Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Philosophical Approaches and their Consistentcy with the History

I have occasionally seen philosophers make the claim that the analytic approach to philosophy is consistent with the way philosophy has historically been done. With this, I wholeheartedly agree. But I object to a further implication often drawn from this claim, i.e., that the analytic approach is more consistent with the history than continental approaches. That claim, I think, is simply false. My point, however, is not that some other approach, perhaps some continental approach, is instead more consistent. It is that both approaches are consistent with the way philosophy has been done historically, though perhaps not in the same way. Whether or not one thinks a particular approach is so consistent depends on the presuppositions with which one approaches the history of philosophy, presuppositions that are themselves the presuppositions inherent in one’s approach. Thus, any claim about the superiority of one or another approach to philosophy vis à vis the history of philosophy is likely to be simply circular.

A point central to hermeneutics: understanding requires presuppositions or “prejudices” (as Gadamer calls them). When I read a text, I already have some pre-formed ideas about what a text of this kind is supposed to be saying. I will thus interpret and evaluate the text in accordance with how well it does what I think it is supposed to do. If I am trained to think of philosophy as geared towards clear and precise arguments, I will likely find that the great figures in the history of philosophy have excelled at making clear and precise arguments (though I might be forced to assume that some historical elements—like Plato’s recourse to myth in the middle of an argument—are features extraneous to philosophy and rest on a confusion of that subject with another, such as religion). The presence of bias isn’t necessarily truth-distorting: the great figures really were interested in making clear arguments! But that may not be the only thing they were interested in doing.

Looking at some of the great philosophers in the history, we might note that they were in fact interested not only in making arguments, but specifically in making arguments for the correctness of a certain framework of thought, or way of seeing the world. Plato did not simply attack particular theses of Parmenides or Heracleitus: he argued that the world could not be properly grasped in its completeness either as a static unity or as a perpetual flux. Hume rejected all claims to non-experiential knowledge and suggested committing everything else to the flames. Kant, as is well-known, attempted to reconcile rationalism with empiricism, limiting the pretensions of each side to exhaustive and true knowledge of the world. These are, of course, not the only figures we find in the history of philosophy, and it is certainly false that the entire history contains nothing but attempts to articulate an overarching system or framework; to claim that would itself be an error induced by a certain set of pre-suppositions. My point is far more modest: the way philosophy has historically been done cannot be fully described by either perspective.

That articulating an overall framework of thought is a goal of many figures in the history of philosophy is implied by Peter Strawson’s distinction between descriptive and revisionary metaphysics, since both types of metaphysics aim at setting up a framework of thought or way of seeing the world, though they do this in different ways. John Rawls wrote that

one of the benefits of studying historical texts—and of trying to get a sense of the writer’s view as a whole—is that we come to see how philosophical questions can take on a different cast from, and are indeed shaped by, the scheme of thought from within which they are asked. (1)

But few simply made arguments from within a pre-given “cast of thought”—rather, philosophers have generally tried to argue for the superiority of a particular cast of thought over others—a claim with which, I take it, Rawls would be in agreement.

If we look at some of the 20th century thinkers who have not belonged to the analytic tradition, we find that this concern—the concern with addressing our cast of thought—frequently takes precedence over argument. This is not to say that Husserl, Heidegger, Foucault, Levinas, etc., do not have arguments or think arguments to be unimportant. That is far from true. But what defines their respective projects seems to me to be primarily the articulation of a particular scheme of thought. The arguments are usually made in this context and with this goal in mind, which is why—when taken out of context—they often do not even look like arguments at all. I do not want to imply, on the other hand, that analytic philosophers are conversely uninterested in our overall schema or cast of thought—many certainly are, and most seem to me to be concerned to articulate at least a segment of our cast of thought. But this strikes me as being a secondary concern—what is primary is the laying out of arguments for a specific regional problem, and the “big picture” often follows as a secondary concern arising from the combination of these regional solutions.

My point, as I’ve stressed, is not to insist on either the superiority of one approach over the other, nor is it to suggest that one is more consistent with the way philosophy has been carried out historically than the other, and it is certainly not to provide a new way to see the tired issue of the analytic/continental divide. It is only to point out that neither side can legitimately claim to be more consistent with the history of philosophy. Anyone who cares about maintaining such consistency, furthermore, would do well to look carefully both to the arguments and their framework.

(1) John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 17.


  1. Hi Roman,

    let's say you're right to claim, about philosophers like Heidegger, that "what defines their respective projects seems to me to be primarily the articulation of a particular scheme of thought".
    But then, of course, they still have to argue for that scheme of thought because many people do not share their scheme or are even strongly opposed to it. Moreover, the schemes of many great dead philosophers are mutually inconsistent. If I now ask myself if any of them is the best scheme or if I maybe have to articulate a new scheme myself, then what rational grounds are there to settle the issue except to look for the more compelling arguments? So, I think that at this point it becomes plausible that the distinction between your two approaches can only be a matter of degree (at least if we want to stay within the area of rational discourse, which excludes purely aesthetic or pramatic reasons for choosing a scheme!).

  2. Joachim,
    Yes, I pretty much agree with you. My point was not that making arguments and laying out schemes of thought are fundamentally different projects, but that different approaches to philosophy may emphasize these sides of philosophy differently. I would be happy to think that the difference is only one of degree.

    On the other hand, whether or not an argument seems compelling is going to depend on the background suppositions of the person to whom the argument it meant to appeal. Some arguments become truly compelling only once one has accepted the scheme of thought within which they are made.

    It may look like that makes the construction of schemes somewhat circular, but it seems fairly self-evident that absolutely no argument is going to be compelling to someone who lacks at least some very basic presuppositions. So articulating--or at least endorsing--some scheme of thought seems to already be built into any argument.

  3. Roman,
    Well said. The entire conflict between "analytic" and "continental" proponents is exceedingly tiring, and I'm always glad to see growing consensus that the debate isn't fruitful.

    But one might say that the history of philosophy is a history of suppressing the alternate viewpoint. On that note, it seems the 20th century "continentalists" were interested in a third approach: the releasing of the suppressed viewpoint. The Frankfurters' Denkbild, Foucault's studies of sexuality and madness, and Deleuze's difference are vilified because they address this third concern, before argument and before recasting a world view.

  4. Hi Jared,

    Thanks for the comments. I might speculate that something like "suppressing" the alternative viewpoint is inherent in both argument and scheme-building. A scheme displaces some prior scheme; an argument is meant to move us away from another position. (Of course the standard reply would be: if a particular position is done away with through rational means, then it is misleading and overly dramatic to speak of "suppression.")

    I'm not entirely sure that this is a third concern, though, or a distinct one. Deleuze, for example, is clearly and explicitly constructing a metaphysics, one that is supposed to include the "suppressed" position within the overall scheme. Same, I think, goes for Derrida or the Frankfurters. So this third concern has the effect of merging with the schema-building concern in order to create something like a more inclusive schema.

    While I agree that Deleuze, Foucault, etc, might be vilified in part because of this concern, I suspect another problem is that they are extremely hard to read unless one has a good grasp on their own somewhat particular philosophical background. They defended the alternative, or "suppressed" position, but were--from the perspective of the philosophical mainstream, at least--not sufficiently clear about why this defense is of philosophical interest.