Analytic Philosophy's Fire Alarm, by Santiago Zabala

Santiago Zabala

“I do not believe, as Gary Gutting (a philosopher whom I truly respect) recently pointed out, that the ‘continental-analytic gap will begin to be bridged only when seminal thinkers of the Continent begin to write more clearly,’ but rather that it will happen only when the imperialistic approach of analytic philosophy is left aside to allow other styles to emerge and educate without being attacked, dismissed, and, most of all, marginalized.” — Santiago Zabala, coauthor of Hermeneutic Communism and author of, among other works, The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy

Analytic Philosophy’s Fire Alarm
Santiago Zabala

Anyone who questions or raises doubts over analytic philosophy’s role or significance today indirectly pulls a fire alarm in our framed democracies, our culture, and our universities. The doubter will immediately be attacked theoretically, academically, and probably also personally. This has happened to me (and many other continental philosophers) on several occasions. It does not bother me at all. It’s just a pity things are this way. The books, essays, and articles that set off the alarm are not meant to dismiss analytic philosophy but simply to remind everyone it’s not the only way to philosophize. My concern is educational (given the prevalence of analytic programs in universities), political (given its imperialistic approach), and also professional (for the little space given to continental philosophers in academia). The point is that we are not even allowed to generalize or be ironic, an essential component of philosophy as Gianni Vattimo and Slavoj Zizek show in their practice.

The problem is not that John Searle was honored by George W. Bush in 2004 (with a National Humanities Medal) or that the research of other analytic philosophers is often funded by government grants but rather that these grants are not always distributed among other traditions. After all, philosophers are not supposed to simply analyze concepts in their university offices but also to engage with the political, economic, and cultural environments that surrounds them, as Judith Butler, Peter Sloterdijk, and Simon Critchley have done so well for years.

Sure, one must defend one’s philosophical position, but it’s not a matter of truth or honor. In philosophy and the humanities in general it has never been about being correct or on the right side of history but rather interpreting differently in order for the “conversation to continue,” as Richard Rorty used to say. This conversation is probably also what drove another great American philosopher, Arthur Danto, to stress the “value of letting go.” After all, “philosophical disagreement,” he said, “is not so important” because the “important thing is to be able to start over again someplace else.” But in order to start over someplace else, it’s necessary to overcome not only metaphysics, which some analytic philosophers have managed to do, but also its “imperialistic approach,” as Jacques Derrida once said. It should not come as a surprise that the French philosopher, who was among the first to point out analytic philosophy’s political ambitions, often set off this fire alarm with his deconstructionist approach. This is probably why in 1990 a group of analytic philosophers attempted (without success) to convince Cambridge University that honoring the French master was a mistake.

The positive aspect of this alarm is that it indirectly gathers together people concerned with philosophical education, plurality, and style. When any of these three features are ranked, restricted, and imposed we can see the analytic/continental divide emerge. Those of us who share the concern that ranking departments and imposing certain philosophical styles harm the discipline are relegated, as Michael Marder correctly pointed out, “to the margins of the profession” and are seen as concerned with insignificant philosophical problems. But marginalizing these continental academics in favor of a scientific training in problem-solving approaches in formal and symbolic logic not only restricts students’ interest in the plurality of philosophy but also permits the value of the discipline to be determined by universities rather than the philosophers who teach in them.

Following this corporate ranking approach, students interested in feminist theory, hermeneutics, or animal studies are not as likely to study with such specialists as Amy Allen, Georgia Warnke, or Mathew Calarco because they don’t teach in top-ranked universities. But how can students become protégés of other philosophers (as Kant was of Martin Knutzen, Hans-Geog Gadamer of Martin Heidegger, Judith Butler of Maurice Natanson) if the relation is determined by university ranking rather than by student interest?

The same problem affects professors, who, instead of being asked to engage in research to publish books (as most philosophers have done throughout the history of philosophy), are now pressured to expose their results in articles (like scientists). Just as Adorno, after the Second World War, became alarmed that music had to be cut in order to fit the temporal limits of the industrially produced LP, today we should also be alarmed that philosophers are forced to cut books into articles to fit the requirements of the ranked journal industry.

But this is not simply a matter of education and research; it’s also about style. After all, when Danto was asked why he began to study Nietzsche in the sixties his response touched not only on Nietzsche’s philosophical insights but also on the fact that “he didn’t write like an accountant, the way most analytical philosophers did.” If recalling this ironic statement sets off a fire alarm today, then the gap between analytic and continental philosophers is still alive, and anyone in agreement with Danto (as I am) will be attacked.

In sum, I do not believe, as Gary Gutting (a philosopher whom I truly respect) recently pointed out, that the “continental-analytic gap will begin to be bridged only when seminal thinkers of the Continent begin to write more clearly,” but rather that it will happen only when the imperialistic approach of analytic philosophy is left aside to allow other styles to emerge and educate without being attacked, dismissed, and, most of all, marginalized.

16 Responses

  1. Great article! I totally agree.
    With the marginalisation of the discourses, which are different from the analytical philosophy, the academical system is going to prepare another marginalisation: a social, political and cultural one. The marginalisation of all cultures and form of life which are different and maybe incompatible with the ones which detains power.
    Also in Germany there is a quite totalitarian presence of analytical philosophy in universities. Yes, you can still study Hermeneutics, Derrida, Vattimo and Zizek in different faculties (Gender Studies, Cultural Studies), but not in the Institutes for Philosophy.
    The emancipatory character of Philosophy is going to be lost and that is a considerable danger – not only for our education system.

  2. There seems to be two levels in this discussion of the continental-analytical divide.
    On the one hand we find the ‘political’ issue about the power at the faculties of philosophy. Here it seems often that we are not so much talking about a divide as an exclusion of one and more than anything the other side of the division. Is this due to the classical identification with our peers over and against the ‘others’? Most likely, philosophers are only human, all too human.
    On the other hand, there is also a philosophical divide. But is this a problem? Should the plurality of thought not rather be protected? If so, this either leads us back to the problem above or into a serious philosophical discussion.
    Let’s take the example of clarity. As a continental philosopher, I am definitely willing to admit that we have a problem of clarity. This problem is however not the same as the one Gary Gutting is addressing; or at least it seems to me that he suggests that this clarity can be obtained from a neutral position.
    Yet, it has been a common ‘truth’ to much Continental philosophy at least since Nietzsche, and definitely since Heidegger, that we cannot emancipate ourselves from metaphysics (God) as long as we do not emancipate ourselves from Western grammar.
    If this is and has been one of the leading problems of Continental philosophy, then we are not merely talking about style; then style is the grammar we have to question.
    This does not mean a clear-cut rejection of all Western grammar and the great tradition of rational thought, but it brings about a serious question of clarity; a question that also marks the very divide of Continental and Analytical philosophy; it marks the beauty of the plurality of thought.
    This plurality cannot be schematized within a standard for clarity, because that is already a violent move. On the other hand, writing is violence on language – a necessary one – which brings forward clarity, lets things come into light. This is why we must read the primary texts and the violence they impose on clarity; just as we must answer this violence and perhaps make this violence more clear. But in order to do so, we need if, not eternal peace of the faculties as Kant whished, then at least a peaceful appreciation of the “value of letting go” that Zabala here quotes Danto for saying.

  3. Anyone remember that time that John Rawls sat in his office and refused to “engage with the political, economic, and cultural environments” that surrounded him? And how when he did FINALLY write about fundamental political concerns no one noticed and there were a thousand replies from a thousand directions?

    Speaking of lack of clarity, what pray tell is “Western grammar?”

  4. In what could only be described as deliciously ironic, what makes this such a good piece is its very analytical argument–with clear premises, reasoning, evidence, and conclusions.

  5. Curious. I’m writing from Europe. I studied philosophy years ago. Let’s say a decade. In the UK and Germany. Your description of the landscape certainly would have been valid then. Probably your point is no knews to anyone directly afiliated with academia but it’s surprising to me, working on the fringes of that world, publishing in all sorts of non-specialized outlets, that analytic philosophy still holds a following at all. Outside the departments, your team is not just winning, it has so thoroughly exterminated the influence of analytic philosophy that the practice of the very people you mention – Derrida, Zizek, even Vattimo, Danto and Rorty, then there’s Jodi Dean, Zupancic … not to mention Foucault, Butler etc. – their practice is known to most people not as continental philosophy but simply philosophy. They are household names whereas the honorable John Searle is not. This applies, to my best knowledge, to most actual readers, educated people and students, who partake in lively debates and seek, within philosophy, ways to understand the world we live in. Of course the universities’ evaluation systems are influential, and we’d be better off with just ones, but they are far from decisive in terms of what thought is deemed worth thinking in this world.

  6. Many interesting points, but why is it important or desirable for “the conversation to continue” or “to be able to start over again someplace else”?

    Coming from an analytic background, the emphasis on clarity and truth makes sense to me. The world is a confusing place wracked by ignorance, superstition, bias, etc. Cutting through the fog satisfies intellectual curiosity, slays false demons, and generates a powerful map with all kinds of useful applications in science and technology. In non-empirical domains, clarity and truth help make assumptions, agendas, and possibilities more transparent. Of course, scientists and analytic philosophers rarely live up to these ideals, but that’s the goal at least.

    What if anything is an equivalent base case for continental philosophy? From this article, it seems to boil down to a broader range of views, a broader range of topics, and a more entertaining writing style. A broader range of views is great when it comes to uncertain or open questions, but only because they might actually be true or as political opinions. That is, I don’t see much value in a conversation riddled with shoddy arguments or muddled reasoning. I don’t want to begin again in inconsistency. As for entertainment, I find Foucault and Zizek interesting, inspiring critics of institutions, ideologies, and movies, but why wouldn’t they be better if they wrote more clearly and accurately?

  7. Analyticity is a method, not an area in philosophy unto itself. The author makes a category error, by formulating the two domains as being in opposition to one another. The main thing I find appealing about the analytic method is its capacity for standardization, since it’s so often the case that apparent debate is only a case of talking past one another. And Continental Philosophy, inasmuch as it defines itself in opposition to standardization, risks merely talking past itself.

  8. A plague on both your houses. Analytic philosophy these days mostly concerns itself with vapid un-scientific analyses of poorly framed questions. Continental philosphy is mostly obscure, pompous and in the grip of some kind of obsession with colonialism. As somebody (might have been Chomsky) once observed, once you unpack Continental Philosophy’s obscure jargon, what it is saying is either trite or false. There are of course honorable exceptions on both sides. Some older writers in the continental tradition (eg Nietzsche) are genuinely interesting and original. And some of the stuff in the Analytic tradition (eg Millikan, Dennett) are wrestling with real empirical problems. But most academic philsophy of both types is pretty irrelevant, not just to the wider public but even to other philosophers

  9. about style. I’d rather dwelt under analytical quasi schizophrenia, though pretentiously structured discourse, than deliberate ‘sinnlos’ put forward by post structuralists weed hazardous choppers. that said, Allah u akbar!!!!

  10. Not that it matters, but I was a capable philosophy student who would have made a passable teacher, maybe even researcher. I ran hard and fast from analytic philosophy because it was boring and largely eviscerated philosophy of its potential for aesthetic rather than solely logical impact. I find what remains–a self-indulgent husk of a profession maddeningly divorced from the world it pretends to interpret–so lost in its own navel that my hope is that some day philosophy will emerge from its current Dark Age and be meaningful to people again.

    I hadn’t until now heard analytic philosophy’s putative conquest as a political project, but that makes sense. It certainly didn’t take over Anglo-American academia in a fair fight. It’s a bit more like a clandestine, irrelevant coup; no one outside universities (and often no one outside philosophy departments) even knows the distinction between analytic and continental.

  11. Thanks for writing this.

    It seems to me the Analytic Philosophers are mistaking the map for the territory. They find comfort in a lack of style because it allows them to more easily equate logic with truth. They’re uncomfortable with continental philosophy because the words on the paper aren’t the ends, they are a means to pointing to the world outside the philosophy (as it should!), and it probably really freaks them out that this philosophy can in some cases be transformative (which is just gross, and new-agey).

  12. As someone who grew up hooked in the Continental tradition to discover the Analytic School later, as a result of a passion for the study of Logic, I am fortunate to see both sides of the divide.
    In some respects, this isn’t a fair fight. Analytically trained philosophers have technical sophistication that cannot be acquired without investing a lot of time – background in Math and such disciplines is also at a premium. Time and again, I recognize a phenomenon that characterized my own reactions in the past: critiques leveled at the Analytic School have no access to the target. They miss what is going on on the other side. The more sophisticated (technically) analytic philosopher can sit back and marvel at his antagonists’ textbook errors. It gets worse. The errors are not committed only with respect to what the Analytical School is all about; errors abound when untrained continentals address subjects like truth or meaning or their relationship to language. To beat the Analytic School one must learn the rules of the game – and, it turns out – this is not just the “analytic” game but something much broader.
    An example might help: we can scream and yell about the arrogant way analytically trained philosophers ridicule and dismiss Hegelian “nonsense” but the vindication of Hegel requires resort to a non-classical logic. The position known as Logical Pluralism is controversial and someone like Quine rejected it dogmatically, indeed, but the study of, say, Hegelian Logic depends on the skills analytically trained philosophers do have and the others usually lack.
    Nor is it true that the tradition was so much unlike the technical schools of our times. There is a lot in Plato that anticipates Fuzzy Logic, you know – a very technical subject. Aristotle and the Medievals were well versed, brilliant in fact, in matters logical and logical-philosophical. Different schools of Stoics argued interminably about what the right approach to the logic of reasoning is. Aristotle and the Protagoreans had a fight over something – check out Metaphysics Gamma.2: you would think it is analytic philosophers locking horns. Last but not least, can the poetically inclined continental grasp something like the Ontological Argument or proposed solutions to the Liar Paradox?
    I think that something happened historically, which accounts for this divide. The Medievals excelled in Logic and, sadly, the “better” people of modernity, including the Enlightenment, went to the other extreme neglecting the study of Logic, which smacked of Scholasticism. It didn’t help that Kant opined that Logic cannot progress beyond Aristotle – wrong already because it had progressed in the Middle Ages.
    This explains how brilliant minds – Hegel, Nietzsche, and the lesser lights of our times – could get away with NOT having any traces of training in Logic! It does show, you know. But if I am not myself trained and cannot see it, human psychology ensures that I will go political instead and complain about infights within academic departments (they do happen, of course, but that is another matter.)

  13. Caricaturing analytic philosophy in three easy steps: 1) pull an uncited and arbitrary definition of analytic philosophy from one’s butt, 2) make sweeping statements about this caricature by identifying analytic philosophy with (for instance) neoliberal capitalism (forgetting, for a moment, that neoliberalism has also decimated the critical integrity of continental theory and of philosophy more generally), and 3) crassly overlook the fact that steps 1 and 2 display precisely the fallacious and ambiguous kinds of pseudo-argumentation for which analytic philosophers have long criticized certain continental theorists. Talk about “irony!”

  14. marginalized? continental thinkers are taught in numerous humanities departments. when interesting continentals can’t agree with one another, they seem to mutate entirely new diploma categories. “[ ] studies” seems to b the thing

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