitting useless straws here, that if we’re different at even the level of our essential properties from inanimate objects, then Sartre’s use was better. So there’s this contextual battle going on over how we should use this particular word, “being”.

Perhaps the initial hostility was before we figured out that each side was talking about something fundamentally different; it was just both sides going, “HEY ASSHOLES THAT’S NOT WHAT THAT MEANS.” And some cooler heads said, “WOAH! Easy, everyone. There are a couple different things being said, here. Let’s… let’s take it down a notch, huh?” Plenty of philosophers have helped bridge that gap, and thanks to them the divide isn’t as wide or as clear as it once was. 

Still, at the extremes, things aren’t so pleasant. John Searle and Jacques Derrida had a pretty famous ongoing dispute over how language should work - Searle (and some other bros in the analytic tradition) thought that Derrida’s work was mostly circlejerking sophism and was, at its worst, literally devoid of meaning. Derrida wasn’t using the same language to mean different things; he was using the same language to mean nothing at all. If someone used our hand signal to mean, “Really, that girl lives in each of us in some way, so that we divorce the self from the self. It’s like she is always right behind us, from within us.” …uh, what?! I can’t say for sure, but I suspect my initial reaction would be to attempt to drown that person.

Between people who think, “Yup! Both valuable, just saying different sorts of things.” and people who think, “Nope! Fuck 'em.” are people who think that one school or the other is, in some way, preferable to the other. So maybe Heidegger’s project in Being and Time isn’t meaningless, but, you know, there’s gotta be a faster way to get that shit done. Maybe Quine’s discussion of being isn’t useless, but he was trying to rule too much out, to simplify too far.

I worry that occasionally, the claim that each school is doing the same thing in its own language is offered by those who want to be charitable but can’t be bothered to learn the other language, and the claim that the other school is mostly meaningless is offered by those who are skeptical but can’t be bothered to learn the other language. Importantly, even if there’s something valuable to be had in each school of thought, we shouldn’t be too hasty to broker a peace or proclaim an uncrossable gap and be done with it. Sometimes, really bad philosophy gets done, and sometimes it gets done in the name of a particular methodology. We can argue over whether analytic philosophy or Continental philosophy can ever be good, but there is no doubt that some of each is definitely really bad. We should be wary of bad philosophy in pretty much all forms, and we should be ready to answer for why we dismiss the philosophy we dismiss, or accept what we accept.

For more about the debate between Searle and Derrida, check out the Wikipedia page for the work originally criticized.

George Berkeley's "Treatise Concerning Principles of Human Knowledge:" A Summary

David Hume's "Of the Different Species of Philosophy:" A Summary