Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why Bother Talking to Analytic Philosophers?

Continental philosophers interested in communicating with their analytic analytic counterparts sometimes express frustration: why should they have to do all the work? It sometimes seems as if, in such situations, continental philosophers have to completely translate someone like Heidegger into analytic-speak and then relate the translation to clear, current problems in the analytic literature. That’s a lot of work! And for what? To get people who refuse to read Heidegger—obstinately, it seems—to accept that yes, maybe Heidegger had one good idea somewhere? At least, that’s what it can look like, and in light of this it isn’t surprising that so many continental philosophers want to retreat into an echo chamber of textual exegesis. Why bother to explain something, one might ask, to people who seem to have no interest in what you’re explaining, and who certainly won’t meet you halfway, but expect you to come to them? This isn’t helped by the fact that some analytic philosophers—though I think significantly fewer than one might expect—are actively hostile to continental thought. Consider, for example, this missive on Heidegger by Simon Blackburn, who seems to have skimmed Heidegger for the explicit purpose of criticizing him (to balance things, it may be worth noting that Blackburn did something similar with regard to Donald Davidson, though I’m not sure how comparable that hatchet job is). Or, perhaps even worse, Paul Edwards’s seemingly intentional misreading of Heidegger (there are few authors one can’t perversely misread if one sets one’s mind to it and if one’s colleagues will praise—rather than condemn—one for doing so). Ugliest of all, perhaps, a blurb from J.J.C. Smart on the back of the Edwards book claims that Edwards “explains clearly why those of us who are repelled by Heidegger’s style of philosophizing are right not to read him.” With garbage like this in the air, a Heidegger scholar might be excused for thinking that these here analytic fellows just aren’t worth talking to.

Thankfully, much of that is old news, and my sense—though I could be wrong—is that the sort of hostility evidenced by Blackburn, Edwards, and Smart, is significantly less common. Far more commonly, I’ve run into indifference, incomprehension, and even interest coupled with uncertainty about just how—even if this stuff is interesting—one could say something philosophical about it. These attitudes are far more reasonable. But so what? Why, continental philosophers might ask, is it worth doing all the work for these people? Well, it is pretty common for continental philosophers to complain about being marginalized, and consequently many will insist that the analytic/continental divide—a condition if not the only source of the marginalization—needs to be done away with. (Of course there is also another tendency: a tendency to complain that analytics aren’t doing real, deep, profound philosophy; that sort of garbage exists on both sides of the divide, and is usually backed up by a complete ignorance of what the other side has been doing for the past 10-100 years.) The divide, clearly, will not go away unless continental philosophers take analytic work seriously and vice versa. Now, those on the continental side clearly have it in their power to start reading analytic work, but just how would they get those on the analytic side to start reading continental work? What, short of complaining about how analytics are all closed-minded throwbacks, are they to do? Or, to put it another way: if you are a continental philosopher, and you think analytic philosophers ought to be reading work from the continent, just how do you imagine this might happen?

Well, it won’t happen magically, and it won’t happen through attempts to “shame” analytic philosophers into wanting to learn more continental philosophy, and the reason is simple: the incentives to do so are very small. Given the way academic philosophy is structured, and given that continental writing has a tendency to be impermeable without the proper background, analytic philosophers—even those who are not hostile to continental thought—just have no real incentive to delve into it. (This isn’t helped by the fact that, if you are used to reading 20 page papers that make very clear points, reading 400 page tomes that make rather nebulous points, which are hard to pick out or explain in concrete terms, is likely to be a hard sell. Several exceptionally good philosophers have told me, with no condescension or hostility, that they just can’t make sense of Heidegger.) If that situation is to change at all, how? That is, how can the incentive structure be changed? I doubt it can be changed first at the institutional level—i.e., by restructuring departments to train students more broadly—because that would require first changing the incentives of the people responsible for structuring departments. So, how to do that?

Well, one incentive to read work is that reading it and writing about it gets one published; but that's not an incentive continental philosophers have much control over, and it would take a sea-change for this to become a relevant incentive—writing on continental philosophy is among the surest ways, at the moment, to exclude oneself from publishing in most highly ranked journals. Another incentive is to convince people that they need to understand something because it can contribute to their work. Many philosophers are, I think (or like to think), intellectually curious and intellectually honest (at least to an extent), and if they are convinced that reading something will help them think through a problem they are working on, this will give them an incentive to read it. Think, for example, about what Rawls and his students did for Kant: virtually nobody was reading Kant, at least in anything but an absurdly superficial way, until Rawls and his students showed that everyone, even committed Humeans, simply has to read Kant in order to make any sense of normativity and the special status of morality (if there is such) among other normative claims. Similarly, telling people, "Hey, you should really read Heidegger because he's soooooo deep" isn't going to get them to read him (it is more common for people to believe that this might work than you’d expect; especially, I think, among grad students, and especially among grad students who are very into Heidegger—and this isn’t meant as a condescending jab at all; I certainly used to think like this). Even if they believe you, they have a lot of other crap to read, arranged in not so neat piles all over their desks, floors, and perhaps beds. But if you show them how Heidegger can speak to their own interests, in their own words (or at least words they can understand), you have a shot at getting them to read him.

This is all pretty obvious, I think. So what’s the point of bringing it up? Well, the main point is simply this: complaints that analytic philosophers need to just stop being mean to continental philosophy and start reading it are off the mark. Given existing incentive structures, analytic philosophers are, for the most part, perfectly rational in not reading continental philosophy. (There are cautionary tales about going back and forth: I jumped from largely continental to largely analytic reading at the dissertation stage… and that’s how I spent nine years in grad school, boys and girls.) So railing at analytic philosophers and calling them names because they aren’t running out to get a copy of Being and Time, Difference and Repetition, or Oneself as Another isn’t just unproductive—it’s completely mistaken. It assumes that, if people aren’t reading something you find important, those people must be intentionally obstinate jerks, determined to remain in the dark ages and perversely persecuting you and your favorite philosophers for being so enlightened. But that’s not it at all. Nobody can read every book out there, and most people are going to read what they need to in order to make sense of the projects they are working on. So why not try to explain to them why they should be working the projects you are interested in? And if they don’t understand a word coming out of your mouth, instead of taking this as further proof of their inferior philosophical acumen, why not take it as a sign that maybe you’re not being quite as clear as an expert like yourself ought to be, and that maybe that’s something to work on?


  1. It seems, though, that continentals have as little incentive to begin bridging the divide as analytics do. The suggestion is that the burden is on continentals because the analytic style is the baseline, or something--but I think the whole issue is about what should be the baseline. Let me be the first to say: I admire clarity and concision in argument. (And full disclosure: I'm not not particularly fond of Heidegger's work, though not for any stylistic reasons). At least personally, I've always found the greatest animus to be perpetrated by analytics. I think taking oneself to be "analytic" implies a certain chauvenism. (Take this book review by Fodor, for example, who manages to both trash the irrelevancy of Kripkean metaphysics and the general trend of analytic philosophy while at the same time comfortably insisting on the natural inferiority of continental philosophy.) Now, why would this be only one-way? It would be reasonable to ask why taking oneself to be continental isn't doing the same thing. Well, for one, I think continentals read a whole lot more analytic stuff than vice-versa. One can't help it in one's philosophical education--it forms so much of the basic curriculum, unless one was an undergrad in an unusual department, whereas one can easily only ever read analytic philosophy full stop. I would venture that at least more people who chose to do continental did so reflectively and with familiarity of both sides. (I could easily be wrong, but would be surprised. The professor who got me into continental philosophy did his dissertation with Rawls.) I admit that there can be plenty of close-mindedness among some continentals, but, perhaps for partisan reasons, I find it much less significant. That said, I think among a lot of philosophers minted in the past decade or so, the climate has changed. More younger analytics are at least curious of the books they haven't been exposed to, and I think this could be a very productive means for dialog. But there are innocuous reasons why people get niched in as well, just in terms of how much time one has to devote to studying the literature, whether that be continental or analytic. I don't think the big problem is whether people are talking past each other, as much as whether one side is presumptively held to be "normal" and "good" philosophy, while the other "abberant" and "bad." Continentals don't even have the luxury of a modus vivendi simply by virtue of the way analytics dominate the professional aspects of the discipline: the APA, the "best" journals, the "best" departments.

  2. I'm not seriously hostile to continental thought, but I do take the odd jab at continental philosophy in good fun. Probably because I don't get it. As you mention, the vocabulary of an analytic philosopher is more accessible than that of the continental. I find when speaking to someone with a continental background, they seem to understand the things I say because they know all of the words and I can concisely explain the finer points they've missed. But when the terminology of continental works appear, there's such a volume of material that plays into it that it's difficult for someone who doesn't have that background. I have in the past encountered a Heidegger dictionary and a Derrida dictionary. I have never needed to pick up a dictionary to read the philosophy I'm most interested in.

    So, if you want to have a conversation with me about continental philosophy, then yes, you have to cater to me a bit. A physicist would similarly have to explain much to a poet if the two wished to discuss quantum mechanics. If you wish to motivate me to understand it, the door is open. I'm also willing to not have the conversation at all, if it's a source of frustration for you.

    There are some thoughts in continental philosophy that I've read that are quite lovely. But as a serious source of insight or as a research tool for problems I'm interested in, I'm not sold. Nor am I convinced that any valuable points that the works of continental philosophers have to share could not be expressed plainly.

    There's an aesthetic quality to continental work that I don't really appreciate when I'm not after it. I do plan to read more of it, but I approach it with the sentiment that I do an old novel or a Greek play.

    Perhaps I'm wrong about that, and reading more will change my mind. But then, as you say, there are all these promising analytic books on my desk.

  3. Analytic philosophy has managed to break itself down in to (20th C) rubics like philosophy of mind, moral philosophy, aesthetics and the like. When the set up a job search these are the sorts of terms they use.
    Continentals use (20th C) rubrics like Foucault, deconstruction, Levinas, and Critical Theory.
    So there's an infrastructure problem when we talk about organizing teaching and hiring and they way we thing about professionalization. I would say in general that continental categories are personalized and historized, whereas analytic categories are decontexualized and formal. Someone who wrote on language in Being and Time is not likely to get the "philosophy of language" job and someone who wrote a dissertation on Hegel and Political Liberalism is not likely to get the 19th-C job.
    I don't think either set of rubrics is inherenly superior, but the disconnect is part of the problem.
    dinner is burning


  4. I'm currently working on the connection between reasons and the emotions in Prinz. I should qualify my efforts and say that my area of specialization is Scheler and Heidegger and the phenomenology of moral emotions. I was on his website the other day and I pulled up an article 'Is Empathy Necessary for Morality?' It should be considered good analytic philosophy. It's got all the trimmings, a sexy thesis, the concise paragraph style, the signposting about pursuing the thesis, the awareness of possible objections. There's only one problem I picked up. When he attributes a view to Hume, he only has one paragraph to do it. This seems exegetically irresponsible or in the least, this seems like historical-lite. My point in bringing it up is simple. The conception of philosophy as describing the world, providing an exploration of a particular conceptual space is more interested in description or explanation to the point that the historical conditions of the discourse are taken for granted so much in fact that there is a tenuous awareness of this fact in the Prinz piece when he writes “Whether or not this reading of Hume is accurate, it has the initial ring of plausibility.” Why bring up the history of Hume and sympathy, attempt to interpret sympathy as what you mean by empathy and then not care that you’ve gotten it right?

    To be fair, the paper is not about an accurate reading of Hume. It's got deeper fish to fry. However, I just can't help but think that if I wanted to move slower, and engage a fellow "analytic" into say Heidegger, the fellow would never read or write about Heidegger with history in mind. That’s how it should be done. Take for example, Heidegger’s notion of angst. In a perfect world, the fellow philosopher would have time to understand angst and how Kierkegaard's Concept of Anxiety ties into the development of Heidegger's thought. That said philosopher would understand the background necessary to evaluate it and read Heidegger in the original language. When you do all this, I assure you; something does happen. Insights are there, and there is a value in doing it. However, my analytic friend doesn't have the time. He might be responding to a problem in the literature that has taken two years to really get a grip of. There are so many responses to the decisive paper and the debate has moved to a new ground since the decisive paper has been published (think the motivational problem about moral reasons first introduced by Williams). My friend really doesn't have the time. He must publish, attempt to get tenure and maybe is doing something like raising a family. Once my friend does sit down, he will want to read Heidegger. He will want to expose the insight in the text as plainly as it articles are written in JPhil. However, it won't be there. Heidegger is not that kind and on the contrary, if such a reading did take place with the common "analytic" assumption about good philosophy would only result in impatience. Moreover, he has a view in mind. Perhaps, he is describing or speculating on some given feature of our experience, or about existence in general. In my estimation, like Prinz above, philosophers who think like they are providing a causal explanation are doing something much different than Heidegger. For Heidegger and company, their method is hermeneutic. Taylor Carman explains this side of Heidegger brilliantly, but it is just one of the many “divides” that infect us. The point of Heidegger's importance would remain off in the distance even if they wanted to read Heidegger.

  5. I like the challenge that often comes from reading Heidegger, yet it takes a lot to get there. I’m not all that sure that these methods (analytic vs. continental) are something that can be tied very well. I’ll try, and it sounds like Roman is trying too. I just don’t know how feasible dissolution of this divide will remain. There are motifs, styles and habits of reflection that block the way. For instance, analytic philosophers often write about a problem from an epistemic point of view. If I had a critique about analytic philosophy, it would be that methodologically the epistemic viewpoint is thought to be primitively-basic in all problems to be addressed (I view this as a problem from a phenomenological point of view; there are many standpoints and types of experiences that merit looking at them without presupposing the epistemic viewpoint as proper). Thus, if you attempted to read a philosopher that eschewed epistemology altogether, and in every sense of the word offered an anti-epistemological philosophy that sought to usurp knowledge with interpretation, it would go counter to one’s own training and soul. If I were classically trained in philosophy of language/epistemology, I’d probably want to go throw the book down and proceed onward with advancing, say, Goldman’s de facto reliabilism, or look to see how my moral intuitions achieve reflective equilibrium in a given counterexample to a normative theory. I would never pick up Being and Time ever again, and I can empathize with that view. As it stands, the hermeneutic vs. causal explanatory ambition to do philosophy cuts all the way down. You could make the hermeneutic insight into something like an epistemology but to do so would already be to miss the point of Heidegger’s message.

  6. You make it sound like Heidegger is a religion, like every word of text is sacred, to read it any other way is to miss everything crucial, and there's this very very special method, different from other methods, called "hermeneutics," and you talk about this thing "epistemology" which itself seems to be a method, to be dramatically contrasted with "interpretation." I don't buy any of this. "Hermeneutics" isn't a single, magical method, fundamentally distinct from other methods; different philosophers will have different hermeneutic strategies. "Epistemology" isn't necessarily central to analytic philosophy, and I don't see a particularly good reason why it can't incorporate interpretation. Heck, there's Davidson and there's Rorty.

    Whatever you think of the particular examples, I just think this view of two very different sides, those using epistemology and those using interpretation, shouldn't be blown out of proportion. As an undergrad, I remember when the philosophy club did Quine's "Two Dogmas" one week and Gadamer's "Universality of the Hermeneutical Problem" the next; I don't think anybody who hadn't had the analytic/continental distinction already drilled into them would have any reason to think these papers represented fundamentally divergent traditions or approaches; they don't.

    Of course having more of a background in Heidegger--spending lots and lots and lots of time on him and Augustine and Scotus and Kierkegaard and Dilthey and Count Yorck and Luther and Husserl and Bergson and Eugen Fink--will help one understand Heidegger better. And of course most people--not just "analytic philosophers"--are not going to have time to do that. So what?

    You could say the same thing about Hume, about Descartes, about Frege... There are people who have the temperament and the interest to dedicate themselves to studying a single thinker for most of their lives. There are people who are more interested in the cutting-edge, and when they read historical figures, their readings will be less detailed, and more mediated by secondary sources. So what? This division of labor isn't a bad thing; it is, however, a reason for the people writing secondary sources to produce good ones, that those working on contemporary problems can grasp and make sense of.

    In other words, I don't see your point. There is nothing special about Heidegger that makes it especially important to spend massive amounts of time on him and his background as opposed to any other major historical figure. And so "you have to spend a lot of time on Heidegger, and can't make sense of him without doing that" isn't really an explanation for why one wouldn't write clear, understandable, things on Heidegger--or, at least, it isn't more of an explanation in the case of Heidegger than the case of Plato or Kant or Aquinas.

    I think this tendency to put Heidegger (and other continental heavies) into a completely different category is part of the problem.

  7. Well, I think my point is better stated that philosophy should involve two principles of charity, Davidson's formulation and what I called before a principle of hermeneutic charity. I don't think that Heidegger is a religion; I'm just interested in fostering conditions for true and sincere dialogue. I admit I think that methods separate these philosophers all the way down. It's not that Heidegger is put into a separate category altogether, but there is enough distance between Heidegger and others that I find it perplexing you would call me out on the varied conceptions of philosophy implicit to someone like Heidegger and [insert analytic figure here]. These are true differences that need rethought. You and I both see that. That's not a new claim.

    Now, you could innovate upon Heidegger, borrow, modify and rethink him to fit contemporary challenges. But again, there's a lot to be done in between. That’s my only point really.

    I'll say it again to be clear. If someone conceives of philosophy as offering explanations for a project, like reliabilism or some such proposal, then there is a specific conception of philosophy that is resistant to hermeneutics (and that pertained to whether or not analytics would ever read Heidegger and do so charitably). Sure, epistemic considerations and hermeneutic considerations can parallel and even benefit each other. However, we were speaking about the divide and some respondents were picking up on the more traditional dispositions. These dispositions have been explanatorily-driven, and in doing so, it was thought that you could get at the heart of reality, not simply interpret the world.

  8. I'll grant this: there is a difference between working on a project in the sense of looking for a solution to a clearly formulated problem, and working on a project in the sense of looking at the philosophical conditions of the problem. And, in fact, I think the latter is something continental philosophers--or some, like Ricoeur or Gadamer or Heidegger--are especially good at, and this is something that really is worth bringing more into analytic philosophy.

    But as for interpreting people in terms of one's own projects goes, Heidegger is a master of this: his history of philosophy rests on reading a particular problematic into everyone he discusses. I don't see any particular reason why it would be un-Heideggerian to similarly interpret Heidegger as part of one's own project; people have been doing that with Kant for some time, with interesting results (witness the divergent readings by R. M. Hare, Korsgaard, Reath, Henrich, Zupancic, and Schroeder). The same is happening with Heidegger--and I think that's a good thing, especially given that many of these readings are (rightly, in my view) working against Heidegger's own self-conception.

    Yes, I recognize that there are of course differing conceptions of philosophy in Heidegger and [insert analytic figure here]. I also think they can be overcome, in the same ways, and with the same interesting and productive results, as the differing conceptions of philosophy in Plato and [insert any living figure here] or Kant and [ditto], have often been overcome. There is a continental tendency to reify texts, to shield them from genuine interpretation--that is, interpretation that takes the reader's horizon into account by, say, reading Heidegger as lending support to, say, an epistemological thesis; this is what I am objecting to (as should every continental philosopher).

  9. Perhaps it is because ANAL-ytic philosophers are essentially anal retentives who are both incapable of loosening up and conversely shit-scared of losing control.

  10. That's brilliant! Why have I never thought of that? Oh, probably because it's nonsense. But did you know there is a Google group called "Incontinental Philosophy"? Gee wiz, all the word play possibilities are mind-boggling.

    Have you read any analytic philosophy? And if so, what are you talking about?

  11. Continental philosophy is tough, although so are many things. I have tried to read the Continental selection at bookstores and I have even ordered some books off of Amazon but I can't make any sense of the words.

    I stick to reading introductory works such as Andre Bowie's Introduction to German Philosophy, which Habermas gave a good review.

    But then that is a problem, if Andrew Bowie is an example of a good introduction in English, then that can't be a good thing because his style is strained and you can really feel how difficult it is for him to explain continental philosophy within the discourse of Analytic philosophy.

    Alas maybe I should just learn German, I have thought of it. It seems to me that the only way to learn Continental philosophy is through a carefully graded and systematic course of study just as one learns calculus through learning trig and Alegebra first.

    But in the United states and even in Britain such a course may be completely or partially absent in most schools and I suspect that the literary forms of deconstruction that are popular are just that literary and artistic uses that don't really have access to the philosophical tradition that Derrida is working under.

  12. Are you serious? Analytic philosophy is in no way easier than Continental Philosophy... It is certainly clearer but much more technical and demanding. Quantified modal logic, tarski's theory of truth, set theory, chomskyan Linguistics, decision theory, cognitive science are just some of the things widely discussed in analytic philosophy and beinged versed inone of this things is hard... let alone all of them (I should say since I have spent most of my life studying this topics....)

  13. Every time I read Heidegger, I just get angry. So, I stopped reading him. I never got anything from his work I considered useful or insightful. I've red a pile of his stuff and it was just in one ear out the other. I find him tedious and pointless, and a fat old Nazi. I used to say "Eh - just one of the bunch" but now I see Heidegger as one of the great problems of the bad rut called 20th century philosophy. I think people should read philosophy so they can form their own. Following a philosopher is in my view the stupidest thing one can do.

  14. Anonymous-Yes, it's true, quantified modal logic, etc, is technical and demanding; same goes for linear algebra and theoretical physics. Of course the more technical stuff will be impossible to follow without a background. I'm not sure that reflects on all of analytic philosophy, however. And I'm not really claiming analytic philosophy is all clear, but there is at least a presumption in favor of laying out one's position and trying to explain what one is doing.

    Monkey-I'm not sure what your point is. To insult Heidegger? Just remember, the fact that you can't understand something doesn't necessarily reflect a flaw in your source material. It could be you. In any case, the fact that Heidegger was a Nazi has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not one can get anything of value from his philosophy.

    No matter what your "own" philosophy consists in, it's almost certainly going to be crap unless it at least to some extent draws on what came before, unless you are a genius of an order we've seen very few times in the history of philosophy, if ever. And the more you understand the sources you are drawing on, the more you can profit from them. That doesn't have to be blind following. Of course sometimes you might find a source that seems to you to get things largely right--it's possible, after all, since in reading philosophy you are likely reading people who have thought far more deeply and carefully than you have about their subject. That isn't meant as an insult--it's just a pretty obvious truth for any of us reading philosophy. So let's say you find someone you largely agree with. Should you then insist on disagreeing with them just for the sake of obstinately developing your "own" philosophy, to make sure you aren't following them? Is there some value to expressing yourself that trumps values like understanding?