The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Philosophy’s Persistent Hallucination

philosopher made out of origami paper

“Both sides grew up utterly happy, and secretly miserable, because each expected the other was actually happy, and not utterly pretending. They developed a sick fixation upon each other. Each side snuck to the other one’s house to creep on their other side sleeping. Both were horrified to discover their other side not home, but probably out having real fun. They had too much pride to get back together. But one afternoon, when they had both moped off to brood in a meadow, they inexplicably felt the reconnection they had longed for. They savored the sensation. They felt they could do absolutely anything at all. So, that’s exactly what they did.”

—Vernon Chatman, The Shivering Truth

How might philosophy be characterized? 

If we want to answer such a question, at the very least, we could start with the fact that philosophy is characterized, and that it is done so by those who believe philosophy generally operates in a certain kind-of-way. We can describe philosophy minimally according to this production of the imaginary, i.e., the persistent, in-exact narratives created by philosophy’s most influential practitioners that serve to define the discipline. These accounts are, in a sense, ‘hallucinations’—illusory to the extent they suggest the possibility of determining a definitive history of philosophy.  

And though philosophy has had many imaginaries in recent times, one of the most prevalent is the purported divide between the analytic and continental schools of thought. Whether students know it or not, the idea that philosophy has something called the ‘analytic tradition’ has permeated how philosophy is taught throughout the Anglo-American sphere and, to some degree, the rest of the world. However, a similar statement cannot be made about continental philosophy—not because the continental designation has not been impactful on the methods of European philosophy, but rather because the idea of the continental tradition effectively originated as a negation of analytic philosophy.

But before we dive much deeper, what exactly is analytic philosophy? The term can be traced to philosopher A.J. Ayer’s 1959 book, Logical Positivism, in which Ayer features essays by a number of philosophers who were associated with the early 20th-century intellectual collective, the Vienna Circle. In the text’s introduction, Ayer outlines a history of thinkers he characterizes as scientifically oriented and meticulous with their language—philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, and Wittgenstein, among others. Ayer then connects these figures’ methods to much earlier philosophers, such as Leibniz and Comte, before linking his account back to himself and those whom he considered his contemporaries. 

Considering a host of individuals came before and after Ayer with very particular conceptions of how analytic philosophy should be practiced—many of whom hold mutually exclusive positions relative to one another—, no singular notion of analytic philosophy can be said to capture the myriad ways analytic philosophy might be described. 

Given this indeterminate sense of what analytic philosophy may be, we can look to an essay by philosopher James Cosant to clarify: 

The unity of analytic philosophy here at issue is to be sought not at the level of the doctrines, or the conception of philosophy, or the style of the writing of its practitioners, but rather in the manner in which it forms a distinctive tradition of thought . . . thus the historian of analytic philosophy is far more likely than the ideologue of analytic philosophy to see the history of analytic philosophy as consisting in a series of successively mutating conceptions of philosophy, rather than as the grand unfolding of a unitary something called “analytic philosophy” that can be aptly summed up in the form of a definition or summary statement of its aims, commitments, or style. (55

Rather than attempting to dogmatically demarcate who the ‘real’ members of the analytic community are, the analytic tradition can be pragmatically analyzed by tracing interconnections between those who attempt to relate their work—or whose work has been related—to others under some identity relevant to the analytic philosophy designation. In this way, the evolution of analytic philosophy can be assessed similarly to how the philosopher, Arthur Danto, analyzes art as a cultural activity circumscribed by the artists and critics who continually redraw its boundaries over time. 

But where does the ‘continental’ category enter the picture? Bertrand Russell coined the term in his seminal book, A History of Western Philosophy, in which he attempts to distinguish his own practice, which he identifies with the British tradition, from those he deems less rigorous: 

There is first of all a difference of method. British [analytic] philosophy is more detailed and piecemeal than that of the Continent; when it allows itself some general principle, it sets to work to prove it inductively by examining its various applications (643

Yet, surely no philosopher sets out to be less detailed than others, so Russell’s subsequent examples do not so much as provide a normative notion of what “detailed” amounts to than specify the type of detail that Russell prefers (the empirical kind), which he sees lacking in more rationalist oriented philosophers (644). This manner of defining continental philosophy negatively (that is, according to how it differs from the analytic) greatly influenced how continental philosophy would be defined in the future. 

According to Cosant: 

the unity of “continental” philosophy was in fact construed by most analytic philosophers through recourse to a via negativa: analytic philosophers specified for themselves what continental philosophy was, in effect, by thinking of it as an enormous garbage bin into which any outwardly apparently non-analytic form of post-Kantian philosophy was to be dumped. As with the contents of any garbage can, so too with this one: after a great many items came to be tossed into the can, it was no longer possible to discern what united them all, without reference to something not to be found among the contents of the can—namely, an appreciation of the aims and interests of those doing the tossing (18

The story is, of course, more nuanced than this—more recently, continental philosophy has reclaimed a positive identity to an extent. Common associations include: Emphasis on cultural and political critique, reverence for poetic articulation, and stress on the significance of sensory experience. However, given the brevity of this piece, we can set ourselves the modest task of focusing on a specific number of ways in which continental philosophy has been historically, critically, and methodologically distinguished by those associated with the analytic tradition. In defining each school as such, we seek to highlight only introductory explorations into general differences and similarities among popular representatives. 

Beginning with differences in method, we can look to the article, Muddleheadness and Simplemindness — Whitehead and Russell, in which the author examines the philosophies of Russell and Alfred Whitehead (the two co-authors of the pivotal work in logic, Principia Mathematica). Russell believed, against Whitehead, that the world is logically atomistic (separable into discrete parts) rather than essentially interconnected. Consequently, Russell thought recourse to formal logic was required to understand fundamental reality, whereas, Whitehead believed that only creative, categorical-conceptual inventions in language could encapsulate the fluidity he observed in the world.

This debate is emblematic of one way analytic philosophers tend to distinguish themselves from their counters. Formal logic continues to maintain a significant presence in Anglo-American philosophy whereas ambitious language, “enslavement to jargon” as Gilbert Ryle once put it, is scrutinized or ridiculed. For instance, performing a (formal) logical analysis of Martin Heidegger’s language in Being and Time, Carnap declares ideas like “Being” are logically “meaningless.”

Yet, though knowledge of formal logic is an invaluable tool for the philosopher, it should not set the limits of speculative inquiry.

Any conceptual model intending to account for the relations between dynamic sciences (e.g., chaos theory, quantum physics, evolutionary studies, etc.) must contain some concept of change that is not solely confined to the relationship between discrete entities. 

Oftentimes, those philosophical frameworks that attempt to describe fluctuating phenomena outside the bounds of formal logic do not dismiss the general validity of formal logic either. For instance, Edmund Husserl (who is sometimes pointed to as originating ‘continental’ philosophy) accounts for formal logic as a particular analytical device derivative of how the person comes to perceive the world around them—this latter point being the foundation for his larger philosophical system of perspectival continuity. For another example, consider the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze (a commonly cited continental) in which formal logic is contextualized as a particular consolidation of more fundamental processes of difference and repetition. In both cases, Husserl and Deleuze are able to acknowledge the efficacy of formal logic within certain bounds while also grounding formal logic in broader cognitive or cosmological operations—shedding light on aspects of experience and scientific development obscured by traditional logical form. In contrast, analytic philosophers who champion the use of formal logic over any other methodology are compelled to dismiss what lies outside their domain as nonsense or confused. 

The gap between analytic and continental traditions has also prevented many philosophers from seeing the overlap between work produced across the divide. For instance, though Heidegger and Wittgenstein are often seen as representing the continental and analytic traditions respectively, they each were similarly committed to philosophies that justified the everyday person’s perspective on the world. On the other hand, Willard Quine, an oft cited analytic, looked to science to critique people’s intuitive perceptions (24).

In a 2017 magazine piece for Epoché, the philosopher, John Brady, demonstrates how Henri Bergson, a continental philosopher (criticized heavily by Russell and Carnap), and Daniel Dennett, a contemporary analytic, put forth extremely similar arguments regarding the nature of consciousness. The whole idea of ‘qualia’, a reference to some ineffable, interior experiential quality that Dennett critiques, never quite arose in the continental tradition because Bergson was so widely read among the French and German (whom the ‘continental’ designation happens to frequently refer to). Unfortunately, Daniel Dennet’s theory of consciousness arose nearly a century after Bergson wrote his magnum opus, Matter and Memory. If the divide had not been so ingrained in the institutions Dennett had attended, Dennett could have engaged in constructive critiques of Bergson rather than unwittingly repeating what had already been known to European philosophers for a long time. 

But what about the future? Though a tired question among philosophers, is there hope for fashioning novel philosophical trajectories untethered to the ideological limitations of the past?

To do so, a serious desire for integration is required, yet it is unlikely that all practitioners within the two schools could adopt and understand each other’s methods.

Those in the analytic tradition primarily interested in gradual contributions to a formally scientific enterprise will likely remain indifferent to the interests of continental philosophy in the foreseeable future. Additionally, those who ground their ideas firstly in formal logic will be more apt to dismiss continental concepts. On the other hand, continental philosophers who insist on only textual and historical critique will likely be uninterested in (or unable to grasp) the mathematical and linguistic developments among analytics and so also be unable to integrate. 

Those who desire to move past this schism must try to extract maximal use out of both continental and analytic schools by determining how respective frameworks relate to each other without generating untenable contradictions. Integration is not a general possibility for philosophy, but rather a specific future afforded to those interested in continuing the ancient tradition, as understood by philosopher Wilfred Sellars, “to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”  

Increasingly so, there are developments in philosophical thought that cannot cleanly be traced to one ‘school’ or the other—and in my view, this is where the most interesting work is done. Consider philosophers like Robert Brandom, who demonstrate breadth of knowledge of the continental tradition and its problems while proposing solutions to them in analytic, ‘linguistic’ fashion. Or, take Reza Negarestani, who began his career writing theory-fiction, a very continental-influenced idea of blending fictional narrative with philosophical thought. Lately, Negarestani has engaged almost exclusively with analytic and scientific ideas while still preserving the kind of logical generalization and pluralization found in the continental tradition. 

Considering all that our brief survey into the analytic-continental divide has revealed, I hazard that a bit of open-mindedness and a keen nose for repetitive patterns may produce a generation of philosophers who will surpass the rigid rivalries of the past and advance techniques and ideas as yet unfathomed.

Daniel Schrader-Dobris is a philosophy student at the University of Southern California and is the current president of USC’s philosophy club.

~ Also Read ~

Louisiana State University

The populace is ill-equipped at rigorously filtering through the wildfire of information produced by the digital age.