Friday, April 11, 2008

History of philosophy

Occasionally, I find myself party to conversations about analytic and continental philosophy. It seems to me that Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sextus, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, ibn-Rushd, al-Ghazali, Maimonedes, Aquinas, Scotus, Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Kant and Frege all practiced analytic philosophy for a significant part of their philosophical lives—some of these, indeed, for just about all of their philosophical lives. When I read these people, I find them kindred souls, clearly engaged in the same rational pursuits, using pretty much the same tools, as I am. To denigrate analytic philosophy would, thus, be to cut oneself off from much of our philosophical tradition, and to lack the tools of analytic philosophy is to severely limit one's ability to engage this tradition. Fortunately, I have found it rare these days for continental philosophers to denigrate analytic philosophy.

I presume continental philosophers can likewise trace their lineage through the history of Western philosophy, though some of the names will be different. Significantly, I expect that just every major figure in the middle ages will have to be left out, and perhaps also Aristotle (but Plato and Socrates would stay), but one can in exchange add a number of more recent luminaries like Pascal, Hegel and Kierkegaard. By and large, continental philosophy strikes me as a more recent development. (Nothing wrong with that!)

I worry a bit about unconsciousness of ignorance. I am basically entirely ignorant of continental philosophy. Yet it does not seem to me that this ignorance significantly hampers my understanding of any pre-20th century philosophers I've read with the possible exception of Husserl. I presume that likewise continental philosophers who do not know any analytic philosophy do not think they are missing out on much understanding of major historical figures. So, I guess, I should conclude that probably I am missing out on major insights through my ignorance. On the other hand, maybe we're all lucky, and the insights about, say, Plato and Ockham that I'm missing by ignorance of continental philosophy are not insights I am that interested in, and the insights about them that the continental philosopher ignorant of analytic philosophy is missing out on are ones that she is not that interested in. But this doesn't seem right—philosophy is, surely, properly a holistic enterprise.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'd say I do miss many *interesting* insights packed in older philosophers because of my ignorance of continental philosophers.

Almost every philosopher is interesting or a path to something interesting.

However, as Plantinga says, philosophy's long, life's short. One must choose.

It seems we tend to have this attitude: my beliefs that I like most are well-evidenced; I have taken into consideration everything relevant for them; but I know (read) only a tiny portion of information (texts) about the issue; thus, what I haven't read is not relevant: they have no evidential traction (impact).

But I still like the claim that continental philosophers are not significantly relevant for the issues that I'm most interested in. Though, I fondly admit, continentals are interesting and relevant for other issues.

A wishful thinking?

Brandon said...

I think there are continental philosophers whose work on historical figures you'd be interested in -- Jean-Luc Marion (Anselm, Descartes), Edith Stein (Aristotle, Aquinas, Scotus), Gilles Deleuze (Leibniz, Spinoza, Hume) are all brilliant. The trouble with it is that continental philosophy is every bit as jargonish as analytic philosophy, and so it can be tough going if you aren't used to the style and vocabulary.

Scott Carson said...

I agree with you completely, and I would add that, for me, Hegel is one of the greatest mystery writers ever: I don't think I've understood a single word he's written, but I do worry that my failure to understand him says more about me than about him.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Maybe you should try William James's method of Hegel exegesis?
I do think that my inability to get Hegel reflects unfavorably on me. However, in general, the inability of a literate reader reasonably familiar with the terminology of a field to understand a text does reflect to some extent unfavorably on the writer. But it only reflects unfavorably on the writer qua writer, not qua philosopher, so this is fully compatible with the existence of deep insights and incisive arguments in the text.

Anonymous said...

I would say both analytic and continental (TODAY), accept a common history up to Sartre.

Everyone before Hegel was always counted as part of philosophy. Only in recent decades has the philosophers from Hegel to Sartre have been somewhat accepted into analytic canon, and Mill to Wittgenstein into continental.

Tons of research books in the analytic tradition are on or use a significant portion of Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche.
Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre are included in many introductory surveys of philosophy, even in extremely predominantly analytic schools. Thanks to Hubert Dreyfus, Heidegger's even been somewhat appreciated.

But yeah, continental philosophy after Sartre (Lacan, Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault and the like) is really gone down the toilet, and I think is why analytic will win, taking the philosophers before Sartre as part of their own.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But most of the great medieval figures (especially Aquinas, Scotus and Ockham) are clearly primarily analytic philosophers and analytic theologians. Likewise Sextus and Spinoza. Since obviously continentals consider these figures as part of their history, it follows that a part of the history of philosophy for continentals does include some very analytic thinkers.

Anonymous said...

I know you pretty much say you're pretty ignorant about these issues--but why even bother posting this?

I mean the whole idea of "analytic philosophy" is a relatively recent invention (about as recent, oh, as "continental philosophy"). That's first of all.

If you're trying to use the term ahistorically to designate a "method" -- well the philosophers you listed surely have a lot less in common methodologically than you've given them credit for. I mean, Plato wrote dialogues (some of them aporetic), Maimonides wrote theology, while Socrates didn't write anything.

Second of all, the idea that Aristotle would get left out of "continental" lists is just silly. Aristotle, aside from Kant, was probably the single greatest influence on Hegel. But you've already admitted your ignorance.

The idea that this sort of thing is still debated/pondered/written about just boggles my mind.

You may not care about certain philosophers and/or philosophical problems, that's fine. But why attempt to concoct some sort of quasi-history about it?

As far as philosophy being a holistic enterprise: it is. But you are not interested in some things, while others are and vice versa...this has nothing to do with analytic or continental or concocting some sort of silly archive or list.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Socrates, Plato and Maimonedes all practiced analytic philosophy in the following sense: significant portions of their texts are such that, with minor stylistic adjustments, they would not stand out methodologically or substantively from things published in appropriate analytic philosophy journals.

This is quite compatible with the claim (whether it be true or not, I do not know) that significant portions of their texts (perhaps overlapping with the aforementioned ones) are such that, with minor stylistic adjustments, they would not stand out methodologically or substantively from things published in appropriate continental philosophy journals.

That Aristotle was a major influence on continental figures does little to show that Aristotle practiced what is recognizable as continental philosophy. Maybe he did, and maybe he did not (that's why I said "perhaps")--I am not qualified to judge.

It might change the tenor of my remarks if I add that I am convinced that analytic philosophy is the continuation of scholastic philosophy by essentially the same methods, with the unfortunate exception that most analytic philosophers (though not all) eschew the invocation of theological authority. That many analytic philosophers would have disparaging things to say about scholastic philosophy does not affect this judgment.

I do think it is possible to say that analytic philosophy is the continuation of "business as usual" in philosophy, or at least of one of the usual businesses in philosophy.

Alexander R Pruss said...

In light of Roman Altshuler's arguments, I need to withdraw the claim that the great medieval figures were clearly primarily analytic philosophers. I had no epistemic right to such a judgment, since, as you rightly point out, for all I know, I am missing many features of their work that are not primarily analytic.

I still suspect I am right that scholastic philosophy is not significantly different in methodology from analytic philosophy (with the exception that for many analytic philosophers theological considerations play a lamentably minimal or non-existent role), but I cannot claim to know I am right. :-)

Anonymous said...

I must take offense of this sentence:

I do think it is possible to say that analytic philosophy is the continuation of "business as usual" in philosophy, or at least of one of the usual businesses in philosophy.

Aside from the lamentable situation that there may be something called the analytic/continental divide, "analytic philosophy" started off with the rejection of past philosophy, indeed, they called for a break with the past:

Frege single handedly overturned centuries old logic by Aristotle.

Ryle rejected Descartes with a passion.

Aside from a few exceptions like Augustine, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein never read a single work by any philosopher before the 20th century.

Hell, Carnap was even rumoured to say "I will not teach Plato. I shall teach nothing but the truth."

"Continental philosophy" (a poor term I must say), is the more historically minded and has much more continuity with Western philosophy than the analytics do.

(This is not to say that analytic philosophy is bad, not at all; but continental philosophy is the more natural course of philosophy. While the continentals had to proceed from Kant, the analytics got extremely lucky with Frege, who is much more independent from Kant than say, Hegel or Schopenhauer!)

Anonymous said...

"Socrates, Plato and Maimonedes all practiced analytic philosophy in the following sense: significant portions of their texts are such that, with minor stylistic adjustments, they would not stand out methodologically or substantively from things published in appropriate analytic philosophy journal"

Well if this is the criteria, then many, if not most of the articles published in *continental* philosophy journals--with minor stylistic adjustments--would not stand out methodologically or substantively from things published in appropriate analytic philosophy journals.

Thanks for disproving your entire distinction and pointing out again the silliness of this whole post.

That's first--as far as Aristotle--I never made the argument that he was an analytic or continental philosopher (he wasn't, nor was anyone prior to the early 20th century)...rather I was pointing out how your idea that he wouldn't appear in "continental" canon was silly and misinformed.

Again, I want to ask you: why do you insist on holding on to such a facile distinction? Why can't you just leave it at the fact that you haven't read a lot of philosophy and that you also have no interest to read a lot of it? That, IMO, is a much more sound (and respectable) position that the one you're currently adopting (which due to its utter silliness is utterly unbefitting of anyone who claims to practice philosophy).

Anonymous said...

Amen. The pre-20th century philosophers were not analytic nor continental, they were just philosophers.

Can't we just agree that the history of philosophy from Plato to Nietzsche was just philosophy. Don't retroactively apply your silly analytic and continental labels to these greats.

M. H. said...

Alexander Pruss, as a Dasein being-in-the-world, appropriates the primordial language of being into Being. The they is appropriated by Dasein as "Continental". It understands "Analytic" as an altheia of being as an innermost sense of a particular "factual occurrentness". But a Dasein that is a being of Being Present-At-Hand, must always be constantly more than it factually is, supposing that one makes an inventory of its constantness, for the faciticity of Dasein is its ability to belong essentially to being-in-the-world and itself.

Josh B. said...

Alexander, you said: "Socrates, Plato and Maimonedes all practiced analytic philosophy in the following sense: significant portions of their texts are such that, with minor stylistic adjustments, they would not stand out methodologically or substantively from things published in appropriate analytic philosophy journals."

This may be true when these philosophers are read in the Oxbridge style. But folks like Derrida, Heidegger and Strauss (just to name a few) read and interpret these philosophers in a way such that it'd be impossible to mistake their interpretations for an essay by Quine.

It seems to me we'd all be better off if we stopped hypostatizing "philosophy" and treated it more like literary genres linked by history (you know, some of us are into Victorian literature, while others read Kafka - but the question as to whose reading "real" literature doesn't mean a thing outside the competition for academic posts).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I'd prefer to read philosophy as a reasoned attempt to understand God, being, freedom and immortality. :-)

My did I stir a hornet's nest. Mea culpa.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your patience, Alex.

I've read some texts on this slippery topic. These two nice papers agree that there's still some usefulness in the analytical/continental distinction:

D. Føllesdal, ”Thomism and the Future of Catholic Philosophy.”
New Blackfriars 80 (1999)

K. Mulligan, P. Simons, B. Smith, "What's Wrong with Contemporary Philosophy?", preprint version here: http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith/articles/What'sWrong.pdf

This one rather suggests dissolving of borders:

N. Rescher, "American Philosophy Today", The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 46, 1993

Vlastimil

Anonymous said...

Alex -- perhaps you missed this post:

Well if this is the criteria, then many, if not most of the articles published in *continental* philosophy journals--with minor stylistic adjustments--would not stand out methodologically or substantively from things published in appropriate analytic philosophy journals.

Thanks for disproving your entire distinction and pointing out again the silliness of this whole post.

That's first--as far as Aristotle--I never made the argument that he was an analytic or continental philosopher (he wasn't, nor was anyone prior to the early 20th century)...rather I was pointing out how your idea that he wouldn't appear in "continental" canon was silly and misinformed.

Again, I want to ask you: why do you insist on holding on to such a facile distinction? Why can't you just leave it at the fact that you haven't read a lot of philosophy and that you also have no interest to read a lot of it? That, IMO, is a much more sound (and respectable) position that the one you're currently adopting (which due to its utter silliness is utterly unbefitting of anyone who claims to practice philosophy).

Alexander R Pruss said...

If there is no difference between analytic and continental philosophy, then anybody who practices continental philosophy is practicing analytic philosophy, and vice versa. Probably, too, the only way to argue for a no-difference thesis would be make analytic and continental philosophy both be so wide that my positive thesis about Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc. being analytic philosophers would be trivially true (though my negative thesis that some items on the list aren't continentals would be false). But, hey, a trivial truth is still a truth.

Anonymous said...

Do you have trouble answering direct questions, Alex?

I asked you a very simple question: why do *you* insist on holding onto your (facile/unhelpful/silly/etc.) distinction between continental and analytic philosophy?

Given that you have not been able to provide any content that is utterly vapid, why would you continue to hold onto such a distinction?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Because there surely is a difference there, if only a sociological one. There clearly are two philosophical communities, with some interconnections, but a lot more connections within each community than between the communities.

Anonymous said...

How peculiar. Criterion, criteria.

Anscombe, Geach, Hungarian and English, Catholic, analytic, can one be more 'continental' than a Hungarian?

Into which bookshelf pigeonhole ought I to stick their "Three Philosophers" on Aristotle, Aquinas and Frege?

I know, I know, it's always the "Catholic ghetto" slot...