You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2006.
Okay, this is almost certainly not the last rehashing of the dispute between “analytic” and “Continental” philosophy in the blogworld. But it’s a topic I would personally like to take my leave of, in that I’ve contributed comments to various takes on this chestnut elsewhere, and I don’t want to look totally one-sided. The typical analytic-continental debate has a few predictable characteristics, and a few genuinely enlightening results. Looking back into philosophical history, it is sometimes hard to determine who is a forerunner of what: many analytics have a deep and sincere admiration for Nietzsche, whereas the more technical Husserl is more commonly studied by continentals. But as far the Internet can now be a barometer of general opinion, the recent period of confusion about the distinction between the two, induced by Richard Rorty and other synthesizers, is over: we are dealing with two mature “research programs” which are sharply distinguished from each other. What can bring them close enough for comparison?
I think that the most sensible way of contrasting these two styles of inquiry needs to draw on a Hegelian concern which is rarely invoked by either. For much of his working life Hegel was not an ordinary philosophy professor, but a tutor or newspaper editor or school headmaster, and even when he became a famous Ordinarius in Berlin he still paid a great deal of attention to matters pedagogical. The theoretical import of the business of educating people in the business of understanding philosophy he collected under the heading “philosophical culture”, and this often plays a fairly significant role in his “idealist” accounts of how morality and history progress. It is also of significance for evaluating philosophical argumentation more narrowly construed: in the Phenomenology the “proof” of a metaphysical system’s character, its significance for “Science”, is displayed by the worldview it gives birth to.
Now, people (including, in many moods, myself) are often prone to distinguishing analytic and Continental groupings on political grounds. But the distinction between the two ways of educating people about philosophy is far more marked than the divergence in politics between professors of each (which the intelligent observer should probably be sociologist enough to reckon as minimal, on account of closeness in “social space”). Continental philosophy relies on the traditional notion of “rational animal” in considering its target market: it aims to appeal to anyone who makes reasoning their custom in life, be they journalist or union organizer. This is partially due to the fact that its traditional institutional partisans are social-democrats and Catholics, who have their own, mutually incompatible, reasons for aiming at universality: but whatever the affiliations of the Continentally minded, their vision of the philosophical world is deliberatively democratic, and perhaps this can go some way towards explaining the less-prized qualities of Continental philosophy.
By contrast, analysis is “for everyone and no one”. Most analytic philosophers are dubious about the prospects for mass participation in rationally reconstructing anything. This is not to say there is not a public face to analytic philosophy, but it is restricted, for the most part, to those who have a professional interest in the results of philosophical analysis: for example, lawyers and judges, rather than the readers of political magazines, are the target market for analytic philosophy of law. Of course, in a liberal democracy the professions are at least notionally open to talents, and many people lacking an honorific are both ready and willing to take an interest in “shop talk” anyway, so one can’t really fault analytic philosophy for being inaccessible on this account: however, it is true that the kinds of reasoning analytics go in for are affected by the kinds of people they want to make the point to.
But perhaps this criterion of division only complicates things further: for I am tempted to say that effect of this difference is that one can sentimentally favor one genre and be for the most part intellectually preoccupied with another, as I find is the case with me. So, more confusion. (It was probably too much to ask for an answer to the question “Which one is better?”: that is something which is never resolved in any such effort, since all participants are probably trying to maximize the time they spend doing some kind of philosophy.)
This weekend, avoiding some other things I probably should have been doing, I re-read part I of the Philosophical Investigations. Some weeks previously I read the Tractatus, and the same thing struck me both times: just how little Wittgenstein is a soup-to-nuts metaphysician, and how unsuitable his work is for generalizing beyond the very specific problems he sets himself in the philosophy of logic and philosophy of mind. That being said, I’m going to try with a feature of Wittgenstein’s discussion of rule-following in the Investigations which is little-remarked-upon. As is well-known, in the middle of part I Wittgenstein rejects what seems to be an intuitive understanding of how human beings follow rules in, e.g., continuing numerical series; he holds that following a rule is to engage in a practice, rather than have an infinitely extensible prototype of the rule’s applications.
What commentators pay relatively little attention to is one of the options Wittgenstein rejects: that to be able to continue a mathematical series is to have an idea of its algebraic equation. He argues that a would-be calculator may have an idea of the equation for a series and yet be unable to produce the series, while someone who has an intuitive grasp of the rule can produce the series without having an explicit understanding of the equation that “produces” it. This point about the adequacy of a rough-and-ready understanding dovetails nicely with another neglected point at the beginning of the book. In dismissing the project of discerning “logical form” so central to the Tractatus, Russell, and Frege, Wittgenstein argues that one of the failings of understanding language by assimilating words to the tractable form of the proper name is that this falsifies, not only the practice of using the word grammatically, but also the thought which is actually associated with it. Since the majority of the Investigations is very hard on the use of mental states to conceptualize understanding, this early attention to language and thought has gone unnoticed.
These two facets of Wittgenstein’s work, taken together, suggest a program for the philosophy of mind which is moderately “anti-logocentric”: if it is wrong to understand the use of concepts by appeal to logic, because this falsifies the actual habits of mind, we not only need to ensure that mental processes are instantiable either in familiar domains or in only never-never-land. Additionally, the surveying of human beings’ grasp of the world in understanding (Wittgenstein later uses “grammar” in a more positive sense to describe this) must form an unprejudiced basis for thinking of the capacities we attribute to the human mind and the “mechanisms” by which they operate. For example, consider the concept. Today it is no longer the function from extensions to truth-values that Frege described: we attribute concepts to the “realm of sense”, and attempt to describe their enabling of general thought in terms compatible with what we learn from the most trustworthy cognitive science.
But according to Wittgenstein, balance is not enough: if we prejudice the operations of concepts by understanding them as “intensional”, we would be leaving the sober analysis of mind for an unfortunately “metaphysical” consideration of the forms by which we represent thought. It seems to me that Wittgenstein is provocatively saying that this, which many today understand as the primary task of the “philosophy of thought”, is not enough if we want to truly understand the mind and language.