TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

A Discipline in Crisis: The View from Within

Philosophy is a discipline in crisis, a discipline literally split, in an exceptionally asymmetrical fashion, between two competing strands that go under the names “analytic” and “Continental.” The crisis of philosophy is, in the first instance, one of legitimacy and legitimation, whereby each of the unevenly divided halves claims for itself the exclusive right to represent the discipline as a whole. While it is notoriously difficult to define the main criteria of what constitutes analytic, as opposed to Continental, thinking, the most blatant distinction is that the former relies on formal logic in measuring the quality of argumentation, while the latter generally explores a set of questions and concerns—dealing with human existence and death, for instance—where formal logical thinking falters. More broadly, analytic philosophy models itself after modern science and adopts a problem-solving approach to its subject matter, whereas its Continental counterpart explores the fundamental questions that have troubled philosophers for millennia, without putting forth exhaustive and universally applicable solutions. For much of the twentieth century, the adherents of the two schools of thought refused to engage with the work of those on the other side of the disciplinary rift. Richard Rorty’s sudden and harsh critique of the analytic tradition, with which he had been affiliated, and the legacy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, claimed across the philosophical party lines, were the only breaches in the otherwise hermetically sealed opposed paradigms. Despite the more recent attempts to bridge this gap—most notably, on the part of the so-called Pittsburgh school (Robert Brandom, John McDowell, and others) and of the Californian appropriations of the thought of Martin Heidegger (by Hubert Dreyfus)—the current state of the divided discipline is that of an escalating rhetoric and ad hominem attacks. It is, perhaps, not that philosophers on the different sides of the barricades are unwilling to discuss, in an intellectually sound dialogue, the substantive issues they are working on. Rather, what is lacking is a shared set of questions or problems, a common language, wherein these could be articulated, and a general methodological orientation, upon which the various actors involved could agree, at least in principle. The insulting rhetoric has reached a new low recently with the designation “Jewish Poker Philosophy”—a philosophy of futile speculation and bluff—gaining currency in the analytic discussions of work done in the Continental tradition. In the same context, entire philosophical communities, such as SPEP (Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy), the second largest American philosophical society, are dismissed as champions of “bad scholarship.” A war of words is raging on. Unfortunately, however, the recent rhetorical escalation continues to spawn palpable institutional effects. At stake in the definition of philosophy are the already dismal academic job market in the discipline and the way undergraduate students are introduced to and perceive the field of philosophical investigations. Against the backdrop of an indisputable predominance of analytic philosophers in university departments across North America, the number of positions in Continental philosophy, annually advertised by the American Philosophical Association’s “Jobs for Philosophers,” constitutes a fraction of the total academic vacancies in the discipline. A mere hint of a job candidate’s interest or specialization in the philosophy of a berated “Continental” author is sufficient to disqualify her or him from moving on to further stages of the job search. The label “bad scholarship” immediately attaches itself to academic work on such an author, most often in the absence of any sustained intellectual engagement either with the commentary or with the original subject matter at hand. This cannot help but affect the way philosophy is taught at universities across the country by new hires versed in the analytic tradition. Undergraduate students are trained in problem-solving approaches, drilled in formal and symbolic logic, and, frequently, not given a chance to explore the history of philosophy in depth. The most pressing questions (for instance, about the meaning of life), questions that often attract students to the discipline, remain unaddressed, resulting in the decline of interest in the discipline. The proponents of the Continental approach are relegated to the margins on the profession, whose unofficial rankings of programs in philosophy deliberately leave out those departments that boast particular strengths in the already marginalized fields of study. What is to be done in this unfortunate predicament? It seems that, before seeking ways to mediate and reconcile the divergent schools of thought, it is necessary to disengage them from one another altogether, to maintain a “cooling-off period,” as it were. In other words, the split should be deepened before undertaking another serious attempt to suture it. Instead of searching for the philosophy that could please everyone involved, we would embrace multiple philosophies that are, despite their incompatibility with one another, carrying on the equally numerous legacies involved in the “love of wisdom.” At the institutional level, this disengagement would imply a clear differentiation between departments specializing in logic and semantic analysis, on the one hand, and those offering courses in the history of philosophy, on the other. Such a model is already in place at some of the major universities in Europe, including the University of Barcelona, where the discipline is divided among three autonomous departments: the Department of Logic, History, and Philosophy of Science; the Department of Theoretical and Practical Philosophy; and, finally, the Department of the History of Philosophy, Aesthetics, and the Philosophy of Culture. Likewise, offensive and inflammatory rhetoric, grounded in the self-righteous belief that one holds the key to objective truth, needs to stop. For the time being, when philosophers from the two camps feel the urge to pour scorn on their adversaries, they ought to remember the concluding words of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “About what one cannot speak, one must remain silent.”

Comments are closed.