October 17, 2014

Function of the Analytic-Continental Divide

Imagine you are a philosophy professor in Europe in 1920. You have just been through a gut wrenching war. In your livelihood as a professor you emphasize the power of rational discussion, but you have also just witnessed a war which almost obliterated the world. How do you reconcile your job as a philosopher with the horror of the war?

You have three options.
1) You can say that philosophy failed in its task, that reasoning is nothing but a veneer over the underlying irrational impulses of humankind.

2) You can say that the war, for all its horror, was rational and perfectly reasonable, that this is what reason in action looks like.
3) You can say that it is not philosophy in general that failed, but a particular kind of philosophy, the kind which is irresponsible and horrible, and which you will fight to overcome.

If you accept (1), you are out of a job. How can you accept that philosophy failed and still do the day to day tasks of a professor? How would you then not feel responsible that you contributed to the failure of philosophy, and so contributed to the war happening? You can’t accept (1) and stay in the job, at least not happily.

If you accept (2), you are going to look like a crazy person. Millions of people have died, negative emotions of anger, hatred and distrust rule the day, and that is what being rational looks like? You can’t accept (2) without seeming, even to yourself, cold hearted and disconnected from others.
Option (3) is the natural option. It has the great benefit that you can channel all of your turmoil over the war into your day job as a professor. For really what caused the war was the kind of horrible philosophy of those other irresponsible philosophers! And who can save the day? You can. By showing that your lectures and books are needed for the world, so that the influence of those other philosophers can be curtailed and shown to be rationally defunct. Far from leaving or questioning your job, you get to dig in your heels even more. You get to double down and commit even more to your job, because it is imperative that those other people with the irresponsible conception of philosophy be put in their place.


This is how the analytic-continental divide started.

By academic philosophers unconsciously finding other academic philosophers to blame for how philosophy could have allowed something as horrific as a world war to happen. Naturally, depending on your expertise in philosophy, it is the other academics who don’t have that expertise who are the trouble makers.

If your expertise is philosophy understood as analogous to physics, then it is thinkers who are wishy washy who are the culprits. Their wishy washyness is the kind of wishy washyness which took over people’s minds and lead to the war. And if your expertise is philosophy understood as analogous to religion or literature, then it is the scientistic thinkers who with their soulless technology are to blame.

Is there a fact of the matter of which of these two kinds of philosophy actually led to the war? Of course not! The causes of the war are numerous and can't be easily boiled down to a single conception of philosophy.

But if you (a) want to be a professor and (b) care about how philosophy can be compatible with the fact of the war, you need to mark out a conception of philosophy that is in your expertise and which is necessary to help the world. And the way you do that is to unconsciously, with little statements and acts here and there, mark out the good kind of philosophy which you stand for, and contrast it with the bad kind of philosophy which aids the unthinking forces in society.

This sense of a divide really took off during the 30s with the rise of Nazism and then another world war. In the 40s, as a philosophy professor you have to reconcile again how philosophy can be compatible with the horrors around you, and so the divide becomes more pronounced and stronger.

With each unfolding event of the 20th century (end of colonialism, the civil rights movements, the feminist movement and so on) the questions grew stronger: How could professional philosophers have been okay in the past with these forms of subjugation? Why weren't philosophy departments leading the revolution publicly on these fronts? As these questions in their hearts grew stronger, the need for the philosophers to buffer themselves against the questions grew stronger. And so the need to put the blame on the other mode of philosophy increased.


In this interview, at the 11:55 mark, the interviewer asks Kit Fine, a leading metaphysician in analytic philosophy, "What is your opinion of non-analytical philosophy?"

Fine's response:
"I despise it... Well, non-analytic philosophy might be a very broad term. I don't want to say it is all bad. I am sure there were good Nazis... The main thing I dislike about it is that it is fraudulent. I genuinely believe that many of the people doing it, indeed are quite famous, are frauds... I probably feel more strongly about this than is healthy... I mean if one were kind to these people, you would think they don't know any better. But I think you can demonstrate that there are cases where they do know better, and decided to engage in fraudulent intellectual activity."
The role of this kind of statement comes out when it is juxtaposed with Fine's comfortableness within his own professional circles, as for example in his participation in a departmental talent show. It is of course healthy for colleagues to enjoy some down time together. And Fine seems to be a good colleague, a person of culture who can play the piano, write jovial lyrics and share a good time.

But someone who doesn't understand the value of the Fine's work might wonder, "How is he able to enjoy himself as a philosopher when the world seems to be burning and ignoring philosophy? Is his having a fun time with his philosophical colleagues a well earned respite from good work, or is it a form of indulgence on top of the indulgence of his work?" In effect, if one is unable to see the point of Fine's work, one might question his character.

It is here that Fine's response in the interview is relevant. For the layman's worries about Fine's work are kept at an arm's length if Fine can offer a different target for such worries. No, not me or my colleagues, but them - they are the indulgent ones! I am no Nazi! Yes, lay person, you are right that philosophers can be indulgent. How sad it is. It makes me mad just to think of it. And with my expertise in philosophy I will point out for you who they are. Those people there! Not me, I am your hard working friend. From this perspective, the music and the collegial relaxation take on a different light. Even those in war need to sing songs and build camaraderie. It is a way of keeping up spirits amidst the tough battle with the fraudulent philosophers.

Of course, it is not only some analytic philosophers who engage in this kind of demonizing of the other.

In this essay by Zabala and Davis, the function of the analytic-continental divide can be seen clearly. There is a charge of irrelevance and hypocrisy aimed at philosophy, and as philosophers, Zabala and Davis take this personally. Their response: to deflect the blame entirely onto those other philosophers. It is those scientistic, totalitarian, wielding-language-as-a-weapon analytic philosophers who are to blame for giving the impression that philosophy is dead. Because that kind of philosophy is dead: it is barren, envious of the sciences, morally corrupt! But not us, dear reader. We are on your side. We stand for the good philosophy, the kind that will help you. They seek only power!

Without this move to point fingers at fellow philosophers, one has no option but to meet the public's challenge head on and to show the relevance of philosophy. But there is a major risk: the public, being "non-philosophers", might not understand the defense of philosophy, and then they might turn even more against philosophy. The safer option is to shift the blame onto other philosophers, those who are institutionally far from you, so that even if their life is negatively affected by cultural forces, yours won't be.


Perhaps Kit Fine's remark shows his age. It is the kind of thing people said thirty or fifty years ago. Nowadays there is much more interaction between analytic and continental philosophers; or, rather, a new generation of philosophers are doing without the distinction and embracing both traditions. Traditionally analytic departments after all now teach Heidegger and Sartre, and continental departments engage with Rawls and Davidson.

What does this change mean? Certainly it means that academic philosophy is maturing. It is now more open minded, seeks more to embrace the other, seeks to affirm a pluralistic approach in which everyone is welcome.

It also means that academic philosophers have an easy answer to any qualms about their role in society: philosophy helps broaden one's mind and you can see we are practicing it ourselves. There used to be this nasty division, but philosophy is making progress by overcoming such divisions and integrating alternate worldviews!

Fifty years ago the analytic-continental divide enabled a philosopher to deflect possible criticism from the public by pointing to the other philosophers who are bad. Now that is harder. After all, a ploy, however unconscious, is only useful for so long before it starts to look like just another dogma. Now the deflection is made possible by the very efforts to overcome the analytic-continental divide. The way we philosophers overcame the analytic-continental divide is a model for how we can all overcome divisions that come between us! With this thought a philosopher can set aside any fledgling worries about her role in society and double down on her job. No, this does matter, because we need to overcome these divisions.

No person or group invented the analytic-continental divide. It emerged organically as an institutional necessity. The 20th century was a time of great social change and upheaval, which from an institutional point of view are unpredictable threats to the day to day workings within the institution. If the upheavals are so great that they cannot be denied, then the only way to survive them is to make no part of the institution stand against them. If every part can embrace the upheavals by deflecting the need to change onto some other part, then the institution as a whole can absorb the upheavals with the least possible change.

The world today is so different from world of a century ago. A century ago, when Russell, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Dewey were writing their classics, colonialism was still the norm. So was women not attending college. And blacks not even sharing public spaces in America. Or the majority of the population being unable to get an education. These have all changed through society going through turmoil.

And yet, amidst all this change, how much has professional philosophy itself changed? Beyond the power point presentations, the more casual mode of dress and the flying across the world, strikingly, the form of life of the professor - how one gets to be a professor, the mode of giving lectures and writing papers, and the syllabi and the pantheon - seems not that different.

Is this because the activities of the professional philosopher capture some universal modes of discourse and engagement? Or is it because the institution was able to withstand the upheavals in society by deflecting pressure that it should change along with the world?

The function of the analytic-continental divide suggests it is the latter.


  1. Thanks for this! If you haven't yet read it, you should check out John McCumber's great book, "Time in the Ditch," which documents the connections between the rise of the analytic movement in US philosophy departments and the Cold War McCarthy Committee witch-hunts of intellectuals.

  2. Very nicely done! I concur!

    Reisch's "To the Icy Slopes of Logic" is also quite good. Reisch has a short review of McCumber that appeared in Philosophy of Science a few years ago. Reisch emphasizes self-censorship more than state-supported oppression as the dominant narrative for why logical positivists refrained from voicing their socialist politics.

    However, I'm reluctant to endorse the thought that the overcoming of the analytic/Continental split (or, put differently, the current manifestation of that split) is how we reassure ourselves that our work is informed by the broader culture. Analytically-trained philosophers reassure themselves of that (to the extent that they worry about it) by talking to scientists; Continentally-trained philosophers reassure themselves of that (to the extent that they worry about it) by talking to other humanists. In some sense, the split remains intact in terms of different answers to, "who do you talk to outside of your department?"

    A note on "the current manifestation of the split": I would conjecture, based on absolutely no evidence at all, that Leiter's distinction between "Party-Line Continentalists" and "the Golden Age of Continental Scholarship" captures what a lot of analytically-trained philosophers think. One can imagine the following conversation:

    "I'm reading a new book about Hegel by _____."
    "Oh? Where does _____ work?"
    "I shall look into it!"

    "I'm reading a new book about Hegel by _______."
    "Where does _____ work?"
    "Duquesne/Memphis/Penn State"
    "Oh dear."

  3. Carl, what I meant re the current rhetoric of overcoming the analytic/continental divide is that it has become a way of telling oneself that the profession is becoming more inclusive. Often I stopped myself from asking people why there isn't more engagement with non-Western philosophy, because there was this exuberant attitude in the air, as if to say, "see how we are overcoming the analytic-continental divide! Soon we will do the same with Western and non-Western philosophy. Just wait. It takes time." It gives an easy sense of progress.

    I totally agree with your point re the two conversations. I was once talking to a philosopher who works on Heidegger who said that he found Dreyfus' work interesting, but also troubling insofar as Dreyfus reinforces the idea that most scholarship of Heidegger is confused, and that somehow Dreyfus and a few others trained in analytic depts managed to find what was interesting in it. Often the way integration is done can itself perpetuate forms of othering.