Philosophy Bites and Disciplinary Myopia

The Philosophy Bites podcast recently did an interview with Simon Glendenning on “Philosophy’s Two Cultures,” that is analytical philosophy and “continental” philosophy. (“Continental” meaning philosophy somehow characteristic of philosophers who happen to be from mainland Europe, as opposed to the largely English-language, logically-oriented philosophers from, well, England, among other places.)

Glendenning noted that the analytical folks attempted to define themselves in opposition to the continental folks and to purge their work of the wordy, free-range, non-argumentative version of philosophy characteristic of, inter alia, Heidegger, Derrida, Sartre, etc.; that, in essence, the analytical folks made continental philosophers an in-group “other.” It’s an interesting point, and likely has a good bit to it. But it brings up something that nags at me as someone who came to philosophy from religious studies in the late 1990s, when much of the chaos wreaked by post-analytical folks like Rorty and supposed continental heathen like Derrida and Foucault had been done.

The nagging concern I have is that Glendenning’s explanation did not take into account actual cultural differences that may have borne upon the disciplinary divide. What most caught me about this was his laying forth the stereotyped differences between analytical philosophy, with its argumentative focus, and continental philosophy, which supposedly tends to be less so. (For what it’s worth, that seems accurate enough to me for the types who clearly belong to column A or B.) Might this distinction be partly cultural?

I think so. The direction I come from on this is, presently, a result of legal studies. Here’s my thought: compare the common-law, English-language approach to jurisprudence to that of the civil-law approach characteristic of much of continental Europe. As a simplification, the common law takes an adversarial bent: parties are represented by attorneys who handle much of the questioning and eliciting of facts, make arguments to juries, etc. Also as a simplification, in the civil-law world, the judicial model is much more inquisitorial–that is, less focused on disputation of the facts by the parties.

I realize I’m guilty of oversimplification; but sometimes I worry that we get so wrapped up in the myopia of our own disciplines that we miss the implications of the broader cultural contexts in which our disciplines reside.


2 thoughts on “Philosophy Bites and Disciplinary Myopia

  1. I come from an anglo-logical, background but I would consider myself a writer in the Continental style. Probably because I found types like Hobbes, Hume or Russell drab and boring as writers, and Nietzsche, Descartes or Schopenhauer creative thinkers as well as interesting authors. I’ve always appreciated Berkely, as a creative thinker, but once we get into the 20th century then Heidegger, Camus, Deleuze, Foucault, Sloterdijk or Zizek leave very little room for any of the anglo-school philosophers. Russell may write with great clarity, but Wittgenstein outstrips him in his creative application of logic to thought, and so I lean to Wittgenstein. If there is a cultural divide it’s probably between the anglo-commonwealth obsession with economics and a European perspective that wants to go beyond the mundanity of those same economics. But, I’m sure that is to be disputed.

    • I worry that, in any discipline, the tendency to view most change as coming from within puts us at risk for not recognizing that there are broader influences. In philosophy, there’s enough of a tendency to think we’re just going where reason leads us that we don’t quite catch how the surrounding context may push our thought. I don’t mean this just in the sense that an idea can be “proven wrong” by events–though that’s likely correct, as well–but even the problems one is concerned with depend upon one’s context, I think.

      In the English philosophical world, for example, economics play a role–but without the quirk of British history that led to the creation of the Magna Carta, do we have the same discourse about rights and liberties? I’m not sure we do. The relentlessly individualistic focus that characterizes so much of British and American thinking on matters of freedom and ethics seems tied to that historical background. Does any of that happen without the quirk of an island dominion de jure but not de facto a vassal of a continental king?

      You might be able to tell that I never really got over contingency a la Rorty, et al., just bursting the heck out of my bubble while a religiously-oriented graduate student of ancient and rabbinic Judaism. And I wonder whether Rorty’s eventual turn from philosophy as we have traditionally known it isn’t a better course–that philosophy works best as critic of self-contained science and other disciplines as they encroach upon what philosophy traditionally concerned itself with. I’m not sure philosophy can compete as a description of the world around us (at least not within our own cultural context–note the hint of Kuhn in there), but it is nevertheless invaluable as critic of other disciplines’ occasional obliviousness to their own contingencies.

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